NEW YORK - A coalition of more than 130 religious organisations has joined a growing chorus calling for appointment of a special counsel to investigate allegations regarding the Central Intelligence Agency's destruction of videotapes and its use of "harsh" interrogation techniques.
In a letter to Attorney-General Michael Mukasey, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) reminded the nation's top law enforcement officer of his testimony during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.
"A key point of controversy during your confirmation process involved your statement that one particular 'harsh' interrogation technique [namely, waterboarding] was not necessarily torture," the group wrote, adding: "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."
NRCAT's letter cited a Dec. 7 New York Times article, in which several officials said that "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 says that "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."
These allegations, it said, "raise serious concerns that must be fully and fairly addressed in order to retain the trust and confidence of the American people in our intelligence and justice systems."
The NRCAT letter was signed by Executive Director Rev. Richard Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, and the organisation's president, Linda Gustitus. Gustitus is former chief of staff to Illinois Democratic Senator Carl M. Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
NRCAT's founder, Rev. George Hunsinger of the Princeton University Theological Seminary, told IPS, "The destroyed videos reportedly depict waterboarding in action. To acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding that the sun rises in the east."
He added, "After World War II Japanese soldiers who practiced it were prosecuted as war criminals."
Hunsinger asked, "Why must our public officials and would-be office-holders persist in evading the elementary truth about a technique used by monsters like Pol Pot and Pinochet, and that is being used against Buddhist monks today -- to say nothing of our own secret prisons?"
"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.
Following Judge Mukasey's confirmation testimony, NRCAT wrote the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing deep concern about Mukasey's responses on the subject of torture and urging the committee members to "approve a nominee as attorney-general who is unequivocal in his or her stance against the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Mukasey wrote the Committee saying that he found waterboarding "personally abhorrent" but declined to say whether the practice constituted torture.
Gustitus and Killmer told the committee that Judge Mukasey's answers "leave open the door to the use of techniques by the U.S. government that would be cruel, inhuman and degrading and that could amount to torture."
Referring to the period when Alberto Gonzalez was attorney-general, Gustitus and Killmer said, "It is time to turn a new page. It would be tragic to allow an individual, despite his or her legal training and ability, who has not clearly rejected the illegal and immoral practices of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to become the leading law enforcement officer of our nation."
NRCAT'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 NRCAT's "Statement of Conscience" against torture.
NRCAT is generally categorised as a "progressive" organisation. More conservative religious organisations have largely remained silent on the "TapeGate" controversy.
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 Qaeda suspects but destroyed the tapes three years later. 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 is said to have come from then White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
The tapes showed the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and a second high-level al Qaeda member who was not identified. Zubaydah has been identified by U.S. officials, who spoke to the press on condition of anonymity, as one of three al Qaeda suspects who the CIA subjected to "waterboarding", a technique that simulates drowning.
The tapes were destroyed on the order of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the CIA's director of clandestine operations. They were destroyed after the Justice Department told a federal judge in the case of al-Qaeda 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 despite their request. The Commission demanded all documentation related to its work and largely used on classified 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 Centre and the Pentagon.
The recordings were destroyed despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programmes. 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 chairman, Democrat Silvestre Reyes, and ranking Republican Pete Hoekstra announced Monday that the panel will conduct its own investigation. The lawmakers said that Hayden's assertion that the committee had been "properly notified" of the destruction "does not appear to be true."
It is likely the Senate Intelligence Committee will also investigate the matter, and the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general's office have already begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes' destruction.
At the White House daily press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Dana Perino announced she was "not allowed" to discuss the issue because it might compromise ongoing investigations.
© 2007 Inter Press Service