NEW YORK, Dec 22 (Reuters) - The Sept. 11 commission asked the CIA in 2003 and 2004 for information on the interrogation of al Qaeda suspects, only to be told the agency provided all that was requested, The New York Times reported on Saturday.
The CIA said on Dec. 6 it destroyed hundreds of hours of videotape in 2005 showing interrogations of al Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, prompting former members of the commission to review classified documents.
The taped interrogations were believed to show a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding that rights activists have condemned as torture.
The Sept. 11 commission’s chairmen, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, said their reading of the review, a copy of which the newspaper obtained, convinced them the CIA made a conscious decision to impede the panel’s inquiry, the Times said.
A memo prepared by Philip Zelikow, the panel’s former executive director, concluded that "further investigation is needed" to determine whether the CIA’s withholding of the interrogation tapes from the commission violated U.S. law, the paper reported.
The CIA said it destroyed the tapes lawfully to protect the agents involved in the interrogations, but the news prompted an outcry from rights activists and Democrats in Congress, as well as investigations by the Bush administration and Congress.
The commission investigated what went wrong before and after al Qaeda militants used hijacked commercial airliners to attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The panel’s report called for an overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community.
Kean, a Republican and former New Jersey governor, said the panel would give the memo to federal prosecutors and lawmakers looking into the destruction of the tapes.
A spokesman for the CIA told the Times the agency had been prepared to provide the Sept. 11 commission with the tapes but was never asked to do so.
"I don’t know whether that’s illegal or not, but it’s certainly wrong," Kean said of the CIA’s decision not to disclose the existence of the tapes. Hamilton, a Democrat and former Indiana congressman, said the agency "clearly obstructed" the commission’s investigation.
NOT HOLDING BACK
Among statements that the memo suggested were misleading was a June 2004 assertion by John McLaughlin, deputy director of central intelligence, that the CIA had "taken and completed all reasonable steps necessary to find the documents in its possession, custody or control" in response to the panel’s requests and "has produced or made available for review" all such documents, the Times said.
Kean and Hamilton expressed anger once it was revealed the tapes had been destroyed, the paper said.
The Times said Zelikow’s report provides more evidence to bolster their views about the CIA’s actions and was likely to put more pressure on the Bush administration over its handling of the matter.
McLaughlin told the Times agency officials had always been candid with the commission and that information from the CIA proved central to their work.
"We weren’t playing games with them, and we weren’t holding anything back," the paper quoted him as saying.
The memo draws no conclusions about whether the withholding of the tapes was unlawful but notes that federal law penalizes anyone who knowingly withholds or covers up a material fact from a federal inquiry or makes a false statement to investigators, the Times reported.
A CIA spokesman said the agency had gone to "great lengths" to meet the commission’s requests and that the panel’s members had been given detailed information from interrogations of detainees, the Times said.
The tapes "were not destroyed while the commission was active," the spokesman said. (Editing by John O’Callaghan)