"What matters here is that it was done in line with the law," said CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden in 2007. He was referring to the destruction of two video tapes which had filmed interrogation sessions of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri while in agency custody.
The tapes had to be eliminated since they posed a "serious security risk," and potentially exposed CIA officers "and their families to retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers," according to Hayden’s statement.
Even at the time, this came across as hollow. This occurred in the midst of the Congressional investigation into the CIA’s detention programs, and some argued that destruction of evidence amounted to a serious obstruction of justice.
"How in the world could the CIA claim that these tapes were not relevant to a legislative inquiry?" Representative Jane Harman of the House Intelligence Committee said.
"Millions of documents in CIA archives, if leaked, would identify CIA officers," Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times in 2007. "The only difference here is that these tapes portray potentially criminal activity. They must have understood that if people saw these tapes, they would consider them to show acts of torture, which is a felony offense."
Many have always suspected a high-level cover-up, and according to interviews with CIA officials in the new PBS documentary "Secrets, Politics and Torture," those suspicions may have been correct.
"I was told, if those videotapes had ever been seen, the reaction around the world would not have been survivable," Jane Mayer of the New Yorker told Frontline. "So the CIA is in a panic. They’ve got these red-hot videotapes on their hands."
The CIA’s panic began after the public outcry over the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. Whatever was on those videos, it was evidently worse than the prisoner abuse scandal.
The CIA’s top operations officer, Jose Rodriguez, came up with a proposal.
"Jose Rodriguez wanted to nip it in the bud," Michael Isikoff of Newsweek told Frontline. "He floats this idea of destroying the tapes so they would never come out."
"Could that be construed as a criminal cover-up?" Isikoff says.
John Rizzo, a former attorney for the agency, described his reaction when he learned that Rodriguez had carried out the plan. The news came in the form of an internal cable which read, "pursuant to headquarters’ direction, the videotapes have been destroyed."
"Needless to say, after twenty-five years of CIA, I didn’t think too much could flabbergast me," Rizzo said. "But reading that cable sure did."
Rodriguez never faced criminal charges for his actions. In 2006, President Bush signed legislation which gave immunity to any operatives working in the detention program.