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CIA Tapes May Spark Criminal Investigation


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

There's been more fallout this weekend from the CIA's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two suspected terrorists. The Justice Department has announced that it has started a preliminary inquiry. The department is working with the CIA's internal watchdog to determine whether there are grounds for further criminal investigation.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has details.

ARI SHAPIRO: This sort of preliminary inquiry does not guarantee that a criminal investigation will follow. But former Justice Department officials from both parties will tell you…

Mr. ROBERT RABIN(ph): There is going to be an investigation.

SHAPIRO: That's Democrat Robert Rabin. Here's Republican David Rivkin.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (International Law Expert): There clearly will be an investigation. The question is by whom.

SHAPIRO: And in case you're still not convinced, do you think that a criminal investigation is a foregone conclusion?

Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Former Inspector General, Department of Justice): Yes, I do.

SHAPIRO: Michael Bromwich was the Justice Department's most recent inspector general.

That consensus might sound surprising if you read CIA Director Michael Hayden's statement to agency employees last week. He said the agency only destroyed the interrogation videotapes, quote, "after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal legislative or judicial inquiries."

In other words, they were not destroying evidence. They were not obstructing justice.

Professor SAM BUELL (Law, Washington University; Former Prosecutor, Department of Justice, Enron Task Force): It's not clear to me that the Justice Department or, you know, any given investigator would necessarily take the CIA at its word as to why these tapes were destroyed.

SHAPIRO: That's Sam Buell, one of the prosecutors in the Enron case. He now teaches law at Washington University in St. Louis.

Prof. BUELL: You don't normally decline to do an investigation just because somebody has a press conference and says, we weren't doing this for a wrongful purpose.

SHAPIRO: And Aziz Huq of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice says there were lots of red flags that should have prevented the tapes' destruction - warnings from the White House Counsel's office and from at least one member of Congress not to trash the videos.

Mr. AZIZ HUQ (Deputy Director, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University): There are criminal statutes that prevent the destruction of material that plausibly could be related to a criminal or any other kind of governmental investigation. So there's a potential criminal conduct they've taken.

SHAPIRO: Huq would like the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation. After all, he says, the Justice Department approved some of the harsh interrogation tactics believed to be in the videos. And department prosecutors said in court that there were no interrogation tapes.

Huq believes those facts compromise the department's ability to investigate this impartially. David Rivkin disagrees.

Mr. RIVKIN: What we know now doesn't involve any political people. So what? We're going to, from now on, investigate possibility that career people in the intelligence community done something funky. Will it always going to be investigated by special council? That's insane.

SHAPIRO: See, a special council's independence is a double-edged sword. Robert Rabin dealt with them during the Clinton administration, and he says it can be a good way to resolve conflicts of interest.

Mr. RABIN: Sadly though, the course of investigations is leery with special prosecutors who have gone far astray, who have created kind of an independent judiciary where they're setting rules on their own and it's costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. A special prosecutor is in the panacea. A special prosecutor is an important opportunity to help resolve some of the internal conflicts.

SHAPIRO: Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich does not think a special prosecutor is the way to go. But he says the call for the Justice Department to hand the reins over to someone else reflects a serious public distrust in the department's ability to be independent.

Mr. BROMWICH: I think that's extremely unfortunate. In order to restore the public's confidence in the Justice Department in a critical investigation like this I think there's going to have to be more transparency in the investigations than you normally find.

SHAPIRO: Congress has also begun its own investigation. Some Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee already sent a letter to the CIA director and the attorney general asking for more information.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.