Questions, lots of questions
December 11, 2007
Accountability is an essential part of democratic government, but it's not always popular among those to whom it applies. In Washington, officials often find that what they did yesterday, they want everyone to forget tomorrow.
New revelations related to the CIA's interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects suggest that evading responsibility remains standard procedure inside the Beltway.
Last week, the agency confirmed that in 2005 it destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of two Al Qaeda suspects, interrogations that may have used methods deemed to be illegal. CIA Director Michael Hayden said the tapes presented a "serious security risk," because if they had become public, they would have exposed agency employees and their families "to retaliation from Al Qaeda."
But keeping secrets -- including secrets needed to protect its own people -- is something the CIA does, and is supposed to do, every day. A more plausible explanation is that someone thought it was best to get rid of evidence that someday might be used against the agency by Congress or the courts.
Those officials apparently were willing to defy anyone who tried to identify and assess what agency interrogators -- and their superiors -- had done. White House counsel Harriet Miers had reportedly advised against destroying the tapes, and Rep. Jane Harman, who was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee at the time, said she had warned the CIA against destroying tapes of interrogations.
The Sept. 11 commission asked for material of this nature and, executive director Philip Zelikow says, "no tapes were acknowledged or turned over." The New York Times reported the chief of the CIA's clandestine service ordered the destruction without even notifying the CIA's own chief lawyer. After the story broke, the Justice Department and the agency launched inquiries, raising the possibility of obstruction of justice charges down the road.
There is no possible way to justify deep-sixing evidence to keep it out of the hands of duly constituted authorities that may want to see it. But another revelation offered a possible explanation for why the CIA would behave this way.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that interrogation methods now widely reviled on Capitol Hill evoked very different reactions in September 2002, when the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was fresh. Back then, four senior members of Congress -- including Nancy Pelosi, now speaker of the House -- got a thorough briefing on waterboarding and other techniques used to extract critical information from terror suspects.
Their response? No one objected, and "at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder," two U.S. officials told the Post.
The CIA held some 30 briefings in all for members of Congress who had oversight of national intelligence agencies. "Officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support," the Post reported.
Today, some leaders of Congress are expressing outrage at harsh interrogation techniques, and working on legislation specifically to ban waterboarding. Some members obviously find such tactics more dispensable now than they did five years ago.
Some people at the CIA may have feared its employees were liable to being judged by retroactive standards. That prospect is not an excuse for a cover-up of possible wrongdoing. The Justice Department is right to investigate how the tapes were destroyed and who made the decision.
But while it's truth-telling time, let's hear the members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, give a thorough timeline of what they knew about interrogations. Let's hear what they allowed to take place. Let's hear them explain why anti-terrorism efforts they thought were necessary in 2002 are unacceptable today.