Citing an ongoing investigation by the justice department and the CIA, however, the White House refused to discuss the central focus of the article: whether senior advisers to George Bush, the president, were aware of the tapes.
But the administration attacked the newspaper on the more narrow point of whether the White House tried to minimise the role its officials played when the story about the tapes broke earlier this month.
Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said in a written statement on Wednesday that “we have not described – neither to highlight, nor to minimise – the role or deliberations of White House officials in this matter”.
In a contentious briefing with reporters later, she added: “I’m not commenting on the underlying facts of the story.”
Detainee is strapped to a board and water is poured over face covered with cloth or cellophane
Sensation is akin to drowning, with reflexive choking, gagging and feelings of suffocation
Variations include dunking detainee headfirst into water
Dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and used in Central and South America 30 years ago
Condemned by rights groups as torture
Bush said the first time he learnt of the tapes was when Michael Hayden, the CIA director, briefed him this month.
Perino reiterated Bush’s assertion on Wednesday.
“He does not recall being told about the existence of the tapes, nor their destruction before being briefed by the CIA briefer,” she said.
Michael Tarazi, a legal analyst, told Al Jazeera that if Bush were found to be involved in the destruction of the tapes, it would be an impeachable offence.
The Times reported that participants in the tape discussions included Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, both former White House counsels; John Bellinger, then a lawyer at the National Security Council; and David Addington, a senior adviser to Dick Cheney, the vice-president.
The CIA, pre-empting a news report, admitted on December 6 that it had destroyed hundreds of hours of interrogation tapes, prompting an outcry from congressional Democrats and human rights activists.
The tapes are believed to have shown interrogation methods that included simulated drowning known as waterboarding, which has been condemned as torture.
The CIA said it destroyed the tapes lawfully and did so out of concern for the safety of agents involved if the recordings were ever made public.
The White House has repeatedly denied that the US uses torture.
On Tuesday, a US judge overruled Bush administration objections and ordered a Friday hearing into whether the CIA violated a court order when it destroyed videotapes of interrogations.
The justice department had urged US District Court Judge Henry Kennedy not to investigate the videotapes.
It also said that in light of other government probes into the tapes, a judicial inquiry into the destruction was inappropriate.
The government has also sought delays in congressional attempts to investigate the tapes’ destruction, saying they would hamper the justice department and CIA probe.
The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has drawn up subpoenas against administration officials and will issue them if they do not co-operate, a congressional aide said on Wednesday.
Legislators have accused the administration of trying to prevent the CIA from co-operating with their investigation.
Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the senate judiciary committee, accused the administration of “stonewalling”.
“Every time we seem to reach a new low in this administration’s arrogant flaunting of the rule of law and constitutional limits on executive power, we learn startling new revelations about the extent to which some will go to avoid accountability, undermine oversight and stonewall the truth,” Leahy said.
But the questions about just how much senior government officials knew about the destruction of the tapes was clouding the real issue, Tarazi said, and that is whether torture was used on detainees.
Tarazi said it appeared that congress was merely trying to “jockey for power” against the White House while the Bush administration was trying to sidestep the judiciary.
There was no real motivation to find out if torture was used, he said.