Justice Department to Investigate CIA Tapes

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it is opening a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes.

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The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes. Those tapes showed the questioning of suspected terrorists. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed an outside prosecutor to oversee the case. And he's asked the FBI to do a full field investigation.

NPR's FBI correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, is with us. And Dina, why don't you remind us first what these tapes contain? And tell us more about what the attorney general announced today.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you recall these videotapes came to light publicly only after the head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, revealed in December that they had actually destroyed them. What we know about them is that they showed, among other things, the interrogation of these two al-Qaida suspects, and apparently, some episodes of harsh interrogation, techniques such as waterboarding, which is like controlled drowning. Hayden had said the tapes were destroyed to protect the identities of the people who actually conducted the interrogations.

And the CIA had hung on to them for three years before destroying them. What happened after that is the Department of Justice's National Security Division had launched this preliminary investigation just days after Hayden announced that they destroyed the tapes. Now, what Mukasey said today was that that investigation recommended, and he agreed that there was enough reason to think a crime had been committed to take the next step. So he appointed a U.S. attorney from Connecticut, a man named John Durham, to oversee the FBI as it looks into this whole episode.

BLOCK: And what will the FBI be looking for?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, launching a criminal investigation means that they think it's more likely than not that a crime was committed. So this moves all of this into a much more serious phase. Among other things, a grand jury gets involved. And it doesn't mean an indictment is inevitable, but now it means that people will be required to give evidence or face contempt of court charges or will have to evoke their Fifth Amendment rights.

This basically says that crimes could have been committed. And those crimes that could have been committed might be contempt as there are court orders calling for preservation of the materials that might have been included in the tapes. There could be the possibility of an obstruction of justice charge if there were subpoenas calling for materials that could've been included in these tapes. So this really does move it to a different level.

BLOCK: And now, not a special prosecutor being named, but John Durham - you mentioned - the U.S. attorney from Connecticut, being called in to oversee the investigation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, this is a little bit of a distinction. Had they actually used the U.S. attorney for Virginia, who had sort of jurisdiction over this because the CIA is in Virginia, he would've been called a special prosecutor because he was not appointed. Mukasey said, out of an abundance of caution, he wasn't going to appoint this Virginia U.S. attorney. Then we have this John Durham here instead. And John Durham is actually quite well-known. He was a prosecutor who was involved with the FBI mob informant case in Boston, which is a very controversial case. And he also sent several Connecticut public officials to prison. His office has not commented on this yet.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's FBI correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks a lot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

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