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Station Chief Made Appeal To Destroy CIA Tapes

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. is a key figure in the CIA tape case.
Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. is a key figure in the CIA tape case. (AP)
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Rodriguez, whom the CIA honored with a medal in August for "Extraordinary Fidelity and Essential Service," declined requests for an interview. But his attorney said he acted in the belief that he was carrying out the agency's stated intention for nearly three years. "Since 2002, the CIA wanted to destroy the tapes to protect the identity and lives of its officers and for other counterintelligence reasons," Bennett said in a written response to questions from The Washington Post.

"In 2003 the leadership of intelligence committees were told about the CIA's intent to destroy the tapes. In 2005, CIA lawyers again advised the National Clandestine Service that they had the authority to destroy the tapes and it was legal to do so. It is unfortunate," Bennett continued, "that under the pressure of a Congressional and criminal investigation, history is now being revised, and some people are running for cover."

Recorded on the tapes was the coercive questioning of two senior al-Qaeda suspects: Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known as Abu Zubaida, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were captured by U.S. forces in 2002. They show Zubaida undergoing waterboarding, which involved strapping him to a board and pouring water over his nose and mouth, creating the sensation of imminent drowning. Nashiri later also underwent the same treatment.

Some CIA officials say the agency's use of waterboarding helped extract information that led to the capture of other key al-Qaeda members and prevented attacks. But others, including former CIA, FBI and military officials, say the practice constitutes torture.

The destruction of the tapes was not the first occasion in which Rodriguez got in trouble for taking a provocative action to help a colleague. While serving as the CIA's Latin America division chief in 1996, he appealed to local Dominican Republic authorities to prevent a childhood friend, and CIA contractor, who had been arrested in a drug investigation, from being beaten up, according to a former CIA official familiar with the episode.

Such an intervention was forbidden by CIA rules, and so Rodriguez was stripped of his management post and reprimanded in an inspector general's report. But shortly after the reprimand, he was named station chief in Mexico City and, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was promoted to deputy director of the fast-expanding counterterrorism center. He served under the center's director then, J. Cofer Black, who had been his subordinate in the Latin America division.

When Black -- who played a key role in setting up the secret prisons and instituting the interrogation policy -- left the CIA in December 2002, Rodriguez took his place. Colleagues recall that even in the deputy's slot, Rodriguez was aware of the videotaping of Zubaida, and that he later told several it was necessary so that experts, such as psychologists not present during interrogations, could view Zubaida's physical reactions to questions.

By December 2002, the taping was no longer needed, according to three former intelligence officials. "Zubaida's health was better, and he was providing information that we could check out," one said.

An internal probe of the interrogations by the CIA's inspector general began in early 2003 for reasons that have not been disclosed. In February of that year, then-CIA General Counsel Scott W. Muller told lawmakers that the agency planned to destroy the tapes after the completion of the investigation. That year, all waterboarding was halted; and at an undisclosed time, several of the inspector general's deputies traveled to Bangkok to view the tapes, officials said.

In May 2004, CIA operatives became concerned when a Washington Post article disclosed that the CIA had conducted its interrogations under a new, looser Bush administration definition of what legally constituted torture, several former CIA officials said. The disclosure sparked an internal Justice Department review of that definition and led to a suspension of the CIA's harsh interrogation program.

The tapes were discussed with White House lawyers twice, according to a senior U.S. official. The first occasion was a meeting convened by Muller and senior lawyers of the White House and the Justice Department specifically to discuss their fate. The other discussion was described by one participant as "fleeting," when the existence of the tapes came up during a spring 2004 meeting to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the official said.

Those known to have counseled against the tapes' destruction include John B. Bellinger III, while serving as the National Security Council's top legal adviser; Harriet E. Miers, while serving as the top White House counsel; George J. Tenet, while serving as CIA director; Muller, while serving as the CIA's general counsel; and John D. Negroponte, while serving as director of national intelligence.

Hayden, in an interview, said the advice expressed by administration lawyers was consistent. "To the degree this was discussed outside the agency, everyone counseled caution," he said. But he said that, in 2005, it was "the agency's view that there were no legal impediments" to the tapes' destruction. There also was "genuine concern about agency people being identified," were the tapes ever to be made public.

Hayden, who became CIA director last year, acknowledged that the questions raised about the tapes' destruction, then and now, are legitimate. "One can ask if it was a good idea, or if there was a better way to do it," he said. "We are very happy to let the facts take us where they will."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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