The announcement comes amid new questions about which officials inside the C.I.A. were involved in the decision to destroy the videotapes, which showed severe interrogation methods used on two Qaeda suspects, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
The agency operative who ordered the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the chief of the C.I.A.’s national clandestine service, known as the Directorate of Operations until 2005. On Saturday, a government official who had spoken recently with Mr. Rodriguez on the matter said that Mr. Rodriguez told him that he had received approval from lawyers inside the clandestine service to destroy the tapes.
This disclosure could broaden the scope of the inquiry into the tapes’ destruction. Several officials said that top lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department advised the C.I.A. in 2003 not to destroy the videos.
Current and former intelligence officials said that the agency’s senior lawyer, John A. Rizzo, had not been notified about the decision and was angered to learn about the destruction of the tapes, which could complicate the prosecution of Abu Zubaydah and others.
Mr. Rizzo’s position, together with the fact that the C.I.A. inspector general, John L. Helgerson, is now examining the matter, indicates a greater level of internal concern at the agency over the destruction than Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, indicated in his message to agency employees on Thursday. General Hayden’s message said that Mr. Helgerson’s office had reviewed the tapes in 2003, but did not mention whether the inspector general had signed off on their destruction.
In a statement released on Saturday, General Hayden said he welcomed the inquiry and the “C.I.A. will cooperate fully.”
Investigators will gather facts to determine whether a full inquiry is warranted. If it is determined that any agency employee broke the law, the standard procedure would be for Mr. Helgerson to issue a criminal referral to the Justice Department.
The investigation comes after both the Senate and House intelligence committees started their own investigations into the destruction of the tapes. In a statement on Saturday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, said the inquiry would be an “important first test” for Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to demonstrate his independence. “I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to why Congress was kept in the dark about this matter,” he said.
In a letter to the C.I.A. on Saturday, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein, who heads the Justice Department’s National Security Division, requested to meet with Mr. Helgerson and Mr. Rizzo early next week to discuss the inquiry.
Mr. Rodriguez, who could not be reached for comment, announced his retirement from the agency this summer. The New York Times has made a request through an agency spokesman to speak with him.
Officials have acknowledged that the destruction of evidence like videotaped interrogations could raise questions about whether the C.I.A. was seeking to hide evidence of coercion. A review of records from military tribunals indicates that five lower-level detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were initially charged with offenses based on information provided by or related to Abu Zubaydah.
Military defense lawyers said the fact that interrogation tapes were destroyed could provide a way to challenge other cases that may be based on information from Abu Zubaydah, though such challenges would face major legal obstacles under the current rules for military prosecutions. They said the defense could argue that the tapes might have raised questions about whether the information was believable or whether Abu Zubaydah had invented it simply to stop aggressive interrogation techniques. Col. Steven David, the chief military defense lawyer for the Guantánamo war crimes cases, said at a trial, “The inference is they destroyed it because it was bad for them.”
He said the disclosure of the destroyed tapes “raises serious concerns” about other potential prosecutions, but it was too early to say how many, or how serious the damage might be. In any case based on information from Abu Zubaydah, defense lawyers could raise the issue of the destroyed tapes as a way to challenge the case. From a defense lawyer’s perspective, Colonel David said, “the issue becomes what is lost, what is destroyed, what else has been destroyed and what else is out there that we are not aware of.”
Abu Zubaydah and Mr. al-Nashiri, who is said to be the chief planner of the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer Cole, are the only suspected Qaeda figures identified so far as the subjects of interrogations recorded on the destroyed tapes.
The destruction of the tapes has intensified the focus on Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in March 2002. As one of the first close associates of Osama bin Laden to be caught after the 9/11 attacks, Abu Zubaydah became a test case on which the C.I.A. built and then adjusted its program of aggressive interrogations and overseas secret jails in the years that followed.
Current and former intelligence officials have said that Abu Zubaydah was subjected to coercive techniques by C.I.A. interrogators even before the Justice Department issued a formal, classified legal opinion in August 2002 declaring that the coercive techniques did not constitute torture.
It is not known whether the videotape depicting his interrogation preceded the 2002 opinion, nor is it known what acts were recorded on the tapes. General Hayden said in his statement that the tapes were intended as an “internal check on the program in its early stages,” despite what he called “the great care taken and detailed preparations made.”
But the destruction of the tapes in 2005 appeared to reflect what former and current intelligence officials have described as longstanding worries about the legality of the C.I.A.’s interrogation practices and the possible legal jeopardy for any employees who engaged in them.
Abu Zubaydah’s case opens a window on a broader debate about the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and the tactics used on Abu Zubaydah and other terrorism suspects.
President Bush has argued, since officially confirming the existence of the interrogation program in September 2006, that Abu Zubaydah’s case proved the value of harsh interrogation methods because Abu Zubaydah yielded valuable intelligence about the 9/11 plot only after those tactics were employed. That assertion was repeated on Thursday by General Hayden.
But other government officials have long disputed some aspects of the C.I.A.’s version of events. These officials said Abu Zubaydah, who had been taken to a secret location in Thailand, cooperated with interviewers from the F.B.I., who used a nonconfrontational approach, until C.I.A. interrogators took over the questioning in April or May of 2002 and used more aggressive techniques.
After the Thailand confrontation, the F.B.I. forbade its agents from taking part in sessions in which harsh methods were used. In his early F.B.I. interviews, Abu Zubaydah, who had been severely wounded during his capture, identified Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks. He also identified Jose Padilla, an American who was convicted in a Miami federal court in August on terrorism-related charges, as a low-ranking follower of Al Qaeda.
Government officials said that during Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation sessions, his C.I.A. questioners used tactics including noise, stress positions, isolation and waterboarding, in which a subject is made to believe he is being drowned. In 2002, during parts of June and July, current and former intelligence officials have said, the C.I.A. suspended the use of harsh techniques against Abu Zubaydah.