WASHINGTON: The CIA has sought to counter criticism in the media in connection to the video-tape destruction scandal, with the Justice Department having launched a criminal investigation last week.
The crisis began last month when it was revealed that the CIA had destroyed videotapes showing agency employees using the controversial "waterboarding" interrogation tactics.
The agency's public affairs director Mark Mansfield said media interest "spiked" with news on January 2 that the Justice Department had launched its investigation into destruction of the tapes, as well as an Op-Ed in The New York Times by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, former chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 Commission, excoriating former agency officials for failing to inform their group of the tapes. Since then, the agency has had to balance media policy with a public response.
"Given that a number of investigations are currently underway, it's inappropriate for us to comment publicly on this matter... other than to say that we are cooperating fully," Mansfield told PRWeek via e-mail. However he did say the CIA had to "push back" on criticism of the agency by Kean and Hamilton by responding to TV and print media inquiries.
"The 9/11 Commission certainly had access to, and drew from, detailed information that had been provided by terrorist detainees," Mansfield said. "They had the substance.
That's how they reconstructed the plot in their very comprehensive report. We also [told media], 'It is disappointing that those who praised the CIA publicly for its cooperation with the 9/11 Commission several years ago now choose to criticize the agency for not being forthcoming.'"
Human rights groups are seizing upon the news to publicly demand more rigorous investigations by the government into CIA interrogation activities.
Groups such as Human Rights First are urging the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the destruction of the tapes. They are also developing a "media guide" to help journalists understand what questions should be asked of officials involved in federal investigations.
Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First's Washington director, said that the revelation of the tapes is a blow to the reputation of the CIA and, more generally, for the US as a supporter of human rights. She added that addressing the problem requires full, independent investigation of all involved in the matter, not just those that may have destroyed the videotapes.
"It's not a PR problem; it's a substance problem, and it must be cured by affirmative and public change of policy and not just prosecuting people who take or destroy videotape," said Massimino, who likened the situation to that of Abu Ghraib and the photos taken there of harsh interrogation tactics.
Mark Zaid, an attorney representing former CIA agent John Kiriakou, said that the CIA has long had a reputation as an organization that believes it "can do no wrong" and justifies just about any kind of activity as legal. Kiriakou has recently come under fire from the CIA for a series of interviews he gave with cable news outlets on the waterboarding videotapes.
"[But this investigation] does show how angered leadership in Washington is; they are viewing it as what it is, as a direct front to any legitimate oversight," Zaid said.
"I wouldn't say it's unprecedented," he continued. "You have had investigations of CIA conduct before. But from a historical standpoint, it's rare that the Justice Department is investigating official CIA conduct. I think it significantly hurts their image both in the public arena and with policymakers on the Hill."
But Mansfield noted that the agency has been strongly denying that it ever engaged in activities that broke the law. Asked if the investigation represented a blow to the agency's reputation, he said the CIA simply does not concern itself with its "image," but rather whether it performs its duties both thoroughly and lawfully.
"The American people expect us to do everything we can, within the law, to protect them," he said. "That's where our focus should be, and that's where it is."