Veteran CIA agent at center of tape-destruction inquiry

December 10, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- At a conference in El Paso, in mid-August, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, heaped praise on a man whose exploits, he joked, had been the inspiration for the television show 24.

From fast cars to fine wines, Reyes said, the appetites of the man, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., are the stuff of legend. Then turning serious, Reyes hailed Rodriguez's three decades of undercover work for the CIA, where he recently stepped down as head of its clandestine service, and called Rodriguez an "American hero."

Four months later, Rodriguez's role in the destruction of hundreds of hours of videotape of harsh interrogations of two operatives of al-Qaida is at the center of an inquiry by Reyes' committee on Capitol Hill. With a separate Justice Department inquiry that could lead to a full criminal investigation into the matter, the man who spent a career in the shadows has been thrust uneasily into the spotlight.

Rodriguez is hardly the only current or former agency official under scrutiny. In the months ahead, investigators will try to reconstruct the chain of events leading up to the decision in November 2005 to destroy the interrogation tapes, and to determine who else inside the agency may have approved the decision.

According to a former top intelligence official who has spoken to Rodriguez in recent days, Rodriguez remains confident that he acted lawfully and had the authority to destroy the tapes.

Whether CIA lawyers in fact approved the destruction will be a question for investigators in Congress, the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general's office. Some congressional officials said they want to know why Porter J. Goss, the CIA director at the time the tapes were destroyed, appears never to have notified congressional committees about the destruction.

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Biden said Attorney General Michael Mukasey should appoint a special counsel to investigate the destruction of the interrogations.

Born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez spent much of his CIA career working in Latin America, including in Mexico, and ascended in the 1990s to lead the agency's Latin America division.

He is regarded both by admirers and detractors as blunt, effusive and fiercely loyal to his staff and friends. In 1997 he was removed from the job after he interceded on behalf of a friend who was arrested in the Dominican Republic, trying to get the Dominican government to drop the charges. A report by the CIA's inspector-general criticized Rodriguez for a "remarkable lack of judgment."

Despite the reprimand, Rodriguez continued to ascend through the agency. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was appointed chief of staff of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, which nearly overnight had ballooned to a staff of nearly 1,700 from 400.

Some at the agency were surprised when Rodriguez soon afterward was tapped to take over the counterterrorist center. Many at the CIA said they believed that Rodriguez, who had no experience in the Middle East nor Arabic-language skills, was a poor choice at a time when the agency's biggest task was dismantling al-Qaida's worldwide network.

But he won praise while in the job for an aggressive strategy to capture, detain and interrogate al-Qaida leaders, a program that since 2004 has come under intense congressional and legal scrutiny.

New details emerged yesterday about when members of Congress were first told specifics about the program. The Washington Post reported that top lawmakers had raised no objections during a September 2002 briefing about some of the techniques CIA operatives were using to get information from al-Qaida detainees - including waterboarding, a procedure that evokes a feeling of suffocation and drowning.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among the lawmakers who attended the briefing, issued a statement yesterday saying she eventually did protest the techniques and that she concurred with objections raised by another Democratic colleague in a letter to the CIA in early 2003.

Soon after Goss became CIA director in 2004, Rodriguez was put in charge of the Directorate of Operations, the agency's covert branch that was renamed the National Clandestine Service in 2005.

Reyes declined a request yesterday for an interview about Rodriguez, but he issued a statement saying his committee is planning not just to examine the circumstances of the destruction of the videotapes but to conduct a "broad review" of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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