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Hayden: Interrogation tapes ‘before my time’

CIA Director Michael Hayden testifies on Capitol Hill about the creation and subsequent destruction of suspect interrogation tapes.
CIA Videotapes
CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden's claim that Congress was properly notified about the destruction of a CIA interrogation videotape is being questioned by at least one member of Congress.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: news services

CIA Director Michael Hayden's explanation Tuesday of how videotapes of terror suspect interrogations were made, then destroyed, left many questions unanswered, said Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller.

The West Virginia Democrat called his panel's 90-minute closed-door session with Hayden "a useful and not yet complete hearing" and vowed the committee would get to the bottom of the matter. Among lingering questions: who authorized destruction of the tapes, and why Congress wasn't told about it.

Hayden told reporters afterwards that because the tapes were made under one of his predecessors, and were destroyed under another, he wasn't able to completely answer all questions.

"The taping was done under Director Tenet. Destroyed under Director Goss--before my time. There are other people in the agency who know about his far better than I, and I committed them to come on down and answer all the questions the committee might have."

Hayden also said he laid out the facts as best he knew them before the panel, including why the CIA taped the interrogations and why the tapes were destroyed.

The hearing came as a former CIA agent who was part of the interrogation team went public with his account, saying the waterboarding of a top al-Qaida figure was approved at the top levels of the U.S. government.

CIA Videotapes
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., right, accompanied by the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007, following a closed-door briefing by Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden on the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes.Susan Walsh / AP

According to the former agent, waterboarding of terror suspect Abu Zubaydah got him to talk in less than 35 seconds. The technique, which critics say is torture, probably disrupted "dozens" of planned al-Qaida attacks, said John Kiriakou, a leader of the team that captured Zubaydah, a major al-Qaida figure.

Kiriakou did not explain how he knew who approved the interrogation technique but said such approval comes from top officials.

"This isn't something done willy nilly. This isn't something where an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner," he said Tuesday in a round of television news show appearances. "This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department."

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said the CIA interrogation program approved by the president is safe, tough, effective and legal. But she said that Hayden will not "talk about techniques and explain to the enemy what we are doing" during two days of questioning before closed sessions of the Senate and House intelligence panels.

"It's no secret that the president approved a lawful program in order to interrogate hardened terrorists," Perino said. "We do not torture. We also know that this program has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks."

Kiriakou said that each time CIA agents wished to use waterboarding or any other harsh interrogation technique, they had to present a "well-laid out, well-thought out reason" to top government officials. In Zubaydah's case, Kiriakou said the waterboarding had immediate effect.

"The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," Kiriakou said in an interview first broadcast Monday evening on ABC News' World News. "From that day on, he answered every question. The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee taken by the CIA in 2002, is now being held with other detainees at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He told his interrogators about alleged 9/11 accomplice Ramzi Binalshibh, and the two men's confessions also led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom the U.S. government said was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As to the CIA videotapes, President Bush said he didn't know about the tapes or their destruction until last week. "My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when Michael Hayden briefed me," Bush said in an interview Tuesday with ABC News. "There's a preliminary inquiry going on and I think you'll find that a lot more data, facts will be coming out," the president said. "That's good. It will be interesting to know what the true facts are."

Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.

The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners --Zubaydah, Khalid Sheik Muhammed, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whom the U.S. government says coordinated the 2002 attack on the USS Cole. The CIA has not used the technique since 2003, according to a government official familiar with the program. Hayden prohibited waterboarding in 2006. The U.S. military outlawed it the same year.

In an interview with the Washington Post,Kiriakou said he now has mixed feelings about the use of waterboarding. He said that he thinks the technique provided a crucial break to the CIA and probably helped prevent attacks, but that he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture, and "Americans are better than that."

"Maybe that's inconsistent, but that's how I feel," he told the paper. "It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we've moved beyond that."

Hayden told CIA employees last week that the CIA taped the interrogations of two alleged terrorists in 2002. He said the harsh questioning was carried out only after being "reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice and by other elements of the Executive Branch." Hayden said Congress was notified in 2003 both of the tapes' existence and the agency's intent to destroy them.

The CIA destroyed the tapes in November of 2005. Exactly when Congress was notified and in what detail is in dispute.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the CIA claims it told the committee of the tapes' destruction at a hearing in November 2006. Rockefeller said, however, that the hearing transcript found no mention of that subject. The House committee first learned the tapes had been destroyed in March 2007, according to Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

The Justice Department and CIA's independent internal watchdog have begun a preliminary inquiry into the destruction of the tapes. The review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted, Mukasey said. He promised an objective review.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, who is heading the inquiry, "is going to go where the facts lead him," Mukasey said at a news conference. "If the law leads him someplace we are going to go there too."

Mukasey told reporters he has not determined whether waterboarding is torture, an issue that jeopardized his confirmation by the Senate last month. He said he is reviewing the Bush administration's legal opinions that underpin the CIA interrogation and detention program to determine if they are sound, and if so, whether the CIA's interrogation program conforms with them.

Mukasey declined to speculate whether an independent prosecutor would be needed to get to the bottom of the matter, calling that "the most hypothetical of hypotheticals."

NBC's Ken Strickland contributed to this report.