Keystone cops: CIA should explain destroyed tapes

The CIA and the public should already know who ordered interrogation tapes destroyed, and why

Since the news broke that the CIA had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes of the interrogation of two suspected terrorists, at least four investigations have begun or been threatened. However, few of the investigators seem in a hurry to learn the truth.

Within 24 hours of being asked to testify before Congress, CIA Director Mike Hayden should have been able to learn who destroyed the tapes, who ordered them destroyed and for what reason. After all, he’s the director of a vast and elaborate intelligence gathering agency. If the CIA can’t know what its personnel in Washington are doing, how can it expect to learn the world’s secrets?

Hayden’s reluctance to be candid with the people’s representatives suggests that the truth is scandalous or embarrassing to the agency. He told members of the House Intelligence Committee that the tapes, documenting hundreds of hours of harsh interrogation methods, had been made to protect the interrogators from being prosecuted for torture. But if the tapes had to be destroyed, the protection vanished. What was the point?

Hayden said the tapes were destroyed to protect the interrogators’ identities. If that were true, the tapes would not have been made in the first place. The interrogators’ identities would never have been exposed to risk.

A more likely reason for the tapes’ destruction is that they show interrogation methods that on a TV screen look remarkably like torture. If the interrogations were in fact torture, illegal in this country, the destruction of the tapes would constitute tampering with evidence of a crime.

The Justice Department and CIA are conducting, at a glacial pace, a joint investigation. Last week Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and CIA Inspector General John Helgerson asked members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees not to interfere with the investigation by conducting parallel probes. Wainstein and Helgerson could not predict how long Congress must wait for answers.

In a world in which the administration yearned for the truth, government investigators would already have interviewed the interrogators who were taped and the officials who ordered the tapes destroyed. Any CIA official who didn’t cooperate would be subject to dismissal.

The government’s official investigation seems designed to make the case seem complicated and prolonged. It shouldn’t have to be. No wonder a federal judge is threatening in frustration to mount his own investigation.

The tapes, which recorded the use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, were not destroyed to protect agents’ identities. They were almost certainly destroyed because they recorded behavior most Americans find abhorrent.

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle