The CIA said Thursday that it had destroyed videotapes of its secret interrogations of terrorism suspects, taking the action at a time when the agency's harsh methods were coming under intense congressional and legal scrutiny.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden acknowledged the destruction of the tapes in a message distributed to the CIA workforce. Hayden said the tapes had been destroyed in 2005 "only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries."
But the disclosure is likely to rekindle the controversy surrounding the CIA's use of so-called "enhanced" interrogation methods -- which included subjecting detainees to temperature extremes and sleep deprivation, as well as the widely condemned practice of simulated drowning commonly known as waterboarding.
Hayden's revelation came as key members of congressional oversight committees approved a spending bill that would bar the CIA and other agencies from using any harsh interrogation methods and force intelligence agencies to abide by strict rules adopted by the U.S. Army last year.
The destruction of the tapes was condemned Thursday by human-rights groups and questioned by congressional leaders.
"The destruction of these tapes suggests an utter disregard for the rule of law," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. The group has mounted challenges to the government's legal basis for employing harsh interrogation methods. "It was plainly a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence that could have been used to hold CIA agents accountable for the torture of prisoners."
The decision to destroy the tapes and the timing of the disclosure also were questioned by legal teams and other groups that in recent years have sought such records, including the authoritative Sept. 11 commission.
"We believe that we asked for such material and we are sure that we were not provided such material," said Philip D. Zelikow, who served as executive director of the commission, which investigated intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission concluded its work in 2004, before the tapes were destroyed.
"We're concerned," said Zelikow, who subsequently served as a senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "This information got our attention."
In his written statement, Hayden said that the agency videotaped certain interrogations during 2002 "chiefly as an additional, internal check on the [interrogation] program in its early stages." He added that the agency stopped taping the sessions later that same year. A copy of Hayden's statement was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
A CIA spokesman declined to say how many tapes existed or were destroyed. The tapes were made under former CIA Director George J. Tenet and were destroyed under his successor, Porter J. Goss.
Hayden said that the CIA's office of general counsel had examined the tapes and "determined that they showed lawful methods of questioning." He also said that the tapes had been reviewed by the agency's office of the inspector general in 2003, but did not say whether the inspector general rendered any opinion on the methods the tapes showed.
The general counsel works for the CIA director. The inspector general by law is an independent watchdog, and in the past has been harshly critical of the agency's actions -- including its interrogation and detention practices. In fact, Hayden currently is investigating the CIA inspector general after complaints from agency employees who felt unfairly targeted by the internal reviews.
Hayden also said that the existence of the tapes was disclosed to congressional oversight committees "years ago," and that the agency later notified the panels of the tapes' destruction.
However, the current chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said he was never shown the videotapes and was given only limited information about their existence. He said the committee was not told until November 2006 that the tapes had been destroyed the year before.
"Our committee must review the full history and chronology of the tapes, how they were used and the reasons for destroying them, and any communication about them that was provided to the courts and Congress," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said.
At the time the tapes were destroyed, CIA employees involved in the detention program were widely reported to be concerned about potential liability -- raising the question of whether the tapes were destroyed out of concern for the legal exposure of agency officers.
But Hayden said the tapes were destroyed in part because "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."
One of the prisoners who was questioned during that period was Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative linked to the Sept. 11 plot. He was the first detainee taken into custody by the CIA in the aftermath of the attacks.
"Under normal questioning, Zubaydah became defiant and evasive," Hayden said in his statement. "That made imperative the use of other means to obtain the information -- means that were lawful, safe and effective."
Zubaydah is believed to have been among a small number of detainees subjected to waterboarding. Hayden said that because the CIA was determined to proceed within established legal guidelines, "on its own, CIA began to videotape interrogations."
At the outset of his message, Hayden said that "the press has learned" of the destroyed tapes. The New York Times reported that it had told the agency on Wednesday that it planned to publish a story about the destruction of the recordings.
The CIA abandoned the use of waterboarding and certain other harsh methods as its treatment of detainees became a source of controversy. In July, President Bush signed an executive order meant to bring the CIA's interrogation methods into compliance with the Geneva Convention, which bars the mistreatment of detainees.
On Wednesday, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees reached agreement on a compromise intelligence funding bill. It includes a provision that would force the CIA to follow the Army interrogation field manual.
That manual was drafted and adopted in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and bans the use of sleep deprivation, stress positions and other controversial methods.
"It is in our national interest to adhere to one, and only one, clearly defined and effective standard of treatment," Rockefeller said in a statement.
But because of that provision, Senate aides said, the bill may be blocked from coming to a vote on the Senate floor. Republicans have criticized the inclusion of the measure.
"Because of this last-minute amendment, this bill would tie the hands of our terror fighters," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate panel.