Did the Obama administration pressure the Department of Justice (DOJ) to suppress a long-awaited report from one of the agency's watchdogs on issues revolving around torture until Congress passes a health care bill?
That's what senior aides to two Democratic lawmakers who have been closely tracking the report have alleged in interviews conducted over the past month.
The report, prepared by the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), examined the legal work former Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) attorneys John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury performed for the Bush administration after 9/11 and is said to have reached damning conclusions.
It was supposed to be released last November, according to testimony Attorney General Eric Holder gave to Congress, after a career prosecutor completed a review, which Holder said at the time was in its "final stages."
But the aides said in December, a couple of weeks after Holder testified, they participated in an informal meeting about the possibility of holding hearings when the report was released. During the discussion, someone raised questions about why the report was not yet released as Holder had promised.
The aides said that an unnamed senator then disclosed that he was told by senior White House officials that if the report were released as planned it would have hurt the administration's efforts to get a health care bill passed and impact the possibility of trying to win Republican support for the legislation, which never came to pass.
So, in early December, the senator claimed, according to the account given by the aides, the administration told the DOJ to delay releasing it.
Spokesmen for Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Dick Durbin, who have been instrumental in pushing for the report's release, said they did not know why it has not yet surfaced nor were they aware of any claims that the report has been delayed until a health care bill passes.
In an interview early this month, Tracy Schmaler, a DOJ spokeswoman, disputed claims that the White House was pressuring the agency to withhold the report in lieu of a health care bill.
"That is absolutely untrue," Schmaler said. "One thing has nothing to do with another."
During our interview, Schmaler said the review "process is ongoing and we hope to have [the report] complete and released soon."
Two DOJ officials familiar with details of the report said a delay in releasing it in the time frame Holder had promised was due, in part, to the fact that the career prosecutor charged with reviewing the final version was hospitalized in December for pneumonia.
However, they noted that that the prosecutor's illness doesn't account for why the report has still not been released, which they claim is due to "politics." These sources requested anonymity because the details surrounding the report remain secret.
The possibility that politics may be the reason the report remains under wraps was not lost on the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit Friday in hopes of compelling the DOJ to immediately release the report.
In an interview, ACLU lawyer Alex Abdo, who, along with other attorneys at the civil rights organization, has successfully pried loose previously withheld documents related to the Bush administration's torture policies, said "it's possible political reasons might be holding up the release of the report."
"It's long overdue and this is an unacceptable delay," Abdo said. "We haven't seen any progress or received any public explanation."
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