WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee warned in a 2003 letter that destroying videotapes of terrorist interrogations would put the CIA under a cloud of suspicion, according to a newly declassified copy of the letter.
"Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law, the videotape would be the best proof that the written record is accurate, if such record is called into question in the future," Representative Jane Harman, Democrat of California, wrote in a Feb. 10, 2003, letter to Scott Muller, the CIA's general counsel at the time. "The fact of destruction would reflect badly on the agency."
Harman's office released the declassified letter yesterday, a day after the Justice Department announced it had opened a criminal investigation into the destruction of the tapes. The letter notes that a copy also went to George Tenet, then-CIA director.
Last month, the CIA acknowledged destroying videos showing the interrogation of two top Al Qaeda suspects - Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the videos, which were made in 2002, were destroyed in 2005 out of fear the tapes would be leaked and reveal the identities of interrogators. Hayden said the sessions were videotaped to provide a layer of legal protection for officers using interrogation methods authorized by President Bush.
Harman's letter, sent when memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were still fresh, acknowledges that the CIA was faced with balancing security and liberty while protecting the country from another attack. But in a reference to the interrogations, she asked Muller "whether the most senior levels of the White House have determined that these practices are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States. Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the president?"
In his response to Harman's letter, Muller did not address her concerns about destroying the tapes. Instead, he reassured her that the interrogation techniques used were legal. And he added, "I think it would be fair to assume that policy as well as legal matters have been addressed within the Executive Branch."
The CIA declassified Harman's 2003 letter so she could speak publicly about her concerns then and now. At the time, Harman was the senior Democrat on the intelligence panel.
Harman was one of several officials who recommended against destroying the tapes. One official familiar with the investigation said Alberto R. Gonzales, who served as White House counsel and then attorney general, advised against destroying the videotapes. Another administration attorney, John Bellinger, then a lawyer at the National Security Council, has told colleagues that administration lawyers who discussed the matter in 2003 came to a consensus that the tapes should not be destroyed, said a senior official familiar with Bellinger's account of the discussion. "The recommendation in 2003 from the White House was that the tapes should not be destroyed," the official said.
President Bush has said his "first recollection" of being told about the tapes and their destruction was when Hayden briefed him about it last month.
Sylvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas and the House Intelligence Committee chairman, has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 16, at which he plans to question Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service who ordered the tapes destroyed, and acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo.