A 'Sunshine Week' Special: CIA Blacks Out Letter on Iraq War Claims That Was Already Public

Redacted: The CIA's blacked-out version (left) and the original document, released in 2007 (click on image for enlarged version).

This being "Sunshine Week"—a nationwide effort by public-interest groups to promote greater access to government information—President Obama took the occasion to once again officially proclaim his commitment to an "unmatched level of transparency" throughout his administration.

But somehow they never got the memo at the CIA.

Responding today to a longstanding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit by the ACLU, the CIA released a stack of internal documents about the treatment of terrorist detainees.

One of the documents is especially revealing, although perhaps not in the way the spymasters at Langley intended. It's a copy of a letter that was sent by three members of Congress to President Bush and then was routed to the CIA for a response nearly three years ago.

The only problem?

The CIA, in replying to the FOIA request, blacked out one crucial paragraph as too sensitive to disclose—even though the whole letter was publicly released by the congressmen at the time and is still publicly accessible (in its entirety) on the Web site of one of the congressmen, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey.

"I do think there's a level of absurdity to this," said Jameel Jaffer, a senior counsel at the ACLU, which sued for the documents, when informed by Declassified that the CIA's partly blacked-out letter was already public. "It's one thing to see this sort of thing under President Bush. But it's somewhat more demoralizing to see this under President Obama."

To be sure, the May 24, 2007, letter, written by Markey and Democratic Reps. William Delahunt and Jerrold Nadler, did involve a politically sensitive subject: how it was that the Bush administration came to make false assertions about Saddam Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda based on the claims of one "high value" CIA detainee who was allegedly tortured by a foreign-intelligence service (and has since died under mysterious circumstances).

As NEWSWEEK wrote at the time, the detainee—Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi—was the chief source for significant claims made first by President Bush and then in greater detail by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda.

Once considered one of the U.S. government's most valuable catches in the war on terror, al-Libi had been apprehended during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and then sent by the CIA to Egypt in early 2002 under the Bush administration's "extraordinary rendition" program.

It was during his questioning by Egyptian interrogators that al-Libi first told his story about Iraq–Al Qaeda ties, a claim he later recanted after he was returned to CIA custody in January 2004, asserting that he had "lied" in order to avoid "torture" by his interrogators.

All this prompted Markey, Delahunt, and Nadler to pose a series of questions to Bush about the handling of al-Libi's case.

So what was it about these questions from Congress that the CIA concluded was too injurious to national security to publicly disclose to the ACLU? It's the last page of the four-page letter that focused on the current whereabouts of al-Libi.

"Where is al-Libi today?" the congressmen asked in their letter, a full copy of which was given to this reporter at the time. "Please provide a detailed account of al-Libi's whereabouts since he was first detained . . . including every instance in which custody of al-Libi was transferred between governments. This account should include every instance in which custody of al-Libi shifted between different United States Government agencies, and every location in which al-Libi was held while in United States custody, including CIA prisons."

In responding to the ACLU's request for documents on terror detainees, the CIA included a routing document forwarding the letter from the White House to the CIA on June 1, 2007, and a letter back from the CIA to the White House on June 14, 2007, stating that the CIA is "unable to answer" the questions either because they involve a "policy question" requiring a response from the White House or they pertain "to operational issues that are not briefed to non-oversight Members of Congress."

The CIA then helpfully included a copy of the congressional letter with the blacked-out questions about al-Libi's whereabouts.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on why the portion of the publicly available letter had been redacted. But one possible clue came in reports last year that show why the al-Libi case was a touchy one at Langley: at the time the congressmen were posing the questions, al-Libi—rather than being sent to Guantánamo along with other high-value detainees—had been quietly shipped off to a prison in his native Libya, ensuring that he would never be brought to trial by the U.S. government and have an opportunity to tell his story.

But then, just weeks after being visited by a delegation from Human Rights Watch, al-Libi was reportedly found dead in his prison cell, allegedly the victim of suicide.