A new spin on the CIA tape scandal

The new Republican spin on the destruction of CIA tapes that showed torture of terrorism suspects has a familiar ring to it: An underling took it upon himself to take criminal action against the wishes of his superiors.

It’s an old Washington game called scapegoating: Having someone take the fall to protect those higher on the food chain.

GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra laid the foundation for the new spin Wednesday, telling reporters that closed-door testimony revealed that a lower-level CIA official gave the order to destroy the tapes against the direction of his superiors.

“It appears he hadn’t gotten authority from anyone,” House intelligence committee member Hoekstra, told reporters after hearing testimony from John Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel. “It appears he got direction to make sure the tapes were not destroyed.”

Consider the ploy here. The super-secret House Intelligence Committee hears classified testimony behind closed doors and then a member of President Bush’s own political party rushes out to tell reporters what was said during that testimony.

“I believe there are parts of the intelligence community that don’t believe they are accountable to Congress and may not be accountable to their own superiors in the intelligence community, and that’s why it’s a problem,” Hoekstra said.

Hmmm. We believe something stinks the halls of power in Washington.

Reports Pamela Hess of The Associated Press:

Hoekstra spoke after the CIA’s acting general counsel, John Rizzo, testified behind closed doors for nearly four hours as the first witness in what committee officials have said will be a long investigation.

“I told the truth,” Rizzo said in a brief appearance before reporters.

The man at the center of the controversy, Jose Rodriguez, had been scheduled to appear Wednesday, but his lawyer’s demand for immunity delayed his testimony. Rodriguez was the head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, the CIA branch that oversees spying operations and interrogations. He gave the order to destroy the tapes in November 2005.

The tapes, made in 2002, showed the harsh interrogation by CIA officers of two alleged al-Qaida terrorists, both of whom are known to have undergone waterboarding, which gives the subject the sensation of drowning.

The White House approved waterboarding and other “enhanced” techniques in 2002 for prisoners deemed resistant to conventional interrogation. The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners and has not used the technique since 2003. CIA Director Michael Hayden prohibited it in 2006.

A congressional official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said the document trail the committee is following strongly suggests Rodriguez knew destruction would be against the advice and wishes of his superiors.

“If you look at the documents, you get very close to a direct order (not to destroy the tapes) without it being, ‘Jose, you’re not going to do this,'” the official said.

Another committee official said the guidance to maintain the tapes might have been even more direct.

“The line we got today was you are not going to destroy these, but it does not say you would be breaking the law if you destroy these,” the second official said.

The first official said the committee will try to determine whether any CIA officials suggested “with a wink and a nod” that the tapes should be destroyed, and whether Rodriguez was being forced to take the blame.

Rizzo told the committee that CIA lawyers wrote a memo that said destroying the tapes would be legal. Rizzo advised against it. Then-CIA Director Porter Goss also recommended against the tapes’ destruction, said the official, information confirmed by several former intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing Justice Department criminal investigation into the matter.

Rizzo, who has been acting general counsel since 2004, participated in at least two key meetings about the tapes.

After Goss took over as CIA director in 2004, Rizzo asked him whether he opposed destroying the videotapes. He said he did, according to one of the former intelligence officials. Goss’ objection was primarily informed by his political career; he thought destroying the tapes would look suspicious, the official said.

Rizzo was also at a meeting in early November 2005 when Rodriguez told Goss that the tapes had been destroyed.

At the meeting it was decided that Rizzo would inform White House counsel Harriet Miers, Rodriguez would tell the leaders of the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, and Goss would inform the director of national intelligence, according to former intelligence officials.

But intelligence committee leaders said they were not informed until more than a year later. Few committee members even knew the tapes had existed until CIA Director Michael Hayden announced their destruction to CIA employees in an e-mail on Dec. 6.

“I don’t have any indication Mr. Rodriguez has talked to Congress about the tapes,” committee chairman Sylvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said following Wednesday’s hearing.

Reyes said the CIA has given the committee access to more than 300 pages of documents, but that there are many more to review.

“There is something we should have gotten by now that we haven’t gotten, and some things have been redacted excessively. Committee staff will be doing a lot of work before the next hearing,” a committee official said.

Hoekstra said Rodriguez must testify to the committee to determine on whose authority the tapes were destroyed, and he said the panel will consult with the Justice Department on whether granting Rodriguez immunity would undermine its own investigation.

“If there appears to be any criminal activity taking place, the last thing we would want to do is get in the way of a successful prosecution,” Hoekstra said.

Unless, of course, getting “in the way of a successful prosecution” protects the President of the United States and any other Republican official.