Not many people get away with calling the Central Intelligence Agency a bald-faced liar, at least not when they're speaking to a room packed with dozens of national media outlets. And yet that is exactly what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did on Thursday. "Madam Speaker, just to be clear," stuttered a reporter at a Capitol Hill press conference, "you're accusing the CIA of lying to you in September of 2002?" "Yes," Pelosi declared definitively, "misleading the Congress of the United States. I am."
And with that, she upped the ante in the high-stakes spat over who knew what and when about the Bush Administration's enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), like waterboarding, which many now classify as torture.
The fight started after the release of a Justice Department memo showing that terror detainees were waterboarded hundreds of times. Pelosi then called for the formation of a truth commission to examine the legality of the tactics and whether those who justified and executed them should be held accountable. House Republicans protested, and Representative Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, warned in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed that Democrats should be careful what they wish for, as many of them were briefed about the tactics without complaint over the past seven years.
Sure enough, CIA charts of who was briefed and when started surfacing. Topping the list? Pelosi, then the top Democrat on the intelligence committee the CIA says was briefed in September 2002 "on EITs including use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a description of the particular EITs that had been employed." Zubaydah, a deputy to Osama bin Laden, was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002, according to Justice Department documents. Pelosi says she was never informed that the tactics described to her that day were employed just that they were under consideration. "We were told specifically that waterboarding was not being used," Pelosi said Thursday.
So who is right and who is wrong? Don't ask CIA director Leon Panetta, who, in a letter to Hoekstra, kicked the hot potato back to Congress by simply stating that the chart seems in line with the notes from the time but that memories are subjective and "in the end, you and the Committee will have to determine whether this information is an accurate summary of what actually happened."
Some discrepancies would seem to bolster Pelosi's case. Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who, according to the chart, was briefed later that same month, says he has no recollection of such a meeting. And Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was briefed in September 2003, says critical information was withheld from him about the legality of the practices to such an extent that by 2005 he had launched a "full-scale effort to investigate," according to his office. (Read about the torture memos that were released.)
On the other side is former Representative Porter Goss, who was the only other Representative at the same briefing as Pelosi in 2002. Goss, who went on to head the CIA, said in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post that they had been told about the EITs. "Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as 'waterboarding' were never mentioned," Goss wrote.
The surprising part of Pelosi's statements wasn't her claim to have been misled Dems have accused the Bush Administration of misleading them on everything from evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to funding for No Child Left Behind it was that she was blaming the CIA itself. Even through the WMD contortions, Dems only ever accused the Administration of manipulating CIA intelligence to its own ends. Pelosi is effectively accusing the agency of a dangerous bias an indictment it cannot directly answer without revealing secret information.
The news reignited a story that has been dogging Pelosi for weeks, through a surprise trip to Iraq and back, Mother's Day and the passage of the war supplemental bill. The Obama Administration this week reversed its decision to release hundreds of photos of detainees being intimidated and tortured, in an effort to get away from a subject that is increasingly eating into media coverage. Pelosi's move throws down the gauntlet before an agency known for selectively leaking politically lethal information when attacked and threatens to further distract.
GOP outrage was predictably swift. "It's hard for me to imagine that anyone in our intelligence area would ever mislead a member of Congress," House minority leader John Boehner told reporters in a press conference immediately following the Speaker's. "When you look at the number of briefings that the Speaker was in, and other Democrat members of the House and Senate, it's pretty clear that they were well aware of what these enhanced interrogation techniques were, they were well aware that they had been used, and it seems to me that they want to have it both ways. You can't have it both ways."
In making the case for a truth commission, it is perhaps counterproductive to label as fungible evidence you don't like and then accuse the bureaucrats of conspiracies to mislead. In doing so Pelosi has unleashed a storm that threatens to undermine not only the intelligence community but her own office and the Democratic agenda.