CIA Urges Judge To Keep Bush-Era Documents Sealed
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The Obama administration objected yesterday to the release of certain Bush-era documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees at secret prisons, arguing to a federal judge that doing so would endanger national security and benefit al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts.
In an affidavit, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta defended the classification of records describing the contents of the 92 videotapes, their destruction by the CIA in 2005 and what he called "sensitive operational information" about the interrogations.
The forced disclosure of such material to the American Civil Liberties Union "could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed," Panetta argued.
Although Panetta's statement is in keeping with his previous opposition to the disclosure of other information about the CIA's interrogation policies and practices during George W. Bush's presidency, it represents a new assertion by the Obama administration that the CIA should be allowed to keep such information secret. Bush's critics have long hoped that disclosure would pinpoint responsibility for actions they contend were abusive or illegal.
Last month, President Obama said he would seek to bar the release of photographs being sought by other nonprofit groups that depict abusive interrogations at military prisons during the Bush administration.
Panetta argued that none of the 65 CIA documents immediately at issue, which the ACLU has sought for several years in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, should be released. He asked U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein to draw a legal distinction between the administration's release in April of Justice Department memos authorizing the harsh interrogations and the CIA's desire to keep classified its own documents detailing the specific handling of detainees at its secret facilities overseas.
He said that while the Justice Department memos discussed harsh interrogation "in the abstract," the CIA information was "of a qualitatively different nature" because it described the interrogation techniques "as applied in actual operations."
The "disclosure of explicit details of specific interrogations" would provide al-Qaeda "with propaganda it could use to recruit and raise funds," Panetta said, describing the information at issue as "ready-made ammunition." He also submitted a classified statement to the court that he said explains why detainees could use the contents to evade questions in the future, even though Obama has promised that the United States will not use the harsh interrogation techniques again.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security program, said yesterday evening that it is "grim" and "troubling" for the Obama administration to say that information about purported abuses should be withheld because it might fuel anti-American propaganda. He said that amounts to an assertion that "the greater the abuse, the more important it is that it should remain secret." Jaffer said the ACLU is convinced that the public should have "access to the complete record of what took place in the CIA's prisons and on whose authority."
Although the ACLU first sought CIA documents related to harsh interrogations in 2004, it moved in 2007 to have the court hold the CIA in contempt following disclosures about the agency's destruction of the videotapes. The ACLU demanded as a remedy access to internal e-mails and other information that would reveal the contents of the videotapes and who participated, approved or endorsed their destruction.
Hellerstein has repeatedly denied CIA motions demanding that the case be dismissed, but has not declared the agency in contempt. Instead, he ordered the CIA to surrender some of the records and provide details of others it is withholding; the agency has responded mostly by giving the documents to the court under seal.
A federal prosecutor continues to investigate the destruction of the videotapes.