CIA Denies Videotapes Withheld

The CIA denies it hid from the Sept. 11 commission the existence of videotapes that allegedly show the use of harsh interrogation methods. NPR's Tom Gjelten speaks with NPR's Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

There have been more developments this weekend in the case of those CIA videotapes. The agency is denying that it hid them from the 9/11 Commission. Also, a federal judge is considering whether to investigate the destruction of the tapes. But he's also asking why the Justice Department shouldn't be allowed to complete its own inquiry first.

Now, unless you've been paying very close attention to every twist and turn in legal maneuver, this can be a complicated story. So we invited NPR's Tom Gjelten to give us a little primer and help us sort through the chronology of events.

Tom, begin at the beginning, with the description of what was on the tapes back in 2002.

TOM GJELTEN: These are tapes of interrogations of two suspected al-Qaida members, Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Nashiri. Most of the tapes concern the interrogation and surveillance of Abu Zubaida. Actually, there is, like, 200 hours of tapes, and the vast majority of it, I understand, is basically just footage of Zubaida in his cell. Only a small portion of it is the actual interrogation, Abu Zubaida and Nashiri. That interrogation, however, does include these so-called enhanced interrogation methods, waterboarding, which is a technique which makes the detainee think he's drowning, and of course, it's those harsh interrogation methods on the tapes that are so controversial.

HANSEN: Why were the interrogations taped?

GJELTEN: There are two explanations. The official explanation is that the CIA interrogators wanted the CIA lawyers to see what they were doing and give it their seal of approval. They were using procedures within the guidelines of the Department of Justice. So they taped the interrogations purely to show the lawyers what they were doing.

However, I have also heard of another explanation, which is really interesting. Zubaida, remember, was seriously injured when he was captured, and there is some concern that he was actually going to die while he was in CIA custody. And apparently, some of the CIA officers were worried that people would say the CIA killed him. So they wanted to videotape the interrogation to show that they didn't kill him while they were interrogating him.

HANSEN: Now, let's move ahead into 2005. What was the nature of the discussions that led up to the decision to destroy the tapes?

GJELTEN: As you said, 2005, that means almost three years after the videotapes were made, and my understanding is that the interrogators - people that worked at the CIA sort of in the shadows who do not like to leave any evidence of what they've been doing - they argued from the beginning these tapes should be destroyed. The lawyers, the policy people, the leadership thought they should be kept. And they were kept for three years.

Then finally, at the end of 2005, there was suddenly a decision to destroy them. We're trying to find out what changed, why was there suddenly this decision to destroy them.

HANSEN: And you don't know what the reason, no one knows the reason why they were eventually ordered destroyed?

GJELTEN: Well, the director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, said it was to protect the security of the interrogators in case these videotapes ever got out, that their own security would be jeopardized. That's hard to believe because the agency has many ways to protect the security of interrogators.

However, it may be true in a broader sense. The one lesson that we learned from Abu Ghraib is the power of images in the world and how they shaped people's perceptions of the United States. And if those tapes, if tapes of CIA agents holding a guy's head underwater were ever to become public, there was a sense that that could just have disastrous effects, legal and political.

HANSEN: When did President Bush learn that the tapes were destroyed?

GJELTEN: All that we know is what President Bush himself has said, which was that he was briefed on this earlier this month by Director Hayden.

HANSEN: So who's investigating now the destruction of the tapes?

GJELTEN: Well, the CIA is investigating through its own inspector general just basically to make sure it gets all its facts straight when it represents what happens to other agencies. The Department of Justice is holding a preliminary inquiry to see if there was possibly some obstruction of justice involved in the destruction of the tapes. And Congress is investigating. Both the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees are separately investigating. The House Intelligence Committee is really quite advanced already.

HANSEN: Any idea where the story goes next?

GJELTEN: Well, I think the big thing right now is we're going to be looking at the House Intelligence Committee, which has already sent investigators out to Langley to go over documents; the CIA is cooperating, showing them e-mails, memoranda, et cetera.

They're trying to find out a number of things: who participated in the decision to destroy them, what discussions there were, what communication there was between the CIA and the White House, a very interesting avenue of investigation there.

In addition, on January 16th, the House Intelligence Committee is planning a hearing, and they have subpoenaed Jose Rodriguez who was the CIA officer who issued the order to destroy the tapes. They've actually issued a formal subpoena, so we're going to see if he shows up.

HANSEN: NPR's Tom Gjelten.

Tom, thanks a lot.

GJELTEN: Sure thing, Liane.

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