MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Now, a story about one CIA operative and the unanswered questions about his role in a recent controversy.
Late last year, the CIA disclosed that in 2005, it destroyed video tapes of tough interrogations. The Justice Department launched a criminal investigation and lawmakers are still trying to get to the bottom of why the tapes were destroyed and under whose authority?
That brings us to Jose Rodriguez. He allegedly was the man who ordered the tapes destroyed when he was head of the CIA's Clandestine Service.
NPR's Tom Gjelten has this profile.
TOM GJELTEN: Jose Rodriguez joined the agency in 1976. A Puerto Rican by birth, he spent much of his clandestine career in Latin America, establishing a reputation as a colorful and aggressive operative. One of his more dramatic assignments was in Panama in 1989, when the dictator Manuel Noriega was fighting to hold on to power.
Kurt Muse, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Panama, was working secretly with other Panamanians at the time to challenge the Noriega dictatorship.
KURT MUSE: You could not broadcast anything, you couldn't print anything offensive to the government, the freedom of assembly was severely curtailed. We, in fact, in our own meetings of other group of five, we seldom had an opportunity to actually get together, the five of us, without risking being compromised.
GJELTEN: For many years, Manuel Noriega worked with the CIA. By 1989, however, the U.S. government had turned against Noriega and his increasingly oppressive and corrupt regime.
The CIA was ready to assist those Panamanians who wanted to bring an end to the dictatorship. Kurt Muse and his friends started a clandestine radio operation that overrode government frequencies and broadcast anti-Noriega messages. Here was something the CIA could support.
MUSE: We were not a very expensive operation to run, but we had some apartments that we rented and basically, we just were running out of money. And elements of the U.S. government contacted us and wanted to know if we needed any help.
GJELTEN: Muse has not identified the CIA officers with whom he met, but according to a former agency colleague, Jose Rodriguez played, quote, "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 remained classified. His former colleagues 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: We knew that if we were caught, we would be pretty much executed.
GJELTEN: Kurt Muse was soon caught and imprisoned. He was 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." Jose Rodriguez's role in support of the clandestine radio operation in Panama has not been previously reported.
It was just one chapter in a 30-year undercover career. Rodriguez was bold in his intelligence work. His impulsiveness prompted some agency officials on occasion to question his judgment. But Rodriguez was also known for his devotion to the intelligence mission.
In 2004, he was named head of the CIA Clandestine Service, a position that put him in contact with Congressman Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
SILVESTRE REYES: I have the highest respect and admiration for the work that he has done with the agency.
GJELTEN: Last August, Reyes 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 spent his whole career undercover. Congressman Reyes.
REYES: what I wanted to do was honor him, but through him, honor all of the workforce that obviously no one can ever acknowledge because we don't know who they are because of the work that they do.
GJELTEN: Ironically, just four months later, Congressman Reyes found himself presiding over an investigation into Rodriguez's role in the destruction of videotapes showing harsh CIA interrogations. Members of Congress, concerned about those interrogations, were angered by the news that Rodriguez had 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 because of the possible ramifications of the tapes becoming public. Congressman Reyes, speaking in a recent interview, says he still respects Jose Rodriguez as a CIA officer, but he's determined to let the facts about the tapes take us were they take us.
REYES: I don't think it takes away from his 30-year career with the agency. There are few people that have a perfect record in terms of judgment, but even having said that, 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.
GJELTEN: More should be known soon. Two senior administration officials met recently with the House committee to discuss the destruction of the tapes and other interviews are planned.
Tom Gjelten. NPR News, Washington.
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