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CIA destroyed waterboarding tapes that were kept from courts, 9/11 commission
Published: Friday December 7, 2007

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(Update: Senate Intelligence Committee chairman demands probe)

"The Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency’s custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials," reports the New York Times Friday.

The CIA admitted Friday it destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of Al-Qaeda operatives in 2005, defending the controversial move as necessary to protect CIA staff.

Central Intelligence Agency Chief General Michael Hayden made the admission as US media headlined the destruction of two interrogations in 2005 -- at a time when Congress was probing allegations of torture.

In a statement to CIA staff, Hayden confirmed press reports that the agency videotaped interrogations in 2002 and destroyed the tapes three years later but said the detainees were not subject to illegal abuse.

"The decision to destroy the tapes was made within CIA itself," said Hayden's statement issued on Thursday and obtained by AFP on Friday.

"Beyond their lack of intelligence value -- as the interrogation sessions had already been exhaustively detailed in written channels -- and the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them, the tapes posed a serious security risk," Hayden said.

"Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers," he said.

Hayden did not say how many detainees were videotaped but alluded to media reports which said interrogations of at least two Al-Qaeda operatives were videotaped.

The revelation raises difficult questions for the US administration which has faced fierce criticism from rights groups over its treatment of terror suspects. Lawmakers have accused the White House of withholding information about its interrogations and detention practices.

Committees in Congress overseeing intelligence matters were informed of the videos "years ago" and of plans to dispose of them, Hayden said.

But the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee called for a thorough investigation.

After President George W. Bush's administration authorized harsher interrogation techniques following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Hayden said the tapes were made to ensure new interrogation methods were within legal limits.

"The Agency was determined that it proceed in accord with established legal and policy guidelines," he said.

"So, on its own, CIA began to videotape interrogations," said Hayden, who added he was not head of the agency at the time.

The tapes were meant as "an additional, internal check on the program in its early stages," Hayden said.

The tapes were also meant to serve as an accurate documentary record of interrogations but the agency later decided that was not necessary, and videotaping stopped in 2002, he said.

The New York Times, citing unnamed government sources, said the tapes showed CIA agents interrogating Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in CIA custody, using "severe interrogation techniques."

Warning his colleagues the agency faced a likely media storm over the revelations, Hayden said the Office of General Counsel and the Office of the Inspector General reviewed the tapes and found the interrogations did not violate legal guidelines.

"What matters here is that it was done in line with the law," he said.

The CIA's interrogation program has "helped disrupt terrorist operations and save lives."

The interrogations have been carried out with "careful supervision" and were "built on a solid foundation of legal review," he said.

"If the story of these tapes is told fairly it will underscore those facts."

He said that judging by past controversies, "we may see misinterpretations of the facts in the days ahead" and wanted his staff to "have some background now."

The US administration refuses to say what techniques are used on detaines by intelligence agencies, including waterboarding -- which simulates drowning and critics say amounts to torture. The US military clearly spells out what methods are allowed.

Lawmakers are pushing for legislation that all US officials including intelligence officials should follow the same rules as the military and renounce all forms of torture.

"The destruction of these tapes appears to be part of an extensive, long-term pattern of misusing executive authority to insulate individuals from criminal prosecution for torture and abuse," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman John Rockefeller said "our committee must review the full history and chronology of the tapes, how they were used and the reasons for destroying them, and any communication about them that was provided to the courts and Congress."

Excerpts from the Times:

The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terrorism suspects — including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in C.I.A. custody — to severe interrogation techniques. The tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks, several officials said.

In a statement to employees on Thursday, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, said that the decision to destroy the tapes was made “within the C.I.A.” and that they were destroyed to protect the safety of undercover officers and because they no longer had intelligence value.

The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 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 Sept. 11 commission, which was appointed by President Bush and Congress, and which had made formal requests to the C.I.A. for transcripts and other documentary evidence taken from interrogations of agency prisoners.

The disclosures about the tapes are likely to reignite the debate over laws that allow the C.I.A. to use interrogation practices more severe than those allowed to other agencies. A Congressional conference committee voted late Wednesday to outlaw those interrogation practices, but the measure has yet to pass the full House and Senate and is likely to face a veto from Mr. Bush.


(with wire reports)