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January 4, 2008

CIA hit by criminal probe over destroyed tapes

January 4, 2008

WASHINGTON: The top US law enforcer announced a criminal investigation on Wednesday into the destruction of CIA videotapes that allegedly showed the use of torture during al-Qaeda interrogations.

The announcement by Attorney-General Michael Mukasey deepened the legal swirl engulfing the Central Intelligence Agency, which stands accused also of impeding a high-profile investigation into the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

Mukasey’s Justice Department held a preliminary inquiry after last month’s revelation that the CIA, in 2005, had destroyed tapes of harsh interrogations of two al-Qaeda suspects in the months after the 9/11 attacks.

In a statement, the new attorney-general said he had now concluded “that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter.” “The opening of an investigation does not mean that criminal charges will necessarily follow,” stressed Mukasey, who replaced the hapless Alberto Gonzales as attorney-general in November.

The criminal probe is being led by John Durham, first assistant US attorney in Connecticut, whom Mukasey described as “a widely respected and experienced career prosecutor” who had supervised a wide range of complex investigations.

Durham will lead agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in determining whether the CIA broke any laws in destroying the tapes.

“The CIA will, of course, cooperate fully with this investigation, as it has with the others into this matter,” CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said. The tapes reportedly showed the two suspects undergoing water-boarding, in which prisoners are subjected to a process of simulated drowning that is widely considered torture.

CIA chief Michael Hayden on Dec 6 disclosed the tapes’ existence via a note to agency employees.

The videos were made in 2002 and destroyed in 2005 to protect the identity of agency operatives, Hayden said.

George Tenet was CIA chief when the tapes were

made, and Porter Goss headed the agency when the tapes were destroyed. Hayden also said CIA lawyers had reviewed the material and concluded that they showed “lawful methods of questioning.”

US lawmakers and rights campaigners mocked the explanation for the tape’s destruction, alleging a cover-up to prevent torture being exposed.

Having queried whether Mukasey was independent enough of the White House to open a criminal inquiry, top Democrats welcomed the attorney general’s announcement but said they would press ahead with their own hearings.

“It is essential that the CIA fully cooperate with the criminal probe and with ongoing congressional investigations,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “If anyone responsible for destroying the tapes did so illegally, they must be held accountable.”

Another Democrat, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Mukasey’s decision “shows that many of us were right to be concerned with possible obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress.” The White House has insisted that the United States does not torture anyone, but refused to confirm what tactics might have been used to prise information out of reluctant detainees.

Meanwhile, lawyers for inmates at the “war on terror” detainment camp at Guantanamo Bay say the CIA has violated a judge’s 2005 order to preserve any possible evidence of detainee mistreatment at the facility in Cuba.

“Where there is smoke there is fire. We have a smoking gun, as it were, with respect to the government’s destruction of potentially relevant evidence,” defence lawyer David Remes said at a court hearing last month. Intensifying the controversy, the CIA on Wednesday rejected criticism from the co-chairmen of the blue-ribbon 9/11 Commission after they accused the agency of obstructed their investigation by withholding sensitive information.

Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton wrote in The New York Times that the revelations about the videotapes “leads us to conclude that the agency failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot.”

“Those who knew about those videotapes — and did not tell us about them — obstructed our investigation.” In a statement, the CIA retorted that it was “simply wrong” to state that the agency had obstructed the 9/11 Commission.

“And it is disappointing that those who praised CIA publicly for its cooperation with the Commission several years ago now choose to criticise the Agency for not being forthcoming,” it said.