WASHINGTON - The head of the CIA defended the agency yesterday against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's allegation that she was misled in 2002 about the use of waterboarding, but he said it ultimately was up to Congress to decide where the truth lay.
"Let me be clear. It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress," CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote in a message to agency employees that was released to the public. "That is against our laws and our values."
Referring to Pelosi's remarks, he said: "The political debate over interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday."
Panetta's rebuttal was far more muted than a counterattack the Republicans unleashed against Pelosi.
"I think her accusations against our terror-fighters are irresponsible and, according to the CIA's record, Speaker Pelosi was briefed on what had been done," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.
Pelosi drew the criticism a day after opening her weekly news conference with a prepared statement accusing agency briefers of misleading her in 2002 in connection with the use of waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
In the statement, she repeated that she was not told that waterboarding had been used, even though it had been used, and said an aide informed her of its use after other lawmakers had been briefed in 2003.
Several hours after Panetta circulated his message, Pelosi issued a response that blamed the Bush administration rather than the CIA by name for any errors in connection with the briefings.
"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," it said.
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 in the Bush administration.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs decided to stay out of the controversy, saying: "I appreciate the invitation to get involved, but I'll decline to R.S.V.P." He said the president wanted to look forward, not back.
Panetta, a former Democratic lawmaker from Pelosi's home state of California, said records from the period "indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [terrorist suspect] Abu Zubaydah, describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed.' "
He cited a "long tradition in Washington of making hay out of our business. . . . But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress."
He added: "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."
An unclassified chart released last month by the CIA describes a total of 40 briefings for lawmakers over a period of several years on enhanced interrogation techniques. Pelosi's name appears once, as having attended a session Sept. 4, 2002, when she was the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee.