Pretty much everyone in Washington is claiming to have urged the CIA not to destroy those DVDs

The next couple of weeks in the nation’s capital are likely to be even more acrimonious than usual. We’ll have two tracks of insanity to deal with on the national security front and the continuing spinout of the housing debacle, and that’s on top of all the other insanity that has become the nation’s constant sound track. Merry Christmas!

On the national security front, insanity track #1 will be the National Intelligence Estimate. Pretty much the only Americans who actually believe it are the officers who wrote it and the nutroots who are doing a reverse Church Committee and believing everything uttered by the spook community as long as it can be whipped around to damage the Bush administration. The nutroots pretty much own the Democrats, so there will be much jackal yelping on the Hill about the NIE from that side of the aisle no matter what the Israelis tell us about it Sunday. They’ll also be in a fit about the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes, which the White House says it urged the CIA not to destroy.

White House and Justice Department officials, along with senior members of Congress, advised the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 against a plan to destroy hundreds of hours of videotapes showing the interrogations of two operatives of Al Qaeda, government officials said Friday.

The chief of the agency’s clandestine service nevertheless ordered their destruction in November 2005, taking the step without notifying even the C.I.A.’s own top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, who was angry at the decision, the officials said.

The disclosures provide new details about what Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, has said was a decision “made within C.I.A. itself” to destroy the videotapes. In interviews, members of Congress and former intelligence officials also questioned some aspects of the account General Hayden provided Thursday about when Congress was notified that the tapes had been destroyed.

That much I already knew from reading up on all this yesterday, but this strikes me as new info.

As the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in 2003, Porter J. Goss, then a Republican congressman from Florida, was among Congressional leaders who warned the C.I.A. against destroying the tapes, the former intelligence officials said. Mr. Goss became C.I.A. director in 2004 and was serving in the post when the tapes were destroyed, but was not informed in advance about Mr. Rodriguez’s decision, the former officials said.

This is probably going to get all kinds of ugly, but it is the logical end of the policies that were set out in 2005. Contrary to what Andrew Sullivan thinks, Sen. John McCain did not set out in 2005 to stamp out torture. He said as much himself at the time. As the post I wrote then and quoted yesterday makes clear, McCain’s aim was to make torture officially illegal but with the understand that in ticking time bomb circumstances it would be used and the officers who used it would be held accountable. That’s what he said at the time. The politicians, meanwhile, could hide behind the legal firewall that they had built up around the issue, thereby escaping consequences themselves. I denounced the policy in 2005 as craven and I stand by that, and I suspect that the destruction of the tapes may have been motivated by this public sellout, private wink-and-nod approach to torture. I don’t have any proof of that, it’s just a suspicion. But I did predict that we would end up in something like the situation we’re in now. My position is, first define torture clearly and then if you’re going to ban it, ban it for real and don’t play games that let politicians dodge the consequences that they know will roll to case officers. We have defined it, more or less, and have banned it four years ago, but we’re still in a spin about the three al Qaeda suspects on whom waterboarding was used.

One more point about torture in general and then I’ll give it a rest until the next round of finger-pointing kicks in. Two of the three al Qaeda suspects who are known to have been waterboarded are top-tier terrorists. They are Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (I can’t recall who the third one was at the moment). I’ve made this point about such detainees before and no one seems to have followed my logic on it, but I’ll make it one more time. Whenever you capture a high value target like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you have the closest thing to a ticking time bomb scenario that we’re likely to see outside Jack Bauer’s universe. That’s because you don’t know what your captured terrorist knows, but by virtue of his position you know he knows quite a bit, but until you question him you don’t know the specifics of any attacks that he knows of that might unfold in an hour, a week or a year from the time you capture him. You have other sources of intelligence that offer hints, but you have in your hands the man who probably knows it all. He could know of a plot that’s timed to kill a million people with a dozen dirty bombs in downtown London tomorrow morning, or of a plot to knock down airliners leaving Manila a year from now, or neither or both or a whole bunch of other plots besides. And he knows who is carrying those plots out and where they are and probably how they’re supplied. He’s at the hub of the network. The point is, it’s highly likely that he is one of a very small number of enemy capos who know enough details about enough plots that interrogating him can help you stop whatever he knows about. And he’s also trained not to talk, or to lie and misdirect. By virtue of the fact that he’s a non-state actor, he’s not covered by the Geneva Conventions to which the US is a signatory, and he’s not in any way a participant in Geneva himself. He’s a terrorist who knows things that you need to know, sooner rather than later, and he has made the choice to put himself outside the international laws of warfare. That doesn’t mean you can treat him inhumanely for the fun of it, but it does loosen the rules by which you are required to treat him. To believe otherwise is to believe that Geneva doesn’t require reciprocity, which it does.

So what do you do with a high value target who may know about threats to untold numbers of innocent people? The CIA opted to waterboard them and discovered plots and operatives and saved lives. The politicians have opted to leave the CIA agents who made that choice out on a legal limb, unprotected. I think that’s an immoral and craven choice to have made, but that’s Washington. The Bush administration, to its credit, wanted to give those agents who had already made that choice in 2002 some protection, and has been excoriated for that choice ever since.

Update: Hat tip to See Dubya, the third al Qaeda suspect to have been waterboarded was Ramzi Binalshibh. He was a 9-11 planner, terrorist money man and close friend of Mohammed Atta. At one time he was supposed to be the fifth pilot on 9-11, meaning he would have died in a fireball while killing thousands of innocent people in the hopes of obtaining his 72 virgins. Forgive me if I can’t generate any sympathy for his plight.