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Justice, CIA Launch Inquiries into Destroyed Tapes

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Justice, CIA Launch Inquiries into Destroyed Tapes

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Justice, CIA Launch Inquiries into Destroyed Tapes

Justice, CIA Launch Inquiries into Destroyed Tapes

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The Justice Department and the CIA's Inspector General are both investigating the agency's 2005 destruction of videotapes of the interrogations of top al-Qaida operatives. The Justice Department has already started what it calls a "preliminary inquiry" into the matter.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general are also asking why the CIA destroyed the interrogation videos. And some members of Congress are questioning whether the Justice Department is independent enough to handle that inquiry.

NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro is covering this story.

Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Michael Mukasey, the attorney general, is somebody who almost didn't get confirmed because he refused to classify some harsh interrogation tactics as torture. Does that put him in an awkward position here?

SHAPIRO: Well, you have to remember that the inquiry is not into whether torture took place. This is an inquiry into why the tapes were destroyed. Even though these tapes depict harsh interrogation tactics that some people consider torture, they are questions of obstruction of justice rather than questions of interrogation policies in this investigation. Still, the Justice Department has played a role in creating and justifying harsh interrogation policies ever since 9/11. Justice Department lawyers apparently played a role in advising the CIA not to destroy these tapes.

And so the calls for a special prosecutor in this case show some doubt in the Justice Department's independence. And this is going to be one early test of Attorney General Mukasey's independence. If he does appoint a special prosecutor, that is going to send a clear, strong message about the kind of attorney general that he intends to be for the next year.

INSKEEP: Well, who wants a special prosecutor, an independent investigation here?

SHAPIRO: Calls started late last week, first from the ACLU, and then members of Congress started joining in. I'm told that other senators may add their voices to the call this week.

Here is what Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware said yesterday on ABC. He's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he's also a presidential candidate.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Delaware, Democrat): It appears as though there may be an obstruction of justice charge here, tampering with evidence, and destroying evidence. And this - I think this is one case where it really does call for a special counsel. I think this leads right into the White House. There may be a legal and rational explanation, but I don't see any on the face of it.

SHAPIRO: Because there have been reports that White House lawyers and, as I mentioned, Justice Department lawyers advised the CIA not to destroy these tapes. So you've got on the one hand the Justice Department asking who knew what when at the CIA. And then on the other hand you've got members of Congress asking who knew what when at the Justice Department and at the White House.

Senator Biden also mentioned Mukasey's refusal to condemn waterboarding as torture when Biden was talking about why he thinks a special prosecutor ought to be appointed. But Biden's view is not a consensus one.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday that he does not think a special counsel was necessary in this case.

INSKEEP: So the Justice Department has begun its own preliminary inquiry, it's called. What does that mean and how is it likely to go?

SHAPIRO: Well, this is the first step towards what could eventually turn into a criminal investigation. They're calling it a fact-gathering process. It doesn't necessarily lead to a criminal investigation. But I talked with a lot of former Justice Department officials from both parties over the weekend, and they all said that a criminal investigation is basically a fait accompli here. It's not a question of whether an investigation will happen. It's just a question of when that investigation will start and who's going to do it.

INSKEEP: Is there some awkwardness though? Because you're going to have a Congressional investigation, you're going to have calls for more investigations at the same time the Justice Department is trying to look into this.

SHAPIRO: That's right. You know, you've got Congress and the Justice Department looking into this at the same time. And this happens all the time, that they go at different paces, they have different goals.

Congress likes to do things very quickly. They like to do things very publicly. Prosecutors like to do things very privately, very slowly. And you can see this starting already, where the Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general have just started their preliminary inquiry. And already tomorrow we're going to see CIA director Hayden on Capitol Hill speaking publicly about these issues.

And so these things sometimes complement each other, they sometimes overlap, they sometimes step on each other's toes, and they even undermine each other. So we're going to see some efforts at coordination, possibly some sniping that one investigation is stepping on the toes of the other.

INSKEEP: Could end up having witnesses who say I don't want to testify before Congress if there is this criminal inquiry and I could be implicated and people arguing about immunity and everything else.

SHAPIRO: Very - indeed, we recently saw, in the U.S. attorneys' investigation, immunity being granted to witnesses who were then scrutinized in a criminal investigation. And sometimes those things, as I say, undermine each other.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro will keep us up to date as we learn more.

And while most of us just learned of these tapes the other day, the story of those CIA interrogation videotapes has been unfolding quietly for years. And you can see a timeline at npr.org.

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Timeline: CIA and Interrogation Videotapes

The CIA in 2003 informed Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) — shown at a Capitol Hill press conference in May — of the tapes' existence. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

The CIA in 2003 informed Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) — shown at a Capitol Hill press conference in May — of the tapes' existence.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said panel members learned of the tapes' destruction in November 2006. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said panel members learned of the tapes' destruction in November 2006.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

CIA Director Michael Hayden, shown at a House Intelligence Committee in January, recently told agency employees that the CIA destroyed videotapes it made in 2002 of two top terrorism suspects because it was afraid that keeping them "posed a security risk." Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Michael Hayden, shown at a House Intelligence Committee in January, recently told agency employees that the CIA destroyed videotapes it made in 2002 of two top terrorism suspects because it was afraid that keeping them "posed a security risk."

Win McNamee/Getty Images

News that the CIA made and then destroyed videotapes of al-Qaida suspects undergoing harsh interrogations while in agency custody seemed to have come out of nowhere. However, the story has been unfolding for years, though largely out of public view. The controversy over the tapes spans several countries and involves Congress, federal prosecutors and the top leadership of the CIA.

Here are some of the key moments.

March 2002: Terrorism suspect Abu Zubaydah, allegedly a high-ranking member of al-Qaida, is captured in Pakistan and flown to an undisclosed CIA detention center. Zubaydah is said to be an organizer of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a tcaop al-Qaida recruiter. The Bush administration portrays his capture as a major breakthrough.

2002: Abu Zubaydah and at least one other al-Qaida member are subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, possibly including waterboarding (controlled drowning), by their CIA captors. The agency videotapes several of these interrogations, partly to ensure that the techniques used are legal and partly to provide backup documentation of the information collected, according to CIA officials.

2003: The CIA's internal watchdog watches the videotapes and verifies that the interrogation practices were legal, according to CIA director Michael Hayden.

Also in 2003, the CIA informs Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and two other members of Congress of the tapes' existence.

August 2004: The 9/11 Commission completes its work on the terror attacks and the U.S. government's response to it. The commission had requested all relevant information from the CIA. But it never received videotapes of CIA interrogations conducted in 2002. An agency spokesman says the CIA "went to great lengths to meet the requests of the 9/11 Commission" and preserved the tapes in case the commission asked for them specifically.

2005: Lawyers representing terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui make formal requests to the CIA for transcripts and other documentary evidence of the interrogation of agency prisoners. CIA lawyers tell prosecutors that the agency did not have such recordings.

Later in 2005, the CIA destroys at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two al-Qaida suspects in the agency's custody. The tapes showed CIA employees subjecting the suspects to harsh interrogation techniques. The tapes were reportedly destroyed at the request of Jose Rodriguez, then head of the agency's Directorate of Operations, its clandestine service.

November 2006: The Senate Intelligence Committee learns of the tapes' destruction, according to committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

December 2007: CIA Director Michael Hayden tells agency employees that the CIA destroyed videotapes it made in 2002 of two top terrorism suspects because it was afraid that keeping them "posed a security risk." If the tapes had become public, they would have exposed CIA officials "and their families to retaliation from al-Qaida and its sympathizers." Hayden makes the announcement hours after The New York Times informs the agency of its intention to publish a report about the tapes. Human rights groups and some members of Congress express outrage, accusing the agency of "destroying evidence." The Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, asks the Justice Department to investigate whether the CIA obstructed justice by destroying the videotapes.

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