Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. is the covert-operations chief at the CIA who made the decision to destroy tape recordings of interrogations of Al Qaeda officials. This scandal has ignited perfervid fantasies of cover-up at the highest levels, which appear to be groundless in that those closest to politicians in the White House and elsewhere opposed the destruction of the tapes. Now, with those people having dosed themselves with the special responsibility repellent that Washingtonians seek to slather over themselves whenever there is bad news in the vicinity, Rodriguez is now suddenly famous as the Great Tape Destroyer.
According to Siobhan Gorman in the Wall Street Journal, he did so because he feared the identities of interrogators would be made public, and because he worried the tapes could be used to stain the United States the way the Abu Ghraib photos were:
Mr. Rodriguez had long been concerned that the CIA lacked a long-term plan for handling interrogations, they say. He also worried, given the response to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and an earlier agency scandal involving the shooting-down of a plane that turned out to be carrying Peruvian missionaries, that lower-level officers would take the fall if the videos became public, the former colleagues said.
One former official said interrogators’ faces were visible on at least one video, as were those of more senior officers who happened to be visiting. He said Mr. Rodriguez was concerned that “they were carrying out the direction from higher-ups in the administration, yet the people who would end up getting in trouble are going to be some GS-12s,” referring to a midlevel rank in the federal bureaucracy.
“Jose was concerned about how all this would end,” another former senior intelligence official said. “He wasn’t getting instructions from anybody.”
It seems clear that Rodriguez will now be ensnared in the Washington scandal machine. He will spend the first year of his retirement under subpoena, hounded by reporters and hassled by politicians. He will be accused of a rogue action by those seeking to indemnify the administration and alternately of having carried out secret orders from above by those who want to implicate the administration in the destruction of the tapes.
We know, from interviews with a former CIA interrogator, that the tapes included the waterboarding of Al Qaeda operations director Abu Zubaydah for 35 seconds — after which Abu Zubaydah broke and gave his interrogators enough information to block dozens of terrorist actions. Forget the whole ticking clock scenario. Here we have evidence that the use of this extraordinarily harsh technique was a key to saving perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives. And yet that does not seem to have given a moment’s pause to those who have made a kind of reverse fetish out of the technique — taking an almost lascivious pleasure in their expressions of outrage.
An interrogator who has gone public says he remains disturbed by it — that he now believes it was an act of torture and one that haunts him, but a necessary technique for saving lives. One will doubtless wait in vain to see the anti-waterboarding fetishists struggle in the reverse — struggle with the revelation that the use of the technique actually did interrupt Al Qaeda terror plots and how that calls into question the dogmatic certainty of their view.
The decision Rodriguez made — not to give ammunition to those who might use leaked copies of tapes as anti-American propaganda and to protect those Americans whose faces appeared on those tapes — appears to have been, at least in the early reckoning, a genuinely principled and patriotic act. If he is forced to create a defense fund to help pay his legal bills, I’ll be the first to send in a check.