Once again the United States intelligence services are exhibiting worrying signs that they consider themselves to be above the law when it comes to counterterrorism. The CIA admitted this week that it had destroyed at least two videotapes showing the interrogation of al-Qa'ida terror suspects. The agency is claiming it did this to protect the identity of CIA agents involved.
But this will not do. When the CIA was being investigated two years ago by the US Congress over a secret detention programme, the agency repeatedly denied that such tapes existed. It is now effectively admitting that it lied to Congress. In addition, the CIA withheld these tapes from the courts and a presidential commission that explicitly demanded the delivery of any video evidence of terror suspect questioning. The agency's failure to comply would seem to be a blatant case of obstruction of justice. The suspicion must be that that the destruction of these tapes was a deliberate attempt to eradicate evidence that could have raised doubts about the legality of the CIA's interrogation techniques. It is now the responsibility of Congress to get to the bottom of this matter.
What we know already about US counterterrorist activities is troubling enough. After the 11 September attacks, President Bush authorised the use of "harsh techniques" in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. The justice department issued a classified legal opinion in August 2002 that provided explicit authorisation for the use of techniques such as "water-boarding", which most international legal experts and credible institutions regard as torture. Intelligence officials claim that water-boarding is no longer practised. But we have no way of verifying this.
But we do know that the former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had disclosed three years ago that the Bush administration believes anti-torture laws and treaties do no restrict interrogators at overseas prisons because the constitution does not apply abroad. We also know that the White House tried to dilute a ban on torture. And even when President Bush eventually signed the bill into law, he hinted that he reserved the right to ignore it in exceptional circumstances.
A clear pattern has emerged: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, secret prisons, rendition, "harsh" interrogations. The manner in which the US has gone about meeting the threat posed by Islamist terror networks has been a moral disgrace and an affront to international law.