Those tapes

Posted by lex, on December 11, 2007

I’ve resisted until now sharing my private thoughts about the destruction of those CIA interrogation tapes,  although my first instinct was that even if no crime was committed the Agency had committed a political blunder. 

This much we know: There were hundreds of hours of taped footage covering the interrogation and detention of Al Qaeda financier and detainee Abu Zubaida, as well as another as yet unnamed bin Laden lieutenant. Most of the tapes apparently showed Abu Zubaida recovering from wounds received when he was captured. But they also contained documentary footage of his interrogation, including the controversial practice known as waterboarding.

Career CIA operator Jose Rodriguez, up until his 2005 retirement the director of the agencies clandestine service, said that he ordered the destruction of the tapes to protect the identity of his agents – a plausible if politically insufficient statement quickly waved away by incensed congressmen from both parties. Today we learned in the New York Times that while both White House and Justice Department lawyers recommended against the destruction of the tapes, Agency lawyers greenlighted the move.

Lawyers within the clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency gave written approval in advance to the destruction in 2005 of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting interrogations of two lieutenants from Al Qaeda, according to a former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode.

Federal judges had also ordered the government to “preserve and maintain all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” according to the Washington Post:

“The revelation that the CIA destroyed these videotapes raises grave concerns about the government’s compliance with the preservation order entered by this Court,” wrote (Yemeni detainee) Moahmod Abdah’s lawyers, David H. Remes and Marc D. Falkoff.

But the same article at least implicitly suggests that Abu Zubaida, although a current resident at Guantanamo, was not interrogated there but rather in one of those ”secret CIA” facilities that were last year’s manufactured outrage. Depending upon on that prison’s location – there are rumors of a CIA-run “prison within a prison” at Guantanamo – and when Abu Zubaida was actually transferred, Agency lawyers could have argued that the federal court’s language was too narrowly crafted to apply in his case. Agency director Michael Hayden is trudging up to Capitol Hill today, where that timeline will be no doubt be examined more closely.

These facts ease out some of the political steam out of what had threatened to be the next the scandale du jour: Agency lawyers are claiming that while lawyers at the White House and Justice recommended against destroying the tapes, they had never explicitly ordered them not to do so. If the bureacracy’s career lawyers are free to argue among themselves and reach different conclusions, that implies that no one in a position of sufficient political authority to issue binding cross-departmental orders – Cabinet level or above, say – had taken a stand on the matter one way or the other. General Hayden himself was not atop the agency at that time the tapes were destroyed, Porter Goss was.

Goss you will remember was the former congressman sent to CIA after George Tenet’s resignation. He was under orders from the president to reform the agency in light of its catastrophic failure to connect the 9/11 dots. His efforts between 2004 and his sudden, ”mysterious” resignation in 2006, so thoroughly angered the professionals at CIA that many top-level operatives – including the current director of the clandestine service – resigned rather than work for him. In such a toxic environment people more concerned about the continuation of their institution than the orders of a political appointee might well have kept the director in the dark over the matter.

Ted Kennedy may thunderingly invoke the ghosts of Watergate, but absent new revelations it seems most likely that careerists at the Agency – people of the sainted Valery Plame’s stature, in other words – decided it would be better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

After all, politicians may come and go, but there will always be a Central Intelligence Agency.

Right?

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, GWOT, Politics and Culture

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