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Congress wants answers on destroyed CIA tapes

White House lawyers have advised President Bush's spokeswoman not to answer specific questions about why the CIA destroyed recordings of terror suspects under interrogation.
CIA Videotapes
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has a number of questions about destroyed CIA interrogation tapes.Karin Cooper / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

White House lawyers have advised President Bush's spokeswoman not to answer specific questions about why the CIA destroyed tapes of terror suspects under interrogation, as Congress seeks answers about the matter.

The Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog are conducting a joint inquiry into the spy agency's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two suspected terrorists, to determine whether a full investigation is warranted. With that review ongoing, the White House counsel's office has instructed Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, not to get into details with reporters.

"I think that that's appropriate, and I'll adhere to it," Perino said Monday. She said her previous statement remains accurate - that Bush has no recollection of hearing about the tapes' existence or their destruction before being briefed about it last Thursday.

Court hearing requested
The White House typically stops commenting - beyond broad talking points - once an inquiry into a controversial matter is under way. When a reporter asked about another White House "wall of silence," Perino told the media in her morning briefing: "I can see where that cynicism that usually drifts from this room could come up in this regard. What I can tell you is I try my best to get you as much information as I can."

White House employees have been directed by the counsel's office to preserve all documents and e-mails related to the matter, Perino said.

Attorneys for one detainee say the destruction of the tapes may have violated a court order and have asked a federal judge to hold a hearing. In a court filing, attorneys for Yemeni national Mahmoad Abdah point to a June 10, 2005 court order telling the government to "preserve and maintain all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees."

A hearing on the tapes has not yet been set.

Skepticism and cynicism
Congressional leaders are pressing to find out who knew what about the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotape and whether justice was obstructed in the process. Politicians in both parties and in the presidential campaign said inquiries must get to the bottom of the matter and questioned if anyone in the White House knew what was happening. But there appears to be little support for appointment of a special prosecutor.

Democrats and some Republicans expressed skepticism about CIA claims that tapes of the questioning of two terrorism suspects were destroyed only to protect the identity of the interrogators.

"The actions, I think, were absolutely wrong," Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a victim of torture while a war prisoner in Vietnam, said Sunday. "There will be skepticism and cynicism all over the world about how we treat prisoners and whether we practice torture or not."

A call for special counsel
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday she has no memory of the CIA videotapes.

"First of all, I think my take is that, well, this is an internal matter for the CIA," Rice said. "I was secretary of state in 2005, indeed, and I can tell you that I myself don't recollect any knowledge of the tapes." She refused further comment, citing a Department of Justice investigation. GOP presidential rival Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, questioned whether the CIA destroyed the tape for security purposes as claimed "or to cover somebody's rear end."

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democratic presidential candidate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a special counsel. "I just think it's clearer and crisper and everyone will know what the truth is," he said.

That view was not shared by fellow Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, or a number of other prominent Democrats.

"I don't think there's a need for a special counsel, and I don't think there's a need for a special commission," Rockefeller said. "It is the job of the intelligence committees to do that."

Who knew what, when
The spy agency destroyed the tapes in November 2005, at a time when human rights groups and lawyers for detainees were clamoring for information about the agency's secret detention and interrogation program, and Congress and U.S. courts were debating whether "enhanced interrogation" crossed the line into torture.

Rockefeller, citing the confidentiality of certain intelligence briefings, said he could not comment on the existence of any other interrogation tapes. He said CIA Director Michael Hayden would appear before his committee Tuesday.

Biden cited Attorney General Michael Mukasey's refusal during confirmation hearings to describe waterboarding as torture as a reason to appoint an independent counsel.

"He's the same guy who couldn't decide whether or not waterboarding was torture and he's going to be doing this investigation," said Biden.

Hayden told CIA employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would leak and reveal the identities of interrogators.

Biden spoke on "This Week" on ABC; Rockefeller appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS; McCain and Huckabee on "Fox News Sunday."