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CIA has upper hand in deciding public disclosures
Washington • The White House has directed the CIA to declassify parts of a Senate report criticizing harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists, but history shows that the agency is accomplished at preventing embarrassing or damaging disclosures.
In recent years, the CIA has wrestled with Congress, archivists, journalists, former employees and even an ex-director over which secrets could be revealed.
Most often, secrecy prevails.
The CIA holds the upper hand, using internal reviews of classified materials and a separate process to scan proposed books about intelligence practices to tightly guard what is known about agency activities and history.
"They're tightfisted by nature and the more they are pressed to disclose, the more they resist," said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
The CIA's experts have begun a review of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 400-page summary and findings on the agency's harsh interrogation techniques, according to government officials familiar with the process.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said the CIA, with help from other agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Justice and State, is carrying out an "expeditious classification review" of the Senate materials. Boyd and others would not estimate when it would be completed.
The committee's leader, when referring the report to President Barack Obama this month, asked that the White House take the lead in declassifying the summary. It criticizes the CIA for its heavy use of the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding and other abusive interrogation methods against al-Qaida suspects held in secret, agency-run prisons overseas.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and CIA Director John Brennan have clashed over the handling of internal agency documents reviewed by her committee. But the White House, in a recent letter to Feinstein, committed only to having the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, oversee the CIA's work.
In the April 18 letter to Feinstein, White House counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler said the review would be done as quickly as possible. But she noted that before the summary is made public, "the administration will also need to take a series of security steps to prepare our personnel and security overseas." She did not specify those steps.
Several former White House officials said administration lawyers and national security officials likely will wait until after the CIA has finished most of its work before making recommendations or offering suggestions.
The CIA has done it for decades, and sometimes it has taken decades to finish the job.
In 2011, the CIA declassified documents that described secret writing techniques — one involved lemon juice, a practice long known among adolescents — and a method for opening sealed letters without detection. Those documents were created in 1917 and 1918. The CIA took more than 10 years after outside researchers asked for them before it agreed to release them.
The CIA's "Family Jewels," a trove of secret documents recounting covert and sometimes illegal activities, including several botched assassination attempts on Cuban President Fidel Castro, were kept under wraps for more than three decades until they were released during the George W. Bush administration in November 2007.
The National Security Archive, a George Washington University program that obtains declassified and historic intelligence and diplomatic files, had asked for them more than 15 years earlier.
"What we come up against repeatedly is the CIA's knee-jerk assertion of national security," said Thomas S. Blanton, the group's director.
CIA veterans who oversaw the handling of the agency's secret files said critics have a simplistic view of the role the agency is obliged to play.
"The CIA's handling of declassification is judiciously done," said John H. Hedley, a former CIA veteran who chaired the agency's Publications Review Board for three years in the late 1990s. Those experts came from across the agency and ruled on what could be printed in books written by former officials.