Why CIA Tapes Created & Destroyed
- Tapes by CIA Lived and Died to Save Image
By Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti
The New York Times
Washington - If Abu Zubaydah, a senior operative of Al Qaeda, died
in American hands, Central Intelligence Agency officers pursuing the
terrorist group knew that much of the world would believe they had
So in the spring of 2002, even as the intelligence officers flew
in a surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat Abu Zubaydah, who
had been shot three times during his capture in Pakistan, they set up
video cameras to record his every moment: asleep in his cell, having
his bandages changed, being interrogated.
In fact, current and former intelligence officials say, the
agency's every action in the prolonged drama of the interrogation
videotapes was prompted in part by worry about how its conduct might
be perceived - by Congress, by prosecutors, by the American public and
by Muslims worldwide.
That worry drove the decision to begin taping interrogations - and
to stop taping just months later, after the treatment of prisoners
began to include waterboarding. And it fueled the nearly three-year
campaign by the agency's clandestine service for permission to destroy
the tapes, culminating in a November 2005 destruction order from the
service's director, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.
Now, the disclosure of the tapes and their destruction in 2005
have become just the public spectacle the agency had sought to avoid.
To the already fierce controversy over whether the Bush administration
authorized torture has been added the specter of a cover-up.
The Justice Department, the C.I.A.'s inspector general and
Congress are investigating whether any official lied about the tapes
or broke the law by destroying them. Still in dispute is whether any
White House official encouraged their destruction and whether the
C.I.A. deliberately hid them from the national Sept. 11 commission.
But interviews with two dozen current and former officials, most
of whom would speak about the classified program only on the condition
of anonymity, revealed new details about why the tapes were made and
then eliminated. Their accounts show how political and legal
considerations competed with intelligence concerns in the handling of
The discussion about the tapes took place in Congressional
briefings and secret deliberations among top White House lawyers,
including a meeting in May 2004 just days after photographs of abuse
at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had reminded the administration of the
power of such images. The debate stretched over the tenure of two
C.I.A. chiefs and became entangled in a feud between the agency's top
lawyers and its inspector general. The tapes documented a program so
closely guarded that President Bush himself had agreed with the advice
of intelligence officials that he not be told the locations of the
secret C.I.A. prisons. Had there been no political or security
considerations, videotaping every interrogation and preserving the
tapes would make sense, according to several intelligence officials.
"You couldn't have more than one or two analysts in the room,"
said A. B. Krongard, the C.I.A.'s No. 3 official at the time the
interrogations were taped. "You want people with spectacular language
skills to watch the tapes. You want your top Al Qaeda experts to watch
the tapes. You want psychologists to watch the tapes. You want
interrogators in training to watch the tapes."
Given such advantages, why was the taping stopped by the end of
2002, less than a year after it started?
"By that time," Mr. Krongard said, "paranoia was setting in."
The Decision to Tape
By several accounts, the decision to begin taping Abu Zubaydah and
another detainee suspected of being a Qaeda operative, Abd al-Rahim
al-Nashiri, was made in the field, with several goals in mind.
First, there was Abu Zubaydah's precarious condition. "There was
concern that we needed to have this all documented in case he should
expire from his injuries," recalled one former intelligence official.
Just as important was the fact that for many years the C.I.A. had
rarely conducted even standard interrogations, let alone ones
involving physical pressure, so officials wanted to track closely the
use of legally fraught interrogation methods. And there was interest
in capturing all the information to be gleaned from a rare resource -
direct testimony from those who had attacked the United States.
But just months later, the taping was stopped. Some field officers
had never liked the idea. "If you're a case officer, the last thing
you want is someone in Washington second-guessing everything you did,"
said one former agency veteran.
More significant, interrogations of Abu Zubaydah had gotten
rougher, with each new tactic approved by cable from headquarters.
American officials have said that Abu Zubaydah was the first Qaeda
prisoner to be waterboarded, a procedure during which water is poured
over the prisoner's mouth and nose to create a feeling of drowning.
Officials said they felt they could not risk a public leak of a
videotape showing Americans giving such harsh treatment to bound
Heightening the worries about the tapes was word of the first
deaths of prisoners in American custody. In November 2002, an Afghan
man froze to death overnight while chained in a cell at a C.I.A. site
in Afghanistan, north of Kabul, the capital. Two more prisoners died
in December 2002 in American military custody at Bagram Air Base in
By late 2002, interrogators were recycling videotapes, preserving
only two days of tapes before recording over them, one C.I.A. officer
said. Finally, senior agency officials decided that written summaries
of prisoners' answers would suffice.
Still, that decision left hundreds of hours of videotape of the
two Qaeda figures locked in an overseas safe.
Clandestineservice officers who had overseen the interrogations
began pushing hard to destroy the tapes. But George J. Tenet, then the
director of central intelligence, was wary, in part because the
agency's top lawyer, Scott W. Muller, advised against it, current and
former officials said.
Yet agency officials decided to float the idea of eliminating the
tapes on Capitol Hill, hoping for political cover. In February 2003,
Mr. Muller told members of the House and Senate oversight committees
about the C.I.A's interest in destroying the tapes for security reasons.
But both Porter J. Goss, then a Republican congressman from
Florida and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and
Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat,
thought destroying the tapes would be legally and politically risky.
C.I.A. officials did not press the matter.
The Detention Program
Scrutiny of the C.I.A.'s secret detention program kept building.
Later in 2003, the agency's inspector general, John L. Helgerson,
began investigating the program, and some insiders believed the
inquiry might end with criminal charges for abusive interrogations.
Mr. Helgerson - now conducting the videotapes review with the
Justice Department - had already rankled covert officers with an
investigation into the 2001 shooting down of a missionary plane by
Peruvian military officers advised by the C.I.A. The investigation set
off widespread concern within the clandestine branch that a day of
reckoning could be coming for officers involved in the agency's secret
prison program. The Peru investigation often pitted Mr. Helgerson
against Mr. Muller, who vigorously defended members of the clandestine
branch and even lobbied the Justice Department to head off criminal
charges in the matter, according to former intelligence officials
"Muller wanted to show the clandestine branch that he was looking
out for them," said John Radsan, who served as an assistant general
counsel for the C.I.A. from 2002 to 2004. "And his aggressiveness on
Peru was meant to prove to the operations people that they were
protected on a lot of other programs, too."
Mr. Helgerson completed his investigation of interrogations in
April 2004, according to one person briefed on the still-secret
report, which concluded that some of the C.I.A.'s techniques appeared
to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under the
international Convention Against Torture. Current and former officials
said the report did not explicitly state that the methods were torture.
A month later, as the administration reeled from the Abu Ghraib
disclosures, Mr. Muller, the agency general counsel, met to discuss
the report with three senior lawyers at the White House: Alberto R.
Gonzales, the White House counsel; David S. Addington, legal adviser
for Vice President Dick Cheney; and John B. Bellinger III, the top
lawyer at the National Security Council.
The interrogation tapes were discussed at the meeting, and one
Bush administration official said that, according to notes of the
discussion, Mr. Bellinger advised the C.I.A. against destroying the
tapes. The positions Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Addington took are unknown.
One person familiar with the discussion said that in light of concerns
raised in the inspector general's report that agency officers could be
legally liable for harsh interrogations, there was a view at the time
among some administration lawyers that the tapes should be preserved.
Looking for Guidance
After Mr. Tenet and Mr. Muller left the C.I.A. in mid-2004, Mr.
Rodriguez and other officials from the clandestine branch decided
again to take up the tapes with the new chief at Langley, Mr. Goss,
the former congressman.
Mr. Rodriguez had taken over the clandestine directorate in late
2004, and colleagues say Mr. Goss repeatedly emphasized to Mr.
Rodriguez that he was expected to run operations without clearing
every decision with superiors.
During a meeting in Mr. Goss's office with Mr. Rodriguez, John A.
Rizzo, who by then had replaced Mr. Muller as the agency's top lawyer,
told the new C.I.A. director that the clandestine branch wanted a firm
decision about what to do with the tapes.
According to two people close to Mr. Goss, he advised against
destroying the tapes, as he had in Congress, and told Mr. Rizzo and
Mr. Rodriguez that he thought the tapes should be preserved at the
overseas location. Apparently he did not explicitly prohibit the
Yet in November 2005, Congress already was moving to outlaw
"cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners, and The
Washington Post reported that some C.I.A. prisoners were being held in
Eastern Europe. As the agency scrambled to move the prisoners to new
locations, Mr. Rodriguez and his aides decided to use their own
authority to destroy the tapes, officials said.
One official who has spoken with Mr. Rodriguez said Mr. Rodriguez
and his aides were concerned about protection of the C.I.A. officers
on the tapes, from Al Qaeda, as the C.I.A. has stated, and from
The tapes might visually identify as many as five or six people
present for each interrogation - interrogators themselves, whom the
agency now prefers to call "debriefers"; doctors or doctor's
assistants who monitored the prisoner's medical state; and security
officers, the official said. Some traveled regularly in and out of
areas where Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremists are active, he said.
Apart from concerns about physical safety in the event of a leak,
the official said, there was concern for the careers of officers shown
on the tapes. "We didn't want them to become political scapegoats," he
According to several current and former officials, lawyers in the
agency's clandestine branch gave Mr. Rodriguez written guidance that
he had the authority to destroy the tapes and that such a move would
not be illegal.
One day in November 2005, Mr. Rodriguez sent a cable ordering the
destruction of the recordings. Soon afterward, he notified both Mr.
Goss and Mr. Rizzo, taking full responsibility for the decision.
Former intelligence officials said that Mr. Goss was unhappy about
the news, in part because it was further evidence that as the C.I.A.
director he was so weakened that his subordinates would directly
reject his advice. Yet it appears that Mr. Rodriguez was never
reprimanded. Nor is there evidence that Mr. Goss promptly notified
Congress that the tapes were gone.
The investigations over the tapes frustrate some C.I.A. veterans,
who say they believe that the agency is being unfairly blamed for
policies of coercive interrogation approved at the top of the Bush
administration and by some Congressional leaders. Intelligence
officers are divided over the use of such methods as waterboarding.
Some say the methods helped get information that prevented terrorist
attacks. Others, like John C. Gannon, a former C.I.A. deputy director,
say it was a tragic mistake for the administration to approve such
Mr. Gannon said he thought the tapes became such an issue because
they would have settled the legal debate over the harsh methods.
"To a spectator it would look like torture," he said. "And torture
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