The Cable

Senators: CIA 'Misleading' Public Over Secret Torture Report

U.S. senators openly castigated the Central Intelligence Agency on Tuesday for delaying the release of a long-awaited report on torture and secret prisons during the Bush era. Despite earlier comments that the committee, which commissioned the report, and the CIA were reaching an agreement on portions the controversial 6,000-page study, progress on its declassification is once again stymied. Meanwhile, long-simmering disagreements about the accuracy of the interrogation report have exploded into public view. 

"I'm convinced more than ever that we need to declassify the report so that those with a political agenda can no longer manipulate public opinion," said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), referring to the CIA.

"He's mad. I'm mad. We're all mad," added Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV).

The interrogation report is the product of three year's work and $40 million in preparation costs. Ever since its completion one year ago last week, there's been strong disagreement among intelligence officials and lawmakers over how much information the public should be allowed to read, in large part because there's no agreement on the findings. Some officials say it is deeply flawed and inaccurate, but others consider it the most authoritative account of one of the darkest chapters in the CIA's history.

Tuesday's confirmation hearing for the CIA's top lawyer served as a proxy for Senate Democrats to vent frustrations for what they see as the CIA slow-walking the report's release. 

In a markedly different tone from last week, Senate Intel chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said her staff was now unsatisfied with the CIA's willingness to work with her committee on disagreements in the report. 

"We can't really complete what we need to complete," she said. "I mentioned it today and again the staff said: ‘Well, we've asked for this information from the CIA and we haven't received it.'"

Before the report is released, the White House has encouraged both the committee and the CIA to flesh out the differences they have with its findings. The problem is, the process is taking exceedingly long and both sides are blaming the other for delays.

Last week, the CIA insisted it was "prepared to work with the Committee." It highlighted the written response it gave to the committee in late June. "Our response agreed with a number of the study's findings, but also detailed significant errors in the study," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.

That public remark concerning factual errors infuriated Senate Democrats despite the fact that it's been the CIA's position for months.

"I am outraged that the CIA continues to make misleading statements about the committee's study of the CIA's interrogation program," said Heinrich. "There is only one instance in which the CIA pointed out a factual error in the study -- a minor error that has been corrected. For the rest, where the committee and the CIA differ, we differ on interpretation and conclusions from an agreed upon factual record."

"You can't publicly call our differences of opinion significant errors in press releases," he said. "It's misleading. These are not factual errors."

What exactly the two sides disagree on is a mystery because the report remains classified. And because President Obama's nominee for general counsel of the CIA, Caroline Krass,  was not the target of Senate outrage, she merely nodded along during the hearing, promising to cooperate with the committee if confirmed.

Republicans on the committee such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who have made clear they disagree with much of the committee's report, neglected to weigh in on the issue during the hearing.

Officials who are familiar with the report's conclusions say that it offers detailed examples of how subjecting prisoners to harsh interrogations, including what human rights groups and others call torture, may have been counterproductive, and that the techniques didn't produce any leads that helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, as some current and former CIA officials claim. Feinstein said in a statement last year that the CIA had made "terrible mistakes" by interrogating suspects in secret prisons, and that the report "will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should every employ coercive interrogation techniques."

Chambliss, the intelligence committee's top Republican, has said the report contains "omissions about the history and utility of the CIA's detention program." He also said investigators compiled their findings "without interviewing any of the people involved" in the CIA program.

In an interesting disclosure, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) noted that an internal CIA report exists that he says "is consistent with the Intelligence Committee's report" and differs from the CIA's official response to the committee. Udall said he and the committee would like to examine that report.

When contacted, the CIA told The Cable, "We're aware of the Committee's request and will respond appropriately."

One thing that is clear: Despite the fact that Feinstein said the committee would vote "shorty" to declassify the report, it's a near-certainty that the vote won't happen before the Senate breaks for recess given ongoing disputes between the committee and agency. Feinstein appeared visibly frustrated. "Let's get on with it," she said. "Let's vote to declassify."

The Cable

Exclusive: U.S. Fingers Iranian Commandos for Kidnapping Raid Inside Iraq

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iranian commandos took part in a deadly attack on a compound of dissidents inside Iraq and then spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran's increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country.

The Sept. 1 attack on a base called Camp Ashraf killed at least 50 members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, which had disarmed at the request of the U.S. military after the American invasion of Iraq and received explicit promises of protection from senior commanders. Instead, gory videos released by the group showed that many of its members had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs or in one of the camp's makeshift hospitals. MEK leaders, backed by an array of U.S. lawmakers, said Iraqi security forces carried out the attack. 

Baghdad has long denied the charge, and U.S. officials have now concluded that a small number of Iranian paramilitaries from its feared Islamic Revolution Guards Corps helped plan and direct the assault on the camp. Three officials, speaking to Foreign Policy for the first time, said gunmen from two of Tehran's Iraqi-based proxies, Kitab Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, then carried out the actual attack. The Iranian involvement in the Ashraf massacre hasn't been reported before.

"Iraqi soldiers didn't get in the way of what was happening at Ashraf, but they didn't do the shooting," a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence community's assessment of the attack said in an interview. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

U.S. officials say that Iran's role in the attack didn't end with the killings of the MEK members at Ashraf. Instead, officials believe that Iranian commandos and fighters from the country's Iraqi proxies also abducted seven MEK members and smuggled them back to Iran. The missing MEK supporters haven't been seen or heard from since the attack. 

Direct Iranian involvement in the Ashraf assault is one of the clearest signs yet of Tehran's growing power within Iraq, a dynamic of deep concern to American policymakers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government has long maintained close ties with top Iranian leaders, and U.S. officials believe that Tehran prodded Maliki to refuse to sign a bilateral security pact in the fall of 2010 that would have kept some U.S. troops in the country. Perhaps under Iran's influence, Maliki has alienated Iraq's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities by centralizing power in Baghdad and refusing to share power or fairly divvy up the country's oil revenues.

The timing of the attack also raises questions about whether Iran's security services are as committed to finding a rapprochement with Washington as its civilian government appears to be. The assault took place in September, several months after negotiators from the two governments had begun secret nuclear talks in Oman that ultimately led to last month's landmark nuclear pact between the Obama administration and the government of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. The deadly attack on a U.S.-allied group inside Iraq suggests that at least some elements within Tehran are willing to take steps that risk upsetting that fragile equilibrium.

MEK leaders in Washington strongly disagree with the U.S. conclusions about the Ashraf attack. They point out that the facility is guarded by fences, checkpoints and more than 1,200 Iraqi troops, making it extremely difficult for gunmen to reach the camp without, at a minimum, the active cooperation of Iraqi forces. They also note that survivors said the masked gunmen spoke Arabic and argue that the group's own operatives within Iran would know if the seven missing members had been brought into the country. They believe that Tehran ordered the attack, but say that it was carried out by Iraqi soldiers loyal to Maliki.

"The repeated statements by U.S. officials that Iraq has had no role in the September 1 massacre at Ashraf are only designed to exonerate the Iraqi prime minister and his senior officials from any responsibility in this manifest case of crime against humanity and to help him elude justice," Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the National Council of Iran Resistance, said in a written statement.

U.S. officials, for their part, say that the Iranian commandos could have used Arabic to mask their identities or stayed just outside the camp while the Iraqi gunmen carried out the assault. They also say at the missing MEK members might have been executed shortly after being brought into Iran or imprisoned in secret facilities for interrogation.

The Obama administration has largely declined to publicly address Iranian involvement in the Ashraf attack. During a contentious hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said he couldn't respond to a question about the missing MEK members in an open, unclassified session. 

Still, other senior officials have provided hints about their whereabouts. At a sparsely-attended congressional hearing in mid-November, Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers that the seven MEK members "are not in Iraq."

McGurk told the lawmakers that the remaining 2,900 MEK members in Iraq wouldn't be safe until they could be brought out of the country and resettled elsewhere.

"The Iraqi government needs to do everything possible to keep those people safe, but they will never be safe until they're out of Iraq," McGurk said at the time. "And we all need to work together -- the MEK, us, the committee, everybody, the international community -- to find a place for them to go."

Tehran's antipathy towards the MEK isn't surprising. The group has spent years publicly decrying the Iranian government and telling lawmakers that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. It has also revealed key details about the country's nuclear program. In response, Iranian-backed forces inside Iraq have frequently targeted the group. In February, six of its members were killed and dozens were wounded when mortar shells landed at an MEK refugee camp on the grounds of a former U.S. base called Camp Liberty. A Hezbollah affiliate claimed responsibility.

Outgunned in Iraq, the MEK has tried to score points in the Washington influence game. It has enlisted former members of the military and both the Bush and Obama administrations as public advocates and unofficial lobbyists. The State Department designated it as a "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997, but removed the listing in September 2012 after strong pressure from MEK supporters like retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, and former Attorney General Mike Mukasey. Most of the MEK's most prominent backers are paid for making public appearances on the group's behalf, but they also do pro bono work for the organization and say they genuinely believe in its cause.

The group also enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill. In the weeks after the Ashraf assault, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch MEK supporter, told Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 official at the State Department, that he would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Iraq until Maliki's government did more to protect the MEK members still in the country.

The Obama administration, for its part, says the MEK's members will only be safe once they've left Iraq. It's not clear, however, if or when other countries will step forward and announce a willingness to accept them.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP