Senators Grill CIA Director Behind Closed Doors

A Sampling of Opinions

Read from blogs and editorials around the country on the controversy over the destroyed CIA videotapes.

On Capitol Hill, Senators grilled the head of the CIA about interrogation techniques and the destruction of interrogation videotapes.

Michael Hayden announced last week that two tapes showing tough interrogations were destroyed in 2005. The Senate Intelligence Committee got a chance to ask him why his agency destroyed the tapes.

The hearing came as the Department of Justice and the CIA both initiated investigations into the tapes' destruction. The House Intelligence Committee intends to do the same.

The CIA Interrogation Tapes: A Primer

Abu Zubayda

hide captionThe CIA interrogation tapes were made sometime in 2002, shortly after the capture of several alleged al-Qaida members, including Abu Zubaydah, pictured above in an undated photo.

AP Photo/U.S. Central Command

News that the CIA made and then destroyed videotapes of its agents using harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects has caused ripples on Capitol Hill and around the world. The case is complicated and, like all things involving the CIA, shrouded in mystery.

Here is a primer on what is known — and not known — about the tapes and their destruction.

When were these tapes filmed?

Sometime in 2002, shortly after the capture of several alleged al-Qaida members, including Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. They were among the first suspects interrogated by the CIA after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

What did the tapes show?

They showed harsh interrogation methods being used against the terrorism suspects, reportedly including "waterboarding," or controlled drowning, a centuries-old interrogation technique that human rights groups and others call torture.

Why did the CIA make the tapes?

The agency wanted to document the evidence obtained during the interrogations and, according to CIA Director Michael Hayden, ensure that the interrogation techniques were legal.

When were they destroyed, and why?

The tapes were destroyed in November 2005. CIA officials say they feared the identity of the interrogators might be made public, placing them in danger of retaliation by al-Qaida. Human rights groups and many members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — don't buy that argument. They accuse the CIA of, in the words of GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, destroying the tapes "to cover somebody's rear end."

Was it illegal to destroy the videotapes?

That's not yet clear. The Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog have launched a joint preliminary investigation, and so has the House Intelligence Committee. (There is little support, though, for the appointment of a special prosecutor.) Those who ordered the tapes destroyed could, in theory, be prosecuted on charges of obstruction of justice, though legal experts say it would be a difficult case to prove.

Who knew about the existence of the tapes?

Senior CIA officials, as well as a few members of Congress, who were briefed about the tapes as early as 2002, according to The Washington Post. They reportedly condoned the interrogation techniques the agency was using. In addition, CIA officials claim they briefed three members of congressional intelligence committees in 2003, telling them about the tapes and the agency's intention to eventually destroy them. Several members of the panel, though, disagree with that assertion. They say they were told of the tapes' existence but not of any CIA plans to destroy them.

Did President Bush know about the tapes?

Not according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She says President Bush "has no recollection" of being consulted about the tapes' existence or their destruction. Perino, though, could not rule out the possibility that other White House officials knew about the tapes.

Could CIA interrogators be successfully prosecuted for what was on the tapes?

In theory, yes, but it's highly unlikely. During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to say whether harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, amounted to torture. In addition, the CIA agents could use the so-called White House "torture memo" as part of their defense. The memo, drafted in 2002 at the request of the CIA, gave U.S. interrogators wide latitude. It concluded that "physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Critics say the memo was drafted to provide legal cover for agents using severe interrogation methods.

What was the political climate at the time that the tapes were destroyed?

Stormy. News outlets were running investigative stories about secret CIA prisons abroad, while Congress and the courts were investigating whether "enhanced interrogation" techniques crossed the line into torture. Photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison were splashed across front pages. Not long after the tapes were destroyed, Congress adopted the Detainee Treatment Act. The law prohibits not only torture, but "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of all U.S. detainees, including those in CIA custody. And last June, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are entitled to the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention.

Did anyone ever ask the CIA to turn over the tapes?

Yes and no. The 9/11 Commission asked the agency for all relevant information about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their immediate aftermath. The commission, though, did not ask for the specific tapes in question. In November 2005, a federal judge overseeing the trial of terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui ordered the government to disclose whether it had video or audio tapes of specific interrogations. The CIA did not turn over any tapes.

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