Still No One Held Accountable for CIA’s Destruction of Torture Records

Recent news that one of the two CIA employees who authorized the destruction of tapes showing the torture of CIA detainees – despite a court order to preserve them – has been placed in charge of the CIA’s clandestine service is yet another slap in the face for the rule of law and government accountability.

The destruction of the videos followed shortly after a November 2, 2005 Washington Post report disclosing the CIA interrogation program overseas. Subsequent articles detailed the techniques used, and, on November 18, ABC News broke the story that CIA interrogators used water-boarding. As our Executive Director, Patrice McDermott, laid out in her acceptance remarks for the 2011 James Madison Award, the time line shows that the destruction of the records, which was authorized by Jose Rodriguez and the undercover CIA operative currently acting as the head of the clandestine service, knowingly and illegally destroyed the tapes.

The tapes' destruction was in clear violation of the Federal Records Act. Moreover, it denied the public the right to understand and debate what the federal government is doing in its name, and to hold the government accountable for its action.

Both the President’s January 21, 2009 memorandum on the FOIA and Attorney General Holder’s guidelines told heads of executive departments and agencies that the government should “not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” Fear of exposure is exactly what motivated Mr. Rodriguez and his ally, however. According to an internal CIA email obtained by the ACLU in 2010, the tapes were destroyed because “out of context, they would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ to us.” The CIA’s fears were neither speculative nor abstract; they were indeed correct – the truth would have made them look terrible, had anyone outside the CIA ever seen the tapes.

The CIA did not just ‘not disclose,’ however; they destroyed the records — and the record of illegal actions. And they acted with impunity: when the issue was referred to the Holder Department of Justice for prosecution, DOJ decided to look the other way.

In response to a 2012 CBS 60 Minutes interview Mr. Rodriguez gave after he left the CIA, Andrew Sullivan asked in his column in the Daily Beast, “Why Did Rodriguez Destroy The Torture Tapes?” It was good to see someone call out that aspect of Rodriguez’s – and the CIA’s – illegality.

While the fourth estate plays an important role in our system of checks and balances, Mr. Sullivan's effort to take the CIA to task is a far cry from actually holding officials accountable. It is time for the CIA to understand that they are not above the law, but another opportunity for accountability was just ignored.

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