THE BLOG
11/25/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Torture Report: Mark Udall's World-Historical Moment to Rescue CIA Oversight

John Leyba via Getty Images

"Time Is Running Out on the CIA Torture Report," the National Journal reports:

Backroom negotiations over the release of a long-delayed Senate report on the George W. Bush administration's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" practices are again hitting a wall.
[...]
The Senate is set to adjourn in mid-December, but [Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne] Feinstein can still hold off on submitting the report until the start of next year by obtaining a consent agreement that would allow her to file when Congress is not in session.

But the extension would only give Feinstein a few weeks of extra daylight. The current Senate will formally expire at noon on Jan. 3.
[...]
The continued fraying of negotiations has some suggesting that the White House might be intentionally stalling, in hopes that it can run out the clock on the report's release, especially with Republicans slated to take over.

National Journal notes that outgoing Colorado Senator Mark Udall -- no longer constrained even in theory by the perceived need to curry favor with power -- is the last line of defense for Senate Democrats: he can declassify the Senate Intelligence Committee's preferred version of the report by himself, by reading it into the Congressional Record, under the protection of the Constitution's Speech or Debate clause.

More is at stake than establishing a public record on the CIA's use of torture and its illegal attempts to hide its crimes from other executive branch officials and Congress, important though that is. The struggle over the release of the CIA torture report is a litmus test of the ability and willingness of Congress to conduct any meaningful oversight of the CIA at all. If Senate Democrats lose this crucial confrontation with the CIA, the negative effects are likely to be wide-ranging and long-lasting.

As the National Journal notes: "civil-liberties advocates say publicizing the document also represents a major sign of progress for the Intelligence Committee as it seeks to reestablish itself as a watchdog of the CIA." Acting as a watchdog over the intelligence agencies -- that's exactly what the Intelligence Committee was established by the Senate to do following the CIA scandals of the 1970s. You can only "reestablish" yourself as something if you stopped doing it. So what's at stake here is whether the Intelligence Committee can resume the role assigned to it by Congress of acting as a watchdog over the CIA. The likely alternative is no effective oversight of the CIA by Congress at all.

If there is no effective oversight of the CIA by Congress at all, that's a mortal threat to the idea that we should be a constitutional, rule of law democracy when it comes to deciding on the use of military force in other people's countries.

Many of the democracy, rule of law and human rights abuses of the "long war" since 2001 are fundamentally questions of CIA oversight or the lack of it. How many civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? The government refuses to say publicly, because "that's classified." How did such a basic fact get to be classified? Because the drone war is a "CIA operation." The planes are generally U.S. military planes; the pilots are generally U.S. military pilots. But it's a "CIA operation," so it's classified.

Of course the track record suggests that the causation actually runs the other way; it's not classified because it's a CIA operation; it's a CIA operation in order for it to be classified. The administration has chosen to make it a CIA operation so the U.S. government won't have to answer questions about it on the public record. The executive branch has perceived -- largely correctly, unfortunately, until now -- stamping a CIA label on an operation as a "get out of jail free card" to escape transparency and accountability.

This game is extremely damaging to the Schoolhouse Rock notion that we should make basic policy choices in a transparent and democratic way about whether, when and how the U.S. government should try to kill people in other people's countries.

Consider the question of U.S. military involvement in the civil war in Syria. This is a policy that was chosen without a Congressional debate and vote. Last year, when it was first proposed that the U.S. arm Syrian insurgents, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress led by Vermont Democrat Peter Welch and New York Republican Chris Gibson objected, and introduced an amendment to block it. But the Republican leadership in the House, acting in collusion with the White House, blocked the Gibson-Welch amendment from coming to a vote. The consequence of this was that the administration was able to run the policy of arming Syrian rebels as a CIA operation with the approval of the intelligence committees -- Congress didn't debate and Congress didn't vote. The current strength of ISIS is in significant measure a consequence of U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war, some of their weapons are weapons that were sent to other Syrian rebels, but Congress never approved that.

This year, Congress did debate and vote on a military program to arm and train the Syrian rebels. But by this time, the CIA program was already an accomplished fact. Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the CIA program is already operating at the scale that the military program is supposed to be operating at a year from now.

The size of the CIA program turns the Congressional debate over the military program into a kind of farce. On the one hand, we're going to have this great show of a debate and vote on the military program, allow Congress to attach transparency and accountability conditions. Meanwhile, we'll do whatever the hell we want through the CIA. The facts-on-the-ground created by the un-transparent and unaccountable CIA part of foreign military policy decisively shape debate on the (relatively) more transparent and accountable Pentagon part: what's the point of going to the wall to oppose or restrict the military program, if the administration is going to do whatever the hell they want anyway under a less transparent and less accountable CIA program?

On the CIA torture report, Senate Democrats drew a line in the sand. "Choose your battles," the saying goes. That's the battle that the Senate Democrats chose. That's where they put down their marker. That's why, if the Senate Democrats lose this confrontation, it will be especially devastating. The story will be told that even when Senate Democrats decided to make a stand for CIA oversight, they got rolled.

And that's why it's so urgent for Senator Udall to find his phone booth and change into his Transparency Man superhero uniform. At this writing, 140,000 Americans are urging Senator Udall to act. You can join us here.