A 6,300-page report compiled by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 use of torture inspired a rare public spat between senators and the spy agency last week.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, has been following the debate and tells U.S. News the time is ripe for a member of the committee to unilaterally release the report to the public – a move that would sidestep a lengthy process of redacting details at the behest of the agency and the White House.
“They could release that information easily and face no repercussions” thanks to the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, Gravel says.
Gravel is an expert on that clause, which says federal lawmakers – and their staff, per the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Gravel v. U.S. - “shall not be questioned in any other Place” about “any Speech or Debate in either House,” meaning they have immunity from prosecution if they leak classified information while doing their jobs.
“What’s the reason for the classification? The embarrassment and the malfeasance of government activity,” he says. “What’s more egregious when you stop to think: We have American people on the payroll who torture other human beings. It’s very disturbing that they put up with this and this goes right to the White House.”
Four decades ago Gravel gaveled into session a subcommittee he chaired to enter the Pentagon Papers, which he received from whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, into the Congressional Record.
“It’s the same thing with this particular issue,” he says. “The Pentagon Papers was a history [former Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara commissioned. He was curious as to why and how the U.S. got into the quagmire in Vietnam. He commissioned the study, read it and classified it. Well, if it was important for him to know how we got into Vietnam, it was a thousand times more important for the American people to know.”
Gravel fears senators may be disinclined to take his advice, to safeguard their ascendancy to plum positions, like committee chairmanships, given to team players.
“They fear the peer pressure, they fear that it would impact their political careers, but these are moral questions, this whole torture deal is a moral question,” he says. “This is nothing that civilized human beings do and we do it wantonly.”
Gravel hopes a junior member of the committee “who’s not locked into the club so tightly” will feel as he does and take action.
“All you need to do is get it into the Congressional Record in some creative way and then the media will pick it up,” he says.
Possible methods of disclosure include using a subcommittee hearing as Gravel did, or quietly slipping it into a committee record, as former Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., did with documents Gravel gave him.
“Here would be a creative way: If a member got a hold of that report [they could] take it back to their office, copy it and hand it out personally to people in the media,” he says. “Just go to the press room in the back of the Senate chamber up top and hand it out yourself … that’s within the confines of the Senate.”
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other members of the committee have called for the declassification of major findings in the report. But years after the committee’s investigation began its findings remain shelved.
On March 11, Feinstein accused the CIA of surveilling the computer activity of staffers who had printed an internal agency review of the committee report. The review reportedly confirmed key findings. The CIA did not intend to share the document and a second review, ordered by current CIA Director John Brennan, was reportedly less agreeable.
In a floor speech Feinstein said the CIA may have violated her staff’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and an executive order barring the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance.
“It’s embarrassing,” Gravel says of Feinstein’s outrage. “Here’s what she said: She’s owed an apology. That’s the height of arrogance. Who the hell is she to be owed an apology?"
Feinstein's disinclination to release the report herself, he says, shows she is "a political hack who happens to command a very important committee and is party to the cover-up of the government’s malfeasance.”