“I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationals were used, it was a mistake.”
-President Obama, 2009
-President Obama, 2011
Until Marc Thiessen’s book, Courting Disaster, came out in 2010, the critics of Bush-era enhanced interrogations (waterboarding specifically) of al-Qaeda high-value detainees have had most of the field to themselves in the media. Former VP Dick Cheney could not restrain himself from making public comments in response to the current president’s political attacks against the EIT program and those who supported it. Those involved directly within the CIA interrogation program itself were not at liberty to defend themselves against the attacks, distortions, smears, and misconceptions. They basically had to bite their lips and weather the storm of slander.
President Obama’s 2009 decision to release the “how-not-to-torture” OLC memos made details of Thiessen’s book possible. Courting Disaster challenged the mainstream narrative that the CIA method of waterboarding (just 3 HVDs) rose to the level of definition for torture and that it was ineffective.
In Dick Cheney’s memoir, In My Time pg 521-2, the former VP writes:
The president decided to declassify a different set of documents. These were the memos produced by the Bush administration Justice Department that explained the legal rationale supporting enhanced interrogation and also detailed the particular methods involved. At about the same time, President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, signaled the possibility that the lawyers who prepared these memos and the intellgience officers who conducted enhanced interrogations might face professional sanction or even criminal prosecution.
I was appalled that the new administration would even consider punishing honorable public servants who had carried out the Bush administration’s lawful policies and kept the country safe. I was also deeply concerned about the selective fashion in which sensitive information was being declassified and made public. The administration had just revealed to the world, including our enemies, methods used to question detainees thought to have information about future attacks. Yet the information in the memos I had requested- detailing all we had learned, and the attacks we had stopped through the enhanced interrogation program- was being kept secret. A few weeks after President Obama released the legal memos, I heard from CIA Director Leon Panetta, a colleague and friend from my days in the House. He wrote to tell me that my request was being denied.
The memos Cheney wanted to have released eventually were made available. And still the debate over waterboarding and “torture” remain unsettled.
The former Bush vice president and the former Bush speech writer aren’t the only ones appalled by President Obama’s branding with the “torture”
label libel. And they aren’t the only ones coming forth to give the other side of the story.
The tapes, filmed in a secret CIA prison in Thailand, showed the waterboarding of terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri.
Especially after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Rodriguez writes, if the CIA’s videos were to leak out, officers worldwide would be in danger.
“I wasn’t going to sit around another three years waiting for people to get up the courage,” to do what CIA lawyers said he had the authority to do himself, Rodriguez writes. He describes sending the order in November 2005 as “just getting rid of some ugly visuals.”
A blunt explanation
It became clear immediately that Rodriguez never even got the talking points, which was refreshing and surprising. Right away he began divulging awkward truths that other senior officers had tried to obfuscate in our conversations about the secret prisons: “In many cases they are violating their own laws by helping us,” he offered, according to notes I took at the time.
Why not bring the detainees to trial?
“Because they would get lawyered up, and our job, first and foremost, is to obtain information.”
Concerned that the location of one of the prisons was about to be revealed, Rodriguez writes that he ordered the facility closed immediately and the detainees moved to a new site. While dismantling the site, the base chief asked Rodriguez if she could throw a pile of old videotapes, made during the early days of terrorist Abu Zubaida’s interrogation and waterboarding, and now a couple of years old, onto a nearby bonfire that was set to destroy papers and other evidence of the agency’s presence.
Just at that moment, according to his account, a cable from headquarters came in saying: “Hold up on the tapes. We think they should be retained for a little while longer.”
“Had that message been delayed by even a few minutes,” Rodriguez writes, “my life in the years following would have been considerably easier.”
Those actions led to a lengthy and still ongoing investigation of the agency that produced no charges. Rodriguez retired in January 2008 and now works in the private sector.
Shredding the tapes
Rodriguez writes that he ordered the tapes’ destruction because he got tired of waiting for his superiors to make a decision. They had at least twice given him the go-ahead, then backed off. In the meantime, a senior agency attorney cited “grave national security reasons” for destroying the material and said the tapes presented ‘“grave risk” to the personal safety of our officers” whose identities could be seen on the recordings.
In late April 2004, another event forced his hand, he writes. Photos of the abuse of prisoners by Army soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq ignited the Arab world and risked being confused with the CIA’s program, which was run very differently.
“We knew that if the photos of CIA officers conducting authorized EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] ever got out, the difference between a legal, authorized, necessary, and safe program and the mindless actions of some MPs [military police] would be buried by the impact of the images.
“The propaganda damage to the image of America would be immense. But the main concern then, and always, was for the safety of my officers.”
Readers may disagree with much of what Rodriguez writes and with the importance of some of the facts he omits from his book, but the above sentence speaks volumes about why this book is important. In this case, a loyal civil servant — and the decision-makers above him who blessed these programs — were not thinking about the larger, longer-lasting damage to the core values of the United States that disclosure of these secrets might cause. They were thinking about the near term. About efficiency. About the safety of friends and colleagues. In their minds, they were thinking, too, about the safety of the country.
And after some back-and-forth with agency lawyers for what seemed to him the umpteenth time, he writes, Rodriguez scrutinized a cable to the field drafted by his chief of staff, ordering that the tapes be shredded in an industrial-strength machine. The tapes had already been reviewed, and copious written notes on their content had been taken.
“I was not depriving anyone of information about what was done or what was said,” he writes. “I was just getting rid of some ugly visuals that could put the lives of my people at risk.
“I took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”
I have no doubt that had these videos of Zubaydah and al-Nashiri’s interrogation sessions been made public, the only ones who stand to benefit would be Code Pink anti-war groups, bleeding heart human rights groups, the Taliban in Afghanistan, anti-Americanists around the world, and al Qaeda’s propaganda bureau. Not because there’s anything in the video that probably should alarm; but because by nature, those who live in modern civilized society are squeamish…and thus, would be alarmed and horrified. The EITs themselves were designed to make the HVD feel like the situation he was placed in is worse than the actual reality of it- a case of the bark being worse than the bite.
I’d say executions of mass murderers and serial killers is highly justified. But should they be witnessed by the public at large? Killing the enemy is necessary in wafare; but should all the sheep of society bear witness to what wolves and sheepdog do to one another? Maybe…but this isn’t the philosophical argument I’m wanting to have. My point is that watching the most sensationalized selective scenes that the media may find from these videos (devalued and devoid of relevant context) had they not been destroyed, would only be bad for our CIA…bad for our soldiers still in this fight on the frontlines…and ultimately bad for America.
“I don’t know what kind of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of a camera like that, but I can tell you this is probably someone who didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.”
“We made some al-Qaida terrorists with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days. I am very secure in what we did and am very confident that what we did saved American lives.”
-Jose Rodriguez, former chief of the CIA’s clandestine service
Rodriguez’s book probably won’t quell the debate anytime soon (A 3-year probe by Senate Democrats is scheduled to be released sometime soon, discounting the value of the EIT program) but it will most certainly enrich the debate to be had on both sides.