Pelosi vs. the CIA: The Spies Stand Up to the Speaker
It has been the nightmare scenario ever since the modern system of congressional oversight of intelligence was created in the late 1970s: When a scandal erupts, a member of Congress will put his (or her) political interests above those of the intelligence agency whose secrets he (or she) has sworn to protect.
That's what's so troubling about the campaign for self-vindication that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been waging. To escape from the charge that she was briefed about -- and implicitly condoned -- interrogation methods that she now calls torture, Pelosi is accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of lying. And not just the Bush-era CIA, mind you, but the Obama CIA as well.
If you read the CIA's careful 10-page summary of the 40 briefings it has given to Congress since 2002 on "enhanced interrogation techniques," it's pretty hard not to conclude that Pelosi is shading the truth to retrospectively cover her backside. "Briefing on EITs including use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah . . . and a description of the particular EITs that had been used," reads the entry for the Sept. 4, 2002, briefing for Pelosi and her House Republican counterpart, Porter Goss. Those techniques included waterboarding, whose use Pelosi has repeatedly claimed she wasn't briefed on.
Congressional Democrats are acting as if there is something sinister in the CIA releasing the records of its briefings (see, for example, Politico's May 12 post "Democrats: CIA is out to get us"). But the deal with congressional oversight is that if members of Congress are briefed on a subject and don't object, they shouldn't trash the agency later in public when there's a flap. That undermines not just CIA morale but the integrity of the oversight process itself.
Pelosi's apparent rewriting of the record would be shocking, if it weren't so typical of congressional behavior on this subject.
Playing politics with the CIA is a way of life on Capitol Hill -- love 'em when they're up, trash 'em when they're down. Republicans and Democrats both play this game, from administration to administration. Rarely, though, has it been as naked as in Pelosi's case. Having climbed up a very tall tree, she is now watching -- and yelping -- as the CIA saws off the limb.
CIA Director Leon Panetta delivered a sharp riposte to Pelosi on Friday, serving notice that he is removing the "kick me" sign from the CIA uniform. He said in a message to employees: "There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I'm gone. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress."
CIA veterans remember how William Casey protected his flank when he was CIA director in the 1980s. To get congressional support for his plan to undermine the Nicaraguan economy by having the contras plant mines in Nicaraguan harbors, Casey invited leading members of Congress to the super-secret Site 39 in North Carolina where the operation was being planned. There was even a photo of then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan sitting atop one of the big mines that was to be used, "looking like the actor Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead in 'Dr. Strangelove,' " remembers a former agency officer.
When the mining operation became public and Moynihan and others began expressing indignation -- and threatened to call CIA officers to testify -- Casey paid a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with the congressional leadership. The demand for CIA testimony disappeared, and agency officers involved in the program suspected that Casey had brought along some of the Site 39 photos in his briefcase.
What will President Obama do in this latest of the never-ending skein of CIA flaps? If Pelosi forces a political showdown, I have a feeling that Obama will side with his CIA director, Leon Panetta, and not with the House speaker.
By reversing his position last week on the release of Defense Department photos documenting the abuse of detainees, Obama put his responsibilities as commander in chief first -- and his loyalty to fellow Democrats second. That's the way it's supposed to work, and, if Obama follows through, it will be one of the defining moments of his presidency.