WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced Wednesday that he's ordered a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing the use of controversial interrogation techniques on suspected al Qaida terrorists at secret overseas prisons.
While rejecting a leading civil rights group's calls for a special prosecutor, Mukasey named John Durham, a veteran Connecticut U.S. attorney known as tough and apolitical, to lead the inquiry. The investigation will examine whether CIA officials unlawfully destroyed the tapes to conceal from Congress, the federal courts and the Sept. 11 commission the use of tactics that could be considered torture.
``The (Justice) 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 in a statement.
He said a preliminary inquiry by the division and the CIA's inspector general had found ``sufficient predication to warrant a criminal investigation of a potential felony or misdemeanor violation.'' He didn't elaborate.
Chief CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency would ``cooperate fully with this investigation.''
Mukasey's announcement came after the former chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Republican former Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, and vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, a retired Democratic congressman from Indiana, described their repeated requests to the CIA for information related to the interrogations.
In a column published Wednesday in The New York Times, Kean and Hamilton accused the intelligence agency of ``obstruction'' for failing even to mention the tapes' existence to ``a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the president, to investigate one of the greatest tragedies to confront this country.''
Legal experts also have said that the destruction of the tapes could compromise criminal prosecutions of the two suspected al Qaida captives, whom a U.S. government official identified as Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
CIA Director Michael Hayden triggered a furor when he disclosed Dec. 6 that the agency had made the tapes in 2002 and destroyed them in 2005 because they posed ``a serious security risk'' for CIA employees who served in the interrogation program and their families. In a note to agency employees, Hayden said CIA lawyers had reviewed the tapes and found that they showed ``lawful methods of questioning,'' and that the agency's inspector general's office also had reviewed them in 2003.
One of the interrogation techniques at issue is known as waterboarding, which creates the sensation of drowning. It's been defended as useful by some but is considered torture by others.
The U.S. official said that Jose Rodriguez, the CIA's chief of clandestine services, had ordered the destruction of the tapes after consulting agency lawyers. However, the lawyers had ``an expectation . . . that additional bases would be touched,'' the official said.
It couldn't be learned whether Rodriguez, who's declined to speak publicly, will assert that he was acting on orders from above, but former colleagues say he was a cautious officer.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mukasey's decision to order a full investigation ``shows that many of us were right to be concerned with possible obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress.''
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has asked a federal judge to hold CIA officials in contempt for destroying the tapes, had sought a special prosecutor.
Jameel Jamar, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, called Mukasey's moves ``a good first step.''