WASHINGTON -- Republicans won a majority of seats in the Senate on Tuesday, which could have big implications for the Senate Intelligence Committee's ongoing battle with the CIA.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) will take over the helm of the powerful committee from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. This leadership change will come right in the midst of a heated battle between Feinstein and the CIA over her behemoth -- and damning -- report on the agency’s use of torture following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some have suggested that Burr could be just what the CIA needs to kill the pending public release of the torture report’s executive summary. The North Carolina Republican has long attacked the credibility of Feinstein’s years-long, $40-million study. In the same breath, Burr has defended the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
So will Burr spike the report’s release once he takes the chairmanship?
Maybe. But it's more likely that he won’t get the chance.
Burr's chairmanship won't go into effect until January, which leaves Feinstein with roughly two months to rush her report out the door. (The North Carolina Republican will be stepping in to replace current ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is retiring at the end of his term.)
The report is Feinstein's landmark legislative feat as Intelligence Committee chair. The California Democrat has generally been perceived as friendly to the intelligence community, and this is arguably the only one of her achievements that illustrates any kind of heavy-handed oversight. So she isn't likely to just let Republicans take over the reins. Rather, Feinstein will probably push to release the executive summary before she loses her chairmanship in January.
One member of the committee staff suggested as much when asked by The Huffington Post whether a Republican majority could stifle the report’s release.
“If the Senate majority changes due to the November elections, that change doesn’t go into effect until January,” David Grannis, the panel’s majority staff director, said in an email last week.
The concern, then, isn’t whether the report’s executive summary will ever see the light of day, because Feinstein will most likely release it. The real question is how much of the summary will be crippled by blackouts given that Feinstein and her staff have to rush it out the door.
The public release of the report’s 500-page executive summary has been stalled for over six months due to arguments over what should and shouldn't be redacted. The committee is fighting to publicly release information that the White House and its chief spy agency are trying desperately to keep secret.
The crux of this battle is the pseudonyms in the report. These are fake names that are used to shield the true identities of covert officers and countries that were involved in the agency's post-9/11 program, in which suspected terrorists were shipped to overseas prisons and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.
The CIA and White House have fought tooth and nail to keep those pseudonyms blacked out of the summary’s publicly released version. The document that was originally returned to Feinstein in August after undergoing the original declassification review had 15 percent of its content redacted. Negotiations have reportedly progressed so that now, only 5 percent of the document is blacked out.
But lawmakers are still fighting the executive branch to leave the pseudonyms in the report, saying the names help to tell the torrid story of the CIA’s widespread abuses.
That fight, though, will be prematurely cut short by the Republicans' win. Even if Feinstein isn’t satisfied with the document’s public version by December, she will most likely be forced to release it to beat Burr’s assumption of the chairmanship in January.
And, of course, there's more to the report than its executive summary. There is ample reason to think that Burr’s takeover means the fate of the remainder of the report -- that is, the 6,000-plus page document that contains the real nuts and bolts of the committee’s study -- is pretty much sealed. There’s no way the new chairman will push to declassify the massive document.
But then again, did we really think Feinstein would?
This post has been updated to reflect Tuesday's election results.