What’s Behind CIA Decision To Release Torture Briefings Document?

On the issue of the torture briefings, is the main story starting to give way to the back story?

Here’s what we mean:

The main story, reduced to its key elements, is that by the end of 2003, it seems clear that Nancy Pelosi and other top Dems had learned that we had water-boarded detainees. Whether Pelosi did enough in response to that information, or whether she was legitimately constrained by congressional protocol and by the atmosphere of fear that prevailed at the time is a matter for debate.But the back story demands attention too. The fact that the CIA released the document on the briefings in response to a request last month from Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, has received less focus than it should have.

Hoekstra’s political motivation — to suggest that Democrats, by virtue of having been briefed, were complicit in the Bush administration’s torture program — is clear, and has only been made clearer by his response to the document’s release: “The bottom line is she and her key staff, they all knew about it,” he told The Hill, referring to Pelosi in calling for hearings to determine what she and other lawmakers knew.

But Hoekstra may not have been the only one who was motivated by politics. As The Politico reported today, several top Senate Democrats have essentially accused the CIA of being all too ready to comply with Hoekstra’s request, releasing the documents in order to deflect attention away from the agency’s own unquestioned role in carrying out torture, just as the debate over possible prosecutions is heating up.

Sen. Russ Feingold perhaps went furthest, telling Politico it looks like “members of the committee or their staff were not in any way involved in [the release of the document]. It appears to come from the executive branch itself. … I think it’s unbelievable.”

Sen. Carl Levin, who sat on the intel committee and was briefed on the program in 2006 and 2007, said: “I think there is so much embarrassment in some quarters [of the CIA] that people are going to try to shift some of the responsibility to others — that’s what I think.”

Senate Number 2 Dick Durbin, for his part, said it’s “interesting” that the documents were being released just at the time that “some of the groups that have been responsible for these interrogation techniques were taking the most criticism.”

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asked, in Politico‘s words, “whether the CIA was seeking political cover by releasing the documents,” replied: “Sure it is.”

She went on to put the blame for the program squarely on the CIA:

Look, the CIA has the responsibility — there’s no question about that. Because you brief or notify doesn’t mean there’s any less responsibility of the CIA, any less the responsibility of the individual who participates in this.

So to be clear: Senior Democrats are claiming that the CIA deliberately released information in order to protect itself politically by shifting the blame onto Congress. That’s a serious charge, and not one most lawmakers would make lightly. It’s especially surprising coming from a relatively conservative Democrat like Feinstein, who by and large has enjoyed good relations with the agency.

It’s also worth noting that CIA director Leon Panetta released a letter with the document, saying he couldn’t vouch for the document’s complete accuracy. That raises the question of why Panetta allowed it to be released at all, and suggests he was feeling pressure — either internally or from Hoekstra and other congressional Republicans, or both.

All of this suggests there’s likely a pretty interesting back-story behind the agency’s decision — and we can’t help but be reminded of the recent leak about Jane Harman’s wiretapped conversation with a suspected Israeli agent, which may have been similarly timed to discredit the only Democrat who formally protested the torture program upon learning of it.

We’ve called the offices of Senators Feingold, Levin, Durbin, and Feinstein to ask them to elaborate on the what they’re claiming, and will keep you posted.