NEW YORK – A coalition of more than 130 religious organizations is calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed videotapes and used harsh interrogation techniques.

In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture reminded the nation’s top law enforcement officer of his testimony during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November.

“A key point of controversy during your confirmation process involved your statement that one particular harsh interrogation technique (waterboarding) was not necessarily torture,” the group wrote. “It is possible that top Justice Department officials may have been involved in counseling the CIA about both the techniques used and the handling of the tapes.”


For these reasons, the group wrote, “We believe it is necessary for you to appoint a Special Counsel, independent of the normal Justice Department chain of command to conduct this investigation. We believe a Special Counsel is critical to achieve the confidence of the American people in the outcome of such an investigation.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s letter cited a Dec. 7 New York Times article in which several officials said “the tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks.”

The religious campaign said, “There appears to be credible evidence that requests for the tapes by a federal court at the time such videotapes were intact may have been ignored by the CIA. These two allegations, if true, would be evidence of the use of illegal interrogation tactics by U.S. personnel and an effort to cover up that fact.”

The letter was signed by executive director Rev. Richard Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, and the organization’s president, Linda Gustitus, who formerly served as chief of staff to Sen. Carl M. Levin, (D-Ill)., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

The founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Rev. George Hunsinger of the Princeton University Theological Seminary, said, “All the dissembling in high places that makes these shocking abuses possible must be brought to an end. But they will undoubtedly continue unless those responsible for them are held accountable. Clearly a joint probe by the Justice Department and the CIA–agencies that are both seriously compromised–is not enough. A special counsel is an essential first step,” he said.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s members include representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Quaker, Muslim and Sikh communities. More than 18,000 individuals have signed the group’s “Statement of Conscience” against torture.

The issue exploded into the headlines on Dec. 7, after CIA Director Michael V. Hayden announced that the CIA made videotapes in 2002 of its officers administering harsh interrogation techniques to two al-Qaida suspects but destroyed the tapes three years later. Dir. Hayden said the action was taken to protect CIA employees from possible criminal prosecution.

The CIA’s top lawyer reportedly advised against the tapes’ destruction, and similar counsel was said to have come from then-White House counsel Harriet Miers.

The tapes reportedly showed the interrogations of a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and a second high-level al-Qaida member who was not identified. Abu Zubaydah was identified by U.S. officials, who spoke to the press on condition of anonymity, as one of three al-Qaida suspects whom the CIA subjected to waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.

The tapes were reportedly destroyed on the order of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who was then the CIA’s director of clandestine operations. They were destroyed after the Justice Department told a federal judge in the case of al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui that the CIA did not possess videotapes of a specific set of interrogations sought by his attorneys.

The CIA also failed to turn the tapes over to the 9/11 Commission, which had requested them. The commission demanded all documentation related to its work and largely used interrogation transcripts to construct its account of the events of that day. The commission was congressionally mandated to investigate the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The recordings were destroyed, despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programs. The judges’ rulings came in connection with lawsuits filed by Guantanamo detainees who went to court to challenge the basis of their detention.

Multiple investigations of the tapes’ destruction are already underway. The House Intelligence Committee announced Dec. 10 that the panel will conduct its own investigation. The Senate Intelligence Committee will likely investigate the matter and the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general’s office have begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes’ destruction.

(Distributed by Inter-Press Service and the Global Information Network.)