WASHINGTON - The Obama Administration threw open the curtain on years of Bush-era secrets yesterday, revealing anti-terror memos that claimed exceptional search-and-seizure powers and divulging that the CIA destroyed almost 100 videotapes of interrogations and other treatment of terror suspects.
The Justice Department released nine legal opinions showing that, after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, former President George W. Bush's Administration determined that certain constitutional rights would not apply during the coming fight.
Within two weeks, Government lawyers were discussing ways to wiretap US conversations without warrants.
The Bush Administration eventually abandoned many of the legal conclusions, but the documents themselves had been closely held. By releasing them, President Barack Obama continued a housecleaning of the previous administration's most contentious policies.
"Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties," Attorney-General Eric Holder said. "Not only is that school of thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it does more harm than good."
The Obama Administration also acknowledged in court documents yesterday that the CIA destroyed 92 videos involving terror suspects, including interrogations, far more than had been known.
Congressional Democrats and other critics have charged that some of the harsh interrogation techniques amounted to torture, a contention Bush and his officials rejected.
The legal memos written by the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Counsel show a Government grappling with how to wage war on terror in a fast-changing world. The conclusion, reiterated in page after page of documents, was that the President had broad authority to set aside constitutional rights.
The memos reflected a belief within the Bush Administration that the President had broad powers that could not be checked by Congress or the courts.
That stance, in one form or another, became the foundation for many policies: holding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; eavesdropping on US citizens without warrants; using tough new CIA interrogation tactics; and locking US citizens in military brigs without charges.
Yesterday's acknowledgment of videotape destruction involved a civil lawsuit filed in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The CIA can now identify the number of videotapes that were destroyed," said the letter submitted in that case by Acting US 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 Defence 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 had not spoken to the President about the report, but he called the news about the videotapes "sad" and said Obama was committed to ending torture while also protecting American values.
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 September 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.
The separate criminal investigation includes interrogations of al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah and another top al Qaeda 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, or simulated drowning, was used on three suspects, including the two whose interrogations were recorded.
LIFTING THE LID
* The CIA destroyed 92 videos involving terror suspects, including interrogations, far more than had been known.
* In the trial of September 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 Bush Administration said tapes of some interrogations were destroyed to protect the identities of the Government questioners at a time the Justice Department was debating whether the tactics used were legal.
* The Obama Administration pledged yesterday to begin turning over documents related to the videos to a federal judge and to make as much information public as possible.