Justice lawyers knew of tapes

Times Staff Writer

Justice Department attorneys apparently have known since early 2006 that the CIA destroyed videotaped interrogations of a key terror suspect, federal court documents unsealed Wednesday showed.

The disclosure that at least two prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va., were apparently aware of the agency’s actions raises new questions about a matter now under investigation by a special Justice Department prosecutor.

The newly surfaced documents, filed in the case of convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, provided the first firm indication of when the Justice Department learned that the CIA was destroying interrogation videos. Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey is expected to be asked about the issue today by the House Judiciary Committee.


The unsealed documents included a Dec. 18, 2007, letter to a federal judge in Richmond, Va., in which the government said that the former lead prosecutor in the Moussaoui case may have been told in late February or early March 2006 that videotaped interrogations of Abu Zubaydah were destroyed.

The letter said that the prosecutor, Robert A. Spencer, did not recall receiving the information. But it also said that another assistant U.S. attorney in the office did recall giving the information to Spencer.

That prosecutor, who was not identified, learned of the taping of Zubaydah as part of an “unrelated” Justice Department “project,” the letter said.

The destruction of the tapes, which are believed to have included footage of harsh interrogation methods, has led to allegations that the CIA and others in the Bush administration obstructed several federal investigations and court proceedings.

Moussaoui had asked an appeals court in Richmond to order a review of his case because certain videos were not shared with him. Prosecutors contended that the tapes were irrelevant to his decision to plead guilty to terror charges. The court ultimately agreed with the government.

James Rybicki, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment. Spencer, who left government after the Moussaoui trial, could not be reached.

Mukasey ordered a Justice Department investigation of the destruction of the tapes last month.

Democrats said late Wednesday that the new evidence -- along with the possibility that Justice Department officials did not investigate the tapes’ destruction long ago -- shows why an independent counsel should be appointed.