In Telling of Brennan Fit, Panetta Somehow Forgets the Torture Documents Stolen Back for the White House
As you likely know, I’m firmly of the belief that one should call DC memoirs — especially those written by National Security figures — autobiographical novels, because they tend to stray so far from the truth (that’s true of all autobiographies, but in DC it seems far more motivated). Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner is about the only DC figure whose memoir has ever been treated with any of the skepticism it deserves.
With that in mind, I wanted to look at this detail from Leon Panetta’s book, which Katherine Hawkins alerted me to.
To illustrate how Obama’s micromanagement hurt relations with Congress, Panetta describes the negotiations with Dianne Feinstein over the cables that went into the torture report.
She requested access for her staff to every operational cable regarding the program, a database that had to be in the hundreds of thousands of documents. These were among the most sensitive documents the agency had. But Feinstein’s staff had the requisite clearances and we had no basis to refuse her. Still, I wanted to have some control over this material, so I proposed a deal: Instead of turning over the documents en masse to her staff, we would set up a secure room in Virginia. Her staff could come out to the secure facility and review documents one by one, and though they could take notes, the documents themselves would stay with CIA.
When the White House found out, they went apeshit, calling Panetta into the Situation Room for a spanking.
“The president wants to know who the fuck authorized this release to the committees,” Rahm said, slamming his hand down on the table. “I have a president with his hair on fire, and I want to know what the fuck you did to fuck this up so bad.”
I’d known Rahm a long time, and I was no stranger to his language or his temper, so I knew when to worry about an outburst and when it was mostly for show. On this occasion, my hunch was that Rahm wasn’t that perturbed but that Obama probably was and that others at the table, particularly Brennan and McDonough, were too. Rahm was sticking up for them by coming after me.
It went back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes. Brennan and I even exchanged sharp words when I, unfairly, accused him of not sticking up for the agency in the debate over the interrogation memos. Finally, the White House team realized that whether they liked it or not, there was no way we could go back on our deal with the committee. And just like that, the whole matter was dropped.
Rahm and Brennan spanked Panetta, he claims, but then the whole thing blew over.
There are just three problems with this story.
First, according to the quotations Dianne Feinstein revealed from her agreement with Panetta, the CIA wasn’t supposed to “have … control over this material.”
Per an exchange of letters in 2009, then-Vice Chairman Bond, then-Director Panetta, and I agreed in an exchange of letters that the CIA was to provide a “stand-alone computer system” with a “network drive” “segregated from CIA networks” for the committee that would only be accessed by information technology personnel at the CIA—who would “not be permitted to” “share information from the system with other [CIA] personnel, except as otherwise authorized by the committee.”
Far more significantly, Panetta doesn’t mention the documents that disappeared during Panetta’s tenure — ostensibly, on orders from the White House.
In early 2010, the CIA was continuing to provide documents, and the committee staff was gaining familiarity with the information it had already received.
In May of 2010, the committee staff noticed that [certain] documents that had been provided for the committee’s review were no longer accessible. Staff approached the CIA personnel at the offsite location, who initially denied that documents had been removed. CIA personnel then blamed information technology personnel, who were almost all contractors, for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority. And then the CIA stated that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.
After a series of meetings, I learned that on two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee. This included roughly 870 documents or pages of documents that were removed in February 2010, and secondly roughly another 50 were removed in mid-May 2010.
And Panetta also doesn’t mention what may or may not be the same set of documents, those withheld by CIA on behalf of the White House, as described by Stephen Preston in response to Mark Udall.
With specific reference to documents potentially subject to a claim of executive privilege, as noted in the question, a small percentage of the total number of documents produced was set aside for further review. The Agency has deferred to the White House and has not been substantively involved in subsequent discussions about the disposition of those documents.
In other words, CIA didn’t live up to its deal with Feinstein, not with respect to this set of documents, anyway. After turning over all the cables it believed SSCI had a right to obtain, it then took some back. As far as we know, it never did provide them.
We know that one of the Torture Report’s conclusions is that the CIA lied to the White House.
While there’s good reason to believe CIA lied to Condi Rice, there’s also abundant reason to believe that Dick Cheney and David Addington knew precisely what was going on. If I had to guess, the documents CIA stole back probably make that clear.
Panetta would have us believe that, after his spanking by John Brennan and others, the whole matter was dropped. Which is a convenient tale, except that it obscures that the White House succeeded in clawing back documents CIA originally believed SSCI was entitled to.