WASHINGTON - The White House faced another clash with Congress Saturday after furious Democratic lawmakers demanded a probe into the CIA's destruction of tapes showing harsh interrogations of captured Al-Qaeda operatives.
The Central Intelligence Agency's admission that it destroyed tapes of at least two interrogations in 2005, at a time when Congress was probing torture allegations, sparked outrage among lawmakers and human rights groups.
The recordings were disposed of despite appeals by White House and Justice Department officials, who advised the CIA in 2003 against destroying the materials, The New York Times reported Saturday.
In a note to his staff on Thursday, CIA director Michael Hayden said they were destroyed to protect the identities of the CIA agents shown in the tapes.
"It is far more plausible that CIA officials eliminated evidence that could have been used to hold interrogators accountable for illegal acts of torture -- as well as the more senior administration officials who ordered or approved those acts," the newspaper said in an editorial.
"It is a startling disclosure," said Senate number two leader Richard Durbin, who asked the Justice Department to investigate whether CIA officials committed obstruction of justice by discarding the tapes.
Durbin called the destruction of the tapes "very troubling."
Hayden, however, said government lawyers who reviewed the tapes found that the detainees were not subjected to illegal abuse and that the decision to destroy them was made by the CIA.
The White House said President George W. Bush did not recall knowing about the videotapes or the decision to destroy them in 2005, but it stopped short of denying any White House involvement.
Bush has "complete confidence" in Hayden, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters, adding that the president has directed his official lawyer to work with an internal CIA probe into what happened.
Hayden told his staff that keeping the tapes would have risked the lives of CIA agents.
"Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers," he said.
But Democrats rejected his explanation.
"It's a pathetic excuse," Senator Carl Levin told reporters. "You would have to burn every document in the CIA that has the identity of an agent on it, under that theory."
Hayden did not say how many detainees were videotaped but alluded to media reports which said interrogations of at least two Al-Qaeda operatives were filmed.
The New York Times reported the tapes showed "severe interrogation techniques" used on Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were among the first suspects interrogated by the CIA in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The revelation raises difficult questions for the Bush administration, which has faced fierce criticism over its treatment of terror suspects, with lawmakers and rights groups charging the White House has withheld information about its interrogations and detention practices.
Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a special prosecutor if necessary.
"No part of our government should engage in practices that are so horrific that we cannot bear to see them on tape," Kennedy said.
Human rights groups also called for an immediate probe and said the move amounted to destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice.
After the administration authorized harsher interrogation techniques following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Hayden said the tapes were made to ensure new interrogation methods were within legal limits.
The tapes were also designed to serve as an accurate account of interrogations but the agency later decided that there were already sufficient documentary records, and videotaping stopped in 2002, he said.
Committees in Congress overseeing intelligence matters were informed of the videos "years ago" and of plans to dispose of them, Hayden said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller said that while he was told of the tapes' existence in 2003, he only learned of their destruction in press reports Thursday.
His committee has now launched its own investigation into the tapes' destruction, Rockefeller said.
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