Destruction of CIA Tapes Similar to Watergate

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The inquiry into the CIA's destruction of interrogation tapes has some similarities with the inquiry into the Watergate conspiracy.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Another kind of criminal probe is under way right now, this one in Washington. NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr offers some historical context.

DANIEL SCHORR: Attorney General Michael Mukasey's appointment of federal prosecutor John Durham to conduct a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of interrogation tapes provides a potential benefit for the Bush administration. The probe enables the president to say that he can't comment on a case while it's being investigated, and the investigation may last longer than the final year of his term, since that is how long these investigations generally take.

But the administration is spared only if Congress desists from its own investigations, and that is not likely to happen. Both the Senate and the House intelligence committees are mounting full-scale inquiries.

The issue is likely to explode as early as January 16th, when Jose Rodriguez is scheduled to appear before the House committee. Rodriguez was the CIA's director of National Clandestine Services and the person who actually gave the order for the destruction of the tapes. He is certainly in a position to reveal whom he consulted in the agency, in the Justice Department and the White House.

But history teaches that witnesses in similar situations often invoke the Fifth Amendment and bargain with Congress for immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony. The most famous such case was John Dean, the Nixon lawyer who defected and pinned Nixon to the wall as the head of the Watergate conspiracy.

The chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, Sam Ervin, offered Dean limited immunity for his testimony. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox said that granting Dean immunity would damage the prosecution of the Watergate figures. Judge John Sirica said he sympathized with Cox, but ruled that the court had no power to interfere with a congressional investigation. And so, as some of my older listeners may remember, Dean gave sensational testimony about how he had warned Nixon of a cancer on the presidency. Dean also told of the Oval Office tapes, which finally did Nixon in. The prosecutor managed, nonetheless, to send several Watergate conspirators to jail, including Dean.

Well, a similar issue was raised in the Iran-Contra scandal. Former White House aide Oliver North testified with limited immunity before a joint congressional committee. And as a result, an appeals court overturned his subsequent conviction.

And so now, once again, with the destruction of the CIA tapes, we are faced with the prospect of competing prosecutor and congressional investigations.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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