CIA tapes case could turn into a battle royal

Congress, Bush and courts all have a stake.

By Assocaited Press
Published December 16, 2007

WASHINGTON - The controversy over destroyed CIA interrogation tapes is shaping up as a turf battle involving the courts, Congress and the White House, with the Bush administration telling its constitutional co-equals to stay out of the investigation.

The Justice Department says it needs time and the freedom to investigate the destruction of hundreds of hours of recordings of two suspected terrorists. After Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused congressional demands for information Friday, the Justice Department filed late-night court documents urging a federal judge not to begin his own inquiry.

The administration argued it was not obligated to preserve the videotapes and told U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy that demanding information about them "could potentially complicate the ongoing efforts to arrive at a full factual understanding of the matter."

The documents represent the first time the government has addressed the issue in court. In the papers, acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bucholtz said Kennedy lacked jurisdiction and expressed concern that the judge might order CIA officials to testify.

Congressional inquiries and criminal investigations frequently overlap, and it is not uncommon for the Justice Department to ask lawmakers to ease off. The request for the court to stand down is more unusual. Judges take seriously even the suggestion that evidence was destroyed, but they also are reluctant to wade into political debates.

Legal experts say it will be up to Mukasey, a former judge who only recently took over as the nation's chief law enforcer, to reassure Congress and the courts during his first high-profile test.

Judge's order

"We're going to find out if the trust Congress put in Attorney General Mukasey was well placed," said Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec, who served in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. "It's hard to know on the surface whether this is obstruction or an advancement of a legitimate inquiry."

Kennedy ordered the administration in June 2005 to safeguard "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay."

Five months later, the CIA destroyed the interrogation videos, which involved suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri

Bucholtz said the tapes were not covered by Kennedy's order because Zubaydah and Nashiri were not at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. They were being held overseas in a network of secret CIA prisons. By the time President Bush acknowledged the existence of the prisons and the prisoners were transferred to Guantanamo, the tapes had been destroyed.

Angry reaction

Lawmakers had reacted angrily to Mukasey's refusal Friday to give Congress details of the administration's investigation. Mukasey explained that doing so could raise questions about whether the inquiry was vulnerable to political pressure and said his department generally does not release information on pending cases.

"It's clear that there's more to this story than we have been told, and it is unfortunate that we are being prevented from learning the facts. The executive branch can't be trusted to oversee itself," said a statement by the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, Reps. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.

They said "parallel investigations occur all of the time, and there is no basis upon which the attorney general can stand in the way of our work." Mukasey's decision, lawmakers said, blocks congressional oversight of his department.

David Remes, a lawyer who represents detainees, has called for a court hearing. He says the government was required to keep the tapes, and he wants to be sure other evidence is not being destroyed.

Even if Kennedy agrees that the government did not violate his order, he still could schedule a hearing. He could raise questions about obstruction or spoliation, a legal term for the destruction of evidence in "pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation."