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CIA to Obama: Keep interrogations secret

Is the agency urging secrecy to prevent embarrassing disclosures or to protect counterterrorism operations?

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby WarrickThe Washington Post / June 18, 2009

President Obama makes remarks to CIA employees as CIA Director Leon Panetta (l.) listens at CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia in this April 20 file photo.

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WASHINGTON

The CIA is pushing the Obama administration to maintain the secrecy of significant portions of a comprehensive internal account of the agency's interrogation program, according to two intelligence officials.

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The officials say the CIA is urging the suppression of passages describing in graphic detail how the agency handled its detainees, arguing that the material could damage ongoing counterterrorism operations by laying bare sensitive intelligence procedures and methods.

The May 2004 report, prepared by the CIA's inspector general, is the most definitive official account to date of the agency's interrogation system. A heavily redacted version, consisting of a dozen or so paragraphs separated by heavy black boxes and lists of missing pages, was released in May 2008 in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

After an ACLU appeal, the Obama administration promised in May to review the report, which consists of more than 100 pages of text and six appendixes of unknown length, and to produce by Friday any additional material that could be released.

CIA spokesman George Little said the agency "is reviewing the report to determine how much more of it can be declassified in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act."

An administration official said the CIA has not yet forwarded the document to the White House or the Justice Department for final review.

A senior intelligence official who has studied the document defended the CIA's redactions. "There is a lot about how the CIA operated the overall program of detention and interrogation - not just about how they used techniques - that would be sensitive and rightly redacted," the official said. "I think the Obama administration has made the correct decision that transparency only goes so far on the national security side."

Some former agency officials said that CIA insiders are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent disclosures that could embarrass the agency and lead to new calls for a so-called "truth commission" investigating the Bush administration's policies.

Two former agency officials who read the 2004 report said most of its contents could be safely released and, if anything, would seem familiar. General information about the agency's interrogation program has already been made public through the Obama administration's release of memos by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the harsh CIA techniques and the earlier leak of a 2005 report on CIA interrogations by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The broad conclusions of the inspector general's report, as well as its specific assertion that some interrogators exceeded limits approved by the Justice Department, have previously been disclosed.

"(CIA Director) Leon Panetta has been captured by the people who were the ideological drivers for the interrogation program in the first place," said a former senior officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing the still-classified report.

But one intelligence official countered that Panetta "was never a fan of the interrogation program."

"He's reached his own independent decisions on these issues. He's standing up for people who followed lawful guidance" issued to the agency during the Bush administration, the official said.

The report was based on more than a year of investigation, including more than 100 interviews and a review of 92 interrogation videotapes - which the CIA later said it had destroyed - as well as thousands of internal CIA e-mails and other documents. Then-Inspector General John Helgerson and his team of investigators traveled to secret CIA prisons and witnessed interrogations firsthand, making them the only observers allowed into the detention sites who were not participants in the program, officials said.