In a new and shocking twist in the long, convoluted history of the Senate torture report, the CIA's Office of Inspector General has admitted that it destroyed its only copy of the document, a report from Yahoo News correspondent Michael Isikoff reveals.
The CIA claims the deletion of the torture report was a mistake on the part of the inspector general's office, an independent arm of the CIA tasked with internal oversight of the agency. The CIA has another copy of the full report, but the Senate Intelligence Committee specifically sent a separate copy of the document to the inspector general's office for use in a review of agency conduct. Needless to say, the office's ability to use the report to fulfill its watchdog duties now seems to be compromised, given that it has deleted its only copy.
According to Yahoo News, the CIA informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of the incident last summer. Christopher R. Sharpley, the agency's acting inspector general, reportedly explained that his office had mistakenly destroyed its copy of the report during the process of uploading the Senate-provided disk containing the document to the agency's server. Once the report was uploaded, the disk was destroyed according to normal procedure. According to Sharpley, a staff member then misinterpreted instructions not to open the document and deleted the file from the server as well, leaving the inspector general's office without a copy.
It's an embarrassing explanation that gives the appearance of extreme incompetence in the inspector general's office, which is tasked with preventing abuse and fraud in an organization that stands accused of committing both in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who presided over the Senate Intelligence Committee while the report was produced and now serves as the committee's vice chair, sent a letter to CIA Director John Brennan on Friday, in which she requested that Brennan "immediately" provide a new copy of the report to the inspector general's office. (Sharpley promised the committee last summer that he would request a new copy of the report from Brennan, which he apparently never received.)
"Your prompt response will allay my concern that this was more than an ‘accident,’" Feinstein wrote to Brennan, none-too-subtly conveying her doubts about the veracity of the CIA's official explanation for the report's destruction.
The torture report has long been a point of contention between Feinstein and Brennan. In March 2014, Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of spying on her committee while it assembled the report and requested an apology from Brennan for the "inappropriate" conduct. Brennan initially denied the claims and retaliated against Feinstein by referring Senate staffers to the FBI for allegedly improperly accessing CIA documents.
An internal investigation by the CIA's Office of Inspector General found that Brennan's denial had been misguided, and Brennan later apologized to the committee and acknowledged that CIA staff had acted improperly. However, a subsequent report from an Orwellian-named CIA "accountability board" contradicted the inspector general's findings, exonerating Brennan and CIA staff members of any wrongdoing. (For a comprehensive account of the episode, read Jason Leopold's excellent piece at Vice.)
This latest development comes against a backdrop of continuing tension over whether the full 6,700-page torture report will be released, or even preserved. The report was produced over five years by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Feinstein, at a cost of $40 million.
A 500-page executive summary of the report's findings was released to the public in December 2014 after intense wrangling between intelligence officials and committee member over which portions, if any, would be made public. The report's executive summary offers a scathing assessment of CIA conduct, reporting that the agency consistently misled lawmakers and the public about its use of torture and that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence. The report was immediately met with criticism from the Republicans on the intelligence committee and former CIA officials, who issued rebuttals challenging the report's findings.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr, of North Carolina, who succeeded Feinstein as chair of the intelligence committee in 2015, has called for all copies of the report to be returned to the Senate in what is perceived by critics as a bid to ensure that the full document is never released.
The Obama administration has not complied with Burr's request, but it has argued against the report's full release in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last week that the torture report is not subject to FOIA, a decision the ACLU may yet appeal.
During court proceedings last year, the Justice Department represented to a federal judge that the government would "preserve the status quo" and not destroy any copies of the report while litigation was ongoing. However, Yahoo News reports that there is no evidence that the Justice Department ever informed the judge that the CIA inspector general's office's copy had been destroyed.
Feinstein's letter to Brennan referenced this apparent discrepancy and urged the CIA director to remedy the situation by providing a copy of the report to the inspector general's office at once. In a separate letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Feinstein requested that the Justice Department immediately notify the courts of the report's destruction. The Justice department disputes Feinstein's interpretation, and maintains that because the inspector general's office operates within the CIA, and the CIA retained its copy, the status quo was preserved.
This is not the first time the CIA has admitted to destroying materials relating to its use of torture. In 2005, the agency destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogation sessions with terror suspects, which were thought to have contained footage of torture, including waterboarding. The tapes were destroyed as the CIA's interrogation program began to be subjected to increased scrutiny by lawmakers. The indispensable Marcy Wheeler has helpfully compiled a list of torture evidence destroyed by the CIA or others in the executive branch.
Even if the CIA is being honest in its claims that the destruction of the inspector general's copy of the report was completely inadvertent — and frankly, more nefarious explanations for the report's disappearance seem to defy logic in this case — the fact remains that the agency would be perfectly content to see the Senate torture report disappear forever. The CIA has thus far escaped accountability for its role in the torture program, and has done little but obscure and obstruct outside attempts to shed light on the matter. Sadly, it does not appear that the CIA's day of reckoning will come anytime soon.