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Congress Calls for Hearings About CIA Tapes

It was the second bombshell of the week from the U.S. intelligence community: The CIA acknowledged that in 2005, it destroyed two videotapes showing harsh interrogation techniques used against al-Qaida suspects.

The CIA director told agency employees about it Thursday as the New York Times was about to break the story. On Friday, lawmakers in Washington called for an investigation, and civil rights groups said the government may have destroyed key evidence for ongoing terrorism cases.

The saga of the destroyed videotapes begins in 2002 at an undisclosed detention center. That's where the CIA videotaped its agents interrogating two al-Qaida suspects, including Abu Zubaydah. He's suspected of being an al-Qaida recruiter and an organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks. The interrogators used techniques believed to have included waterboarding.

The following year, in a classified briefing, the CIA told three top members of the House and Senate intelligence committees about the interrogation tapes. But the CIA never told the 9/11 Commission that the tapes existed, even though that panel had asked for everything relevant to its probe.

In 2005, lawyers for suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui formally requested transcripts of CIA interrogation sessions, but they were never told about the tapes. Then, sometime that same year, both tapes were destroyed on orders from the head of the CIA's clandestine service.

CIA Director Michael Hayden says that Congress was told in advance that the tapes would be destroyed, but only Thursday did he reveal their fate publicly.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday that that's when President Bush found out about the tapes.

"He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday," Perino said. "He was briefed by Gen. Hayden yesterday morning."

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill defended the CIA Friday.

"There is nothing inherently sinister about it," said Christopher Bond of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.

The chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), contradicted Hayden's contention that Congress had been told that the tapes would be destroyed.

"They destroyed it without letting us know, without asking our permission, without asking consulting, without informing us in any way, and they just did what the CIA likes to do," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller told NPR that he's inclined to have his committee begin an investigation. The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, called for a Justice Department probe.

"Today I'll be sending a letter to Attorney General [Michael] Mukasey, calling on him for an official investigation of whether there was destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice in the destruction of these videotapes on the interrogation of detainees," he said. "This is not an issue that can be ignored."

Democrats on the House Judiciary panel sent their own letter Friday to the CIA director, demanding explanations.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.