The Central Intelligence Agency claims documents were removed from the computer system Senate staffers were using to produce a report on the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program because the CIA was worried that details in those documents could lead to the revelation of CIA identities. However, there is ample reason to consider this an excuse intended to retroactively justify a questionable act by the CIA.

The report is 6,300 pages and was produced over a period of three to four years by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It is in the process of being finalized so that its findings can be declassified and released to the public.

As described by the government in a submission in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit (which sought declassification of the torture report through this route):

…[T]he CIA established a secure electronic reading room on CIA premises, and created a segregated network share drive, where designated SSCI personnel could review the highly classified materials and confidentially prepare and store their work product, including initial draft versions of the SSCI Report, in a secure environment…

Chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, took to the Senate floor on March 11 to give remarks the Senate investigation and how the CIA had intimidated and interfered with staffers, who had been working to complete it. She said she was speaking “reluctantly” but had to because of anonymous allegations made in the process that staffers had committed a crime by removing documents without authorization from the secure electronic reading room.

Contractors were hired by the CIA to read each document “multiple times.” Ultimately, 6.2 million pages of documents were provided to committee staff for their work.

Feinstein accused the CIA of conducting unauthorized searches of computers being used by the Senate, a possible violation of the separation of powers, Fourth Amendment, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and an executive order prohibiting domestic spying by the CIA, Executive Order 12333. She also called attention to instances where the CIA had electronically removed documents that had already been provided to the committee for the report.

The Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Goldman reported:

Within those documents, agency employees feared, were details that could lead to the exposure of CIA sources, former U.S intelligence officials said. Among them were top assets who had been recruited while being held at a secret CIA facility on Guantanamo Bay called “Penny Lane,” according to one of the officials.

Feinstein stated:

In May of 2010, the committee staff noticed that [certain] documents that had been provided for the committee’s review were no longer accessible. Staff approached the CIA personnel at the offsite location, who initially denied that documents had been removed. CIA personnel then blamed information technology personnel, who were almost all contractors, for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority. And then the CIA stated that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.

After a series of meetings, I learned that on two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee. This included roughly 870 documents or pages of documents that were removed in February 2010, and secondly roughly another 50 were removed in mid-May 2010. [emphasis added]

The committee was given no notice that documents would be removed. No CIA personnel informed staff that documents had been mistakenly included in the document dump committee no had to search through, as the documents were not indexed or organized.

If the removal was merely to protect the identities of sources, why did CIA personnel deny the documents had been removed? Simply saying there was a need to protect sources would not have been an issue for staff.

If the removal was merely to protect the identities of sources, why did CIA personnel next blame “information technology personnel” or contractors for removing the documents “without direction or authority”? Blaming contractors would not be necessary if this removal of documents only involved protecting sources.

If the removal was merely to protect the identities of sources, why tell the committee they were doing this at the direction of the White House? This sort of claim would seem to suggest that they knew this act would be objectionable and they were now conjuring up cover to get away with removing documents.

Moreover, CIA personnel had a way to track the logs and see what documents were being accessed. These are specific sets of documents that were allegedly removed – 870 pages of documents and then 50 pages of documents. Staff knew they were removed presumably because they were not there when they tried to access the documents again.

When considering there were 6.2 million documents being accessed, someone deliberately wanted to deny staff further access to these documents after they were initially accessed by staff.

It is additionally incredible that the CIA could claim they had to protect identities’ sources because the senators had agreed to redact key sensitive information.

The CIA review was designed specifically to make sure that committee documents available to all staff and members did not include certain kinds of information, most importantly the true names of non-supervisory CIA personnel and the names of specific countries in which the CIA operated detention sites.

We had agreed up front that our report didn’t need to include this information, and so we agreed to redact it from materials leaving the CIA’s facility.

Senators would not have left the facility with any documents that still included the names of sources. They took documents from a “Panetta review” that summarized documents provided to the committee by the CIA, but, according to Feinstein, all sensitive information that they had agreed to redact was removed.

And, even if there were sources’ identities that needed to be protected, that does not explain why the documents would not have re-appeared on the network with new redactions to protect sources. There certainly would have still been content the staff should have been able to read.

“Penny Lane” was actually revealed in a report from the Associated Press in November of last year. It ended in 2006. Senator Bob Casey said the program had “a degree of recklessness to it that I would be very concerned about.” So it is not like this was some permissible program that was not questionable at all.

Plus, over the course of the review, the CIA was reckless with documents. Feinstein stated, “At times, the CIA has simply been unaware that these specific documents were provided to the committee. And while this is alarming, it is also important to note that more than 6.2 million pages of documents have been provided. This is simply a massive amount of records.”

However, the 870 pages of documents and the 50 pages of documents were clearly relevant to the report being produced otherwise Feinstein would not have made it an issue.

The removal of documents was obviously a part of a much larger battle between the CIA and the Senate intelligence committee, which Feinstein brought out into the open this week. The battle is over the official history that will be told about secret government and its role in authorizing policies of torture.

The true history of torture cannot become undisputed official US history by being declassified in a Senate report because it will threaten a select group of individuals—former CIA director Michael Hayden, former acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Office of Legal Counsel lawyer John Yoo and former Counterterrorism Center head Jose Rodriguez and others, who continue to share their skewed ideological version of what happened. They benefit from secrecy and the fact that the public cannot call key aspects of their accounts into question.

It is possible that the White House has been covertly supporting certain decisions made by the CIA to stall and challenge the report because, as journalist Marcy Wheeler highlighted, there is a “finding” by President George W. Bush that directly implicates him. This “finding” also authorized what the administration has called “targeted killings”—typically, the assassination of terrorism suspects through the use of drones.

The CIA is lying. The White House is lying. Some members of Congress are lying. And, while President Obama has committed to declassifying the report, it is unclear how the CIA’s response to the report, which it disingenuously has disputed, will be incorporated.

The bottom line is the system allowed torture to become a policy of government and powerful interests would like that story to at least remain in dispute if not entirely concealed.