A day after CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told agency employees the tapes were destroyed in 2005, members of Congress, human rights groups and lawyers for accused terrorists said the tapes may have been key evidence that the U.S. government had illegally authorized torture.
Angry congressional Democrats are demanding that the Justice Department investigate why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of two terror suspects.
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, said Attorney General Michael Mukasey should find out "whether CIA officials who destroyed these videotapes and withheld information about their existence from official proceedings violated the law."
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy accused the CIA of a cover-up. "We haven't seen anything like this since the 18½-minute gap in the tapes of President Richard Nixon," he said in a Senate floor speech. The gap, which Nixon's secretary attributed to an accidental erasure, played a major role in the loss of support that resulted in Nixon's resignation.
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, told reporters the CIA's explanation that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identity of agents is "a pathetic excuse," adding: "You'd have to burn every document at the CIA that has the identity of an agent on it under that theory."
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent letters to CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden and Mukasey asking whether the Justice Department gave legal advice to the CIA on the destruction of the tapes and whether it was planning an obstruction-of-justice investigation.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Friday that President George W. Bush did not recall being told about the tapes or their destruction. But she could not rule out White House involvement in the decision to destroy the tapes, saying she had asked only the president about it, not others.
Perino refused to say whether the destruction could have been an obstruction of justice or a threat to cases against terror suspects. If the attorney general should decide to investigate, "of course the White House would support that," she said.
In a daily press briefing dedicated almost solely to the topic of the CIA tapes, Perino responded 19 times that she didn't know or couldn't comment.
At least one White House official, then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, knew about the CIA's planned destruction of videotapes in 2005 that documented the interrogation of two al Qaeda operatives, ABC news reported Friday. Three officials told ABC News that Miers urged the CIA not to destroy the tapes. White House officials declined to comment on the report.
The spy agency destroyed the tapes in November 2005, at a time when human rights groups and lawyers for detainees were clamoring for information about the agency's secret detention and interrogation program, and Congress and U.S. courts were debating where "enhanced interrogation" crossed the line into torture.
Also at that time, the Senate Intelligence Committee was asking whether the videotapes showed 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 committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
Hayden told agency employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would be leaked to the press 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. Bush had just authorized those methods as a way to break down the defenses of recalcitrant prisoners.
Destruction of the tapes came in the midst of an intense national debate about how forcefully prisoners could be grilled to get them to talk. Not long after the tapes were destroyed, Congress adopted the Detainee Treatment Act, championed by Republican Sen. John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The law prohibits not only torture, but cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all U.S. detainees, including those in CIA custody.