The Obama administration has turned down former Vice President Dick Cheney's request for the declassification of two CIA reports on the effectiveness of the Agency's detainee program, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned. A letter dated May 7, 2009, from the CIA's Information and Privacy Coordinator, Delores M. Nelson, rejected Cheney's request because the documents he has requested are involved in a Freedom of Information Act court battle.
"In researching the information in question, we have discovered that it is currently the subject of pending FOIA litigation (Bloche v. Department of Defense, Amnesty International v. Central Intelligence Agency). Therefore, the document is excluded from Mandatory Declassification Review," Nelson wrote in the letter to the National Archives, the agency responsible for handling Cheney's request.
The rejection of Cheney's request will almost certainly intensify the public back-and-forth between the former vice president and the current administration. The contentious debate over enhanced interrogation exploded on April 16, when Obama authorized the release of four memos on interrogation prepared by the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. In a statement accompanying the release, Obama pointed to "exceptional circumstances" surrounding the memos that required their declassification and release. Four days later, in an interview on Fox News, Cheney revealed that he had requested the declassification of two memos that demonstrate that the techniques were effective.
White House officials have told reporters and members of Congress that the Cheney memos do not bolster the case for enhanced interrogation, as Cheney has suggested. But they have nonetheless refused to release them. President Obama has the legal authority to declassify the documents "with the wave of his hand," according to one expert.
Initially, Obama administration officials seemed open to releasing the Cheney memos. Representative Frank Wolf asked Attorney General Eric Holder about the Cheney memos during at House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on April 23. Holder said he had not seen the documents. But added: "It is certainly the intention of this administration not to play hide and seek or not to release certain things in a way that is not consistent with other things. It is not our intention to try to advance a political agenda or to hide things from the American people."
But that is exactly what critics, with some justification, contend the administration has done. In a letter to his intelligence community colleagues sent to explain the release of the OLC memos, Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, wrote: "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." But when Blair's office released parts of his letter as a public statement on the subject, that sentence was cut. Blair also noted that members of Congress had been briefed on the methods, but that section was also cut from the public statement.
(Blair's office claimed that the assessments were cut for space -- an odd explanation since such statements are released on the internet or over email. And, in a subsequent clean-up statement, said he supports Obama's position because it might have been possible to extract that valuable information using other techniques.)
Although Obama decided yesterday to block the public release of photos depicting prisoner abuse, he has promised to run the most transparent administration in history. The day after he took office, Obama issued a memorandum for executive branch departments and agencies.
He proclaimed: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fearsâ€¦All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA."
A senior Bush administration official points to the irony of Obama administration's position -- using a FOIA technicality to block the public disclosure of information.
"So, because Amnesty International has filed a broad FOIA request for detainee related materials, the American people are unable to see memos that document the effectiveness of our detainee program. Wouldn't the legal memos previously released also, presumably, have been subject to this FOIA? Why wasn't their release blocked under the same provision?"