The CIA videotaped its interrogations of two top al-Qaeda suspects in 2002 and destroyed the tapes three years later out of fear they would leak to the public and compromise the identities of U.S. questioners, the director of the agency told employees Thursday.
The disclosure brought immediate condemnation from Capitol Hill and from a human rights group which charged the spy agency's action amounted to criminal destruction of evidence.
The Senate Intelligence Committee promised a full review of the situation.
CIA Director Michael Hayden said the CIA began taping the interrogations as an internal check on the program after President George W. Bush authorized the use of harsh questioning methods. The methods included waterboarding, which simulates drowning, government officials said.
"The Agency was determined that it proceed in accord with established legal and policy guidelines. So, on its own, CIA began to videotape interrogations," Hayden said in a written message to CIA employees, obtained by the Associated Press.
The CIA decided to destroy the tapes in "the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them," Hayden wrote. He said the tapes were destroyed only after it was determined "they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries."
"The tapes posed a serious security risk," Hayden wrote.
"Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and its sympathizers."
Hayden said House and Senate intelligence committee leaders were informed of the existence of the tapes and the CIA's intention to destroy them. He also said the CIA's internal watchdog watched the tapes in 2003 and verified that the interrogation practices were legal.
'A bad idea'
Rep. Jane Harman of California, then the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was one of only four members of Congress in 2003 informed of the tapes' existence and the CIA's intention to ultimately destroy them.
"I told the CIA that destroying videotapes of interrogations was a bad idea and urged them in writing not to do it," Harman said.
While key lawmakers were briefed on the CIA's intention to destroy the tapes, they were not notified two years later when the spy agency went through with the plan.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller said the committee only learned of the tapes' destruction in November 2006.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from August 2004 until the end of 2006, said through a spokesman that he doesn't remember being informed of the videotaping program.
"Congressman Hoekstra does not recall ever being told of the existence or destruction of these tapes," said Jamal D. Ware, senior adviser to the committee. "He believes that [director] Hayden is being generous in his claim that the committee was informed. He believes the committee should have been fully briefed and consulted on how this was handled."
Jennifer Daskal, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch, said destroying the tapes was illegal.
"Basically this is destruction of evidence," she said, calling Hayden's explanation that the tapes were destroyed to protect CIA identities "disingenuous."
The CIA only taped the interrogation of the first two suspects the agency held, one of whom was Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah, under harsh questioning, told CIA interrogators about alleged 9/11 accomplice Ramzi Binalshibh, Bush said in 2006.
Binalshibh was captured and interrogated and, with Zubaydah's information, led to the capture in 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the purported mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Hayden said a secondary reason for the taped interrogations was to have backup documentation of the information gathered.
"The Agency soon determined that its documentary reporting was full and exacting, removing any need for tapes. Indeed, videotaping stopped in 2002," Hayden said.
The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners since the Sept. 11attacks, but not since 2003. Hayden banned the use of the procedure in 2006, according to knowledgeable officials.
The CIA says the tapes were destroyed late in 2005, a year marked by increasing pressure from defence attorneys to obtain videotapes of detainee interrogations. The scandal over harsh treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had focused public attention on interrogation techniques.