WASHINGTON - Shortly after he arrived as CIA director in 2004, Porter J. Goss met with the agency's top spies and general counsel to discuss a range of issues, including what to do with videotapes showing harsh interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees.

"Getting rid of tapes in Washington," Goss said, according to an official involved in the discussions, "is an extremely bad idea."

But at the operational levels of the CIA - especially within the branch that ran the network of secret prisons - the idea of holding onto the tapes and hoping they would never be leaked to the public seemed even worse.

Citing what CIA veterans regard as a long record of abandonment by politicians in times of scandal, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the decision to destroy the tapes was driven by a determination among senior spies to guard against a repeat of that outcome.

The order to destroy the recordings came from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., head of the CIA's clandestine service, the division that deploys spies overseas and carries out covert operations.

The service, one of three main divisions at the CIA, has been blamed for botched operations and spy scandals throughout the agency's history, beginning with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 up through failures before the Iraq war.

But largely because of its unique capabilities, the clandestine service has long been the most influential branch in the CIA. It has a reputation for undermining directors perceived as hostile to the service - including Goss - and has developed a fierce instinct for protecting the agency's interests.

The clandestine service "is almost tribal in nature," said a former senior CIA official. "They believe that no one else will look out for them, so they have to look out for themselves."

That culture, current and former intelligence officials said, helps to explain why Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed despite cautions from senior lawmakers, White House lawyers, and even the CIA director. It may also account for why Rodriguez was not punished or fired after that decision was disclosed. Rodriguez is now in the CIA's retirement program and is expected to leave the agency in coming months.

His replacement at the clandestine service remains undercover.

Current and former officials close to Rodriguez said he issued the order largely out of a sense of obligation to undercover officers whose identities would have been exposed if the tapes were to surface.

Even with the possibility of criminal charges looming, some CIA veterans who worked with Rodriguez said destroying the tapes was the honorable course at an agency that reveres leaders who protect spies and guard agency secrets.

"This boiled down to an issue of who had the responsibility to protect our officers' identities," said a former U.S. intelligence official. "That fell to Jose, and he did the right thing."

The tapes were considered explosive because they included footage of CIA interrogators using rough tactics on al-Qaeda captives. One of the methods shown is a suffocation technique known as waterboarding that simulates drowning and has been condemned by human-rights organizations and critics in Congress as torture.

The CIA has maintained that all its interrogation methods were lawful and approved in advance by the Justice Department. The agency has also defended its handling of the tapes.

From the outset of the program, CIA officials feared that their role in running the secret prisons would leave them vulnerable if the political climate shifted.

In his memoir, former CIA Director George J. Tenet wrote: "We knew that, like almost everything else in Washington, the program would eventually be leaked and our agency and its people would be inaccurately portrayed in the worst possible light."

The tapes, made in 2002, were kept for three years in overseas vaults where secret CIA detention facilities were located. During that period, there were numerous debates within the agency, and also with lawmakers and officials at the White House, over whether to destroy them. The issue became more urgent in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

CIA Director Michael Hayden said the agency feared that officers who appeared on the tapes might have their covers blown and face retaliation by members of al-Qaeda. But other officials said there was also concern that the tapes could put the officers in legal jeopardy.