- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

President Obama’s CIA chief told employees in a blunt message Friday that it was not agency “policy or practice to mislead Congress,” one day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused intelligence officials of lying to her and other lawmakers about the use of harsh interrogation methods against terrorist suspects.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta urged agency employees in a letter to “ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission” as the agency is dragged through a public wrangle with the California Democrat over what and when the CIA told lawmakers about the Bush administration’s interrogation practices in the post-9/11 war on terror.

“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values,” wrote Mr. Panetta, who noted the agency frequently finds itself caught up in political disputes.

Mr. Panetta’s rebuke indicated that - despite the speaker’s attempt to deflect reporters’ questions Thursday by blaming the CIA - there would be prolonged scrutiny of Mrs. Pelosi.

Republicans have criticized Democratic leaders for giving tacit approval to harsh interrogation tactics used on terror suspects, saying it is hypocritical for them to now seek inquests and prosecution of Bush administration officials who signed off on the practices.

Mrs. Pelosi has been under fire for her conflicting stories since CIA documents released last week indicated the agency briefed her Sept. 4, 2002, on specific interrogation techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al Qaeda terrorist held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention site.

Trying to contain the dispute, Mrs. Pelosi Friday said her criticisms were aimed at the Bush administration officials who she said tried to conceal the interrogation policies, and not at the CIA.

“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,” she said in a statement.

The White House pointedly declined to take sides.

Asked about the clash at his daily briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House was not interested in refereeing the dispute.

“I think you’ve heard the president say this a number of times: The best thing we can do is to look forward,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The Panetta letter, though it did not mention Mrs. Pelosi by name, challenged her story that she was not personally briefed in 2002 about the ongoing use of harsh interrogation techniques, including the “waterboarding” method that simulates drowning, which has been condemned by Mr. Obama as torture.

“As the agency indicated previously in response to congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed,’ ” he said. “Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.”

Mr. Panetta’s insistence that Mrs. Pelosi was “briefed truthfully” heightens the confrontation between the spy agency and the speaker. Mrs. Pelosi had repeatedly pointed to a cover letter accompanying the briefing document in which Mr. Panetta wrote that the briefing summaries provided by the CIA may not be accurate.

Mrs. Pelosi cited the cover letter as evidence that the documents did not contradict her claim that waterboarding and other specific interrogation methods were not disclosed in the September 2002 briefing.

Under continued pressure to explain her inconsistent stories, however, Mrs. Pelosi this week shifted blame to the CIA.

Republicans have jumped on Mrs. Pelosi’s changing accounts and her unequivocal charge Thursday that the CIA lied to her.

“They mislead us all the time,” she said at her weekly press briefing Thursday, a session dominated by questions about the intelligence briefings.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, called Mrs. Pelosi’s attack on the CIA “the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

“I think she has lied to the House, and I think that the House has an absolute obligation to open an inquiry, and I hope there will be a resolution to investigate her,” Mr. Gingrich, who weathered charges of ethics violations when he was speaker, said in an interview with ABC Radio.

The Panetta letter, titled “Turning Down the Volume,” sought to reassure CIA staffers that they continued to have his support.

“There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business,” Mr. Panetta wrote. “It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I’m gone. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.”

“We are an agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication. Our task is to tell it like it is - even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it,” Mr. Panetta said.

Mr. Panetta has offered to make the briefing accounts available to members of Congress to review. But Republicans are pressing to have the agency’s briefingsmade public.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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