Mark Mazzetti in Washington
IN 2005 the CIA destroyed at least two videotapes of the interrogation of two al-Qaeda operatives in its custody, in the midst of congressional and legal scrutiny of its secret detention program.
The tapes, recorded in 2002, showed agency officers subjecting terrorism suspects – including Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner in CIA custody – to severe interrogation techniques. They were destroyed because there were concerns that the tapes could expose agency officers to legal action, several present and former government officials said.
In a statement to employees on Thursday, the CIA director, General Michael Hayden, said the decision to destroy the tapes was made “within the CIA”. The reason was to protect undercover officers and because they no longer had intelligence value.
But their destruction raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from the courts and from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 commission), about aspects of the program. The recordings were not provided to a federal court hearing the case of the terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui or to the 9-11 commission, which was appointed by the President, George Bush, and Congress, and which had formally requested the CIA produce transcripts and other documentary evidence of CIA prisoner interrogations.
The disclosures about the tapes are likely to reignite the debate over laws that allow the CIA to use more severe interrogation practices than other agencies.
A congressional conference committee voted on Wednesday to outlaw these practices, but the measure has yet to pass the full House and Senate and is likely to be vetoed by Mr Bush.
General Hayden said in his statement that the tapes posed a “serious security risk” and if they had become public they would have exposed CIA officials “and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and its sympathisers”.
It was not clear who authorised the destruction of the tapes, but current and former government officials said the action was approved by the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine service. Two former intelligence officials said that Porter Goss, the head of the agency at the time, was not told about the tapes’ destruction and was angry to learn of it later.
General Hayden said leaders of congressional oversight committees had been fully briefed about the tapes’ existence and destruction. But one House Intelligence Committee member insisted Congress had not been notified of the decision in 2005.