WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No CIA personnel will face criminal charges for destroying videotapes of harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, the U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday.
While the decision will spare the CIA and the Obama administration the potential backlash and embarrassment that a trial could have generated, another federal probe continues into possible abuse of detainees by CIA personnel.
The videotapes probe was launched in January 2008 by then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey after revelations that the CIA in 2005 had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes of the interrogations of terrorism suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
Zubaydah was one of three terrorism suspects who was subjected to waterboarding, a procedure in which the person experiences simulated drowning. It was believed that the tapes included footage of the waterboarding.
Human rights groups and some lawmakers call waterboarding torture, but former President George W. Bush strongly defended its use in his new memoir released on Tuesday.
Federal prosecutor John Durham conducted an “exhaustive investigation” into the destruction of the videotapes, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
“As a result of that investigation, Mr. Durham has concluded that he will not pursue criminal charges for the destruction of the interrogation videotapes,” he said.
He declined to comment on the possibility of other charges such as perjury or false statements.
A CIA spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
The interrogations took place in 2002 and the CIA said that it acted lawfully in destroying the tapes because it needed to guard against leaks that could endanger interrogators. Critics accused the agency of covering up illegal acts.
Lawmakers had questioned whether the destruction flouted court orders and investigators’ demands that the CIA hand over evidence in various terrorism cases.
A lawyer for the former head of the CIA’s clandestine branch, Jose Rodriguez, who is believed to have made the decision about the tapes, said they were pleased that no charges would be filed for the destruction.
“This is the right decision because of the facts and the law,” lawyer Robert Bennett said in a statement. He declined to comment on the possibility of other charges.
In addition to probing the destruction of the tapes, the Obama administration drew criticism last year when Attorney General Eric Holder tasked Durham to examine whether CIA employees or contractors broke the law when they conducted harsh interrogations that went beyond approved limits.
That review, which is still ongoing, came after the Justice Department’s inspector general recommended considering prosecution in such instances. Holder’s decision reversed a conclusion by the previous Bush administration which decided against prosecutions.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman