WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday ordered the Bush administration to explain whether the CIA violated a court order by destroying videotapes of the harsh interrogations of two terrorism suspects.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy, who in 2005 had ordered the government to preserve information on prisoner mistreatment at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, scheduled a court hearing on the tapes for Friday, overriding government objections.
Lawyers for a group of Guantanamo Bay inmates contesting their detention had requested the hearing to learn whether the government had complied with the preservation order. They cited reports that information obtained from the interrogations implicated five unnamed Guantanamo detainees.
"We hope to establish a procedure to review the government's handling of evidence in our case ... and generally to require an accounting from a government that has admitted that it destroyed evidence," said David Remes, an attorney for the group of inmates.
He declined to comment on whether he believed any of his clients were implicated during the interrogations.
The CIA on December 6 disclosed that it had destroyed hundreds of hours of interrogation tapes, prompting an outcry from congressional Democrats and human rights activists. The sessions recorded on the tapes were believed to have included a form of simulated drowning known as waterboarding, which has been condemned internationally as torture.
The CIA said it destroyed the tapes lawfully and did so out of concern for the safety of agents involved if the recordings were ever made public. The White House has repeatedly denied the United States tortures terrorism suspects.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the judge's hearing order but the department last week urged Kennedy not to investigate the videotapes.
It said the detainees' lawyers gave no evidence the interrogation subjects -- suspected al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri -- were at Guantanamo at the time.
U.S. President George W. Bush announced in September 2006 that Zubaydah, Nashiri and 12 other high-value detainees had been transferred from secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo.
But Remes said it was possible the interrogation suspects had been at Guantanamo initially, then transferred away and returned. "It's a classic non-denial denial," he said of the government's argument.
The Justice Department also said that in light of other government probes into the videotapes, a judicial inquiry into the destruction was inappropriate.
The Justice Department and CIA are conducting an initial probe of the destruction.
However, the government has sought delays in congressional attempts to investigate the destruction. "Plainly the government wants only foxes guarding this henhouse," Remes wrote in a court filing.
Editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott