Cases may be hurt by tape destruction

Justice Department and CIA announce a joint investigation

December 09, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- The destruction of hundreds of hours of videotape of interrogations of al-Qaida operatives, including Abu Zubaydah, could complicate the prosecution of Zubaydah and others, and underscores the deep uncertainties that have troubled government officials about the interrogation program.

Officials acknowledged on Friday that the destruction of evidence like videotaped interrogations could raise questions about whether the CIA was seeking to hide evidence of coercion. A review of records in military tribunals indicates that five lower-level detainees at Guantanamo were initially charged with offenses based on information that was provided by or related to Zubaydah.

The Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog announced yesterday a joint inquiry into the spy agency's destruction of the interrogations. The review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.

The House Intelligence Committee is launching its own inquiry next week. It will investigate not only why the tapes were destroyed and Congress was not notified, but also the interrogation methods that "if released, had the potential to do such grave damage to the United States of America," Chairman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said yesterday.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is also investigating.

Zubaydah and another suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is said to have been the chief planner of the 2000 attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, are the only suspected al-Qaida figures identified so far as the subjects of interrogations recorded on the destroyed tapes.

The destruction of the tapes has ignited a congressional furor and provoked demands for a Justice Department inquiry, but it has also focused attention on the case of Zubaydah, who was captured in March 2002. As one of the first close associates of Osama bin Laden to be caught after the 9/11 attacks, Zubaydah became a test case on which the CIA built and then adjusted its program of aggressive interrogations and overseas secret jails in the years that followed.

Current and former intelligence officials have said that Zubaydah was subjected to coercive techniques by CIA interrogators even before the Justice Department issued a formal, classified legal opinion in August 2002, declaring that the coercive techniques did not constitute torture.

It is not known whether the videotape depicting Zubaydah's interrogation preceded the 2002 opinion, nor is it known what acts were depicted on the tapes. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, said in a statement Thursday that the tapes were intended as an "internal check on the program in its early stages," despite what he called "the great care taken and detailed preparations made."

But the destruction of the tapes in 2005 appeared to reflect what former and current intelligence officials have described as long-standing worries about the legality of CIA interrogation practices and the possible legal jeopardy for any employees who engaged in the program and the managers who supervised them.

Zubaydah's case opens a vista into the broader discussion about the Bush administration's interrogation policies and the tactics that were used on Zubaydah and other terrorism suspects. President Bush has argued, since officially confirming the existence of the interrogation program in September 2006, that Zubaydah proved the need for harsh interrogation methods because he yielded valuable intelligence about the 9/11 plot only after tough tactics were employed.

That assertion was repeated on Thursday by Hayden. His statement said that to force a recalcitrant Zubaydah to give up information, the CIA devised "specific, appropriate interrogation procedures" which, he added, were "lawful, safe and effective." Hayden said all of the techniques used by the CIA had been reviewed and approved before their use by the Justice Department and other executive branch agencies.

Government officials said that during Zubaydah's interrogation sessions, his CIA questioners used a number of tactics: noise, stress positions, freezing temperatures, isolation and waterboarding, in which a subject is made to believe he is being drowned.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.