Former CIA operative turned novelist Barry Eisler is fond of pointing out the well-honed tactics developed by the CIA for dealing with bad news. As he notes in his forthcoming novel, Inside Out (scheduled for release next month), the story of the destruction of the CIA tapes of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques furnishes a great example. At first, it was reported that two tapes had gone missing. The story grabbed Washington’s attention, drew print media headlines, and raised such a storm that Bush’s last attorney general was forced to appoint a special prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate the matter. But then it became clear that there were “several” tapes, not just two. And a few months later, when few were still tracking the matter, it became known that the number was ninety-two. One or two tapes might be destroyed inadvertently, of course, but ninety-two? That was the product of a conscious decision, which likely involved a number of people.
Internal CIA e-mails show the former agency head, Porter Goss, agreed with a top aide’s 2005 decision to destroy videotapes of the harsh interrogation of a terror suspect, a controversial action that remains the focus of an FBI investigation. The documents show that, despite Goss’ apparent agreement, CIA officials almost immediately began worrying they’d done something wrong…
The videos showed CIA interrogators using waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique that’s widely considered torture, on terrorism suspect Abu Zubaydah. The videos showed that interrogators did not follow the waterboarding procedures authorized by the Bush administration, the documents indicate. Jose Rodriguez, the agency’s top clandestine officer, worried the 92 tapes would be “devastating” to the CIA if they ever surfaced, the documents show. He approved the destruction of the tapes. Rodriguez told Goss and others he “felt it was extremely important to destroy the tapes and that if there was any heat, he would take it,” according to a November 2005 e-mail. Goss, according to the e-mail, laughed and said he’d be the one to take the heat.
The tapes were relevant to and requested in a number of legal proceedings, and their destruction therefore amounted to the suppression of vital evidence. That could be a serious crime. Prosecutor Durham is still looking into the matter, two years later, and there is no sign that he intends to walk away from it any time soon. But these disclosures suggest that the decision was taken with the approval of the highest level at the CIA, and it’s still too early to rule out approvals at still higher levels.