Official Washington is on vacation until after Labor Day, but behind the silence and apparent inactivity, a huge fight involving the public’s right to know is taking place. At issue is how far the Central Intelligence Agency can go in hiding shameful secrets and whether the Obama administration will tolerate CIA spying on the nation’s elected representatives.
This is not just one more partisan brouhaha inside the Beltway, but rather one that pits the intelligence community and its allies in the White House against lawmakers of all political stripes.
The outcome will determine whether the agency is above the law or a law unto itself — whether it can be called to account for its excesses or whether it will be allowed to hide behind the cloak of secrecy whenever it wants to evade responsibility.
So far, the agency has managed to keep a lid on a Senate report detailing the CIA’s notorious detention program in the post-9/11 era. The 6,300-page report was produced by the Senate Intelligence Committee and was supposed to be made public earlier this year following routine redaction by the agency to avoid disclosure of genuine national security secrets.
Yet it became apparent some weeks ago that the agency was censoring the report so as to render it virtually meaningless before releasing it to the public in a sanitized form. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the panel and was once a staunch backer of the CIA, accused the agency of trying to obscure or eliminate “key facts” and pledged to fight for greater transparency.
“The bottom line,” she wrote to the president, “is that the United States must never again make the mistakes documented in this report. I believe the best way to accomplish that is to make public our thorough documentary history of the CIA program.”
The issue at the heart of the dispute is whether the harsh interrogation methods employed by the agency, sometimes described as torture, were effective. The report is believed to conclude that these methods failed to produce useful information, undermining the CIA’s justification for engaging in reprehensible and possibly illegal activities.
One measure of how worried — or terrified — the CIA is about disclosure is that its own inspector general determined that the agency penetrated a computer network used by the Intelligence Committee in preparing its critical report, presumably in order to know what was coming.
That incredible breach of trust forced President Obama to acknowledge that “we tortured some folks,” but he insisted that CIA Director John Brennan still enjoyed his “full confidence.”
The problem is that the White House is refereeing the issue of how much disclosure to permit and how much “sanitizing” is too much. The president seems to be taking sides with the agency whose methods he routinely criticized as a candidate. Mr. Obama, whose own record on issues of transparency is disappointing, risks being seen as a protector of the CIA rather than a defender of the public’s right to know.
Many members of Congress have long been defenders of the CIA. They include Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Armed Services Committee, who said the CIA’s redactions are “totally unacceptable.”
If even the CIA’s legislative allies are shocked by the report’s findings, it’s all the more reason to shine a light on them. On this issue, Mr. Obama must be clearly and emphatically on the side of transparency.