News about the deletion of CIA tapes of “harsh” interrogation techniques is getting a lot of coverage in U.S. papers. (See The Washington Post and The New York Times). Why bring it up here? Because it directly illustrates the tensions between memory, forgetting, and accountability in records.
The CIA’s public justification for the deletion of these tapes is the protection of the CIA agents involved in these interrogations/torture. As reported in the Washington Post article linked above:
“…the decision to destroy the videotapes was made to protect the identities of CIA officers who were clearly identifiable on them. … [An agency spokesman said] ‘Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them to and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and it sympathizers.'”
This justification seems to invoke a desire for forgetting and protection on the individual level. If I remove the social and political context of the jobs these agents do, I can understand why the agents and their families would want these tapes destroyed.
But sometimes (often, I’d argue, in the case of government records) a greater need for accountability trump the desires of individuals, or an entire agency, for forgetting. This is a question archivists have been dealing with for generations. In just one example, a 1970s lawsuit prevented the FBI from destroying files which provided evidence of the FBI’s unlawful intrusion on groups such as the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. And U.S. government archivists have faced this battle more recently, standing up to President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, which gave presidents and vice presidents the ability to withhold, or delay release of, their administration’s records. And prickliness about evidence in records is not just a hallmark of this administration. Archivists – even those sensitive to privacy concerns – must continually push back against a government’s inclination to secrecy.
Something else for the political archivist to ponder about this particular case of government secrecy: the illustration of the different levels of security that can be provided within a set of records without destroying the records’ ability to promote accountability. Instead of destroying the tapes, could the CIA have kept them classified and secure? Surely the tapes could be shared with members of Congress investigating CIA interrogation tactics without putting individual agents at risk. For example, the identities of the operatives could have been secured (faces blurred, etc) without destroying the tapes and their evidence. After all, it is the upper levels of the CIA that should be held accountable for the actions documented in these tapes. Protecting the identities of operatives seems a weak excuse for destroying a record entirely.
Privacy, secrecy, and forgetting form a continuum – as do evidence, accountability, and openness. Decisions about memory and forgetting should rarely be an absolute choice between one or the other. Archivists (and agencies holding records before archivists get their hands on them) owe it to the public to be responsible about the importance of both of these continua.