Senate approves ‘torture report’ author for Army post

The Senate narrowly approved President Obama’s nomination to be the next general counsel of the Army on Monday evening, after months of controversy over her role in compiling a contentious review of the CIA’s former brutal interrogations.

As a former top aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Alissa Starzak was one of two investigators who led a scathing review of the CIA’s past use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding.

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Her work on the report and the Senate Committee’s possession of secret CIA documents upset key Republicans, who opposed her in the 45-34 vote.

The opposition from Republicans — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.) — came despite pleas from former Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDems urge Obama to release info on Russian links to DNC hack Hotel lobby cheers scrutiny on Airbnb GOP platform attempts middle ground on encryption debate MORE (D-Calif.).

“Alissa Starzak has the intelligence, the right background and strong experience within the Department of Defense to be general counsel for the Army,” Feinstein told lawmakers before the vote. “It’s unfortunate that it’s taken a year and a half since she was first nominated, but I’m very pleased that we are voting to confirm her today.”

In addition to Starzak, the Senate also unanimously approved three other Defense Department nominees on Monday: John Conger to be a principal deputy undersecretary of Defense, Stephen Welby to be an assistant secretary of Defense and Franklin Parker to be an assistant secretary of the Navy.

Starzak left the Senate in 2011 and was first nominated to be the Army’s top lawyer in mid-2014, but her nomination was quickly consumed by fallout from the Senate report.

That report, released last December, harshly condemned the George W. Bush-era interrogation methods as torture. The brutal CIA practices were ineffective at yielding useful intelligence, the report claimed, and were employed without full knowledge of the CIA’s overseers in Washington. 

The committee’s work on the report was upset by a bitter fight with the CIA over a separate, unfinished review of the practices that was ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta. Senate investigators obtained a copy of that secret analysis while working on their report, prompting the CIA to search the Senate’s side of a walled-off computer network to try and retrieve it. 

The CIA’s search was decried as unconstitutional spying on Congress, and multiple lawmakers called for CIA Director John Brennan to resign over the flap. Defenders of the CIA, meanwhile, blasted the Senate Democratic staffers for obtaining the so-called “Panetta review” in the first place. 

Starzak was hammered about the details of the episode last month, when she appeared in the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

But Senate staffers didn’t move the so-called “Panetta review” into their secure safe until late 2013, former Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on Monday — two years after Starzak left Capitol Hill.

“It is not fair to blame her for anything that happened during that time,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor. “She was not there and has not been there for more than four years.”