No Comment — May 1, 2012, 4:50 pm

Jose Rodriguez, Poster Boy

Why did Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, destroy ninety-two tapes of interrogation sessions in which terrorism suspects were subjected to waterboarding and other torture techniques? On Sunday, Lesley Stahl put the question to him on 60 Minutes, and he provided an answer:

rodriguez: To protect the people who worked for me and who were at those black sites and whose faces were shown on the tape.
stahl: Protect them from what?
rodriguez: Protect them from Al Qaeda ever getting their hands on these tapes and using them to go after them and their families.

Rodriguez’s claims don’t stand up. Tapes are released with some regularity by the government, and when they are, the identities of any Americans shown in them are almost always obscured—in fact, U.S. law would generally require that this be so. So his first concern hardly makes sense. His second, that the interrogators would become Al Qaeda targets, is similarly a stretch, not only because their identities would not be disclosed, but because of the clear success of the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda. The terrorist organization has been decimated; it is now struggling from the margins against extinction. And even if it were in a position to strike, low- or mid-level CIA interrogators would hardly be high on its list of targets.

So why did Rodriguez really send those ninety-two tapes through an industrial-strength shredder? We know that they contained information sought under court order for use in civil and criminal litigations. Their release would probably have resolved questions about whether certain prisoners had been tortured, and about the circumstances under which the prisoners made certain statements. Disclosure would also have resolved questions about which techniques the CIA used and how they were applied. These are hardly abstract concerns—even today, former attorney general Michael Mukasey regularly explains to incredulous audiences that when America waterboards, it is entirely different than the waterboarding of the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, and the Spanish Inquisition. Such claims might not be so easy to repeat if we could actually witness what the United States had done. Clearly Rodriguez didn’t want these details to come out.

Rodriguez told 60 Minutes that he thought destroying the tapes was legal. We can dismiss that possibility, too. We only have to think back to the Enron–Arthur Andersen affair of 2001 to 2003 to know how the American criminal-justice system usually deals with persons who consciously destroy evidence sought in pending cases and investigations: criminal convictions, followed, in Enron’s case, by prosecutions and the closure of a century-old global firm with 85,000 employees. These events were still fresh in 2004 and 2005, when Rodriguez was fretting over the destruction of the tapes. He would plainly have understood that he could be prosecuted and sent to jail for destroying them.

Indeed, why has Rodriguez not been charged and put on trial? That’s a question many are asking as he takes to the airwaves to push the idea that torture works. The only satisfactory answer lies in the doctrine of in pari delictoIn pari delicto applies when both sides of a lawsuit have been involved in the same wrongdoing.—the Justice Department is itself so deeply enmeshed in Rodriguez’s crimes that it could hardly prosecute the case. But if this doctrine explains the DOJ’s failure to prosecute, it also suggests that someone else should be bringing the charges.

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, receiving the Ridenhour Prize last Wednesday for his book The Black Banners, took direct aim at Rodriguez in his acceptance speech. The tapes were destroyed, he said, because they provided “evidence of [the CIA’s] unprofessionalism, and incompetence.” By destroying the tapes, Rodriguez gave himself room to fictionalize what happened during those interrogations sessions. He seems now to be using this license liberally—and he’s being challenged by those familiar with the CIA’s classified records. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is completing a three-year study of the efficacy of the CIA techniques, just issued a press release questioning Rodriguez’s truthfulness and suggesting that he was claiming credit for the accomplishments of others. The Committee’s report, when it is issued, will likely furnish much more detail on the techniques the CIA used and what these techniques produced. From the descriptions we’ve heard so far, it appears as though the report will sharply contradict Rodriguez.

The ninety-two tapes contained compelling evidence of criminality. They presented a dire threat to Rodriguez and those of his masters who approved the use of torture. His motivations in shredding them therefore seem clear enough: he was afraid of criminal prosecution. And he still should be.

There is no immediate threat that charges will be brought against Rodriguez and his bosses—not under Barack Obama and Eric Holder. But Rodriguez has plenty of reason to be concerned that such charges will be pressed against him outside of the United States, and eventually here as well. Rodriguez is a thirty-year veteran of the CIA who spent virtually his entire career in Latin America, serving in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other locations. He happily embraces the dark side; indeed, Latin America was home to some of the blackest of CIA black ops, including assassinations and operational support for regimes that routinely used torture. But he would also have observed what happened to many of the CIA’s allies who turned to torture—to generals and admirals who fought the “dirty war” in Argentina and Uruguay, to Pinochet loyalists in Chile, and to Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Each of these regimes left office armored with amnesties and immunities, with official decisions to decline prosecution, and, significantly, with strong public support for the use of torture as a necessary evil in the battle against terrorists. But in the past few years, former heads of state and leading figures in the intelligence communities of each of these countries have been charged, tried, and convicted of crimes that include torture and conspiring to torture.

What happened? Across more than two decades, public opinion steadily turned against those who had used torture. This process was driven by disclosures of photographs and tapes of heinous acts, by the meticulous work of forensic pathologists who gave the victims a voice, by survivors who forcefully recounted their experiences, by journalists who published exposés, and by lawyers who pressed for information to be revealed and who painstakingly assembled facts for lawsuits.

Jose Rodriguez watched all of this happen. He would certainly appreciate the power of these historical precedents and the likelihood that the ninety-two tapes, if released, would come back to haunt him, and quite possibly send him to jail. That, I believe, is why he destroyed them.

During the American campaign against Al Qaeda, FBI agents working with the CIA on the interrogation of a few key suspects began to refer to CIA torture technicians as “the poster boys,” because they expected that the torturers would soon be featured on wanted posters around the world. Jose Rodriguez has earned his place as one of the boys.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Sarah Topol follows the trade routes used by arms smugglers, Eric Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school, and more
Photograph by Angela Strassheim
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Gateway to Freedom·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Vigilance Committee survived until the eve of the Civil War, and over the course of its several incarnations it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness.“
Photograph by Amani Willett
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A former New York City police officer who had been arrested in 2012 for exchanging online messages about cooking women alive and eating them, and for illegally accessing data about potential victims in law-enforcement databases, was sentenced to time served.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today