Democrats Defend Pelosi in CIA Interrogation Briefing Controversy

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headed to the White House Rose Garden yesterday for Obama's announcement of new auto fuel-efficiency and emissions standards.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headed to the White House Rose Garden yesterday for Obama's announcement of new auto fuel-efficiency and emissions standards. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

House Democrats have rushed to the defense of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her public battle with the CIA, a reflection of the enormous loyalty the California Democrat enjoys in her caucus despite a month-long effort by Republicans to use the dispute to weaken her standing.

Yesterday several leading Democrats joined her in criticizing the CIA's procedures for briefing Congress on intelligence issues and, rather than distancing themselves from Pelosi, top Democrats said they believe that the CIA misled her in a September 2002 briefing about controversial techniques used during interrogations of alleged al-Qaeda operatives. Some questioned the agency's new director, Leon Panetta, for defending officials for actions that occurred before his tenure, while others tried to poke holes in the accuracy of the CIA's recordkeeping.

The strong support for Pelosi stems in large part from the reservoir of goodwill she gained in leading her caucus to a House majority in 2006. Most of her Democratic colleagues continue to trust her judgment and say they want her to be their leader in pressing a broad agenda with the White House, including health-care reform and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think the members [of] the Democratic caucus see this for what it is -- a political tactic to distract from the substance of what was done," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday of Republican attempts to exploit the CIA controversy.

Hoyer, a former Pelosi rival in leadership elections, added that not a single member of the Democratic caucus has questioned him about Pelosi's stance, and he said it has not been a point of discussion in leadership meetings.

Pelosi has maintained that she was told in her 2002 briefing by CIA officials that the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, had not yet been used on any detainees. Subsequent government reports showed that in the month before Pelosi's briefing, one captive had been waterboarded 83 times.

Republicans continued to question Pelosi's assertion that the CIA lied to her about waterboarding yesterday, dismissing complaints from other Democrats about the quality of the agency's records and working to keep the focus on Pelosi. "The speaker accused our intelligence professionals of lying to her. Where's her evidence to back up this charge? If she doesn't have any, she should apologize to these men and women who spend their lives protecting this country," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who was the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee in 2002, joined a growing chorus of GOP lawmakers asking for more detailed notes of the briefings that he and Pelosi received a few weeks apart. Shelby, who said his briefing included detailed descriptions of the use of waterboarding, said those notes "would settle it."

Pelosi dispatched a top aide to review those notes last week before accusing the CIA of misleading Congress, and she has also called for their release, saying they will vindicate her. The agency is reviewing that request.

Panetta, in an e-mail to agency staff members Friday, stood by the CIA's records and said the agency does not make it a practice to "mislead" Congress, as Pelosi charged. Yesterday, agency officials reiterated that its records are not meant as official transcripts of congressional briefings but said the document outlining which lawmakers and aides received what information "reflects the records it has."

"CIA isn't hyping anything," Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman, said in a statement.

Republicans view the current controversy -- sparked a month ago by Pelosi's calls for a truth commission to investigate the Bush White House's approval of interrogation techniques -- as their first successful effort to dent the speaker's image. For the previous two years, Republican attempts to turn Pelosi into a polarizing political figure have largely fallen flat. The GOP ran ad campaigns in Southern states linking Democratic candidates to her, for example, only to see the Democrats still prevail.

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