Looks like the cat is out of the bag and the “new family jewels” were destroyed. What am I talking about? Today’s revelation in the NY Times that, “the Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency’s custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.”

During the Church Committee investigation of CIA misdeeds in 1975-76, “family jewels” was the euphemism for the list of unsavory secret activities–e.g., assassination, domestic spying, etc.–carried out by CIA officers that then CIA Director, William Colby, handed over to Congress. Those “jewels” tarnished the Agency’s reputation and its officers. Well, here we go again.

The news of the destroyed tapes is not on par with the “family jewels” of the seventies. But it does reinforce the “24″ image of CIA activities that the average layman (or woman) believes to be true. It’s not just Jack Bauer torturing folks to save America.

The truth on this will come out assuming that the Democrats press the investigation. At initial glance the CIA is hiding behind the lamest of excuses:

General Hayden’s statement said that the tapes posed a “serious security risk” and that if they had become public they would have exposed C.I.A. officials “and their families to retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”

I do not dispute the possibility of retaliation by Al Qaeda against an undercover officer. In fact, it happened to Valerie Plame Wilson, but her identity was exposed by the Bush Administration. Then there is the question of tradecraft. Did the CIA officers participating in the interrogation/torture sessions allow themselves to be filmed so that they could be easily identified? I am skeptical. When the truth comes out I think we are likely to discover the people doing the questioning were contractors, not undercover Agency officers.

But let’s assume for a moment that undercover CIA officers actually were filmed.  Are you telling me that CIA has not figured out how to edit videotapes and cover the faces and voices of their personnel?  I’m sure there is a 14 year old computer geek out there somewhere with a MacBook Pro who is ready and willing to help the CIA do the necessary editing to protect their personnel.  The Hayden excuse does not pass the bullshit test.

But anyway, according to the CIA, there wasn’t anything worth seeing. The tapes are no longer of any value.

Let’s be clear why these were destroyed–the chief of the Operations Division, Jose Rodriguez, understood that this was video evidence of torture. It was not the exposure of clandestine identities that had him fretting. It was the fear that CIA officers and contractors could be standing before a tribunal in the Hague trying to explain why the images of torture were not torture.

Then there is the potential embarrassment from showing that these extreme interrogation measures did not produce any intelligence of significance. If, for example, one of the tortured victims had spilled the beans about an impending attack on the White House or the financial towers of New York City you can be sure that evidence would be preserved and shared. At least those involved in this tawdry affair could justify violating international conventions by demonstrating that “lives were saved”. But that did not happen.

Jose Rodriguez will not be the only one walking the public plank on this issue.  In fact, he did not undertake this mission without the permission or direction from higher ups.  And when you are the Deputy Director of Operations, there are not a lot of people above you. Prominent names include George Tenet, John McLaughlin, Porter Goss, and John Rizzo.  Darrel Plant has an insightful piece giving some important background on Rizzo, the acting CIA General Counsel.

Other intelligence officers likely to be asked tough questions include Cofer Black (now a senior official with Blackwater) and Ambassador Henry “Hank” Crumpton, who was Cofer’s deputy and subsequently served as the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism at State Department.

Be assured that lawyers in Washington are celebrating this as a holiday gift.  I am sure many CIA officers will get a chance to use the insurance policies they bought, which helps defray legal expenses.  I doubt that Jose Rodriguez will be a willing scapegoat.  In fact, I would not be surprised if he kept some information back that would help exonerate him just in case this very contingency arose.

Happy Holidays.

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