A federal judge said Thursday that CIA interrogation videotapes may have been relevant to his court case and he gave the Bush administration three weeks to explain why they were destroyed in 2005 and say whether other evidence was also destroyed.
Several judges are considering wading into the dispute over the videos, but U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts was the first to order the administration to provide a written report on the matter.
The tapes showed harsh interrogation tactics used by CIA officers questioning al-Qaida suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2002. The Justice Department and Congress are investigating the destruction of the tapes.
When they were destroyed, the government was under various court orders to retain evidence relevant to terrorism suspects at U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After it became public in December that the tapes had been destroyed, lawyers for several detainees went to court demanding to know more.
The Justice Department has urged judges not to get involved, saying the criminal investigation could be jeopardized. U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, the first judge to consider the question, held a public hearing but agreed not to hear evidence in the case.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in New York said destroying the tapes appeared to have violated his order, in a case involving the American Civil Liberties Union. But U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein has not yet said how he will rule.
Roberts issued a three-page ruling late Thursday siding with lawyers for a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The judge said the lawyers had made a preliminary "showing that information obtained from Abu Zubaydah" was relevant to the detainee's lawsuit and should not have been destroyed.
Roberts said he wants a report by Feb. 14 explaining what the government has done to preserve evidence since his July 2005 court order, what it is doing now and whether any other potentially relevant evidence has been destroyed.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd had no comment, and lawyers in the case did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
David Remes, an attorney in a similar case who unsuccessfully sought information about the videotapes, praised the ruling.
"It was only a matter of time before a court ordered the government to account for its handling — or mishandling — of evidence in these cases," Remes said.