WASHINGTON — The CIA destroyed nearly 100 videotapes of interrogations and other U.S. treatment of terror suspects, far more than previously acknowledged, the Obama administration said Monday as it began disclosing details of post-Sept. 11 Bush-era actions.
The interrogations were a highly contentious issue during the administration of President George W. Bush, with many Democrats and other critics saying that some methods used amounted to torture _ a contention Bush and other officials rejected. A criminal prosecutor is wrapping up his investigation in the matter.
Monday's acknowledgment, however, involved a civil lawsuit filed in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking more details of the interrogation programs following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"The CIA can now identify the number of videotapes that were destroyed," said the letter submitted in that case by Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. "Ninety-two videotapes were destroyed."
It is not clear what exactly was on the recordings. The government's letter cites interrogation videos, but the lawsuit against the Defense Department also seeks records related to treatment of detainees, any deaths of detainees and the CIA's sending of suspects overseas, known as "extraordinary rendition."
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters he hadn't spoken to the president about the report, but called the news about the videotapes "sad," and said Obama was committed to ending torture while also protecting American values.
ACLU attorney Amrit Singh said the CIA should be held in contempt of court for holding back the information for so long.
"The large number of videotapes destroyed confirms that the agency engaged in a systematic attempt to hide evidence of its illegal interrogations and to evade the court's order," Singh said.
CIA spokesman George Little said the agency "has certainly cooperated with the Department of Justice investigation. If anyone thinks it's agency policy to impede the enforcement of American law, they simply don't know the facts."
The details of interrogations of terror suspects, and the existence of tapes documenting those sessions, have become the subject of long fights in a number of different court cases. In the trial of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, prosecutors initially claimed no such recordings existed, then acknowledged after the trial was over that two videotapes and one audiotape had been made.
The Dassin letter, dated March 2 to Judge Alvin Hellerstein, says the CIA is now gathering more details for the lawsuit, including a list of the destroyed records, any secondary accounts that describe the destroyed contents and the identities of those who may have viewed or possessed the recordings before they were destroyed.
But the lawyers also note that some of that information may be classified, such as the names of CIA personnel who viewed the tapes.
"The CIA intends to produce all of the information requested to the court and to produce as much information as possible on the public record to the plaintiffs," states the letter.
The separate criminal investigation includes interrogations of al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah and another top al-Qaida leader. Tapes of those interrogations were destroyed, in part, the Bush administration said, to protect the identities of the government questioners at a time the Justice Department was debating whether or not the tactics used during the interrogations were legal.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden acknowledged that waterboarding _ simulated drowning _ was used on three suspects, including two whose interrogations were recorded.
John Durham, a senior career prosecutor in Connecticut, is leading the criminal investigation, out of Virginia, and had asked that he be given until the end of February to wrap up his work before requests for information in the civil lawsuit were dealt with.
Durham's spokesman, Tom Carson, had no immediate comment.
Associated Press Writers Pamela Hess, Philip Elliott and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.