Station Chief Made Appeal To Destroy CIA Tapes
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
In late 2005, the retiring CIA station chief in Bangkok sent a classified cable to his superiors in Langley asking if he could destroy videotapes recorded at a secret CIA prison in Thailand that in part portrayed intelligence officers using simulated drowning to extract information from suspected al-Qaeda members.
The tapes had been sitting in the station chief's safe, in the U.S. Embassy compound, for nearly three years. Although those involved in the interrogations had pushed for the tapes' destruction in those years and a secret debate about it had twice reached the White House, CIA officials had not acted on those requests. This time was different.
The CIA had a new director and an acting general counsel, neither of whom sought to block the destruction of the tapes, according to agency officials. The station chief was insistent because he was retiring and wanted to resolve the matter before he left, the officials said. And in November 2005, a published report that detailed a secret CIA prison system provoked an international outcry.
Those three circumstances pushed the CIA's then-director of clandestine operations, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., to act against the earlier advice of at least five senior CIA and White House officials, who had counseled the agency since 2003 that the tapes should be preserved. Rodriguez consulted CIA lawyers and officials, who told him that he had the legal right to order the destruction. In his view, he received their implicit support to do so, according to his attorney, Robert S. Bennett.
In a classified response to the station chief, Rodriguez ordered the tapes' destruction, CIA officials say. The Justice Department and the House intelligence committee are now investigating whether that deed constituted a violation of law or an obstruction of justice. John A. Rizzo, the CIA's acting general counsel, is scheduled to discuss the matter in a closed House intelligence committee hearing scheduled for today.
According to interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials familiar with the debate, the taping was conducted from August to December 2002 to demonstrate that interrogators were following the detailed rules set by lawyers and medical experts in Washington, and were not causing a detainee's death.
The principal motive for the tapes' destruction was the clandestine operations division's worry that the tapes' fate could be snatched out of their hands, the officials said. They feared that the agency could be publicly shamed and that those involved in waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques would be hauled before a grand jury or a congressional inquiry -- a circumstance now partly unfolding anyway.
"The professionals said that we must destroy the tapes because they didn't want to see the pictures all over television, and they knew they eventually would leak," said a former agency official who took part in the discussions before the tapes were pulverized. The presence of the tapes in Bangkok and the CIA's communications with the station chief there were described by current and former officials.
Congressional investigators have turned up no evidence that anyone in the Bush administration openly advocated the tapes' destruction, according to officials familiar with a set of classified documents forwarded to Capitol Hill. "It was an agency decision -- you can take it to the bank," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in an interview on Friday. "Other speculations that it may have been made in other compounds, in other parts of the capital region, are simply wrong."
Many of those involved recalled conversations in which senior CIA and White House officials advised against destroying the tapes, but without expressly prohibiting it, leaving an odd vacuum of specific instructions on a such a politically sensitive matter. They said that Rodriguez then interpreted this silence -- the absence of a decision to order the tapes' preservation -- as a tacit approval of their destruction.
"Jose could not get any specific direction out of his leadership" in 2005, one senior official said. Word of the resulting destruction, one former official said, was greeted by widespread relief among clandestine officers, and Rodriguez was neither penalized nor reprimanded, publicly or privately, by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss, according to two officials briefed on exchanges between the two men.
"Frankly, there were more important issues that needed to be focused on, such as trying to preserve a critical [interrogation] program and salvage relationships that had been damaged because of the leaks" about the existence of the secret prisons, said a former agency official familiar with Goss's position at the time.