Senate Torture Report Talks Break Down As Administration Pushes For Redactions

11/19/2014 04:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Negotiations between the Obama administration and the Senate over how much of the upper chamber's CIA torture report can be released have hit a major snag, less than a day after the talks appeared to be wrapping up.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that negotiations had come "down to essentially one item in the redaction. It happens to be a very sensitive and important item. I talked to the president yesterday, I talked to his chief of staff the day before, I expect to hear about it hopefully today or tomorrow."

When asked if the report's release could be blocked by Republicans if negotiations aren't completed by the change of power in the Senate in January, Feinstein said it wouldn't be an issue. "It is gonna get done, so don't worry about it," she said.

Her optimistic outlook didn't make it to midnight. On Tuesday night, when Senate and administration staffers from the intelligence community sat down to cross the t's and dot the i's, negotiators learned that they were much further apart than they had thought. "It surprised everyone that the position was so hellbent on the part of the administration," said a Senate source briefed on the meeting. "It appeared to our side they weren't actually looking for a compromise."

The sticking point between the two sides is the inclusion of pseudonyms in the Senate report. The CIA has rejected many of the report's conclusions, and has argued that including identifying pseudonyms of officials gives the public and media the means to determine their identities and potentially compromise their cover, jeopardizing ongoing operations or intelligence personnel.

Former CIA head Michael Hayden recently upped the ante, arguing that releasing the report could cost American lives.

Lawmakers have defended the committee's use of pseudonyms, and insist that they adequately protect the identities of CIA personnel involved in the program.

"The committee had moved drastically in meeting them more than halfway. [The CIA] still stuck to this red line of no pseudonyms," said the Senate source.

The numbers, though, suggest the White House and the spy agency have already conceded some points: When the document was originally returned to the committee following its initial declassification review, 15 percent of the document was redacted. Negotiations have reportedly progressed to the point that roughly 5 percent is currently redacted.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who has personally handled the redaction negotiations, was not in Tuesday's meeting, but is scheduled to meet with Senate Democrats Thursday in what could be a tense gathering. McDonough had previously been a strong advocate of congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

The stakes of the standoff are heightened by the pending Republican takeover of the Senate, which has abbreviated the timeline on Feinstein's plans to release the document. The GOP has shown little interest in exposing the practices of the CIA during the George W. Bush years.

If the two sides do not reach a consensus soon, the committee and its members will be left with only extreme options. One would be to release the heavily redacted version that the CIA has already agreed to, which would be a capitulation on the part of the committee. The alternative would be for Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) or another member of the committee to read the report -- or sections that the committee believes should be released -- into the Senate record, as then-Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) did with the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Feinstein's optimism about the report's release has been stifled in the past by the tense negotiations. In September Feinsetin said she expected the 500-page document to be public within two to four weeks. Two months later, negotiations are still ongoing -- and based on reports of Tuesday night's meeting, not going well.

Despite a committee vote in April to release the 500-page executive summary of the five-year, 6,000-plus page study, a public version of the document has been hamstrung for months by disputes over aspects of the report that the White House and CIA wish to suppress.

Sources in the intelligence community, meanwhile, have said some are unhappy with the administration for being too willing to negotiate over redactions, specifically in allowing the identification of countries that participated in the global system of torture and rendition.

A White House official said that negotiations will continue. "The president has been clear that he wants the executive summary of the committee's report to be declassified as expeditiously as possible," the official said. "We share the Intelligence Committee's desire for the declassified report to be released, and all of the administration's efforts since we received the initial version have been focused on making that happen while also protecting our national security. We will continue to work with the committee on our shared goal of seeing the report declassified and released."

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