WASHINGTON -- White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is personally negotiating how much of the Senate's so-called torture report, a probe into the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, will be redacted, according to sources involved in the negotiations.
McDonough's leading role in the redaction discussion has raised eyebrows in the Senate, given that his position comes with a broad array of urgent responsibilities and that the Obama White House has a team of qualified national security advisers.
Despite the White House’s public reluctance to get involved in the widely aired spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the report, McDonough’s role suggests that the Oval Office sees the feud as a high-stakes one.
The White House confirmed McDonough’s involvement in the negotiations, but would not discuss the extent of it.
“We’re not going to get into the details of our discussions, but White House officials, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, are in regular touch with [Intelligence Committee] leadership on a variety of matters, including to discuss the committee’s review of the Bush Administration’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, in an effort to help ensure the executive summary is completed and declassified consistent with national security interests,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Sources involved in the discussions also said McDonough's involvement has gone beyond negotiating redactions. During the last weeks of July, the intelligence community was bracing itself for the release of the Senate investigation's executive summary, which is expected to be damning in its findings against the CIA. The report was due to be returned to the Senate panel after undergoing an extensive declassification review, and its public release seemed imminent.
Over the span of just a few days, McDonough, who makes infrequent trips down Pennsylvania Avenue, was a regular fixture, according to people with knowledge of his visits. Sources said he pleaded with key Senate figures not to go after CIA Director John Brennan in the expected furor that would follow the release of the report’s 500-page executive summary.
The White House said the purpose of the trips was to negotiate the terms of the report's release, not specifically to defend the CIA head. "The Chief of Staff's agenda was about how we could work together to meet the President’s desire to ensure the executive summary is completed and declassified consistent with national security interests, so that we can shed light on this program and make sure it is never repeated. These were not discussions about Director Brennan," Meehan said.
McDonough's personal involvement in the decisions around which parts of the torture report to redact illustrates how in the national security realm, differences between the two parties often dissolve when one takes control of the executive branch. The report itself, meanwhile, sidesteps the role of Bush administration officials in ordering or approving torture, focusing instead only on the agency, McClatchy Newspapers has reported.
The relationship between the CIA, its chief congressional overseers and the White House -- underscored by the widely known coziness between McDonough and Brennan -- has been tense over plans to release the report's executive summary. Lawmakers voted to declassify the document over six months ago, but its public reveal has been stalled indefinitely due to negotiations over what the White House and the agency wish to keep secret.
The White House’s delicate position as the middleman has been front and center as disputes over the report have played out. The five-year, $40 million study has been wrought with tension, culminating in March when the closed-door feud over the report's construction spilled into the public forum, with Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accusing the CIA of improperly monitoring and accessing computers her staff had used to compile the report. The CIA, meanwhile, accused panel staff of slipping highly classified information out of a secure agency facility.
The alleged snooping, also first revealed by McClatchy Newspapers, took place in the context of an interbranch bureaucratic battle between the committee, charged with overseeing the agency, and the CIA, which bristles at oversight. One intelligence community source said the Senate committee "went about the report like an inquisition," which led to "an enemy vs. enemy adversarial relationship."
Both charges were referred to the Justice Department, which declined to open any investigations. Brennan, however, was forced to apologize to the committee after a CIA inspector general’s report revealed that agency personnel did improperly access a computer drive that was designated for Feinstein's staff's use.
Several lawmakers saw the apology as a vindication for Feinstein, whose allegations Brennan had previously denied, and key lawmakers rallied around calls for Brennan's ouster amid the controversy. Both Feinstein's office and the CIA declined to comment for this story.
Although it had proved reluctant to wade into the dispute, the White House rose to Brennan's defense and firmly silenced calls for his resignation. Despite what sources described as sensational conclusions about the CIA’s apparent access to Senate computers, the Oval Office expressed “full confidence” in its chief spy leader, who previously served as an Obama White House counterterrorism advisor.
According to sources familiar with the CIA inspector general report that details the alleged abuses by agency officials, CIA agents impersonated Senate staffers in order to gain access to Senate communications and drafts of the Intelligence Committee investigation. These sources requested anonymity because the details of the agency's inspector general report remain classified.
"If people knew the details of what they actually did to hack into the Senate computers to go search for the torture document, jaws would drop. It's straight out of a movie," said one Senate source familiar with the document.
The CIA has contended that the improper access was the result of a security breach investigation, after Feinstein's staff came to possess an internal CIA document commonly called "The Panetta Review" that the agency says the panel was not entitled to have.
A person familiar with the events surrounding the dispute between the CIA and Intelligence Committee said the suggestion that the agency posed as staff to access drafts of the study is untrue.
“CIA simply attempted to determine if its side of the firewall could have been accessed through the Google search tool. CIA did not use administrator access to examine [Intelligence Committee] work product,” the source said.
It is still not clear when the anxiously awaited report's executive summary will be released. Robert Grenier, a veteran CIA officer who was the top counterterrorism official from 2004 to 2006, told HuffPost that the Intelligence Community suspects Democrats have been spooked by the advance of the Islamic State, also called ISIS, and are holding the report for political reasons.
"At a time when ISIS is on the march and beheading American journalists, some Democrats apparently think now is not the time to be advocating going soft on terrorists. The speculation I hear is that the Senate Democrats will wait until the elections are safely over," Grenier said.