While the destruction of CIA torture tapes was an act of high arrogance on the part of the agency, the Bush administration must ultimately be held culpable.
The destruction of the tapes, which allegedly included scenes of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics on two al-Qaida operatives, occurred in 2005 but only recently came to light. At least one former CIA agent claims orders to destroy the tapes came directly from the White House, perhaps even from President Bush himself.
Whether that is true, this administration clearly has been guilty of ignoring U.S. and international law against torture, the specific ban on torture approved by Congress and even the advice of experts within the military and the intelligence community against using torture during interrogations. To avoid these prohibitions, the administration has established secret prisons in willing host nations, ordered rendition -- a polite word for kidnapping -- of suspects and, apparently, approved the destruction of evidence of torture by CIA agents.
This administration has elicited legal opinions from a compliant Justice Department -- specifically from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- to redefine torture and skirt the bans. While those opinions, now discounted, were designed to provide legal cover, the CIA now finds itself under fire for both its tactics and for destroying the evidence.
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Federal judges will have to determine whether orders against torture and discarding evidence applied when the torture occurred in the clandestine network of overseas prisons. But the idea that the CIA might offer the defense that torture doesn't count if it's off the books is too gruesome to contemplate.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering a measure requiring that all agencies, including the CIA, comply with the Army Field Manual's standards regarding interrogation and its ban on torture. The question is, why is this legislation necessary? Hasn't Congress already made it clear that torture is unacceptable?
The destruction of the torture tapes demands an official independent investigation, outside of the Justice Department. The nation deserves to know who advocated the torture of prisoners and who approved destruction of the evidence.
But the damage is done. Agents of the U.S. government have engaged in interrogation techniques that, for decades, have been universally recognized as torture. And government officials have gone to great lengths to cover that up and concoct a legal justification for those involved.
The damage to U.S. prestige -- not just from this one incident, but also from Guantanamo, from Abu Ghraib, from the network of secret prisons -- is incalculable. And the potential that U.S. prisoners now will be subjected to the same mistreatment has risen substantially.
We hope Congress has the will to conduct a thorough investigation of the destruction of the tapes. Those responsible at all levels should be held accountable.