Rebuffed by the Democratic head of the CIA and left hanging by a Democratic White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backpedaled Friday on her claims that the CIA lied to her about water-boarding.
Pelosi issued a statement late Friday shifting her criticism to the Bush administration – hours after CIA Director Leon Panetta defended his agency against Pelosi’s charges.
“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,” Pelosi said in a statement late Friday.
But she didn’t back off her central claim that she wasn’t informed about the use of water-boarding against a key terror suspect in September 2002.
In fact, Democratic insiders said Friday that before Pelosi made her dramatic statement on Thursday, her office dispatched an aide to CIA headquarters to independently verify what she was told during the 2002 briefing based upon notes from the meeting, according to Democratic insiders.
“[Pelosi] wouldn’t say what she did without checking it first,” said a Pelosi ally.
Even with Pelosi’s attempts to turn down the temperature, however, the controversy continued.
Panetta issued a letter to all CIA employees Friday rebuffing Pelosi’s claim that she was misled about the use of harsh interrogation tactics.
“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values,” Panetta wrote.
He also said agency records show that CIA officers “briefed truthfully” when they discussed the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in September 2002, “describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’”
The Pelosi-Panetta dispute is by far the most serious Democrat-on-Democrat battle since President Barack Obama was sworn into office nearly four months ago, and has Republicans hoping – both publicly and privately – that Pelosi has permanently damaged her own credibility within among her colleagues.
Pelosi opened herself up to searing criticism from the right, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accusing her of a “despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort” to hide what she really knew from the House. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) went so far as to suggest she could lose the speakership over this.
And if Pelosi was hoping the White House would rush to her defense, she was wrong. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly declined to weigh in Friday, saying he wouldn’t talk about Pelosi’s initial claim that the CIA misled her.
"I think you've heard the president say this a number of times: the best thing we can do is to look forward,” Gibbs said. “I appreciate the invitation to get involved here, but I'm not gonna RSVP."
As for Panetta, the comments by his one-time House colleague presented him an opportunity too good to pass up – a chance to burnish his I’ve-got-your-back credentials with an agency that has viewed him with suspicion since he took the job.
Some agency employees and even some lawmakers publicly fretted that the eight-term Congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton might be too political a choice to run the spy and intelligence service. Panetta’s letter, however, was a way for him to show he was behind them.
A former CIA counter-terrorism official, Vince Cannistraro, said he was impressed that Panetta delivered a fairly direct rebuke to his former House colleague.
“Some might think with his background as a Congressman from California, he might bend over to avoid stepping on Nancy’s toes, but . . . he didn’t hide from it,” Cannistraro said. “He could have rolled over and been ambiguous. He was pretty clear.”
But Cannistraro said Panetta is facing a serious predicament.
“This one is bad. You’ve got the Speaker of the House…saying the CIA lied to them. You know what that means for the House Intelligence Committee and relations with the CIA which it oversees?” Cannistraro said. “It’s a very serious charge and I don’t know that it’s been made in quite such graphic tones by anyone in the past.”
Panetta’s letter to CIA employees was entitled “Turning Down the Volume.” Its effect was to do anything but.
Instead, it pitted two of Obama’s allies against each other in a he-said/she-said that would keep torture in the headlines for another day, despite Obama’s continuing efforts to change the subject.
A Panetta-Pelosi battle also has its roots in the House, where they served together for more than five years, representing some of the most liberal districts in Congress.
The history between Pelosi and Panetta is mixed one.
As the chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997, Panetta witnessed emotional Pelosi’s fight against liberalization of U.S. trade with China, a Clinton priority. Pelosi still bears the political scars from that fight.
Panetta also angered Pelosi by backing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) plan to create an independent panel to redraw the state’s legislative districts, a proposal that could have endangered Pelosi’s allies in the state legislature.
But Pelosi openly backed Panetta over Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) when the two were looking at entering the California gubernatorial race in 1996, and she offered nothing but praise for Panetta when he was nominated by President Barack Obama this year to take over the helm at the CIA.
“There is no love lost between Panetta and Nancy Pelosi,” said one Pelosi ally. “She was never even counseled that they were going to name Panetta [as CIA director] … They’ve never been close.”
Others like Barry Toiv, a longtime aide to Panetta in the House and in the White House budget office, said his ex-boss and Pelosi have been friendly for decades.
“They have a great relationship,” Toiv said. “They had lots of contact both when he was in government, and a fair amount since as well.”
Republicans gloated over the fact that Pelosi was in the middle of the media maelstrom – and suggested the controversy would derail calls for a “truth commission” or other full-scale probe of the Bush years.
“They control the Congress, and they can have hearings if they want to,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) on Fox News. “But if the inference is that maybe they'll be a little less anxious to have the hearings now that one of their own is caught up in this -- in fact, more than caught up in it -- it may well happen that they would decide that discretion is the better part of valor here.”
Congressional Republicans have also shifted their message during the Pelosi torture controversy. While adamantly opposing the idea of a “truth commission” to look into Bush detainee interrogation policies and other controversies from the last eight years, some Republicans now are calling for a special committee to look into what members of the Intelligence Committee were told – including Pelosi.
Pelosi is getting some backing in her own caucus. While Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) initially offered tepid support for Pelosi following her Thursday bombshell, but Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was much stronger in backing her the following day.
“I think Nancy Pelosi is a woman of great integrity, great intellect, and I do not believe that she would intentionally attempt to misled anybody,” Clyburn said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
Clyburn cited statements by former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who also disputed that he was told the CIA was actually waterboarding detainees when he was briefed by the agency during the same period, as further proof of Pelosi’s statement.
The South Carolina Democrat suggested that Pelosi would “welcome” the opportunity to be questioned under oath about what she was told during the 2002 briefing, but added that former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials who knew the details of the detainee interrogation program should also face investigators.
“I think [Cheney] ought to talk about the role he played,” Clyburn said. As for Pelosi, he said, “I don’t think she has a single thing to hide, and I do believe she will welcome such an opportunity.”