WASHINGTON - The Justice Department yesterday moved to consolidate control over the investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes, saying that neither it nor the intelligence agency would cooperate with congressional inquiries into the matter.
The moves angered members of Congress, who said the department was obstructing legitimate legislative oversight. Justice and CIA officials said in correspondence with congressional leaders that turning over information at this point could make the inquiry vulnerable to political pressures.
The decision to withhold evidence effectively puts the congressional inquiries on hold and also points up the seriousness of the week-old investigation, which is being conducted jointly by the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general. Officials for the first time raised the possibility that the investigation could result in criminal charges.
"While we make no prediction at this early stage about where our inquiry might lead, the possibilities include criminal law enforcement action, as well as civil and administrative remedies," said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein and John L. Helgerson, the CIA inspector, in a letter to House Intelligence Committee leaders.
Calling on the committee to "defer" its investigation, Wainstein and Helgerson said "actions responsive to your requests would present significant risks to our preliminary investigation."
They said they were concerned about the committee interviewing personnel from the CIA inspector general office because the Justice Department had determined that "they are potential witnesses in the matter under our inquiry."
Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the committee's top Republican, said they were "stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation."
"It's clear that there's more to this story than we have been told," Reyes and Hoekstra said in a statement. "The executive branch can't be trusted to oversee itself."
On Thursday, Reyes and Hoekstra sent a letter to CIA Director Michael V. Hayden asking for relevant records including "all cables referring or related to the making, retention or destruction of videotapes of detainees." The letter gave the CIA until yesterday evening to comply.
A CIA spokesman said the agency intends to cooperate with Congress. "Director Hayden has said the agency will cooperate fully with both the preliminary inquiry conducted by the Department of Justice and CIA's inspector general, and to the Congress," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said. "That has been and certainly will be the case."
But a senior US intelligence official said the CIA would not ignore the instructions from the Department of Justice and might have to delay delivery of documents and witnesses to congressional investigators until the Justice inquiry is completed.
"If the Department of Justice says, 'We want to see these documents before anybody else sees them,' CIA will comply," said the senior US intelligence official.
The Justice Department had no comment yesterday beyond releasing letters on the investigation. The department also informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that it would not answer questions about the probe from that panel.
"The department has a long-standing policy of declining to provide nonpublic information about pending matters," Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said in a letter to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee.