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No Charges In Destruction Of CIA Interrogation Tapes

No one will face criminal charges for destroying CIA videotapes that depicted interrogation of terrorism detainees during President George W. Bush's administration.

Two sources close to the investigation say a federal prosecutor has concluded there isn't enough evidence to bring an indictment. The statute of limitations on criminal law covering the tapes' November 2005 destruction expired this week, making future prosecution impossible.

It's still possible that a current or former CIA official could face charges for misleading investigators or otherwise obstructing justice, related areas that the prosecutor has been investigating for more than two years.

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller confirmed the report, saying that "a team of prosecutors and FBI agents ... has conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter."

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said the agency was "pleased" no officer would be charged.

"The Agency has cooperated with the investigation of this issue from the start, and we welcome the decision," he said in a statement. "We will continue, of course, to cooperate with the Department of Justice on any other aspects of the former program that it reviews."

Many of the 92 videotapes contained innocuous images of detainees, but a few showed interrogators deploying harsh tactics against al-Qaida moneyman Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole while it docked in Yemen.

Jose Rodriguez, a former top clandestine officer at the CIA, gave the green light to destroy the tapes five years ago amid an uproar over recently released photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Rodriguez did not testify before the grand jury.

In early 2008, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey named a special prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate the destruction of the videos after it came to light at the end of 2007. At the time, CIA officials said the tapes were destroyed because they could harm the security of agency interrogators and inflame sentiment in the Muslim world.

Durham, a veteran prosecutor based in Connecticut, has been using a grand jury to call many witnesses, including clandestine officers and agency lawyers who allegedly advised there was no legal reason to avoid destroying the tapes.

A spokesman at the Justice Department declined comment, as did a media representative for Durham.

Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder expanded Durham's mandate and asked him to lead an inquiry into whether any CIA personnel or contractors had broken the law by using interrogation methods against terrorism suspects that went beyond the methods approved by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. That inquiry continues and is active, the two sources said.

Robert Bennett, an attorney for Rodriguez, said he is "of course pleased" to learn that his client will not be charged in connection with the tapes' destruction.

"He is truly an American hero; he's a patriot and all he did was protect his people and his country," Bennett said in an interview. "And what he did was, he always abided by the law."

But the news was far from welcome at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued for access to CIA materials on detainees. Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director, called the decision not to prosecute "stunning."

"There is ample evidence of a cover-up regarding the destruction of the tapes," Romero said in a statement. "The destruction of these tapes showed complete disdain for the rule of law."

Romero and other civil liberties groups called on the Justice Department to examine the activities of high-level Bush administration officials who approved harsh interrogation practices, including waterboarding detainees. In connection with a book tour, Bush acknowledged he had blessed waterboarding after getting legal advice that it did not amount to torture.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt decried an overall lack of accountability. In a statement, Holt said he tried to insert language in an intelligence bill that would require the CIA to preserve interrogation tapes. But the language was blocked.

"This episode is another reminder of why we need a bipartisan commitment to effective and meaningful congressional oversight of the intelligence community," Holt said in a statement.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.