December 11, 2007

Did The Gray Lady Get The Story Wrong?

The story of the CIA's tape destruction took another twist today. Earlier, Mark Mazzetti had written that the destruction of the tapes angered the CIA's legal counsel, John Rizzo. Today, Mazzetti and Scott Shane report that the CIA's attorneys gave permission to destroy the tapes of interrogations that included waterboarding:

Lawyers within the clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency gave written approval in advance to the destruction in 2005 of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting interrogations of two lieutenants from Al Qaeda, according to a former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode.

The involvement of agency lawyers in the decision making would widen the scope of the inquiries into the matter that have now begun in Congress and within the Justice Department. Any written documents are certain to be a focus of government investigators as they try to reconstruct the events leading up to the tapes’ destruction.

The former intelligence official acknowledged that there had been nearly two years of debate among government agencies about what to do with the tapes, and that lawyers within the White House and the Justice Department had in 2003 advised against a plan to destroy them. But the official said that C.I.A. officials had continued to press the White House for a firm decision, and that the C.I.A. was never given a direct order not to destroy the tapes.

“They never told us, ‘Hell, no,’” he said. “If somebody had said, ‘You cannot destroy them,’ we would not have destroyed them.”

It sounds like a lot of double-talk, and it sounds as though all of it comes from the CIA. The agency asked for a legal opinion, and received it: don't destroy the tapes. One can spin it as one likes, but a "firm decision" doesn't require a "Hell, no." The CIA didn't like the answer it received and decided to ignore it.

The New York Times appears to have some problems reporting this story, too. How could John Rizzo get angered by a decision his team made? Mazzetti reported on Saturday that Rizzo knew nothing about the destruction of the tapes until afterwards, but now the Gray Lady says the lawyers concurred on the destruction beforehand. It's hard to believe that the CIA's attorneys would cut the chief counsel out of the decision loop.

Mazzetti and Shane say that this widens the scandal. It doesn't do that at all; if anything, it muddies it considerably. If the lawyers determined that the tapes should get destroyed, one presumes they had a reason to make that decision. It no longer looks like a rogue operation to obstruct justice, or at least looks a lot less like it, and more of the controlled, considered step the CIA claimed it was. It also still doesn't make this a "widening" scandal in an agency sense. It remains a CIA issue, especially since the Times makes it clear that Langley ignored White House counsel on this step.

The destruction, and especially its timing, looks suspiciously like obstruction, given Congress' intense interest in waterboarding in 2005. The new reporting makes it look less like a rogue operation by DDO Jose Rodriguez and more of an organizational decision backed by legal advice -- poor legal advice and awful political advice, but nonetheless an organizational decision. It also shows some mediocrity from the Times, which demonstrates a great deal of ambiguity in their formerly firm reporting.


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