WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice and CIA announced Saturday the launch of a joint preliminary inquiry into the destruction of CIA tapes made during the interrogation of two terror suspects.
The review, being conducted by the DOJ's National Security Division and the CIA's Office of Inspector General, will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.
"I welcome this inquiry and the CIA will cooperate fully," CIA Director Mike Hayden said in a statement. "I welcome it as an opportunity to address questions that have arisen over the destruction back in 2005 of videotapes."
The House Intelligence Committee is launching its own inquiry next week. It will investigate not only why the tapes were destroyed and Congress was not notified, but also the interrogation methods that "if released, had the potential to do such grave damage to the United States of America," said Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, on Saturday.
"This administration cannot be trusted to police itself," Reyes said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee had already begun an investigation into the destruction of the tapes, after the CIA said Thursday it destroyed the tapes because of concerns that its agents could be put at risk.
Democrats on Friday had made loud calls for the new Justice Department chief, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, to look into whether the CIA violated any laws by tossing the tapes, which reportedly featured interrogators using harsh methods.
In response to Saturday's announcement, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement saying: “This is the kind of quick response the nation expects and deserves from an Attorney General who puts the rule of law first. It is a refreshing change.”
It is not known if the tapes showed interrogators using the method known as waterboarding, which is widely believed to be a form of torture.
The CIA's acting general counsel, John Rizzo, is preserving all remaining records related to the videotapes and their destruction, according to Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general.
Justice Department officials, lawyers from the CIA general counsel's office and the CIA inspector general will meet early this coming week to begin the preliminary inquiry, Wainstein wrote Rizzo on Saturday.
One tape was of an unnamed alleged terrorist, and one was of Abu Zubaydah — who under questioning gave up information leading to the capture of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh, a fact disclosed by President Bush last year.
In the hours before The New York Times was set to publish a story regarding the tapes' destruction, CIA Director Michael Hayden told agency employees Thursday that the agency destroyed the tapes in 2005 — they were made in 2002 — because keeping them "posed a security risk." The revelation reverberated around Washington.
"The news that the tapes were destroyed was extremely disturbing to me and the CIA's description of notifying Congress is inconsistent with our records. As we learn more, it is only raising new questions and concerns," Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Friday.
"We do not know if there was intent to obstruct justice, an attempt to prevent congressional scrutiny, or whether they were simply destroyed out of concern they could be leaked — whatever the intent, we must get to the bottom of it. This is a very serious matter with very serious consequences," he added.
Rockefeller said the committee hasn't found records showing they were told about the existence of the tapes, or their plans to destroy them. He said he knew about about the tapes himself, but doesn't remember being told about plans to destroy them either.
ABC News reported that at least one White House official — then-White House counsel Harriet Miers — knew about the CIA's planned destruction of the tapes, and urged the CIA not to destroy them.
But White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Friday afternoon that President Bush "does not remember being made aware of those [tapes] prior to yesterday morning." She said she would not characterize his reaction to the news.
Perino also indicated the inherent conflict of the White House's interests in the developing issue, noting that the president will support the CIA's continuing collection of facts surrounding the tapes' destruction, but would also support the Justice Department probe if it came to that.
"If there's a decision to investigate ... if the Attorney General moves on down that road, of course the White House would support that."
But asked whether the administration was urging an investigation, Perino said: "We are supporting the CIA director. They are still gathering facts over at the CIA. We are helping them. I think it's premature to say."
Earlier, No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin called on Michael Mukasey to investigate whether the CIA legally destroyed videotapes showing the interrogations of two terrorists. He was later joined by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"Today I'll be sending a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey calling on him for an official investigation of whether there was destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice in the destruction of these videotapes on the interrogation of detainees," Durbin said, speaking on the Senate floor. The Justice Department later acknowledged receipt of the letter.
"This is not an issue that can be ignored," Durbin said, also noting that he believed, "This is the first real test" for Mukasey, who was sworn in to office last month.
Click here to read Sen. Durbin's letter to Attorney General Mukasey (.pdf).
"I hope he will do the right thing. What is at stake here goes to the heart of the rule of law and justice in America. If our government can destroy evidence, can misrepresent to our courts whether that evidence ever existed, if it can attempt to cover up wrongdoing, that Mr. President, goes way beyond the standards of justice and the values of America," said Durbin of Illinois, using the formal name for the presiding officer of the Senate — not President Bush.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters the CIA's explanation that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identify of agents is "a pathetic excuse," adding: "You'd have to burn every document at the CIA that has the identity of an agent on it under that theory."
In his message to agency workers, Hayden said that House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committee leaders had been informed of the existence of the tapes and the CIA's intention to destroy them to protect the identities of the questioners. He also said the CIA's internal watchdog viewed the tapes in 2003 and verified that the interrogation practices were legal. Hayden said the tapes were destroyed three years after the 2002 interrogations.
Jane Harman, then the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was one of only four members of Congress in 2003 informed of the tapes' existence and the CIA's intention to ultimately destroy them.
"I told the CIA that destroying videotapes of interrogations was a bad idea and urged them in writing not to do it," Harman said. While key lawmakers were briefed on the CIA's intention to destroy the tapes, they were not notified two years later when the spy agency actually carried out the plan. The Senate Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman, Jay Rockefeller, said the committee only learned of the tapes' destruction in November 2006.
Republican Pete Hoekstra, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from August 2004 until the end of 2006, said through a spokesman that he does not remember being informed of the videotaping program.
"Congressman Hoekstra does not recall ever being told of the existence or destruction of these tapes," said Jamal D. Ware, senior adviser to the committee. "He believes that Director Hayden is being generous in his claim that the committee was informed. He believes the committee should have been fully briefed and consulted on how this was handled."
The House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic Chair, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, also reportedly denied knowledge of the action.
A well-known human rights advocacy organization also decried the tapes' destruction.
Jennifer Daskal, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch, said that destroying the tapes was illegal. "Basically this is destruction of evidence," she said, calling Hayden's explanation that the tapes were destroyed to protect CIA identities "disingenuous."
Hayden said that a secondary reason for the taped interrogations was to have backup documentation of the information gathered.
"The agency soon determined that its documentary reporting was full and exacting, removing any need for tapes. Indeed, videotaping stopped in 2002," Hayden said.
The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but not since 2003. Hayden banned the use of the procedure in 2006, according to knowledgeable officials.
The disclosure of the tapes' destruction came on the same day the House and Senate intelligence committees agreed to legislation prohibiting the CIA from using "enhanced interrogation techniques." The White House Thursday threatened to veto the bill.
"What matters here is that it was done in line with the law," Hayden said. "Over the course of its life, the agency's interrogation program has been of great value to our country. It has helped disrupt terrorist operations and save lives. It was built on a solid foundation of legal review. It has been conducted with careful supervision. If the story of these tapes is told fairly, it will underscore those facts."
The CIA says the tapes were destroyed late in 2005, a year marked by increasing pressure from defense attorneys to obtain videotapes of detainee interrogations. The scandal over harsh treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had focused public attention on interrogation techniques.
Beginning in 2003, attorneys for Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui began seeking videotapes of interrogations they believed might help them show their client was not a part of the 9/11 attacks. These requests heated up in 2005 as the defense slowly learned the identities of more detainees in U.S. custody.
In May 2005, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered the government to disclose whether interrogations were recorded. The government objected to that order, and the judge modified it on Nov. 3, 2005, to ask for confirmation of whether the government "has video or audio tapes of these interrogations" and then named specific ones. Eleven days later, the government denied it had video or audio tapes of those specific interrogations.
Last month, the CIA admitted to Brinkema and a circuit judge that it had failed to hand over tapes of enemy combatant witnesses. Those interrogations were not part of the CIA's detention program and were not conducted or recorded by the agency, the agency said.
"The CIA did not say to the court in its original filing that it had no terrorist tapes at all. It would be wrong to assert that," CIA spokesman George Little said.
The 9/11 Commission referenced the 2002 interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Binalshibh multiple times throughout its report, but cited written documents and audiotapes only.
CIA Spokesman Mark Mansfield told FOX News the tapes were not destroyed while the 9/11 Commission was active so that they would be available if ever requested for its report.
"The agency went to great lengths to meet the requests of the 9/11 Commission," Mansfield told FOX News. "As Director Hayden pointed out in his statement, the tapes were destroyed only when it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries."
FOX News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this article.