WASHINGTON - The CIA in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Al Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody, a step it took in the midst of congressional and legal scrutiny about the CIA's secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.
The videotapes showed CIA operatives in 2002 subjecting terror suspects - including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in CIA custody - to severe interrogation techniques. They were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that tapes documenting controversial interrogation methods could expose agency officials to greater risk of legal jeopardy, several officials said.
The CIA said yesterday that the decision to destroy the tapes had been made "within the CIA itself" and that its purpose was to protect the safety of undercover officers. They said they no longer had intelligence value. The agency was headed at the time by Porter J. Goss.
The existence and subsequent destruction of the tapes is likely to reignite the debate over the use of certain interrogation techniques on terror suspects, and raises questions about whether CIA officials withheld information from the courts and from the Sept. 11 Commission about aspects of the program.
The recordings were not provided to a federal court hearing the case of the terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui or to the Sept. 11 Commission, which had made formal requests to the CIA for transcripts and other documentary evidence taken from interrogations of agency prisoners.
CIA lawyers told federal prosecutors in 2003 and 2005, who relayed the information to a federal court in the Moussaoui case, that the CIA did not possess recordings of interrogations sought by the judge in the case. It was unclear whether the judge had explicitly sought the videotape depicting the interrogation of Zubaydah.
Moussaoui's lawyers had hoped that records of the interrogations might provide exculpatory evidence for Moussaoui - showing that the Al Qaeda detainees did not know Moussaoui and thus clearing him of involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.
Hayden's statement said that the tapes posed a "serious security risk" and that if they were to become public they would have exposed CIA officials "and their families to retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers."
"What matters here is that it was done in line with the law," he said. He said in his statement that he was informing agency employees because "the press has learned" about the destruction of the tapes.
Staff members of the 9/11 commission, which completed its work in 2004, expressed surprise when they were told that interrogation videotapes existed until 2005.
"The commission did formally request material of this kind from all relevant agencies, and the commission was assured that we had received all the material responsive to our request," said Philip D. Zelikow, who served as executive director of the Sept. 11 Commission and later as a senior counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "No tapes were acknowledged or turned over, nor was the commission provided with any transcript prepared from recordings," he said.
Daniel Marcus, a law professor at American University who served as general counsel for the 9/11 commission and was involved in the discussions about interviews with Al Qaeda leaders, said he had heard nothing about any tapes being destroyed. If tapes were destroyed, he said, "it's a big deal, it's a very big deal," because it could amount to obstruction of justice to withhold evidence being sought in criminal or fact-finding investigations.
Hayden said the tapes were originally made to ensure that agency employees acted in accordance with "established legal and policy guidelines."
Hayden said the agency had stopped videotaping interrogations in 2002.
In October, federal prosecutors in the Moussaoui case were forced to write a letter to the court amending those CIA declarations. The letter stated that in September, the CIA notified the US attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., that it had discovered a videotape documenting the interrogation of a detainee. After a more thorough search, the letter stated, CIA officials discovered a second videotape and one audiotape.