Destroying CIA tapes deserves a thank you

Linda Chavez's picture

His name isn’t yet familiar to most Americans, but I expect it will be by the end of 2008: Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. He is the man, according to recent press reports, who ordered the destruction of interrogation tapes made by the CIA, which allegedly show the effects of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

In the next few months, his name will likely be dragged through the mud, and he will be vilified as a rogue official engaged in a massive cover-up. I think he deserves a medal.

According to information that has already leaked out about the investigations into the CIA tapes, Rodriguez, who was head of the agency’s clandestine operations at the time, made the decision to destroy the videos in November 2005. The tapes themselves were made in 2002, just months after the United States experienced the most devastating foreign attack against American civilians in our nation’s history.

Looking back, it’s very easy to condemn the extraordinary measures our government took to try to save lives in the wake of 9/11. And, of course, the media and members of Congress have perfect 20/20 hindsight, but the rest of us should show a little restraint when it comes to judging past decisions in light of contemporary misgivings.

A collective amnesia seems to have set in on what conditions were like in 2002 when those CIA interrogations took place. Most Americans fully expected that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were just the beginning of a terrorist war on American civilians. After all, we were being told by nearly everyone in a position to know that the question was not if we would suffer another major terrorist attack, but when.

By the time the CIA interrogated Zubaydah and al-Nashiri, the East Coast had been hit not only on Sept. 11 but by a series of anthrax attacks that killed five people and injured about an estimated 17 others (a case that has yet to be solved.) Sniper John Allen Muhammad, a convert to the Nation of Islam, and his sidekick, Lee Boyd Malvo, had also gunned down 10 people and critically injured three others in the Washington, D.C., area in a monthlong rampage.

Congress was so concerned that the government had not done enough to protect us that it created a new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and established the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who would become speaker of the House of Representatives when the Democrats returned to power four years later, told the Washington Post in January 2002 that she began every speech with “We stand side by side with President Bush on the war on terrorism.”

So what exactly did we expect the CIA to do when they captured high-level al-Qaeda operatives? Read them their Miranda rights, provide them with free lawyers and place them in a cell with cable TV?

We don’t know exactly what the captured al-Qaeda operatives told interrogators — thankfully — but we do know that there hasn’t been another al-Qaeda attack in the United States in more than six years. We also know that congressional leaders, at least initially, made no objections to the use of waterboarding when they were informed about it in September 2002. (Speaker Pelosi now claims that she did object later.)

We also know that by the time Rodriguez reportedly gave instructions to destroy the CIA tapes, America’s reputation had been severely damaged by the release of other tapes entirely unconnected to the CIA’s or any U.S. efforts to obtain intelligence from captured prisoners. In April 2004, CBS’s newsmagazine “60 Minutes” had aired a handful of inflammatory videos made by out-of-control, low-level American military guards at Abu Ghraib prison.

Those tapes revealed disgusting, evil mistreatment of ordinary prisoners by a handful of American soldiers — not an attempt to solicit valuable information from high-level al-Qaeda detainees. Abu Ghraib resulted in convictions for some dozen soldiers and effectively ended the careers of several officers.

It is difficult to imagine what harm might have come from the release of the CIA interrogation tapes — but there is no doubt that had they continued to exist, at some point they would have become public. The tapes’ release would have jeopardized sources and methods used by the CIA, the most serious category of risk to American intelligence. And their release might have led to assassinations of CIA operatives, greater risk for our captured soldiers, and international hand-wringing by our putative allies.

Rodriguez’s lawyer says that his client sought and received legal clearance to destroy the tapes. Even though he is likely to become a scapegoat, what he did was right. He protected not just his men but all of us. I, for one, thank him.

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