2005: CIA director of clandestine operations destroyed videotapes of torture

Jose Rodriguez, the CIA Director of Clandestine Operations first ordered the Zubaydah torture sessions to be videotaped. He then tried, without success, to obtain permission to destroy the tapes. The Washington Post reported that at least five senior CIA and White House officials had counseled the agency, since 2003 to preserve the tapes. Former CIA officials said that Porter J. Goss, who was the CIA director in 2005, had opposed the destruction of the tapes during meetings in which the issue was discussed. Senior agency lawyers, including John Rizzo, CIA’s acting General Counsel also cautioned against doing so. Nevertheless, on Nov. 29, 2005, Rodriguez ordered at least 92 videos destroyed. The Washington Post reported that,

“According to interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials familiar with the debate, the taping was conducted from August to December 2002 to demonstrate that interrogators were following the detailed rules set by lawyers and medical experts in Washington, and were not causing a detainee’s death.”

The principal motive for the tapes’ destruction was the clandestine operations division’s worry that the tapes could be snatched out of their hands and they would be posted on the internet/ They feared that those involved in waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques would be hauled before a grand jury or a congressional inquiry. Many of those involved recalled that senior CIA and White House officials advised against destroying the tapes, but did not expressly prohibit it, leaving Rodriguez to interpret this silence as a tacit approval for their destruction.

“Jose could not get any specific direction out of his leadership in 2005. Word of the resulting destruction, one former official said, was greeted by widespread relief among clandestine officers, and Rodriguez was neither penalized nor reprimanded, publicly or privately, by CIA Director Porter J. Goss.”  (Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus. Station Chief Made Appeal to Destroy CIA Tapes, The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2008)

The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information about controversial aspects of the program from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission. Staff members of the Sept. 11 commission, which completed its work in 2004, expressed surprise when they were told that interrogation videotapes had existed until 2005.

“The commission did formally request material of this kind from all relevant agencies, and the commission was assured that we had received all the material responsive to our request.”  But “No tapes were acknowledged or turned over, nor was the commission provided with any transcript prepared from recordings,” said Philip Zelikow, who served as Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission.

Daniel Marcus, a law professor at American University who served as general counsel for the Sept. 11 commission said

“If tapes were destroyed, it’s a big deal, it’s a very big deal, because it could amount to obstruction of justice to withhold evidence being sought in criminal or fact-finding investigations.” (Mark Mazzetti. C.I.A. Destroyed 2 Tapes Showing Interrogations, The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2007)

Three days after the tapes had been shredded, a CIA memorandum, since released under the Freedom of Information Act, reported comments by Jose Rodriguez:

“the heat from destroying [the tapes] is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes got into the public domain – he said that out of context they would make us look terrible – it would be devastating to us. All in the room agreed.” (Peter Taylor. ‘Vomiting and screaming’ in destroyed waterboarding tapes, BBC News 9 May 2012)