Federal Judge Probing Destruction of CIA Tapes White House lawyers are heading to a federal court Friday to ask a judge to hold off on looking into destroyed CIA videotapes of terror suspect interrogations.
NPR logo Federal Judge Probing Destruction of CIA Tapes

Federal Judge Probing Destruction of CIA Tapes

White House lawyers were heading to a federal court Friday to ask a judge to hold off on looking into destroyed CIA videotapes of terror suspect interrogations.

The hearing comes amid objections from the Justice Department, which claims the court could disrupt its own investigation into the tapes.

U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy is presiding over a lawsuit brought by Guantanamo Bay prisoners challenging their detention. He's ordered the government not to destroy evidence of mistreatment or abuse at the Navy base in Cuba.

The hearing marked the first time that administration lawyers were to speak in public and under oath about the matter since the CIA disclosed this month it destroyed the tapes of officers using tough interrogation methods while questioning two al-Qaida suspects.

Because the two suspects - Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri - were being held overseas in secret CIA prisons, however, they are likely not covered by the order.

The tapes could be covered by a more general rule prohibiting the destruction of any evidence that could be relevant to a case.

For example, if the tapes showed Zubaydah discussing any of the detainees in Kennedy's case, their destruction could have been prohibited.

Lawyers for both sides have filed classified documents regarding the tapes. That means there is a good chance Kennedy already knows whether the videos are relevant to his case.

If the judge believes the CIA destroyed the tapes to keep them from being used in court, he could side with the detainees' lawyers and order the government to disclose all the evidence it has collected, including any other evidence in addition to the tapes that has been destroyed.

He could order government officials to testify in court about the tapes, which were created in 2002 and destroyed in 2005.

The government has strongly urged against this move, saying it would disrupt a joint Justice Department-CIA investigation into the tapes. In court documents, acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey S. Bucholtz was concerned that Kennedy might order testimony that "could potentially complicate the ongoing efforts to arrive at a full factual understanding of the matter."

A congressional investigation is also underway. The CIA invited Capitol Hill investigators to the agency's Virginia headquarters Thursday to begin reviewing documents and records relating to the videotapes.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Investigators Seek More CIA Tapes

Investigators Seek More CIA Tapes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17494984/17494967" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Intelligence Committee Letters

Read the House Intelligence Committee's requests for information from the CIA director on the destruction of interrogation videotapes:

House Intelligence Committee investigators will be back at CIA headquarters Friday to review documents related to the destruction of videotapes that allegedly show the use of harsh interrogation methods.

The investigators also want to know about some other interrogation videotapes that were made, but not destroyed. The CIA has acknowledged the tapes exist but has offered few details.

The news that the CIA preserved some recordings of detainee interrogations came out several weeks ago but got little attention at the time.

Attorneys for convicted al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui requested testimony from other detainees years ago. In considering that request, a federal judge asked the CIA whether any detainee interrogations had been recorded. CIA officials said no.

Who Made Tapes?

But in October, a prosecuting attorney in the Moussaoui case informed the judge that the CIA declaration was not true. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said the CIA actually had three recordings — two videotapes and an audio tape — of the interrogation of one or more of the witnesses whose testimony Moussaoui's attorneys had sought.

Members of Congress have demanded to know more about the destroyed CIA tapes, but these other interrogation tapes have gotten less attention. Human rights lawyer John Sifton, director of the firm One World Research, said he is surprised.

"It's quite amazing that tapes exist, and there isn't more clamor to know what's on them. The fact is, the tapes are in the possession of the CIA, and that's a big story," Sifton said.

Rosenberg's letter to the judge said the CIA "came into possession of the three recordings under unique circumstances."

Intelligence sources said the cryptic language means the CIA didn't record the interrogations, but were instead made by a foreign government. But which one?

There are a few foreign intelligence services that have collaborated with the CIA in the detention and interrogation of suspected al-Qaida members — sometimes through the practice of rendition, in which detainees are transferred to another country for questioning.

The CIA for example has worked closely with Jordan's General Intelligence Department, known as the GID.

"The CIA handed over a number of people to the GID. It rendered them to the GID, and the GID held those people for varying amounts of time. Some of them were later handed back to the CIA and are now on Guantanamo. There were people who were held even up to 14 months by the GID," said Joanne Mariner, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

CIA officials won't say which government made these other recordings or identify the detainees who were being interrogated, but there are clues.

Tapes Sought by Moussaoui

According to Rosenberg's letter, there were recordings of interrogations in May 2003 — a time when only a few al-Qaida detainees were in custody — and the recordings included detainees whose testimony was sought by Moussaoui.

One detainee who fits all the criteria is Ramzi Binalshibh, a key conspirator in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who was arrested in September 2002. Binalshibh was handed over to a foreign government — believed to be Jordan — for interrogation.

The House Intelligence Committee's investigation into the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes might provide information about these other tapes, which were still in existence as of October.

The CIA is now cooperating with committee investigators. The committee has requested that the agency provide all documents "referring or relating to the making, retention or destruction of any recordings of detainees."