WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush insisted on Thursday he did not learn until recently that the CIA destroyed videotapes of harsh interrogations, and said he would not speak any more in public about the issue currently under investigation by the administration and Congress.
At a White House news conference, Bush expressed confidence in congressional investigations, which his Justice Department had balked at last week, saying he thought all the various inquiries underway would eventually get to the truth.
“Until these inquiries are complete, until the oversights’ finished, I will be rendering no opinion from the podium,” Bush said. Defending his administration’s aggressive pursuit of terrorism suspects, the president said his critics were ignoring reality.
“There’s isolationist tendencies in this world. People would rather stay at home, people would rather not aggressively pursue people overseas, and aggressively pursue freedom,” he said.
The CIA earlier this month disclosed that it had destroyed in 2005 hundreds of hours of tapes from the interrogations of two al Qaeda suspects, prompting an outcry from Democrats, human rights activists and some legal experts.
The 2002 interrogations were believed to have included a form of simulated drowning known as waterboarding, condemned internationally as torture.
Bush has said he did not recall being told of the tapes until CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden briefed him this month. Asked at the news conference why he could not make a more definitive statement, he said, “It sounds pretty clear to me when I say the first recollection is when Mike came and briefed me. That’s pretty clear.”
The New York Times reported this week that senior White House officials knew the tapes existed and took part in discussions on whether they should be destroyed.
Bush signaled that an impasse with Congress over the pace of lawmakers’ investigations of the videotapes had eased.
The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee was preparing to review CIA documents, after threatening on Wednesday to subpoena the administration. It was also discussing the terms under which two top CIA officials would appear before the panel next month.
Last week, the Justice Department warned that the committee’s probe could undermine its own joint investigation with the CIA.
“I am confident that the preliminary inquiry conducted by the (administration) coupled with oversight provided by the Congress will end up enabling us all to find out what exactly happened,” Bush said.