CIA facing threat of probes over tapes

Congress, Justice seek accounting of destroyed video

December 08, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The CIA faced the threat of obstruction-of-justice investigations yesterday from the Justice Department and congressional committees over the destruction of videotapes of al-Qaida interrogations.

The Justice Department said it would review calls for a formal inquiry into the destruction of the tapes, while the House and Senate intelligence committees said they were opening investigations of their own into the episode, which Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate panel, called "extremely disturbing."

Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said yesterday that President Bush "has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction" before this week.

She added that the CIA and the White House counsel's office were reviewing the facts and would cooperate with any Justice Department inquiry.

The pressure for a full investigation into the handling of the tapes puts Attorney General Michael Mukasey in a difficult position early in his tenure because of the questions that arose at his confirmation hearings in October about his views on harsh CIA interrogation tactics.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups called yesterday for the appointment of an outside counsel to examine possible criminal acts by the CIA, arguing that the Justice Department had proved unable in the past to adequately investigate claims of prisoner abuse against the administration.

The tapes, which showed severe interrogation methods against two al-Qaida operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were made in 2002 and destroyed in 2005, the CIA acknowledged this week after being questioned about the issue by The New York Times. The agency said that the tapes were destroyed in part to protect the identities of the interrogators.

Meanwhile, the former chairmen of the Sept. 11 commission, who said the CIA assured them repeatedly during their inquiry that no original material existed from its interrogations of al-Qaida figures, said they were furious to learn about the tapes.

The CIA indicated that the Sept. 11 commission never specifically asked for any tape recordings of prisoner interrogations.

But in separate interviews yesterday, commission co-chairmen Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former U.S. representative, each said they made clear in hours of negotiations and discussions with the CIA, as well as in written requests, that they wanted all material connected to the interrogations of al-Qaida operatives in the agency's custody to get a complete understanding of the events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for their 2004 report.

The commission ended up getting summaries of interrogation reports and was able to forward questions of its own for CIA officers to ask the prisoners.

"The CIA certainly knew of our interest in getting all the information we could on the detainees, and they never indicated to us there were any videotapes," Hamilton said. "Did they obstruct our inquiry? The answer is clearly yes. Whether that amounts to a crime, others will have to judge."

Kean said, "I'm upset that they didn't tell us the truth."

The existence of material on unidentified al-Qaida detainees also became a central issue in the terrorism prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who sought access to witness statements in an effort to show that he did not have advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Justice Department, under questioning from the federal judge in the case in 2005, denied that any tape recording of the interrogations existed, only to concede last month that the CIA had apparently found three tapes still in existence. It is unclear which al-Qaida figures are on those tapes.

Edward B. MacMahon Jr., who represented Moussaoui during his trial in 2006, said in an interview yesterday that based on the CIA's acknowledgment that tapes of two al-Qaida prisoners were destroyed, "it's obvious to me that they destroyed material evidence in the case."

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the CIA, said in a statement Thursday that the tape of Zubaydah's interrogation was not relevant to the Moussaoui trial.

But MacMahon said: "General Hayden isn't a federal judge, and that's not his decision to make."

Perino said that Bush "has complete confidence" in Hayden and his handling of the issue.

With calls from House and Senate Democrats for a full investigation, the White House seemed to be bracing for an investigation from the Justice Department by initiating an inquiry of its own through the White House counsel's office. The aim, Perino said, is to "gather facts."

The Justice Department said that it was reviewing the requests from Congress for a full investigation but that it had not moved ahead yet.

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