WASHINGTON — The Justice Department and the CIA's Office of the Inspector General said Saturday that they had launched a joint inquiry into the CIA's controversial destruction of videotaped interrogations of two Al Qaeda suspects. The preliminary inquiry would be a first step in determining whether a full investigation and potential criminal charges were warranted.
The probe had been under discussion since shortly after CIA Director Michael V. Hayden disclosed Thursday that CIA officials had made the videotapes in 2002 and destroyed them three years later. The Justice Department has asked for an initial meeting with the CIA's legal staff and inspector general, John L. Helgerson, early this week.
"I welcome this inquiry, and the CIA will cooperate fully," Hayden said Saturday in a statement. "I welcome it as an opportunity to address questions that have arisen over the destruction back in 2005 of videotapes."
Hayden's disclosure, made in a letter to employees, has caused an uproar in Congress and among some human rights advocates and defense lawyers. Many have called for investigations, charging that the agency lied about the tapes' existence and then destroyed them to cover up evidence of extremely harsh, possibly illegal interrogations.
One staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaking on condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing, said the CIA's actions could amount to obstruction of justice and false testimony to Congress -- both federal crimes -- because the agency did not turn over requested interrogation tapes to the congressionally appointed Sept. 11 commission.
The CIA has agreed to "preserve any records or other documentation that would facilitate this inquiry," Asst. Atty. Gen. Kenneth L. Wainstein, head of the Justice Department's national security division, said in a letter Saturday to the CIA's acting general counsel, John A. Rizzo.
At least one member of Congress and, reportedly, a senior White House official claim to have told the CIA to preserve the tapes before they were destroyed.
"Everybody from the top on down told them not to do it and still they went ahead and did it anyway," a senior U.S. official familiar with the internal discussions said Saturday. The fact that the tapes were destroyed despite those warnings figures prominently in the inquiry, the official said.
The decision to destroy the tapes was reportedly made by the head of the CIA's clandestine operations at the time, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.
Democratic leaders demanded Friday that Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey order a full Justice Department probe. It was unclear Saturday what role Mukasey played in the launching of the inquiry.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said Saturday that the inquiry would be "an important first test for Atty. Gen. Mukasey." He said his committee would begin its own probe, also reviewing "what was depicted on the tapes -- the interrogation practices that were authorized at the highest levels of government."
The Senate Intelligence Committee has announced an inquiry as well.
The White House said Saturday that it supported the Justice-CIA inquiry.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said he could not comment on any aspect of the inquiry except to say it would focus foremost on the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the tapes.
"We are just beginning and gathering the initial facts," he said.
In Hayden's letter to employees Thursday, the CIA director implied that one of the videotaped interrogations was of Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al Qaeda lieutenant captured in Pakistan in March 2002. The second suspect was identified Saturday as Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a suspected mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen.
A U.S. intelligence official said Saturday that the CIA did not videotape the interrogations of any other suspected senior Al Qaeda operatives. The practice was discontinued sometime in 2002.
Hayden's letter said the sessions were taped for the legal protection of interrogators using harsh new procedures to get Zubaydah and other defiant prisoners to talk.
Hayden also said that the Office of the Inspector General examined the tapes in 2003 "as part of its look at the agency's detention and interrogation practices," but he did not say whether the office approved of what was on the tapes.
And Hayden said that the existence of the tapes was disclosed to congressional oversight committees "years ago," and that the agency later notified the panels of the tapes' destruction.
They were destroyed, he said, out of concern that the tapes would leak someday and reveal the identities of interrogators. And they were destroyed only after the agency concluded the tapes were "not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries," he said.