Justice moves to control tapes probe

DECEMBER 11: Attorney General Michael Mukasey, left, answers questions about the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, right, at the Justice Department in Washington, DC.
DECEMBER 11: Attorney General Michael Mukasey, left, answers questions about the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, right, at the Justice Department in Washington, DC.
(Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The Justice Department on Friday moved to consolidate control over the investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes, saying that neither it nor the intelligence agency would cooperate with congressional probes into the matter.

The moves angered members of Congress, who said that the department was obstructing legitimate legislative oversight. Justice and CIA officials said in correspondence with congressional leaders that turning over information at this point could make the inquiry vulnerable to political pressures.

The decision to withhold evidence puts the congressional probes effectively on hold, and also points up the seriousness of the week-old investigation, which is being conducted jointly by the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general. Officials for the first time raised the possibility that the investigation could result in criminal charges.

“While we make no prediction at this early stage about where our inquiry might lead, the possibilities include criminal law enforcement action, as well as civil and administrative remedies,” said Assistant Atty. Gen. Kenneth L. Wainstein and CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson in a letter to House Intelligence Committee leaders.

Calling on the committee to “defer” its investigation, Wainstein and Helgerson said “actions responsive to your requests would present significant risks to our preliminary investigation.” They said they were concerned about the committee interviewing personnel from the CIA inspector general’s office because the Justice Department had determined that “they are potential witnesses in the matter under our inquiry.”

In a harshly worded statement, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the intelligence committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the committee’s top Republican, said they were “stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation.”

“It’s clear that there’s more to this story than we have been told,” Reyes and Hoekstra said in their statement. “The executive branch can’t be trusted to oversee itself.”

On Thursday, Reyes and Hoekstra sent a letter to CIA Director Michael V. Hayden asking for relevant records including “all cables referring or related to the making, retention or destruction of videotapes of detainees.” The letter gave the CIA until Friday evening to comply.

A CIA spokesman said the agency intended to cooperate with Congress.

“Director Hayden has said the agency will cooperate fully with both the preliminary inquiry conducted by the Department of Justice and CIA’s inspector general, and to the Congress,” said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield. “That has been and certainly will be the case.”

But a senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA would not ignore the instructions from the Department of Justice, and may have to delay delivery of documents and witnesses to congressional investigators until the Justice probe is completed.

“If the Department of Justice says, ‘We want to see these documents before anybody else sees them,’ CIA will comply,” said the senior U.S. intelligence official.

The Justice Department had no comment Friday beyond releasing a series of letters on the investigation. The department also informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that it would not answer questions about the probe from that panel.

“The department has a long-standing policy of declining to provide nonpublic information about pending matters,” Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey said in a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This policy is based in part on our interest in avoiding any perception that our law enforcement decisions are subject to political influence.”

Mukasey said that he believed the department could handle the investigation in a fair and impartial manner, and that he saw no need to appoint a special prosecutor from outside the department.

The panel had asked Mukasey for information including whether the Justice Department had seen the tapes or provided legal advice about their retention or destruction. Leahy called the response “disappointing.”

The investigation is focused on disclosures that a top CIA official destroyed interrogation videotapes of two Al Qaeda operatives in 2005.

The destruction of the tapes came at a time of intense public and congressional interest in CIA interrogation techniques and possible torture. Destruction of evidence can be a form of obstruction of justice.