White House Knowledge of CIA Tapes Scrutinized

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The White House may have been more deeply involved than previously acknowledged in discussions about CIA videotapes showing harsh interrogation techniques and whether those tapes should be destroyed. The Justice Department and a federal judge are pursuing inquiries into the destruction of the videotapes.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes is creating plenty of sparks between Congress and the White House. The House Intelligence Committee is rejecting an administration request to give up its investigation. Committee leaders say they are ready to issue subpoenas to four CIA officials to testify. The tapes are a point of tension in confirmations for a new Justice Department official. And the confirmation hearings, we'll have two reports.

And we're going to begin with the question of what the White House knew about the destruction of these tapes.

NPR's Tom Gjelten is here in the studio.

Tom, The New York Times reported today that at least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions about what to do with these videotapes. What's the White House saying about this report?

TOM GJELTEN: Very little, Michele. There is a Justice Department inquiry, you know, into how these tapes were destroyed. And that gives the administration a convenient excuse for saying they can't say anything about it. But beyond that, the bottom line is that no one wants to talk about this or be associated with this decision to destroy the tapes. President Bush said he didn't know anything about it until the director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, briefed him just a few weeks ago. Hayden, meanwhile, says this happened before he became CIA director, and he doesn't know about it. So we have this familiar Washington game of no one wanting to take responsibility for something that has turned out to be really widely criticized.

As for the White House connection, the focus has been on Harriet Miers, who until 2005 was the deputy chief staff and who then became a White House counsel. It's been widely reported that she cautioned the CIA against destroying those tapes, and the White House has never challenged that report.

Now, what The New York Times reported today is that three other White House lawyers also discussed this issue - Alberto Gonzales, who succeeded her or who preceded Harriet Miers as White House counsel; David Addington, who is the Vice President Cheney's lawyer; and John Bellinger, who is a lawyer at the National Security Council. The Times has quoted one official is saying there is actually vigorous sentiment among some top White House officials that the tapes should be destroyed.

Remember these tapes showed some very extreme interrogation methods. So it's not surprising that there would have been an argument in favor of destroying them. But who said that is not at all clear. No one is standing up and saying, I said it would be a good idea to destroy these tapes.

NORRIS: But, you know, also we've got explanations, denials, statements of no comment. Is it true that the White House - that there was an order from the White House to try to preserve these tapes or an order not to destroy them?

GJELTEN: There doesn't seem to have been any order not to destroy them, to - no order to preserve them. But there is a logical explanation for that, which is that, remember, we're now talking almost three years after the tapes were produced. And there - during that entire period, there really wasn't much of a move to destroy these tapes. This is my reporting and I really can't quote anyone because, again, no one wants to be quoted on this.

But to the extent, there was a consensus in the government during this period. It was - seems to be - it was that the tapes should not be destroyed. There was some pressure from some agents that maybe these should be destroyed. But the decision to destroy them really only came in 2005. And the question is who gave that order.

Jose Rodriguez was the head of the Clandestine Service who issued this - the order to destroy them. However, his lawyer, Robert Bennett, told me today that he had a green light from someone to do that.

NORRIS: Which - that someone gave him an authority.

GJELTEN: Someone gave him the approval to do that. The question is who. We don't know that yet.

NORRIS: Very quickly before we let you go. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are both investigating this. Where might that lead?

GJELTEN: Well, the House - the lead chairman to the House Intelligence Committee has ordered his staff to draft subpoenas to ask the CIA to testify and produce documents about this. So it's haven't been issued yet, but the subpoenas have been drawn up and shared with the CIA. So the House Intelligence Committee, at least, is moving ahead with its own inquiry and wants to find out what happened.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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