CIA faces criminal inquiry into loss of 'torture' tapes at Guantanamo

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The Central Intelligence Agency was last night rocked by the formal opening of a criminal inquiry into the destruction of video tapes of US interrogations of al-Qa'ida suspects at Guantanamo Bay which allegedly included the use of "water-boarding".

The US Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he was appointing an outside prosecutor to lead the investigation, which will determine whether criminal charges should be brought. The CIA has claimed that the tapes of the interrogations of two terror suspects were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identity of the agents involved. Democrats in Congress have mocked the claim.

The practice of "water-boarding", which simulates drowning, has been branded as torture by several leading Democrats, including those vying for the presidency. The White House maintains that the US does not practice torture.

But the investigation will also put a flame under President George Bush and his administration. Officials have conceded that at least four senior White House lawyers were party to long deliberations about the fate of the video tapes.

John Durham, the chief prosecutor of Connecticut who is leading the inquiry, is likely to empanel a grand jury to look into the case, which is likely to entail senior officials being called to testify. The co-chairmen of the panel that investigated the September 11 attacks of 2001 have publicly charged the CIA with deliberately obscuring the facts.