The CIA disclosed Thursday that it destroyed two videotapes that showed agents using highly controversial interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. The revelation is certain to heat up the debate over the treatment of terrorism suspects as well as the CIA's decisionmaking in the case.
The CIA, though asked for evidence taken from interrogations, had never disclosed the existence of the tapes, The New York Times says.
The recordings were not provided to a federal court hearing the case of the terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui or to the Sept. 11 commission, which had made formal requests to the C.I.A. for transcripts and any other documentary evidence taken from interrogations of agency prisoners.
C.I.A. lawyers told federal prosecutors in 2003 and 2005, who relayed the information to a federal court in the Moussaoui case, that the C.I.A. did not possess recordings of interrogations sought by the judge in the case.
The CIA decided to make the destruction of the tapes public after The New York Times informed the agency it was preparing a story on Friday, the paper reports. It adds:
The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terror suspects — including Abu Zubaydah the first detainee in C.I.A. custody — to severe interrogation techniques.
The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission about aspects of the program.
The CIA says it destroyed the tapes to safeguard the identity of undercover employees. The Washington Post reports these comments from CIA director Michael V. Hayden to agency employees:
"Beyond their lack of intelligence value – as the interrogation sessions had already been exhaustively detailed in written channels – and the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them, the tapes posed a security risk," Hayden said. "Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them to and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and it sympathizers."
Although the CIA says it was acting to protect its employees, Reuters reports, by destroying the tapes, the organization has increased concerns about its already controversial interrogation program, according to some observers.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the tapes' destruction was another troubling aspect of the interrogation program. "The damage is compounded when such actions are hidden away from accountability," he said in a statement.
Several lawmakers responded to Mr. Hayden's assertions that leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees were earlier told of the existence of the tapes and the CIA's intention to destroy them, according to The Seattle Times.
California Rep. Jane Harman, then the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was one of four lawmakers informed in 2003 of the tapes' existence and the CIA's intention to ultimately destroy them.
"I told the CIA that destroying videotapes of interrogations was a bad idea and urged them in writing not to do it," Harman said.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said through a spokesman that he doesn't remember being informed of the videotaping.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the panel didn't learn of the tapes' destruction until November 2006, one year after the fact.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately condemned the CIA's actions, Reuters also reports.
"The destruction of these tapes suggests an utter disregard for the rule of law. It was plainly a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence that could have been used to hold CIA agents accountable for the torture of prisoners," ACLU National Security Project Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.
According to The Washington Post, the timing of the tape incident is highly significant.
The startling disclosures came on the same day that House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on legislation that would prohibit the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics by the CIA and bring intelligence agencies in line with rules followed by the U.S. military.
The measure, which needs approval from the full House and Senate, would effectively set a government-wide standard for legal interrogations by explicitly outlawing the use of simulated drowning, forced nudity, hooding, military dogs and other harsh tactics against prisoners by any U.S. intelligence agency.
This week's incident comes just weeks after a similar CIA tape incident. Reuters reported on Nov. 13 that:
The CIA erred in twice telling a court in the case of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui that it did not have any recordings of interrogations of "enemy combatants," when in fact it had three video or audio tapes, according to a letter released on Tuesday.
Prosecutors only recently learned of the tapes from the CIA, they said in the letter to the judge who presided over the case and to a U.S. appeals court that considered the Moussaoui case.
And Andrew Sullivan, writing for The Atlantic Online, points out that tapes documenting Jose Padilla's interrogation disappeared under controversial circumstances in 2005. He quotes an assessment from Newsweek:
The missing DVD dates from March 2, 2004. It contains a video of the last interrogation session of Padilla, then a declared 'enemy combatant' under an order from President Bush, while he was being held in military custody at a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. But in recent days, in the course of an unusual court hearing about Padilla's mental condition, a government lawyer disclosed to a surprised courtroom that the Defense Intelligence Agency — which had custody of the evidence — was no longer able to locate the DVD. As a result, it was not included in a packet of classified DVDs that was recently turned over to defense lawyers under orders from Judge Cooke.