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CIA Destroyed Interrogation Tapes

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Dan Eggen
Washington Post Justice Department Reporter
Friday, December 7, 2007; 11:15 AM

Washington Post Justice Department Reporter Dan Eggen was online Friday, Dec. 7 at 11:15 a.m. ET to discuss the revelation that in 2005 the CIA destroyed videotapes of the "aggressive" interrogations of two top al-Qaeda detainees, which may have conflicted with court orders at the time.

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The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: Can you explain to me why the destruction of these tapes was not destruction of evidence or tampering with evidence? Seems to me the courts should release all of the affected persons, because the most crucial evidence against them conveniently has been destroyed after judges were told it did not exist! Heads should roll at the CIA. They are not above the law. What are we fighting for in Iraq?!

Dan Eggen: This is one of the key issues raised by the CIA's disclosure yesterday, and presumably it is the question that is going to dominate much of the debate going forward. It appears that several courts, including the one prosecuting al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, had submitted requests to the CIA that conceivably could have covered the destroyed tapes (although the CIA says in the case of Moussaoui that they would not have been covered). The ACLU also had a live Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in court at the time, and a judge had ordered the CIA to comply. Finally, the 9/11 Commission also had made broad requests of records related to CIA interrogations and had been told that no such tapes or transcripts existed.

Certainly there are many lawyers who have already said that there is plenty of evidence of possible obstruction or tampering in this case. Much of this is likely to play out in the courts.

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Tonawanda, N.Y.: Is it yet clear exactly when these tapes were destroyed? It will be interesting to see a timeline, including that action, the first indications of problems and the eventual release of the photos of Abu Ghraib, various requests for information from congressional and other groups, lawsuits, etc.

Dan Eggen: As we noted in our story today, the tapes were destroyed in November 2005 at the order of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the CIA's director of clandestine operations.

There were a great many interrogation-related controversies swirling around at this time, including the continuing aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal and the publication of a long expose on the CIA's secret prison system by The Post's Dana Priest on Nov. 2, 2005.

The CIA does not acknowledge that any of this was a direct factor in the destruction, however, but argues that the decision was made to protect the identities of interrogators in case the tapes were leaked.

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Conyers, Ga.: Not a question, but a comment. I don't have a problem with your "reporting," but I do have a problem with the fact that you do not acknowledge -- until the 12th paragraph -- that it really was the New York Times that originated the story. I know that your newspaper considers the New York Times to be your major competition, but I think it would benefit readers and journalism in general if you gave credit where it was due, or at least more prominently.

Dan Eggen: We certainly had no intent to downplay the New York Times's role in revealing this story. (I always strive to be generous in this regard.) This particular story was a little odd because technically the CIA "broke" the story by preempting the Times with a note to agency employees. I also think the Associated Press actually went first with a bulletin. But there's no doubt that the Times was on the story and said it was planning to publish, which is why we reported it.

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Washington: It's my understanding that during the Nuremberg trails we considered waterboarding torture, and convicted Nazis of torture. When did it get demoted to "harsh interrogation technique"? It makes me sick to my stomach.

Dan Eggen: The nomenclature owes to the Bush administration, which has for years maintained that the government does not torture and has never tortured--yet it has carried out waterboarding.

Technically speaking, the Bush administration has never actually admitted publicly to performing waterboarding on detainees, referring instead only to a series of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that were sanctioned by President Bush and blessed as legal by the Justice Department. But it has long been established that the CIA did indeed use the procedure on three prisoners in 2002 and 2003, including the two who were included on the destroyed videotapes.

We do strive to point out the historical background for waterboarding as frequently as possible, including the fact that it dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and has been prosecuted as torture by the U.S. military since the Spanish American war.

The other tactics that have been at issue include sleep deprivation, forced nudity, intimidation by military dogs, etc.

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Tampa, Fla.: As I understand it, the tapes were destroyed to protect the interrogator's identities. Why did they (the CIA) not simply tile/blur their faces and alter their voices digitally? I hope the answer is not something like "it would be too labor-intensive."

Dan Eggen: I think it is fair to say that the CIA's argument in this case -- that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identities of interrogators -- is curious at best.

It goes without saying that the agency's archives are full of records identifying clandestine personnel of all types, including photographs and all sorts of other media. If one followed their argument to its conclusion, shouldn't all of those records should be destroyed?

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Boston: Who is in the most hot water legally at this point with the disclosure about the destruction of the CIA tapes? The operations head at the CIA who ordered the tapes destroyed? Others higher in the chain of command who knew about and implicitly or explicitly sanctioned the tape destruction? Justice officials involved in disclosure in the Moussaoui case? Which entity/judge/congressional committee would be the main driver in pushing for legal accountability?

Dan Eggen: Some Democrats are already calling for probes of the destruction, either by Congress or by the Justice Department. The latter would raise its own issues, of course, given potential conflicts of interest on several levels.

Certainly whoever ordered the destruction could be at legal risk, as well as anyone in the chain of command who knew or signed off on it. It's all quite murky at the moment, however, in part because so many of the details are cloaked in secrecy.

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Frederick, Md.: Isn't the CIA by virtue of their work exempt from FOIA requests with regard to national security issues?

Dan Eggen: The CIA's operational files do enjoy an exemption under the FOIA, but of course it is a matter of great debate where the definition ends. (FOIA advocates have complained for years that the CIA and several other intelligence agencies are too expansive in their definition of the exemption.)

I think the point here is that one cannot know for certain if a record is exempt if you've destroyed it. Not having to turn something over for public dissemination is not the same as having the authority to destroy the record.

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Houston: If these guys are al-Qaeda, why do we question the harshness of our interrogation on them? Remember, this is not a battle involving civil rights or religion or free speech or any modern revolution experienced in the 19th and 20th century United States -- this is a battle against a very desperate and dangerous type of thinking that cares no more about the reader of these comments than he does the religion out of which he justifies his desire for murder toward any and all who oppose him.

There is no redemption, compromise or character embedded in this type of thinking which will enable an agreement between the leaders of this group. We can't just say "if we leave you alone, you leave us alone." They are going to hit us again, and it is not a matter of if, or if we are nice to them, or if we meet any of their demands. So I propose we interrogate them and get the information out of them and do what it takes to uncover as much information from these people as possible. Go get them.

Dan Eggen: Many people share your viewpoint, including many within the Bush administration. The debate over where to draw the line is at the heart of this debate.

Many others, including interrogators within the military and the FBI, argue that such tactics have very mixed success in comparison with other approaches. There is also the question of torturing or abusing someone who turns out to be innocent.

Keep in mind that hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees have been released, which either means that your government has readily set terrorists free -- or that many instead turned out not to be a threat. There are several clear cases where the government itself has essentially conceded that the detainee was innocent.

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Milwaukee: In the U.S. attorney's letter posted on the New York Times, it says that they viewed one of the tapes on Sept. 19, 2007. So how could it have been destroyed? What am I missing?

washingtonpost.com: Letter From U.S. Attorney on Existence of Tapes (pdf) (New York Times, Dec. 7)

Dan Eggen: This is a different tape (and presumably a different detainee). But it is still unclear whether the defense requests in the Moussaoui case would have covered the tapes that were destroyed. The CIA says not.

The other curious thing is that Gen. Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, said in his note to employees yesterday that taping of enhanced interrogations ceased in 2002. Yet clearly from that letter there are tapes of other interrogations, presumably the non-enhanced kind.

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Freising, Germany: Has there ever been any indication of the value and usefulness of the information obtained from Zubaydah during the videotaped "harsh interrogation" sessions?

Dan Eggen: The government's answers are imprecise in this regard. Hayden, President Bush and others regularly praise the efficacy of the CIA interrogation program in general, and say that the program has led to many useful and important captures (such as the arrest of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed or KSM).

But they never answer with specificity whether the harsh techniques themselves led to such information, and indeed measurement of that might be impossible. Furthermore, it's been widely reported that KSM, who was subjected to waterboarding and other harsh techniques, provided a lot of bogus or dubious information to interrogators.

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Rockville, Md.: What was Michael Hayden hoping to gain from his preemption of the New York Times story? Didn't he realize that his "explanation" wouldn't pass the smell test?

Dan Eggen: From a purely journalistic point of view, I'm sort of baffled by this move. You can bet that the Times or anyone else is not going to give the CIA an extra day's notice in the future.

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Los Angeles: I think the average person would wonder what the controversy is in this story. So the CIA destroyed some tapes of an interrogation ... so what? Basically, can you describe in layman's terms what the scandal/conflict is exactly that arises from the destruction of the tapes?

Dan Eggen: I think there are two basic important issues: Did the CIA break any laws by destroying potential evidence? And was there something on those tapes so damaging or horrific that they had to be destroyed? In short, what were they covering up?

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Dan Eggen: Well folks, I have to unfortunately sign off because of a very busy day. This was fun and I'm sorry I couldn't get to all the excellent questions.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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