Former CIA Official Under Investigation over Tapes

Jose Rodriguez

An undated photo provided by the CIA shows Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA's clandestine service. Rodriguez is the target of two inquires regarding the destruction of interrogation videotapes. AP/CIA hide caption

itoggle caption AP/CIA

Jose Rodriguez, until recently the head of the CIA's clandestine service, is the target of two inquiries regarding the destruction of agency videotapes.

The CIA veteran with 30 years of experience in undercover work issued an order in 2005 to destroy a series of video tapes showing CIA officers using harsh interrogation methods on detainees suspected of terrorist activities.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence recently renewed its investigation into the destruction of the CIA tapes after suspending much of its work in February at the request of the Justice Department. The Justice Department has made a separate inquiry into the issue.

Committee investigators this month interviewed two senior administration officials, so far unidentified, regarding the tapes' destruction, and more interviews are expected. The committee is anxious to hear from White House and CIA officials who may be able to say why the interrogation videotapes were destroyed and on whose authority.

Rodriguez, who presumably also could answer such questions, faces a congressional subpoena but has so far refused to talk with committee investigators without a promise of immunity.

Rodriguez's History

Keeping secrets comes naturally to Rodriguez . A native of Puerto Rico, he spent more than three decades as an undercover CIA operative. He worked mainly in Latin America, developing a reputation there as a "colorful and aggressive" officer, in the words of one CIA colleague, who asked not to be identified.

One of Rodriguez's more dramatic assignments was in Panama in 1989, when the dictator Manuel Noriega was fighting to hold on to power.

It was a tense time, according to Kurt Muse, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Panama and became involved in the anti-Noriega opposition.

"You could not broadcast anything," Muse says. "You couldn't print anything offensive to the government. The freedom of assembly was severely curtailed. In our own meetings of our group of five, we seldom had an opportunity to actually get together, the five of us, without risk of being compromised."

For many years Noriega was a CIA collaborator, but by 1989 the U.S. government turned against him and his increasingly oppressive and corrupt regime. The CIA was ready to assist those Panamanians who wanted to bring an end to Noriega's dictatorship.

Anti-Noriega Operations

Muse and his friends started a clandestine radio operation that overrode government frequencies and broadcast anti-Noriega messages. Here was something CIA operatives like Rodriguez could support.

"We were not a very expensive operation to run," Muse recalls. "But we had some apartments that we rented, and basically we were just running out of money. And elements of the U.S. government contacted us and wanted to know if we needed any help."

Muse does not identify the CIA officers with whom he met. But according to a former agency colleague, Rodriguez played "a not insignificant role" in support of Muse's underground radio effort and other covert anti-Noriega operations.

Details of Rodriguez's activities in Panama remain classified. A former undercover colleague says Rodriguez worked in Panama "at considerable personal risk," with no diplomatic status or official cover.

Noriega was infuriated by the underground radio operation, Muse says.

"We knew that if we were caught we would be pretty much executed," he says.

Muse was imprisoned for several months, threatened repeatedly with execution and finally rescued by the U.S. military in the first hours of the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Muse tells his story in his book Six Minutes to Freedom.

Rodriguez's role in support of the clandestine radio operation in Panama had not previously been reported.

Taking on a Leadership Role

This experience was just one chapter in a 30-year undercover career. Rodriguez was bold in his intelligence work, and his impulsiveness prompted some agency officials on occasion to question his judgment. But Rodriguez was also known for his devotion to his intelligence mission. In 2004 he was named head of the CIA clandestine service.

This position put him in contact with Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. Reyes quickly became a Rodriguez supporter.

"I have the highest respect and admiration for the work that he has done with the agency," Reyes said in a recent interview.

Last August, he honored Rodriguez at a security conference in El Paso. In order to appear at the event, Rodriguez had to reveal himself as a CIA officer; he'd spent his whole career undercover.

"What I wanted to do was honor him, but through him, to honor all of the workforce that obviously no one can ever acknowledge, because we don't know who they are because of the work they do," Reyes said.

Controversy Surrounding Rodriguez

Ironically, just four months later, Reyes found himself presiding over an investigation into Rodriguez's role in the destruction of the interrogation videotapes. Members of Congress concerned about those interrogations were angered by the news that Rodriguez had personally authorized the destruction of the tapes.

Many of Rodriguez's colleagues, however, believe he acted out of concern for the security of CIA officers involved in the interrogations and for the possible ramifications of the tapes becoming public.

Reyes finds himself in a bit of an awkward situation by virtue of his previous dealings with Rodriguez, but says he's determined "to let the facts take us where they take us."

A former senior official in the U.S. Border Patrol, Reyes says he has learned over the years that "there are very few people who have a perfect record in terms of judgment."

He insists that he still regards Rodriguez highly, in spite of the controversy over his role in the destruction of the CIA tapes.

"I don't think it takes away from his 30-year career with the agency," Reyes says. "We just don't know yet what the circumstances are that led to his decision to destroy those tapes, if in fact he acted on his own authority."

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