WASHINGTON - The Justice Department and CIA yesterday announced a joint inquiry into the spy agency's destruction of videotapes of interrogations of two suspected terrorists.
The review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.
"I welcome this inquiry, and the CIA will cooperate fully," CIA Director Michael Hayden said in a statement. "I welcome it as an opportunity to address questions that have arisen over the destruction back in 2005 of videotapes."
Hayden told agency employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would be leaked, revealing the identities of interrogators.
He said the sessions were videotaped to provide an added layer of legal protection for interrogators using new, harsh methods authorized by President Bush as a way to break down the defenses of recalcitrant prisoners.
The CIA's acting general counsel, John Rizzo, is preserving all remaining records related to the videotapes and their destruction, according to Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general.
Justice Department officials, lawyers from the CIA general counsel's office, and the CIA inspector general will meet early this week to begin the preliminary inquiry, Wainstein wrote Rizzo yesterday.
"I understand that your office has already reviewed the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the videotapes, as well as the existence of any pending relevant investigations or other preservation obligations at the time the destruction occurred.
"As a first step in our inquiry, I ask that you provide us the substance of that review at the meeting," Wainstein wrote.
The White House had no immediate comment on the decision. On Friday, Dana Perino, presidential spokeswoman, said that "of course the White House would support" the attorney general, Michael Mukasey, if he decided to investigate.
On Friday, angry congressional Democrats demanded that the Justice Department investigate. Some accused the CIA of a cover-up and described the CIA's explanation as "a pathetic excuse."
The House and Senate Intelligence committees are beginning their own inquiries.
The tapes were destroyed at a time of national debate over interrogation practices involving suspected terrorists.
Not long after, Congress passed legislation that prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of all US detainees, including those in CIA custody.
Also at that time, the Senate committee was trying to determine if CIA interrogators were complying with interrogation guidelines.
The CIA refused twice in 2005 to provide the committee with its general counsel's report on the tapes, according to the current chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia.
The treatment of detainees is an issue that has been presented to the Supreme Court. In October 2005, the court heard a case involving the legal rights of detainees held at the Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It decided in June 2006 that Al Qaeda prisoners are protected by the Geneva Convention's prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment.
At the time, the CIA also was concerned that its operatives involved in interrogations might be subject to legal charges over the treatment of detainees.
The decision to destroy the tapes was made by Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the CIA's clandestine directorate of operations under CIA Director Porter Goss. Neither Rodriguez or Goss works at the agency today.