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Twisted Logic and the New Book by the CIA Spy Who Destroyed Torture Tapes

Alex Abdo,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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April 25, 2012

On Monday, the latest installment in the defense of torture — Hard Measures, by Jose Rodriguez — will hit bookshelves. Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and its former Deputy Director of Operations, will also appear on 60 Minutes on Sunday night. Like many of torture’s outspoken proponents, Rodriguez has a personal stake in defending torture: he was intimately involved in the CIA’s brutal “enhanced interrogation” regime. According to an internal CIA report, for example, Rodriguez’s office proposed the use of “coercive physical techniques” in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. In other words, the CIA’s path to torture went directly through Rodriguez.

In the lead-up to the release of Hard Measures, here are four things to look out for.

1. The torture tapes. Expect Rodriguez to offer a full-throated defense of his decision to destroy 92 videotapes depicting the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, including the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding. On November 8, 2005, as judicial and public scrutiny of the CIA’s interrogation practices mounted, Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed, forever concealing what were likely some of the worst episodes of the CIA’s torture of detainees. (Some have suggested that Rodriguez’s true motive was to destroy evidence that the tapes had been tampered with by the CIA to conceal the worst torture sessions.)

According to recent news reports, Rodriguez will say that he destroyed the tapes out of concern for the safety of CIA interrogators.. Another story says that Rodriguez’s book will describe the tapes’ destruction as “just getting rid of some ugly visuals.” But it’s worth recalling a now-declassified CIA email (page 17 of this PDF), sent just one day after the tapes were destroyed, which more candidly reveals Rodriguez’s true motives:

As Jose [Rodriguez] said, the heat from destroying is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into [the] public domain — he said that out of context, they would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ to us.

The CIA — and Rodriguez in particular — were more concerned about the public (and perhaps prosecutorial) blowback than they were about the possibility that the tapes would somehow endanger CIA agents. To prevent that blowback, Rodriguez was willing to risk being in contempt of court orders requiring the tapes to be preserved, and to flout Congressional requests not to destroy evidence. Rodriguez has yet to be held personally accountable for his destruction of the tapes.

2. Torture “works.” Expect Rodriguez to mount a bitter defense of the CIA’s torture program by claiming it “worked.” Whether torture works is, of course, beside the point. Torture is illegal and immoral, and as President Obama has recognized, “torture is never justified.” Sen. John McCain, an outspoken critic of torture, has captured the problem concisely: “Ultimately, this is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.”

We agree. But for the moment, let’s address Rodriguez’s argument on its own terms. As framed by most advocates of torture, the question of whether torture works is a dishonest one: it “works” if detainees who are tortured give up useful information. But, no one disputes that brutally mistreated prisoners will respond to questions and may even occasionally provide useful intelligence. As John McCain explains, though:

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s torture proves McCain’s point. Proponents claim his torture led to the identity of Osama bin Laden’s courier. (Don’t be surprised if Rodriguez makes the same claim in his book or on 60 Minutes.) The contention is astonishing because the apparent proof that torture worked is that Mohammed “repeatedly misled [his] interrogators about the courier’s identity,” and that these lies somehow showed that Mohammed was protecting important information. This false logic is as disturbing as it is dangerous, and it exemplifies the self-fulfilling nature of the torturer’s claims. In the end, not even Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA, believes that torture was responsible for the location of bin Laden.

But even supposing that reliable information is extracted through torture, there is a more fundamental problem with the claim that it “works.” The question is not whether torture, in the abstract, produces information. It is whether torture produces the same or better information more reliably or more quickly than the humane interrogation techniques that the FBI has been using for decades (including in its counterterrorism investigations). On this point, backers of torture have little to say.

Finally, supporters of torture ignore its costs to our national security. Our nation has long been a champion for human rights abroad, but our recent embrace of torture has tarnished our reputation and emboldened our enemies. Interrogators report that the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are among the primary reasons that terrorists join the ranks of al Qaeda.

3. President Obama and torture. As last night’s news reports suggest, expect Rodriguez to criticize President Obama for repudiating torture. President Obama took the only morally and legally defensible step in putting an end to “enhanced interrogation techniques” and acknowledging that waterboarding is torture. Our country has long considered waterboarding a war crime.

Rodriguez may think the president went too far in repudiating torture, but we don’t think the Obama administration has gone far enough. As we have explained before, President Obama’s politically expedient decision not to criminally investigate the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program undermines America’s standing abroad and compromises the rule of law here at home.

4. Transparency. Finally, expect the release of Rodriguez’s book to highlight our national-security state’s secrecy problem. Notwithstanding several historic disclosures by the Obama administration of information relating to the CIA’s interrogation program, the CIA continues to suppress information critical to understanding the torture that took place in our name. This problem is partly attributable to Rodriguez himself: he deliberately destroyed hundreds of hours of “devastating” evidence of torture. But many other documents remain locked away, including over 2,000 photographs of abuse at facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, the presidential notification of September 17, 2001, that authorized the CIA to set up black sites to detain and interrogate terrorists, and dozens of CIA cables describing the use of waterboarding.

Because the government carefully controls the flow of classified information, the narrative that emerges from the CIA’s voluntary releases is often skewed. The problem is a systemic one: the same agency responsible for official torture gets to decide what information about that torture is released, and courts overwhelmingly defer to the CIA’s decisions. The result is that defenses of torture, such as Rodriguez’s book, offer a one-sided story. Books by those who seek to tell the other side — such as the one by an FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan, whose book is intended in part to explain why torture was counterproductive and didn’t work — are heavily redacted.

And of course, while Rodriguez goes on a national book tour to defend torture, the government has succeeded to this day in suppressing the accounts of the men who were tortured.

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