Ulrich stared at Clements, wanting to believe he’d misheard. Even in the grand panoply of CIA incompetence, this one would be a standout.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, deliberately speaking slowly and clearly so Clements and the rest of the Langley contingent assembled before him would understand exactly what Ulrich made of their collective mental acuity. “Ninety-two interrogation videotapes, and you’re telling me they’re just . . . missing?”
Clements shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the frozen grass crunching under his wingtips. “We think there were ninety-two. We’re still trying to get an accurate inventory.”
Ulrich looked past Clements at the precise rows of thousands of white markers, their expanse dazzling in the brilliant morning sun. Well, at least now he understood why Clements had wanted to meet here. No one was going to notice, much less overhear, a small group of men paying their respects to the honored dead of Arlington National Cemetery. No records, no witnesses, no proof this conversation had ever happened.
“All right,” Ulrich said, running the fingers of a gloved hand along his thick gray beard. “First thing I need to know. What’s on these tapes?”
Clements glanced at the man to his left and then at the one to his right. Stephen Clements, Michael Killman, John Alkire. The deputy director of the CIA, the director of the National Clandestine Service, and the director of the Counterterrorism Center. Half the bureaucratic firepower of the entire Agency, huddling in their dark overcoats like an incipient union of funeral directors.
“Are you going to tell me? Or are we all just going to stand out here and freeze?”
Clements said nothing, and Ulrich was suddenly concerned at how meekly the man was taking his licks. Ulrich was used to being deferred to—after all, in this administration, chief of staff to the vice president was an exceptionally powerful position. On top of which, Ulrich was a big, imposing man, accustomed to intimidating bureaucratic rivals with his loud voice and blunt manner. But Clements looked beyond intimidated. He looked . . . scared. Which was itself unnerving.
Ulrich sighed. He took off his wire-framed spectacles, closed his eyes, and massaged the bridge of his nose. When he felt calmer, he slipped the glasses back on.
“Just tell me,” he said, his voice a notch softer.
Clements blew out a long, frozen breath. “Waterboarding, for one thing.”
Ulrich closed his eyes again. “Crap.”
Waterboarding was a problem. In the public mind, it was the one enhanced interrogation technique that was most arguably torture. But even for waterboarding, the mainstream media had done a nice job of sanitizing the public’s imagination of what the practice entailed, carefully describing it as “torture” only with scare quotes, or as “a practice some describe as torture.” Actual footage of helpless, shackled men sobbing and begging and pissing themselves while American guards repeatedly drowned and revived them could cause a change in sentiment.
“What else?” Ulrich said.
“Walling. Stress positions. A lot of the stuff we had to stop using after Abu Ghraib.”
Well, they’d survived photos of this kind of stuff coming out of AG. The public wanted to believe it had been just a few bad apples, and anytime the public wanted to believe something, the job was already ninety percent done. It could be done again here.
“What’s the worst of it? The parts that’ll be on the blogs.”
“I don’t know, we’re talking about hundreds of hours of footage. It’s—”
“The worst, goddamn it.”
The three Langley men exchanged glances. Alkire said, “The dog stuff is pretty bad. The waterboarding is worse. There are people at Langley who couldn’t even watch it on video. And the beatings—some of these guys, they had edema from being manacled to the ceiling for a week straight. You ever see someone with edema, hanging by his wrists, getting the shit beaten out of him? Half the time, their skin splits open.”
Ulrich considered. He knew these three had every reason to make it sound as bad as possible. They wanted him to know that if any of this got out, the fire would be so big they’d all burn together. But even if they were exaggerating, it wouldn’t be by much. He knew what was being done at the black sites. He’d long ago made his peace with it, of course, as the price that had to be paid in the shadows so the rest of America could go on enjoying the light. But asking the secret guardians of American liberty to live with the truth was one thing. Force-feeding it to the entire public was different. It wasn’t the public’s burden to bear.
“When did you learn the tapes were missing?” Ulrich asked.
“Just this morning,” Killman said. “Another FOIA request in federal court. You’re following these cases?”
Ulrich nodded. Of course he was following the cases. The ACLU had filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for information on treatment of terrorist detainees and then sued when the Agency refused to turn anything over. God, he hated the ACLU. If they had even half the concern for the safety of Americans that they did for the rights of terrorists . . .
“Well, recently our people monitoring the FOIA cases have been getting alarmed. We’ve got a detainee in court claiming his interrogations were videotaped. Now it looks like we’re going to receive a court order specifically for video—and not just for Guantánamo, but covering the black sites, too. If that happens, we won’t be able to dodge the order the way we have before. So we decided to do a complete inventory, assess our exposure, get ahead of the order. That’s when we discovered the problem.”
The problem. If nothing else, the CIA always had a flair for understatement.
Ulrich stroked his beard. He supposed it was possible one of these jokers was less stupid than he seemed, that he’d destroyed the tapes himself and was going along with this meeting just to obscure his own actions. Or that someone else, some patriot, or even just someone wise enough to have a modicum of self-preservation instinct, had done what needed to be done. After all, it wasn’t as though anyone was going to take the credit for it. All that would earn him would be a silent prayer of thanks from the people whose asses he’d saved, a prayer that would last only as far as the first congressional investigation into the latest CIA cover-up, at which point his circle of silent fans would immediately point their fingers inward, ensuring their benefactor would be crucified for their collective sins.
So yeah, it was possible there was someone inside the CIA smart enough to have demonstrated the proper initiative. That was his immediate working theory. But he had no way to prove it. And even if he did, it wouldn’t solve the immediate crisis.
“There’s something else,” Clements said, glancing at the other Langley men.
“Is that even possible?” Ulrich asked, unable to resist.
There was a long pause. Clements said, “Some of the tapes are of the Caspers.”
Ulrich could actually feel the blood drain from his face. “You . . . But he couldn’t finish the sentence. He’d only just gotten his mind around what that very morning he would have believed was impossible. Now he was dealing with the unthinkable.
We’re done, he thought. We’re really done. I can’t spin this one. Nobody could.
Yes, you can. You just have to focus. The Caspers don’t matter. They don’t change the dynamic. They just raise the stakes. You handle it the same way regardless.
But handle it how?
They all stood silently. Ulrich’s mind raced furiously, examining options, gaming out plans from multiple angles, pressure-checking vulnerabilities. He felt both terrified and weirdly exhilarated. If he could put a lid on something this big, they’d have to invent a new name for it. Damage control? Hell, he was trying to control a cataclysm.
He kept going—yes, no, too dangerous, if, then—conducting an orchestra of alternatives just behind his eyes. A minute went by and a narrow possibility began to emerge, a little sliver of hope. It was crazy, it was audacious, it would require luck. But it could be done. It had to be done. Because there was simply no other way.
“Here’s what you’re going to do,” he said, looking at Clements. “You call one of your contacts in the media—”
“No, definitely not Ignatius. At this point he might as well be an official CIA spokesperson, and everyone knows it. And not Broder or Klein, either—they’re known to be too sympathetic, too. Too eager to please.”
Clements frowned, obviously not getting it. “We don’t want someone pliable?”
“Just listen, okay? For this, we need a news article, not an op-ed. At least to start with. From a paper that’s considered liberal. So . . . make it the New York Times. Yeah, the Times is perfect, they won’t even use the word ‘torture’ in their coverage but they’re still thought of as an enemy. Call them. You’re a whistle-blower. The CIA made some interrogation tapes, tapes that include footage of detainees being abused.”
Clements’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“I’m not finished. You say the CIA destroyed the tapes. Clear case of obstruction of justice. You’re calling because you’re a patriot, this won’t stand, something needs to be done.”
They were all looking at him as though he’d lost his mind. Christ, they were slow. They didn’t deserve to have him save their asses. Unfortunately, his ass was next in line. These morons happened to be his primary defensive wall.
“You’re crazy,” Clements said. “There’s no way—”
“Shut up and listen if you want to survive this. The liberal media will jump all over the story. Obstruction of justice, cover-up, rogue CIA, the whole thing. There’s going to be pressure. And under pressure, the CIA admits—no, no, you confess—yes, we destroyed the tapes. But no more than two of them for now. Two, you understand?”
Clements shook his head as though he was trying to clear it. “What . . . why two?”
“Because it’s too soon to go public with ninety-two. Two is a nice, finite number, it makes it sound like you’ve been exceptionally careful and selective regarding who gets subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. You can tie the number to just a couple of high-profile detainees, right? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, just the worst of the worst. Listen to those names. You think anyone outside the ACLU will complain if you’ve maybe been a little rough with a couple terrorists named Mohammed al-this and Khalid al-that?”
“But . . . what are we going to do later on, if the real number comes out?”
“Later on won’t matter, don’t you see? You’ll already have established the principle that the destruction wasn’t a big deal by attaching a low number to it. You can always increase the number afterward, at which point you’ll just be applying the established principle to a new number. You say something like, ‘Oh, did you think I said two videotapes? I meant two terrorists on one of the tapes. Sorry for the confusion.’ You get it? For Christ’s sake, you don’t have to sign a fucking affidavit that there were only two tapes, this is just to ease the idea into the public mind. Are you telling me you don’t know how to put a number in play in a way that gives you room to walk away from it later?”
No one said anything. Ulrich couldn’t tell if they were getting it or if they were drifting into shock. Well, nothing to do but keep going.
“Understand? Two interrogation videos, you think. Keep it a little vague, and you can get them to report two while giving you wiggle room for later.”
“Okay, fine,” Killman said. “But what do we do when they start asking about waterboarding? You know they will.”
“Of course they will. And when they do, you reluctantly admit it. It’s already out there anyway, the vice president himself acknowledged it. This is your chance to tie the waterboarding to just a small number of detainees, your chance to minimize it. That’s actually a win.”
“Doesn’t sound like a win,” Alkire said.
Idiots. “You can’t cover this up, don’t you understand that? If you try, the whole thing comes out. What you can do is channel the information, shape the narrative. You need to manage this story or it’ll manage you. Do it right, keep it simple, and you’ll be fine.”
“But it’s not simple,” Clements said. “It’s not just videos. There are also records of what’s on the videos, who had access to them—”
“Good, now you’re thinking. You need to destroy all contemporaneous records describing what’s on the tapes because that’s the next thing the court will ask for if the tapes are unavailable. You destroy all records of who had access to the tapes, of who might have knowledge of what was on them. And you create a paper trail of the proper authorizations that predates the court order. You claim the tapes had no further intelligence value, and . . . yes, yes, you say you had to destroy them because if they ever leaked, they could compromise the identities of field agents, patriotic men and women who are risking their lives every day on the front lines of the war on terror to keep America safe. Fox, and Broder and Klein and Krauthammer and Hiatt and Ignatius and the rest, they’ll pick up that angle and run interference for us, attack the patriotism of anyone who questions the decision to destroy the tapes. They’ll make it a political issue, it won’t be a legal one. ‘Only the angry left would want to put our soldiers and spies in danger,’ that kind of thing.”
None of them spoke.
Come on, Ulrich thought. Man up. We can do this.
“Look,” he said, “you’re not going to be alone, okay? We’ll get someone highly placed in the administration to leak the same talking points.”
Clements looked doubtful. “The vice president?”
“Definitely possible. But if not him, me or someone else who can speak for him. We’ll give the background not for attribution, the papers will publish it, and then the DCI, the vice president, whoever, they’ll go on all the Sunday morning talk shows and cite as evidence for our positions the articles the newspapers wrote based on what we fed them.”
Clements nodded, a glimmer of understanding in his eyes. “Information laundering.”
From the Hardcover edition.