Under pressure to explain conflicting stories, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday acknowledged for the first time that in 2003 she was told waterboarding and other tough tactics were being used on suspected terrorists and did not object to them, even as she defiantly accused the CIA of lying to her and Congress about the use of such controversial techniques during 2002 briefings.
The CIA, in an unusually curt response, defended its account that showed Mrs. Pelosi was briefed about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding in a Sept. 4, 2002, meeting.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said the CIA lied to her in 2002, lied in the run-up to the Iraq war, and is misleading now.
“They mislead us all the time. I was fighting the war in Iraq at that point, too, you know,” the House’s top Democrat told reporters, fending off tough questions during her weekly press briefing at the Capitol.
Mrs. Pelosi said the first time she was told the tactics were being used on suspects was when her top intelligence aide notified her on Feb. 5, 2003.
“In February 2003, a member of my staff informed me that the Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member of the intelligence committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions,” she said.
She offered multiple explanations about why she didn’t object at that time. She said objecting was useless - “By the time we were told, we were finding out that it had been used before. You know, in other words, that was beyond the point” - but also said it was no longer her role, since by 2003 she had become House minority leader.
Her successor as the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, did write a letter after the 2003 briefing objecting to the tactics.
The CIA said it stood by its record of the 2002 briefing that showed, based on recollections of agency employees, that Mrs. Pelosi was briefed that techniques had been used on terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah.
“It is not the policy of this agency to mislead the United States Congress,” said George Little, a spokesman for the CIA.
Last week the CIA submitted a chart to Congress detailing information at the briefings, and Mr. Little said it showed the techniques were discussed at that 2002 meeting.
“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 said Mrs. Pelosi’s account is full of contradictions, and said her comments Thursday were an uncalled-for attack on the CIA.
“I think it is outrageous that the member of Congress would call our terror fighters liars,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. “It seems the playbook is to blame the terror fighters. We ought to be supporting them.”
Democrats have been harshly critical of the interrogation techniques, with President Obama calling them “torture.” Some Democrats have called for those who approved the techniques to face prosecution - which is why Republicans have been so keen on pointing to Democrats who were also aware and didn’t object, saying that meant at least tacit approval.
The success of the techniques has also been debated, and former Vice President Dick Cheney had requested the CIA declassify memos he said would prove the tactics produced valuable information.
On Thursday the CIA said it cannot release those memos because they are the subject of pending lawsuits, and took pains to say the process was not politicized.
“This request was handled in accordance with normal practice by CIA professionals with long experience in information management and release. It was for them a straightforward issue,” said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano.
As the political temperature rose, congressional Democrats continued to defend the speaker and accused Republicans of trying to distract attention from the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and the current chairman of the intelligence committee, said Thursday that Mrs. Pelosi was not able to offer her opinion when she was briefed.
“When the CIA came to notify now-Speaker Pelosi about interrogation, they didn’t come seeking her approval,” Mr. Reyes said. “They didn’t even come seeking her opinion. They came to tell her about a policy that they had already approved and, according to CIA documents, was already being employed.”
He said Mrs. Pelosi has asked him to write a bill overhauling the National Security Act of 1947 to allow more members access to sensitive intelligence materials. It would also require the intelligence community to keep an audit trail of the briefing process and allow members to bring in expert staff to the notification sessions.
Mrs. Pelosi, who said she still backs a “truth commission” to get to the bottom of who authorized the use of the techniques, also said she supports releasing CIA notes that would show what exactly was discussed in congressional briefings.
She has had varying explanations for what she knew.
At first Mrs. Pelosi said the 2002 briefing had included a mention that the CIA thought waterboarding was legal, but she said they weren’t told whether it was being used. She later said they were told in that briefing specifically that the enhanced techniques were not being used at the time - even though records indicate it had been used 83 times in August 2002, the month before she was briefed.
“The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Those conducting the briefing promised to inform the appropriate members of Congress if that technique were to be used in the future.”
But it wasn’t until Thursday that she acknowledged learning the techniques were being used after the 2003 briefing.
Mrs. Pelosi said none of the information she received indicates she gave tacit approval to the administration’s so-called “enhanced interrogation program.”
She also said that even if she was told of the interrogation program, she was unable to object because she took an oath of secrecy.
The intelligence report released last week indicates that the classified 2002 briefing of Mrs. Pelosi included specific details of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, on Zubaydah.
“Briefing on EITs included use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a description of the particular EITs that had been employed,” the report said of the Sept. 4, 2002, briefing.