It's safe to say that the single most controversial response by the United States to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 — except perhaps the invasion of Iraq — was the CIA's detention and interrogation program, which included waterboarding.
Many critics, ourselves included, consider waterboarding a form of torture and thus beyond the pale, both in terms of international treaties and the best traditions of this nation.
That's why the clash in recent days between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA is so important, even beyond the question of whether the agency searched committee computers and tried to hobble a probe of the CIA's interrogation practices, as claimed Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the panel.
The clash is also a reminder of why it is critical that the committee's 6,300-page report, which has been in the works for years, sees the light of day — soon.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who sits on the committee, indirectly triggered the remarkable public denunciation by Feinstein of the CIA when he complained in a letter to the White House of “unprecedented action against the committee” by the agency, and reporters were able to flesh out details through unnamed sources.
Udall has been a leading supporter of declassifying as much as possible of the panel's report.
According to Feinstein, the CIA's behavior involved “a potential effort to intimidate” the committee in its investigation. CIA director John Brennan almost immediately denied it — “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said — but would senators just make up a story about illegal searches of committee computers?
No wonder Udall says he's lost confidence in Brennan's “ability to lead the agency.”
The CIA has publicly said the committee's report, which reportedly concludes torture did not save lives, is rife with errors. Whether that's the agency's private opinion is another question. But the committee has been attempting to work through agency objections in reviewing the document — a project apparently nearing completion.
More than a year ago, the Intelligence Committee voted 9-to-6 to release the report, but after the CIA produced a classified rebuttal in June, the effort has been on hold. The White House could declassify the report at any time, but its own attitude remains uncertain.
On Tuesday, for example, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “We've made clear that we want to see the report's findings declassified.” But does mean just the “findings” or the bulk of the document? It makes a huge difference.
The Intelligence Committee and the CIA are probably never going to agree on the merits and flaws of the agency's interrogation record. But the public should be able to see the report nonetheless — and the CIA can publicly take issue with it if the agency likes.
If the Senate and White House fail to release the document, on the other hand, it will only solidify growing public skepticism regarding proper oversight of America's clandestine activities.