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John Brennan Nomination Seen As Opening To Push For CIA Torture Report Release

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John Brennan, President Barack Obama's choice for CIA director, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
John Brennan, President Barack Obama's choice for CIA director, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Torture foes are seizing on President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan for CIA chief to push for the release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report about the agency's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding during the George W. Bush administration.

Human rights advocates have long hoped to see portions of the 6,000-page report, in the works since 2009, declassified in order to shed light on waterboarding and other abuses of the CIA's interrogation program. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in a letter last month that the report "confirms … that the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence."

But while the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the report on a 9-6, mostly party-line vote last month, it still has not seen the light of day. The White House and intelligence agencies are still combing through it to make comments to the Senate panel.

Brennan's tenure as deputy executive director at the CIA in the mid-2000s may play a role in the debate over the report's release. According to a report Monday in The Washington Post, the White House combed through the report to see whether it contained any damaging revelations about Brennan's time at the agency. It apparently shows that he was made aware of the interrogation program's classified aspects, but did not play a "significant role" in the program. Human rights advocates would like to read the report for themselves, before Brennan is confirmed.

“The Senate should not move forward with his nomination until all senators can assess the role of the CIA -- and any role by Brennan himself -- in torture, abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during his past tenure at the CIA," Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office said in a release on Monday. “To the extent these questions can be answered by the Intelligence Committee’s still-undisclosed report on the CIA’s role in torture, the Senate should use the report to determine what role Brennan had."

Years after he had left the CIA, Brennan publicly defended at least some elements of the program. "A lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists," he said in November 2007. "It has saved lives. And let’s not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11."

But Brennan also spoke out against waterboarding at least as early as October 2006, telling the New York Daily News that it "goes beyond the bounds of what a civilized society should employ."

The push for the report's release is bigger than Brennan. Advocates hope it will provide some accountability for the interrogation program's members, who Obama has said he will not prosecute for their crimes. But the CIA has steadfastly opposed not just prosecutions but also the release of more information on the torture program -- including, according to some, the Senate Intelligence report.

"There have been reports that the CIA was vigorously opposing release of that study," said Dixon Osburn, director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First. "Leadership from the White House and CIA leaders would be critically important in making sure that report is made public."

Comments on the report from the executive branch, including the CIA, are due February 15. The Senate Intelligence Committee would then need to decide whether to incorporate them into the report and whether to make any of the report or at least a summary public.

The ACLU, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch will all be pushing during Brennan's nomination process to speed up the report's release. They say his statements on the matter will show whether the 25-year agency veteran is too in thrall to its bureaucracy to make reforms, or ready to push it in a new direction.

"If Brennan is supportive of that process," Osburn said, "that would be very helpful in ensuring that we don't repeat those mistakes."

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