Last week, going from Senate floor to national media interview to very close to the center of the firestorm on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA and torture, Ron Wyden considered how we all got here.
“This is something that literally runs a full decade in an effort to get this information out,” said the Oregon senator.
“This has been a battle every step of the way.”
Tuesday morning, the committee finally released its report, actually a 500-page “Greatest Hits” summary of a full 6,000-page, 38,000-footnote account concluding, among other things, that CIA interrogators had tortured detainees, that the agency had deceived Bush administration leaders and congressional committees about its actions and that – as many experts had persistently warned – what people tell you under torture isn’t usually worth that much.
The nature of the “enhanced interrogation” is hard to argue about; any detainee treatment that begins with “rectal” is probably not something you’ll be talking about on the Fourth of July. The committee – or more specifically, its Democratic members – looked at 20 episodes when the CIA said “enhanced interrogation” provided crucial information, and concluded that in each case the information was either untrue or provided before the interrogation was “enhanced.” From a distance, that’s a harder call to make.
To Wyden, the report makes one point that’s unquestionable.
“There are statements made by the CIA to the American people, to Congress, about their interrogation, in writing,” he says of documents in the report. “Then there are statements CIA officials made to each other. There is a big gap.”
Wyden has his own sense of the gap involved.
“I’ve heard a lot of officials say the senators on the Intelligence Committee knew about all this,” that the CIA kept the senators fully informed.
“I read about it in The Washington Post in 2005.”
Since then, Wyden has gone from being a lonely voice on the committee, to becoming part of an angry (and occasionally bipartisan) majority, to returning next month to outnumbered minority status. Five years ago, the committee began assembling the report issued this week, and for years it was unclear when – or if – the material it was gathering would ever be made public. The committee chairman, Dianne Feinstein of California, was considerably more cautious, and considerably more sympathetic to the intelligence agencies, than Wyden.
Feinstein’s attitude seemed to shift last spring, after the CIA claimed that committee staff had stolen CIA documents, and Feinstein charged that the CIA had hacked into the committee’s computer system. CIA Director John Brennan ridiculed the idea, saying, “We wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s just beyond the scope of reason,” but by the end of July he was admitting it and apologizing.
“I was very concerned about the CIA doing that,” recalls Wyden, “and the charges against committee staff who had done nothing wrong.”
After the committee’s Democratic majority voted to release the report, after it was edited for security reasons. The process went on and on; the report was originally scheduled for release last summer. Committee Republicans were opposed to any publication, and the Obama administration didn’t seem enthusiastic either. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime Senate colleague, warned about the report and the dangers of the international situation.
“People ask me about the eleventh-hour objections,” said Wyden. “There were objections at every hour. To me, it just underlined the importance of getting this out.”
Time was vanishing. If the report was to get out at all, it had to happen before Republicans took over the Senate and the committee in January. There was talk of Colorado’s Mark Udall, Wyden’s closest ally on the committee who had been defeated for re-election, making the report public himself by entering it into the Congressional Record.
“I was just determined,” said Wyden, “I wasn’t going to go home before it got out.”
Now there’s the question of next.
Wednesday, Udall declared, “The CIA has lied to its overseers and the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges about our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account.”
To Wyden, who has avoided questions about individuals, “I’m not a prosecutor, but I do hope the Justice Department takes a look at this. I have real questions with regard to criminal issues,” including the hacking of committee files and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
It’s taken a long time for Wyden, the intelligence committee and the report to get to this point.
And the story isn’t over yet.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/14/14.