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CIA’s clandestine service called its own shots on tapes

Shortly after he arrived as CIA director in 2004, Porter J. Goss met with the agency’s top spies and general counsel to discuss a range of issues, including what to do with videotapes showing harsh interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.

“Getting rid of tapes in Washington,” Goss said, according to an official involved in the discussions, “is an extremely bad idea.”

But at the agency’s operational levels -- especially within the branch that ran the network of secret prisons -- the idea of holding on to the tapes and hoping their existence would never be leaked to the public seemed even worse.

Citing what CIA veterans regard as a long record of being stranded by politicians in times of scandal, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the decision to destroy the tapes was driven by a determination among senior spies to guard against a repeat of that outcome.

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The order to destroy the recordings came from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then-head of the CIA’s clandestine service, which deploys spies overseas and carries out covert operations.

The service has been blamed for botched operations and spy scandals for decades, from the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba through failures leading up to the Iraq war. It is one of the agency’s three main divisions; the others are devoted to analysis and to development of espionage science and technology.

But the clandestine service has long been the most influential branch in the agency. It has a reputation for undermining directors perceived as hostile to the service -- including Goss -- and has developed a fierce instinct for protecting the agency’s interests.

The clandestine service “is almost tribal in nature,” said a former senior CIA official familiar with the discussions on the tapes. “They believe that no one else will look out for them so they have to look out for themselves.”

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That culture, current and former intelligence officials said, helps to explain why Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed despite cautions against doing so from senior lawmakers, White House attorneys and the agency’s director.

It may also account for why Rodriguez was not punished or fired after that decision was disclosed. Rodriguez is now in the CIA’s retirement program and is expected to leave the agency in the coming months. His successor at the clandestine service remains undercover.

Current and former officials close to Rodriguez said he issued the order largely out of a sense of obligation to undercover officers whose identities would have been exposed if the tapes were to surface. Like others interviewed for this article, the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations and the sensitivity of the subject.

Even with the possibility of criminal charges looming, some CIA veterans who worked with Rodriguez said destroying the tapes was the honorable course at an agency that reveres leaders who protect spies and guard agency secrets.

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“This boiled down to an issue of who had the responsibility to protect our officers’ identities,” said a former U.S. intelligence official involved in discussions on the tapes. “That fell to Jose, and he did the right thing.”

The tapes were considered explosive because they included footage of CIA interrogators using rough interrogation tactics on Al Qaeda captives. One of the methods videotaped was waterboarding, which simulates the sensation of drowning and has been condemned by human rights organizations and critics in Congress as a form of torture.

The CIA has maintained that all of its interrogation methods were lawful and approved in advance by the Justice Department. The agency has also defended its handling of the tapes.

Tapes ‘not relevant’

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In a memo to employees this month, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the recordings were destroyed “only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries.”

However, the Sept. 11 commission, which examined U.S. intelligence lapses before the 2001 terrorist attacks, had asked the CIA for all relevant materials related to the plot as part of its inquiry. After news of the tapes became public, 9/11 panel members said they should have been given access to the tapes. Several attorneys representing terrorism suspects also have said they requested similar materials from the CIA.

Even so, the Justice Department and two congressional committees have launched investigations into the matter. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena last week to compel Rodriguez to testify before the panel next month.

From the outset of the program, CIA officials feared that their role in running the secret prisons would leave them vulnerable if the political climate shifted.

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In his memoir published in April, former CIA Director George J. Tenet wrote: “We knew that, like almost everything else in Washington, the program would eventually be leaked, and our agency and its people would be inaccurately portrayed in the worst possible light.”

The tapes, which were made in 2002, were kept for three years in overseas vaults where secret CIA detention facilities were located. During that period, there were numerous debates within the agency and with lawmakers and officials at the White House, over whether to destroy them.

The issue became more urgent in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, which inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment abroad and prompted new laws in the United States governing the treatment of detainees. In the CIA, there was growing concern that the interrogation tapes might be leaked to the media or dragged into public view by a court or congressional inquiry.

Fear of leak

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There was widespread concern that “something as explosive as this would probably get out,” said the former U.S. intelligence official who was involved in discussions on the tapes.

The issue of what to do with the tapes pitted lawmakers and political appointees concerned with potential legal and political fallout against career CIA officers concerned about protecting their subordinates.

In his statement, Hayden said the agency feared that officers on the tapes might have their cover blown and face retaliation by members of Al Qaeda. Other officials said there was also concern that the tapes could put the officers in legal jeopardy.

The CIA’s clandestine service is sometimes portrayed as a rogue element within the agency. But current and former officials said it is in many ways a cautious institution that is careful to secure White House authorization and legal cover before accepting potentially controversial assignments.

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“If you don’t sit in on their meetings, it is hard to appreciate the caution that underlies most of their decisions,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior aide to Tenet. “The mythology of a bunch of rambunctious cowboys just isn’t who they are.”

Officials who worked with Rodriguez said that he was never ordered by Goss or any other official to keep the tapes, and that he had obtained advice from agency lawyers saying there was no legal requirement to preserve them.

Former officials said Goss and other CIA leaders were stunned when Rodriguez informed them in November 2005 that the tapes had been destroyed. But Goss did not reprimand or fire Rodriguez, the former officials said, largely because the director, who had previously been bruised by battles with the clandestine service, did not feel he could afford another fight.

Series of resignations

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Goss had been sharply critical of the clandestine service while in Congress and came to the agency promising sweeping changes. But within months of his arrival, a series of CIA veterans -- including three top officers in the clandestine service -- resigned in protest of Goss’ leadership.

By the time the tapes were destroyed, “they weren’t in the business of listening to him,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who observed the friction first-hand.

Rodriguez had been Goss’ pick to lead the clandestine service. Pushing him aside after the tapes were destroyed would have meant another embarrassing departure from the agency’s senior spy ranks.

“In light of the blood bath that occurred the year before, Porter had no political support on the Hill or the White House to bring this under control,” said the former official. “There would have been another blood-letting in the press.”

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Goss is one of several CIA directors whose tenures were marred if not abbreviated by tangles with the clandestine service. John Deutch, who led the agency in the 1990s and expressed disdain for the spy ranks, was another.

Directors who have cultivated close ties to the clandestine service have tended to hold their jobs longer. Perhaps the most revered director in agency history was Richard Helms, who was convicted of lying to Congress for refusing to disclose secrets about CIA operations in Chile in the 1970s.

Goss was forced out of his job six months after the tapes were destroyed and was succeeded by Hayden, who has made a series of steps to align himself with the clandestine service.

As one of his first moves, Hayden brought back officials who had resigned under Goss to run the service. Hayden also launched an investigation of the CIA’s inspector general after spies said they had been unfairly treated by the inspector during internal investigations. That probe has been completed, and, as a result, the agency plans to make changes in the way it conducts internal investigations, intelligence officials said.

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Hayden has sought to distance himself from the tapes controversy, stressing in public statements that the decisions to make the tapes and destroy them occurred before he arrived at the agency.

Even so, Hayden has defended the interrogations program as a carefully supervised effort that has saved lives and disrupted terrorist plots. “If the story of these tapes is told fairly,” Hayden said in his statement, “it will underscore those facts.”

greg.miller@latimes.com


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