No Comment — December 30, 2007, 11:59 am

Judgment and Torture

Today the New York Times’s Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti offer us a further exploration of the CIA’s torture tapes, this time with a focus on why they were created and how this influenced the decision to destroy them. It’s an important article, and it offers more than one new piece to the current jigsaw puzzle. But it needs to be consumed with more than just one grain of salt.

The articles starts with an account of how the taping began, proceeds to the use to which the tapes were put and then it examines the role that concern about public perceptions played. Here is a key excerpt:

The discussion about the tapes took place in Congressional briefings and secret deliberations among top White House lawyers, including a meeting in May 2004 just days after photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had reminded the administration of the power of such images. The debate stretched over the tenure of two C.I.A. chiefs and became entangled in a feud between the agency’s top lawyers and its inspector general. The tapes documented a program so closely guarded that President Bush himself had agreed with the advice of intelligence officials that he not be told the locations of the secret C.I.A. prisons. Had there been no political or security considerations, videotaping every interrogation and preserving the tapes would make sense, according to several intelligence officials.

“You couldn’t have more than one or two analysts in the room,” said A. B. Krongard, the C.I.A.’s No. 3 official at the time the interrogations were taped. “You want people with spectacular language skills to watch the tapes. You want your top Al Qaeda experts to watch the tapes. You want psychologists to watch the tapes. You want interrogators in training to watch the tapes.”

Given such advantages, why was the taping stopped by the end of 2002, less than a year after it started? “By that time,” Mr. Krongard said, “paranoia was setting in.”

By several accounts, the decision to begin taping Abu Zubaydah and another detainee suspected of being a Qaeda operative, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was made in the field, with several goals in mind. First, there was Abu Zubaydah’s precarious condition. “There was concern that we needed to have this all documented in case he should expire from his injuries,” recalled one former intelligence official.

Just as important was the fact that for many years the C.I.A. had rarely conducted even standard interrogations, let alone ones involving physical pressure, so officials wanted to track closely the use of legally fraught interrogation methods. And there was interest in capturing all the information to be gleaned from a rare resource — direct testimony from those who had attacked the United States. . .

By late 2002, interrogators were recycling videotapes, preserving only two days of tapes before recording over them, one C.I.A. officer said. Finally, senior agency officials decided that written summaries of prisoners’ answers would suffice. Still, that decision left hundreds of hours of videotape of the two Qaeda figures locked in an overseas safe.

Let’s think through what we’re being told for a moment. And let’s start with the circumstances. The Administration has launched what Laura Rozen recently termed “Operation Stop Talking,” a program designed to insure that all intelligence officers and former officers maintain complete silence about what transpired with these tapes. This has included some very heavy handed measures, including an FBI investigation targeting John Kiriakou. My own sources tell me that Rozen’s reporting is right on the money about this—the word has been put out that any one allowing further information to slip out, or corroborating Kiriakou’s account, can expect severe retribution. And what is the objective of this extraordinary public relations project? Again, the aspect of Kiriakou’s remarks that gave rise to it was his detailed depiction of the Justice Department’s and the White House’s role in the entire process.

The Bush Administration’s containment strategy for this matter is very clear: it was a CIA affair, start to finish. The decision to make and destroy the tapes came down in the ranks of the CIA. Other agencies and particularly the White House were uninvolved. Yes, there will be a scapegoat offered up. So here are some points to contemplate as you work your way through the New York Times piece:

• Why is a former senior CIA official speaking on the record about details of the program notwithstanding “Operation Stop Talking?” Note who he is: A.R. Krongard—“Cookie” Krongard’s better regarded brother—was a Blackwater advisor and was considered to be a Republican Party-wired “insider” within the intelligence community. Mr. Krongard is, of course, dispensing “the official story,” just what others have been silenced to make way for.

• Note that the decision to start making the tapes was made in the field according to Shane’s and Mazzetti’s sources. That’s a very convenient set of facts, since in a fairly axiomatic rule of bureaucratic decision-making presumably those who make the decision to make the tapes have the authority to decide to destroy them. But even other statements in this Times piece contradict that conclusion, starting with the concern that the tapes would be used by figures far up the line to “second guess” the work of the case officers.

• But is it true? If we go back over Kiriakou’s statements, we find nothing really conclusive on the subject. But he’s quite emphatic over the strong line of control over the operating program, ending squarely in the White House. He also suggests very clearly that the tapes are being used for control purposes; that they allowed people up the decision-making chain to see how their instructions were being carried out. It would be a reasonable inference from this that the taping procedure was introduced and used by those with oversight authority, and potentially very far up the chain. I have heard for sometime that some of Vice President Cheney’s staffers, starting with Addington, are real “intelligence junkies.” Why would they entertain themselves with reruns of Fox’s “24″ when they can mainline real snuff flicks provided by the CIA?

• The new account offers that the tapes served training and analytical purposes. That’s a plausible explanation, but it’s not the only one offered even in this article. It also takes note of the Bagram deaths and suggests that the tapes would prove that the officers administering torture were following approved techniques–to protect them. Note this is an oversight and control function. It seems inescapable that the tapes were made and used for all these purposes, and the oversight and control purpose was likely the most important, even if now–for transparent reasons–they want to play it down.

• The new account says that tapes were being reused starting in 2002. This is a very significant statement on several fronts. It reflects that taping was a general practice, and it suggests one method of destroying tapes was taping right over them. That suggests that there were many more tapes made than just the two cases noted. (In fact, in the meantime, newspapers in Britain and Australia have already reported, courtesy of their own intelligence services, that the claims that the collections of tapes was limited to two subjects is nonsense.)

The Times story reflects the latest Administration effort at damage control, and it has to be understood in that light, which is to say, very skeptically. Is it true that the decision to tape and the decision to destroy the tapes was taken far down the ranks within the CIA and that the White House had no involvement in it? Note how they carefully sprinkle in the reference to the suggestion that “Bush agreed” that he should not be briefed on the location of the black sites. They are really working very hard to put whatever distance they can between Bush personally and the criminal decisions in play here.

And in the end, the effort is completely unconvincing. We know that the White House knew about the existence of the tapes. Four of the president’s leading lawyers were deeply involved, and one of them, almost certainly Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, was advocating destruction of the tapes, and thereby offering apparent White House authority for the act of destruction. It’s highly probable that individuals inside the White House, and in all likelihood the president himself, actually watched some of the tapes, most likely including the tapes of Abu Zabaydah, who was tortured by waterboarding.

Now they desperately want to pin everything on second and third tier officials at the CIA. That would be a farce. Responsibility for all of this—the decision to torture, the specific approval of individual torture techniques on specific individuals, the decision to record and document all of this, and the decision in the face of court orders requiring preservation and disclosure to destroy evidence of criminal conduct—rests squarely with George W. Bush and the senior echelons of his administration. It’s time to confront all efforts to obscure these facts through friendly leaks with the skepticism and, indeed, contempt that they deserve.

The Times piece closes on an appropriate note. They interview former CIA Deputy Director John Gannon, and describe his analysis of the situation:

Mr. Gannon said he thought the tapes became such an issue because they would have settled the legal debate over the harsh methods. “To a spectator it would look like torture,” he said. “And torture is wrong.”

It is not a matter of “looking like torture,” of course, the process of waterboarding and other harsh techniques that Bush has authorized (indeed, shoved down the throat of a skeptical intelligence community) is torture. It’s a crime under American law which will be enforced again when law enforcement is restored to the agenda of the Justice Department.

The Times tells us that public appearances played a decisive role in this entire affair, and that’s the most truthful statement in the piece. But there is something unsettling about this tendency to dismiss a question of moral rights and wrongs on the most fundamental level as a question of “public relations.” Team Bush have used all the powerful communications resources at their command to trivialize torture—to equate it with fraternity antics, and to scapegoat immature young soldiers who implement their designs. All of this has been done to suppress the moral indignation that torture, once clearly seen by the American people, would awaken. In this saga of the destroyed tapes we are watching the morally corrosive effects of torture, we are watching it corrupt judgment and social values. As Immanuel Kant teaches us, all humans have an innate sense of moral right and wrong, they feel it instinctively even if they lack a more developed code of ethical or religious standards. Revelation–visual proof of their crimes–is the enemy that Bush and his fellow torture facilitators fear now, more even than the judgment that history certainly will pass upon them.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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