About those CIA tapes

Agreed, it’s bad. CIA agents shouldn’t be destroying evidence, though it ought to be obvious to everyone that the evidence in question stood about a 99% chance of being used against the agents on the tape and to the benefit of the terrorists. That’s how things work nowadays. That’s not a justification, but it is a motivation, and it’s not too hard to grasp how this could occur.

The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terror suspects — including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in C.I.A. custody — to severe interrogation techniques. They were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that tapes documenting controversial interrogation methods could expose agency officials to greater risk of legal jeopardy, several officials said.

The C.I.A. said today that the decision to destroy the tapes had been made “within the C.I.A. itself,” and they were destroyed to protect the safety of undercover officers and because they no longer had intelligence value. The agency was headed at the time by Porter J. Goss. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Goss declined this afternoon to comment on the destruction of the tapes.

This is what we get when we have leaders who abdicate leadership and don’t protect their subordinates for the consequences of the choices that the leaders make. This, essentially, is the result of Sen. John McCain’s announced policy of keeping interrogation techniques like waterboarding illegal, but knowing full well that it will be used in extreme circumstances, and that when it is used the agents who used it will find themselves in legal jeopardy no matter what the outcome of the interrogation was. It’s the politics of passing the buck.

This is where politicizing a war gets us: We’re prosecuting front line troops for using time-tested techniques for killing enemy combatants, and we’re all but granting Miranda rights to terrorists who live for nothing but killing us. Here’s what I wrote about the issue in November 2005. That’s when McCain initially set out to ban torture, as defined down to include waterboarding and lesser techniques like sleep deprivation that are used against our own troops in basic training every single day of the year. It’s also around the time that the CIA destroyed the tapes.

By banning torture and torture-light openly yet allowing it with a wink and a nod in dire circumstances, McCain is pushing responsibility down, out of the elected parts of the government and into the bureaucracy. It will be junior and mid-level investigators who make the call, not chief executives. Because they make the call, they get the consequences—well, they’ll get the negative consequences.

If, say, the junior investigator decides against using harsh interrogation to get a terrorist’s ticking bomb information, and the bomb goes off, the elected politicians can blame the investigator for not being tough enough. “It wasn’t my call,” the politician can plausibly say.

If, on the other hand, the junior investigator does use extreme measures but gets no useful information (which is bound to happen in some small number of cases), when the terrorist’s advocates in the ACLU make the case public, the elected politician can again say “It wasn’t my call. Torture is illegal—don’t you know that I proposed banning it myself?” And thus, he’s off the hook if things go wrong either way.

In the one way in which things can go right—the junior investigator uses extreme measures, extracts information which leads to preventing the ticking bomb from going off, you can be sure that the politician will be right there to take the credit. The junior investigator, meanwhile, has to worry that some bureaucrat in Internal Affairs or elsewhere in the chain of command decides that even if the decision to go extreme prevented a massacre of Americans, it doesn’t matter. His actions were still illegal. The junior investigator whose actions saved lives could well still face a career-limiting scandal and even criminal justice. And the politician may well let it happen, just to show that he really in his heart doesn’t favor torture even if it saves lives.

I’m not blaming McCain alone for this; most of Washington basically sides with his effort to pass off responsibility to anyone but themselves, whether or not they signed on to the actual method McCain used in this specific case.

And here we are. Buck passed, agents in fear of prosecution and politicization destroying evidence, politicians once again side-stepping responsibility for their own predictably awful self-centered reasons. We have one more reason to loathe politicians on both sides of the aisle, and one more reason to suspect that our intel agencies are spinning more and more out of control and that terrorist-connected lawyers are gaming the system and no one in a position to do anything about it has the guts to call them out.

Thanks, Washington. For nothing.

Update: Interesting. I’ve read that book, and it’s a good read.

Update: Evidently reading comprehension skills aren’t required to blog for the Atlantic. Andrew Sullivan says I’m blaming McCain for the destruction of evidence in this case, when I set out a paragraph above explicitly saying that I’m not blaming McCain alone so much as I’m blaming the entire Washington culture of passing the buck. And the paragraph following that one spreads the blame even further, and wrapped around that is a condemnation of the destruction of evidence itself. Too much nuance in one post, I guess.