WASHINGTON -- Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee are gearing up to fight their new Republican chairman’s attempts to reclaim the panel’s report on the CIA’s torture program, setting the stage for a feud between the committee's majority and minority members less than three weeks into the new Congress.
“You can’t just come in here and rewrite history,” said a U.S. official familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of committee matters. “We’re not just going to roll over and let him do this.”
The official's comments came after reports earlier this week that committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sent a letter to the executive branch earlier this month demanding that it return its copies of the classified 6,900-page torture report. In December, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then the panel's chairwoman, had sent the full report to the White House for "dissemination to all relevant agencies,” just before she turned the committee reins over to Burr.
In his request, Burr suggested that Feinstein had violated Senate Intelligence Committee protocols by sending out the full report. Most committee Democrats, with the exception of Feinstein, only became aware of Burr's Jan. 14 request after news reports of the letter emerged this week, the U.S. official said.
When news of Burr's move finally surfaced, Democratic lawmakers made no secret of their outrage.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said Wednesday that it would be “unprecedented and misguided” for the White House to return the copies. “There are lessons in the study for all executive branch agencies, and those lessons should be broadly shared," he said.
“It would be unprecedented and foolish to return the Executive Branch's classified copies of the report,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement earlier this week.
And it wasn’t just Democrats who were miffed.
“I just simply disagree,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday. McCain, as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is now an ex officio member of the Intelligence Committee. “We’re very close friends, we just have a disagreement,” he said of Burr.
But the panel's new leader was unfazed by the controversy.
“If bipartisanship is them not informing us of what they’re doing, but we’re not bipartisan because we actually called them on it, then we’re going to get a new definition of bipartisanship,” Burr said of his Democratic colleagues in a Thursday interview with The Huffington Post. “I think it’s important that we get to this baseline point, and I think we’re going to do it by the book, versus what it looks like they did -- which was do it by the seat of their pants.”
In a related development, Burr said that he had referred the matter of Feinstein's disclosure to the Senate parliamentarian, the upper chamber's adviser on procedure and rules. Burr said his referral suggested that Feinstein may have violated the panel’s fiercely secretive rules by sending the full report to the executive branch without a vote by the intelligence committee.
“We’ve asked the parliamentarian to look at the hearing records from the committee to see if, in fact, our understanding of what transpired is correct … whether [Feinstein] had the authority to send it,” Burr told HuffPost. “I’ll let the parliamentarian determine whether, in fact, she followed the committee rules.”
The White House declined to comment on how it planned to respond to Burr’s request, or on whether it would comply by sending its copies of the full report back to Congress.
Burr's letter to the White House said Feinstein had sent the classified torture report to the executive branch without consulting then-ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) or any members of the panel's minority. But Feinstein has challenged that notion, claiming that her disclosure was covered by the 112th Congress’ vote to complete the torture study, as well as a 2014 committee vote to release a redacted version of the study’s executive summary.
The former chairwoman has also taken her case to the White House. In a Jan. 16 letter to President Barack Obama that was obtained by Vice News, Feinstein challenged her successor’s assertions, noting that all members of the Senate Intelligence Panel had had access to the "transmittal letter" accompanying the report copies that went to the White House. The transmittal letter, Feinstein suggests, should have served as notice that the disclosure had taken place.
This new development in the years-long torture report feud comes less than three weeks after Burr took the helm of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before taking over, the North Carolina Republican promised to shift focus to current emerging threats and move past the disagreements of the last year, many of which have centered on the controversial torture study.
Burr's first bold move, though, isn’t likely to inspire cooperation from his Democratic colleagues.
“It’s going to make it very difficult,” the U.S. official said. “Unprecedented … I can’t think of any precedent for it.”
Currently, the full, classified torture report is considered a “congressional record,” and thus is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. Preservation within executive branch record-keeping systems, though, would leave the full report subject to FOIA requests. In her letter to Obama, Feinstein requested that the White House retain its copies of the report “within appropriate Executive Branch Systems of Record.”
But if Burr’s attempts to recollect all copies are successful, he could seal the report's status as a congressional record and protect it from potential disclosure compelled under FOIA, at least for the duration of his tenure.
“[The report is] a committee sensitive document that should not leave the committee,” Burr said, though he wouldn’t clearly say whether the FOIA consideration was part of his decision to request the document back from the executive branch. By claiming the report as “committee sensitive," Burr suggests the document should be subject to the Senate committee's much stricter rules of disclosure.
The new chairman on Thursday also dismissed reports that a third party -- like the CIA -– instructed him to fight to get the torture report back, calling such speculation “ludicrous.”
Burr also said this week that he intends to return to the CIA a controversial internal agency document that has been the center of a years-long feud between the CIA and Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee investigators working under Feinstein have fought for access to the document, which is known as the Panetta Review. The review supposedly aligns with the Senate study’s damning conclusions about the CIA's torture program, most of which the agency publicly denies.
Wyden mentioned the explosive document in his statement expressing opposition for Burr's attempts to reclaim the larger torture report.
“Senator Feinstein was smart to keep a copy of the Panetta Review," he said. "I certainly don't think the Senate should allow the Panetta Review to be covered up by letting [CIA] Director [John] Brennan stick it in the shredder."