Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Destruction of the Abu Zubaydah Interrogation Tapes

The CIA was under no legal obligation to videorecord its interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, so, one might ask, why was it required to preserve the recordings it made? The answer, here as elsewhere in the law, is that the destruction of evidence is (sometimes) culpable while the non-creation of evidence is not.

Large private firms understand this point and respond in two main ways. First, most firms have routine document destruction programs. A firm that is not under active investigation for wrongdoing is not generally required to keep the "documents" (used here in the broad sense to include not only hard copies of writing but electronic files of text, audio and/or video). Indeed, the law sometimes imposes affirmative obligations on firms to destroy documents that contain sensitive personal information regarding their clients, employees and others. Even where not legally required to do so, prudent firms purge their records periodically to avoid potential legal headaches later. To repeat, this is generally lawful where there is no specific intent to frustrate a particular investigation or proceeding.

The second---and more effective---means of preventing documents from coming back to bite the firm is not to create them in the first place. Email is especially difficult to eliminate and thus can be very dangerous, which is why some sensitive issues are addressed only in unrecorded conversations.

The problem for firms is that destroying and/or not creating documents is itself costly. A well-run organization understands what it is doing, and to do so it needs to have as thorough a picture of its operations as possible. Communications by secure email and office intranets offer advantages (and corresponding disadvantages) that oral communications do not. And because it is often difficult to predict in advance just which documents will prove sensitive later on, an effective document destruction program will likely be quite over-inclusive, destroying useful as well as useless documents.

However a firm strikes the balance, it cannot, once under investigation, destroy relevant documents, and that is even more true for the government. Not only did the CIA destroy tapes it knew had been sought by others in (and outside) the government; before the destruction occurred, it apparently denied that the tapes even existed when pressed by the 9/11 Commission.

Coming so fast on the heels of the NIE reversal regarding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, the news of the destruction of the Zubaydah tapes' destruction caps a very bad week for the nation's intelligence/covert ops communities, but one shouldn't immediately leap to the conclusion that an important job was (once again) bungled by the spies. Anybody paying attention knows that the failure of pre-war intelligence was essentially a case of the administration (especially VP Cheney) demanding cooked intelligence. It remains to be seen whether that was also the story of the overestimation of the nuclear threat from Iran, and it also remains to be seen how high up the responsibility for destruction of the Zubaydah tapes goes.

Posted by Mike Dorf

14 comments:

Benjam said...

now we can all better understand why so many people opposed the idea of a military person running the agency. hayden's absurd insistence, several years ago, that the text of the 4th amendment does not mention a warrant was a real harbinger of things to come. i question the man's understanding of, and respect for, civilian control of the national security apparatus. i dont expect hayden to be implicated by this scandal, but i think his confirmation was a terrible mistake, especially considering his role in the illegal wiretapping of americans.

someone told me that i am obligated to keep all my files for 7 years. does that only apply to attorneys?

Sobek said...

Interesting: Nancy Pelosi was briefed on CIA interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, in September of 2002, and had no problem with it. I guess she didn't realize she could use it as a political club at the time.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/08/AR2007120801664.html

Paul said...

sobek,
Could you tinyurl that site, please? I was curious to read it but cannot copy enough of it apparently as I get a "this page has moved..." report from the Washington Post.

Craig J. Albert said...

My clients never have document destruction programs; they have document retention programs.

Sobek said...

I don't know how to do that, Paul. It's the Washington Post, in an article called "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002," dated December 9, 2007.

More on-topic, I think this is a good perspective on the destruction:

"If the tapes were destroyed to hide illegal actions, the boss should fry. If, however, the boss destroyed the tapes because some damn weasel was going to give them to a congresscritter who was then going to pass them to the NYFT to pass out the identities of our interrogators, then the boss just did what he is supposed to do. Protect the F'ing source and your people. Safeguard the information. Accept responsibility and act decisively. In this case, throw self under bus instead of your troops."

Considering the CIA's tendency to leak like a seive when it serves an individual spook's partisan purposes, I think that's dead on. Valerie Plame ran a black op against a sitting President by recruiting her unqualified husband to get misinformation -- and she gets a Vanity Fair spread, instant fame and a book deal. If -- and I stress that a strong "if" -- the tapes were detroyed to prevent partisan leaks, then huzzah for the man willing to do so.

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