OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate panel to vote on interrogation report

The Topline: The Senate Intelligence Committee will take a major step forward Thursday toward publicly releasing portions of its massive 6,300-page report on Bush-era interrogation tactics.

The committee will vote Thursday to declassify the executive summary, findings and recommendations of the interrogation report. The vote seems assured of passage after Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) issued a statement saying they would vote for declassification.

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Democrats have an 8-7 edge on the committee.

“While we have some concerns about the process for developing the report, its findings lead us to conclude that some detainees were subjected to techniques that constituted torture,” the senators said in a statement. “This inhumane and brutal treatment never should have occurred. Further, the report raises serious concerns about the CIA's management of this program.”

Collins, who was not on the committee when the first draft of the report was completed in December 2012, said Wednesday that she made her decision after getting briefed by the CIA, meeting the staff authors and meeting with Republican staff.

“The report is not without flaws, particularly in its methodology, but its fundamental conclusion about the mistreatment of detainees is accurate,” Collins told The Hill.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has spearheaded the report, said that the 400-page executive summary and 20 findings will be sent to the White House for redactions before it is released publicly.

She said the process could take a couple of months.

“There will be some redactions. Hopefully it will be minimal,” Feinstein saidWednesday.

Democrats on the committee have said the report finds that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA did not produce information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The CIA has disputed that conclusion and other findings in the report.

The panel’s report has sparked a major dispute between the committee and the CIA, with each side accusing the other of breaking the law over an internal review the CIA conducted of its interrogation program. 

Lawmakers skeptical of A-10 cuts: Lawmakers are pushing back against a Pentagon plan to retire the Air Force’s entire A-10 close-air-support aircraft fleet to save $3.5 billion, arguing there is not yet a suitable replacement for the types of missions the plane performs. 

“The notion of retiring A-10 fleet, the Warthogs, at this point, I want to ask if you’ve taken into consideration the versatility and capability of this aircraft that might be sacrificed,” Senate Appropriations Defense Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Air Force officials have said they aren’t happy with the decision to cut the A-10 fleet, but they determined it was the best of many bad options in order to deal with budget cuts. They’ve said that the A-10 is being retired because it is a single-mission plane that only performs close-air-support (CAS) missions.

“This is about much more than a particular airplane,” Welsh said Wednesday. “The A-10 is a great airplane, but many other airplanes fly CAS very, very well.”

So far, the Defense committee chairmen have expressed some doubts about the wisdom of the A-10 cuts, but they have not said whether they will reverse the Air Force’s decision in the defense authorization and appropriations bills.

The House Armed Services Committee will be the first to mark up a defense bill this year, giving the first indication of how Congress will respond to the A-10 cuts.

Morell says Benghazi talking points not manipulated: The Obama administration’s talking points on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi were not inappropriately altered to fit a narrative that al Qaeda was on the run, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell told lawmakers on Wednesday

“We did not deliberately down play the role of terrorists in the Benghazi attack in our analysis or in the talking points,” said Morell, a key figure in interagency discussions after the attack that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

In a rare open House Intelligence Committee hearing, Morell said that at the time the talking points were crafted, he and other CIA officials believed that the attack stemmed from a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video uploaded on YouTube because there were press and eye-witness reports that suggested so, and because there were protests going on around the world at the time. 

Morell also addressed a recent revelation that the CIA station chief in Tripoli believed there was no protest and that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were possibly involved, saying that his assessment was canceled out by the assessment of other CIA analysts in Libya. 

Although he sought further information from both the chief and analysts, Morell said ultimately he “believed what my analysts said, that there was a protest ... I also believed it to be a terrorist attack," he said. "I believed both of those at the same time.” 

Morell said he had shared the discrepancy with then-CIA Director David Petraeus but did not disseminate the discrepancy outside of the CIA, and that Susan Rice, then-ambassador to the United Nations, would not have known about the discrepancy before using the talking points in interviews in the days following the attack. 

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intel panel, said he would review the testimony and issue a report in a few weeks but that it was troubling that when CIA officials knew al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved, the administration continued to say the threat from al Qaeda was declining. 

“What presents itself as the 800-lb. gorilla in the room is that over the period of weeks following the event, the CIA had the right information, including the fact that al Qaeda was alive and well around the world, and yet the administration was on a very different narrative,” he said.

US urging safe Afghan elections: U.S. officials are urging Afghan presidential candidates, supporters and election officials to adhere to election laws and regulations.

“By committing to an inclusive, fair, and transparent process, Afghanistan’s leaders will contribute to an outcome that is broadly accepted by Afghans and that strengthens the unity of the country and its democratic future,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement issued Wednesday. 

If the election does not go well, it could jeopardize whether the U.S. is able to leave a small U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends there in 2014. 

The current president, Hamid Karzai, has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would pave the way for U.S. troops to remain on Afghan soil, saying he is waiting for the incoming president to sign the agreement. 

However, if there is any delay in the elections or the results, it could risk the signing of such an agreement. 

“The peaceful handover of power will be just as important as the progress achieved over the past decade in building a stronger, more secure and prosperous Afghanistan,” Kerry said. “The United States is ready to work with the next president, and we look forward to an enduring partnership with the Afghan people, consistent with our shared democratic values and interests.”

 

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