Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) moved this week to retrieve copies of the committee’s 2014 secret report on the CIA’s brutal detention and interrogation program from federal agencies and return them to Congress.
By late Friday, most of the copies known to have been distributed had been returned to the committee, including by the CIA and its inspector general’s office, the director of national intelligence, and the State Department. At least one remains sealed in federal court, while Justice and the Defense Department each retain a copy.
A copy is also held by the National Archives among former president Barack Obama’s papers.
The report, five years in the making, detailed secret detention and interrogation procedures carried out on terrorism suspects by the CIA between 2001 and 2006. Among other things, it charged the agency with brutal treatment, mismanagement, and concealing information about the program. Committee Republicans had declined to participate in the investigation, charging that it was politically motivated.
While a 500-page, redacted summary was eventually released, the bulk of the report remains classified.
Burr’s order to collect copies of the 6,700-page document came weeks after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union for the executive branch to release the full report, ending a two-year legal battle.
Democrats cried foul, charging that Burr intends to bury the document and ensure that it is never released.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chaired the committee when it was written, said Burr’s intent in collecting copies of what she called “the torture report” was to “erase history” and make sure the document would not be read by current and future officials.
The purpose of the highly critical report was “to learn from past mistakes and ensure that these abuses are never again repeated,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), now the committee’s senior Democrat, said in a statement. A Warner aide said the senator had not been informed of Burr’s directive in advance and that he disagreed with it.
A senior Trump administration official said the matter was between Congress and the courts. “Once the court ruled that the document was rightfully Congress’s, and Congress had asked for its material back, we felt it was appropriate” for executive branch departments to return it, said the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the issue and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Burr first called for the copies to be returned in early 2015, after Republicans won control of the Senate and he became committee chairman, but retrieval was frozen by the ongoing court case.
In a statement issued by his office Friday, Burr said that in light of court rulings, he had now “directed my staff to retrieve copies of the Congressional study that remain with the Executive Branch agencies and, as the Committee does with all classified and compartmented information, will enact the necessary measures to protect the sensitive sources and methods contained within the report.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said: “It would be a travesty for agencies to return the CIA torture report instead of reading and learning from it, as senators intended. The landmark investigative report documents horrific abuses and also details of CIA lies to the White House, Congress, the courts, and the public about its torture program.”
Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but distribution of the report to federal agencies provided an opening for FOIA requests for its declassification and release. In 2013, after a first version of the document was completed, the ACLU filed a federal FOIA case against the CIA, the DNI and the Justice, State and Defense departments.
The suit was renewed in 2014, after the report was updated with the CIA’s critical response to it. A declassified summary was released that year, with the support of Burr and several other Republicans. Obama said he backed the summary release because “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.”
But the Obama administration continued to contest the FOIA case, arguing that the full document belonged to Congress and not to the executive branch. The District of Columbia federal court eventually agreed; the ACLU also lost a subsequent appeal.
In April, the Supreme Court denied an ACLU petition to hear the case.