By Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 15, 2007
The Justice Department moved yesterday to delay congressional inquiries into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes, saying the administration could not provide witnesses or documents sought by lawmakers without jeopardizing its own investigation of the CIA's actions.
Congressional leaders from both parties alleged that Justice is trying to block their investigation and vowed to press ahead with hearings.
A pair of letters from Justice and CIA officials to leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees intensified the conflict between the Bush administration and Congress, which is seeking to force current and former CIA leaders to testify as early as next week. The lawmakers want CIA officials to account for the decision to destroy tapes that depicted the use of harsh interrogation tactics on terrorism suspects.
The growing feud is the first major confrontation with Congress for new Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who was narrowly confirmed last month amid controversy over his refusal to describe waterboarding -- a severe interrogation tactic that simulates drowning -- as torture.
"We fully appreciate the committee's oversight interest in this matter, but want to advise you of concerns that actions responsive to your request would represent significant risk to our preliminary inquiry," Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, and CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson wrote in a letter to House intelligence committee leaders.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House intelligence committee issued a joint statement that labels Justice's stance an effort to obstruct the congressional probe.
"We are stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation," Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) and Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said in the statement. "Parallel investigations occur all of the time, and there is no basis upon which the Attorney General can stand in the way of our work."
They vowed to "use all the tools available to Congress, including subpoenas" to compel the CIA to produce documents and require key officials to testify about the tapes.
The exchange followed a letter earlier in the day from Mukasey that rebuffed congressional demands for details about the joint Justice-CIA inquiry into the tapes' destruction and rejected calls for the appointment of an independent prosecutor. Mukasey said that providing the information to Congress would make it appear that the department is "subject to political influence."
"At my confirmation hearing, I testified that I would act independently, resist political pressure and ensure that politics plays no role in cases brought by the Department of Justice," Mukasey wrote in a letter to Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman and ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee.
In recent weeks, lawmakers, primarily Democrats, have showered the Justice Department with demands for investigations or information on topics including baseball's steroids scandal and allegations of rape by a former military contractor employee.
Mukasey replaced Alberto R. Gonzales, who left office in September after the furor over his handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and allegations that he misled Congress in sworn testimony.
The CIA disclosed last week that it destroyed videotapes in 2005 depicting interrogation sessions for alleged al-Qaeda operative Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, commonly known as Abu Zubaida, and another suspect, later identified by officials as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Administration officials have said that lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House, including then-counsel Harriet E. Miers, advised the CIA against destroying the tapes but that CIA lawyers ruled their preservation was not required.
CIA officials said the agency's director, Michael V. Hayden, is prepared to cooperate with all investigators.
"Director Hayden has said the Agency will cooperate fully with both the preliminary inquiry conducted by DOJ and CIA's Office of Inspector General, and with the Congress," agency spokesman Mark Mansfield said. "That has been, and certainly still is, the case."
The Justice Department announced Dec. 8 that it had joined the CIA's inspector general in launching a preliminary inquiry into the tape destruction. Prosecutors asked the CIA to preserve any related evidence.
Leahy and Specter asked Mukasey on Dec. 10 for "a complete account of the Justice Department's own knowledge of and involvement with" the tape destruction. The two senators included a list of 16 separate questions, including whether the Justice Department had offered legal advice to the CIA about the tapes or had communicated with the White House about the issue.
Mukasey wrote to the lawmakers that Justice "has a long-standing policy of declining to provide non-public information about pending matters.
"This policy is based in part on our interest in avoiding any perception that our law enforcement decisions are subject to political influence," Mukasey wrote to lawmakers.
The tape investigation is being led by Wainstein, who held his first substantive meeting on the case Wednesday with the CIA inspector general's office, according to a law enforcement official.
Several Democrats have raised questions about the propriety of an inquiry run by the Justice Department, whose lawyers were involved in offering legal advice about the tapes, and the CIA inspector general, whose office reviewed the tapes before they were destroyed.
Hayden said last week that the inspector general's office examined the tapes in 2003 "as part of its look at the agency's detention and interrogation practices."
Among those whom lawmakers want to testify is the CIA official who made the decision to destroy the tapes, Jose Rodriguez. The former director of clandestine operations has obtained private counsel and is studying his options.
His attorney, Robert Bennett, said: "If I determine that he has a good story, we're going to tell it. But I'm not going to let him be a pi¿ata for people with a political agenda during an election year."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.