NEW YORK – The CIA should investigate how its employees destroyed tapes of Sept. 11 detainee interrogations and explain how it will prevent such a thing from happening again, a federal judge told a government lawyer Friday.
"This kind of destruction never should have occurred," and the CIA should show it has learned its lesson, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein told government lawyers representing the agency at a Manhattan hearing.
The judge said the destruction of tapes of interrogations that used harsh methods showed that the CIA doesn't trust "judges to have proper regard for the security interests of the United States."
After the judge commented, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara LaMorte said a government prosecutor who investigated the destruction and decided not to seek criminal charges has offered to meet with the judge and describe what he learned. Hellerstein said he would like to have the meeting and would make as much public as possible regarding it afterward.
LaMorte also defended the CIA's actions, saying the agency had complied diligently with Hellerstein's orders to turn over documents related to the destruction of tapes.
"The CIA takes them very seriously," she said.
The government has acknowledged destroying 92 videotapes, including those containing interrogations of al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah. He later told a military tribunal he suffered physical and mental torture and nearly died four times. Zubaydah said authorities later concluded he was not the No. 3 person in al-Qaida as they had long believed.
The administration of President George W. Bush had said some tapes were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identities of the government questioners while the Department of Justice was debating whether the interrogation tactics were legal.
In September 2009, Hellerstein cited national security concerns in ruling that the CIA did not have to release hundreds of documents related to the destruction of the videotapes.
He has said he likely would have ruled against public disclosure of videotapes documenting new harsh questioning techniques if the CIA had not destroyed them.
Hellerstein conducted Friday's hearing after the American Civil Liberties Union asked him to find the CIA in contempt of court for destroying the documents.
The judge said such a ruling would be impractical. He added that he did not want to do nothing at all, so he thought it would be useful for the CIA to investigate itself and report how it will prevent employees from destroying information in the future that was needed by a court.
He said he wanted to know "that a lesson has been learned and applied."
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