WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday accused the Bush administration and the CIA of misleading Congress about waterboarding prisoners, escalating a political fight with Republicans over her knowledge of the treatment of detainees.
Separately on Thursday, the CIA rejected a request from former Vice President Dick Cheney to declassify memos that Cheney has said show the agency’s severe interrogation methods were critical to getting information from detainees that helped disrupt terror plots.
The two developments underscore how the classified details of the CIA’s interrogation operations are fueling political skirmishes months after the program was shut down by President Barack Obama.
In her most detailed account to date, Pelosi said that she was told during a classified briefing in September 2002 that the CIA was not engaged in waterboarding, even though records now indicate that the agency had employed the method dozens of times on an al-Qaida suspect one month earlier.
“The CIA was misleading the Congress” as part of a broader Bush administration pattern of deception about its activities, said Pelosi, D-Calif. “The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” she said, adding, “We now know that earlier, they were.”
Pelosi’s comments amount to an allegation that the CIA violated its legal obligation to keep congressional leaders accurately informed. Republicans responded by ratcheting up their criticism of Pelosi.
“I think the problem is that the speaker has had way too many stories on this issue,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The controversy has become a political sideshow to the broader debate over CIA interrogation methods that Obama banned during his first week in office – a decision that Cheney and other Republicans have warned will make the nation less safe.
Pelosi has been among the most vocal critics of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism measures.
The attacks on Pelosi gained traction last week when the CIA released a table that showed that she and former Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., who were then the top members of the House Intelligence Committee, were the first lawmakers to be told of the CIA’s interrogation program.
The table said both members attended a briefing in September 2002 during which the CIA described the particular interrogation techniques “that had been employed.” In August of that year, records now show, the CIA used the waterboarding method on al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times.
The table did not indicate whether waterboarding was specifically mentioned in 2002, but show that a senior aide to Pelosi attended a 2003 briefing where the method was discussed.
Pelosi acknowledged that she was then informed by the aide that waterboarding was being used.
The CIA did not respond to Pelosi’s charges that the agency misled Congress.