The CIA has about 3,000 documents related to the 92 destroyed videotapes that showed “war on terror” detainees being subjected to harsh interrogations, the Justice Department has disclosed, suggesting an extensive back-and-forth between CIA field operatives and officials of the Bush administration.
The Justice Department said the documents include “cables, memoranda, notes and e-mails” related to the destroyed CIA videotapes. Those tapes included 12 that showed two “high-value” prisoners undergoing the drowning sensation caused by waterboarding and other brutal techniques that have been widely denounced as torture.
The number of documents – but not their contents – was mentioned Friday in a Justice Department letter from Lev Dassin, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dassin told Judge Hellerstein that unredacted versions of the materials would be available for only him to review “in-camera” on March 26. The CIA also refused to provide the ACLU with a list of individuals who watched the videotapes prior to their destruction because that information “is either classified or otherwise protected by statute.”
The number of relevant documents – “roughly 3,000,” according to the letter – adds weight to the belief that CIA interrogators were in frequent communication with headquarters at Langley, Virginia, and with senior Bush administration officials who were monitoring the harsh techniques used and approving them one by one or even in combination.
The volume of communications also lends support to the suspicion that many officials were involved in the debate about what to do with the incriminating videotapes, not just one or two CIA officers acting on their own. CIA officials have said the videotapes were destroyed to prevent disclosure of how the agency’s interrogators subjected “war on terror” detainees to waterboarding and other brutal methods.
Last weekend, author Mark Danner disclosed a report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), concluding that the abuse of 14 “high-value” detainees “constituted torture.”
“In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to the ICRC report. Since the ICRC’s responsibilities involve ensuring compliance with the Geneva Conventions and supervising the treatment of prisoners of war, the organization’s findings carry legal weight.
The ICRC report also found that there was a consistency in many details from the detainees who were interviewed separately and that the first “high-value” detainee to be captured, Abu Zubaydah, appeared to have been used as something of a test case by his interrogators. Zubaydah was one of the prisoners whose interrogations were videotaped by the CIA.
Another detainee subjected to waterboarding and other abuse was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Two weeks ago, the Justice Department released a heavily censored page of what appears to be a CIA internal report about the torture of “war on terror” detainees, which read: “Interrogators administered [redacted] waterboard to Al-Nashiri.”
The same page indicated that a dozen of the 92 destroyed videotapes of the CIA’s interrogations were of detainees undergoing brutal treatment. “There are 92 videotapes, 12 of which include EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] applications,” the page says.
The ACLU criticized the Justice Department for continuing to withhold documents related to the destruction of the torture tapes.
“The government is still needlessly withholding information about these tapes from the public, despite the fact that the CIA's use of torture is well known,” said Amrit Singh, staff attorney with the ACLU. “Full disclosure of the CIA's illegal interrogation methods is long overdue and the agency must be held accountable for flouting the rule of law.”
Besides the ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit, the destruction of the CIA tapes has been the subject of a year-long criminal investigation by John Durham, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia who was appointed special prosecutor last year by Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
On Wednesday, the ACLU called on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bush administration officials who signed off on and approved the torture of prisoners.
“The fact that such crimes have been committed can no longer be doubted or debated, nor can the need for an independent prosecutor be ignored by a new Justice Department committed to restoring the rule of law,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.
“Given the increasing evidence of deliberate and widespread use of torture and abuse, and that such conduct was the predictable result of policy changes made at the highest levels of government, an independent prosecutor is clearly in the public interest,” Romero said.
The Justice Department’s restrictive handling of the 3,000 documents comes one day after Attorney General Holder issued sweeping new Freedom of Information guidelines for all Executive Branch agencies to “apply a presumption of openness when administering the FOIA.”
“The American people have the right to information about their government’s activities, and these new guidelines will ensure they are able to obtain that information under principles of openness and transparency,” Holder said Thursday.
Holder said FOIA requests would be denied and records withheld “only if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or disclosure is prohibited by law.” But even then, all federal agencies were directed to at least “release records in part whenever they cannot be released in full.”
Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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This story was published on March 22, 2009.