WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Thursday he strongly supports a Justice Department investigation into the destruction of CIA videotapes depicting the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.
The White House would cooperate, he said.
“I strongly support it. And we will participate,” Bush said in a Reuters interview.
It was his first public comment since the Justice Department said on Wednesday it had launched a criminal investigation into the CIA’s destruction of the tapes.
Asked whether he had any concerns the probe might raise questions about his counterterrorism policy, Bush replied: “See what it says. See what the investigation leads to.”
The Central Intelligence Agency last month disclosed that in 2005 it destroyed 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 CIA interrogations, which took place in 2002, were believed to have included a form of simulated drowning known as waterboarding, condemned internationally as torture.
Bush has said the United States does not torture but has declined to be specific about interrogation methods.
He has previously said he had no recollection of being briefed on the tapes or their destruction before last month. Reports have said that White House lawyers were involved in discussions on whether the tapes should be destroyed.
Bush also called on Congress to pass a new version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which sets rules for electronic surveillance in terrorism cases.
The effort to renew the legislation is stalled by battles over enhanced privacy protections some Democrats want and Bush’s push to shield telephone companies from lawsuits if they participated in a program of domestic spying without warrants after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“The Congress needs to pass FISA, and they need to do it quickly,” Bush said. “FISA expires, but the threat to America doesn’t.”
The Justice Department investigation is expected to focus on the destruction of the tapes and not whether the interrogation practices were legal.
The probe could last well beyond Bush’s term in office, which ends next January, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law school expert on the federal legal system.
U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, released a copy of a letter she wrote to the CIA in 2003, after receiving a briefing on the interrogations, urging the agency not to destroy the tapes.
“Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law ... the fact of destruction would reflect badly on the agency,” she said.
The CIA says it acted lawfully in destroying the tapes, but critics including some top congressional Democrats say the agency flouted court orders and investigators’ requests that it hand over evidence in various terrorism cases.
Congressional intelligence committees have said they would continue their investigations into the destroyed tapes despite the federal probe and warnings from the Justice Department that Congress could undermine that investigation by compromising witnesses.
Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, Editing by Joanne Kenen and Frances Kerry