Torture politics makes for strange bedfellows. For those of you who think the Obama Administration doesn’t know how to work with Republicans, think again. North Carolina’s Republican Senator, Richard Burr, may soon be one of the Obama Administration’s best friends.
Burr, now a member of the Chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, is the presumptive Chairman of the Committee, if as predicted the Republicans take control of the Senate.
Why will they be friends? It’s simple. The Administration’s stall ball, its protracted review of the Committee’s long-anticipated report on the nation’s torture program, has taken us to late October. Just in time to see the Senate flip to a Republican majority that will almost certainly spike release of the report, say Senate staffers. After all Burr, the Chairman in waiting, is the guy who jested with a witness during a hearing: “I see you’re on your fourth glass of water and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.”
The clock is ticking down on the Committee’s effort to release a public accounting of our nation’s failed and repugnant torture program.
Six months have passed since the Intelligence Committee voted to release its 480-page executive summary of its review of our nation’s “enhanced interrogation” program. By all accounts the report is shocking. It “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen,” the Committee’s leader, California’s Dianne Feinstein, said in April.
As it must, the Committee submitted the summary report to the Administration for review and redaction of classified material. And then it waited and waited and waited for a response.
When it finally came, the Administration redactors had behaved like a bunch of third graders off their Ritalin, running amok with black markers. The proposed redactions rendered the report incomprehensible. Some of the proposed redactions are “ludicrous,” according to one Committee member, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
We can’t know the nature and extent of the redactions. (Classified!) But we do know that the Administration wanted to black out many of the pseudonyms used in the report. The Committee quite appropriately used false names when it chronicled what CIA actors had done. But the Administration redactors apparently thought even that was too much. By putting a black bar across so many names in the report, they make the report unreadable, incomprehensible and lacking any narrative coherence.
Since getting the proposed edits, Committee staffers have been meeting with the Administration to negotiate a compromise and get the report done. They are meeting with the CIA gang whose “negotiating posture [is] consistent: start out with the most ridiculous position and eventually settle for one that is simply outrageous,” according to J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, the agency in charge of the nation’s security classification system.
There is no doubt that this tactic is entirely countenanced at the highest levels in the White House. The lead negotiator with the Committee is the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, who is also Obama’s former deputy national security advisor. And this is the White House that called in then-CIA director Leon Panetta for an expletive laden tongue lashing when he even agreed to give the Committee documents for review in producing the report. This is the White House that stepped aside and let one of its own agencies shop a criminal referral on the Committee staffers preparing the report, potentially provoking a real constitutional crisis.
Is there any hope that anyone from the Administration will exercise adult supervision on the redactors? There is only one adult who can step in now: the President. Obama himself seemed to favor release of the report in the spring. He seemed to understand that our failure to transparently and honestly account for a shameful chapter in our history injures us. The pseudo-secrecy that surrounds our not so secret torture program is no answer. It accomplishes one thing: it makes it look like we can’t face facts or learn to be better. Our allies distrust us as a consequence, and our enemies abuse us for it.
In the coming months, then, the fate of the report rests in two hands: the President and Senator Burr, a man who once read his congressional remarks off a roll of toilet paper.