The Central Intelligence Agency: rogue agency or fall guy?
That's the question now arising in Washington in regards to the agency's destruction of the videotaped interrogations of two suspected terrorists.
Some Republicans feel the CIA's actions in recent months have shown that it is acting on its own, perhaps to the point of subverting administration policies. The shredding of the tapes is but one piece of evidence here, they say. Another may be the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which they believe contained inappropriate policy recommendations about engagement with Tehran.
But others in Washington, including many Democrats, don't believe that Langley's actions are that uncontrolled. White House lawyers consulted with the CIA before the interrogation tapes were destroyed, they point out. At the least, the administration had the opportunity to order the tapes' preservation, they say.
Congress seems set to proceed with its own tape investigations. But the holiday break means it will be weeks before lawmakers get to work.
"Congress is out of the loop now," says Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. "Maybe at this point the first crack at finding out what happened does really fall to the internal investigations of the CIA and Justice Department."
Tension between the nation's largest intelligence agency and the White House are a common occurrence. But the relations between the Bush administration and Langley at times have been particularly strained.
Partly, that is a reflection of the times. The unconventional nature of the worldwide struggle with extremist Islamists puts a high priority on intelligence – yet terrorist networks are particularly hard to penetrate. In the wake of Sept. 11, the CIA signaled it felt unfairly singled out for a failure to predict Al Qaeda's actions.
It is also partly due to the fact that some employees in the CIA feel the administration has politicized some intelligence findings, from pushing for evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, to adopting a bellicose position vis-à-vis Iran.
On the matter of the destruction of the videotapes of the interrogation of CIA detainees, outrage in Washington has been something of a bipartisan affair. But some Republican and Democratic lawmakers do have differing narratives for what they believe may have occurred.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, for days has complained that CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden has given misleading statements about what happened to the tapes when they were destroyed in 2005. Nor has General Hayden fully explained why the CIA felt it could do what it did, according to Representative Hoekstra.
The GOP lawmaker has charged that the CIA has become incompetent, arrogant, and political. "You've got a systemic problem here," he said in a broadcast interview.
Hoekstra went even further in an interview with columnist Robert Novak published in many papers on Dec. 24. The lawmaker noted that many in the GOP were upset with the recent NIE on Iran, in which the intelligence community reversed course and highlighted its conclusion that Tehran has suspended work on a nuclear weapon.
Intelligence agencies are supposed to be dispassionate dispensers of what they believe to be facts, but the NIE contained language urging talks and other engagement with Iran, Hoekstra noted. Others have also complained that the document did not place Iran's actions in the proper context. Tehran continues to work on uranium enrichment technology, saying it is for civilian power purposes, they point out. Yet learning how to enrich uranium is the most difficult step in assembling a weapons program.
The CIA "is acting as though it is autonomous, not accountable to anyone," Hoekstra told Novak.
But CIA veterans have long felt that the White House – whomever is in power – is prone to use the agency as a convenient scapegoat.
And some Democrats believe that the destruction of the tapes is an effort, not only to protect the interrogators involved, but the officials above them who ordered the use of harsh questioning techniques, including waterboarding, on the suspects in question.
The CIA official who ordered the destruction, former clandestine service chief Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., has not been disciplined or admonished, and remains at the agency, though he is on a retirement track and will leave in several months.
The White House was aware of the tapes' existence and the fact that the CIA was interested in getting rid of them, long before their destruction occurred, some Democrats point out. Among those who reportedly knew where David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief counsel; Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel; and John Bellinger, a lawyer at the National Security Council. What did these administration lawyers tell the agency, and when did they say it? News reports have said the trio urged caution about the handling of the tapes. That wording is open to interpretation, say administration critics.Rep. Jane Harman, former top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has said the whole situation seems like "the coverup of the coverup."