CIA in 2003 Planned Destruction of Tapes

Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed an outside prosecutor Wednesday to lead a criminal investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes. (Jan. 2) Video by AP
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

A key member of Congress disclosed yesterday that the CIA said in February 2003 that it planned to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogations after the agency's inspector general finished probing the episodes, an account that adds detail to recent CIA statements about the circumstances surrounding the tapes' destruction.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) released a declassified copy of a letter she secretly wrote to the CIA in February 2003, in which she quoted then-CIA General Counsel Scott W. Muller as telling her a tape of the agency's interrogation of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, "will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry." The CIA yesterday confirmed Harman's account of Muller's statement.

Harman at that time had recently become the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, and in her letter she urged Muller to "reconsider" that plan and predicted that the tapes' destruction "would reflect badly on the agency." Agency officials nonetheless destroyed the tapes in 2005, and on Wednesday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey ordered a formal criminal probe into the destruction.

In recent public accounts about the tapes, CIA officials have said that no definitive decision was made about destroying the tapes until 2005. Beginning in early 2003, senior officials expressed an "intention to dispose" of the videos, according to a Dec. 6 statement by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden. But an internal debate over the tapes' disposition continued for two more years, with senior CIA lawyers advising against their destruction.

According to several senior intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is under criminal investigation, the videotaping at issue was conducted at secret CIA detention sites overseas with the approval of CIA headquarters. The interrogations got underway after the administration in August 2002 authorized what Muller described in a Feb. 28, 2003, letter to Harman as a "handful of specially approved interrogation techniques."

"As we informed both you and the leadership of the Intelligence Committees last September, a number of Executive branch lawyers including lawyers from the Department of Justice participated in a determination that, in the appropriate circumstances, use of these techniques is fully consistent with US law," Muller wrote.

By that time, videotaping of Abu Zubaida and a second terrorism suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, had stopped and CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson was just beginning his inquiry.

The video of Abu Zubaida's interrogation, according to a former CIA official familiar with the situation, was meant to show "that the interrogators stayed within the guidelines and they didn't do anything to him that could lead to his death."

Helgerson, in a statement released Wednesday, said he and his staff reviewed the tapes as part of their inquiry, which ended in May 2004.

Harman's recommendation to Muller that the tapes not be destroyed was reported earlier. In her letter, she said: "Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law, the videotape would be the best proof that the written record is accurate, if such record is called into question in the future." In a telephone interview, Harman said she never received a direct reply.

In his letter to Harman, Muller did not respond to Harman's direct request for information about whether President Bush had authorized and approved the harsh interrogation techniques, saying in his letter to her that it was "not appropriate for me to comment on issues that are a matter of policy, much less the nature and extent of Executive Branch policy deliberations."

Muller, reached by e-mail, declined to comment yesterday on the letters or on any other aspect of the CIA's handling of the tapes. Other officials have said Muller did not disagree with Harman and counseled colleagues not to destroy the tapes.

Harsh interrogation techniques, including a form of simulated drowning known as waterboarding, were used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the prime architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, after he was captured in March 2003. But, according to present and former intelligence officials, that technique was no longer needed or used after August 2003.

Helgerson concluded in his May 2004 report that the interrogations might violate international law, and he recommended changes in the treatment and handling of detainees. The tapes were eventually destroyed, CIA officials have said, at the instruction of then-CIA Deputy Director for Operations Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., after Muller had left the CIA.

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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