Ordering a criminal probe into the destruction of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation tapes was both an obvious and relatively minimal response by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.
His predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales, set such a low standard for independence and integrity, though, that the Justice Department inquiry announced this week sounded downright bold.
Mr. Mukasey's choice of a highly regarded career federal prosecutor to conduct the probe also signals some sensitivity to the terrible political taint left on the Justice Department by Mr. Gonzales, whose first loyalty was neither to the law nor to the American people but to President Bush.
Yet the criminal investigation, which may focus narrowly on CIA officials, should not be accepted as an excuse for thwarting or stonewalling parallel congressional inquiries that are likely to be much broader. While care must be taken not to imperil the prosecutor's work, Congress nonetheless must get a full account of how this cover-up occurred and take whatever steps are appropriate to prevent history from repeating itself.
At the base of the controversy is the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, to gain information from suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Interrogations of at least two alleged al-Qaida operatives were videotaped in 2002.
Despite a later swirl of controversy over whether interrogators were engaging in torture, neither the CIA nor White House officials made the tapes known to Congress, the courts or the 9/11 commission, which had all sought related information. After years of internal administration debate, the tapes were destroyed in 2005 on orders from Jose Rodriguez Jr., then director of the CIA clandestine service. Their demise appears to have been hastened by press revelations of secret CIA interrogation prisons overseas. The Bush administration might still be keeping the tapes secret but for press inquiries that forced an official CIA explanation early last month.
Several potential criminal offenses could be involved here, including obstruction of justice, perjury, conspiracy and illegal use of torture. A grand jury will likely be involved to sort that out.
At a minimum, there seems an obvious breach of the public's trust in government to respect its own laws - even in times of peril. Mr. Mukasey's help with repairs would do the nation a great service.