When a fire broke out in Vice President Dick Cheney's ceremonial office earlier this month, reporters quipped that someone must be burning the videotapes of the CIA interrogation of two al-Qaida detainees.
The joke was an allusion to the administration's admission that the CIA videotapes had been destroyed. The videotapes reportedly showed the harsh interrogations and water boarding of the prisoners in secret prisons abroad.
One has to wonder what other forms of torture U.S. agents shamefully adapted as our own in their unfettered drive to question prisoners.
The New York Times reported that the pros and cons of destroying the tapes had been discussed by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, both former White House counsels; John Bellinger, then a lawyer for the White House's National Security Council; and David Addington, chief of staff to Cheney.
The order to destroy the tapes was authorized by Jose Rodriguez, former chief of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, according to The Associated Press.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy had ordered the government not to destroy any evidence of mistreatment or abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but there is a question of whether the order applied to other secret CIA prisons overseas.
This whole episode shows why the administration sends suspects to notorious foreign prisons: The American people have no power to see that they are treated decently. Who in this administration approved this disgrace on America? President Bush told a news conference that he did not know of the existence or destruction of the tapes until he was briefed Dec. 6 by CIA Director Michael Hayden. Bush seemed to have no concern that he had been kept in the dark about such consequential matters.
Meantime, the Senate and House intelligence committees - notably lax in their oversight duties - are now getting in the act. The top members of those committees are reportedly angry that they were not fully informed about the contents of the tapes or about their destruction.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House panel, has threatened to subpoena Rodriguez and the CIA's acting general counsel, John Rizzo. They did not show up at a scheduled hearing Dec. 18.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that news of the videotape destruction "was extremely disturbing to me."
Rockefeller said he has pushed for a full investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation programs for years.
Now he says he wants a complete chronology about the tapes and why they were destroyed, adding: "We must get to the bottom of it."
White House officials have refused to discuss who gave the order to destroy the tapes on grounds that any comment would interfere with the Justice Department investigation. Having the Justice Department investigate this matter is like having the fox guarding the chicken coop.
A week ago, Judge Henry H. Kennedy appeared sympathetic to the Justice Department's request for the court to back off until the department has completed its investigation.
Justice Department officials said they could not predict how long their joint inquiry with the CIA would take.
David Remes, a lawyer for the detainees at Guantánamo, says destruction of the tapes may have violated Kennedy's court order.
The case has a whiff of the Watergate scandal that deposed Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974. For example, the idea that the administration is investigating itself is strange. In Watergate, that strangeness led to the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate.
Newly confirmed Attorney General Michael Mukasey has demonstrated which side he is on by refusing to turn over requested documents to the congressional panels. He also is on record that the Constitution puts the president above the law - and that he does not know whether water boarding constitutes torture.
Where does the administration find such people so lacking in a moral compass or even an understanding of the constitutional powers of the presidency? Bring back Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., and Rep. Peter Rodino, D-N.J., the late Watergate-era lawmakers who believed in the rule of law and relentlessly dug out the truth.
Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.
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