Remember when the CIA claimed that it destroyed all of its inventory of tapes showing the interrogation of 9/11 plotters, including those of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, currently being held in Guantanamo Bay’s detention center?  Ninety-two tapes went into the burn barrel, the CIA told a court, and they didn’t have any way to comply with a court order to produce them.  Almost eighteen months later, the CIA announced that they found some of those tapes in a box under a desk, where they apparently store material they claim was so sensitive that releasing them would do irreparable harm:

The CIA has tapes of 9/11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh being interrogated in a secret overseas prison. Discovered under a desk, the recordings could provide an unparalleled look at how foreign governments aided the U.S. in holding and questioning suspected terrorists.

The two videotapes and one audiotape are believed to be the only remaining recordings made within the clandestine prison system.

The tapes depict Binalshibh’s interrogation sessions at a Moroccan-run facility the CIA used near Rabat in 2002, several current and formerU.S. officials told The Associated Press. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the recordings remain a closely guarded secret.

When the CIA destroyed its cache of 92 videos of two other al-Qaida operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri, being waterboarded in 2005, officials believed they had wiped away all of the agency’s interrogation footage. But in 2007, a staffer discovered a box tucked under a desk in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and pulled out the Binalshibh tapes.

There seems to be a little timeline problem here.  In March 2009, the CIA claimed that all of its interrogation tapes had been destroyed in November 2005.  In 2007, though, a staffer found these in a box, and they apparently still exist.  This sounds as though someone fibbed a bit to the FBI, which had conducted the investigation into the missing tapes and possible obstruction of justice.  If so, then someone needs to answer for that obstruction in court.

What’s more, this could jeopardize the conviction of Zacarias Moussaoui.  Judge Leonie Brinkema had ordered those tapes released to the defense, at which point the CIA asserted that they no longer existed.  If Moussaoui’s attorneys can make a case that this failure to produce the evidence created pressure on him to plead guilty — a long shot, but possible — we may have to redo Moussaoui’s trial all over again.

Nor are those the only issues here.  Assuming the AP’s sources at the CIA are being honest about the filing system at the agency, it seems more than a little incompetent and disorganized, a pattern we have seen before.

The CIA may not have wanted to comply with a court order, but if so, they should have issued a flat-out refusal and taken their argument to a higher court.  Regardless of our sympathy towards the difficult and often thankless job they perform, the CIA is still accountable to the law and the court, as is the rest of the federal government.  Obstruction of justice is a corrosive abuse of power when committed by public officials, and if that’s what has happened here — assuming the AP’s report is substantiated — then those who committed it should be held accountable for their actions.