WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers and rights groups criticized the Republican head of the Senate intelligence committee on Friday for seeking the return of copies of a report on CIA treatment of detainees after 9/11, saying he is trying to "erase history" by making it harder for the public to ever see the classified document.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said federal courts have ruled the report is a congressional document and asked for copies held by intelligence bodies and other executive branch agencies to be returned. If the report remained in the hands of executive branch officials, it would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Congressional materials are not.
The CIA and the agency's inspector general's office, as well as the national intelligence director's office, have returned their copies. The FBI and the State, Justice and Defense departments also have copies of the 6,770-page classified report.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a former Democratic chairman of the committee, called Burr's move was "alarming and concerning."
"This creates a dangerous precedent," she said, warning that "countless historical reports and records" could be nullified under the same procedure. "No senator — chairman or not — has the authority to erase history. I believe that is the intent of the chairman."
The so-called "torture report" has a long history.
The Senate intelligence committee spent years investigating the CIA's detention and harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists captured by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. The techniques authorized by the Bush administration included waterboarding. Interrogations were conducted in clandestine prisons around the world that were not in the jurisdiction of U.S. courts or the military justice system.
In December 2014, the committee published a declassified summary of the report. The full report remained classified, but it was sent to several government agencies.
Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly over the contents.
In 2015, Burr asked government agencies under the Obama administration to send report copies back. They didn't.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the CIA for the entire classified report, but didn't get it.
"After more than two years of litigation, the federal courts have ruled that the Senate intelligence committee's 2014 full report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program is a congressional document," Burr said in a statement. "I have 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."
There are certain copies of the report, however, that might not be returned.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Feinstein in a written response to questions that he would not return the Justice Department's copy of the report to the Senate.
Katherine Hawkins, senior counsel at the Constitution Project, an advocacy group, said another copy is included in Obama's presidential papers, which are being handled by the National Archives. That copy is subject to the Presidential Records Act, and getting that declassified could take years and might never happen.
Hawkins said the Defense Department's copy also is particularly important because it provides evidence that could be used in the military commission trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees. A military commission judge this week ordered the Defense Department to preserve its copy so it could possibly be used in the trial of Majid Khan, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the detainee.
"The Senate report details the horrors of the CIA torture program, including the rape and sexual assault of (our) client Majid Khan and the ways the agency misled Congress, the courts and the public about the program," the center said in a statement.
Democratic senators and rights groups were unanimous in their opposition to Burr's move.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, tweeted that the report "must be preserved so we can learn from past mistakes and ensure that abuses are never repeated."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the report was a historical record that belongs to all Americans.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former member of the intelligence committee, said, "The report contains difficult facts to face, but they must be aired."
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said agencies shouldn't return the CIA torture report to Congress but should read and learn from it. "This critically important investigation should have been made public and must not be buried or destroyed," Shamsi said.
Physicians for Human Rights called the report the most comprehensive accounting of the CIA's torture program. "Its findings are critical to understanding how so many mistakes were made — and how to avoid making such grievous, harmful errors in the future," Sarah Dougherty with the New York-based group said.