WASHINGTON — A former Intelligence Committee lawyer involved in the panel’s damning torture report finally saw a long-awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday. But Alissa Starzak, the panel Democrats’ former counsel, isn’t out of the woods yet.
Starzak, who left the Intelligence Committee in 2011, has been waiting for Senate confirmation to the Army’s general counsel post for more than a year. She appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, where she endured a fierce grilling from Arkansas' Sen. Tom Cotton over her involvement with the Intelligence Committee’s torture report and her access to a highly contested internal CIA document colloquially known as the Panetta Review.
That internal CIA review, which is said to align with the Senate’s findings on the now-defunct torture program, was accessed by Senate investigators in 2010 and quietly slipped back to the committee’s secure office spaces in 2013 for safe-keeping, setting off an unprecedented feud between the CIA and its chief overseers. The CIA has said Senate staff should have never had access to the document, and violated security protocols by taking it back to the panel’s headquarters. Intelligence Committee Democrats meanwhile, led by vice-chair Dianne Feinstein, say the documents were well within the purview of the committee’s oversight duties.
It's been nearly a year since Feinstein publicly released the torture study's executive summary. Starzak was long gone before Senate Democrats say the importance of the Panetta Review was known, and years before staff considered taking it back to the committee office spaces for safekeeping. But none of that stopped Cotton on Thursday.
“As you know, the CIA believes Intelligence Committee staff should never have had access to the Panetta Review. Are you aware of how or why the CIA computer system set up for committee staff to review CIA documents included the Panetta Review?” Cotton asked Starzak Thursday.
“Senator, I had access to materials at the CIA facility that they provided,” Starzak said. “That includes what I believe to be the Panetta Review, although it was not called that while I was on the Committee.”
The Senate rookie went on to grill Starzak about the 2013 events that occurred long after her departure from the panel, demanding whether she knew of her former colleagues’ plans to slip the Panetta Review back to the Committee’s secure office space and whether she was privy to any conversations had between them and the CIA.
“Are you aware of the identity of the committee staff members who took part in printing or removing the Panetta Review?” Cotton asked. “When is it your understanding that it was removed from the CIA facility?”
Starzak maintained that she had left the committee long before the document’s importance became known, and before committee staff had ever contemplated securely transporting the document back to their Hill office space.
It’s another bump in a long road for Starzak, whose path to Senate confirmation has been riddled with complications, not the least of which is Armed Services Committee chair John McCain’s disinterest in pushing Obama Administration nominees through his panel. But Intelligence Committee Republicans have been Starzak’s biggest hurdle. The panel’s now-majority members have fiercely criticized the torture study and staffers’ handling of the Panetta Review, and as such, have stymied any attempts to get Starzak pushed through the nomination process.
Cotton, who joined the Senate and with it, the Intelligence panel in 2015, was not on the committee across the torture study’s six-year construction nor during its protracted public release. He routinely attends the committee’s bi-weekly closed briefings; it’s unclear if he has ever broached the subject with current staff — including Daniel Jones, the lead staffer on the study who reportedly removed the Panetta Review from the CIA facility — who Feinstein herself has said are responsible for the incident in question.
Cotton’s rumored intention to hold up Starzak’s nomination suggests he’s picked up the torch of Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has worked quietly with the panel’s other Republican members to stall Starzak’s nomination in the past. Burr, who was an Intelligence Committee member during the torture study’s completion, has slammed both the report and staffers’ handling of the Panetta Review.
One of Starzak’s critics told the Huffington Post earlier this year that her nomination was “leverage” for Intelligence Committee Republicans who want the staffers responsible for the Panetta Review’s removal to pay.
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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