When news broke that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of a couple of early terrorist interrogations, Democrats in Congress demanded a criminal investigation. Now that Attorney General Michael Mukasey is obliging, they still aren’t satisfied. So here we go again, ringing up CIA agents who thought they were acting in good faith to keep the country safe.
On Wednesday Mr. Mukasey assigned prosecutor John Durham, a 25-year Justice Department veteran, to investigate if CIA agents committed a crime when they destroyed the tapes in 2005 under orders from the then-head of the covert Directorate of Operations. But that isn’t enough for John Conyers (D., Mich.), who wants a full-blown “special counsel” to wade into the CIA’s covert-ops division and deliver a public excavation. Mr. Conyers is offended that Mr. Durham will report to the Deputy Attorney General, rather than have the kind of plenary powers that Patrick Fitzgerald was handed in the Valerie Plame case.
But that difference may be the one saving grace here. It means that, unlike Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Durham will at least have some political supervision as he assesses whether genuine crimes were committed. Mr. Durham will still have enormous discretion, and we can only hope that he shows more wisdom than Mr. Fitzgerald, who took sides in what was essentially a political fight over the Iraq war.
The CIA should answer questions about its handling of those videotapes, but the proper venue for those answers is Congress. All the more so because this entire case is as much about politics as covert operations, and it has as much to do with changing Congressional mores as it does CIA behavior. Our understanding is that the tapes were made in the first place because the CIA agents wanted to protect themselves by documenting what did and did not happen in the course of the interrogations. Far from being rogues, they had legal authorization from the Justice Department.
The interrogations also took place at a time — starting in 2002 — when some Members of Congress were regularly briefed on the CIA practices, including “waterboarding.” Among those briefed were Jay Rockefeller IV and Nancy Pelosi, neither of whom saw fit to object to the methods. We are now in a different political place, and in a different election year, and these same Democrats want to join the left in accusing the Bush Administration of “torture” and a cover-up.