Do Panetta's Comments Vindicate Pelosi?

CIA Director Panetta said the agency did not inform lawmakers of covert program.

July 9, 2009, 11:07 AM

July 9, 2009— -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's war of words with the CIA may not be fully over as the speaker's allies seize on comments made by CIA Director Leon Panetta that some say could vindicate her charge that the agency routinely misleads Congress.

But while Pelosi's supporters say Panetta's recent revelation of a previously unpublicized covert intelligence operation proves she was right, that is not the way the CIA sees it.

Republicans are delighted that this latest dustup revives the controversy surrounding her war of words with the CIA just when it had seemed to fade away.

At issue is a hastily arranged classified briefing by Panetta to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on June 24. Panetta called the briefing to inform the committee about a covert CIA operation that had begun shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Panetta himself had just found out about the program and believed Congress should have been informed of it long ago.

The covert operation in question was counterterrorism program. Intelligence officials said it had nothing to do with waterboarding or interrogation, but it was controversial enough that the CIA discontinued it last month, about the time Panetta first learned of it.

Pelosi today seemed to distance herself from the story, except to say that the issue should be left up to the intelligence committee. She said in a news conference that she has not had any personal briefing on the issue.

"I know what you know. I've seen the letters from the members, and obviously they have concern," the speaker said. "The Intelligence Committee has the oversight responsibility for intelligence in the House, and its equivalent committee in the Senate. I'm sure they will be pursuing this in their regular committee process and that's the way it will go."

When asked how often she gets briefed by Panetta, Pelosi said, "not much," and added that she has talked to him twice in recent months, the first time being when he was announced as the CIA head.

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, is unhappy that the CIA conducted the program for nearly eight years before Panetta told Congress about it June 24.

"These notifications have led me to conclude that this committee has been misled, has not been provided full and complete notifications, and (in at least one case) was affirmatively lied to," Reyes wrote in a letter to the top Republican on the Committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.

To some Democrats, this is a gotcha moment, proof that Pelosi was right when she said in May that the CIA lied to her about waterboarding in September 2002, and that "they mislead Congress all the time."

Democrats Demand Panetta Retract Pelosi Statement

On May 15, shortly after Pelosi made her allegations, Panetta jumped to the defense of his agency saying, "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress."

But now, in light of Panetta's latest revelation, six Democrats on the Intelligence Committee have fired off a letter to Panetta, demanding that he retract his statement and acknowledge Pelosi was right.

"In light of your testimony, we ask that you publicly correct your statement of May 15, 2009," the Democrats wrote Panetta.

No dice.

"Director Panetta stands by his May 15 statement," says CIA spokesman George Little. "It is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress. This Agency and this Director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta's actions back that up. As the letter from these six representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees."

According to an intelligence official familiar with the briefing, Panetta never said the CIA misled Congress.

"He took decisive steps to inform the oversight committees of something that hadn't been appropriately briefed in the past," the official said. "He didn't attribute motives to that."

Some Republicans don't see any wrongdoing.

"I don't believe the CIA has lied to Congress," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said today. He added that he is still waiting for Pelosi to back up her statement with facts or apologize for her remarks.

And, in fact, not even Reyes, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence committee, sees this as vindication for Pelosi.

In a statement released last night, Reyes tried to navigate his way to a position somewhere between Panetta and Pelosi. He says he agrees with Panetta that "the Agency does not and will not lie to Congress ... but, in rare instances, certain officers have not adhered to the high standards held, as a rule, by the CIA with respect to truthfulness in reporting."

That's a far cry from Pelosi's statement in May that "they mislead us all the time," but it leaves open the possibility they could have fallen short of those "high standards" of "truthfulness in reporting" when they briefed Pelosi back in September 2002.

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