WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said yesterday that it had opened a full investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing in the CIA's destruction in 2005 of videotaped interrogations of terror suspects.
Signaling resolve to get to the bottom of a case that has touched off a political and legal firestorm, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced that he was appointing a mob-busting prosecutor from Connecticut with experience at rooting out official misconduct to oversee the investigation. The unusual move means that the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia, which normally handles CIA investigations, will play no role in the case.
While the opening of an investigation does not mean that criminal charges will necessarily follow, it does raise the stakes for the agency and its employees who were involved with or knew of the tapes and how they were handled internally.
Heading the investigation will be John H. Durham, an assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut for over 25 years who is known as one of the government's most relentless prosecutors. Durham has prosecuted an array of mobsters and political figures, including former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden acknowledged last month that his agency had destroyed videotaped interrogations of two al-Qaida operatives in late 2005. The tapes included footage of harsh interrogation methods that had been the subject of intense public and congressional debate.
In the wake of the disclosures, the Justice Department and the CIA office of inspector general began a preliminary inquiry to see whether there was evidence of potential criminal activity.
"The department's National Security division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter, and I have taken steps to begin that investigation," Mukasey said yesterday.
The attorney general did not elaborate on what evidence the department turned up or what potential violations of law were being explored. But the destruction of evidence pertinent to an ongoing congressional or judicial proceeding could be considered obstruction of justice.
"The attorney general's announcement ... shows that many of us were right to be concerned with possible obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency would "of course, cooperate fully with this investigation, as it has with the others into this matter."
The agency's inspector general, John Helgerson, said yesterday that he was removing himself from the investigation because he anticipated being called as a witness. Helgerson was involved in reviewing the tapes as part of an internal probe into CIA detention and interrogation practices some years ago.
Durham, the Connecticut investigator, is perhaps best known for heading a Justice Department task force that reviewed allegations of criminal conduct of the FBI and other law enforcement figures in Boston. Among other figures, he successfully prosecuted retired FBI agent John Connolly for leaking FBI information to James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi, two leaders of a notorious South Boston gang.
Attorney General Janet Reno turned to Durham in 1999 to head up that investigation.
Investigations involving the CIA are normally overseen by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the agency is located. But Mukasey said that office had removed itself from the tapes case to avoid "any possible appearance of a conflict with other matters handled by that office."
Richard C. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.