WASHINGTON — Shortly after he arrived as CIA director in 2004, Porter J. Goss met with the agency's top spies and general counsel to discuss a range of issues, including what to do with videotapes showing harsh interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.
"Getting rid of tapes in Washington," Goss said, according to an official involved in the discussions, "is an extremely bad idea."
But at the agency's operational levels -- especially within the branch that ran the network of secret prisons -- the idea of holding on to the tapes and hoping their existence would never be leaked to the public seemed even worse.
Citing what CIA veterans regard as a long record of being stranded by politicians in times of scandal, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the decision to destroy the tapes was driven by a determination among senior spies to guard against a repeat of that outcome.
The order to destroy the recordings came from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then-head of the CIA's clandestine service, which deploys spies overseas and carries out covert operations.
The service has been blamed for botched operations and spy scandals for decades, from the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba through failures leading up to the Iraq war. It is one of the agency's three main divisions; the others are devoted to analysis and to development of espionage science and technology.
But the clandestine service has long been the most influential branch in the agency. It has a reputation for undermining directors perceived as hostile to the service -- including Goss -- and has developed a fierce instinct for protecting the agency's interests.
The clandestine service "is almost tribal in nature," said a former senior CIA official familiar with the discussions on the tapes. "They believe that no one else will look out for them so they have to look out for themselves."
That culture, current and former intelligence officials said, helps to explain why Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed despite cautions against doing so from senior lawmakers, White House attorneys and the agency's director.
It may also account for why Rodriguez was not punished or fired after that decision was disclosed. Rodriguez is now in the CIA's retirement program and is expected to leave the agency in the coming months. His successor at the clandestine service remains undercover.
Current and former officials close to Rodriguez said he issued the order largely out of a sense of obligation to undercover officers whose identities would have been exposed if the tapes were to surface. Like others interviewed for this article, the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations and the sensitivity of the subject.
Even with the possibility of criminal charges looming, some CIA veterans who worked with Rodriguez said destroying the tapes was the honorable course at an agency that reveres leaders who protect spies and guard agency secrets.
"This boiled down to an issue of who had the responsibility to protect our officers' identities," said a former U.S. intelligence official involved in discussions on the tapes. "That fell to Jose, and he did the right thing."
The tapes were considered explosive because they included footage of CIA interrogators using rough interrogation tactics on Al Qaeda captives. One of the methods videotaped was waterboarding, which simulates the sensation of drowning and has been condemned by human rights organizations and critics in Congress as a form of torture.
The CIA has maintained that all of its interrogation methods were lawful and approved in advance by the Justice Department. The agency has also defended its handling of the tapes.
Tapes 'not relevant'
In a memo to employees this month, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the recordings were destroyed "only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries."
However, the Sept. 11 commission, which examined U.S. intelligence lapses before the 2001 terrorist attacks, had asked the CIA for all relevant materials related to the plot as part of its inquiry. After news of the tapes became public, 9/11 panel members said they should have been given access to the tapes. Several attorneys representing terrorism suspects also have said they requested similar materials from the CIA.
Even so, the Justice Department and two congressional committees have launched investigations into the matter. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena last week to compel Rodriguez to testify before the panel next month.
From the outset of the program, CIA officials feared that their role in running the secret prisons would leave them vulnerable if the political climate shifted.