Q&A: The CIA's destruction of interrogation tapes — Congress presses for answers regarding destroyed tapes —

The U.S. Justice Department and CIA have announced a preliminary investigation into whether CIA officials obstructed justice or engaged in an illegal cover-up by destroying videotapes in 2005 that showed interrogations of two terrorism suspects.

Here's what's behind the controversy.

What are the CIA tapes?

Beginning in 2002, the CIA held terrorism suspects in secret locations and interrogated them, using highly controversial techniques that critics said are tantamount to torture. The techniques included sleep deprivation, stressful physical positions and simulated drowning, or water-boarding. In at least two cases, the CIA videotaped the interrogations, compiling hundreds of hours of clear images of American agents sometimes engaging in harsh treatment of foreign prisoners. One such prisoner was Abu Zubaydah, the CIA's first terrorism detainee. The second has not been identified.

When were the tapes destroyed?

The CIA destroyed the tapes in late 2005. At that time, Congress was adopting new restrictions on the use of harsh detainee treatment and the Army was rewriting its authoritative field manual to emphasize the need for restraint. At the same time, domestic U.S. prosecution of terrorism suspects, including Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla, were underway. An issue in those cases was what other suspected terrorists said about the defendants while under interrogation. Also at that time, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission), which failed in its effort to obtain records of interrogations before issuing its 2004 report, was completing a year of follow-up reports that criticized U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

Why did the CIA destroy the tapes?

Director Michael V. Hayden told the CIA workforce last week that the tapes were destroyed because they were "not relevant to any internal, legislative or judicial inquiries" and, if made public, could identify CIA employees who then would be vulnerable to retaliation by militants.

Was that rationale accepted?

No. Members of Congress said the tapes had potential value to ongoing congressional proceedings and critics said they could have had a high degree of relevance to the Sept. 11 commission and in terrorism trials. Critics also said the CIA could have obscured any images of Americans in the tapes, and noted that it possesses vast amounts of other material that could identify CIA employees that have not been destroyed. As important to many critics, the tapes could have settled years of debate about the nature of U.S. treatment of detainees, including questions about how they were interrogated and whether it constituted legal questioning, harsh treatment or torture.

Did the CIA provide adequate notice that it was going to destroy the tapes?

Hayden said the CIA told Congress about the tapes and its plans to destroy them and that it consulted with appropriate agency officials, including the CIA general counsel and inspector general. But lawmakers said the CIA provided only cursory information about the tapes, and did not detail the plans to destroy them. Other top CIA officials might have disagreed with the decision, and it is not known what the CIA inspector general, an agency watchdog who has been critical of detention practices, had to say about the tapes.

Did others agree with the decision to destroy the tapes?

Many people did not. Members of Congress, including Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., then a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, warned the CIA not to destroy the tapes. In addition, then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers is reported to have told agency officials to preserve them.

Are the tapes germane to trials of suspected terrorists?

Possibly. Attorneys in the case of Moussaoui want the judge to review the issue. Padilla faces sentencing in the near future. More important, the CIA initially told U.S. prosecutors that no such tapes existed, an assertion provided to judges in sworn legal documents that later had to be corrected when the existence of the tapes was revealed.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Greg Miller, Richard B. Schmitt and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.