House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bluntly accused the CIA on Thursday of misleading her and other lawmakers about its use of waterboarding during the Bush administration, escalating a controversy grown to include both political parties, the spy agency and the White House.
"It is not the policy of this agency to mislead the United States Congress," responded CIA spokesman George Little, although he refused to answer directly when asked whether Pelosi's accusation was accurate.
But the House's top Democrat, speaking at a news conference in the Capitol, was unequivocal about a CIA briefing she received in the fall of 2002.
"We were told that waterboarding was not being used," the speaker said. "That's the only mention, that they were not using it. And we now know that earlier they were." She suggested the CIA release the briefing material.
Pelosi also vehemently disputed Republican charges that she was complicit in the use of waterboarding, and she suggested the GOP was trying to shift the focus of public attention away from the Bush administration's use of techniques that she and President Barack Obama have described as torture.
Coincidentally, Pelosi spoke as the CIA rejected former Vice President Dick Cheney's request to release secret memos judging whether waterboarding and other harsh techniques had succeeded in securing valuable intelligence information.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the request was turned down because the documents are the subject of pending litigation, which makes them not subject to declassification.
Pelosi has been the target of a campaign orchestrated in recent days by the House Republican leadership, which is eager to undercut her statements as well as stick Democrats with partial responsibility for the use of waterboarding — a kind of simulated drowning — in the Bush administration.
GOP officials secured the release of an unclassified chart by the CIA that describes a total of 40 briefings for lawmakers over a period of several years. Pelosi's name appears once, as having attended a session on Sept. 4, 2002, when she was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Former Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., who at the time was the chairman of the committee and later became CIA director, also was present.
The notation says the briefing was on "enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah ... and a description of the particular EITs that had been employed."
Little, responding to Pelosi for the CIA, said the chart "is true to the language in the agency's records." But he did not say whether the information was accurate.
Instead, he pointed to a recent letter from CIA Director Leon Panetta to lawmakers saying it would be up to Congress to determine whether notes made by agency personnel at the time they briefed lawmakers were accurate.
The CIA has said it could allow congressional staff to review the notes made by briefers who spoke with lawmakers.
The chart specifically notes a discussion of waterboarding in 13 briefings between February 2003 and March 2009, most attended by Democrats as well as Republicans. Two Democrats, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, have challenged the accuracy of some of the CIA's chart.
Pelosi's decision to respond to her critics was something of a surprise, since most polls show Obama and his policies are popular, and Republicans have exhibited virtually nonstop political disarray in the six months since last fall's elections.
Pelosi renewed her call for a so-called truth commission to investigate the events in the Bush administration that led to the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. While President Barack Obama has banned waterboarding, calling it torture, he has been notably cool toward an independent inquiry that might distract attention from his domestic agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also has expressed opposition, as have congressional Republicans.
Pelosi was unusually harsh in describing the CIA.
"They mislead us all the time," she said. Asked whether the agency had lied, Pelosi said yes.
Pelosi contended that Democrats did what they could to stop the use of waterboarding. The senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, who received the 2003 briefing on the practice, sent the CIA a formal letter of protest, she said. That was a reference to Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.
But Pelosi said her focus at the time was on winning control of Congress from the Republicans so her party could change course.
"No letter could change the policy. It was clear we had to change the leadership in Congress and in the White House. That was my job — the Congress part," Pelosi said.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the minority leader, said during the day that Democrats "want to have it both ways" on waterboarding by claiming they did not oppose it even though they criticize it.
Boehner also asked Obama in a recent White House meeting to release the CIA memos that describe the information gained through the use of waterboarding.
Cheney says the documents show that the tactics prevented terrorist attacks and saved lives.
In an embarrassment for the administration, the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, told employees in a recent memo that interrogations that included waterboarding had secured useful intelligence. He later issued a public statement that said it was not known whether the same information could have been obtained without harsh techniques — the same position Obama has taken.