The CIA obstructed the work of an official US commission investigating the September 11 attacks by withholding tapes of interrogations of Al-Qaeda operatives, according to former panel members quoted by the New York Times on Saturday.
A review of documents by former members of the blue-ribbon 9/11 commission revealed the panel made repeated, detailed requests to the spy agency in 2003 and 2004 for information about the interrogation of Al-Qaeda operatives but were never notified of the tapes, the Times reported.
The review of the commission's correspondence with the Central Intelligence Agency came after the agency earlier this month revealed it had destroyed videotapes in 2005 showing harsh interrogations of two Al-Qaeda members.
The review, written up in a memo prepared by Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 commission, said that "further investigation is needed" to resolve whether the CIA's failure to hand over the tapes violated federal law.
The memorandum does not assert that withholding the tapes was illegal but states that federal law penalizes anyone who "knowingly and willfully" withholds or "covers up" a "material fact" from a federal inquiry or makes "any materially false statement" to investigators, the Times said.
The revelation will pile more pressure on President George W. Bush's administration, already under fire over the affair by human rights groups and lawmakers who allege it has tried to cover-up proof of torture.
A spokesman for the CIA told the Times the agency had been prepared to give the 9/11 commission the tapes, but that panel staff members never specifically asked for interrogation videos.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield was quoted as saying that the agency had gone to "great lengths" to satisfy the panel's requests, and that commission members had been provided with detailed information from interrogations of detainees.
The two chairs of the commission, former Democratic lawmaker Lee Hamilton and former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, told the Times the review showed the CIA had actively tried to obstruct the panel's work.
Kean said the panel would give the memorandum to federal officials and lawmakers in Congress who are investigating the destruction of the tapes.
"I don't know whether that's illegal or not, but it's certainly wrong," Kean was quoted as saying. Hamilton said the CIA "clearly obstructed" the panel's probe.
According to the memo obtained by the Times and posted on its website, the commission was interested in interrogations of Al-Qaeda members because it was trying to reconstruct the events leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington.
The commission made initial general requests for intelligence information from interrogations, including the two detainees on the videotapes, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rashim al-Nashiri, said the memorandum.
It followed up with more requests for "very detailed information" about the context of the interrogations, the credibility of statements from detainees, the quality of language translation and other issues.
"The commission was dissatisfied with the answers it received to these questions," the memorandum said. None of the officials who communicated with the panel ever revealed the existence of the videotapes, it said.