Politics & Policy

Senate Dems Politicize Intelligence Oversight

Their report on enhanced interrogation will damage U.S. credibility with allies.

Aided by numerous leaks by Democratic members and staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, mainstream media are planning a nostalgic trip back to the Bush-bashing days of the 2000s with today’s release of declassified parts of a Senate report on the Bush-era enhanced-interrogation program, a CIA counterterrorism initiative that its critics claim included torture.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a 499-page declassified executive summary of the still-classified 6,700-page report. Declassified versions of a CIA rebuttal and additional Democratic and Republican views reportedly also will be released today.

This investigation marks a new low for congressional oversight of intelligence because of its naked partisanship and refusal to consider all relevant evidence. The report was written entirely by the committee’s Democratic staff. The investigation included no interviews — it is based only on a review of documents. Because the report lacks Republican co-authors or interviews of people who ran the enhanced-interrogation program, it has no credibility and amounts to a five-year, $50 million Democrat cherry-picking exercise to investigate the Bush administration.

This didn’t have to happen. There are congressional Republicans who have problems with the enhanced-interrogation program and wanted an honest, bipartisan assessment of it. This is why all but one Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to approve the probe in March 2009. However, all of the committee’s GOP members withdrew their support six months later when it became clear that this inquiry would be a witch hunt against the Bush administration and the CIA and not a balanced, bipartisan investigation.

And what will this report tell us that we don’t already know? New details about enhanced-interrogation techniques and Democratic objections to them won’t be news. According to press leaks about the report, it will claim the program was poorly run and that CIA personnel exceeded their legal authority in running the program and lied about it to Congress and the White House. Such charges are hard to take seriously, because CIA officers accused in the report of improper and illegal activities were not interviewed by the committee’s staff investigators. Most of them were not even allowed to read the report — that privilege was limited to former CIA directors and deputy directors, and they were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements by the committee before they were given access to it.

The report will dispute that the enhanced-interrogation program produced useful intelligence. However, such a finding isn’t credible, since it is written by Democratic staff and reflects a partisan position long held by Democrats.

There are many former Bush-administration and CIA officials who claim that the enhanced-interrogation program was effective, provided crucial counterterrorism intelligence, and was conducted entirely within the law. These officials also claim that Democratic members of the House and Senate intelligence committees were fully briefed on the program and supported it until it became politically useful to condemn it. Former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, who ran the enhanced-interrogation program, recently wrote a compelling Washington Post op-ed explaining these points.

Do these officials, including the CIA officers who ran the enhanced-interrogation program — former CIA director Michael Hayden, former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin, former CIA director George Tenet, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, and others — have so little credibility that it was not worth interviewing them? How could a fair and thorough investigation of such a controversial intelligence program possibly be conducted without interviewing the key people who worked on or oversaw it?

While the decision by the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats to ignore the views of CIA officials who knew the enhanced-interrogation program best and to refuse to interview them as part of the inquiry may seem odd, this makes perfect sense for an investigation that was only looking for information that fit its predetermined conclusions. They did not want to spoil their pre-cooked report with unpleasant facts and dissenting views from CIA officials.

The Obama administration and congressional Republicans have raised concerns that the report being pushed by Democratic committee members will damage U.S. national security and could endanger American lives.

Revealing more details about the program will hurt American relations with key allies and could discourage them from sharing intelligence with the United States or cooperating with us on risky intelligence or military operations in the future.

Fear that the report also could lead to violence against Americans or to terrorist attacks led Secretary of State John Kerry to request that its release be delayed. American military personnel overseas and U.S. embassies and consulates have been warned to be on guard for “potential violence” because of the release of the report. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) warned on Sunday that the report would be used as a propaganda tool by terrorist groups to incite anti-American unrest and would lead to “violence and deaths.”

So given all these issues with the report, why did Democrat on the committee push it? Why is Senator Feinstein determined to issue it before she loses her Intelligence Committee chairmanship next month?

While Feinstein has long been a supporter of the report, it was actually driven by the committee’s three far-left members: Senators Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), Mark Udall (D., Col.), and Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.). Not surprisingly, these three senators are also the only ones on the committee who have aggressively criticized NSA in the light of Edward Snowden’s leaks and tried to shut down crucial NSA collection programs. There have been calls by left-wing groups for Udall, who was defeated in his reelection bid, to leak information about NSA programs and the entire text of the enhanced-interrogations report before he leaves office, using his Senate immunity under the speech and debate clause.

Feinstein appears to have gone along with efforts by these three senators to radicalize the enhanced-interrogation investigation. She probably decided to release it because of pressure from liberal groups and Democratic contributors. Feinstein knows that if the declassified portion of the report had not been released this month, it never would have been released.

By issuing such a blatantly partisan report on events that took place ten years ago or more, the enhanced-interrogation report will seriously damage the credibility of congressional oversight of intelligence and the credibility of Senate Democrats — especially Feinstein — on national security. The myth that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s oversight of intelligence is non-political has been decisively disproved. It will be a long time before Senate Democrats and the Senate intelligence committee will regain the trust of U.S. intelligence officers and the American people on intelligence matters, owing to the politicized Democratic report on the enhanced-interrogation program.

— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and senior staff member with the House Intelligence Committee. He is now a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.

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