By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009
The debate over the tactics used by the Bush administration to combat terrorism continued to grip Washington yesterday, as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill lobbed accusations about controversial interrogation methods used on suspects.
The battle among lawmakers over who knew what, and when, coupled with the CIA's assertion that it had fully informed congressional leaders about classified matters, made it all but certain that the debate will drag into the summer, when the Obama administration hoped to have Congress's full attention focused on its ambitious legislative agenda.
CIA officials found themselves caught in the middle as both sides pressed for the release of documents that they argued would bolster their arguments.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday charged the CIA with knowingly misleading members of Congress about the interrogation practices, even as she acknowledged for the first time that she learned six years ago that waterboarding was being used on detainees.
Pelosi's comments during a heated news conference added another layer to the debate over President George W. Bush's anti-terrorism methods and their effectiveness.
On another front, the CIA yesterday rejected former vice president Richard B. Cheney's request to release documents that he said would reveal that waterboarding and other interrogation practices helped thwart terrorist plots.
In her most explicit comments to date about the controversial interrogation methods, Pelosi slammed the CIA and called on the agency to release classified notes about the secretive briefings congressional leaders received.
"At every step of the way, the administration was misleading the Congress. And that is the issue," Pelosi said at the news conference.
Pelosi, who was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee until January 2003, has emerged as the central focus of an effort by congressional Republicans and former Bush administration officials to paint Democratic leaders as giving their tacit support for the interrogation tactics. They contend that top Democrats were aware that CIA interrogators were using waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and that their support waned only after its use became public and led to an outcry from human rights activists.
Pelosi's news conference marked her first time addressing the issue since the CIA released a detailed memo last week outlining almost 40 congressional briefings on interrogation practices since September 2002.
Yesterday, the CIA offered conflicting accounts about the merits of Pelosi's charge. In a statement, the agency stood by records it released last week suggesting that Pelosi was informed in September 2002 about the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."
"The language in the chart -- 'a description of the particular [enhanced interrogation techniques] that had been employed' -- is true to the language in the agency's records," a CIA spokesman said yesterday. That chart contradicts the speaker's assertion, which she has maintained consistently for the past 18 months, that she was told only that the Justice Department had provided a legal basis for using waterboarding or other harsh techniques in future interrogations.
But agency officials also referred the media to last week's statement from CIA Director Leon Panetta, who suggested that the briefing records that Pelosi demanded be released yesterday are based on the almost seven-year-old recollections of officials present for the briefings. Panetta said Congress would have to determine for itself whose memory was most accurate.
The agency is reviewing a bipartisan request from Pelosi and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, to release detailed summaries of Pelosi's briefing from 2002. Such a "memorandum for the record" is currently available only to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees to review at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, and to date Hoekstra is the only lawmaker known to have reviewed the notes of the Pelosi briefing. Hoekstra said yesterday that he would need to have further discussions with those present to determine the accuracy of Pelosi's accusation.
By the time of that Sept. 4, 2002, briefing, Abu Zubaida, a key al-Qaeda operative, had already been moved into a "dark site" overseas where CIA operatives interrogated him. In the month before Pelosi's briefing, Abu Zubaida -- whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein -- had been subjected to waterboarding 83 times, government reports show.
Pelosi maintained yesterday that she was not told that waterboarding had been used on Abu Zubaida during that briefing, which was also attended by then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who chaired the intelligence panel at the time and went on to serve as CIA director.
"I'm telling you that they talked about interrogations that they had done and said, 'We want to use enhanced techniques, and we have legal opinions that say that they are okay. We are not using waterboarding.' That's the only mention, that they were not using it," she said.
Goss was out of the country and could not be reached yesterday. But in an op-ed last month, he declared that he was rendered "slack-jawed" by lawmakers' claims that they were not fully informed about waterboarding. "We understood what the CIA was doing. We gave the CIA our bipartisan support," Goss wrote.
Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified briefings, suggested that the record might never be clear as to what Pelosi and Goss were told. One official familiar with the congressional briefings acknowledged the difficulty of establishing exactly what lawmakers were told. Internal CIA memos about the briefings were "not designed to be stenography" but were based on recollections after the fact, the official said. There were no recordings or precise transcripts, he said.
But other current and former intelligence officials suggested that the use of waterboarding was discussed at the 2002 briefing, which was attended by eight people, including four CIA officials, Pelosi, Goss and their top aides.
Even if Pelosi's account were accurate, Republicans suggested, she never raised any formal objection to the interrogation techniques, lending her indirect support to the methods. Hoekstra told reporters that classified briefings usually end with intelligence officials asking lawmakers, "Are we okay to move forward on this?"
Last month, Obama released Bush-era Justice Department documents that provided the legal basis for the use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics on detainees. After the release of those memos, Pelosi joined other Democrats in calling for a "truth commission" to investigate which Bush administration officials authorized the tactics.
Obama has rejected calls for such a commission, saying it would become highly politicized and do little to enhance public knowledge. However, the Senate intelligence committee is conducting a broad review of the interrogation techniques.
House Democrats rallied behind Pelosi. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, described CIA briefings as "notifications and nothing more," citing the occasional practice of limiting the most sensitive information to the "Gang of Four," the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence panels.
"When the CIA comes in to notify you about a very sensitive intelligence program, you don't have the opportunity to get all your questions answered or to review legal documents," Reyes said in a briefing for reporters. "You're not allowed to consult with any lawyers or experts. You're not even allowed to discuss the matter with your colleagues or your staff."
The CIA, meanwhile, rejected Cheney's request to release documents that he says would show that the interrogation methods helped thwart terrorist plots.
A letter released by the agency yesterday denying the request cited pending legal action as the sole reason for keeping the documents under seal.
"For that reason -- and that reason only -- CIA did not accept Mr. Cheney's request for a mandatory declassification review," agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.
Cheney, who has sparred with the Obama administration since it outlawed coercive interrogations in January, submitted a formal request to the National Archives and Records Administration on March 31. He asked for the declassification of two secret documents that were said to describe the intelligence gained from the CIA's questioning of al-Qaeda suspects in overseas prisons.
In a Fox News interview last month, Cheney said the documents "lay out what we learned from the interrogation process" and would presumably validate Bush administration assertions that the controversial methods disrupted terrorists' plans and saved American lives.
The CIA must approve the public release of any such documents. But in the letter to the National Archives, the agency noted that requested records were the subject of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.
Gimigliano said Cheney's request was handled "in accordance with normal practice."
Staff writers Peter Finn, Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.