03/05/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

John Brennan CIA Nomination Advances As White House Drags Feet On Torture Report

The Senate Intelligence Committee put John Brennan one step closer to leading the CIA on Tuesday, even though the White House has missed a deadline about releasing a classified report on the CIA's past use of torture methods like waterboarding.

In a closed-door meeting, the committee voted 12 to 3 to approve the nomination of Brennan, who currently serves as chief counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama. The White House had cleared the way for the affirmative vote by promising to grant some members of Congress access to secret memos laying out the legal justification for targeted killing of U.S. citizens.

But those are not the only hidden documents that human rights advocates had hoped to bring into the light during Brennan's confirmation process, a rare moment of accountability for the CIA prompted by agency Director David Petraeus' sudden resignation last year. The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights First had all called for the release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on "enhanced interrogation" methods, like waterboarding, used during the George W. Bush administration.

On Tuesday, as Brennan's nomination moved forward to an expected positive vote by the full Senate without the release of that report, some of those advocates expressed disappointment.

"It sure seems like there's been no progress," said Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights Campaign. "I think it's another symptom of the U.S. government's disregard for human rights that we've seen over the last decade now in the name of counterterrorism."

The Intelligence Committee approved its 6,000-page report on the CIA's interrogation methods in December. Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said it included "startling" details about CIA practices like waterboarding, a form of torture, that underlined what "terrible mistakes" they were.

Since December, however, the report has been caught in classification limbo. The Obama administration was supposed to deliver comments on whether to declassify part or all of it for public review by Feb. 15. But on Tuesday, Brian Weiss, a spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the White House had missed that deadline and has yet to give a formal response to the report. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons for the delay.

"In many ways, it is concerning that the administration hasn't made this more of a priority," said Raha Wala, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First.

Some rights advocates even saw one moment during Brennan's confirmation hearing as something of a step backward. Pressed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on whether he considered waterboarding a form of torture, Brennan declined to state whether he agreed with Obama that it is. Within the CIA's ranks, there is opposition to labeling former or current employees as torturers.

On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he still had questions for Brennan on torture. A U.N. special rapporteur also called on Tuesday for the release of the Senate report.

In August 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would not prosecute any of the cases of alleged torture tied to the CIA's interrogation program. Releasing the Intelligence Committee's torture report is seen by many rights activists as the last chance, at least under the Obama administration, for some form of accountability.

"We obviously had some ongoing criminal investigations that are now closed, so I think that the expectation was that the CIA would cooperate [on releasing the report]," said Wala. "The oversight study is the focus of accountability efforts, because it's kind of the last key toward really revealing the details of the torture program."



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