WASHINGTON - A Senate Democratic leader said yesterday that the attorney general should appoint a special counsel to investigate the CIA's destruction of videotapes of interrogations of two suspected terrorists.
Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited Michael Mukasey's refusal during confirmation hearings in October to describe waterboarding as torture.
The US Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog announced Saturday they would conduct a joint inquiry into the matter. That review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.
"He's the same guy who couldn't decide whether or not waterboarding was torture and he's going to be doing this investigation," said Biden, who noted that he voted against making Mukasey the attorney general.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Biden of Delaware asserted that the "easiest, straightest thing to do is to take it out of the political realm, appoint a special prosecutor and let them decide, and . . . call it where it is. Is there a criminal violation? If there is, proceed. If not, don't."
Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Congress can get to the bottom of the matter.
"I don't think there's a need for a special counsel, and I don't think there's a need for a special commission," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "It is the job of the intelligence committees to do that."
Appearing on the same program, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and a member of the committee, echoed that view.
The Senate and House intelligence committees are investigating the destruction of the tapes, and Hagel said one goal is to know whether justice was obstructed and who in the White House might have known about the fate of the tapes.
John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who is running for president, said on "Fox News Sunday" that destruction of the tapes "harms the credibility and the moral standing of America in the world again. There will be skepticism and cynicism all over the world about how we treat prisoners and whether we practice torture or not."
Michael Hayden, the CIA director, told agency employees Thursday that the recordings were destroyed out of fear the tapes would be leaked and reveal the identities of interrogators.
He said the sessions were videotaped to provide an added layer of legal protection for interrogators using new, harsh methods authorized by President Bush as a way to break down the defenses of recalcitrant prisoners.
The White House declined comment yesterday on Biden's suggestion or remarks by other lawmakers and candidates. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the administration stands by Hayden and supports the Justice Department's effort to "gather facts."
Perino has also said Bush "has no recollection" of hearing about the tapes' existence or their destruction before being briefed about it Thursday.
The White House has declined comment on one news report that Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, knew about the CIA's planned destruction of the videotapes in 2005 and urged the agency not to destroy the tapes.
Biden said Hayden ought "not to be the judge of whether or not his ordering or his condoning the destroying of the tapes was lawful."
"It appears as though there may be an obstruction of justice charge here, tampering with evidence, and destroying evidence. And this is - I think this is one case where it really does call for a special counsel. I think this leads right into the White House," Biden said. "There may be a legal and rational explanation, but I don't see any on the face of it."
Hagel, who is often critical of the administration on national security and Iraq, said he finds it difficult to believe the White House did not know. "Maybe they're so incompetent" they didn't, he said.
The tapes showed interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee taken by the CIA in 2002. Zubaydah, under harsh questioning, told CIA interrogators about alleged Sept. 11 accomplice Ramzi Binalshibh. The two men's confessions also led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who the US government said organized the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The other taped interrogations showed Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which left 17 US sailors dead.