Jose Rodriguez thinks the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is “well worth seeing.” But the retired CIA veteran has reservations about its gut-churning portrayal of the CIA’s treatment of detainees. Which is rich, coming from the man who destroyed the video footage documenting many of those brutal agency interrogations.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Friday, the former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and its clandestine service takes issue with Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes. Those scenes are admittedly hard to watch. They show terrified, disoriented and bloodied detainees kept awake for days on end by having their arms painfully suspended from the ceilings of secret jails; stuffed into tiny wooden boxes when they don’t cooperate with their inquisitors; and waterboarded on soiled mattresses while interrogators bark questions. They also largely match up with the minimal public disclosure of how the post-9/11 program actually operated.
But they offend Rodriguez, who describes himself as “intimately involved in setting up and administering” a program he has steadfastly denied amounted to torture. Most CIA detainees weren’t subject to what he euphemistically calls “enhanced interrogation.” Those who were experienced “harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.” And director Kathryn Bigelow left out all the bureaucratic red tape CIA interrogators encountered: “To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington.”
Except there’s a problem with Rodriguez’s account that he sidesteps in calling the film inaccurate. While at the CIA, Rodriguez himself destroyed nearly 100 video recordings of brutal interrogations, including those of two al-Qaida figures who most definitely were subjected to “harsh measures,” Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. If Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are in the dark about torture — like the rest of the country — Rodriguez is a big part of the reason why.
It took a Justice Department inquiry to reveal even the outlines of the destruction of the torture tapes. In 2009, the government disclosed that Rodriguez in 2005 ordered the destruction of 92 videotapes of interrogation footage totaling hundreds of hours’ worth of footage. As the New York Times noted, Rodriguez’s order came at a time when “Congress and the courts were intensifying their scrutiny of the agency’s detention and interrogation program.” The destruction was a deliberative process: Rodriguez wrote in his memoir last year that he used a shredder packing “five spinning and two stationary blades” capable of chewing through “hundreds of pounds of material in a single hour.”
Rodriguez claims he ordered the destruction on his own after his bosses vacillated on whether the tapes ought to be destroyed. His stated rationale for liquidating evidence that was relevant to a potential criminal investigation was to protect his interrogators. It had the effect of destroying a major aspect of the historical record. When Rodriguez swears in his op-ed that the torture program worked as he says it did, he left observers with few independent ways to check his claims.
Ultimately, a Justice Department special prosecutor opted to abandon criminal cases against CIA interrogators who had received authorization from senior government officials for the interrogation program. Rodriguez himself never faced criminal charges for the destruction of the tapes.
Despite the destruction, Rodriguez’s insider account isn’t the only one that has survived. Phil Zelikow, a former aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told Danger Room last year that the CIA’s brutal interrogations amounted to “war crimes,” an assessment he conveyed during an internal 2006 debate about the CIA program. One of the CIA interrogators involved in the program’s early days has lamented that he “destroyed a man’s life” through the abusive techniques.
There are other reasons to doubt aspects of Rodriguez’s accounts. He writes that “When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.” But three powerful senators who helped helm a four-year classified study of the CIA program, Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin, wrote to the CIA on December 19 that “The CIA detainee who provided the most accurate information about the courier [to Osama bin Laden] provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”
Feinstein, McCain and Levin have now turned their focus to the CIA’s cooperation with a movie that they believe conveys the mistaken impression that torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Rodriguez makes no secret of what he thinks about Congress prying into the CIA’s dark corners. He singles out a scene in Zero Dark Thirty when an agency employee threatens to alert a congressional committee about her boss’s seeming failures. “Now that,” Rodriguez writes, “would be torture.”
Article first appeared at Wired.com