A United States federal judge said Thursday that CIA interrogation videotapes may have been relevant to his court case, and he gave the Bush administration three weeks to say why they were destroyed in 2005 and whether other evidence was destroyed.
Several judges are considering wading into the dispute over the videos, but U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts was the first to order the administration to provide a written report on the matter.
The decision is a legal setback for the Bush administration, which has urged courts not to get involved.
The tapes showed harsh interrogation tactics used by CIA officers questioning al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2002. The Justice Department and Congress are investigating the destruction of the tapes.
When they were destroyed, the government was under various court orders to retain evidence relevant to terrorism suspects at the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including one issued by Roberts. After it became known in December that the tapes had been destroyed, lawyers for several detainees went to court demanding to know more.
"There's enough there that it's worth asking" whether other videos or documents were also destroyed, said attorney Charles Carpenter, who represents Guantanamo Bay detainee Hani Abdullah. "I don't know the answer to that question, but the government does know the answer and now they have to tell Judge Roberts."
The Justice Department has warned that a judicial inquiry could jeopardize the criminal investigation. U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy, the first judge to consider what to do about the destruction of the tapes, agreed after a public hearing not to hear evidence in the case.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York said the destruction of the tapes appeared to have violated his order in a case involving the American Civil Liberties Union, but he has not yet said how he will rule.
Roberts issued a three-page ruling late Thursday siding with Carpenter, who represents Guantanamo Bay detainee Hani Abdullah.
The judge said the lawyers had made a preliminary "showing that information obtained from Abu Zubaydah" was relevant to the detainee's lawsuit and should not have been destroyed.
Roberts said he wants a report by Feb. 14 explaining what the government has done to preserve evidence since his July 2005 court order, what it is doing now and whether any other potentially relevant evidence has been destroyed.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd had no comment.
David Remes, an attorney in a similar case who unsuccessfully sought information about the videotapes, praised the ruling.
"It was only a matter of time before a court ordered the government to account for its handling — or mishandling — of evidence in these cases," Remes said.