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NEW YORK – A former U.S. Department of Justice ethics adviser has joined leading members of the U.S. legal community in asking Congress to investigate the destruction of tape recordings of interrogations carried out by the CIA.
Jesselyn Radack–who came to prominence as a whistleblower after she objected to the government’s treatment of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” member captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan–told a news teleconference in December the destroyed tapes are “part of a pattern.”
“There are some five million missing White House e-mails. No one knows where the hit lists are from the U.S. Attorney massacre,” she said. “And now the CIA interrogation videotapes have been erased. This is criminal.”
“Remember when the Justice Department prosecuted Enron and Arthur Anderson for destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice? Now the Justice Department is trying to block congressional oversight and legal proceedings involving this latest scandal,” Ms. Radack added.
Her comments came during the launch of a new campaign called “American Lawyers Defending the Constitution.” The effort is backed by a statement signed by more than 1,300 lawyers and law students around the country, including former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former Reagan administration official Bruce Fein, leaders of legal organizations and more than 100 law professors in the U.S.
Their statement calls on House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy to hold wide-ranging hearings to investigate “unconstitutional and potentially criminal activity by the Bush administration.”
The statement notes the “TapeGate” furor erupted after the New York Times revealed in early December that the CIA in 2005 had destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two al-Qaida operatives in the agency’s custody, “a step it took in the midst of congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.” The CIA subsequently announced the program.
The videotapes showed agency operatives subjecting terrorism suspects–including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in CIA custody–to severe interrogation techniques in 2002. In a message to his staff, CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden reportedly said the tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that the video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks. He also said the tapes no longer had intelligence value.
The destruction of the tapes has raised questions about whether CIA officials withheld information about aspects of the program from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission.
The CIA program that included the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects began after the capture of Mr. Zubaydah in March 2002. The CIA has said the Department of Justice and the executive branch reviewed and approved of the use of a set of harsh techniques before they were used on any prisoners and that the Department of Justice issued a classified legal opinion in August 2002 that provided explicit authorization for their use.
Other participants on the telephone press conference included Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group, and Marjorie Cohn, president of the 6,000-member National Lawyers Guild.
Mr. Ratner, whose organization has played a major role in providing defense lawyers for detainees in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, underscored the importance of congressional action.
“For far too long Congress has been the handmaiden of the Bush administration’s undermining and subversion of basic constitutional rights: the right to be free from torture; warrantless wiretapping; jailing without habeas corpus; and disappearances into secret sites,” he said. “Principles going back to the Magna Carta are at stake.”
Mr. Ratner called on Congress to “do its job: defend the constitution from its enemies,” adding that the constitution’s “enemies are the Bush administration.”
“Just announcing that investigations will be held and subpoenas will be issued is terribly insufficient unless Congress is willing to enforce the subpoenas by issuing contempt citations,” Mr. Ratner said, emphasizing that “Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee the activities of the executive branch and our entire system of government is threatened when Congress simply folds before an obstinate executive.”
Mr. Cohn, the author of the recently published book, “Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law,” said: “From the illegal war in Iraq, to the illegal torture of prisoners in U.S. custody, to the illegal destruction of evidence by the CIA, the Bush administration has become an institution of lawbreakers. Congress must hold hearings to investigate this lawbreaking and should authorize the appointment of an independent prosecutor since Michael Mukasey cannot be counted on to conduct an impartial investigation.”
In a related development, one of America’s leading constitutional scholars said White House involvement in the CIA’s decision to destroy videotapes documenting severe interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists could constitute as many as six crimes.
(Distributed by IPS/GIN)