WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday got into a public dispute with the CIA over what she knew about harsh interrogation techniques in 2002, in the latest twist in a Washington political furor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, responding to a CIA report that said she had been briefed on interrogation methods that she now condemns but did not at the time, accused the CIA of not telling the truth at a dramatic Capitol Hill news conference.
“The CIA was misleading the Congress,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi’s struggle to retain her credibility is part of a controversy over how far to pursue Bush-era interrogation procedures that threatens to divert Democrats from President Barack Obama’s economic agenda.
The debate over interrogation methods has become a source of tension as liberals press Obama for the prosecution of Bush officials and Republicans insist the techniques produced intelligence that helped avert other September 11-style attacks.
The CIA last week contradicted Pelosi, saying she had been told about the use of methods such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, in a September 2002 briefing.
The spy agency issued a chart saying Pelosi, then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Porter Goss, then the panel’s chairman, were given “a description of the particular EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques) that had been employed.”
A besieged Pelosi told reporters she had only been told that the Bush administration had legal opinions that concluded the use of these procedures were legal, not that the tactics had been used. “The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” she said.
The CIA said then it had not used them yet when in fact they had already been used, Pelosi said.
Goss, however, wrote in The Washington Post on April 25 that he and Pelosi and their counterparts in the Senate had been briefed that “the CIA was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.”
“We understood what the CIA was doing,” he said.
CIA spokesman George Little stuck to the agency’s language. “The language in the chart — ‘a description of the particular EITs that had been employed’ — is true to the language in the agency’s records.”
Republicans accused Pelosi of not having her story straight. “The speaker has had way too many stories about this issue,” said the top Republican in the House, John Boehner. He said it is “hard for me to imagine that anyone in our intelligence area would ever mislead a member of Congress.”
While the case is trouble for Pelosi, it does not appear to be jeopardizing her status in the House.
However, the number two House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, distanced himself from Pelosi’s statements, saying he had no reason to believe that the CIA had mislead Congress.
“I don’t have a belief of that nature. ... And I certainly hope that’s not the case. I don’t draw that conclusion,” Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said on the House floor after he was asked by a Republican whether he agreed with the speaker.
But Hoyer added that focusing on what had been told to lawmakers on interrogations was a distraction from the question of what techniques were used, and whether they were legal.
The furor is also a distraction from other issues, as Obama tries to focus on fixing the U.S. economy, overhauling its healthcare system and tackling global warming.
“It makes a story that just keeps going and gets everybody into fuzzy areas of credibility and that’s not where you want to be,” said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I don’t think it sinks her, but it can’t be pleasant.”
Pelosi has been a vocal proponent of a congressional “truth commission” to investigate the use of harsh questioning methods that Obama banned when he took office.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday said Obama believes the Senate Intelligence Committee is the proper place for a probe. The panel is conducting a closed-door inquiry.
Gibbs spoke on the same day Obama announced he had decided to have administration lawyers try to block the court-ordered release of photographs said to show the abuse of detainees.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria