Mark Udall’s Lame-Duck Opportunity
Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall might have run the worst reelection campaign in the country. He certainly ran with a narrow overemphasis on abortion. Combine that with a Republican year and it’s not surprising that he lost to GOP candidate Cory Gardner.
But over the course of his career, Udall has championed some of liberalism’s best causes: a more peaceful foreign policy, a healthy respect for civil liberties, suspicion of the surveillance state, and opposition to torture. It should be no surprise that these are all areas of common ground with traditional conservatives—and hold little interest for the average liberal in Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party.
Now Udall has a chance to redeem himself. Almost two years ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to adopt a 6,000-page, $40 million torture report. It was the culmination of an investigation into the CIA’s detention, rendition, and interrogation programs. More than 6 million pages of records from the CIA and other sources were reviewed. The report is said to contain over 350,000 footnotes.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is not the most civil libertarian of liberals, has said the report uncovered “startling details” about the CIA program that raise “critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight.”
Those details have largely been kept from the public. The report has been suppressed and then caught up in a tug-of-war between the CIA—which claims to have declassified 85 percent of the contents—and senators who claim the agency’s redactions are “unacceptable.” Udall argued in August that “strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible and can certainly make it more difficult to understand the basis for the findings and conclusions reached in the report.”
Vice President Joe Biden has come out in favor of declassifying the report. So has Hillary Clinton. If that doesn’t give you an idea of how uncontroversial this should be, consider that John McCain is also on board.
Saying “the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence, McCain added, “It is therefore my hope that this Committee will take whatever steps necessary to finalize and declassify this report, so that all Americans can see the record for themselves, which I believe will finally close this painful chapter for our country.”
Udall is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He has access to the report. And now some civil libertarians are calling on him to leak it. As a member of Congress, he would still have immunity from prosecution under the Constitution’s speech and debate clause. He can’t be kicked off the Intelligence Committee next year because he won’t be around anyway.
Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation argued in perhaps the first op-ed floating this idea that “Udall has nothing to lose.”
Udall has himself maintained that releasing the most declassified version of the report consistent with national security is “of paramount importance” and that “decisions about what should or should not be declassified regarding this issue should not be delegated to the CIA, but directly handled by the White House.”
After all, the CIA spied on Senate staffers involved in the investigation. CIA John Brennan was forced to apologize after hotly denying the charges. The inquiry itself was touched off by a CIA official destroying more than 100 videotaped interrogations. And National Intelligence Director James Clapper has had his own problems being truthful to Congress.
“Classification should be used to protect sources and methods or the disclosure of information which could compromise national security, not to avoid disclosure of improper acts or embarrassing information,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin in a statement.
Yet the self-styled most transparent administration in history has been reluctant to jump into the fray, aside from the president’s own noteworthy concession that “we tortured some folks.” Some of the Bush-era obfuscation about these policies has continued under President Obama. Udall has charged in a letter to the White House that much of the information the federal government has already released on this subject “is misleading and inaccurate” and “contains inaccurate characterizations of CIA programs.”
“As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review, and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the Committee’s oversight responsibilities and for our democracy,” Udall wrote.
While I don’t trust always government officials to make these decisions, I do acknowledge that much of the information pertaining to counterterrorism efforts needs to remain secret. Vital as Edward Snowden’s revelations were, I’m uneasy with leaks. But Udall reading portions of the torture report into the congressional record seems safer than Wikileaks or even Snowden. The impressive list of former CIA and military officials who support declassification, hardly limited to cranks and Ramsey Clark types, suggests this can be done in a responsible way.
It would be fitting if Mark Udall used the defeat that came from representing liberalism at its worst to represent liberalism at its best.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?