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Tape Inquiry: Ex-Spymaster in the Middle

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Published: February 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — It would become known inside the Central Intelligence Agency as “the Italian job,” a snide movie reference to the bungling performance of an agency team that snatched a radical Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003 and flew him to Egypt — a case that led to criminal charges in Italy against 26 Americans.

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C.I.A., via Associated Press

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine branch, in an undated photo.

Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director in 2005 when embarrassing news reports about the operation broke, asked the agency’s independent inspector general to start a review of amateurish tradecraft in the case, like operatives staying in five-star hotels and using traceable credit cards and cellphones.

But Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., now the central figure in a controversy over destroyed C.I.A. interrogation tapes, fought back. A blunt-spoken Puerto Rico native and former head of the agency’s Latin America division, he had been selected by Mr. Goss months earlier to head the agency’s troubled clandestine branch. Mr. Rodriguez told his boss that no inspector general review would be necessary — his service would investigate itself.

It was a protective instinct that ran deep inside the C.I.A.’s fabled Directorate of Operations, the agency’s most powerful branch. The same instinct would resurface months later, when Mr. Rodriguez dispatched a cable to the agency’s Bangkok station ordering the destruction of videotapes that showed C.I.A. officers carrying out harsh interrogations of operatives of Al Qaeda.

“He would always say, ‘I’m not going to let my people get nailed for something they were ordered to do,’ ” said Robert Richer, Mr. Rodriguez’s deputy in the clandestine branch until late 2005, who recalls many conversations with his boss about the tapes.

No Record of Punishment

With the tapes’ destruction now the subject of overlapping Congressional and criminal inquiries, investigators are trying to determine whether Mr. Rodriguez, 59, acted on his own or with at least tacit approval from superiors at the C.I.A. or the White House. Officials now say a recent review by the C.I.A. of Mr. Rodriguez’s personnel file found no record of any reprimand or punishment for his action.

The destruction of the tapes is hardly the first time that the C.I.A.’s mission to take risks and to counter threats abroad has come into conflict with American notions of justice, legality and human rights. From assassination plots in the 1960s to the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, American spymasters have found themselves in legal jeopardy for acts they said were lawful and necessary.

The tapes episode and Mr. Rodriguez’s role reflect the intensity of the particular tensions that have played out since the Sept. 11 attacks, a period in which the C.I.A. has been asked to play a new role in capturing, questioning and imprisoning terror suspects, and is now facing questions about whether its conduct crossed the line into illegality.

The events surrounding the tapes unfolded during one of the most tumultuous periods in the C.I.A.’s 60-year history, when the insular and proud clandestine service clashed with the strong-willed team that Mr. Goss, a former Florida congressman, brought with him to the agency. Mr. Rodriguez was “the man in the middle,” Mr. Richer said.

Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Goss declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mr. Goss was not the first C.I.A. director to discover that operatives who were trained to destabilize foreign governments could sometimes put those same skills to work inside the agency.

In a striking metaphor for Mr. Goss’s powerlessness, as officers of the Directorate of Operations, or D.O., ignored his instructions and shunned his staff, he later told a colleague that “when he pulled a lever to make something happen in the D.O., it wasn’t just that nothing happened,” the colleague recalled. “It was that the lever came off in his hands.”

Mr. Rodriguez joined the C.I.A. in 1976, at a time when the agency was still reeling from Congressional investigations into assassination plots, coup attempts and domestic wiretapping.

With his thick accent and undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, he stood out in the clandestine service, which even in the 1970s was a preserve of the Anglo-Saxon, Ivy League establishment.

But over the next two decades in a series of overseas postings, Mr. Rodriguez ascended the ranks of the directorate’s Latin America division, serving from Peru to Belize and heading the C.I.A. stations in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

He ran the kind of espionage missions and covert operations that defined the agency, overshadowing its other task of analyzing intelligence from all sources. Clandestine officers fashioned themselves as the “fighter jocks” of the C.I.A., the swashbuckling spies who risked their lives for their country.

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