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Destroyed CIA tapes spur probes

They could have shown if the harsh interrogation of terror suspects was illegal, analysts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2007

Disclosures that the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects has opened a new front in the debate over the alleged use of torture in the war on terror.

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Both the Justice Department and the CIA have begun initial inquiries into the matter following concerns by members of Congress that the tapes were destroyed in 2005. That was after they and some administration officials urged that the tapes be preserved.

A meeting between Justice Department officials and the CIA Inspector General's Office is expected early this week to determine if further investigation is warranted. CIA Director Michael Hayden is set to appear on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA has said it will preserve all materials.

"Burning tapes, destroying evidence, I don't know how deep this goes," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Could there be obstruction of justice? Yes," he said. "How far does this go up into the White House? I don't know."

The developments come as both the House and Senate are considering an amendment to the 2008 intelligence authorization bill that would require the CIA – and all other government agencies – to abide by the protections in the Army Field Manual during interrogations. Techniques such as waterboarding are barred under the manual.

When he disclosed the destruction of the two tapes on Thursday, CIA Director Hayden said the tapes were destroyed because they "posed a serious security risk." He added: "Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of [CIA officers] who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qa'ida and its sympathizers."

But other analysts say the tapes were important because they held real-time evidence of the precise interrogation techniques used by US officials against top terror suspects.

If the techniques were clearly legal, as the CIA director insists, the tapes would provide interrogators with strong evidentiary protection against future lawsuits or torture allegations.

On the other hand, if the techniques were clearly unlawful or of borderline legality, the continued existence of the tapes might place US interrogators – and those who authorized their actions – in substantial legal jeopardy.

The tapes could also undercut terror cases in US courts and undermine the legitimacy of military commission trials now under way at the US terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, according to legal analysts.

The tapes were made in 2002 and were destroyed in 2005. One of the taped subjects was Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda leader who President Bush identified as having been singled out for special harsh interrogation tactics.

The information from Mr. Zubaydah played a foundational role in authorizing further aggressive actions by the US government in the war on terror. For example, Zubaydah was the primary source for the material witness warrant issued for the arrest of Jose Padilla when he stepped off a plane in Chicago in May 2002. A month later, Bush administration officials publicly accused Padilla of plotting to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb," and Mr. Bush ordered him detained indefinitely by the military as an enemy combatant.