Spooks and crooks have a lot in common. Success in either field depends on not getting caught. And as every criminal and spy knows, success depends in large part on the ability to destroy evidence. No evidence, no crime — thus the criminal logic works. So why would the CIA create an evidentiary trail in the first place? Why document torture?
Documentation is institutional insurance. We’ve long known that CIA interrogators are afraid of being hung out to dry. Their fears are well-based, given that they are working for an administration notorious for the lack of accountability among its top officials. Anyone instructed to engage in torture would obviously want to be sure that a clear record would be maintained showing that they had been following their orders with rigorous discipline and precision. The torture tapes must have been created by CIA officers who wanted to be sure that they wouldn’t be disowned by the chain of command. It thus seems reasonable to ask: have all the tapes actually been destroyed? Were no copies made? Contrary to official statements, the interests of the interrogators would more likely be protected by keeping the tapes than by destroying them.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the most eager desire to have the tapes destroyed appears to have come from outside the CIA and straight from the White House. As the New York Times today reports:
One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there had been “vigorous sentiment” among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes. The former official did not specify which White House officials took this position, but he said that some believed in 2005 that any disclosure of the tapes could have been particularly damaging after revelations a year earlier of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The lesson from Abu Ghraib was that the worst political damage came not from the abuse itself but from the images. If the photos had never been leaked, the haunting images of abuse would still be locked inside the minds of the torturers and their victims. In America, outside the Pentagon, no one would even have heard the name Abu Ghraib.
The political calculation that was weighed in deciding whether to destroy the torture tapes would thus seem to have been quite simple. Which would exact a higher cost: dealing with questions about the destruction of evidence, or dealing with the repercussions of indisputable evidence that as a matter of policy and practice, the United States Government engages in torture?
George Bush and Dick Cheney don’t want to be remembered as the president and vice-president who undermined American democracy by sanctioning torture. The alternative — to be seen as underhand, duplicitous, and unaccountable — that’s just the dirty world of politics-as-usual.