When the CIA’s clandestine service asked permission to destroy video tapes showing waterboarding and other coercive interrogation of two terrorists, Directors George Tenet and later Porter J. Goss turned them down, Newsmax has learned.
Despite that, when Goss was running the agency in November 2005, Jose A Rodriguez, Jr., the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, ordered the destruction of the tapes showing the interrogation of al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
“The destruction damages the agency’s credibility with the public, Congress, and judges,” says John L. Martin, who dealt extensively with the CIA on legal issues as chief of the Justice Department’s espionage prosecutions. “Judges will be more skeptical about submissions made by the intelligence community after this.”
Rodriguez was said by CIA sources to be concerned that if the tapes were obtained by Congress or the courts and leaked to the press, they could be used by jihadists as anti-American propaganda and could lead to targeting of the CIA officers depicted administering waterboarding and other coercive techniques.
In a statement to employees, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the tapes were destroyed to protect the safety of undercover officers when the tapes had no intelligence value. By not taking issue with the destruction, Hayden was sending a message that he will not gratuitously second guess CIA officers who risk their lives to protect the country.
The Justice Department meanwhile announced a preliminary investigation of the destruction of the tapes to determine if further investigation is warranted.
Goss was informed of the destruction of the tapes after the fact and was said to be angered by it, as was John Rizzo, the CIA’s counsel. At the same time, some CIA operatives suggest that Rodriguez felt he could get away with ordering the destruction on his own because CIA management was so dysfunctional under Goss. Goss surrounded himself with a tight circle of former Capitol Hill aides who engaged in ego battles with widely admired and successful CIA officers.
One example was Stephen R. Kappes, a former Moscow and Kuwait Station chief who played a pivotal role in secret talks that led Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Kappes resigned from the CIA when Patrick Murray, who was chief of staff to Goss, ordered Kappes to fire his deputy, Michael Sulick, after Sulick criticized Murray over the nasty way he had treated another CIA officer. Hayden has since brought Kappes back to the agency, promoting him to deputy director.
Under Tenet, Rodriguez did not head the clandestine service, but other operatives within that service were rebuffed when they asked Tenet for permission to destroy the tapes, sources say. Rodriguez recently retired from the CIA.
When he learned of the destruction of the tapes, Hayden ordered the agency to notify key members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Back in 2003, John L. Helgerson, the agency’s inspector general, viewed the tapes when conducting an investigation of the interrogations and found nothing troubling about them, according to a CIA source.
However, the destruction of the tapes calls to mind activities carried out by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970, leading some to say then that it was a rogue agency. At the same time, the larger controversy about what the tapes depict spotlights the precarious position the agency is in when it is used as a political football when the CIA and the FBI are in the forefront of protecting the country from terrorist attacks.
Despite a drumbeat of media reports about it, the CIA has used waterboarding as an interrogation tactic on only three terrorists and has not used the technique since 2003. As normally defined, torture is the infliction of severe pain. While waterboarding causes fear because it simulates drowning, it is painless. In fact, in case they are captured and experience it, U.S. special forces are subjected to waterboarding as part of their training.
Since the media began disclosing that the CIA was using waterboarding, the technique has become virtually useless. If terrorists know they will be subjected to fake drowning, they will not respond to it. The CIA does not believe outright torture produces reliable results and has never used it. Scaring prisoners with waterboarding is another matter. The technique was used when the CIA believed a second wave of attacks was imminent.
Besides Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden’s field commander or chief of operations, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole, the technique was used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. In these cases, waterboarding and other and other coercive techniques — like subjecting prisoners to frigid temperatures or forcing them to stand for hours — have worked and have led to a takedown of other key al-Qaeda operatives when they were planning more attacks that could have killed tens of thousands of Americans.
Coercive techniques were first used on Zubaydah when he stopped cooperating.
“We weren’t getting very much from him at all,” Robert Grenier, the former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told me for my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack.” “And that’s when we began the process of putting together a properly focused interrogation process. It was refined a good deal subsequently, but he was the test.” [Editor’s Note: Get Ronald Kessler’s book. Go here now.]
Before they were employed, the Justice Department reviewed the interrogation procedures and determined that they were legally permissible. As the interrogation of Zubaydah and other detained terrorists progressed, the CIA briefed the chairs, ranking members, and majority and minority staff directors of the House and Senate intelligence committees on the details of the procedures used. Yet now, members of Congress are getting air time by decrying the use of waterboarding.
Contrary to hysterical press reports, fewer than 100 terrorists have been detained in CIA facilities since the program began in the spring of 2002. Fewer than a third of them have been subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.
Congress has twice had the chance to ban waterboarding but has twice declined to do so. In the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress only barred “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment. Now legislation that would ban waterboarding is being considered.
Aside from alerting al-Qaeda to methods used to interrogate them, the disclosure of secret techniques and so-called secret prisons has impaired cooperation with the CIA by key foreign countries. According to Grenier, even though they were mostly wrong, the stories have had a devastating effect. Perhaps half a dozen countries, most critically important in the war on terror, said they would have to ratchet down cooperation with the CIA on sensitive projects. All did, in fact, scale back such cooperation
Still, agency officials are dismayed at the destruction of the tapes and do not condone it. At the same time, they point out that the controversy over waterboarding and the specter of members of Congress calling for investigations and prosecutions feeds a risk averse atmosphere that existed under the Clinton administration and is starting to creep back into the intelligence community.
In his statement to employees, Hayden said, “I understand that the agency [destroyed the tapes] only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries, including the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.” He added, “These decisions were made years ago. But it is my responsibility, as director today, to explain to you what was done, and why. What matters here is that it was done in line with the law.”
“No one had a problem with waterboarding when they were briefed on it at the time,” says a former CIA official. “Now people are starting to back away. What happens the next time CIA officers are asked to take actions that may be close to the edge but have been approved by the Justice Department, the White House, and members of Congress and may save may tens of thousands of lives?”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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