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WASHINGTON — Two powerful Senate committee chairs told President Barack Obama earlier this year that the CIA’s insistence on keeping secret how it treated prisoners under its enhanced interrogation program threatens the country’s ability to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., head of the Armed Services Committee, sought the president’s help in getting information declassified about the CIA’s so-called harsh interrogation techniques and stressed the need for transparency on a program that essentially had ended in 2006 and that Obama formally killed when he took office in 2009.
The two senators blamed the CIA’s obsession with hiding the details of the program for the logjammed military commission process that has yet to try any of the alleged 9/11 conspirators, some of whom have been in custody for nearly a dozen years.
“We write to urge that you direct all appropriate action to address the ongoing delay in the military commission trial of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad (KSM) and four other detainees being prosecuted at Guantanamo in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” the committee chairs, using an alternative spelling for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, wrote in a Jan. 6, 2014, letter obtained Thursday by McClatchy. “Much of the delay is related to the continued classification of the information concerning the now defunct CIA Detention Interrogation Program.”
Mohammed is the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was captured by the CIA in Pakistan in 2003 and held in clandestine CIA prisons where he was waterboarded 183 times. In 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo, where the military brought charges against him in 2008. But the case has yet to come to trial, as military prosecutors and defense attorneys spar over how much information about his time in CIA captivity should be made public.
Recently, in another al Qaida-related prosecution, this one of the alleged mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole, the military commission judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, ordered the CIA to give defense lawyers details _ “names, dates and places” _ of its secret overseas detention and interrogation of the man accused of planning the bombing, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. Pohl said the lawyers are entitled to the information to prepare Nashiri’s defense.
Mohammed’s lawyers have asked Pohl to order the same in their client’s case. The CIA has yet to respond to Pohl’s order in Nashiri’s case; the military prosecutor has asked Pohl to reverse himself, saying he’d overstepped his authority.
In their letter, Feinstein and Levin stressed the urgency in getting the information declassified, saying “the delay is further undermining the reputation of the military commissions with the American public and our friends and allies overseas.”
“The continued classification of information also interferes with our country’s long-delayed, but important efforts to publicly shine a light on the misguided CIA program you rightfully ended almost five years ago.”
The senators said that if the administration did not take the initiative to make details about the program public, Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators should have their case shifted to a civilian court.
The White House was not persuaded by the request.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler responded in a Feb. 10, 2014, letter that Obama shares the commitment of Feinstein and Levin in “facilitating the prosecution of those charged in connection with the 9/11” attacks but added that “declassification decisions, even with respect to historical legacy programs, are fact-based and must be made with the utmost sensitivity to our national security.”
“The president and (CIA) Director (John) Brennan are committed to working with you and others on your respective committees to ensure that information regarding the RDI program is declassified, consistent with our national security interests,” Ruemmler wrote of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program.
The emergence of the Feinstein-Levin letter is the latest turn in what’s erupted into an extraordinary behind-the-scenes battle between the CIA and its overseers in Congress over the Senate Intelligence Committee’s $40 million investigation into the interrogation program.
The committee’s highly critical conclusions _ including allegations that interrogators exceeded their legal authority and that little useful intelligence information was gleaned through it _ are included in a 6,300-page report that the Senate Intelligence Committee completed in 2012 and voted to declassify in April.
But the report remains secret, despite Obama’s insistence that he favors its disclosure. The CIA recently told a federal court in Washington that it needed months more to vet it before deciding which portions can be made public.