CIA erased waterboarding videos
'It was done in line with the law,' insists top spook
The director of the CIA has admitted that videotapes of American intelligence operatives using harsh interrogation methods on terrorist suspects have been destroyed.
The interrogations in question are said to have taken place in 2002, when the US intelligence community had been unleashed by a vengeful president in response to 9/11. At that point, the CIA was specifically authorised by George Bush to use a range of interrogation measures not permitted to other US agencies.
The most famous of these means is so-called "waterboarding", where a prisoner is made to feel that he is drowning by having water poured onto a gag. Many commentators consider this to be torture, and in fact the method has now become so controversial that - reportedly - it is no longer allowed to the CIA, which has eased off substantially from its aggressive posture in the year or so immediately after 9/11.
It is thought that the 2002 tapes may have shown the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first terror suspect seized by the CIA in the post-9/11 era. Zubaydah, under severe questioning, was said to have led the US to his comrade Ramzi Binalshibh. Binalshibh, harshly-questioned/tortured in his turn - and possibly also in the now-destoyed tapes - supposedly gave information which led to the capture in 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed is also said to have provided a great deal of key information after his capture.
British intelligence officers have since made it clear to their Parliamentary oversight body that they believe the US spies were using torture at this stage, and that a lot of useful intelligence was gained as a result.
It appears that the videos in this case were destroyed in 2005. Yesterday, aware that this fact was to be published by the New York Times, CIA head and former general Michael Hayden sent a letter to all CIA personnel - a copy of which was soon obtained by the AP news wire.
"The agency was determined that it proceed in accord with established legal and policy guidelines. So, on its own, CIA began to videotape interrogations," Hayden wrote, putting the point of view that the videos - while probably quite shocking viewing - showed compliance with the executive orders then in force.
That being the case, one might ask why they were destroyed.
"The tapes posed a serious security risk," according to Hayden.
"Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the programme, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qaida and its sympathisers."
This is also true of many another document or file held by the agency, yet not destroyed. However Hayden says there was nothing to hide.
"What matters here is that it [the interrogation] was done in line with the law," Hayden said in his letter.
"Over the course of its life, the agency's interrogation programme has been of great value to our country. It has helped disrupt terrorist operations and save lives. It was built on a solid foundation of legal review. It has been conducted with careful supervision. If the story of these tapes is told fairly, it will underscore those facts."
It is said by intelligence insiders that the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" powers have now been seriously cut back. Legislation is pending which would remove these powers altogether.
There is also an ongoing legal dispute as to whether the US intelligence community flouted evidence-disclosure rules in relation to the trial of another 9/11 conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui. His lawyers' requests for interrogation recordings became most troublesome in 2005, around the time that the tapes under discussion were wiped.
However, much as the CIA's few years of post-9/11 special powers may be coming to an end, it is unlikely that the use of torture and extralegal procedures against terrorist suspects outside the USA will stop now, or that it only began in 2002. Former CIA man Bob Baer, speaking of his own service in the 1980s and 90s, famously said:
"If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt."
Waterboarding is actually rather mild and civilised in this context. The unusual thing here is that the strongarm work was being done by American operatives with the knowledge of their bosses, rather than by proxy or without permission.