Former CIA spy boss made an unhesitating call to destroy interrogation tapes

April 24, 2012

The first and only time I met Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., he was still undercover and in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency’s all-powerful operations directorate. The agency had summoned me to its Langley headquarters and his mission was to talk me out of running an article I had just finished reporting about CIA secret prisons — the “black sites” abroad where the agency put al-Qaeda terrorists so they could be interrogated in isolation, beyond the reach and protections of U.S. law.

The scene I walked into in November 2005 struck me as incongruous. The man sitting in the middle of the navy blue colonial-style sofa looked like a big-city police detective stuffed uncomfortably into a tailored suit. His face was pockmarked, his dark mustache too big to be stylish. He was not one of the polished career bureaucrats who populate the halls of power in Washington.

In fact, he fit perfectly the description given by my sources: hardworking but not smooth, loyal to the institution and now, probably, beyond his depth. He was as surprised as anyone that he had risen so quickly to the senior ranks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to the account of his decades-long spy career in “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives.” The book is due out Monday, after an exclusive interview Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” The Washington Post obtained a copy this week.

Shortly after the 2001 attacks, the CIA set up the secret prisons in Afghanistan, Thailand and several Eastern European countries for the explicit purpose of keeping detainees picked up on the battlefield or in other countries away from the U.S. justice system, which would grant them some protections against, among other things, torture or otherwise harsh treatment. In an effort to force these detainees to give their handlers information about terrorist plots, CIA interrogators subjected some of them to sleep and food deprivation, incessant loud noise and waterboarding.

By the time we met, those techniques were no longer in use. Rodriguez had not dealt with American reporters, he writes, but then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss had asked him to meet with me “to see if I could convince her that such a story would harm U.S. national security, put some of our allies around the world in a very difficult position, and potentially disrupt a program that was providing intelligence that was producing real results and helping to keep the country safe.”


This undated photo provided by the CIA shows Jose Rodriguez. (AP/CIA)

What Rodriguez remembers from our conversation, according to his book, is that I brought him a copy of a book I had written about the U.S. military in an effort to butter him up. “That failed to soften my stance on the lack of wisdom of her proceeding with her article as planned,” he wrote, and “I could see I was not winning her over.” I remember bringing the book because I figured he didn’t know one reporter from the next, and I wanted him to know that I did in-depth work and didn’t want to just hear the talking points.

A blunt explanation

It became clear immediately that Rodriguez never even got the talking points, which was refreshing and surprising. Right away he began divulging awkward truths that other senior officers had tried to obfuscate in our conversations about the secret prisons: “In many cases they are violating their own laws by helping us,” he offered, according to notes I took at the time.

Why not bring the detainees to trial?

“Because they would get lawyered up, and our job, first and foremost, is to obtain information.”

(Shortly after our conversation, The Post’s senior editors were called to the White House to discuss the article with President George W. Bush and his national security team. Days later, the newspaper published the story, without naming the countries where the prisons were located.)

Rodriguez may have never felt the need to even reveal himself publicly or to write a book, complete with family photos, giving his version of many of the unconventional — and eventually repudiated — practices that the CIA engaged in after Sept. 11 had it not been for what happened shortly after our conversation.

Concerned that the location of one of the prisons was about to be revealed, Rodriguez writes that he ordered the facility closed immediately and the detainees moved to a new site. While dismantling the site, the base chief asked Rodriguez if she could throw a pile of old videotapes, made during the early days of terrorist Abu Zubaida’s interrogation and waterboarding, and now a couple of years old, onto a nearby bonfire that was set to destroy papers and other evidence of the agency’s presence.

Just at that moment, according to his account, a cable from headquarters came in saying: “Hold up on the tapes. We think they should be retained for a little while longer.”

“Had that message been delayed by even a few minutes,” Rodriguez writes, “my life in the years following would have been considerably easier.”

Those actions led to a lengthy and still ongoing investigation of the agency that produced no charges. Rodriguez retired in January 2008 and now works in the private sector.

A tough CIA veteran

Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico, the son of two teachers. He was educated at the University of Florida, where he also received a law degree before being recruited by the CIA. He once gained the confidence of a dictator in a Latin American country because of his gutsy horseback riding skills. He worked as the chief of station in several countries he does not name, and was sent to El Salvador during its bloody civil war (which he glosses over completely) and to Panama, where he pitched the idea of recruiting Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega’s witch doctor and putting him on the CIA payroll to persuade the dictator to retire to Spain. The CIA director at the time wasn’t impressed and instead, in 1989, “the United States followed a more traditional path: a military invasion.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, he did what legions of CIA officers not at work that day did: He rushed into headquarters, even as people were being evacuated, and pitched in. Rodriguez ended up in the Counterterrorism Center, which quickly went from a backwater posting to the center of the universe at the agency.

As CIA operations officers and analysts scrambled to figure out more about al-Qaeda and to plan a counterattack, Rodriguez was in the eye of the storm. “Hard Measures” takes readers through a highly sanitized — censored by the CIA, actually — version of events.

Although many details are left out and most of the outlines of what Rodriguez writes will not come as news to close readers of newspapers, he does not shy away from addressing the most controversial parts of what became the largest covert action program in U.S. history: the secret decisions to capture suspected terrorists on the battlefield or on the streets and make them disappear from the face of the Earth. Using a fleet of airplanes, the CIA bundled its captives into a netherworld no one else had access to, flew them around the world, deposited them in secret underground prisons where it could control their every move and use especially harsh interrogation methods on some of the most senior prisoners.

Many CIA officers had misgivings about these practices and what they might mean for America’s reputation around the world. Not Rodriguez. He is unabashedly confident that he and the agency did the right thing and saved lives in the process.

“I am certain, beyond any doubt, that these techniques, approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government, certified by the Department of Justice, and briefed to and supported by bipartisan leadership of congressional intelligence oversight committees, shielded the people of the United States from harm and led to the capture of killing of Usama bin Ladin.”

Of course, it is impossible to know this for certain, and many people inside and outside government — some of them involved in interrogations — have argued that with better-trained interrogators and more patience, the same information could have been obtained without such harsh methods.

The most newsworthy part of the book is a chapter in which Rodriguez explains how he came to order the destruction of 92 videotapes of the interrogation of Abu Zubaida.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has nearly completed a four-year-long review of the CIA’s post-Sept. 11 detention and interrogation practices.

Shredding the tapes

Rodriguez writes that he ordered the tapes’ destruction because he got tired of waiting for his superiors to make a decision. They had at least twice given him the go-ahead, then backed off. In the meantime, a senior agency attorney cited “grave national security reasons” for destroying the material and said the tapes presented ‘“grave risk” to the personal safety of our officers” whose identities could be seen on the recordings.

In late April 2004, another event forced his hand, he writes. Photos of the abuse of prisoners by Army soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq ignited the Arab world and risked being confused with the CIA’s program, which was run very differently.

“We knew that if the photos of CIA officers conducting authorized EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] ever got out, the difference between a legal, authorized, necessary, and safe program and the mindless actions of some MPs [military police] would be buried by the impact of the images.

“The propaganda damage to the image of America would be immense. But the main concern then, and always, was for the safety of my officers.”

Readers may disagree with much of what Rodriguez writes and with the importance of some of the facts he omits from his book, but the above sentence speaks volumes about why this book is important. In this case, a loyal civil servant — and the decision-makers above him who blessed these programs — were not thinking about the larger, longer-lasting damage to the core values of the United States that disclosure of these secrets might cause. They were thinking about the near term. About efficiency. About the safety of friends and colleagues. In their minds, they were thinking, too, about the safety of the country.

And after some back-and-forth with agency lawyers for what seemed to him the umpteenth time, he writes, Rodriguez scrutinized a cable to the field drafted by his chief of staff, ordering that the tapes be shredded in an industrial-strength machine. The tapes had already been reviewed, and copious written notes on their content had been taken.

“I was not depriving anyone of information about what was done or what was said,” he writes. “I was just getting rid of some ugly visuals that could put the lives of my people at risk.

“I took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”

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