WASHINGTON Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress charged cover-up and demanded investigations into the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing terrorism suspects being subjected to severe interrogation techniques.
The United States has been widely criticized by European allies and human right groups for methods like "waterboarding" in which prisoners are made to fear that they are drowning.
President George W. Bush, who has repeatedly said the United States does not torture, had no recollection of being told about the tapes or their destruction, the White House said.
The CIA's disclosure that it had made and destroyed the tapes plunged the spy agency again into the glare of public scrutiny it has been unable to shake since prewar intelligence on Iraq turned out wrong.
Leading Democrats called for a inquiries by the Justice Department and Congress and criticized the Central Intelligence Agency for acting above the law.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, charged a cover-up reminiscent of the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office in 1974.
"The past six years, the Bush administration has run roughshod over our ideals and the rule of law," Kennedy said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Now, when the new Democratic Congress is demanding answers, the administration is feverishly covering up its tracks."
CIA Director Michael Hayden told employees in a letter on Thursday that the videotapes were made in 2002 as part of a secret detention and interrogation program that began with the arrest of suspected al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah.
The taping was discontinued later that year and the recordings were destroyed in 2005 as a potential security risk, said Hayden, who was not at the CIA then. It was feared that if the tapes were leaked, the lives of interrogators and their families would be in danger, he said. The spy agency was headed by Porter Goss at that time.
CIA spokesman George Little said leaders of relevant congressional committees were told of the tapes, the CIA's plans to destroy them and that they had been destroyed.
Bush has been a strong defender of the CIA interrogation program, saying it has produced intelligence that helped capture al Qaeda members and prevent attacks.
"The program is critical to the safety of the country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on Friday.
Bush did not recall being told about the interrogation tapes or their destruction before he was briefed by Hayden on Thursday, she said. "He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday."
Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois wrote to Attorney General Michael Mukasey requesting an investigation into whether the CIA violated obstruction-of-justice laws by destroying the tapes.
"The CIA apparently withheld information about the existence of these videotapes from official proceedings, including the 9/11 Commission and a federal court," Durbin said in the letter.
Perino said White House lawyers were helping the CIA gather facts. But she said if Mukasey decided to open an investigation, "of course the White House would support that."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the agency was reviewing Durbin's letter but had no immediate comment.
Rep. Jane Harman, senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence committee at the time, said she had asked the CIA's top lawyer in February 2003 not to destroy any recordings after being briefed on the interrogations.
"The briefing raised a number of serious concerns and led me to send a letter to the General Counsel. Both the briefing and my letter are classified so I cannot reveal specifics, but I did caution against destruction of any videotapes," said Harman of California.
"This matter must be promptly and fully investigated," she said.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Jackie Frank)