The CIA destroyed videos of suspected terrorists being interrogated using the agency's highly controversial questioning methods, known as "enhanced interrogation methods." The admission has angered human rights groups who have objected to the secretive program for years, which they say uses techniques that amount to torture.
"If these videos were leaked, people would be horrified by them," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, "and they would begin to ask the obvious question -- does this amount to criminal behavior?"
CIA Director Mike Hayden sent a message to CIA employees today saying "the press has learned" that the CIA videotaped interrogations in 2002 and that the tapes were subsequently destroyed in 2005. The decision to destroy the tapes was made by the CIA, but he says the leaders of the congressional intelligence committees knew about the tapes and the decision to destroy them.
Hayden offers an explanation for why the tapes were destroyed -- "no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries" and offers another defense of the interrogation techniques used by the CIA.
John Sifton, a human rights attorney who is active in cases involving the CIA's secret prison program, said today that the destruction of the tapes is a scandal.
"This is a major piece of the mosaic of evidence, and now it's gone," said Sifton. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
President Bush revealed to the public the existence of the CIA's secret prisons last year, but he would not reveal the details of the agency's interrogation procedures.
But CIA officers have told ABC News they involve six escalating steps, ending in what's known as waterboarding, in which prisoners are made to feel they are drowning. Human rights groups call it torture, but the president has insisted that the United States "does not torture." The CIA has since banned waterboarding.
Human rights advocates say that if the CIA destroyed videos of suspects being waterboarded, they have destroyed evidence of torture.
"Even some Republican senators believe that waterboarding is a form of torture," said Malinowski. "It is a serious offense to destroy evidence of what may have been a crime scene."
While human rights groups have criticized the secret program, the Bush administration has insisted that the questioning resulted in information that stopped more attacks on U.S. soil.
"This program has been and remains one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists," President Bush said last year.
The president described how the CIA produced a cascading series of arrests. Starting with the first of the captured al Qaeda leaders, Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah had refused to cooperate until the CIA used what the president called an alternate set of interrogation procedures.
"Zubaydah was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives," the president said.
That led the CIA to one of the plotters of the 9/ll attacks, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, taken into custody in Pakistan.
He too was subjected to the CIA's procedures and quickly broke.
Giving up the location of his al Qaeda boss, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, the mastermind of the 9/ll attacks. KSM also provided information that helped the US stop another planned attack, Bush said.
Full message from CIA Director Michael Hayden:
Message from the Director: Taping of Early Detainee Interrogations
The press has learned that back in 2002, during the initial stage of our terrorist detention program, CIA videotaped interrogations, and destroyed the tapes in 2005. I understand that the Agency did so only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries—including the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. The decision to destroy the tapes was made within CIA itself. The leaders of our oversight committees in Congress were informed of the videos years ago and of the Agency"s intention to dispose of the material. Our oversight committees also have been told that the videos were, in fact, destroyed.
If past public commentary on the Agency's detention program is any guide, we may see misinterpretations of the facts in the days ahead. With that in mind, I want you to have some background now.
CIA's terrorist detention and interrogation program began after the capture of Abu Zubaydah in March 2002. Zubaydah, who had extensive knowledge of al-Qa'ida personnel and operations, had been seriously wounded in a firefight. When President Bush officially acknowledged in September 2006 the existence of CIA’s counter-terror initiative, he talked about Zubaydah, noting that this terrorist survived solely because of medical treatment arranged by CIA. Under normal questioning, Zubaydah became defiant and evasive. It was clear, in the President's words, that "Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking."
That made imperative the use of other means to obtain the information -- means that were lawful, safe, and effective. To meet that need, CIA designed specific, appropriate interrogation procedures. Before they were used, they were reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice and by other elements of the Executive Branch. Even with the great care taken and detailed preparations made, the fact remains that this effort was new, and the Agency was determined that it proceed in accord with established legal and policy guidelines. So, on its own, CIA began to videotape interrogations.
The tapes were meant chiefly as an additional, internal check on the program in its early stages. At one point, it was thought the tapes could serve as a backstop to guarantee that other methods of documenting the interrogations -- and the crucial information they produced -- were accurate and complete. The Agency soon determined that its documentary reporting was full and exacting, removing any need for tapes. Indeed, videotaping stopped in 2002.
As part of the rigorous review that has defined the detention program, the Office of General Counsel examined the tapes and determined that they showed lawful methods of questioning. The Office of Inspector General also examined the tapes in 2003 as part of its look at the Agency's detention and interrogation practices. Beyond their lack of intelligence value -- as the interrogation sessions had already been exhaustively detailed in written channels -- and the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them, the tapes 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-Qa'ida and its sympathizers.
These decisions were made years ago. But it is my responsibility, as Director today, to explain to you what was done, and why. What matters here is that it was done in line with the law. Over the course of its life, the Agency's interrogation program has been of great value to our country. It has helped disrupt terrorist operations and save lives. It was built on a solid foundation of legal review. It has been conducted with careful supervision. If the story of these tapes is told fairly, it will underscore those facts.
This post has been updated.