In a letter to the federal judge overseeing Freedom of Information Act litigation in New York, Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin drops a bombshell. The CIA purposefully destroyed nearly 100 tapes of interrogation sessions involving prisoners in its custody. The Associated Press reports:
“The CIA can now identify the number of videotapes that were destroyed,” said the letter by Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. “Ninety two videotapes were destroyed.” The tapes became a contentious issue in the trial of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, after prosecutors initially claimed no such recordings existed, then acknowledged two videotapes and one audiotape had been made.
The letter, dated March 2 to Judge Alvin Hellerstein, says the CIA is now gathering more details for the lawsuit, including a list of the destroyed records, any secondary accounts that describe the destroyed contents, and the identities of those who may have viewed or possessed the recordings before they were destroyed. But the lawyers also note that some of that information may be classified, such as the names of CIA personnel that viewed the tapes.
You can examine the Dassin letter here.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a man who has spoken openly of his own personal fear of criminal investigation and prosecution emerging from his stewardship of intelligence-gathering operations, defended the previously disclosed destruction by asserting that it had been done in accordance with law.
But in what legal system is it proper for the target of an investigation to destroy evidence of crimes? Torture is a criminal act, and the tapes most likely captured evidence of crimes. This evidence would also have been critical for purposes of assessing the reliability of confessions or other information secured from persons who were tortured. The evidence was sought in the New York FOIA litigation and in other court cases, and it would have been essential for any prosecution of the persons covered. But more importantly, it would serve as essential evidence in the forthcoming prosecutions of the Bush Administration torture conspirators.
A Department of Justice investigation is now underway into CIA destruction of evidence. But at this point we have every reason to suspect Justice Department complicity in the schemes, especially given reports that approval for the destruction was sought through legal channels. The Justice Department made false representations to at least one court on this subject already (as the AP report noted), and given the obsession with secrecy that has crept into the new administration, it’s very difficult to credit statements coming out of the Justice Department on the subject.
This news makes the case for an independent commission of inquiry still more compelling. It also builds the case for a special prosecutor to look into matters surrounding torture. The new prosecutor must be a person of stature and gravity on a par with the attorney general himself, must be seen as above the political fray, and must be given the resources and manpower to fully investigate the affair–including the increasingly obvious role played by the Justice Department.
There is one inescapable conclusion to draw from the destruction of evidence here: those who destroyed it fully appreciated it could be offered up as evidence of crimes in which they were implicated in a future prosecution.