Walking a Tightrope

Senate Democrats Accuse the CIA of Stonewalling on Torture Policies

Caroline Krass, Obama’s nominee for top CIA lawyer, weathered tough questions from senators convinced the agency is stonewalling on its torture policies.

The Obama administration’s nominee to be the CIA’s top lawyer weathered a barrage of questions today from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee about allegations that agency officials have “slow-walked” and impeded the panel’s investigation into the Bush-era harsh interrogations program. Caroline Krass, a seasoned and highly respected national security lawyer, found herself smack in the middle of war between the intel panel and the CIA over a 6,000 page report that is harshly critical of the CIA’s long-since abandoned Enhanced Interrogation program. Krass seemed to be delicately walking a line between signaling her support for some of the committee’s main conclusions stemming from their probe, while not alienating a CIA workforce that she, if confirmed, will soon serve with.

According to sources familiar with the panel’s investigation, the report concludes that the aggressive techniques employed by the CIA against high-value members of al Qaeda did not provide intelligence that saved lives or foiled plots. Perhaps more damningly, the report says that agency officials systematically provided inaccurate and misleading information to the White House, the Justice Department, and to the intelligence oversight committees. According to the report, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) relied on some of that false information when it was developing legal opinions reauthorizing the program in 2005.

Krass did not get drawn into a debate about the efficacy of the interrogations program. But she was asked repeatedly about whether she believed the agency had provided inaccurate information to OLC, where she worked at the time and still does. (Krass played no role in writing those opinions, say sources who worked with her at the time.) Krass, who has read a 300-page summary of the report, said she agreed with the report’s findings. “The information provided fell well short of the normal type of information that is provided to OLC now,” Krass said in response to a question from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

Some Democrats on the committee, while generally supportive of Krass, raised the specter of opposing her nomination if she did not commit to cooperating with the panel’s probe. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado asked for Krass’s assurances that she would work to turn over certain key CIA documents the committee has been unable to obtain. Among them, Udall said, was an internal report on the agency’s interrogations program that was commissioned by former CIA Director Leon Panetta. According to Udall, the Panetta report “is consistent with the Intelligence Committee’s report,” though, he said, “amazingly” it conflicts with the CIA’s own response to the intel panel’s report. Krass pledged to cooperate with the committee on the production of documents. Asked for comment on the Panetta report, Dean Boyd, director of the CIA Office of Public Affairs said, “We’re aware of the committee’s request and will respond appropriately.”

On several occasions, Democrats lashed out at the CIA for trying to undermine their report with false information. They were particularly angry about statements from an agency spokesman highlighting the report’s “significant errors.” According to Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, the CIA identified a single error that has since been corrected. “I am outraged that the CIA continues to make misleading statements about the committee’s study,” Heinrich said. “I am convinced now more than ever that we need to declassify the full report so that those with a political agenda can no longer manipulate public opinion by making false representations about what may be or what is not in that study.” To support his claim, Heinrich cited a Daily Beast story posted earlier today that quoted CIA spokesman Dean Boyd on what he called the report’s “significant errors.” Heinrich describe the article as “highly misleading.”

Although the hearing was dominated by questions about fallout from Bush-era interrogation policies, senators also asked an array of questions about legal theories underpinning other controversial counterterrorism polices, including targeted killings, detention, and the full scope of the congressional statute authorizing the war on terror. In one clear rebuff of the committee, Krass indicated she was not in favor of providing Congress with Justice Department OLC opinions laying out the administration’s legal rationales for controversial counterterrorism policies like targeted killings and interrogations. Krass said it was important to protect the deliberative process and the attorney-client privilege, although she said she was in favor of sharing the legal framework for those activities if not the entire opinions. Republicans, for the most part, treated Krass gently, deferring to their Democratic colleagues to ask the tough questions.

Krass, admired by both Democrats and Republicans, is expected to win confirmation relatively easily.