In a setback to the Bush administration, the US Justice Department has ordered a formal criminal probe into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes of terror suspects under the supervision of a federal prosecutor.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has asked US Attorney John Durham, responsible for cracking down on the mafia operations in Connecticut, to head the FBI probe into the alleged destruction of the videotapes.
"Following a preliminary inquiry into the destruction by CIA personnel of videotapes of detainee interrogations, the Department's National Security Division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter," the country's top law enforcement officer said in a statement.
The preliminary inquiry was opened on December 8 last, two days after the disclosure by CIA Director Michael Hayden that the tapes had been destroyed. The inquiry was to gather the initial facts needed to determine whether there is sufficient predication to warrant a criminal investigation of a potential felony or misdemeanor violation.
The news of the CIA, in 2005, destroying the torture tapes of two Al Qaeda suspects had set off a furore with many in the Congress demanding an official probe into the matter by an independent counsel.
The decision of the Attorney General for a formal criminal investigation stops short of an appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the matter.
"While I certainly agree that these matters warrant an immediate criminal investigation, it is disappointing that the attorney general has stepped outside the Justice Department's own regulations and declined to appoint a more independent special counsel in this matter," John Conyers, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Expressing disappointment at the 'limited scope' of the investigation, Conyers said, 'The probe appears to be limited to the destruction of two tapes. The government needs to scrutinize what other evidence may have been destroyed beyond the two tapes, as well as the underlying allegations of misconduct associated with the interrogations.'
"I remain concerned that the constitutional oversight role of Congress has been ignored in the discovery and destruction of these tapes," Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said.