Top Intel Democrat Warned CIA Not to Destroy Tapes — But Then Did Nothing Further

Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee warned then-CIA general counsel Scott Muller in a 2003 letter that destroying videotapes of terrorist interrogations would put the CIA under a cloud of suspicion.  However, what is as remarkable as the decision of the CIA to go ahead with the destruction is the failure of the Democrats to do nothing more than discourage what was a presumptively criminal destruction of evidence.  Moreover, there is no mention of the crime of torture — only that it would “reflect badly on the agency.”

Harman asked for the letter to be declassified. It certainly shows an agency intent on destroying evidence of its own criminal acts.  However, the letter also confirms how weak the oversight over the intelligence agencies has become.  The letter reads more like some friendly concerns and did not include the three most obvious responses: (1)  a demand that the CIA assure the Committee that the evidence would be preserve, (2) a demand for a copy of the tapes, and (3) a statement that torture is a crime and a demand for a referral to the Justice Department for prosecution. 

Harman says in the Feb. 10, 2003  letter that “Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law, the videotape would be the best proof that the written record is accurate, if such record is called into question in the future . . .  The fact of destruction would reflect badly on the agency.” 

Notably, the CIA simply ignored warnings even from within the Administration not to destroy the tapes, including the CIA director himself.  Reportedly, Alberto Gonzales, who served as White House counsel and then attorney general, advised against destroying the videotapes as did John Bellinger, then a lawyer at the National Security Council and others.  Yet, none of these lawyers, including Muller, addressed the crime of torture or destruction of evidence with any other than rhetoric.  It is not enough to object to criminal conduct and then remain silent.

 It was Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service who ordered the tapes destroyed.  However, these meetings and Harman’s letter show that no real action was taken.  Classification laws do not protect criminal acts like lying to Congress, lying to the court, destruction of evidence, and of course torture. With their knowledge and silence, these officials allowed some crimes to continue (torture) and other (lying and destruction) to occur.

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4 thoughts on “Top Intel Democrat Warned CIA Not to Destroy Tapes — But Then Did Nothing Further”

  1. Hugh,
    The other compelling issue is how an enraged and highly motivated electorate responds. It’s very likely to be counter-politics politics.
    It’s this highly motivated and communicative movement of voters that is going to undo the old guard.

    As you pointed out, Pelosi stepped on her own foot out of the gate, by improperly and without authority, issuing a waiver to the Constitutionally mandated responsibility of Congress, specifically the House, to perform its oversight duties – when she appointed herself the House ‘Decider’. It was three words ‘off-the-table’ with the haunting impact of three words from my childhood ‘duck-and-cover’ Pelosi transormed her image from the crafty powerhouse that unseated Richard Gephardt to the Sheriff of Nottingham in fewer moves than Boris Spassky vs. Britney, y’all.

    Now that leaves a complicated challenge to political strategy. How do we ask the new breed to fire at their own feet while charging the Hill ??

  2. Vincent,

    Your point about complicity is right on. I have long wondered why Nancy Pelosi took impeachment off the table so quickly and why the Judiciary Committee is dragging their feet on hearings. Hearings will no doubt expose the level of collusion between the WH and the Legislature. There are so many reasons for them to sweep this under the rug, we must keep the pressure on if this is ever to be investigated properly.

  3. This seems representative of much of the foot dragging by the Democratic leadership with regards to actual vociferous challenges in the Senate and the House, no ? It would seem a reasonable assumption that further scrutiny and investigation is going to show that much information had been shared with Democrats. This is what comes from operating from the equivalent of the fetal position, failing to recover properly from the Newt Gingrich / Tom Delay beating that felled Congressional Democrats en masse.

    There’s a very good chance that Democrats may have been complicit in aiding and abetting, what may amount to serious criminal charges. It appears the Democratic Congressional placating team would rather join in the largest bi[partisan effort since the Patriot Act, in finding a huge broom and an enormous rug for Mukasey. Apparently this bit of Broadway in appointing a partisan to investigate is just the ticket for all those whose DNA may be associated with a cover-up. Dems of course were easy to sucker into plausible reliability since those that were clued in got to wear long pants for a few days.

    This isn’t going to be pretty.

  4. Usually, it’s the cover-up, not the crime. This time it seems to be both. John Dean could write a follow-on to his book and call it “Worse Than Worse Than Watergate”

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