WASHINGTON – Senate Intelligence Committee (search) members are frustrated with the amount of material the CIA (search) wants to keep secret in a congressional report expected to be highly critical of the intelligence community's assessments of prewar Iraq (search).
Because of the strict rules governing classified material (search), the members are limited in how much they can say about even the extent of the material in their 400-page report that has been classified by the CIA. However, through a spokeswoman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the committee, said the agency has been overly conservative in deciding what could not be released to the public.
When asked about the amount of material withheld, Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, looked over the top of his glasses, furrowed his brow, and asked: "Do I look happy?"
The committee has been working for a year to examine the quality and quantity of prewar intelligence on former President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruc (search)tion, his ties to terrorist groups and the threat he posed to the region, among other lines of inquiry. While the bulk of the report is done, the members are still handling disputes over the conclusions. A final vote on the report, which could have come Tuesday, was postponed until at least Thursday.
Speculation has swirled for nearly two weeks about whether the report was a factor in CIA Director George Tenet's (search) decision to resign, despite his public insistence that his upcoming departure is for family reasons. Speaking generally, Roberts said the report is "not flattering" to the intelligence community. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called it "solid, powerful and very tough stuff."
At least a half dozen committee members interviewed Tuesday were eager to get the report completed.
Heading into a closed committee session on the subject, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said, "The question is, can we get through this redaction process in a way that keeps our report intact? I think that is going to be a concern."
Earlier this week, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency has been working closely with the committee to declassify the report in a way that protects intelligence sources and methods — "highly sensitive information that if disclosed could be harmful to national security."
The CIA has been conducting a declassification and fact-checking review since May, a process that Mansfield called "painstaking work." The agency declined to comment Tuesday.
Roberts hopes to release a public version of the report shortly after the Fourth of July recess. His spokeswoman, Sarah Ross Little, said the committee intentionally kept sensitive information out of the report, hoping the declassification process would go smoothly.
Now, members are considering their options if a compromise can't be reached with the CIA. For instance, the senators could take a highly unusual step and vote to release the report, called the "nuclear option."
If the agency is trying to bury negative findings under classification, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said "that is unacceptable."
Added Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.: "This administration has done everything possible to make it hard to find the facts, and certainly it's been the most inventive administration I've seen in terms of coming up with arguments for secrecy."