The Justice Department will use a veteran public corruption prosecutor to head up a full-blown criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes of terror suspects being interrogated.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey tapped John Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor in Connecticut who has prosecuted handled organized crime cases, to head the investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005.
The videos allegedly showed officers using tough interrogation methods on two al-Qaida suspects. The revelation touched off a congressional inquiry and a preliminary investigation by the Justice Department into whether the CIA violated any laws or obstructed congressional inquiries, such as the one led by the Sept. 11 Commission.
Durham, who has served with the Justice Department for 25 years, has a reputation as one of the nation's most relentless prosecutors. He was appointed to investigate the FBI's use of mob informants in Boston, a probe that sent former FBI agent John Connolly to prison.
"Nobody in this country is above the law, an FBI agent or otherwise," Durham, a Republican, said in 2002 after Connolly's conviction, a rare public statement for a prosecutor who usually avoids reporters.
Prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia, which includes the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va., had removed themselves from the case. CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson, who worked with the Justice Department on the preliminary inquiry also removed himself.
The U.S. Attorney in the district is handing other CIA interrogation tapes for the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The office is also involved with litigation related to detainees who say they are being held based on evidence gathered from coerced testimony. The destroyed CIA tapes could be used in those cases.
Mukasey said yesterday that the Virginia office had removed itself from the tapes case to avoid the possible appearance of a conflict.
Durham will serve as acting U.S. attorney on the case, a designation the Justice Department frequently makes when top prosecutors take themselves off a case. He will not serve as a special prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald, who acted autonomously while investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's identity.
"The Justice Department went out and got somebody with complete independence and integrity," said former Connecticut U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, who worked with Durham. "No politics whatsoever. It's going to be completely by the book and he's going to let the chips fall where they may."
Durham has shown no tolerance for corruption in either party. He supervised the corruption investigation that sent former Republican Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland and several members of his administration to prison.
He may be best known for leading a Justice Department probe that looked at whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies leaked FBI information to two notorious leaders of a South Boston gang. Retired FBI agent John Connolly, Jr. was ultimately found guilty of leaking information to the mob figures. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno asked Durham to handle that investigation because law enforcement in the Boston area had a conflict of interest.
The CIA already had agreed to open its files to congressional investigators, who have begun reviewing documents at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The House Intelligence Committee has ordered Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who directed the tapes be destroyed, to appear at a hearing Jan. 16.
In June 2005, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy ordered the Bush administration to safeguard "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay." Kennedy was overseeing a case in which U.S.-held terror suspects challenged their detention.
Five months later, the CIA destroyed the interrogation videos. The recordings involved suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The Justice Department has argued to Kennedy that the videos weren't covered by his order because the two men were being held in secret CIA prisons overseas.
From NPR's Dina Temple-Raston and The Associated Press