The New CIA Acts a Bit Like the Old CIA

Destroyed videotapes raise questions of accountability.

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The CIA's director, Gen. Michael Hayden, heads to a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill.

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When U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured suspected al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah in March 2002, he was shot three times, including once in the groin, while trying to escape. His condition was grave enough that even after medics patched him up, operatives at a secret CIA prison overseas worried he might not survive and decided to videotape him around the clock. "There were concerns that there be a record of his medical treatment and condition in the event that he died," says one intelligence official. "A lot of it is him sitting alone in his cell." Of the hundreds of hours of footage, a small portion showed Zubaydah and another prisoner undergoing aggressive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, a process that simulates drowning.

Revelations that the CIA destroyed the videotapes in 2005 triggered a firestorm on Capitol Hill last week that had the nation's intelligence community running for cover. Democrats accused the CIA of keeping them in the dark and obstructing inquiries into the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Bush administration critics also question what role, if any, the White House played in their destruction.

The tapes scandal comes on the heels of a surprising new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that had already put spy agencies under fire from the political right, most vocally neoconservatives unhappy with the report's conclusion that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The analytical shift was a blow to hard-liners who have been advocating tougher action, even military strikes, against Tehran. Critics say the NIE was too narrowly focused on actual weaponization, rather than on the uranium enrichment that could be used to make bomb fuel, and some even suggested an anti-Bush, antiwar agenda by a few key intelligence analysts.

Intelligence community officials were forced by the controversy to publicly defend the process of creating the largely classified NIEs, pointing out that senior officials from all 16 intelligence agencies laboriously pore over the text of each NIE, as well as the underlying intelligence sources. "They go line by line," explains a senior intelligence official. "There was an intensive review." This flap is particularly disconcerting for an intelligence community that has been shaken up and scrutinized in the wake of its earlier faulty reporting on Iraq, intelligence that many hawks had trumpeted in the run-up to war.

Neither controversy is likely to diminish soon. But the burgeoning tapes scandal could stretch on for weeks, even months, as Congress launches a round of closed-door hearings to determine why the tapes had not been previously disclosed—and why they were subsequently destroyed. Whatever the explanations, the CIA clearly became trapped by the unusual decision to make the tapes in the first place. "We don't keep videos of our activities," says one former clandestine CIA officer. But Zubaydah was the cia's first high-value prisoner, and in addition to medical concerns, officials wanted a video record to help monitor the program and evaluate its interrogation techniques.

Face of interrogation. For several years, CIA officials and lawyers batted around the question of what to do about the potentially explosive tapes, which displayed the faces of CIA interrogators. "This thing had taken on a life of its own," says a former official familiar with the discussions. As the internal debate continued, the cia's use of waterboarding and other techniques became controversial on Capitol Hill, with Republican Sen. John McCain, then a presumptive presidential candidate, spearheading an amendment to outlaw some of these measures. At the cia, officers began to worry that the tapes could help land its interrogators in jail. "If these tapes were viewed by Congress, it would help to feed the controversy by pushing them to go after the junior officers conducting these interrogations, who were just following orders," says a former senior CIA official. "It's a qualitatively different thing—seeing it versus reading about it."