Historical Amnesia and the Destruction of the Senate Torture Report

When Winston Smith thinks he has finally made contact with the underground movement he has always hoped existed, in George Orwell’s 1984, he drinks a toast, not to the hoped-for future, but to the past, because "he who controls the past controls the future."

With the "erasure of the past," current events can look like anomalies and accidents when stripped of the historical context that belies the patterns that reveal the possibility of intent and guilt.

The recent revelation that the CIA "mistakenly" deleted its copy of the Senate report on detention and torture, and then, in an "inadvertent" error, deleted the hard disk backup, may be a just such a case. The whisking of the report down the memory hole could be seen as an "inadvertent," though incredible, mistake if not for the challenge posed by recovering a little history from the memory hole. Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai once remarked that "One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory."

In May of 2002, CIA director George Tenet promoted Jose A. Rodriguez to head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center. At the time, there were ninety-two videotapes that documented harsh interrogation.

In a meeting held on January 10, 2003, CIA director Tenet made the decision to have those videotapes destroyed, according to CIA expert John Prados. The next month, in a meeting with congressional leaders, Rodriguez and others told congress for the first time that aggressive interrogation – that is, torture – had been approved by lawyers and that there were videotapes. At that time, the CIA’s general consul, Scott Muller, informed the congressmen at the meeting that it was the intention of the CIA to destroy those videotapes. However, in the face of some opposition, the destruction plan was put on hold.

The CIA pretended at times that it wanted to destroy the tapes for reasons of national security and to protect the officers depicted in the tapes. But the real reason was the fear caused by the realization that the videotapes documented war crimes. When the Guantanamo tortures exploded into the public awareness, Rodriguez says, according to his book, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, that "that added to our conviction that getting rid of the tapes was vitally necessary." The problem was that on May 11, 2004, White House lawyers explicitly ordered the CIA not to destroy the tapes.

But as the existence of black prison torture cites became known in 2005, Rodriguez explicitly set out to ensure the destruction of the taped evidence even though, by now, that action would constitute destruction of evidence since they had been subpoenaed as evidence. In November of 2005, Rodriguez personally ordered the destruction of the torture videotapes. According to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, he sent this order despite having just received a cable from CIA headquarters saying not to destroy them yet, but to hold on to them a little longer.

Despite that cable, a CIA email cited by Prados reveals that Porter Goss, now the CIA director, approved of the destruction of the videotapes: "If the tapes ever got into [the] public domain . . . they would make us look terrible."

On March 2, 2009, the New York Times reported that federal prosecutors disclosed for the first time that the CIA had "destroyed 92 videotapes documenting the harsh interrogations of two Qaeda suspects in CIA detention." The order to destroy the tapes, the Times says, was given by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who at the time was the head of the spy agency’s clandestine service."

So, the current destruction of the senate torture report is not an isolated event or an anomaly. Evidence and indictment of torture has been whisked down the memory hole before. And if the past is not forgotten, and the pattern reemerges, the claim to have made an "inadvertent mistake" becomes, at least, a little bit harder to believe.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.