Pelosi Tries to Get Past Torture

Dispute Drowns Out Agenda

Posted May 15, 2009 at 6:10pm

It was a lonely week at the top for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a leader accustomed to keeping her own counsel and lately at the center of a controversy over what she knew, and when, about Bush-era interrogation tactics that has pitted her against the CIA.

A firestorm Democrats hoped to douse was instead inflamed by Pelosi’s accusation Thursday that intelligence officials misled her in a classified briefing seven years ago.

And new developments promised to keep the story front and center: CIA Director Leon Panetta — a fellow California Democrat who once served alongside Pelosi in the House — on Friday rebutted the Speaker’s suggestion that the agency misleads lawmakers “all the time.—

“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values,— he said in a memo to agency employees in which he reminded them of their duty to “tell it like it is — even if that’s not what people always want to hear.—

Pelosi sought to deflate the conflict by declaring her “great respect— for intelligence officials.

“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,— she said in a statement responding to Panetta’s memo. “What is important now is to be united in our commitment to ensuring the security of our country; that, and how Congress exercises its oversight responsibilities, will continue to be my focus as we move forward.—

But as battle lines hardened in the she-said, they-said conflict between the Speaker and the spy agency, other Democratic allies began rallying to Pelosi’s defense.

“I do believe that during that period of time there was some kind of disconnect between the CIA and what they ought to have been doing, and so I think that Nancy Pelosi is absolutely correct in what she’s saying,— House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball.— Earlier Friday, former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) appeared on the network backing Pelosi’s claim that CIA briefers in late 2002 failed to tell lawmakers on the Intelligence panels that they were waterboarding terrorist detainees.

The White House, meanwhile, was keeping its distance. “The best thing that we can do is to look forward,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in response to a reporter’s question. “I appreciate the invitation to get involved here, but I’m not going to RSVP.—

Pelosi’s office pledged a message offensive to highlight what her aides called a Republican campaign aimed at distracting from their role as the architects of brutal interrogation techniques. “Our folks are going to be primed for the Sunday shows,— a Pelosi aide said on Friday. “We’re making our case, and we’ll continue to make the case to the American people, reporters, commentators and others.—

But throughout the week, the story proved tough for the Speaker to wrangle. It had been boiling since the previous week, when the CIA released a declassified report revealing Pelosi sat in on a September 2002 briefing that described the use of enhanced interrogation tactics and learned from an aide five months later of the use of waterboarding. Pelosi’s office was hamstrung in its response at first because the Speaker was off on a surprise trip to Iraq and didn’t return until Tuesday. But even as the week got under way, Democrats stumbled trying to mount a defense.

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) on Tuesday called the demand by the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), for details of disputed briefings a threat to national security and “the height of irresponsibility.—

But two days later, as she faced reporters for the first time since the release of the CIA report, Pelosi effectively endorsed Hoekstra’s call, saying she would be “very happy— for the CIA to release fuller descriptions of the briefings.

Reyes spokeswoman Courtney Littig downplayed the discrepancy while saying the chairman stood behind his statement. “Releasing the details of highly classified briefings would only serve to hinder the free flow of information necessary to the committee’s oversight function,— she said. “The Speaker has advocated disclosure of her own briefings, and that is her prerogative. Hoekstra is trying to declassify other people’s briefings, which, yes, the chairman believes is the height of irresponsibility.’—

The CIA on Friday was still mulling whether to go forward with the disclosures Pelosi and Hoekstra requested, an intelligence official said.

Behind the story’s damaging drip-drip, Democratic aides and strategists pointed to a confluence of circumstances: a set of events obscured by time and secrecy rules, and at the center, a strong-willed Speaker averse to acknowledging fault or accepting advice.

“She could have spent a lot of time getting leadership in on this issue, and I think unfortunately things could have been done better to explain it away in the beginning,— one senior Democratic aide said. “I think it comes down to her concluding that she needs to deal with this on her own and not let it become a distraction for the rest of the Caucus.—

That was a point the Speaker sought to make to freshman and sophomore lawmakers last week. Huddling with them on Wednesday, the Speaker told the newer members of her Caucus that the controversy was a Republican-made distraction, and she was intent on remaining focused on the party’s agenda, sources familiar with the session said.

The next morning, an at-times visibly flustered Pelosi was swamped with questions from reporters at an unusually tense press conference. And more than three hours after it wrapped up, her team sent out talking points to Democratic offices.