Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the CIA. He is also that agency's most devoted lapdog in Congress. Since he failed to prevent the 2014 release of the Senate report on the CIA's torture program, he's been looking for some way to punish the people responsible for embarrassing his beloved cabal of incompetent torturers. And he seems to have found his victim.
That would be a lawyer named Alissa Starzak, a former SSCI staffer. For several years, she served as one of the lead investigators on the torture report. She left the committee back in 2011, but did critical work during the investigative phase of the report, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who thanked her by name in a speech hailing the release of the report.
After serving for several years as a lawyer for the Defense Department, Starzak has been nominated to serve as general counsel for the Army. But Senator Burr openly admitted to The Huffington Post's Ali Watkins that he is holding up her nomination to settle old CIA scores from the torture report. It not only makes a total farce of our separation-of-powers system, but undermines the very idea of government competence.
The dispute centers around a document called the "Panetta Review," an internal CIA investigation on the torture program that was key to the Senate report. Though it has not been released publicly, the Panetta Review reportedly confirms some key details of the Senate narrative: that the CIA obtained no good intelligence from torture, that the program was grossly mismanaged, and that the CIA repeatedly lied about its effectiveness.
During the SSCI investigation, the CIA set up a secure facility where Senate staffers could examine classified documents. It was Starzak who discovered the Panetta Review during the investigation, though its importance was not recognized at the time. According to Watkins, it was only in 2013, when the CIA denied the Senate's version of events in its official response to the completed torture report, that the review was understood as a crucial trump card to prove the CIA was lying to protect itself.
Therefore, late that year — long after Starzak had left for DoD — Senate staffers took a copy of the review from the secure facility. In response, CIA Director John Brennan ordered his staff to hack the Senate's computers in that facility to see what else they had, something he had promised not to do — not to mention the fact that the CIA is legally prohibited from spying on its congressional overseers.
Burr reportedly wants to know how the staffers got hold of the review, and more about how and why they smuggled a partial copy out of the facility, supposedly in violation of the agreement with the agency. The obvious answers: They got hold of the review because the CIA put it the Senate computers, for one reason or another — otherwise why would they have to take it from the facility in the first place? The staffers smuggled out a hard copy because they thought, almost certainly correctly, that the minute the CIA figured out they had access to a document from the horse's mouth proving the CIA to be a pack of lying fiends, the agency would fight like a cornered badger to get it back.
Trying to sort out who is in the legal right here is a mug's game. Whether you side with the CIA or the staffers obviously turns on one's opinion of torture and the agency generally. Given the CIA's long history of incompetence and crimes — recall they just blew up an American hostage by mistake — I'd say the staffers are in the right.
But it's also obvious that Burr is not the slightest bit interested in the strict legal formalities that ostensibly justify his requests. If he cared about the law, then presumably he might reserve some attention for the categorical U.S. laws and legally binding treaties that ban torture absolutely. No, Burr is attempting to exact vengeance on behalf of the CIA against the people who got them some bad press by documenting all their pointless war crimes in great detail. (Without legal accountability, of course; they've still got a blank check there.)
Once again, this story does not speak well for American democracy. State abuse is supposed to be prevented by separating powers between branches of government, but that principle has failed utterly in this case. A groveling CIA lickspittle who is running bureaucratic interference against the agency's enemies is now in charge of its most important oversight system.
The story also does not bode well for general government competence. As Watkins notes, Starzak is not the only one suffering professionally by virtue of putting honest effort into the torture report. Other staffers' nominations are also blocked, while others are having trouble finding jobs. Current and future staffers are undoubtedly learning that to preserve a career, one should align one's conclusions with the preference of whatever political faction is dominant, or better yet, avoid politically charged topics altogether.