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CIA Chief to Drag White House Into Torture Cover-Up Storm

by Sarah Baxter

The CIA chief who ordered the destruction of secret videotapes recording the harsh interrogation of two top Al-Qaeda suspects has indicated he may seek immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying before the House intelligence committee.

Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's clandestine service, is determined not to become the fall guy in the controversy over the CIA's use of torture, according to intelligence sources.

It has emerged that at least four White House staff were approached for advice about the tapes, including David Addington, a senior aide to Dick Cheney, the vice-president, but none has admitted to recommending their destruction.

Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA, said it was impossible for Rodriguez to have acted on his own: "If everybody was against the decision, why in the world would Jose Rodriguez - one of the most cautious men I have ever met - have gone ahead and destroyed them?"

The tapes recorded the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two suspected Al-Qaeda leaders, over hundreds of hours while they were held in secret "ghost" prisons. According to testimony from a former CIA officer, Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding, a form of torture that simulates drowning, and "broke" after 35 seconds. He is believed to have been interrogated in Thailand. The tapes were destroyed in 2005. Both men are now held in Guantanamo Bay.

The House intelligence committee has subpoenaed Rodriguez to appear for a hearing on January 16. Last week the CIA began opening its files to congressional investigators. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat who is chairing the committee, has said he was "not looking for scapegoats" - a hint to Rodriguez that he would like him to talk.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, believes the scandal could reach deep into the White House. "The CIA and Jose Rodriguez look bad, but he's probably the least culpable person in the process. He didn't wake up one day and decide, 'I'm going to destroy these tapes.' He checked with a lot of people and eventually he is going to get his say."

Johnson says Rodriguez got his fingers burnt during the Iran-contra scandal while working for the CIA in Latin America in the 1980s. Even then he sought authorisation from senior officials. But when summoned to the FBI for questioning, he was told Iran-contra was "political - get your own lawyer".

He learnt his lesson and recently appointed Robert Bennett, one of Washington's most skilled lawyers, to handle the case of the destroyed interrogation tapes. "He has been starting to get his story out and was smart to get Bennett," said Johnson.

The Justice Department has launched its own inquiry into the destruction of the tapes. It emerged yesterday that the CIA had misled members of the 9-11 Commission by not disclosing the existence of the tapes, in potential violation of the law. President George W Bush said last week he could not recall learning about the tapes before being briefed about them on December 6 by Michael Hayden, the CIA director.

"It looks increasingly as though the decision was made by the White House," said Johnson. He believes it is "highly likely" that Bush saw one of the videos, as he was interested in Zubaydah's case and received frequent updates on his interrogation from George Tenet, the CIA director at the time.

It has emerged that the CIA did preserve two videotapes and an audiotape of detainee interrogations conducted by a foreign government, which may have been relevant to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al-Qaeda conspirator.

The CIA told a federal judge in 2003 that no such recordings existed but has now retracted that testimony. One of the tapes could show the interrogation of Ramzi Binalshibh, a September 11 conspirator, who was allegedly handed to Jordan for questioning.

Video: Joe Biden on the torture tape scandal and Iran

Video: Senator Kennedy on CIA tape destruction

Video: Reuters report on CIA torture tape destruction

© 2007 The Times Online

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