Will We Ever Truly Know the Extent of CIA Torture During the War on Terror?

Copy of Senate report 'mistakenly' gets destroyed as government successfully resists release.


Torture protest
Credit: Fibonacci Blue / photo on flickr

It was totally a mistake that the CIA's inspector general's office destroyed its copy of the classified Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also totally a mistake that the office then destroyed the disk that contained the document. The office did stop short of "mistakenly" setting the computers or servers that stored the report on fire, so that's something.

Michael Isikoff at Yahoo! News today reports on the latest excuses why nobody is looking at or caring about the massive, 6,700-page report detailing all the terrible abuses by the CIA against detainees—torture that reportedly failed to get any useful intelligence:

"It's breathtaking that this could have happened, especially in the inspector general's office — they're the ones that are supposed to be providing accountability within the agency itself," said Douglas Cox, a City University of New York School of Law professor who specializes in tracking the preservation of federal records. "It makes you wonder what was going on over there?"

The incident was privately disclosed to the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Justice Department last summer, the sources said. But the destruction of a copy of the sensitive report has never been made public. Nor was it reported to the federal judge who, at the time, was overseeing a lawsuit seeking access to the still classified document under the Freedom of Information Act, according to a review of court files in the case.

A CIA spokesman, while not publicly commenting on the circumstances of the erasure, emphasized that another unopened computer disk with the full report has been, and still is, locked in a vault at agency headquarters. "I can assure you that the CIA has retained a copy," wrote Dean Boyd, the agency's chief of public affairs, in an email.

"Locked in a vault" is the best way to describe the status of the full report, the classified copies of which remain under wraps and generally unread. The ACLU has been suing under the Freedom of Information Act to have the full report declassified and released. Unfortunately, last week they were dealt a blow when a federal appeals court ruled that the full report is not subject to FOIA requests because it has been classified as a "work document" within Congress and is therefore exempt to public demands to be released. The matter is left up to the Senate Intelligence Committee itself. Current chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has been hostile to the very idea of anybody even looking at it, and the Obama administration doesn't seem to be in any rush to take a peek:

To ensure the document was circulated widely within the government, and to preserve it for future declassification, Feinstein, in her closing days as chair, instructed that computer disks containing the full report be sent to the CIA and its inspector general, as well as the other U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Aides said Feinstein specifically included a separate copy for the CIA inspector general because she wanted the office to undertake a full review. Her goal, as she wrote at the time, was to ensure "that the system of detention and interrogation described in this report is never repeated."

But her successor, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, quickly asked for all of the disks to be returned, even threatening at one point to send a committee security officer to retrieve them. He contended the volumes are congressional records that were never intended for executive branch, much less public, distribution.

The administration, while not complying with Burr's demand to return the disks, has essentially sided with him against releasing them to the public. Early last year, Justice lawyers instructed federal agencies to keep their copies of the document under lock and key, unopened, lest the courts treat them as government records subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Weeks later, in an effort to head off a motion for "emergency relief" by the ACLU, a Justice Department lawyer told U.S. Judge James Boasberg that no copies of the report would be returned to Congress or destroyed; the government "can assure the Court that it will preserve the status quo" until the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was resolved, wrote Vesper Mei, a senior counsel in the Justice Department's civil division, in a February 2015 filing.

One wonders how many administrations will pass before Americans get a real sense of the extent of the torture administered to (sometimes innocent) terror suspects in our name. But given that the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, is promising to bring back waterboarding "and more" should he become president, one might wonder the actual extent that a huge chunk of Americans even care.

Fortunately, we do still have the 500-page executive summary of the full report, and it was chock full of details on its own. I read through that summary back when it was released and explained its contents here. Americans should demand the right to see the full report, but given that not terribly much happened once the summary was released, it doesn't appear there's going to be much pressure on this administration to do so.