Saturday, December 08, 2007

Central Intelligence Agency and Justice Department Opens Investigation Into the Admission of Videotape Destruction Portraying Torture of Detainees

CIA, Justice Open Videotape Probe

CIA, Justice Department Open Investigation Into Videotape Destruction

The Associated Press

The Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog announced Saturday a joint inquiry into the spy agency's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two suspected terrorists as the latest scandal to rock U.S. intelligence gathered steam.

The review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.

"I welcome this inquiry and the CIA will cooperate fully," CIA Director Mike Hayden said in a statement. "I welcome it as an opportunity to address questions that have arisen over the destruction back in 2005 of videotapes."

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," said Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, on Saturday.

"This administration cannot be trusted to police itself," Reyes said.

The Senate Intelligence committee is also investigating.

Hayden told agency employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would leak and reveal the identities of interrogators. He said the sessions were videotaped to provide an added layer of legal protection for interrogators using new, harsh methods authorized by President Bush as a way to break down the defenses of recalcitrant prisoners.

The CIA's acting general counsel, John Rizzo, is preserving all remaining records related to the videotapes and their destruction. Kenneth L. Wainstein, an assistant attorney general, asked that they be handed over along with any relevant internal reviews.

Justice Department officials, lawyers from the CIA general counsel's office and CIA Inspector General John Helgerson will meet early this coming week to begin the preliminary inquiry, Wainstein wrote Rizzo on Saturday.

Helgerson has been highly critical in classified reports of the agency's treatment of detainees. In October, the CIA confirmed that a close Hayden aide was reviewing his work, raising concern on Capitol Hill that the independence of the office was under attack.

The White House had no immediate comment on the inquiry. On Friday, presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said the White House would support Attorney General Michael Mukasey if he decided to investigate.

Angry congressional Democrats had demanded the Justice Department investigate. Some accused the CIA of a cover-up.

The man now at the center of the storm is Jose Rodriguez, who retired as head of the CIA's clandestine directorate of operations in August 2007, but will leave the agency at the end of the year. Rodriguez decided the tapes should be destroyed, one former and one current intelligence official told The Associated Press. A career spy, Rodriguez was promoted to the job by then-CIA Director Porter Goss.

Goss learned of the tapes' destruction "a couple of days" after it happened, a government official familiar with the events said. The official said Goss did not order an investigation or inform Congress.

Goss was upset by the tapes' destruction but did not take any action because the decision was within Rodriguez's authority, a former intelligence official told the AP. The CIA's spy service has broad latitude to take actions to protect operational security.

"Though Goss believed this was a bad judgment it falls within prerogatives of the directorate of operations," said the former official, who like other current and former officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

The tapes were destroyed shortly after The Washington Post in late 2005 revealed the existence of secret overseas prisons, which angered the cooperating governments.

Another intelligence official said Rodriguez was concerned the tapes would leak and the interrogators seen in the tapes would be targeted by al-Qaida. "Rodriguez felt he had good reasons to deep-six the tapes. They had people's faces on them. It's not like a name getting out," the official said.

The Justice Department and CIA inspector general inquiry is expected to focus on whether Rodriguez had the inherent authority to destroy the tapes or had the endorsement of CIA legal advisers or any senior officials.

There are more than 100 attorneys inside the CIA, and it is possible those inside the clandestine service arrived at their own conclusions about the advisability of destroying the tapes.

"The operations people size up their lawyers to make sure they are not always going to say no," said John Radsan, who was assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004 and now teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.

"It looks like Rodriguez is being pushed over the deck on this. Will he grab other people?" he said.

Rodriguez destroyed the tapes at a time of national debate over interrogation practices involving suspected terrorists. He could not be reached for comment.

In December 2005, Congress passed legislation that prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all U.S. detainees, including those in CIA custody. Earlier in the year, the Senate Intelligence Committee was trying to determine if CIA interrogators were complying with interrogation guidelines. The CIA refused twice in 2005 to provide the committee with its general counsel's report on the tapes, according to the current chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Detainees' treatment was also an issue before the Supreme Court in the fall of 2005. The court heard a case involving the legal rights of detainees held at the Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It decided in June 2006 that al-Qaida prisoners are protected by the Geneva Convention's prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment. At the time, the CIA also was concerned that its operatives involved in interrogations might be subject to legal charges over the treatment of detainees. Some agency employees have bought liability insurance as a hedge against that possibility.

The tapes showed interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee taken by the CIA in 2002. Zubaydah, under harsh questioning, told CIA interrogators about alleged Sept. 11 accomplice Ramzi Binalshibh. The two men's confessions also led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who the U.S. government said was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The other taped interrogations showed Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead. He and Zubaydah are now being held at Guantanamo.

Then-CIA General Counsel Scott Muller told the leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees about the tapes and the intention to destroy them. That included then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Rockefeller, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Goss, who was then House Intelligence Committee Chairman. None ever requested to view the tapes, according to the government official.

The White House was scrambling this weekend to determine who in the administration knew about the tapes and when, including Harriet Miers, who was a deputy White House chief of staff in 2003. Miers became White House counsel in early 2005.

Bush "has no recollection" of hearing about either the tapes' existence or their destruction before being briefed about it Thursday morning, White House press secretary Perino said.

Bush has "complete confidence" in Hayden's handling of the matter, Perino said.

Hayden took over the CIA in 2006.

Associated Press Writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.

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