WASHINGTON - The CIA in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two al Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody, a step it took amid congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.
The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terrorism suspects - including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in CIA custody - to severe interrogation techniques. They were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that tapes showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to risk of legal jeopardy, several officials said.
In a statement to employees yesterday, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, said the decision to destroy the tapes was made "within the CIA" and that the reason was to protect the safety of undercover officers and because the tapes no longer had intelligence value.
The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from the courts and from the Sept. 11 commission.
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 CIA for transcripts and other documentary evidence taken from interrogations.
The disclosures about the tapes are likely to reignite the debate over laws that allow the CIA to use interrogation practices more severe than those allowed to other agencies.
Hayden said that the agency had acted "in line with the law" and said he was informing CIA employees "because the press has learned" about the matter.
Hayden's statement said that the tapes posed a "serious security risk" and that if they had become public they would have exposed CIA officials "and their families to retaliation from al Qaeda and its sympathizers."
It was not clear who authorized the destruction of the tapes, but sources said the action was approved by officials within the CIA's clandestine service.
In both 2003 and 2005, CIA lawyers told prosecutors in the Moussaoui case that the CIA did not possess recordings of interrogations sought by the judge.
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said that the court had sought tapes of "specific, named terrorists whose comments might have a bearing on the Moussaoui case" and that the videotapes destroyed were not of those individuals.
_ In a rebuke to White House counterterrorism policy, a congressional conference committee has voted to outlaw the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA against suspected high-level terrorists.