WASHINGTON - White House and Justice Department officials, along with senior members of Congress, advised the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 against a plan to destroy hundreds of hours of videotapes showing the interrogation of two operatives of Al Qaeda, government officials said yesterday.
The chief of the agencys clandestine service nevertheless ordered their destruction in 2005, taking the step without notifying the CIA's top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, who was angry at the decision, the officials said.
In response to the warnings, the CIA had decided in 2003 to preserve the tapes. But Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former head of the clandestine service, reversed the decision in November 2005 at a time when Congress and the courts were inquiring deeply into the CIA's interrogation and detention program. Rodriguez retired from the agency this year.
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter J. Goss, former Republican representative from Florida, was among the congressional leaders who warned against destruction of the tapes. Goss became director of central intelligence in 2004, but was not informed in advance about Rodriguez's decision, former intelligence officials said.
The CIA yesterday faced the threat of obstruction-of-justice investigations from the Justice Department and congressional committees over the destruction of the tapes.
The Justice Department said it would review calls for a formal inquiry, while the House and Senate intelligence committees said they were opening investigations into the episode, which Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia and chairman of the Senate panel, called "extremely disturbing."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, accused the CIA of a coverup. "We haven't seen anything like this since the 18 1/2-minute gap in the tapes of President Richard Nixon," he said in a Senate floor speech.
Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said yesterday that President Bush "has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction" before this week. She added that the CIA and the White House counsel's office were reviewing the facts and would cooperate with any Justice Department inquiry.
The pressure for a full investigation into the handling of the tapes puts Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in a difficult position early in his tenure because of the questions that arose at his confirmation hearings in October about his views on harsh CIA interrogation tactics.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups called yesterday for the appointment of an outside counsel to examine possible criminal acts by the CIA, arguing that the Justice Department had proved unable in the past to adequately investigate assertions of prisoner abuse against the administration.
The tapes, which showed severe interrogation methods against two Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were made in 2002 and destroyed in 2005, the CIA acknowledged this week after being questioned about the issue by The New York Times. The agency said the tapes were destroyed in part to protect the identities of the interrogators.
The former chairmen of the Sept. 11 commission, who said the CIA assured them repeatedly during their inquiry that no original material existed from its interrogations of Qaeda figures, said they were furious to learn about the tapes. The CIA indicated that the Sept. 11 commission never specifically asked for any tape recordings of prisoner interrogations.
But in separate interviews, the 9/11 commission cochairmen - Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former US representative - said they made clear in hours of negotiations and discussions with the CIA, as well as in written requests, that they wanted all material connected to interrogations of Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody in order to get a complete understanding of the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks for their 2004 report. The commission ended up getting summaries of interrogation reports and was able to forward questions for CIA officers to ask the prisoners.
"Did they obstruct our inquiry? The answer is clearly yes. Whether that amounts to a crime, others will have to judge," Hamilton said.
The Justice Department said it was reviewing the requests from Congress for a full investigation but that it had not moved ahead. A senior Justice Department official, who spoke about internal deliberations on condition of anonymity, suggested that the department would probably wait for a referral from the CIA inspector general before opening a formal inquiry.