Who Will Take the Fall for the CIA Torture Tape Scandal?

Human Rights

As he concluded a closed-door congressional hearing into the CIA torture tape scandal, Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, on Wednesday opened the country to a historic possibility: that the fate of the investigation into the destruction of the tapes will be decided by Latino government officials. Current and former Latino officials may even determine whether the investigation reaches the White House.

Reyes, the powerful chair of the House Intelligence Committee, is charged with overseeing an investigation into the latest controversy. Reyes' fellow Tejano, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was one of four Bush administration officials briefed on the tapes before they were destroyed, may be asked to testify in the investigation. And at the heart of the whole affair is Jose Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican native who was the CIA's former director of clandestine operations. According to the CIA officials, Rodriguez ordered the destruction of the interrogation tapes in 2005.

Rodriguez was subpoenaed to appear before a closed-door hearing of Reyes' intelligence committee on Jan. 16. But after Rodriguez's lawyer informed Reyes and the committee that his client would not testify without a grant of immunity, the congressman decided to postpone the former CIA official's appearance. Some observers believe the postponement signals a willingness on the part of Reyes to negotiate some kind of immunity deal with Rodriguez.

Developments in the case represent a new, more diverse chapter in the history of national security scandals. How these current and former Latino officials proceed -- especially Reyes and Rodriguez -- may well determine whether the investigation reaches as far as the Bush administration. President George W. Bush said last December that he could not recall hearing about the 2005 destruction of the tapes prior to a Dec. 6 briefing by CIA Director Michael Hayden, despite recent revelations that Gonzales was among the four White House lawyers debating between 2003 and 2005 whether to destroy the now infamous tapes. Some experts speculate that Rodriguez's testimony could lead to a wider investigation and that he is trying to avoid becoming a fall guy for the Bush administration.

"If everybody was against the decision, why in the world would Jose Rodriguez -- one of the most cautious men I have ever met -- have gone ahead and destroyed them?" said Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's former head of counterterrorism during an interview with the Times of London. Cannistraro's sentiments were echoed by Larry Johnson, another former CIA official interviewed by the Times last month. "It looks increasingly as though the decision was made by the White House," said Johnson, who pointed to a likely expansion of the investigation by an eventual Rodriguez testimony. "The CIA and Jose Rodriguez look bad, but he's probably the least culpable person in the process," said Johnson. "He didn't wake up one day and decide, 'I'm going to destroy these tapes.' He checked with a lot of people and eventually he is going to get his say."

Whether or not Rodriguez does, in fact, get his say depends on his fellow Latino government official, Reyes. Unlike Gonzales, whose rise from poverty in Humble, Texas, to the heights of power and controversy became front-page news following his involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal, Reyes is a much lesser-known Tejano. Called "Silver" by his friends and close associates, Reyes, a very conservative, pro-Pentagon Democrat and Vietnam war veteran from El Paso, rose to the top of the congressional intelligence chain after a 26½-year stint with the Border Patrol.

As the head of the congressional committee responsible for oversight of the CIA and 15 other agencies comprising the U.S. intelligence community, Reyes will play a definitive role in determining the breadth and scope of the tape controversy investigation. Derided by Fox News commentator John Gibson and other conservative pundits for being "unqualified" for the position, Reyes' past statements about Rodriguez may raise questions about his ability to objectively manage the investigation. During a Border Security Conference organized by Reyes at the University of Texas at El Paso in August, he presented an award to Rodriguez, calling him "our good friend and American hero" and speaking glowingly of his claim to fame as the man who inspired the role of Jack Bauer in 24. Rodriguez, he said, was "the genesis -- with a few liberties that Hollywood takes -- the exploits of Jose Rodriguez are documented in the series 24." Rodriguez, he added, "admitted to me that he likes fast cars. I won't tell you about the women, but I will tell you about the fast cars. He is a connoisseur of fine wine."

Before becoming the CIA's director of the National Clandestine Service, Rodriguez was a career CIA operative who worked primarily in Latin America for more than 30 years. His role in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s appear to have prepared him to adopt the current legal posture he's taking before Congress today. When the FBI called Rodriguez in for questioning about his involvement, he was told that Iran-contra was "political -- get your own lawyer." After surviving that affair, he went on to become the agency's chief of Latin America Division before moving on to become, in 2004, director of the National Clandestine Service, the job that embroiled him in the torture tape controversy. His path to the position, Rodriguez says, was paved by both his Latino identity and his experience in Latin America.

"When I took over the National Clandestine Service in November of 2004," said Rodriguez during a speech at the El Paso conference, "I did not realize that my experience, my background, my ethnicity, my diversity would be so important in allowing me to successfully lead service." Appearing to reinforce the position put out by Rodriguez and the CIA -- that he decided to leave the clandestine service because of his interest in what CIA chief Hayden called "speaking publicly on key intelligence issues" like "diversity as an operational imperative" -- Rodriguez's speech focused primarily on the link between ethnicity and national security.

In a speech that sounded like a mix between a counterterrorism lecture and a sermon about affirmative action, he spoke to the racial discrimination that many Latinos and others experience in professional settings. "Our government was not going to put someone in charge of the nation's clandestine, counterterrorism, Humint (Humanintelligence) operations against Al-Qaeda merely to satisfy a 'diversity' requirement. I was put in charge because I brought something unique to the mission." And, as if putting a positive spin on the CIA's controversial role in Iran-Contra, the Central American wars of the 1980s, the bloody drug war in Colombia and other operations, Rodriguez credited his experience in "counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations in Latin America." This experience, he said, also "provided some of the methodology that was adapted to fighting terrorism." He concluded his brief speech with a slogan popularized by Chicano civil rights activist Cesar Chavez (and, more recently by candidates Clinton and Obama), as he called his CIA experience a "source of inspiration to many minorities who now understand that 'si se puede, si se puede'" (yes we can, yes we can).

Whether or not the tape scandal investigation reaches the White House, the involvement of high-profile Latinos in the controversy has already attracted considerable attention, especially among Latinos. For Antonio Gonzales, the executive director of the William Velasquez Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank, Latino involvement with the CIA has a long history. "The CIA has always used our community," says Gonzalez, who added, "Many Cubans have always done CIA dirty work in Latin America and the entire world. Oliver North's Iran-Contra assets were Latinos." Asked about Reyes' ability to bring vigorous oversight to the investigation, Gonzales said, "Reyes is a heretofore unknown quantity. He's pretty [politically] moderate but is not considered corrupt or unprincipled. This investigation will be a big test of his abilities. I hope he does the right thing."

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