CIA lawyers OK'd tapes' destruction

Attorneys' role would widen inquiry

December 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers within the clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency gave written approval in advance to the destruction in 2005 of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting interrogations of two al-Qaida lieutenants, according to a former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode.

The involvement of agency lawyers in the decision-making would widen the scope of the inquiries into the matter that have now begun in Congress and within the Justice Department. Any written documents are certain to be a focus of government investigators as they try to reconstruct the events leading up to the tapes' destruction.

The former intelligence official acknowledged that there had been nearly two years of debate among government agencies about what to do with the tapes and that lawyers within the White House and the Justice Department had in 2003 advised against a plan to destroy them. But the official said that CIA officials had continued to press the White House for a firm decision and that the CIA was never given a direct order not to destroy the tapes.

"They never told us, `Hell no,'" he said. "If somebody had said, `You cannot destroy them,' we would not have destroyed them."

The former official spoke on condition of anonymity because there is a continuing Justice Department inquiry into the matter. He said that he is sympathetic to Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the former chief of the clandestine branch, who has been described by intelligence officials as having authorized the destruction of the tapes. The former official said he was concerned that Rodriguez was being unfairly singled out for blame in the destruction of the tapes.

The former official said Rodriguez decided in November 2005 that he had sufficient authority to destroy the interrogation videos, based on the written authorization given to him from lawyers within the branch, then known as the Directorate of Operations.

The CIA has said that the two interrogations shown in the videotapes occurred in 2002 and that the taping of interrogations stopped that year. On Monday, however, a lawyer representing a former prisoner who said he was held by the CIA said the prisoner saw cameras in interrogation rooms after 2002.

In describing the decision to destroy the tapes, current and former officials said that John A. Rizzo, the agency's top lawyer at the time, was not asked for final approval before the tapes were destroyed, although Rizzo had been involved in discussions for two years about the tapes.

The former official said that the leaders of the clandestine service believed they "didn't need to ask Rizzo's permission." Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, is scheduled to appear before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee today to answer questions about the tapes' destruction.

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