A warning on ‘torture report’ release

A protester burns a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the capture of senior al Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Liby by U.S. authorities, in Benghazi October 11, 2013.   (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetorii)
A protester burns a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the capture of senior al Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Liby by U.S. authorities, in Benghazi October 11, 2013.   (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetorii)

An internal U.S. intelligence memo warns that the release of a Senate report on CIA interrogation techniques could inflame anti-U.S. passions in the Mideast, resulting in potentially violent street protests and threats to U.S. embassies and personnel, U.S. officials tell Yahoo News.

The eight-page memo by the National Intelligence Council is being used by some in the  intelligence community to argue for holding the line against Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s demands to release a more complete version of the report’s 480-page summary. The memo went to the White House late last month but, administration officials said, played no role in the redactions to the report that Feinstein is objecting to.

“The Mideast is a tinderbox right now and this could be the spark that ignites quite a fire,” said one U.S. intelligence official who was briefed on the findings.

That concern was echoed Friday by a former top U.S. intelligence official who helped oversee the interrogation program. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if you release a report like this at a time when terrorism is surging all over the Mideast you are handing the other side a recruitment tool,” John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director, told Yahoo News. “It’s blindingly obvious.”

But Senate committee officials have countered that the intelligence community’s concerns are overblown and that the State Department has already taken steps to guard against any potential protests by ramping up security at U.S. embassies.

“The administration is taking prudent steps to be prepared for any reaction, “ said one committee official. The official noted “there was not [a] violent reaction after release” in 2009 of Justice Department legal opinions about CIA interrogation methods and a Senate Armed Services Committee report criticizing harsh techniques used by the Pentagon at Guantanamo.

The memo, with its stark warnings about potential violence, is the latest development in a struggle  between Feinstein’s committee and the CIA over how many details should be made public about the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation” — including the near drowning technique known as waterboarding — of top terror suspects. The techniques were authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, but were banned by President Obama when he took office .

Intelligence sources familiar with the report say it graphically describes — in some cases, with grisly details — the harsh tactics that agency officers and contractors used for weeks at a time to try to get top suspects like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk. The report also recounts the death of an Afghan suspect after he was shackled and left half naked in freezing temperatures in an agency interrogation facility known as “the Salt Pit” in 2002.

The committee accuses CIA officials of misrepresenting the program to Congress and the Justice Department, claiming it yielded important intelligence about potential terror plots that were actually learned elsewhere, the sources said. Another charge is that the agency undercounted the number of detainees who were subjected to such harsh methods, asserting in 2006 it was no more than 100, leaving out about 20 others who received similar rough treatment in Afghanistan. Both findings have been sharply challenged by former CIA officials who are planning a lengthy rebuttal when the report is released.

When the intelligence committee approved, on a partisan vote, the report last April, Feinstein said “the results were shocking” and that the report “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation.”

“This will be an ugly story when it comes out,” agrees one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the findings of the report.

The National Intelligence Council is an interagency group that conducts strategic analysis. The memo was requested by the office of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. An official familiar with the memo says its analysis is largely based on violent protests that erupted in the past after disclosures embarrassing to the United States, such as the release of photographs of abusive treatment at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

“The memo notes that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was a flashpoint for violent extremists and played a prominent role in their propaganda,” said the official. But the official  acknowledged that the memo cited no hard intelligence about the likelihood of demonstrations if the report is released. “There are a lot of ‘could’ves’ in there,” the official said.

But it’s not clear now when, or how much of, the Senate report will see the light of day. The intelligence community provided a partially redacted summary of the full 6,200-page report to Feinstein’s panel last Friday, and Obama administration officials had been bracing for it to be made public this week.

But committee officials, after reviewing the edited summary, were irate, concluding that the intelligence community’s redactions papered over and in some cases rendered meaningless key criticisms of the agency’s interrogation program.

Intelligence officials counter that the redactions were “minimal,” amounting to no more than eight percent of the summary’s text and 15 percent of the total content (including footnotes.) The changes include the use of pseudonyms to obscure the names of CIA officers who participated in the interrogations and, in some cases, the countries where they took place.

Still, Feinstein fired off a letter to President Obama on Tuesday spelling out which redactions she wants restored before she releases the report. "I have concluded the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions," Feinstein said in a statement this week, after deciding she would not release the redacted report in its current form. "Until these redactions are addressed to the committee’s satisfaction, the report will not be made public.”

A White House official told Yahoo News that the White House did not request the NIC memo. "This was an intelligence community initiative to provide information to policymakers," the official said, emphasizing that redactions to the Senate report were made as part of a separate process based on concerns about the exposure of intelligence sources and methods as well as the identity of agency officers. President Obama's homeland security advisor Lisa Monaco is now overseeing a process to review Sen. Feinstein's request to make more portions of the report public, the official said.