WASHINGTON — The release of the long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques — widely denounced as torture — is certain to take much longer than the 30 days sought by Senate Democrats.
The panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the beginning of April that she hoped the CIA would complete by now the process of excising from the report information deemed harmful to national security.
The procedure, however, likely will take months, several experts said. That’s because it’s complex and time-consuming. Not only does the CIA have to review information that came from its archives, but other U.S. intelligence agencies as well as the Pentagon and the State Department have to evaluate material that they provided, they said.
“You can’t get this done in a month and do a serious job,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA intelligence analyst. “You only get one shot at scrubbing it.”
As for the inevitable charges that the CIA is dragging its feet, Lowenthal said: “It’s the cost of doing business, and you ignore it.”
Some experts, however, think there are key portions of the report that could be quickly reviewed and released without disclosing sensitive information such as the identities of intelligence sources, which could endanger lives or compromise ongoing counterterrorism operations.
The CIA “could demonstrate good faith by releasing the least problematic portions of the text, like the introduction, conclusions and high-level findings. But they’re not doing that and that strikes me as at least bordering on bad faith,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Why does the entire volume need to be held hostage to the most difficult piece of information?”
Some Democratic lawmakers and human rights advocates have expressed concerns that the CIA will black out portions of the report that are especially damaging to the agency.
Pointing out that the CIA was sent a final draft of the report in December 2012, Chris Anders, the senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the agency already should know what materials need to be excised.
“Very few people know more about intelligence and national security than Sen. Feinstein, and if she is saying that the classification review of this report can be done in 30 days, then it can be done in 30 days,” said Anders. “Anything longer is foot-dragging by the CIA and the Obama White House.”
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to say how long the process would take.
“The CIA, in consultation with other agencies, is carrying out an expeditious classification review of those portions of the final SSCI (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) report submitted to the executive branch for review,” Boyd wrote in an email.
The committee declined to comment.
Other factors add considerable time and complexity to the process, several experts explained.
The CIA must hold delicate consultations with foreign intelligence services whose information or involvement in the detention and interrogation program, including interrogating suspected terrorists turned over after being abducted by the agency, is covered in the report.
Inartful disclosures about the involvement of foreign intelligence services with the CIA program could create serious fallout in countries, such as Pakistan and Egypt, already gripped by Islamic insurgencies and seething with anti-American sentiment, several experts said.
“The reality is that foreign people in foreign countries really can often put their lives at risk when they are helping the U.S. government, and the CIA takes very seriously the responsibility to protect those confidences,” said George Jameson, who handled declassification projects during a 33-year career as a CIA lawyer.
“The disclosure of an individual collaborating with the U.S. government (has) consequences that can fall on the individual’s family and the extended family members,” Jameson said. “The family members can be harmed by the government or by bad actors or terrorists or others. So it’s important to protect identities.”
Dealing with some foreign intelligence services may be especially fraught for the CIA right now, as some are angry over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures of NSA monitoring of the communication of foreign officials, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I think it’s genuinely difficult to coordinate disclosures with foreign governments without damaging important relationships,” said Aftergood. “But that doesn’t come as a surprise. This is an issue that has been brewing not for months, but for years, and it’s time to bring it some resolution.”
Declassification reviews also are being conducted on a report by the Senate committee’s Republican minority and the CIA’s response to the majority report so that both can be released with the majority report’s 480-page executive summary, findings and conclusions. The texts of the separate documents, including hundreds of footnotes, must be consistent.
The outcome of the process, which began after the Senate committee voted on April 3 to send the report to the administration for declassification, also may have an impact on the ongoing Guantanamo Bay trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an alleged al-Qaida operative accused of masterminding the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen.
Al-Nashiri was waterboarded and threatened with a power drill and mock execution while under CIA interrogation. How much more about his treatment the report reveals could affect the government’s fight against an order won by al-Nashiri’s lawyers for the CIA to disclose more top-secret details, including his interrogators’ names and the locations of the “black site” prisons where he was held overseas.
“Because this case was brought as a death penalty case, the defense is allowed to bring in anything that would weigh against him getting the death penalty, and the way he was treated in custody is a big factor,” said Daphne Eviatar, who monitors Guantanamo Bay proceedings for Human Rights First, a human rights organization. “By making it a death penalty case, the government made his treatment relevant.”
The report, which took five years and some $40 million to complete, is based on millions of top-secret CIA documents, including operational cables, memoranda, internal communications, photographs, financial documents and intelligence analyses. While the executive summary, findings and conclusions are to be released, the main 6,200-page volume will not be made public.
The effort has been engulfed in controversy over charges by Feinstein and other Democrats that the CIA removed documents from computers used by the panel’s staff to impede the investigation into the agency’s use of brutal interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists secretly held overseas.
The agency countercharged committee staffers with removing without authorization classified materials from the secret CIA facility in which they conducted their research.
The agency says the program was legal, while many current and former U.S. officials and military commanders, human rights groups and foreign governments say that it violated international and U.S. laws against torture.
Feinstein and other Democrats have pressed Obama to expedite the declassification process. They also asked that the White House — not the CIA — conduct the review, contending that having the CIA do it constitutes a massive conflict of interest.
Several experts defended the administration’s decision to have the CIA handle the process.
The agency’s declassification experts, they said, have the knowledge to determine what information should be excised to prevent terrorist groups from gleaning intelligence that could help them evade ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations, outwit U.S. intelligence collection methods or identify informers.
“The declassification process really is designed to determine whether releasing something publicly would be damaging,” said Jameson. “It’s not an exact science. The standard is whether it could reasonably be expected that the release of the information could damage national security, not definitely will damage. You get as close as you can.”
Marisa Taylor of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.