By Perry Bacon Jr. and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 16, 2009
CIA Director Leon Panetta yesterday rejected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's charge that the agency misled her about its use of coercive interrogation methods, escalating a controversy that has dogged the speaker for weeks and intensifying a debate over Bush administration policies that the Obama administration has tried to avoid.
Panetta, whom President Obama tapped to lead the CIA this year, reasserted the agency's claim that it told congressional leaders about the use of such methods during a closed-door briefing in September 2002.
Pelosi (D-Calif.) has acknowledged attending the briefing but says she was told only that the CIA was considering the use of waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.
"It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress," Panetta said in a message meant to shore up employees of his agency, which is at the center of a relentless political firestorm over Bush policies and the Iraq war. "Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [terrorism suspect] Abu Zubaida, describing the 'enhanced techniques that had been employed.' "
The dispute over Pelosi's knowledge of the interrogation techniques leaves the Obama administration caught between the speaker, a strong advocate of the president's agenda on Capitol Hill, and the CIA, an agency Obama has defended even as he has described its interrogation methods as torture and released Justice Department memos that drew more focus on those methods.
The president, however, has also strongly resisted calls for the creation of a truth commission, something Pelosi has vocally supported. Such a panel, Obama has said, would devolve into partisan finger-pointing.
The White House saw no value in weighing in on Pelosi and the CIA yesterday. Spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to comment at his daily briefing, telling reporters, "I appreciate the invitation to get involved, but I'll decline to RSVP."
Meanwhile, an administration ready to tackle campaign priorities such as health care and climate change remains mired in issues left over from the Bush administration. Besides the debate over interrogations, Obama continues to wrestle with how to handle detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a facility he ordered closed by next year. This week he drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and others after reversing his support for the release of additional photos of prisoner abuse, and for his announcement yesterday that he will retain and revamp the system of military tribunals to try detainees.
Some liberal activists have said the controversy over what Pelosi knew illustrates the need for a commission to investigate alleged abuses of the Bush administration.
A day after she accused the CIA and the Bush administration of "misleading the Congress," Pelosi defended her charge that she had not been properly briefed, but sought to blame the Bush administration instead of the CIA.
"We all share great respect for the dedicated men and women of the intelligence community who are deeply committed to the safety and security of the American people," Pelosi said in a statement released by her office. "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."
Republicans continued their weeks-long attack on Pelosi. The office of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) circulated comments noting her previous praise of the CIA. Radio show host Rush Limbaugh called for her resignation.
Pelosi's position as speaker seems secure for now, as no Democrat has publicly criticized her stance. Instead, Democrats lined up behind the woman they elected as the first female speaker of the House in 2007.
Former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was chairman of the Senate intelligence committee in the period after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said CIA officials did not brief him on the use of waterboarding in 2002. And he questioned whether information provided by the CIA on the content of the briefings was accurate, claiming that in three instances agency officials said he attended briefings on days that his personal journal shows he did not.
"That raises some questions about the bookkeeping of the CIA," Graham said on MSNBC.
Congressional Democrats said they trust the speaker's version of events.
"I'm sure Karl Rove is proud that the Republicans found a way to criticize Nancy Pelosi for not doing enough to stop the same illegal practices that they supported and continue to defend," said Rep. John Yarmuth (Ky.). "It's clearly a desperate attempt to find any political traction with an American public that has given up on them."
Looking to blunt GOP attacks, Pelosi's office circulated comments throughout the day from Democrats defending her, as well as previous remarks by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) questioning the judgment of the CIA. The speaker's office arranged for several members of Congress to appear on television and defend Pelosi, who spent the day at a fundraising event in Arizona for Democratic women running for office.
But Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California who served in the House with Pelosi, stood by his agency and urged CIA employees not to be distracted by the controversy.
"Ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission," he said in his memo. "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."