WASHINGTON – The CIA destroyed 92 controversial interrogation videos, Justice Department documents showed Monday, in a new twist in the tape scandal which may fuel more allegations of Bush-era abuses.
"The CIA can now identify the number of videotapes that were destroyed," Acting US Attorney Lev Dassin wrote in a letter dated March 2 to New York Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is hearing a case brought against the agency by a civil rights group.
"Ninety-two videotapes were destroyed," Dassin added, as he asked the court to give the CIA until Friday to prepare any records on the tapes that were destroyed as well as a list of possible witnesses.
So far the Central Intelligence Agency has only admitted to destroying several tapes, and not said what was included on them.
According to The New York Times, the tapes show the harsh interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, suspected of being a leading Al-Qaeda member, and Abdel Rahim al-Nashiri, believed to have been involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.
In December 2007, then-CIA chief Michael Hayden disclosed the existence of tapes showing the interrogations of two Al-Qaeda suspects, made in 2002. But he said they could not be seen as they had been destroyed in 2005 to protect the identity of agency operatives.
Lawyers for the previous administration of president George W. Bush denied at the time that the tapes had contained scenes of the torture of suspects at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Dassin on Monday asked for the CIA to be given until March 6 to prepare a schedule for bringing documents for the court in the case against the CIA brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in December 2007.
"This letter provides further evidence for holding the CIA in contempt of court," said Amrit Singh, ACLU staff attorney, in a statement.
"The large number of videotapes destroyed confirms that the agency engaged in a systemic attempt to hide evidence of its illegal interrogations and to evade the court's order."
Acting US attorney, John Durham, is conducting a criminal investigation into the destruction of the tapes. His Virginia-based inquiry, launched under the Bush administration wrapped up on Friday, February 28.
Dassin said the agency would prepare a list of the destroyed records, as well as a list of any summaries or transcripts relating to them.
He also wrote that he expected that the CIA would be asked to provide the names of any witnesses who might have seen the tapes before they were destroyed.
"The CIA intends to produce all of the information requested to the court and to produce as much information as possible on the public record to the plaintiffs," Dassin concluded.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that news of the tapes' destruction was "not good, it's sad."
The new administration of President Barack Obama wants "to give the people that work at the CIA the tools they need to keep us safe, but do so in a way that also protects our values," Gibbs added.
Since his arrival at the White House, Obama has sought to reverse some of the more controversial policies of the Bush era and vowed his administration will not resort to torture.
He named Leon Panetta as the new director at the helm of the troubled CIA, shaken from its once preeminent position over the US intelligence community by the cascade of controversies since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Panetta has pledged to put an end to secret prisons, harsh interrogation techniques and extraordinary renditions.
George Tenet was CIA chief when the tapes were made, and Porter Goss headed the agency when the tapes were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee was to meet on Wednesday to discuss whether to establish an inquiry into the alleged abuses committed under Bush's "war-on-terror" policies.
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