WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers yesterday angrily demanded a Justice Department investigation into the CIA's decision to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogation tactics used on two terrorism suspects.
The White House said that President Bush was unaware of the tapes or their destruction until this week, but administration sources acknowledged last night that longtime Bush aide Harriet Miers knew of the tapes' existence and told CIA officials that she opposed their destruction.
The Senate intelligence committee also announced the start of its own probe into the destroyed videotapes, according to Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.).
"We do not know if there was intent to obstruct justice, an attempt to prevent congressional scrutiny, or whether they were simply destroyed out of concern they could be leaked," Rockefeller said. "Whatever the intent, we must get to the bottom of it."
The uproar in Congress followed Thursday's disclosure by CIA Director Michael Hayden that the agency had videotaped the interrogations of two al-Qaeda suspects in 2002 and destroyed the tapes three years later. Hayden and other officials said one of the detainees was Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden's.
It is not clear which tactics are shown on the videotapes. Abu Zubaydah has been identified by intelligence officials as one of three detainees subjected to waterboarding, an aggressive interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Hayden said in a letter to CIA personnel that the decision to destroy the tapes, made under his predecessor, Porter Goss, was out of concern that interrogators could be identified if the tapes were leaked.
But Democratic lawmakers, defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates scoffed at that explanation, arguing that the disclosure suggested an attempt by the CIA to cover up possibly illegal conduct in the face of specific requests for records, including video or audio tapes, from federal courts and from the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.), the Senate majority whip, urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate "whether CIA officials who destroyed these videotapes and withheld information about their existence from official proceedings violated the law."
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) called Hayden's reasoning a "pathetic excuse" and said, "You'd have to burn every other document at the CIA that has the identity of an agent on it under that theory." Several other key lawmakers also bristled at Hayden's contention that "the leaders of our oversight committees in Congress were informed of the videos years ago" and were briefed both before and after the tapes were destroyed.
Rockefeller said the intelligence panel "has located no record of either being informed of the 2003 CIA decision or being notified late last year of the tapes having being destroyed." A review of a transcript of a classified hearing in November 2006, when the CIA says it informed the committee, also has no mention of destroying tapes, Rockefeller said.
CIA officials said the agency never turned over the videotapes to the Sept. 11 commission because the panel did not specifically request them. But several members and staffers, including the panel's Republican cochairman, disputed that claim.
"That just doesn't hold water, because we asked for everything," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who was the panel's cochairman. "They told us we had everything they had on the detainees. . . . You don't expect not to be told the truth, but we weren't told the truth."
The panel's former general counsel, Daniel Marcus, said CIA representatives told the commission that videotapes and interrogation transcripts did not exist for detainees linked to the 2001 attacks.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters that Bush "has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction" before he was briefed on the issue by Hayden on Thursday. Perino said she could not rule out other White House involvement in the decision because she had asked only the president about it. The CIA is reviewing the case with help from White House lawyers, she said.
Miers was White House deputy chief of staff for policy when she was informed of the CIA's intention, administration sources said. She told the CIA that she opposed destroying the tapes, the sources added.
CIA officials have said that Jose Rodriguez Jr., then the director of clandestine operations, ordered their destruction in November 2005, and administration sources said last night that Miers, who was then White House counsel, learned of the order after it was carried out. News of Miers' knowledge was first reported last night by ABC News.
In separate letters to Mukasey and Hayden, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D., Mich.) and other committee Democrats also asked whether the Justice Department reviewed or approved of the destruction of the tapes.
The Supreme Court
yesterday agreed to intervene in the cases of two naturalized U.S. citizens who want to stop U.S. forces in Baghdad from turning them over to Iraqi authorities.
faces a death sentence after a judge in Iraq found him guilty of kidnapping Romanian citizens. Munaf, a translator, says he is innocent.
was alleged to be harboring an Iraqi insurgent and four Jordanian jihadists when his Baghdad home was raided in 2004. He faces a trial in Iraqi courts.
In the two cases,
different U.S. courts gave conflicting interpretations of a 1948 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court over whether federal courts have jurisdiction when another court or country is involved. The lower U.S. courts ruled against Munaf, but in favor of Omar.