WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday 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 yesterday, 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 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 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, though records now indicate that the agency had employed the method dozens of times on an al-Qaeda 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 A. Boehner (R., Ohio).
Boehner said that given the briefings that were provided to Pelosi and other Democrats, their recent criticism, following their initial silence, was an attempt "to have it both ways."
"It's pretty clear that they were well aware of what these enhanced interrogation techniques were," he said.
Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said it was "outrageous that a member of Congress would call our terror-fighters liars."
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. Yesterday, she reiterated her call for the creation of a "truth commission" to investigate Bush-era practices.
Republicans have opposed that idea and warned that any such undertaking also would bring scrutiny to Democratic lawmakers. They have focused in particular on Pelosi, accusing her of hypocrisy for failing to attempt to stop the interrogation practices until well after she had learned about them in detail.
Pelosi said that no protest would have mattered to Bush administration officials, and pointed to competing legal opinions within the administration that had been brushed aside. Instead, she said her priority had been to help deliver a Democratic majority to Congress as a way of terminating Bush administration policies.
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 that 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-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times.
The table did not indicate whether waterboarding was specifically mentioned in 2002, but it did 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, but noted that the disclosure came just one month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "At the same time," she said, "the administration was misleading the Congress on the weapons of mass destruction."
Asked about Pelosi's accusation, CIA spokesman George Little said, "It is not the policy of this agency to mislead the United States Congress." He declined to answer directly when asked whether Pelosi's accusation was accurate.
"The language in the chart . . . is true to the language in the agency's records," he said.
Democrats on the House intelligence committee met with reporters yesterday to defend Pelosi and said the CIA routinely withholds critical information in classified briefings.
"You have to play 20 questions with them," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.). "They are not forthcoming with information."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D., Texas), the chairman of the panel, said he intends to introduce legislation that would impose new standards on what the CIA is required to report to Congress.
In a separate matter, Cheney lost - at least for now - his effort to have the government declassify memos describing the success of the CIA program. Cheney had requested their release in March.
In a letter to the National Archives, where the records are kept, the CIA said it could not declassify the documents because they are subject to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.