Report May Have Motivated Destruction of Torture Tapes


January 3, 2008 – When Congress returns from its winter break in mid-January and continues its probe into the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, the lawmakers may be interested in speaking to Mary O. McCarthy.

    McCarthy spent most of her career at the spy agency, most recently as deputy inspector general. In 2004, she was tapped by the CIA’s Inspector General John Helgerson to assist him with several internal investigations.

    One of those investigations included a closer look at the CIA’s interrogation methods. The report on this probe was completed in spring 2004. It concluded that some of the agency’s approved interrogation methods “appeared to constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, as defined by the International Convention Against Torture,” according to a New York Times story published in November 2005. That was the same month the CIA destroyed the videotapes.

    Helgerson personally viewed the videotapes that showed two detainees being subjected to waterboarding by CIA officers, which formed the foundation for his still classified report on the CIA’s interrogations methods. McCarthy was also personally briefed on the existence and content of the videotapes, according to several CIA officials who worked closely with her, however it’s unknown whether she viewed the material. McCarthy assisted Helgerson in drafting the classified report on the CIA’s use of specific interrogation methods against high-level detainees.

    “The officials who described the report said it discussed particular techniques used by the CIA against particular prisoners, including about three dozen terror suspects being held by the agency in secret locations around the world,” the New York Times story says. “They said it referred in particular to the treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is said to have organized the Sept. 11 attacks and who has been detained in a secret location by the CIA since he was captured in March 2003. Mr. Mohammed is among those believed to have been subjected to waterboarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe that he is drowning.

    “In his report, Mr. Helgerson also raised concern about whether the use of the techniques could expose agency officers to legal liability,” the officials said, according to the New York Times account. “They said the report expressed skepticism about the Bush administration view that any ban on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment under the treaty does not apply to CIA interrogations because they take place overseas on people who are not citizens of the United States.”

    According to a May 2006 Washington Post story, a friend said McCarthy “worried that neither Helgerson nor the agency’s congressional overseers would fully examine what happened or why.” Another friend said, “She had the impression that this stuff has been pretty well buried.” The Post story reported, “In McCarthy’s view and that of many colleagues, friends say, torture was not only wrong but also misguided, because it rarely produced useful results.”

    McCarthy also oversaw the Inspector General’s investigation into the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Her “findings are secret,” The Washington Post reported in May 2006. “According to a brief CIA statement about the probe in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, investigators set out to examine “the conduct of CIA components and personnel, including DO personnel” during interrogations. Tens of thousands of pages of material were collected, including White House and Justice Department documents, and multiple reports were issued. Some described cases of abuse, involving fewer than a dozen individuals, and were forwarded to the Justice Department, according to government officials.”

    The reports are seen by only a handful of people.

    “When IG inquiries involve covert actions such as foreign interrogations, for example, the agency briefs only the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, instead of the full panels,” the Washington Post reported. “So only a handful of people in Washington knew what McCarthy knew.”

    But the timing of the November 2005 New York Times story regarding the contents of the inspector general’s report on interrogation methods, and the publication of a separate, more explosive story in The Washington Post the same month exposing the CIA’s covert interrogation activities, suggests that the CIA may have decided to destroy the videotaped interrogations because it feared the tapes would become part of the public record and could expose its agents to a federal criminal investigation.

    The New York Times has reported that Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s clandestine division, destroyed the videotapes after receiving written authorization from attorneys in the clandestine division. The reasons for purging the tapes, according to one of the The New York Times’ unnamed sources, is that in the event of a leak “there was concern for the careers of officers shown on the tapes. We didn’t want them to become political scapegoats.”

    If that’s true, then the publication of Priest’s CIA secret prison story, and the Times story on the IG investigation into the agency’s interrogation methods in November 2005 – the same month and year the videotapes were destroyed – would amount to a very strange coincidence.

    Neither McCarthy, now an attorney, nor an attorney who had represented her, Ty Cobb, returned emails or messages left at their offices for comment.

    Helgerson’s report into the CIA’s interrogation techniques rankled some officials at the agency, The New York Times reported, and his critique of agency operations is said to have played a role in the decision by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to turn the tables on the watchdog and launch an internal probe into Helgerson’s work. Hayden alleged that Helgerson’s investigations into the agency’s detention and interrogation policies were not objective. Helgerson’s office is just one of various federal agencies investigating circumstances that led to the destruction of the videotapes and whether any federal laws were broken as a result.

    McCarthy was among a group of former intelligence officials who late last year signed a letter opposing the nomination of Attorney General Michael Mukasey on grounds he would not denounce waterboarding. She alleged that – two years or so after she and Helgerson completed their report into the agency’s interrogation practices – CIA officials lied to members of Congress during an intelligence briefing when they said the agency did not violate treaties that bar, cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of detainees during interrogations, according to a May 14, 2006, front-page story in The Washington Post.

    “A CIA employee of two decades, McCarthy became convinced that ‘CIA people had lied’ in that briefing, as one of her friends said later, not only because the agency had conducted abusive interrogations but also because its policies authorized treatment that she considered cruel, inhumane or degrading,” The Washington Post reported.

    In his book, “At the Center of the Storm”, former CIA Director George Tenet wrote that McCarthy was present at a meeting with Condoleezza Rice in May 2001 where Tenet discussed Abu Zubaydah’s alleged plans to attack the US and Israel. Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan less than a year later and was whisked to a secret CIA prison site in Thailand, where he was interrogated and subjected to waterboarding. At the time, McCarthy had been working as senior director at the National Security Council, according to Tenet.

    “For my regularly scheduled meeting with Condi Rice on May 30, [2001], I brought along [deputy CIA director] John McLaughlin, [then director of the CIA’s counterterrorist center] Cofer Black, one of Cofer’s top assistants, Rich B. (Rich can’t be further identified here). Joining Condi were [former White House counterterrorism czar Richard] Clarke and Mary McCarthy,” Tenet wrote. “Rich ran through the mounting warning signs of a coming attack. They were truly frightening. Among other things, we told Condi that a notorious al-Qa’ida operative named Abu Zubaydah was working on attack plans.”

    Truthout previously reported that Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff advised the CIA between 2002 and 2003 that its agents had the legal authority to use interrogation tactics on Abu Zubaydah that included waterboarding.

    Chertoff was head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division when CIA officials inquired whether its agents could be charged with violating the federal anti-torture statute for employing interrogation methods such as waterboarding. The tactic causes detainees to slowly drown, and is generally terminated before the detainees die.

    “The CIA was seeking to determine the legal limits of interrogation practices for use in cases like that of Abu Zubaydah, the Qaeda lieutenant who was captured in March 2002,” says a January 29, 2005, New York Times story. That story said unnamed sources told the newspaper that “Chertoff was directly involved in these discussions, in effect evaluating the legality of techniques proposed by the CIA by advising the agency whether its employees could go ahead with proposed interrogation methods without fear of prosecution.”

    During his Senate confirmation hearing in February 2005, Chertoff maintained that he provided the CIA broad guidance in response to its questions about interrogation methods and never specifically addressed legality regarding waterboarding or other techniques.

    Chertoff, according to intelligence sources who spoke to Truthout, was briefed about the videotaped interrogations. Chertoff told former CIA General Counsel Scott Muller and his deputy, John Rizzo, that an August 1, 2002, memo widely referred to as the “Torture Memo” put the CIA on solid legal ground and that its agents could waterboard a prisoner without fear of prosecution. The memo was written by former Justice Department attorney John Yoo.

    Yoo’s memo said that Congress “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.”

    At his confirmation hearing in 2005, Chertoff claims he did not advise Rizzo or Muller on the legality of specific methods agents used during their interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. Rather, he said, he answered general questions the CIA had posed about interrogations.

    “You are dealing in an area where there is potential criminality,” Chertoff said he told the agency. “You better be very careful to make sure that whatever you decide to do falls well within what is required by law.”

    In his book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” author Ron Suskind said Zubaydah was not the “high value detainee” the CIA had claimed. Rather, Zubaydah was a minor player in the al-Qaeda organization, handling travel for associates and their families, Suskind says.

    Abu Zubaydah’s captors soon discovered that their prisoner was mentally ill and knew nothing about terrorist operations or impending plots. That realization was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind writes. Tenet, though, says claims that Abu Zubaydah was not a valuable prisoner are “hogwash.”

    McCarthy began working at the Inspector General’s office in 2004, according to The New York Times. She had taken a leave of absence from the CIA after 9/11 and spent some time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. She testified before the 9/11 Commission in late 2003 about methods that could enhance intelligence-gathering activities, in the hope of avoiding another terrorist attack on US soil.

    In 1998, she wrote an article in the Defense Intelligence Journal under the headline “The Mission to Warn: Disaster Looms” about shortfalls in intelligence gathering and how they could lead to catastrophic events.

    McCarthy also spent some time with the Markle Foundation group, “the Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, working with academics as well as current and former government officials on recommendations for sharing classified information more widely within the government, according to a report issued by the group. The report identifies Ms. McCarthy as a ‘nongovernment’ expert,” The New York Times reported.

    In April 2006, ten days before she was due to retire; McCarthy was fired from the CIA for allegedly leaking classified information to the media, a CIA spokeswoman told reporters at the time.

    The CIA said McCarthy had spoken with numerous journalists, including The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, who in November 2005 exposed the CIA’s secret prison sites, where in 2002 the CIA videotaped its agents interrogating a so-called high-level detainee, Abu Zubaydah. The videotaped interrogation of Zubaydah, which is said to have shown the prisoner being subjected to waterboarding, was destroyed after Priest’s story was published, and is now at the center of a wide-ranging Congressional and Justice Department investigation. Priest won a Pulitzer Prize for her expose. The CIA did not say whether McCarthy was a source for Priest’s story.

    Following news reports of her dismissal from the CIA, McCarthy, through her attorney Ty Cobb, vehemently denied leaking classified information to the media. However, the CIA said she failed a polygraph test after the agency launched an internal investigation in late 2005. The agency said the investigation was an attempt to find out who provided The Washington Post and The New York Times with information about its covert activities, including domestic surveillance, and it promptly fired her.

    The Washington Post reported, “McCarthy was not an ideologue, her friends say, but at some point fell into a camp of CIA officers who felt that the Bush administration’s venture into Iraq had dangerously diverted US counterterrorism policy. After seeing – in e-mails, cable traffic, interview transcripts and field reports – some of the secret fruits of the Iraq intervention, McCarthy became disenchanted, three of her friends say.”

    “In addition to CIA misrepresentations at the session last summer, McCarthy told the friends, a senior agency official failed to provide a full account of the CIA’s detainee-treatment policy at a closed hearing of the House intelligence committee in February 2005, under questioning by Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the senior Democrat,” The Washington Post says. “McCarthy also told others she was offended that the CIA’s general counsel had worked to secure a secret Justice Department opinion in 2004 authorizing the agency’s creation of “ghost detainees” – prisoners removed from Iraq for secret interrogations without notice to the International Committee of the Red Cross – because the Geneva Conventions prohibit such practices.”

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