The CIA acknowledged last month that it destroyed videos of officers using tough interrogation methods while questioning two al Qaeda suspects. The acknowledgment sparked a congressional inquiry and a preliminary investigation by Justice.
The decision to elevate the investigation was based on the results so far of that preliminary investigation.
"The Department's National Security Division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter, and I have taken steps to begin that investigation," Mukasey said in a statement released Wednesday.
Because of conflicts among the officials who have been conducting the early probe, Mukasey also announced the recusal of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, the District in which the CIA headquarters are located, which would ordinarily conduct the investigation.
Mukasey's statement said that "in order to avoid any possible appearance of a conflict with other matters handled by that office," he would name John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to oversee the case.
Durham has a reputation as one of the nation's most relentless prosecutors. He served as an outside prosecutor overseeing an investigation into the FBI's use of mob informants in Boston and helped send several Connecticut public officials to prison.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters, "We continue to support the Attorney General's investigation into this matter."
"The CIA will of course cooperate fully with this investigation as it has with the others into this matter," agency spokesman Mark Mansfield said.
The CIA has already agreed to open its files to congressional investigators, who have begun reviewing documents at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The House Intelligence Committee has ordered Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who directed the tapes be destroyed, to appear at a hearing Jan. 16.
Rodriguez's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, had no comment.