The Obama administration told a judge late Monday that it will continue to withhold information regarding past detainee policies for national security reasons, a decision assailed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been seeking Bush-era documents “including a presidential directive authorizing CIA ‘black sites,’” CIA inspector general records, Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel documents about the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York had ordered the Obama administration to either turn over various documents pertaining to detainee policies by August 31 or provide justification for withholding them.
On August 31, Wendy Hilton, associate information review officer for the National Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency wrote to Judge Hellerstein stating that information about CIA intelligence activities, sources, and methods, and foreign relations and foreign activities previously classified as SECRET or TOP SECRET were done so correctly because disclosing that information “reasonably could be expected to result in serious or exceptionally grave damage to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism.”
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, assailed Hilton’s argument, calling it “entirely incompatible with the Obama administration's stated commitment to ending torture and restoring governmental transparency.
CIA director Leon Panetta testified on June 8, Hilton wrote, and argued that even though many details of the detainee programs under President Bush have been revealed other information -- including the names of and information about detainees, information about government employees involved in counterterrorism, assistance provided by foreign governments – has not, and “could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if it were.
Most of the CIA documents are from closed investigations conducted by the inspector general of the CIA looking into alleged improprieties in the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, including relevant cables, emails, memos, notes, interview transcripts with CIA officers. The information details how the CIA developed its program, and relates to intelligence sources, methods, and activities.
Hilton said the information the ACLU is seeking “would reveal U.S. intelligence needs, priorities, and capabilities to a foreign intelligence service or hostile organization seeking to take advantage of any national security weakness. The damage that would be caused by such an admission is clear. Foreign government services and hostile organizations would be advised that their activities and information had been targeted by the CIA; future intelligence collection activities would be made more difficult by such a revelation; and, as a result, the conduct of such operations would become even more dangerous.”
The information, she said, “includes information concerning the capture, detention, confinement, and interrogation of known and suspected terrorists. The information impacting foreign relations contained within the documents includes the locations of CIA intelligence activities overseas and the assistance provided by certain foreign governments in furtherance of those activities.”
Citing the fact that al Qaeda prepares members to withstand interrogation, Hilton said that “disclosure of the questioning procedures and methods used by the CIA as part of the detention program would allow al-Qa'ida and other terrorists to more effectively train to resist such techniques, which would result in degradation in the effectiveness of the techniques in the future.” That would prevent the government from “obtaining vital intelligence that could disrupt future attacks targeting U.S. persons and property.”
“The CIA's arguments are utterly disconnected from the Obama administration's stated positions,” Jaffer said. “The agency seems to be disregarding altogether the important policy changes that President Obama announced immediately after he took office."
Jaffer said that “On the one hand, President Obama has publicly recognized that torture undermines the rule of law and America's standing in the world, but on the other, the CIA continues to argue in court that it cannot disclose information about its torture techniques because it would jeopardize the CIA's interrogation program.”
Hilton argued that the information was not classified “in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency; restrain competition; or prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interests of national security.”
Alex Abdo, a legal fellow with the ACLU's National Security Project, said that the Obama administration “must fulfill its commitment to transparency and release all crucial documents that would shed further light on the origins and scope of the Bush administration's torture program. The American public has a right to know the full truth about the torture that was committed in its name."