ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, a special report on a battle between Congress and the CIA. Conflict between the two went public recently when Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the CIA of stymieing congressional oversight. While the CIA has been quiet about the skirmish, this is not your ordinary Beltway battle.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
At issue is whether Congress and the American people can learn the truth about the torture, or what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation of suspected al-Qaida terrorists, or whether spy agencies can conceal that information. As early as tomorrow, the Senate intelligence panel votes on whether the public will ever see a report it wrote about those interrogations. NPR's Don Gonyea and Carrie Johnson have the story of the fight to write that report.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Today's conflict over Congressional oversight of intelligence agencies is rooted in the terror and anger that gripped the nation after 9/11, a mood President Bush channeled as he stood in the rubble of ground zero.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
GONYEA: The Bush administration was desperate to prevent another strike. That week on NBC's "Meet the Press," Vice President Cheney foreshadowed the harsh methods the U.S. would soon deploy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We also have to work, though, sort of dark side, if you will. We're gonna spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.
GONYEA: For the next three years, the dark side would include detention and interrogation of suspected al-Qaida operatives in secret CIA prisons, black sites in some say more than 20 countries. Water-boarding, sleep deprivation and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were all approved in secret for use in the war on terror.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Over time, the media and groups outside of government penetrated slivers of that secrecy, but the facts were scattered and the leaks selective.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you lie to me, I hurt you.
JOHNSON: That's a fictionalized account from the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," but it's based on real events, videos of brutal interrogations existed, but the CIA destroyed them in 2005.
GONYEA: The public learned of that destruction of evidence two years later. By then, fear of terrorism began to mingle with worry about what had been done to fight it.
JOHNSON: In 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein became chair of the Senate intelligence committee. Based on a chilling report on the Bush era tactics, the committee voted to launch a full investigation. The struggle between those responsible for oversight of the CIA and the agency was messy from the start.
GONYEA: The CIA has said very little in public about its take on the dispute, but Feinstein walked through her side of the story, from 2009 to the present, in an extraordinary broadside on the Senate floor last month.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I rise today to set the record straight and to provide a full accounting of the facts and history.
JOHNSON: Disputes about the most basic things intruded the moment her committee tried to launch the investigation. The Senate wanted papers delivered to its offices. The CIA insisted that staffers come to a secure location in Virginia, a special compartmented intelligence facility known as a skiff. And there were other issues. Who had access to the computer system...
GONYEA: And who could see the documents and when. The CIA insisted that before Senate aides could review the emails and memos and cables, every single item had to be reviewed, first, by a CIA hired contractor. When Senate aides finally got access to the electronic files, 6.2 million pages in all, they were a disorganized mess.
FEINSTEIN: The documents that were provided came without any index, without any organizational structure.
JOHNSON: To wade through the jumble of documents, the Senate asked the CIA for a search tool and when they found something important, they'd hit print and set it aside for later review.
GONYEA: And so it went until Senate aides noticed some key documents went missing, erased from their secure computers in that site in Virginia.
JOHNSON: The CIA initially denied deleting the documents, but 870 pages had gone missing in February 2010, 50 more that May.
GONYEA: It was an echo of how the torture video tapes had been destroyed years before. Again, Senator Feinstein.
FEINSTEIN: This type of behavior would not have been possible had the CIA allowed the committee to conduct the review of documents here in the Senate. In short, this was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset.
GONYEA: And until Senator Feinstein laid out this timeline, all of this was playing out behind closed doors and things were just heating up.
JOHNSON: Using the CIA search engine, Senate staffers found important notes to former CIA director, Leon Panetta, what came to be known as The Panetta Review. Here's how Feinstein describes it.
FEINSTEIN: What was unique and interesting was not their classification level, but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.
JOHNSON: Most of what we know about that wrongdoing has been dug out by reporters or leaked by insiders. But with the Senate investigative reports still secret, the public record is far from complete.
GONYEA: Meanwhile, Republicans were skittish about congressional review of the Bush era tactics. When the 6,000 page draft report was finally finished in December, 2012, Republicans largely broke with Democrats. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the panel, spoke to NPR that month.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: This draft report contains a number of significant errors and emissions about the history and the utility of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. It's really not surprising, given the fact that the review was conducted without interviewing any of the people involved.
GONYEA: Again, the conflict between the oversight committee and the CIA escalated. Many of the CIA's own objections to the report were contradicted by notes prepared for its former director Leon Panetta, the same notes the CIA says Senate aides never should've seen in the first place.
JOHNSON: Wary about how documents had vanished in the past, Senate aides took no chances that these corroborating CIA documents would disappear. Dianne Feinstein.
FEINSTEIN: The committee staff securely transported a printed portion of the draft from the committee's secure room at the CIA-leased facility to the secure committee spaces in the Hart Senate Office Building.
JOHNSON: Those notes, the Panetta review, had, in fact, disappeared from the Senate computer. Feinstein privately demanded that they be restored and in January of this year, the new CIA director, John Brennan, called an emergency meeting with committee leaders.
GONYEA: But Brennan turned the tables, accusing Senate aides of hacking the CIA computers, and there was more. Brennan told committee leaders that the CIA searched Senate computers in northern Virginia to figure out what happened.
JOHNSON: That was the last straw for Feinstein. The CIA snooping on the Senate? Separation of powers alone, she said, made the CIA actions unlawful. This drama became public when Feinstein took to the Senate floor.
GONYEA: CIA Director Brennan responded hours later.
JOHN BRENNAN: As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. And we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's just beyond the, you know, the scope of reason.
GONYEA: Brennan also urged everyone to avoid jumping to conclusions.
BRENNAN: I would just encourage some members of the Senate to take their time to make sure that they don't overstate what they've claimed, and what they probably believe to be the truth.
GONYEA: It's in this overheated atmosphere that the committee votes on whether to make the report public. The president says he supports release of the report. But even if that happens, the administration will redact still classified chunks of it with a black pen.
JOHNSON: We've learned a lot about the struggle to rein in the CIA. But essential questions about torture remain. How extensive was it? Did it help yield information that led the U.S. to Osama bin Laden? And an even larger question: Will the official history of U.S. actions after 9/11 serve as a check on torture in the future?
GONYEA: And Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.