June 16, 2015

The New Yorker sheds new light on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s struggle to release the torture report—and the Obama Administration’s resistance to it


The Senate Intelligence Committe Report on Torture whiteIt’s been six months since the release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture (and Melville House’s publication of the report in book form), yet the report and its lead author continue to make headlines.

Yesterday, The New Yorker published a fascinating and exhaustive profile of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until earlier this year, and the person most responsible for the publication of the report. The story, by the great Connie Bruck, sheds significant light on the specific circumstances the report’s release and reveals how “Feinstein abandoned her long-standing allies in the intelligence community.”

Though there has been no shortage of excellent writing on the torture report (Scott Horton’s masterful piece in Harper’s is worth singling out here), the New Yorker story, which is nearly 12,000 words long, offers the most detailed account I’ve seen of the report’s difficult path to the publication.

The most damning revelations in the piece—at least they seem to me like revelations—surely have to do with the Obama administration’s far less than enthusiastic response to Feinstein’s desire to release the report.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem like an overstatement to say that the president outsourced much of his decision-making on this issue to John Brennan, who became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2013. That Brennan was Feinstein’s central antagonist in the fight over the torture report is not news—though many of his tactics remain shocking. But President Obama’s deference to him seems extreme by just about any standard:

By early 2014, it had become clear that the White House was reluctant to take sides against the C.I.A. According to the official’s memo included in the inspector general [Paul Buckley]’s report, Brennan had notified Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, while his agents were searching the Senate computers; he also informed the White House counsel before the crimes report was filed with the Department of Justice. Obama halted neither action. “I was astonished that the White House let it go that far,” a former White House official told me. “It was such a loss of control.”

Bruck also reports on McDonough’s fight with Feinstein over the redactions in the final summary report. Though many of the names of the participants were well-known by late 2014 (including the infamous CIA interrogator Alfreda Bikowsky—the inspiration for the main character in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty), “McDonough made it clear that the White House would not allow the remaining, contested pseudonyms to be used, and, if the committee did not agree, the report would not come out.”

I also hadn’t seen read much before on John Kerry’s dramatic phone call to Feinstein the weekend before the report was released, and Bruck fills in that story:

“[Kerry] talked about the dangers this would cause around the world, which I saw as right out of the White House playbook—or the C.I.A. playbook,” [Senator Jay] Rockefeller [Feinstein’s predecessor as chairman of the Intelligence Committee] said. Feinstein had heard this argument from McDonough and Brennan many times. But, Rockefeller said, “when it came from Kerry it had a more human sense to it. It got to her.” Rockefeller talked with her over the weekend. “The Kerry call actually turned out to be good, because it made her take her deepest values and square them one against the other—and she came out with the right answer. On Monday, she walked into her office and said, ‘I want the report out.’”

There are dozens more great details like this one in the New Yorker article, which suggests that Feinstein has been an assertive and important leader on the issues of torture and detainee abuse. Indeed, reading the piece, it’s not clear that anyone else could have gotten the job done. Still, as Bruck writes, “Some have hoped that Feinstein’s experience with the torture report might lead her to view intelligence agencies more skeptically. There is little sign of that.” Feinstein has not changed her positions on domestic surveillance or drone strikes, which she says is subject to “good oversight.”

But the New Yorker is not the only reason that the torture report is in the news this week. On Sunday night’s edition of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver presented a remarkable fifteen-minute segment on the report and the lessons we must all draw from it.

Oliver’s segment was typically hilarious (it included many terrific jokes at Mel Gibson’s expense (always a good thing) and an audiobook recording of the torture report narrated by Helen Mirren—seriously), but it also contained a very serious message.

As Bruck also reported, Feinstein and Senator John McCain have “recently introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would permanently ban the enhanced techniques” that were outlawed by Obama on his second day in office. That amendment is due for a vote next week, and without it, there is no guarantee that a future president won’t simply reverse Obama’s executive order. One hopes that Oliver’s viewers will help lead the charge.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.