January 3, 2008 in Nation/World

CIA tape destruction under probe

Richard B. Schmitt Los Angeles Times
File Associated Press photo

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, seen in this 2006 photo, has a reputation as a relentless prosecutor. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department said Wednesday that it had opened a full investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing in the CIA’s destruction in 2005 of videotaped interrogations of terrorism suspects.

Signaling resolve to get to the bottom of a case that has touched off a political and legal firestorm, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced that he was appointing a mob-busting prosecutor from Connecticut with experience at rooting out official misconduct to oversee the investigation. The unusual move means that the U.S. attorney’s office in Virginia, which normally handles CIA investigations, will play no role in the case.

Although the opening of an investigation does not mean that criminal charges will necessarily follow, it does raise the stakes for the agency and its employees who were involved in or had knowledge of the tapes and how they were handled internally.

Heading the investigation will be John H. Durham, an assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut for more than 25 years who is known as one of the government’s most relentless prosecutors. Durham has prosecuted an array of mobsters and political figures, including former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland.

CIA director Michael Hayden acknowledged last month that his agency had destroyed videotaped interrogations of two al-Qaida operatives in late 2005. The tapes included footage of harsh interrogation methods that had been the subject of intense public and congressional debate.

In the wake of the disclosures, the Justice Department and the CIA Office of the Inspector General began a preliminary inquiry to see whether there was evidence of potential criminal activity.

“The department’s National Security division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter, and I have taken steps to begin that investigation,” Mukasey said Wednesday.

The attorney general did not elaborate on what evidence the department turned up or what potential violations of law were being explored. But the destruction of evidence pertinent to an ongoing congressional or judicial proceeding could be considered obstruction of justice.

“The attorney general’s announcement … shows that many of us were right to be concerned with possible obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency would “of course cooperate fully with this investigation, as it has with the others into this matter.”

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