Probe of CIA video destruction winding down

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 8, 2009 6:00pm GMT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A criminal probe into the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects is almost finished, court papers made public this week show.

Investigators expect to complete interviewing witnesses by the end of February, two months later than initially forecast, John Durham, an acting U.S. Attorney named to head the probe, wrote in a court filing.

"Investigations such as this, involving the handling and review of highly sensitive and compartmented information, pose particular challenges which result in inevitable delays that are not encountered in typical criminal cases," Durham said.

He said "a considerable portion" of the investigators' work had been completed, but several witnesses needed to be interviewed or reinterviewed.

The probe was launched last January after revelations that the CIA in 2005 destroyed videos of the interrogations of terrorism suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

The CIA later identified the men as two of the three suspects subjected to waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely condemned as torture that has damaged the U.S. image abroad. It is not known whether the tapes depicted waterboarding.

The CIA has said it needed to destroy the tapes to guard against leaks that could endanger interrogators, but critics accused the agency of covering up illegal acts.

Durham said "a number of obstacles" were responsible for the investigation's delay. These include getting top-security clearances for witnesses' lawyers and finding support staff to handle the paperwork in secure facilities.

Durham's statement was filed to support a CIA request to delay until February 28 consideration of a lawsuit seeking release of documents related to the videotapes.

The request was granted, said the Federation of American Scientists secrecy project, which posted Durham's filing on its Web site.

Many details of the investigation were blacked out in Durham's statement -- including the number of witnesses in the probe and the number of pages investigators have pored over.

President-elect Barack Obama, who is expected to name former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta on Friday to head the CIA, said this week his intelligence team would break with practices "that have tarnished the image of the agencies."

(Editing by David Wiessler)