At least four White House attorneys were involved in discussions about the destruction of the CIA torture tapes.
The accounts indicate that the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged.Other officials have maintained that no one at the White House made the case for destroying the case, but quickly add that no White House lawyer ever specifically advised that destroying the videos would violate the law.
Those who took part, the officials said, included Alberto R. Gonzales, who served as White House counsel until early 2005; David S. Addington, who was the counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and is now his chief of staff; John B. Bellinger III, who until January 2005 was the senior lawyer at the National Security Council; and Harriet E. Miers, who succeeded Mr. Gonzales as White House counsel.
It was previously reported that some administration officials had advised against destroying the tapes, but the emerging picture of White House involvement is more complex. In interviews, several administration and intelligence officials provided conflicting accounts as to whether anyone at the White House expressed support for the idea that the tapes should be destroyed.
One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there had been “vigorous sentiment” among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes. The former official did not specify which White House officials took this position, but he said that some believed in 2005 that any disclosure of the tapes could have been particularly damaging after revelations a year earlier of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The Department of Justice is (perfunctorily) mounting an internal investigation into the destruction of the tapes. Officials who spoke to the New York Times did so under conditions of anonymity because of that ongoing investigation.
Spokespersons for the president and the vice president, as well as the CIA, cited the investigation and declined to comment.
The new information was revealed on Tuesday when Federal Judge Henry Kennedy ordered the attorneys involved appear before him on Friday at 11:00 a.m. to answer questions about the destroyed videos. Kennedy was the judge that issued the order to preserve evidence, presumably that would include the tapes, as part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The tapes documented the "harsh treatment" (civilized folk call it what it is: torture) of two suspected al Qaeda terrorists in CIA custody. .
New details also emerged on Tuesday about the role of Jose (I smell a fall guy here...) Rodriguez Jr., who headed the clandestine branch and has thus far been fingered as the guy who gave the burn order. The anonymous officials said that prior to Rodriguez issuing a secret cable ordering the destruction, he was advised, in writing, by two CIA lawyers, Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger, that he indeed had the authority to order the tapes be destroyed and that no laws would be violated.
The CIA refused to allow Mr. Eatinger or Mr. Hermes to comment.
The two agency lawyers did, however, inform the top lawyer at the CIA, John A. Rizzo, about the legal advice they had given Rodriguez.
Mr. Rodriguez did not inform either Mr. Rizzo or the CIA director at that time, Porter Goss, before he issued the cable ordering the tapes be destroyed. “There was an expectation on the part of those providing legal guidance that additional bases would be touched,” said one government official with knowledge of the matter. “That didn’t happen.”
Robert Bennet, attorney for Mr. Rodriguez is adamant that his client was not a lose cannon who ordered evidence be destroyed on his whim. “He had a green light to destroy them,” Mr. Bennett insists.The tapes were never sent back to Langley. Instead, they were kept in the safe in the bureau office in Thailand, where the interrogations took place. Senior officials in the clandestine service had been chomping at the bit to have the tapes destroyed, starting in 2003, citing concern that the budding Torquemada's on the tapes could face legal or physical jeopardy should the content of the tapes be leaked.
Prior to the revelations in the Times today, the only official previously reported to have been involved in discussions about the tapes was Harriet Meiers, who served as White House counsel after Alberto Gonzales became the Attorney General in 2005. Ms. Meiers' involvement is sketchy - some sources say she was not part of the discussions prior to 2005, but others insist she was in the loop as early as 2003.
The only thing we know for sure (besides the fact that this is the most corrupt and feckless administration in the history of the republic) is that the issue is not going away. In fact, it seems to be ramping up.
To which I say "Good! It's about damned time! Can we impeach Dick Cheney now?"