WASHINGTON -- When the new Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), announced that, allegedly unbeknownst to him, the former chairwoman had widely distributed the panel's study of CIA torture, he said he was perturbed. A sensitive document -- one whose validity he has vehemently challenged -- now being spread within the executive branch? Concerning, Burr said, to say the least.
Except most of the recipients that Burr is concerned about never even opened their copy.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request for the full, still-classified 6,900-page torture report, government lawyers wrote that most of the executive agencies that had been copied on the transmission of the full report to the White House from then-Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hadn’t opened their sealed copy -- and in one case, never even picked it up.
"None of the defendant agencies have freely used the Full Report; they have kept it stored in a [sensitive compartmented information facility], with limited access," the government’s declaration reads. "Neither [the Department of Justice] nor [the Department of State], moreover, has even opened the package with the disc containing the full Report. And CIA and [the Department of Defense] have carefully limited access to and made only very limited use of the Report."
The FBI’s copy remains sealed in the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, according to the FOIA response. The bureau has yet to collect it.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
"It is appalling that the State Department and the Justice Department would just stick this report in a locked safe, without opening or reading it," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee and a vigorous advocate of the report. "That shows a shocking disregard for their professional responsibilities, and appears to be an organized effort to cover up the truth about torture."
It’s also the sobering reality of an administration that, for years, has publicly condemned the Bush-era torture program while doing little to support Feinstein’s efforts to force the nation’s spies to acknowledge their sins.
Since 2009, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have sought the Obama administration's help in conducting their yearslong torture probe, particularly when it appeared that the CIA was interfering or attempting to manipulate their investigation. Their calls nearly always fell on deaf ears.
In many instances, the White House quietly aligned itself more with the spies than their overseers.
Despite repeated requests from Feinstein and her investigators, the Oval Office refused to turn over more than 9,000 documents pertaining to the torture program. When concerns arose that the CIA was trying to stall public release of the report’s executive summary, lawmakers asked the White House to push forward the declassification process. It refused and, by some accounts, went on to assist the spies in delaying the summary’s release.
And as a constitutional tussle has played out between the CIA and Intelligence Committee Democrats over one contested document -- which lawmakers and the CIA’s own inspector general say culminated in the agency spying on Senate investigators -- the White House has been largely mute, leaving the two groups to duke it out on their own.
The executive branch’s apparent failure thus far to delve into the behemoth study as Feinstein wished -- in the hope that its gruesome accounts would deter the nation from ever torturing again -- underscores the study's uncertain future. The committee’s new Republican leaders have made no secret of their disdain for the document. In a clear change from Feinstein's tenure, Burr is campaigning to snatch back copies of the report and has signaled his intention to return to the CIA the particular contested document.
Certain Democratic lawmakers, including Wyden, and human rights groups have called for the public release of the full study.
But if officials in some of the most relevant, appropriately cleared agencies haven’t laid eyes on it, does the public even have a chance?