WASHINGTON - It would become known inside the Central Intelligence Agency as "the Italian job," a snide movie reference to the bungling performance of an agency team that snatched a radical Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003 and flew him to Egypt - a case that led to criminal charges in Italy against 26 Americans.
Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director in 2005 when embarrassing news reports about the operation broke, asked the agency's independent inspector general to start a review of amateurish tradecraft in the case, like operatives staying in five-star hotels and using traceable credit cards and cellphones.
But Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., now the central figure in a controversy over destroyed C.I.A. interrogation tapes, fought back. A blunt-spoken Puerto Rico native and former head of the agency's Latin America division, he had been selected by Mr. Goss months earlier to head the agency's troubled clandestine branch. Mr. Rodriguez told his boss that no inspector general review would be necessary - his service would investigate itself.
It was a protective instinct that ran deep inside the C.I.A.'s fabled Directorate of Operations, the agency's most powerful branch. The same instinct would resurface months later, when Mr. Rodriguez dispatched a cable to the agency's Bangkok station ordering the destruction of videotapes that showed C.I.A. officers carrying out harsh interrogations of operatives of Al Qaeda.
"He would always say, 'I'm not going to let my people get nailed for something they were ordered to do,' " said Robert Richer, Mr. Rodriguez's deputy in the clandestine branch until late 2005, who recalls many conversations with his boss about the tapes.
No Record of Punishment
With the tapes' destruction now the subject of overlapping Congressional and criminal inquiries, investigators are trying to determine whether Mr. Rodriguez, 59, acted on his own or with at least tacit approval from superiors at the C.I.A. or the White House. Officials now say a recent review by the C.I.A. of Mr. Rodriguez's personnel file found no record of any reprimand or punishment for his action.
The destruction of the tapes is hardly the first time that the C.I.A.'s mission to take risks and to counter threats abroad has come into conflict with American notions of justice, legality and human rights. From assassination plots in the 1960s to the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, American spymasters have found themselves in legal jeopardy for acts they said were lawful and necessary.
The tapes episode and Mr. Rodriguez's role reflect the intensity of the particular tensions that have played out since the Sept. 11 attacks, a period in which the C.I.A. has been asked to play a new role in capturing, questioning and imprisoning terror suspects, and is now facing questions about whether its conduct crossed the line into illegality.
The events surrounding the tapes unfolded during one of the most tumultuous periods in the C.I.A.'s 60-year history, when the insular and proud clandestine service clashed with the strong-willed team that Mr. Goss, a former Florida congressman, brought with him to the agency. Mr. Rodriguez was "the man in the middle," Mr. Richer said.
Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Goss declined to be interviewed for this article.
Mr. Goss was not the first C.I.A. director to discover that operatives who were trained to destabilize foreign governments could sometimes put those same skills to work inside the agency.
In a striking metaphor for Mr. Goss's powerlessness, as officers of the Directorate of Operations, or D.O., ignored his instructions and shunned his staff, he later told a colleague that "when he pulled a lever to make something happen in the D.O., it wasn't just that nothing happened," the colleague recalled. "It was that the lever came off in his hands."
Mr. Rodriguez joined the C.I.A. in 1976, at a time when the agency was still reeling from Congressional investigations into assassination plots, coup attempts and domestic wiretapping.
With his thick accent and undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, he stood out in the clandestine service, which even in the 1970s was a preserve of the Anglo-Saxon, Ivy League establishment.
But over the next two decades in a series of overseas postings, Mr. Rodriguez ascended the ranks of the directorate's Latin America division, serving from Peru to Belize and heading the C.I.A. stations in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
He ran the kind of espionage missions and covert operations that defined the agency, overshadowing its other task of analyzing intelligence from all sources. Clandestine officers fashioned themselves as the "fighter jocks" of the C.I.A., the swashbuckling spies who risked their lives for their country.
Dominating the Culture
The Directorate of Operations "is a really small part of C.I.A., in terms of budget and people," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former assistant agency director. "But in terms of culture, the D.O. dominates the place." In mid-2005, the directorate was renamed the National Clandestine Service.
A popular boss, Mr. Rodriguez occasionally flashed the maverick spirit prized by clandestine officers. One former colleague recalls that while in Mexico he named his horse Business, instructing subordinates to tell the ambassador or the C.I.A. brass that he was "out on Business."
By the mid-1990s, Mr. Rodriguez was head of the Latin America division. But his career was nearly cut short when the C.I.A. inspector general reprimanded him in 1997 for a "remarkable lack of judgment" after he intervened to stop jailhouse beatings by guards of a childhood friend arrested on drug charges in the Dominican Republic.
A C.I.A. officer stationed in the Dominican Republic complained to the inspector general that the intervention was improper, according to a former agency official. Mr. Rodriguez was removed as chief of the Latin America division, and later returned to run the station in Mexico.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was tapped to become chief operating officer of the agency's Counterterrorism Center, based at the C.I.A. headquarters, which was ballooning to nearly 1,500 officers from 300. There was grumbling that Mr. Rodriguez, with no experience in the Muslim world, was given the job. But seven months later, he was promoted to head the center, placing him in charge of the hunt for Qaeda operatives and the interrogation of terrorist suspects in a chain of secret C.I.A. prisons.
By the time Mr. Goss was sworn in as director of central intelligence in late September 2004, the agency's clandestine service was already embittered by finger-pointing over the Iraq war.
The arrival of the new leader and his outspoken aides, dubbed the "Gosslings" by some within the agency, made matters worse.
Many agency veterans suspected that Mr. Goss and his team were on a White House mission to clean house at the C.I.A. The two top officers of the clandestine service, Stephen R. Kappes and Michael J. Sulick, soon quit.
When Mr. Goss looked for replacements, two agency officers turned him down, fearing that accepting the job would be seen as a betrayal of the clandestine branch. In the end, Mr. Goss offered the job to Mr. Rodriguez.
According to Mary Margaret Graham, a career clandestine officer who recently retired as head of intelligence collection for the director of national intelligence, Mr. Rodriguez had similar concerns about "betraying" fellow undercover officers. He assured her that he had accepted the position "on his terms."
"I think in hindsight they expected a much more pliable person than they got," she said.
Mr. Rodriguez traveled to overseas stations more than many predecessors, to build morale and get a firsthand account of operations. One result was that the clandestine branch's daily operations were often left to his chief of staff, who had worked with Mr. Rodriguez in the Counterterrorism Center. Because she is still under cover, The New York Times is not publishing her name.
Several former C.I.A. officials recall repeated clashes between Mr. Rodriguez's chief of staff and aides to Mr. Goss on matters from the trivial to the serious.
One serious concern, in the view of Mr. Goss's staff, was the resistance of Mr. Rodriguez and his chief of staff to outside reviews of such missteps by the clandestine service as the Italian operation. In the matter of the tapes, there was also concern that Mr. Rodriguez and others who were involved in creating them were now pushing to destroy them. "It was just that they weren't very impartial judges," said a former C.I.A. official.
Mr. Rodriguez, who was nearing retirement, saw the tapes as a sort of time bomb that, if leaked, threatened irreparable damage to the United States' image in the Muslim world, his friends say, and posed physical and legal risks to C.I.A. officers on them.
People close to Mr. Goss, who knew from his Congressional years how explosive accusations of cover-up could be, insist he told Mr. Rodriguez the tapes should be preserved.
But if Mr. Goss believed Mr. Rodriguez had disobeyed him, why did he not punish the clandestine service chief? One former C.I.A. official said White House officials had complained about the news media firestorm that accompanied the departure of Mr. Kappes and Mr. Sulick a year earlier, and Mr. Goss felt he could not risk another blowup.
'Loyal and Dedicated'
Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Rodriguez's lawyer, said his client was never instructed to preserve the tapes and recalls no discussion of conflict of interest on his part.
"Guys like Jose are loyal and dedicated and take risks to keep the country safe from terrorism," Mr. Bennett said. "Now, his own government is investigating him, and I think it's shameful."
Not long after the tapes were destroyed, Mr. Goss held a management retreat for top agency officials meant in part to soothe tensions among the agency's dueling branches. There the deputy director for intelligence - the head of analysis - complained openly about the arrogance of the clandestine branch and said undercover officers thought they could get away with anything.
That was too much for Mr. Rodriguez. He stood up in the room, according to one participant in the meeting, and shouted in coarse language that the analysis chief should "wake up and smell the coffee," because undercover officers were at the "pointy end of the spear."
The clandestine branch, Mr. Rodriguez was making it clear, would do what it wanted.
© 2008 The New York Times