WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush "has no recollection" of videotapes of CIA interrogations of some al Qaeda suspects or of plans to destroy the tapes, a White House spokeswoman said.
CIA Director Michael Hayden says congressional leaders were told about the tapes.
Bush and Vice President Cheney learned about videotaped interrogations of some al Qaeda suspects on Thursday, when CIA Director Michael Hayden briefed them about the existence of the tapes and their subsequent destruction, administration officials said Friday.
The interrogations -- using newly approved "alternative" interrogation techniques -- of two al Qaeda suspects were recorded in 2002, Hayden said Thursday in a letter to CIA employees. They were destroyed three years later when the agency determined they had no intelligence value and could pose a security risk, he said.
"I spoke to the president this morning about this," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday. He was briefed by General Hayden yesterday morning."
The vice president learned about the tapes and their destruction at the same time, another administration official told CNN.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, said that was "stretching credulity."
"There's something going on here," Dodd, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said on CNN's "The Situation Room. "We're not getting the full story, hence the reason why there should be an investigation. It goes to the heart of our national security, our protection, our safety, our isolation in the world. That's why this is so important."
Later Friday, two senior administration officials told CNN that then-deputy White House counsel Harriet Miers was aware of the tapes and told the CIA not to destroy them.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential investigations on the matter, said they believe this is "exculpatory" for the White House because it shows a top official had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes. The officials also said the information about the tapes was not relayed to the president until this week.
Democrats reacted strongly to the news of the existence of the tapes and their subsequent destruction, particularly given the continuing controversy over use of harsh interrogation techniques -- believed to include waterboarding, a technique that involves restraining a suspect and pouring water on him to produce the sensation of drowning -- and whether they constitute torture.
"It is a startling disclosure," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said Friday on the Senate floor. "The United States of America -- a nation where the rule of law is venerated -- has now been in the business of destroying evidence. Evidence of a very sensitive nature -- evidence which clearly should have been protected for legal and historic purposes."
Durbin said he was sending a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey calling for an investigation into whether any laws were broken by "CIA officials who covered up the existence of these videotapes."
The Justice Department later said it had received Durbin's letter, but would not comment other than to say it had begun gathering facts. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, joined Durbin's call for an investigation.
Democrat disputes CIA chief's account
In his letter to CIA employees, Hayden wrote that the leaders of the CIA's congressional oversight committees were informed of the videos "years ago" along with the agency's intent to destroy them.
But Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, -- who was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee when the tapes were made and when they were destroyed -- told CNN that was "not true."
Harman said she'd attended a classified briefing in 2003 that "raised some concerns in my mind," prompting her to send a classified letter to the CIA's general counsel.
"Obviously they both remain classified," she said, "but I have raised with the CIA my view that no videotape should be destroyed. Let me just leave it there. ...
"Segue to two years later, we have now learned that the tapes have been destroyed," she said. "I was still the ranking member of the committee, (and) no one ever informed me that tapes were being destroyed."
Former Rep. Porter Goss, R-Florida -- who was head of the CIA when the tapes were destroyed -- was told about the tapes when he served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a former intelligence official told CNN. The official said that Goss agreed with Harman that the tapes should not be destroyed and, when he became director of the agency in 2004, he let "the appropriate people" know his opinion.
The official said Goss was unhappy when he learned after the fact that the tapes were destroyed. Goss resigned in May 2006; Hayden was his successor.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, currently the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, was chairman of the committee after Goss joined the CIA until the Democrats won control of the House last year, covering the time when the tapes were destroyed. He told CNN he was never briefed about the tapes' existence or their destruction.
Other senators and representatives added their voices to the calls for investigations, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Michigan; Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan; and presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that panel "will be doing their own investigation."
Daniel Marcus, who was general counsel for the 9/11 commission investigating lapses in intelligence and security prior to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, said the commission was not informed about the videotapes and that the decision to destroy them "reflected very bad judgment."
Tapes were 'an internal check,' chief says
Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubayda was one of two al Qaeda suspects whose interrogations were videotaped, according to a government official with knowledge of the tapes.
A government official with knowledge of the CIA's interrogation practices described the detention and interrogation program as "very tightly held." This was a "highly compartmentalized program," the official said. "Relatively few" people had "knowledge of or access to" the tapes even within the agency.
Hayden, who was not CIA director at the time of either the interrogations or their destruction, said in his letter to CIA employees that the tapes were made as "an internal check" on the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques, which, he said, became necessary after Zubayda's "defiant and evasive" response to "normal questioning."
John McLaughlin, who was deputy CIA director when the tapes were made, told CNN he and then-CIA Director George Tenet were told the interrogations were being taped after they had already begun. He said the reasons for the taping were consistent with what Hayden said in his letter. Neither McLaughlin, now a CNN analyst, nor Tenet were with the agency when the tapes were destroyed.
Hayden said the tapes were viewed in 2003 by the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of the Inspector General, both of which said the interrogation techniques used were lawful.
The agency made the decision to destroy the tapes "only after it was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries," Hayden said.
"Beyond their lack of intelligence value -- as the interrogation sessions had already been exhaustively detailed in written channels -- and the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them, the tapes posed a serious security risk," Hayden said. "Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al Qaeda and its sympathizers."
Levin called the security risk concern "a pathetic excuse."
"They'd have to burn every document at the CIA that has the identity of an agent on it under that theory," he said.
Hayden, in his letter, said he was providing the background information to CIA employees because he expected possible "misinterpretations of the facts in the days ahead."
Current and former government officials said that Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA's clandestine service at the time, authorized the tapes' destruction. Rodriguez, who resigned from the agency earlier this year, was not immediately available for comment. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Pam Benson, Kathleen Koch and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.