Backroom negotiations over the release of a long-delayed Senate report on the George W. Bush administration's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" practices are again hitting a wall.
Senators involved with the report and their staffs have insisted that an executive summary of their findings will be released publicly before Republicans take control of the Senate in January. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein told reporters last week that "no one wants to move that more quickly than I do."
"We are down to essentially one item in the redaction. It happens to be a very sensitive and important item," the California Democrat said. "It is going to get done, so don't worry about that."
It's an assurance Feinstein and others have made for months. But shortly after Feinstein's most recent pledge of comity, tensions reignited during negotiations with the Obama administration over redactions in the report, again raising questions about the timetable for its release.
The Senate is set to adjourn in mid-December, but Feinstein can still hold off on submitting the report until the start of next year by obtaining a consent agreement that would allow her to file when Congress is not in session.
But the extension would only give Feinstein a few weeks of extra daylight. The current Senate will formally expire at noon on Jan. 3.
"It will come out by the end of the year. We are going to find a way," independent Sen. Angus King said.
But with time running out before Republicans take control of the Intelligence panel, Feinstein may be in a weaker negotiating position with the White House over what is revealed in the report. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who initially voted against the release of the torture report this year, will be at the helm of the committee in the next session and, according to Senate rules, the decision to publicly release the report will fall to him.
Several Democratic senators on the committee expressed their frustration Thursday during a closed-door meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. According to press reports, they accused the Obama administration of purposely obstructing the release of the document. The Intelligence Committee's report is expected to chronicle the detention, rendition, and interrogation techniques—including waterboarding—used during the George W. Bush administration. Human-rights activists, legal scholars, and President Obama have all said the post-9/11 practices amounted to torture.
The continued fraying of negotiations has some suggesting that the White House might be intentionally stalling, in hopes that it can run out the clock on the report's release, especially with Republicans slated to take over.
"If the White House is erecting barriers to its release that go beyond national security or other appropriate reason, it appears they would be doing it to protect individuals or institutions that are criticized in this report," said Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, a former Intelligence Committee chairman.
If the White House and Senate cannot come to an agreement on the report, however, Feinstein may have one last-ditch option: Sen. Mark Udall.
The Colorado Democrat, who lost his election Nov. 4 and has been a vocal advocate for the torture report's release, could go down to the Senate floor, invoke immunity, and read the report aloud to enter it into the congressional record.
After his defeat, Udall told The Denver Post that he was considering taking the report's release into his own hands. Such a maneuver would be dramatic and controversial but it is not without precedent: In 1971, then-Sen. Mike Gravel, an Alaska Democrat, entered thousands of pages of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers into the congressional record. Gravel has publicly implored Udall to follow his example.
For Udall to do that, he would have to overcome political and procedural obstacles, including Senate standing rules that allow for a senator to call for a closed session at any time—which could block Udall's efforts. The political ramifications for Udall, however, are complicated. Moving forward alone to release the torture report on the Senate floor would make Udall a hero to civil liberties and human rights advocates, but it could also undermine his relationship with the Democratic establishment.
Most observers believe the odds of Udall actually using the immunity strategy is a long shot, but his track record on the report may suggest otherwise. He has been at the forefront of the debate for years, having sent several missives to the White House demanding the CIA comply with the Senate's investigation.
And during a hearing late last year, Udall publicly disclosed the existence of the so-called Panetta Review, an internal CIA report written in 2010 for then-Director Leon Panetta that harshly criticizes the utility of the agency's Bush-era interrogation techniques.
"Senator Udall believes that the truth must come out and he continues to be optimistic that this can get done," an aide to the senator said when asked late last week if invoking immunity remained on the table.
The release of the torture report, some of which has already been leaked, is expected to reveal a detailed account of how the U.S. interrogated detainees in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but civil-liberties advocates say publicizing the document also represents a major sign of progress for the Intelligence Committee as it seeks to reestablish itself as a watchdog of the CIA.
Feinstein and her cohort are not without significant bipartisan support, even if the White House has been seemingly squishy. "She can get it released. She is the chair of the Intelligence Committee, but she is not happy with the amount that has been redacted," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "I support her efforts and I think the American people should know."