WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to appear in court Friday to answer allegations that it defied his demand to preserve evidence that may have included CIA interrogation videos of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy issued the order Tuesday, rejecting White House arguments that court intervention would be premature, since Congress and government officials are already looking into any destruction of the tapes.
In an emergency request filed Monday, lawyers for a group of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, urged the judge to step in now. They accused the White House of blocking outside inquiry into the tapes and trying to ensure that only federal agencies implicated in the destruction would carry out an internal inquiry.
"Plainly, the government wants only foxes guarding this henhouse," attorney David Remes wrote.
But amid administration and congressional inquiries, the government had urged Kennedy to postpone any action, saying any hearing at this stage would be "potentially disruptive" of "current inquiries by the political branches into the destruction of the tapes."
Kennedy gave no reasoning in his brief order for the parties to meet Friday at 11 a.m. But in June 2005, he had ordered officials to preserve "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay."
Lawyers for the prisoners had filed a civil suit in federal court.
A little more than 300 prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay after their capture in the war on terrorism launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Among the high-level detainees are Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The CIA admitted earlier this month to videotaping the interrogations of those al Qaeda suspects in 2002. The tapes reportedly show rough interrogation techniques -- including the use of "waterboarding," which simulates drowning.
The government in its response Friday noted that lawyers for the prisoners "have neither alleged nor shown that he (Zubaydah) was a detainee at Guantanamo Bay when the (federal) court entered its order on June 10, 2005." Thus, the administration argues, the videotaped evidence was technically not covered by Kennedy's order to preserve evidence.
CIA Director Michael Hayden said the tapes were destroyed in 2005 because, he claimed, national security could have been compromised by revealing the identities of the interrogators.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino referred questions about the tapes to the Justice Department and the CIA, telling reporters the administration has "complete confidence" in Hayden and Attorney General Michael Mukasey "to handle this in an appropriate way."
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the department had no comment.
Lawyers for several other Guantanamo prisoners fighting their detention in federal courts claim the government defied similar orders to preserve evidence that could clear their clients of wrongdoing.
The House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating the matter, but the Justice Department and the CIA have urged a delay while the government conducts its own preliminary probe.
"Our ability to obtain the most reliable and complete information would likely be jeopardized if the CIA undertakes the steps necessary to respond to your requests in a comprehensive fashion at this time," CIA Inspector-General John Helgerson and Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein wrote in a letter to the House committee late last week.
The House panel is still working on possible subpoenas of witnesses and documents. No hearings are expected until after the holiday recess, according to congressional aides. The Senate committee also will not take up the issue until early next year.
The case is Abdah v. Bush (04-1254). E-mail to a friend