If Abu Zubaydah, a senior operative of Al Qaeda, died in American hands, Central Intelligence Agency officers pursuing the terrorist group knew that much of the world would believe they had killed him.So in the spring of 2002, even as the intelligence officers flew in a surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat Abu Zubaydah, who had been shot three times during his capture in Pakistan, they set up video cameras to record his every moment: asleep in his cell, having his bandages changed, being interrogated.
In fact, current and former intelligence officials say, the agency's every action in the prolonged drama of the interrogation videotapes was prompted in part by worry about how its conduct might be perceived -- by Congress, by prosecutors, by the American public and by Muslims worldwide.
That worry drove the decision to begin taping interrogations -- and to stop taping just months later, after the treatment of prisoners began to include waterboarding. And it fueled the nearly three-year campaign by the agency's clandestine service for permission to destroy the tapes, culminating in a November 2005 destruction order from the service's director, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.
Now, the disclosure of the tapes and their destruction in 2005 have become just the public spectacle the agency had sought to avoid. To the already fierce controversy over whether the Bush administration authorized torture has been added the specter of a cover-up.
Jesse Stanchak noted the irony: "First the CIA began taping interrogations because it was trying to avoid a scandal, because it looked like a wounded prisoner might die in custody. Then it stopped taping interrogations because it wanted to avoid a scandal when water-boarding was introduced. Then it destroyed the tapes because it was worried they'd be leaked to the press. But the truth came out anyway, and now the agency has to cope with the public relations nightmare it's been trying to avoid all along."