A new firestorm is raging over the Bush administration’s use of torture in its “war on terror,” ignited by CIA Director Michael Hayden’s admission that the spy agency destroyed videotapes of its interrogation of two detainees.

Hayden claimed the videotapes were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identity of CIA agents who conducted the interrogations of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaida and Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri in 2002.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) scorned this alibi, telling the Senate, “The CIA was desperately attempting to cover up damning evidence of its practices.”

Kennedy pointed out that the Bush White House has erased 10 million e-mails. He commented, “We have not seen anything like this since the 18-and-a-half minute gap in the tapes of President Richard Nixon,” a reference to Nixon’s Watergate cover-up efforts.

The furor comes on the sixth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Human rights, civil liberties and peace organizations scheduled an International Day of Action to Shut Down Guantanamo, Jan. 11 in Washington, D.C. Protesters in orange prison jumpsuits, their heads covered with black sacks, planned to march to the Supreme Court to protest the incarceration of 360 at Guantanamo, many held for years without criminal charges, and many subjected to torture.

Daniel Gorevan, a leader of London-based Amnesty International, who was in Washington for the protest, told the World the real aim of destroying the tapes “was to protect the current administration, not to protect national security. It is a case of covering up serious crimes, holding prisoners in secrecy, subjecting them to torture. Our hope is that the scandal of Guantanamo [and] Abu Ghraib will sufficiently outrage the U.S. population and that it will bring an end to these policies and the closing of these prisons.”

Amnesty cites the case of Australian David Hicks, who won release from Guantanamo last year. His case galvanized voters to oust conservative Prime Minister John Howard, one of Bush’s closest allies in the Iraq war. Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd defeated Howard in a landslide. Amnesty toured Australia with a mock CIA prison cell like the one where Hicks was held. A similar cell will be touring the U.S. during our elections.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, “Serious questions remain about the extent to which the White House and other governmental agencies were complicit in the CIA’s destruction of the tapes.” Amrit Singh, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told the World, “The public has the right to know who authorized such a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and why nothing was done to stop it.”

The ACLU has been litigating under the Freedom of Information Act for more than three years, and a federal court ordered compliance with the ACLU’s FOIA request for documents related to extreme interrogation methods. “Yet the CIA has not released a single document or record relating to its treatment of prisoners in its custody at Guantanamo or other prisons around the world. Instead, the CIA has chosen to flagrantly violate the court order,” she said. “It is very significant that we have confirmation from Hayden that those tapes were destroyed. Those who destroyed them should be held accountable.”

The Bush administration could face charges of obstruction of justice like those that forced Nixon’s resignation, if it is proved that the White House was involved in ordering the tapes destroyed.

The New York Times reported last Dec. 20 that at least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions of whether to destroy the tapes, including then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Cheney’s counsel, David Addington.

The House Intelligence Committee has issued a subpoena for Jose Rodriguez, chief of the CIA’s clandestine branch, to testify Jan. 16 on his role in destroying the tapes. Observers say it is inconceivable he acted without the approval of his superiors. Former CIA officer Larry Johnson told the UK Guardian that Bush himself probably viewed at least one of the tapes since he was interested in the Zubaida case “and received frequent updates on his interrogation” from then-CIA Director George Tenet.