John Nichols | The Nation, July 9, 2009
In May, at a point when congressional Republicans and their amen corner in the media were attempting to defend the Bush-Cheney administration’s torture regime, their primary defense was: Pelosi knew.
The spin held that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had in 2002 been secretly briefed about the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terror suspects.
Pelosi said the Central Intelligence Agency had failed to inform her about the character and extent of the harsh interrogations.
Pelosi accused the CIA of “misleading the Congress of the United States.”
Republican senators screamed.
“It’s outrageous that a member of Congress should call a terror-fighter a liar,” howled Missouri Senator Kit Bond, the vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee. “It seems the playbook is, blame terror-fighters. We ought to be supporting them.”
CIA officials denied lying to Congress and the American people, and that seemed to be that. “Let me be clear: It is not our practice or policy to mislead Congress,” said CIA Director Leon Panetta. That is against our laws and values.”
But, now, we learn that, in late June, Panetta admitted in secret testimony to Congress that the agency had concealed information and misled lawmakers repeatedly since 2001.
Some of the details of Panetta’s testimony are contained in a letter from seven House Democrats to Panetta that was released Wednesday morning.
In the letter, the members (Anna Eshoo of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Adam Smith of Washington, Mike Thompson of California and John Tierney of Massachusetts) wrote: “Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all members of Congress, and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.”
The letter continued: “In light of your testimony, we ask that you publicly correct your statement of May 15, 2009.”
Pelosi’s critics are claiming that Panetta’s admission does not resolve the debate about whether the speaker was lied to in briefings about harsh interrogations.
What does the CIA say?
That’s where things seem to get confusing — but, as we’ll see, not too confusing.
Panetta “stands by his May 15 statement,” CIA spokesman George Little claimed after the letter from the House members was released.
The problem is that Little also said: “This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta’s actions back that up. As the letter from these … representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees.”
So, officially, CIA director Panetta stands by his statement that: “It is not our practice or policy to mislead Congress.”
Panetta’s spokesman is seemingly rather proud that “it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees” that the agency had in the words of the House members “misled members for a number of years from 2001.”
Can we reconcile these statements?
Panetta, who has only headed the CIA since February of this year says that “it is not our practice or policy to mislead Congress.”
But he tells Congress that it was in fact the consistent practice of the CIA to lie to Congress during the Bush-Cheney years.
So what are we left with?
Perhaps a measure of vindication for Pelosi, but the speaker’s wrangling with the Republicans is a distraction from the fundamental revelation.
Far more important is Panetta’s reported admission that his agency has “concealed significant actions” and “misled members of Congress.”
No matter what anyone thinks of Pelosi or waterboarding, there is a clear case for dramatically expanding congressional oversight of the CIA. Of course, more House and Senate members should have access to briefings — and should have the authority to hold CIA officials (and their White House overseers) to account for deliberate deceptions. But that ought not be the first response to the latest news.
Step one must be to get to the bottom of exactly what the CIA was lying about.
Did it have anything to do with the case for invading and occupying Iraq? Afghanistan? Torture?
CIA defenders will claim that some secrets must be kept. Perhaps. But the Congress and the American people have a right to know the broad outlines of the deception — and the extent to which it may have warped, and may continue to warp, U.S. policy.