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?

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

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.

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.

Pelosi's press conference on Thursday aimed to resolve the controversy. Instead, she amplified it.

"The press conference was a mistake," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. "Her best defense was keeping the attention focused on what the CIA did back when Democrats were in the minority. Yesterday she continued the story and hardened the drama."

"But Republicans and the CIA also need to be cautious in pushing this issue too far," he continues. "If they do call for the release of documents and an investigation, the door opens to exactly what they have been pushing against -- a full investigation of what happened in the Bush years and whether laws were broken. If they really want to take on Pelosi, this is a risk they will have to face."

Both Congress and the CIA bring powerful assets to a faceoff. Congress holds the power of the purse and investigation. The CIA has access to classified information that bears both on what happened in the past and the quality of congressional oversight.

"The worst situation is where two honorable people disagree about what happened, because they both believe they're right," says former CIA director William Webster. "From what I hear the agency is pretty confident that [Pelosi] was plainly told what was taking place. She should be careful of that, because someone could walk in with a recording."

What the Obama administration does not need is an ongoing, public squabble between the top House Democrat and the director of the CIA, Mr. Webster says. "I'm sure the president will be glad to put this behind him, so people focus on the future not the past."

Responding to a question over whether additional documents bearing on the controversy will be released, a US intelligence official, speaking on background, said: "Requests have been received and are under review."

In response to Panetta's memo to CIA employees, Pelosi said that she has "great respect for the dedicated men and women of the intelligence community," but restated her concerns about the quality of briefings.

"My criticism of the manner in which the Bush Administration did not appropriately inform Congress is separate from my respect for those in the intelligence community who work to keep our country safe," she said. "What is important now is to be united in our commitment to ensuring the security of our country; that, and how Congress exercises its oversight responsibilities, will continue to be my focus as we move forward."

Meanwhile, House Democrats are standing by their leader.

"I certainly am rallying around her. We need to get on with the business of the country," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who has been an outspoken opponent of Pelosi. "The reaction I'm hearing from people in my district is: What's wrong with Washington? The mortgage foreclosure rates are skyrocketing, unemployment is skyrocketing and the Washington press corps is focused on this inside-baseball inside Washington. My district wants to move on."

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