White House Mum On Destroyed CIA Tapes

graphic, CIA label over White House
As Congress seeks answers about why the CIA destroyed tapes of terror suspects under interrogation, White House lawyers have advised President Bush's spokeswoman not to answer specific questions about the matter.

The U.S. Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency's internal watchdog are conducting a joint inquiry into the spy agency's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two suspected terrorists, to determine whether a full investigation is warranted. With that review ongoing, the White House counsel's office has instructed Mr. Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, not to get into details with reporters.

"I think that that's appropriate, and I'll adhere to it," Perino said Monday.

Perino would not comment on reports that former White House counsel Harriet Miers knew of the tapes years ago and advised against their destruction, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

Perino also said she stands by her assertion that Mr. Bush had no recollection of the tapes matter and was first informed of it last Thursday by CIA Director Michael Hayden. She repeated that Mr. Bush has "complete confidence" in Hayden

The White House typically stops commenting, beyond broad talking points, once an inquiry into a controversial matter is under way. When a reporter asked about another White House "wall of silence," Perino told the media in her briefing: "I can see where that cynicism that usually drifts from this room could come up in this regard. What I can tell you is I try my best to get you as much information as I can."

Congressional leaders are pressing to find out who knew what about the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotape and whether justice was obstructed in the process. Politicians in both parties and in the presidential campaign said inquiries must get to the bottom of the matter and questioned who if anyone in the White House knew what was happening. But there appears to be little support for appointment of a special prosecutor.

Democrats and some Republicans expressed skepticism about CIA claims that tapes of the questioning of two terrorism suspects were destroyed only to protect the identity of the interrogators.

"The actions, I think, were absolutely wrong," Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a victim of torture while a war prisoner in Vietnam, said Sunday. "There will be skepticism and cynicism all over the world about how we treat prisoners and whether we practice torture or not."

Republican presidential rival Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, questioned whether the CIA destroyed the tape for security purposes as claimed "or to cover somebody's rear end."

Sen. Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a special investigator. "I just think it's clearer and crisper and everyone will know what the truth is," he said.

That view was not shared by fellow Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, or a number of other prominent Democrats.

"I don't think there's a need for a special counsel, and I don't think there's a need for a special commission," Rockefeller said on CBS' Face the Nation. "It is the job of the intelligence committees to do that."

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican often critical of the administration on national security and Iraq, said he finds it hard to believe the White House did not know. "Maybe they're so incompetent" they didn't, he told CBS. "I don't know how deep this goes. Could there be obstruction of justice? Yes. How far does this go up in the White House, who knew it? I don't know."

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.

Rockefeller, citing the confidentiality of certain intelligence briefings, said he could not comment on the existence of any other interrogation tapes. He said CIA Director Hayden would appear before his committee Tuesday.

Biden cited Attorney General Michael Mukasey's refusal during confirmation hearings to describe waterboarding as torture as a reason to appoint an independent counsel.

"He's the same guy who couldn't decide whether or not waterboarding was torture and he's going to be doing this investigation," said Biden. The "easiest, straightest thing to do is to take it out of the political realm, appoint a special prosecutor and let them decide, and call - call it where it is. Is there a criminal violation? If there is, proceed. If not, don't."

Waterboarding is an interrogation technique in which a detainee is made to feel as though he is drowning.

Hayden told CIA employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would leak and reveal the identities of interrogators.

But a well-informed source told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin that the recordings were destroyed to avoid criminal prosecution of CIA officials.