One of the main criticisms leveled by Republicans and CIA supporters about the Senate Intelligence Committee's landmark five-year study into the CIA's torture program has been the cost to taxpayers: $40 million.
The implication by these critics is that the Senate Democrats who led the investigation were responsible for the expenditures associated with the production of their voluminous report, which concluded that the CIA's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" was not effective and did not produce "unique" and "valuable" intelligence.
Indeed, CIA Director John Brennan said during an interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News last year at the Council on Foreign Relations that the committee invested "a lot of money" into writing "this report." As part of a broader attempt to discredit the report's findings, the CIA disseminated talking points — some of which touched on the Senate's reckless spending — to former agency officials who then spoke out publicly against the report.
But VICE News has exclusively obtained more than 100 pages of contracting documents [pdf below] that show it was CIA officials who insisted on outsourcing work related to the Senate's review — and that it was the CIA that paid more than $40 million to one of its longtime contractors for administrative support and other tasks related to the Senate's work. Those tasks included compiling, reviewing, redacting, and then posting to a server set up by the contractor the more than 6 million pages of highly classified CIA cables and other documents about the torture program Senate Intelligence Committee staffers pored through during the course of their probe.
The CIA documents were turned over in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit VICE News jointly filed last year with Ryan Shapiro, a historian and doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in national security research.
The identity of the CIA contractor working alongside the Senate as it probed the efficacy of the CIA's torture program has been closely guarded since 2009. But VICE News can now reveal that the company that reaped the windfall is the Burlington, Massachusetts-based firm Centra Technology, Inc. Since its founding in 1997, Centra has been the recipient of more than $200 million in government contracts. Centra is also one of the government's elite pre-approved contractors, which means that whenever the government has a pressing outsourcing need, it can call upon Centra to fulfill it immediately.
Centra and its subsidiaries have provided military and intelligence support to US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq by supporting "US government cyber activities using state-of-the-art tools and methods." Very little has been written publicly about the company and its work.
In a statement provided to VICE News, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the former Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said the deal between the CIA and Centra was an unnecessary expense.
"These documents confirm and offer context for what I said in December: CIA spent roughly $40 million in order to hamper the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA detention and interrogation program, while the committee operated within its existing budget," Feinstein said. "Not only was this a waste of taxpayer dollars, but the insistence that committee staff travel to an offsite CIA facility allowed the CIA to spy on the committee's work. I'm pleased these documents are being released so the public can understand exactly what happened, and hopefully this information will help ensure such obstruction of congressional oversight won't happen again."
The CIA formerly employed some of Centra's top officials, including director of global access Margaret "Peggy" Lyons, who worked at the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which ran the agency's interrogation program and, as reported by Newsweek's Jeff Stein, was accused by federal investigators in another case of having "illegally carted home dozens of classified CIA documents"; James Harris, the vice president of Centra's research and intelligence analysis division who spent two decades at the CIA managing analytics programs; and Centra chief executive Harold Rosenbaum, who was an "active member" of the Director of Central Intelligence's Science and Technology Advisory Panel, according to his bio.
A spokesman for Centra did not respond to requests for comment about its work for the CIA.
Centra's website boasts that its customers include three branches of the military; the FBI; the Secret Service; the Department of Homeland Security; the departments of Defense, Justice, and Energy; NATO; NASA; and many other federal agencies.
Absent from the list is the CIA.
The contract between the CIA and Centra says it's unclassified but "disclosure is on a need-to-know basis." It extended into 2013 but was part of a larger, existing contract between the CIA and Centra dating back to June 2007. The contract, which was modified more than a dozen times, says it was funded by "DCIA" — the Office of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Feinstein wrote several letters to the CIA over the past five years objecting to the CIA's use of outside contractors. She said the sky high costs the CIA incurred were also due to the CIA's establishment of a stand-alone computer network for committee use, RDINet, an acronym for rendition, detention and interrogation, where the CIA documents were stored.
CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani disputed VICE News' "interpretation" of the Centra contract.
"A significant portion of the contract cost pertained to services completely distinct from, and wholly unrelated to, the Senate Intelligence Committee review," Trapani said, backtracking on the agency's statements last year that the $40 million the agency spent was due entirely to "the committee's demands of CIA in this investigation." "In terms of the services performed in support of the committee review, CIA dedicated substantial resources to provide the committee unprecedented access to millions of pages of documents as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the security requirements for such highly classified, sensitive documents."
Trapani said he could not disclose details about the other services the $40 million Centra contract supported nor could he provide VICE News with a breakdown on the money the agency spent specifically to fund the Senate's work because that information is classified. The CIA withheld details from the contract turned over to VICE News and Shapiro that would have likely answered those questions, citing nearly every exemption under FOIA, including a threat to national security, and the exposure of trade secrets, intelligence sources, and methods.
The claim that the Senate torture report cost $40 million appears to have first surfaced in the "minority views" response prepared by Republicans on the Intelligence Committee who, in a footnote in their report, cited a November 6, 2012 letter from CIA Associate Deputy Director V. Sue Bromley to support their assertion.
According to the heavily redacted documents, the contract the CIA awarded to Centra was known as a "firm fixed price level of effort" contract. Under that type of deal, the government agrees to pay the contractor a set dollar amount and the contractor agrees to provide "a specified level of effort, over a stated period of time, on work that can be stated only in general terms" and cannot be clearly defined. Such contracts, according to government documents, are "suitable for investigation or study in a specific research and development area." These types of contracts are usually used when the contract price is $150,000 or lower unless approved by the chief of the contracting office, according to government contracting guidelines.
When the Senate Intelligence Committee announced in 2009 that it had launched an investigation into the CIA's detention and interrogation program, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta said that he, too, planned to review it. He announced the formation of a Director's Review Group for Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation, whose investigation would run parallel to the one being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Director's Review Group was also tasked with compiling the same documents the intelligence committee reviewed and writing up summaries about some of the more noteworthy findings on which the Intelligence Committee would likely focus. Those summaries became known as the Panetta Review.
A September 14, 2009 "Statement of Work" in the contracting documents titled "Collection, Review, and Redaction Program" says the scope of the contract calls for Centra to provide "integrated programmatic support" and full-time personnel to support the CIA "Director's Group for Rendition, Detention and Interrogation's (DRG-RDI) collection, review, and posting of responsive materials" to a classified computer network for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A second statement of work document dated May 31, 2012, is nearly identical but says the contract is for "DRG Support," and that in addition to providing CIA detention and interrogation documents to Congress, the documents are also sent to the Department of Justice. At the time, a federal prosecutor had been conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths of detainees in custody of the CIA. The statement of work says DRG "serves as the primary focal point for the collection, review, and production of CIA documents to DOJ and Congress" and "manages all requests from the investigations and ensures CIA's compliance with the requirements of these investigations."
The documents reveals that the contracting officer at the Office of Director of National Intelligence approved the cost increases of the Centra contract, which eventually reached $42 million in 2012. The astronomical expenses are laid bare in one document, which shows that Centra sent the CIA an estimate of $123,017.44 for labor costs during one week in September 2009, though the CIA redacted what that work entailed. The contract says the "principal place of performance will be at a Government facility located in Northern Virginia." The CIA redacted the name of the building.
The CIA also redacted the number of contracting employees who were granted access to documents, briefed about the program, and assigned to work on the Senate's review. CIA additionally redacted the minimum and maximum number of "labor hours" the contractors were supposed to work.
"I'm unsure why that contract type was used, because generally it is used in instances when work cannot be clearly defined," Scott Amey, the general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told VICE News after reviewing the CIA contracting documents. "This [CIA] contract, however, had a very specific statement of work. It is fixed price, but the labor rate and specified number of labor hours could be ripe for abuse if the CIA and the Senate aren't watching. Operating contracts in the dark can be problematic without proper oversight."
The CIA blacked out descriptions about the contract's "statement of objectives, tasks, schedule, personnel, deliverables, and place and period of performance."
Left intact, however, was one multimillion-dollar task associated with the contract: that Centra was to provide to the CIA an administrative officer "to support… an array of administrative and logistical duties in support of the DRG-RDI mission," such as greeting staff and escorting visitors and guests; drafting and proofreading office correspondence; ordering supplies; maintaining electronic and paper files to ensure "continuity of data"; and "plan, prepare, and coordinate the daily transportation schedule of RDI's exclusive driver."
The CIA could have saved a lot of money by having a public servant perform the administrative tasks, according to Amey:
"It's a less risky option both from a security standpoint and a financial standpoint."
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold
UPDATE, July 28, 2015: A quote from CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani was added to this story.
Topics: cia, centra technology, senate torture report, senate intelligence committee, dianne feinstein, harold rosenbaum, peggy lyons, foia, freedom of information act, black sites, secure facility, northern virginia, cia contract, classified, top secret, john brennan, afghanistan, iraq, special operations, department of homeland security, fbi, department of defense, leon panetta, rendition detention interrogation, rdinet, americas, united states, defense & security