“I’m Going to Defend My Guys to My Last Breath” Morell’s Virtual Whitewash on the Destruction of CIA Videos

On Friday, April 20 the CIA declassified a memo, written in 2011 by then-Deputy Director Mike Morell, about the destruction of 92 videotapes of “enhanced interrogations” at the agency’s prison in Thailand. Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, played a central role in that affair. Morell wrote that “I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel,” that she “acted appropriately” in drafting the cable authorizing the tapes’ destruction, and that the ultimate decision to destroy them came from Jose Rodriguez, the head of the clandestine service, for whom Haspel served as chief of staff. News organizations ran stories with headlines like “CIA Releases Report Clearing Haspel in Destruction of Waterboarding Tapes”, which the CIA posted on its Twitter feed.

But, despite the headlines, in the words of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Morell memo “confirms some extremely troubling facts about Deputy Director Haspel and the destruction of interrogation videotapes.” Perhaps more importantly, upon close analysis, Morell’s memo looks less like an independent, objective evaluation of Haspel’s actions and more like the latest in a long line of toothless CIA accountability exercises related to the torture program.

Haspel is slated to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee next Wednesday as it considers her nomination. The release of Morell’s memo is an attempt to both answer and blunt important questions about her role in viciously harsh CIA interrogations of detainees and what she did to destroy evidence of those interrogations. But it is nowhere near a comprehensive account, and Congress must press for more evidence.

What the memo confirms

Morell’s memo confirms that Haspel was one of two CIA clandestine service officers directly involved in the tapes’ destruction. It describes Haspel’s “efforts to press for a resolution of the matter,” which appears to corroborate—if euphemistically—then-acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo’s description of Haspel as one of “the staunchest advocates inside the building for destroying the tapes,” who “would raise the subject almost every week.”

The memo confirms that Haspel drafted the cable authorizing destruction, which Rodriguez has said specified using an “industrial-strength shredder to do the deed” to leave “nothing to chance.” Rodriguez’s release of the cable internally within the CIA led to the tapes’ destruction.

The memo confirms that what was on those tapes was so profoundly disturbing that Rodriguez feared that their public release represented “a threat” to the CIA. Morell elaborated in his memoir: “There was no doubt that waterboarding did not make a pretty picture, and publication of those images would have had a devastating effect on CIA, damaged the reputation of the United States abroad, and undermined the security of US officials serving abroad.” Even James Mitchell—one of the two contract psychologists who largely built the torture program and who personally waterboarded Abu Zubaydah—says he “had a visceral reaction to the tapes. I thought they were ugly.” He compared them to videos of “aborting babies on YouTube.”

Finally, the memo confirms that “two White House Counsels, the counsel to the Vice President, the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], the DCIA [Director of the CIA], and the HPSCI [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] ranking member had either expressed opposition to or reservations about the destruction of the tapes.”

For Morell, though, all that seemed to matter with respect to Haspel’s actions was that she “claim[ed] she believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that Mr. Rodriguez was going to obtain approval from then-Director Porter Goss before releasing the cable and that she took action after the cable to ascertain from Mr. Rodriguez whether he had obtained that approval.”

What the memo omits

While what the memo describes is plenty damning on the question of whether Ms. Haspel should be promoted to run the CIA, it omits far more than it includes. It refers to an “extensive record assembled by Special Prosecutor John Durham” about the tape destruction but it does not quote from or cite that record, which has never been made public or provided to Congress. (Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) recently requested a copy, but there is no indication the committee has received any answer.)

Morell does not say whether Haspel’s claim that she thought Rodriguez would get Goss’s approval was consistent with any statements Haspel made to FBI agents or the special prosecutor. He also does not say whether it was corroborated or contradicted by other witnesses’ accounts or documentary evidence.

Morell’s memo does not discuss the documents uncovered by Senate investigators, in which CIA attorneys discuss the need to destroy the tapes so that they would not be uncovered by a proposed commission to investigate allegations of detainee abuse that Congress was considering. Nor does it mention that the cable authorizing the tapes’ destruction was sent the same day the Senate voted on that proposal. One lawyer from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, or CTC, wrote in an email that “[c]ommissions tend to make very broad document production demands, which might call for these videotapes that should have been destroyed in the normal course of business years ago.”

Morell does not discuss the meeting Rodriguez describes in his memoirs between Haspel and two CTC lawyers:

My chief of staff held a meeting with CTC lawyers and other parties and asked two questions: (1) Is the destruction of the tapes legal? and (2) Did I, as director of the National Clandestine Service, have the authority to make that decision on my own? The answer she got to both questions was: Yes.

Morell’s memo does not explain why Haspel consulted only with the CTC’s lawyers about the legality of the tapes’ destruction rather than the CIA general counsel, John Rizzo. This is a considerable omission. Rizzo later wrote that “[i]n my thirty-four-year career at CIA, I never felt as upset and betrayed as I did” as the day he learned the tapes had been destroyed. In Morell’s memoir, he wrote that the CTC attorneys’ advice was the reason that no one was charged for the tape destruction.

The memo also does not explain why, if Haspel genuinely believed that Rodriguez would not release the cable without the CIA director’s approval, she had asked the CTC attorneys only days before whether Rodriguez had the authority to give the order to destroy the tapes himself.

Morell’s memo suggests that there are inconsistencies in Rodriguez’s, Haspel’s, and the CTC attorneys’ descriptions of their conversations leading up to the tapes’ destruction. The memo states that “[a]ccounts differ” over whether Rodriguez “was reminded at that time of the White House Counsel’s direction that the DNI and Attorney General be briefed prior to destruction, or the fact that others in his chain of command had expressed opposition to or reservations about destruction,” but does not describe those discrepancies in any detail or attempt to resolve then.

Morell’s apparent bias

All of these omissions are unsurprising given Morell’s apparent bias in favor of shielding CIA officers from any real accountability related to the torture program generally, and his clear agreement with the decision to destroy the tapes specifically.

In a 2015 interview with Vice News, Morell said that he rejected the description of the CIA program as torture “because to call it torture says my guys were torturers…they were told what they were doing was legal, and I’m going to defend my guys to my last breath.”

Morell wrote in his memoir that the memo arose from a recommendation by Special Prosecutor John Durham that the CIA conduct an internal “accountability board” regarding the tapes’ destruction. CIA Director David Petraeus assigned Morell to convene this board to investigate Rodriguez and Haspel, but instead:

given Rodriguez’s past seniority, the ordeal he’d gone through while being investigated by Durham over three years, and the complexity of the subject, I [Morell] elected to handle the assignment solo….I chose to break the news to him over a drink at a nearby hotel. I explained what the director had asked me to do, and how I’d decided to handle it. Rodriguez told me that he appreciated the way I was handling the matter and answered all my questions about what he’d done and why with thoroughness and honesty.

In concluding that there needed to be some consequence for Rodriguez having taken matters into his own hands, Morell was explicit not only about the basis for his recommendation for discipline, but also about where he stands on the underlying question of the tapes’ destruction: “No organization, particularly the CIA, can function effectively if its employees believe they can ignore the direction and/or the intent of senior Agency, IC, or White House officials because they think their view is the right one—even if it is [emphasis ours].” Morell even takes CIA leadership to task, saying it “failed Mr. Rodriguez” by not securing official permission—as a policy matter—to destroy the tapes.

Both Rodriguez and the CIA are unrepentant about the tapes’ destruction. Rodriguez wrote that “The practical implication of the letter is nil. But in my view the letter and the entire process are an embarrassment—to the Agency, not to me….If the Agency ever declassifies my letter of reprimand and gives me a copy, I’ll have it framed. To me it says: Courage to Act.” To this day, the agency defends the legality of the tapes’ destruction, despite a federal court’s finding that the CIA had a legal obligation to preserve them.

***

To date, the paragraph of the Morell report on Haspel and a two-page, skeletal career timeline are the only information about her role in the torture program that has been officially declassified. Their release should be understood as part of an unprecedented agency public relations campaign to get her confirmed. CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani told the New York Times the same day the memo was released that “if it appears CIA is being more robust than normal in supporting this nomination, that’s because we are.” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said, “[t]hey are basically running a full-on propaganda campaign but withholding the information that the American people need to be able to make an informed decision about this nominee’s fitness for the job.”

There are strong parallels between the CIA’s selective declassification in support of Haspel and its selective, misleading release of information in support of the torture program. As the executive summary of the Senate torture report documented, the agency provided inaccurate information about it to the press at the same time it told courts that acknowledging it in any way would gravely damage national security. After the program was shut down and former CIA detainees were sent to Guantanamo, the CIA entirely classified prisoners’ memories of their own torture even as it approved publication of Rodriguez’s and Rizzo’s memoirs on the same topic, and provided classified information to the writer and director of Zero Dark Thirty.

As acting director of the CIA, Haspel is now in direct control of what information about her career is declassified. She also can determine which Senators and staff can access information that remains classified. It is a deeply inappropriate use of that authority to suppress negative facts while she and her staff promote her own nomination. 

About the Author(s)

Katherine Hawkins

Investigator for the Project On Government Oversight, Former Investigator for the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment, Former Policy Advocate for the Constitution Project and Open the Government Follow her on Twitter (@krhawkins5).

Scott Roehm

Washington Director of the Center for Victims of Torture