AT THE heart of the dispute between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency is a document known as the CIA’s internal review. This is a summary and analysis of a dark chapter in the CIA’s history: the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. The internal review was undertaken when Leon Panetta was director of the agency and is drawn largely on some 6.2 million pages of CIA documents that the Senate panel was permitted to examine during a five-year investigation.
The Senate panel is putting the finishing touches on a 6,300-page report on the CIA’s use of torture — waterboarding and other techniques — in the interrogations. While reviewing the CIA documents, Senate staffers found a draft of the internal review but have not said exactly how they got it. Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says the internal review is important because it contradicts CIA statements and it documents agency wrongdoing. John Brennan, the CIA director, maintains that the internal review should never have been seen by the committee because it is “sensitive, deliberative, pre-decisional” material protected by executive privilege.
A public breach has emerged between the CIA and Ms. Feinstein, normally a strong defender of the agency, over whether and, if so, how it attempted to interfere with the Senate probe by penetrating computers used in the investigation. Mr. Brennan denies trying to thwart the Senate.
Not all details of this episode are known, but some preliminary conclusions are possible. In principle, Mr. Brennan is right to argue that certain documents are legitimately excluded from disclosure to Congress. But the internal review is in Senate hands, so it seems rather futile for the CIA to insist that the cork be put back in the bottle. The Senate is perfectly capable of handling classified material. In the interest of airing the whole story of the interrogations, the CIA ought to quickly work out an accommodation with the Senate that will permit use of the internal review in the Senate’s report. It should not be shunted off to some vault.
Sharp, penetrating intelligence is crucial to the United States. Tens of thousands of people labor each day at the CIA, National Security Agency and elsewhere to protect the country’s interests. They are not some kind of whipping boy for Congress or the public. What the CIA did after Sept. 11, 2001, was part of a covert action program authorized by the president; when the full report comes out, we hope for a debate that goes beyond just the CIA. It should be about decisions made by President George W. Bush.
To maintain the essential confidence of the American people, intelligence agencies, like all in government, must at times admit mistakes and face accountability. Denial and obfuscation only erode that confidence. The Senate has a legitimate function in oversight. Let’s get on with publishing the torture report, the internal review and the CIA’s comments — and then focus on how to improve democracy, counterterrorism, intelligence collection and protecting the nation.