A Fight Over Torture Disclosures at the CIA

The honeymoon between CIA director Leon Panetta and veterans of the agency's undercover division—the National Clandestine Service—may be coming to an end. The dispute concerns how much access congressional investigators should be given to ultraclassified CIA "operational traffic" regarding the agency's post-9/11 use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques on suspected terrorists, some of which President Obama and many others have called torture. "Operational traffic" refers to cables from the field to CIA headquarters, and they go well beyond the intelligence reports routinely provided to Congress, chronicling in exacting, minute-by-minute detail who did what to whom, and how detainees responded to particular questions and techniques. Panetta favors greater disclosure. But three current and former officials close to the clandestine division worry that his decision could damage morale and make spies risk-averse.

The Senate intelligence committee is conducting a major inquiry into the Bush administration program, and one of the goals is to determine whether harsh interrogations produced important information about Al Qaeda that could not have been obtained any other way. Many Democrats and Republicans have argued over the efficacy of such techniques—but partisans on both sides agree that they can't resolve the debate without total access to the operational traffic. According to officials familiar with the issue, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive topic, Panetta's instinct was to give Congress what it wanted. But undercover officers warned him that this would break with standard practice, and veteran spies worried that it would chill brainstorming between field agents and their controllers. Aiming to compromise, Panetta signaled to Congress that the CIA would turn over only redacted documents—and that it would take a long time to vet as many as 10 million pages of cable traffic.

Congressional investigators aren't backing down, however, insisting on all of the material without deletions, including names of personnel who participated in harsh questioning, and holding subpoenas in reserve. Obama has promised legal support for any CIA officer caught up in probes. Still, says a former senior agency official, the rank-and-file are "nervous." One former undercover operative said some spies are so despondent they have "lost their sense of mission." "The committee is being given access—with appropriate, agreed-upon safeguards—to the material it needs," agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano said. "The CIA is being transparent with the Congress, true to its word." In fact, negotiations are still in progress, though officials close to the matter said Congress will likely get its way but will have to examine documents at CIA HQ. "If they blow this, if stuff leaks or it all gets turned into a political circus, you can close the book on the current system of intelligence oversight," one intel official warned. "Nobody will trust it."