WASHINGTON - Congress and President George W. Bush were headed for confrontation Saturday as US lawmakers accused the Justice Department of blocking their probe into whether the CIA tried to cover up torture by destroying interrogation tapes.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage after Bush's Attorney General Michael Mukasey asked a congressional panel to postpone its investigation of the destroyed videotapes on grounds it could jeopardize the Justice Department's own inquiry into the affair.
"Earlier today, our staff was notified that the Department of Justice has advised CIA not cooperate with our investigation," said a statement Friday from the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, Silvestre Reyes, and the ranking Republican, Pete Hoekstra.
"We are stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation. Parallel investigations occur all the time, and there is no basis upon which the attorney general can stand in the way of our work," the statement said.
"It is clear that there's more to this story than we have been told, and it is unfortunate that we are being prevented from learning the facts," it added.
The two lawmakers threatened to issue subpoenas to obtain relevant information and to force Central Intelligence Agency officials to testify if the Justice Department refused to back down.
Democrats and human rights groups have charged the spy agency of disposing of the videotapes showing harsh interrogations of two Al-Qaeda operatives to hide evidence of torture -- a charge the CIA denies.
The tapes reportedly show the operatives undergoing waterboarding, a technique widely regarded as torture. But Mukasey himself refused to brand the technique torture in Congressional hearings in October on his nomination to become attorney general.
Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives have demanded all cables, memorandums and e-mails related to the tapes from top CIA officials, but in his letter Friday Mukasey asked the House intelligence committee to put off any probe to allow the Justice Department and an internal CIA watchdog to complete a preliminary inquiry.
Mukasey, who became the country's top law enforcement official in November, said in his letter that responding to lawmakers' requests for key documents and testimony "would present significant risks to our preliminary inquiry."
"Consequently, we respectfully request that the committee defer its investigation of this matter at this time," Mukasey wrote.
"Our ability to obtain the most reliable and complete information would likely be jeopardized if the CIA undertakes the steps necessary to respond to your requests in a comprehensive fashion at this time," he added.
The revelation that the CIA taped harsh interrogations of at least two Al-Qaeda suspects after the September 11 attacks in 2001 has renewed allegations the Bush administration has allowed abuse and torture of detainees.
Hayden revealed last week that the tapes were made in 2002 and destroyed in 2005, just as Congress was investigating allegations of US abuse of "war on terror" detainees.
Hayden has denied the use of torture and said the tapes, intended as an internal check on how interrogations were carried out, were destroyed to prevent any leak that could identify and endanger CIA agents.
But a United Nations human rights official said on Thursday the videotapes' destruction only reinforces fears that US detainees face torture.
It "is one more argument that supports the contention that the CIA has been involved and continues to be involved in the use of interrogation techniques that violate the absolute prohibition against torture," special rapporteur Martin Scheinin told journalists.
Scheinin, who is the UN expert on human rights and counter-terrorism, said the behaviour of CIA officials he met on a visit to the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba this month only strengthened these suspicions.
© 2007 Agence France Presse