Politics & Government

CIA destroyed videotapes of interrogations of al Qaida captives

Editors note: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information. This is a corrected story.

WASHINGTON — The CIA in 2005 destroyed videotapes of interrogations of senior al Qaida captives in the early days of the war on terror, saying they were disposed of because they were a serious security risk, its director disclosed Thursday.

In a letter to agency employees, CIA Director Michael Hayden said that the decision to destroy the tapes was made ``after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries.''

The tapes that were destroyed were taken during interrogation of two al-Qaida captives, a U.S. intelligence source said.

The existence of videotapes of some interrogations was first disclosed by McClatchy last month.

The destruction of the tapes, thought to have shown the aggressive interrogation of al Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan in 2002, could reignite a controversy over the agency's conduct and questioning methods.

The CIA informed congressional intelligence committee about the tapes, but failed to turn them over to the Sept. 11 commission or in response to a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Federal prosecutors disclosed in October that the CIA had twice misled the judge and defense lawyers in the prosecution of al-Qaida operative Zacharias Moussaoui case when it denied that it had videotapes of captives sought by the defense. They informed U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema of Alexandria, Va., and a federal appeals court that the agency had two videotapes and one audiotape that came into the agency’s possession under ``unique circumstances.’’ Those tapes have been turned over to the Justice Department, and federal prosecutors advised Brinkema and a federal appeals court in October that they had ``no bearing’’ on the Moussaoui case.

``The CIA did not say to the court in its original filing that it had no terrorist tapes at all,’’ agency spokesman George Little said Friday, noting that it replied only to the request for tapes of specific captives.

In his letter to employees, Hayden said that the videotapes were made as ``an internal check'' and ``a backstop to guarantee that other methods of documenting the interrogations — and the crucial information they produced — were accurate and complete.''

Hayden defended the use of severe interrogation tactics, which he said have ``helped disrupt terrorist operations and save lives.'' He said that the CIA designed ``specific, appropriate interrogation procedures'' after Zubaydah's capture in March 2002.

Zubaydah had been seriously wounded in a firefight before his capture and survived only because the CIA, which held senior al Qaida captives in secret overseas prisons, arranged medical treatment, he said.

Hayden noted that President Bush said publicly in September 2006 that ``Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking.''

The tactics were adopted, he said, ``on a solid foundation of legal review.''

That foundation, crafted by lawyers from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, provoked controversy and would be voided if the pending federal legislation is enacted.

After the agency determined that ``its documentary reporting was full and exacting,'' Hayden said, it halted the videotaping in 2002. Another senior al Qaida figure, suspected Sept. 11 coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh, was captured in the fall of 2002, but it couldn't be learned whether he was videotaped during questioning.

Hayden said the CIA's inspector general examined the tapes in 2003. The tapes had no intelligence value, Hayden said, and given ``the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them,'' they were destroyed because they ``posed a serious security risk.''

``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 wrote.


Read Gordon's earlier story about the existence of the CIA tapes.