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Pelosi, Panetta in new duel over CIA misleading Congress

In a closed briefing, did the spy chief acknowledge that the agency had ‘concealed significant actions’?

By Staff writer / July 9, 2009

CIA Director Leon Panetta on Capitol Hill in June. Panetta is holding his ground in a face-off with House Democrats, who say the CIA mislead Congress during the Bush years.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Washington

Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta is not blinking in a new face-off with House Democrats over whether the CIA misled the Congress in the Bush years.

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It’s a charge famously raised by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on May 14 but quickly denied by Director Panetta, then just three months into his new job. Ms. Pelosi was disputing charges that she had been briefed by the CIA about torture of detainees but did nothing about it.

The flap put the credibility both of the speaker and the agency on the line, and it helped drive down Pelosi’s public approval ratings.

But this week, on the eve of a key House vote to authorize funding for US intelligence, House Democrats are giving Panetta a second shot at backing up the speaker. He’s not taking it.

“Director Panetta stands by his May 15 statement. It is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress,” said CIA spokesman George Little on Thursday.

“This Agency and this Director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta’s actions back that up,” Mr. Little said.

At issue is what Panetta told the closed briefings with the full House and Senate intelligence committees on June 24. Seven Democrats on the House intelligence panel say Panetta privately confirmed that “top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all members of Congress and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.” They want him to “correct” his May 15 statement and say so publicly – a move that would back Pelosi’s claims.

Republicans on the panel dispute that reading of the director’s comments. They say the meeting was more narrowly focused on one operation.

What’s not in dispute is that Panetta set up the June meetings with the full intelligence panels at his own initiative to correct a lapse in disclosure.

“Panetta didn’t say that the agency misled Congress,” says an official familiar with the
matter. “He took decisive steps to inform the oversight committees of something that hadn’t been appropriately briefed in the past. He didn’t attribute motives to that. He wasn’t director at the time.”

“This program came in post-9/11, and it was indeed on again, off again. You could argue that it never really took shape,” the official added, speaking on background.

Once a bastion of bipartisanship, the congressional intelligence committees devolved into partisan free fire zones in the Bush years. The first months of the Obama administration show no signs of let-up.

Watchdog groups say the public deserves better. “These dueling press releases are entertaining but not satisfactory,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It would be helpful to know if Congress was misled, on what subject, and with what consequences, and what steps will be taken in response. ‘We’re sorry’ is not enough.”

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