House Panel Criticizes CIA Tape Destruction

By Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 2008

The CIA's destruction of videotapes containing harsh interrogations of detainees at secret prisons drew bipartisan criticism from House lawmakers who attended a closed hearing yesterday at which the agency's acting general counsel testified about the matter.

Intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) said afterward that he remained convinced that the CIA did not meet its obligation to fully inform congressional overseers about the tapes and their destruction. He called the failure "unacceptable."

Reyes said that John A. Rizzo, the CIA's acting general counsel, answered all questions, provided "highly detailed" responses and "walked the committee through the entire matter, dating back to 2002."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the panel's ranking Republican and former chairman, said Rizzo suggested that Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the CIA's head of clandestine services, acted on his own authority in November 2005 when he ordered that the tapes be destroyed. "It appears from what we have seen to date that Rodriguez may not have been following instructions" when he ordered the destruction, Hoekstra said.

"There was a long debate about what should be done, and all indications are that Rodriguez should have halted when he gave the go-ahead," he added.

Two of those at the hearing said that Rizzo said that after the tapes were made in 2002, lawyers at the CIA discussed the possibility that the FBI and the 9/11 Commission might want to see them. But the agency did not disclose the existence of the tapes to either before destroying them in 2005, a decision that commission members have criticized.

"It smells like a coverup, but the question is whether it was illegal or not," said one of the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because those in attendance were pledged to secrecy about the session. The CIA has said it fulfilled its obligations by disclosing the existence of the tapes to only a few select members of Congress.

Rizzo, who was a deputy CIA counsel when the tapes were made and became the acting counsel in 2005, participated in the agency's three-year debate over what to do with the tapes. The videos contained the interrogations of two senior al-Qaeda leaders at a secret CIA prison in Thailand and included a technique known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

Some current and former federal officials have described waterboarding as torture. It has been outlawed by the military and prosecuted by the U.S. government as a criminal offense since the 1940s.

The Justice Department has begun a separate investigation of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the tapes.

Rizzo declined to discuss his testimony after the hearing. "I told the truth," he said.

One of the two sources present said that White House officials did not seem as involved "as they might have or should have been" in 2005 decision making about the tapes. At least five senior U.S. officials had advised the CIA not to destroy them.

The committee deferred Rodriguez's testimony after his lawyer said that Rodriguez would not answer questions. The lawyer, Robert Bennett, has said that his client ordered the destruction after determining from agency lawyers that it was not illegal to do so.

Separately yesterday, a federal judge in Manhattan said he would privately review classified administration documents related to interrogation methods and to the CIA's secret prison system.

Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York said he will determine whether the material was properly classified or whether it should be released under a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, said Rachel Myers, an ACLU spokeswoman who attended the hearing.

Among the documents sought by the group are Justice Department memos authorizing harsh interrogation methods, a presidential order establishing the CIA prisons and documents relating to the CIA's internal investigations of prisoner abuse. Hellerstein scheduled a separate hearing for Wednesday, Myers said, to consider an ACLU request to hold the CIA in contempt of court for destroying the tapes.

Staff writer Dafna Linzer in New York contributed to this report.

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