After Reviewing CIA Records, Lawmakers Still Divided on Interrogation Briefings

With House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer by her side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a news conference yesterday.
With House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer by her side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a news conference yesterday. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sequestered in rooms buried deep within the Capitol and requiring top-secret clearances to enter, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have spent the past week leafing through documents at the heart of Washington's latest who-knew-what-and-when saga.

But rather than emerging with clear agreement on what the memos reveal about the CIA briefing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received in 2002, and whether she was aware that aggressive interrogation methods were being used on terrorism suspects, lawmakers remain as divided as ever about the story they tell.

And unless those detailed documents prove to be more precise than some who have viewed them suggest -- or until the CIA is willing to declassify them -- it is possible that what Pelosi and other lawmakers learned almost seven years ago about the use of waterboarding and other techniques may never be definitively understood.

Republicans who have seen the documents say they present a clear case that Pelosi (D-Calif.) was told about the waterboarding of a key al-Qaeda operative, rejecting her accusation that the CIA intentionally misled her about the interrogation technique, which simulates drowning. "I came away feeling comfortable in saying the speaker owes the [intelligence] community an apology at the least," said Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), a former FBI agent.

But Democrats, as well as some former intelligence officials, warn that the documents are far from definitive and reflect only after-the-fact recollections from CIA briefers who never intended to produce full transcripts of the sessions. "You can have a lot of interpretation either way," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), who said he "sped-read" the documents this week.

Those documents, which were delivered to the intelligence panels last week, have become the latest front in the pitched battle to shape the legacy of the Bush administration's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Members of Congress are largely divided into two camps: One says that the CIA intentionally withheld information about the tactics it was already using against detainees, even as it was providing Congress with intelligence that led to an overwhelming bipartisan vote supporting the use of force in Iraq to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. The other says that Pelosi is covering up her original tacit support of techniques that she now labels as torture.

Pelosi and leading Republicans have asked for the briefing memos to be declassified, each side seeming to think their release will vindicate its cause. And on Thursday, House Democrats blocked a Republican effort to form a special committee to investigate Pelosi's allegation that CIA officials misled her.

But the speaker made clear yesterday that she does not intend to continue discussing the matter publicly. After a news conference devoted to the accomplishments of the Democratic Congress, she dismissed reporters' questions about the controversy.

"I have made the statement I am going to make on this. I don't have anything more to say about it," she said before departing for a week-long trip to China.

The differing interpretations of the briefing memos mirror the conflicting recollections of Pelosi and three other congressional leaders about what they were told roughly a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the former representative who chaired the intelligence panel in 2002, has suggested that he and Pelosi left their briefing understanding "what the CIA was doing" and offering their support, while Pelosi said waterboarding and other aggressive techniques were mentioned only as legal tactics for future interrogations.

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