“The select committee may, subject to the provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure,” the section reads.
The process begins with a committee vote. If a majority of members vote to declassify, and the executive branch continues to resist, the issue is taken to the Senate floor. The chamber can do one of three things: Approve the disclosure, disapprove the disclosure or allow the Intelligence Committee to make the decision.
Many of Capitol Hill’s Nixon-era heavy hitters backed the resolution, including a young senator from Delaware who now sits on the executive end of the intelligence debate: Joe Biden. When Biden’s office was asked via email whether the vice president would still support the Intelligence Committee’s ability to declassify information, it declined to comment.
The panel’s lack of muscle with intelligence agencies isn’t limited to the NSA collection program. Last year, the committee approved a 6,000-page investigation into the CIA’s so-called harsh interrogation program, which included waterboarding, secret prisons and allegations of torture.
The report cost $40 million and had taken years to complete. The committee’s current chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called it the committee’s most comprehensive and important oversight to date. Yet despite being completed last December, not a single page of the report has been released.
The CIA has disputed the report’s findings, and internal committee disagreements have kept it largely in the dark. Feinstein’s office said discussions were ongoing, but it gave no further details on where the declassification effort stands.
“If the Intelligence Committee cannot release its most important oversight piece, that calls into question the existence of the committee. What is it for, if it cannot provide the public with its most important report?” Aftergood said. “It’s all but unthinkable.”
Feinstein and other supporters of releasing the report could invoke Section 8 in an attempt to declassify portions of it. It’s unclear whether there will be an attempt to do so.
The last time a legislator attempted to have a congressionally commissioned report declassified, the committee itself stood in the way.
Then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., raised the issue in July 2003, when he pressed the panel to declassify portions of its inquiry into the 9/11 terror attacks, which the Bush administration wanted to keep classified. Graham, who’d chaired the Intelligence Committee from 2001 to January 2003, wrote to the committee asking that portions of the report, which he’d helped oversee while it was being compiled, be made public.
In an interview this month, Graham said he’d made the request when he’d realized how much of the report would remain classified, including an entire section devoted to what support the hijackers had received while they were in the United States. That hadn’t been his idea as the investigation was underway.
According to a letter Graham received in September of the same year, his request was denied without a committee vote. Then-Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, cited hearings with key intelligence officials to justify keeping the report classified.