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Senate showdown looms on release of CIA data

Panel may vote to air details of antiterror tactics

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel’s scheduled vote this week could strain the already rancorous relationship between lawmakers and the CIA and pressure President Obama to step into the fray.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will weigh calling for the release of key sections of a voluminous report on terrorist interrogations, hoping to shed light on the most unsavory elements of the Bush administration’s war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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Despite now serving Obama, the CIA maintains the report underestimates the intelligence value of waterboarding and other methods employed by intelligence officials at undeclared ‘‘black site’’ facilities overseas. The entire investigation runs some 6,200 pages. For now, senators only want to declassify a 400-page summary and the 20 main recommendations.

But the differences between intelligence officials and Senate investigators have spiraled beyond the contents of the review.

The dispute became public two weeks ago as the committee chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, accused the CIA of improperly monitoring the computer use of Senate staffers and deleting files, and undermining the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

The agency said the intelligence panel illegally accessed certain documents. Each side has registered criminal complaints with the Justice Department.

This week’s vote could fuel the fight if it goes in favor of disclosure. It would start a process that forces CIA officials and Senate staffers to go line-by-line through the report and debate which elements can be made public and which must stay secret because of ongoing national security concerns.

On the attack

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The CIA and the executive branch hold the keys as final determiners of what ought to remain classified. Senators primarily have the bully pulpit of embarrassing the CIA publicly and the last-resort measure of going after the agency’s budget.

Senators are hoping the dispute can be diffused with the intervention of Obama, whose record includes outlawing waterboarding, unsuccessfully seeking the closure of the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and supporting other changes in how the United States pursues, detains, questions, and prosecutes terror suspects.

The president has refused thus far to weigh in on Congress’s dispute with the CIA, while pledging to declassify at least the findings of the Senate report ‘‘so that the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward.’’

Obama’s involvement may be in the interest of both sides. Senators fear their report will be scuttled by CIA officials directly involved in past interrogation practices, undermining the role of Congress in overseeing the nation’s spy agencies.

For the intelligence community, which prides itself on its discretion and foresight, even the perception of manipulating that oversight could be damaging with a public still coming to grips with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive government collection of telephone and other data.

And a further worsening of Congress’s spat with the CIA hardly serves Obama’s aims. It has centered on Feinstein, a Democratic supporter of the president who has backed the White House on NSA and other matters, and CIA Director John Brennan, who previously served as Obama’s homeland security adviser. The fuss is over counterterrorism practices the president entered office determined to eliminate.

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