Controversies over the government's counterterrorism programs continue to roil Capitol Hill—and occasionally ensnare administration appointees. Earlier this year, John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director was held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who demanded that Obama officials state whether they believed the government could take out American citizens with a drone strike on U.S. soil. Paul lifted his hold on the nomination when Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. sent a letter to Paul that said, in part, "The answer to that question is no."
Now another senior Obama national security nominee is being held up—and this time by a Senate Democrat. Stephen Preston, the current general counsel at the CIA, was nominated in June by President Obama to be the top lawyer at the Defense Department. His selection had generated little controversy, but last week Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) put a hold on the nomination demanding that Preston answer questions about the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program. At issue is whether the report should be declassified and released to the public.
Udall, a member of the committee, has been aggressively pushing for the report’s release. Now he's using the Preston nomination for leverage. "Senator Udall still has some unanswered questions that we'd like Mr. Preston to address," said Mike Saccone, Udall's communication's director.
The White House had been hoping Preston's confirmation would slip through before the Senate went out of session last Thursday, but Udall scotched those plans. After Preston's confirmation hearing, Udall sent the nominee a number of additional questions in writing. Saccone declined to describe the questions, which he said were classified. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden declined comment on the development, as did spokesmen for the CIA and the Defense Department.
Udall's maneuver, however, was applauded by the human rights community, which has been pushing for the release of the Senate interrogation report. “Senator Udall has been a tremendous leader ... and has taken real political risk in speaking out in favor of disclosing this report against CIA torture," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch.
The Senate report is 6,000 pages and took years to produce at a cost of more than $40 million, according to a report in The New York Times. It is the most comprehensive account of an interrogation and detention program that has fiercely divided the country and Congress over what counterterrorism tactics were necessary in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The Senate investigation concluded that interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, wall slamming, and forced nudity, were ineffective and did not lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden's hiding place.
The CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee have been sparring for months over the report's findings and how much of it should be declassified and released. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has asked the White House and the CIA to declassify and make public at least the report's 300-page executive summary.
Both administration officials and Udall's staff remain hopeful that the standoff will be resolved by the time the Senate returns in the second week of September.