Mark Udall, the outgoing Democratic senator from Colorado, may be a lame duck, leaving office in less than a week. But his most important work in the Senate may still be before him. For the week he remains in office, he still sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He worked on that committee’s epic, 6,700-page, still-secret report, the “Committee Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” otherwise known as the torture report. The intelligence committee has recently released a heavily redacted declassified executive summary of the report, in which new, gory details of the torture conducted during the Bush/Cheney administration have been made public for the first time.
Udall is angry about the U.S. torture program. He is angry about the heavy redaction of the executive summary, and the CIA and White House interference in the intelligence committee’s oversight work. He wants the full report made available to the public. While it is still secret, Udall could release the classified document in its entirety. To understand how, it helps to go back to 1971, the release of the Pentagon Papers and a senator from Alaska named Mike Gravel.
The Pentagon Papers were a secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, written on the orders of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts who worked on the project, leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Ellsberg told me, “There were 7,000 pages of top-secret documents that demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates [including me] who had participated in that terrible, indecent fraud over the years in Vietnam, lying us into a hopeless war."
The New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers story on June 13, 1971. A federal court then ordered The New York Times to cease publication, so Ellsberg sought a sympathetic U.S. senator who could enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. This would also make all the papers available to the public in their raw form, not just the excerpts selected by the Times and other papers. Ellsberg found Mike Gravel.
Gravel was opposed to the war in Vietnam. He had filibustered on the floor of the Senate to block the draft. Ellsberg had given a copy of the papers to Ben Bagdikian, an editor at The Washington Post, on the condition that he give a copy to Sen. Gravel. Bagdikian met Gravel at midnight and transferred the papers from the trunk of one car to another outside The Mayflower Hotel. In order to enter these classified documents into the Congressional Record, Gravel found a loophole, which he recalled to me recently on the “Democracy Now!” news hour:
"Since I was the chairman of the Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds, I could convene that subcommittee based upon the precedence of the House Un-American Activities Committee calling meetings on the fly as they went around the country to entrap people to testify. We called a meeting. ... By this time, it was 11:00-ish [p.m.]. And we were able to get a congressman from New York, [John G.] Dow, who came forward and testified. He wanted a federal building in his district. And I said that, ‘Well, I can appreciate that, and I’d be happy to authorize building a federal building in your district, but we don’t have the money. And the reason why we don’t have the money is because we’re squandering it in Southeast Asia, and let me read something about how we got into that mess.’ And so I proceeded to read the Pentagon Papers."
Exhausted, emotional and unsure of the legal consequences of his actions, Gravel began reading into the record the horrors of the Vietnam War contained in the Pentagon Papers, then broke down in tears. While he couldn’t continue reading, it didn’t matter: Since he had read a portion of the entire document, the rest could be submitted to the public record. The efforts to get the Pentagon Papers to the public were not over, though. Gravel tried to have them published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association church, and the Nixon administration did everything they could to stop it, almost destroying the church. The multivolume set would eventually come out, with Gravel’s face on the cover.
Dick Cheney was asked recently on “Meet the Press” about the use of torture. He said, “I would do it again in a minute.” Really? Waterboarding? Death by hypothermia or beating? Rectal feeding? Sleep deprivation? Maybe the former vice president would like torture to continue. But it is not up to him. It is up to the American people. And for that, they need information.
That’s where Sen. Mark Udall comes in. He can release the full torture report. As a sitting senator, he is protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution. He cannot be prosecuted. Mike Gravel has advice for Mark Udall. Since the secret report is already in the Congressional Record, Gravel says: “What he has to do is ... take this record of 6,000 pages, put a press release describing why he’s doing it, and release it to the public. It’s that simple.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.