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As judge orders CIA tape inquiry, Mukasey faces first test

He had asked that the Justice Department handle the probe.

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The matter of the Central Intelligence Agency interrogation tapes – and questions about who should investigate their destruction – may be Attorney General Michael Mukasey's first big challenge at the Department of Justice.

Mr. Mukasey has asked Congress and the courts to let his department and the CIA handle the initial probe. Outside inquiries might complicate Justice efforts to figure out what really happened, said Mukasey in a Dec. 14 letter to a US district judge.

But key lawmakers are not pleased about being told to mind their own business. They've vowed to defy the Bush administration and proceed on their own.

Given the tangle of constitutional checks and balances involved and that many of the facts surrounding the case remain secret, it's not clear who should have precedence here, say some legal experts.

"It's more of a political than a legal question at this point," says Andrew Kent, an associate professor at Fordham Law School in New York.

The next development in the controversy could come as early as Dec. 20, when the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the interrogation of detainees. Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, the panel's chairman, has asked the Department of Justice to provide a high-level official to testify at the hearing.

Congressional and Executive branch investigations often proceed at the same time, asserted Representative Conyers in a letter to Mukasey.

So the administration inquiry "should not be used as a shield against proper and necessary oversight," wrote Conyers.

The tapes at issue were made in 2002, and reportedly depict hours of interrogations of at least two Al Qaeda suspects, including the use of harsh techniques such as waterboarding.

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