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Nancy Pelosi goes toe-to-toe with the CIA

The Democratic lawmaker is under fire over her knowledge of harsh interrogation measures. What did she know and when did she know it?

By Staff writer / May 15, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, shown here, has weathered a good deal of controversy in recent days.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Washington

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her supporters on Capitol Hill are scrambling to defuse an increasingly public fight with the Central Intelligence Agency and refocus attention on their own agenda.

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It's emerging as a major distraction, as Democrats ramp up for historic overhauls of the nation's healthcare system and energy strategy while coping with the needs of a struggling economy. But few outside of Republican ranks are predicting that the controversy will threaten Pelosi's hold on House leadership.

Rule No. 1 of fighting a brushfire in California -- or a media frenzy in Washington: Don’t fuel the fire. It’s a rule that the Speaker breached when she opened a new front in a controversy over Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” methods by publicly charging the CIA with misleading the Congress.

“They misrepresented every step of the way, and they don’t want that focus on them, so they try to turn the focus on us,” she said at a press briefing on Thursday.

CIA director Leon Panetta, no stranger to controversy from his days as chief of staff in the Clinton administration and a member of Congress before that, shot back that top lawmakers had been accurately briefed.

"There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," he said in a message to CIA employees on Friday. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.

"Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress," Mr. Panetta said. Without naming Pelosi, he disputed the Speaker's claims that she had not been told as early as 2002 that US officials were using harsh techniques on detainees.

"Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [alleged terrorist] Abu Zubaydah, describing the enhanced techniques that had been employed," he wrote.

When the Obama administration released four Bush-era memos last month outlining the rationale for harsh interrogation techniques, critics warned that the fallout could pull Democrats off their agenda into a fight about the past.

This week, the controversy over what Bush-era interrogators did was all but eclipsed by questions about what Democrats knew about it -- when they knew it and what they did about it.

At the request of Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA last week released a document showing 40 classified briefings with members of Congress on interrogation methods. The briefings cover the period between September 2002 and March 2009.