White House lawyers discussed destroying CIA tapes

Officials describe bigger role than has been acknowledged

December 19, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the CIA from 2003 to 2005 about whether to destroy videotapes showing the secret interrogations of two al-Qaida operatives, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.

The accounts indicate that the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged.

Those who took part, the officials said, included Alberto R. Gonzales, who was White House counsel until early 2005; David S. Addington, then counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and currently his chief of staff; John B. Bellinger III, who until January 2005 was the senior lawyer at the National Security Council; and Harriet E. Miers, who succeeded Gonzales as White House counsel.

It was previously reported that some administration officials advised against destroying the tapes, but the emerging picture of White House involvement is more complex. In interviews, several administration and intelligence officials provided conflicting accounts about whether anyone at the White House expressed support for destroying the tapes.

One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there was "vigorous sentiment" among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes. The former official did not specify which White House officials took this position, but he said some of them thought in 2005 that any disclosure of the tapes could have been particularly damaging after revelations a year earlier of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Other officials said no one at the White House advocated destroying the tapes, but they acknowledged that no White House lawyer gave a direct order to preserve the tapes or advised that destroying them would be illegal.

The destruction of the tapes is being investigated by the Justice Department, and the officials would not agree to be quoted by name while that inquiry is under way.

Spokesmen for the White House, the vice president's office and the CIA declined to comment, also citing the inquiry.

The new information came to light as a federal judge ordered yesterday that a hearing be held on whether the tapes' destruction violated an order to preserve evidence in a lawsuit brought on behalf of 16 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The tapes documented harsh interrogation methods used in 2002 on Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two al-Qaida suspects in CIA custody.

The current and former officials also provided new details about the role played in November 2005 by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then head of the agency's clandestine branch, who ultimately ordered the destruction of the tapes.

The officials said that before he issued a secret cable directing that the tapes be destroyed, Rodriguez received legal guidance from two CIA lawyers, Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger. The officials said those lawyers gave written guidance to Rodriguez that he had the authority to destroy the tapes and that the destruction would violate no laws.

The agency did not make Hermes or Eatinger available for comment.

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