Media Misfire on CIA Interrogation Tape Destruction

The media have gone into full frenzy mode the last two days over some destroyed CIA interrogation tapes. And are you really surprised? The story has all the ingredients that the mainstream media just can't resist: 1) waterboarding, 2) allegations of cover up and obstruction of justice, 3) and the opportunity to ask "what did they know and when did they know it?"

The story centers around the 2002 CIA interrogations of two al Qaida operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In the wake of 9/11, CIA operatives admittedly used aggressive interrogation techniques, which included waterboarding. The CIA videotaped the interrogations, and then reportedly held the tapes until 2005 when they were destroyed. Critics (meaning Democrats and the media) have complained that the tapes were destroyed just as a public debate was brewing over torture and interrogation.

When the story first broke this week, the media predictably looked first toward the White House.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Friday that President Bush did not recall being told about the tapes or their destruction. But she could not rule out White House involvement in the decision to destroy the tapes, saying she had only asked the president about it, not others.

Perino refused to say whether the destruction could have been an obstruction of justice or a threat to cases against terrorism suspects. If the attorney general decides to investigate, "of course the White House would support that," she said.

In a daily press briefing dedicated almost solely to the topic of the CIA tapes, Perino responded 19 times that she didn't know or couldn't comment.

Having no immediate smoking gun against the President, the media happily reported when Sen. Edward Kennedy tried to equate the story to Watergate (nevermind the side story of Kennedy and cover ups).

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., accused the CIA of a cover-up. "We haven't seen anything like this since the 18 1/2-minute gap in the tapes of President Richard Nixon," he said in a Senate floor speech.

Clearly, the media was hoping for a scandal which it could ultimately pin on high-level officials in the Bush Administration, just as it did with the Valerie Plame epic anti-scandal. But then something unexpected happened. It turns out that Bush Administration officials counseled against the destruction of the tapes. The New York Times (which originally broke the story) reported today:

According to two government officials, Mr. Muller then raised the idea of destroying the tapes during discussions in 2003 with Justice Department lawyers and with Harriet Miers, who was then a deputy White House chief of staff. Ms. Miers became White House counsel in early 2005.

The officials said that Ms. Miers and the Justice Department lawyers had advised against destroying the tapes, but that it was not clear what the basis for their advice had been.

Former CIA director Porter Goss also opposed the tapes' destruction.

Former Rep. Porter Goss, R-Florida -- who was head of the CIA when the tapes were destroyed -- was told about the tapes when he served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a former intelligence official told CNN. The official said that Goss agreed with Harman that the tapes should not be destroyed and, when he became director of the agency in 2004, he let "the appropriate people" know his opinion.

The official said Goss was unhappy when he learned after the fact that the tapes were destroyed. Goss resigned in May 2006 ...

The decision to destroy the tapes appears to be the unilateral act of one man, Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., the former chief of the CIA's clandestine service, who acted even without the authority of the CIA's top attorney.

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.

Nevertheless, the media is readily reporting congressional Democrats' anger and fury over the incident. But the media itself is giving the first signs of backing away from this story, or at least redirecting its focus away from the Bush Administration.

At 10:00 a.m. (ET), CNN's Kathleen Koch reported of administration officials who had counseled against the tapes' destruction. Koch said these reports served as "exculpatory" evidence for the Bush Administration. A subsequent report at noon by Koch cited to a possible obstruction of justice prosecution, presumably for the CIA operative.

At 10:45 a.m. (ET), MSNCB's Patty Culhane reported that "everybody" who knew of the tapes urged that they not be destroyed, and openly questioned whether this incident was "the actions of just one guy." In a subsequent report, Culhane said "simply one official" appears responsible for the tapes' destruction. But still holding out hope, Culhane spoke of possible criminal charges, and predicted the story's remaining "potential to be a huge scandal."

As juicy as this story began for the media, it is evaporating just as quickly. It now appears that Bush Administration officials were on record against the destruction of the interrogation tapes. Moreover, it appears that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not even aware of the tapes until this week. Unless there are future developments to the contrary, there will not be a repeat prosecution of a high-level administration official (as occurred with Scooter Libby). There is little opportunity to ask "what did they know and when did they know it." Instead, at best (from the media's perspective), a former CIA operative might be subject to some criminal liability.

On that point, it will be interesting to see how far the media conitunes with this story. So far, the story has not appeared near the top of the "most popular" news stories on Yahoo or Google, which raises the question as to who is really outraged. Is there real public interest behind this story? Or is this story just another contrived "outrage" of  the media? 

And there is bound to be some measure of public sentiment in favor of the CIA operative, Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. The interrogations in question occurred shortly after 9/11, at a time in which public support would have likely been in favor of aggressive interrogation techniques. And these interrogations resulted in the capture of "9/11 mastermind" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We have yet to hear from Mr. Rodriguez, but it is easy to imagine that his justification for destroying the tapes was to spare prosecution for the men who helped to capture the 9/11 mastermind. In fact, that justification has already been reported by CBS.

The media may be proceeding at its own peril on this particular story.