Using the 'Top Secret' Stamp to Hide Lies and War Crimes

By letting the CIA vet the torture report, the White House and Congress are giving Americans a new reason to have contempt for the classification system.
Malakhi Helel/Flickr

Is America's classification system legitimate? When leakers subvert it, should citizens cheer or condemn them? State secrets kept by the U.S. government have been under attack, most famously by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. Tens of millions of Americans defend at least some of their revelations, illegal or not—to the consternation of national-security-state officials and their allies, who have responded by defending America's classification system.

For the Obama Administration, this has meant an unprecedented effort to punish leaks it didn't opportunistically order with criminal inquiries and prosecutions. Some members of Congress have taken to denouncing leakers as traitors. And at venues like Lawfare, a group blog for the national-security establishment, the customary argument is that "the United States has the most expensive, elaborate, and multi-tiered intelligence oversight apparatus of any nation on Earth." There's no need for illegal leaks. Existing oversight is adequate.

But is it?

A lot of people think that the fight over the CIA-torture report suggests otherwise—that it shows an obvious, absurd flaw in way our government decides what information ought to be public, and that new leaks would be justified to remedy that flaw.

I find it hard not to agree.

By way of background, the Senate spent several years and millions of dollars studying the interrogation of War on Terrorism prisoners during the Bush Administration, addressing both whether torture was perpetrated and whether the methods used were effective at eliciting useful intelligence. That report has been suppressed for well over a year. Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to make a very small portion of the finished report public. Even those pages are still secret, pending a declassification review by the White House.

Most objectionable of all: the fact that the White House and Congress both agree that the CIA should play a significant, influential role in the declassification process.

Think about that for a minute.

This report apparently suggests that the CIA used ineffective interrogation techniques and lied about them to Congress, arguably jeopardizing the very counterterrorism efforts intended to keep us safe. It suggests that CIA employees perpetrated acts that are not only illegal but that the United States government is bound by treaty to investigate and prosecute. The report also suggests that the CIA engaged in behavior that many Americans regard as morally abhorrent and shameful. The CIA has as significant and intractable a conflict of interest here as any imaginable. Surely it shouldn't be given a black highlighter to use on the report.

Yet the intelligence agency is playing precisely that role.

Little wonder that some are reacting like the Freedom of the Press Foundation's Trevor Timm. Under the headline "Leak the CIA report: it's the only way to know the whole truth about torture," he writes, "Parts of the report are now in the hands of Senate staffers, White House officials, State Department employees, CIA spooks and soon maybe more. It would not come without great personal risk, but the American people may only be served well if someone with a conscience is brave enough to leak the full report and hold the CIA accountable for its crimes."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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