White House Declines to Defend CIA against Pelosi’s Charge It Misled Congress
May 19, 2009 - 11:51 AMTwice in four days White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to defend the Central Intelligence Agency against the charge made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) that the agency misled the Congress of the United States.
At a May 14 press conference, Pelosi repeatedly said the CIA had misled Congress and had directly made a false statement to her about whether the agency had used the waterboarding interrogation technique on al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah.
On May 15, CIA Director Leon Panetta—an Obama appointee--defended the agency, stating that CIA records indicated the CIA briefers truthfully briefed Pelosi in September 2002 on the enhanced interrogation techniques that were being used on Zubaydah.
At the May 15 and May 18 White House press briefings, Gibbs evaded answering questions seeking to discover whether the President backed up his CIA director in asserting the truthfulness of the CIA or backed up the Speaker of the House in asserting that the CIA had misled Congress.
When asked specifically whether President Obama believed his CIA director was right or wrong, Gibbs evaded the question.
In a statement that she read at her May 14 press briefing, Pelosi said the CIA had flatly told her in a September 2002 briefing that it had not used the waterboarding technique up to that point in time.
“The CIA briefed me only once on enhanced interrogation techniques, in September 2002, in my capacity as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee,” Pelosi said. “I was informed then that the Department of Justice opinions had concluded that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques were legal. The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed. Those conducting the briefing promised to inform the appropriate members of Congress if that technique were to be used in the future.”
Pelosi went on to say that: “We also now know that techniques including waterboarding had already been employed, and that those briefing me in September 2002 gave me inaccurate and incomplete information.”
Pelosi conceded that she later learned through an aid that the CIA had indicated in a February 2003 briefing that the enhanced interrogation techniques were being used. After that briefing, then-Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Jane Harman (D.-Calif.) sent a letter to the CIA protesting the use of the techniques, but Pelosi did not sign the letter.
“Five months later, 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,” said Pelosi. “Following that briefing, a letter raising concerns was sent to CIA General Counsel Scott Mueller by the new Democratic ranking member of committee, the appropriate person to register a protest.”
In the course of her May 14 press conference, Pelosi repeatedly asserted that the CIA had misled her.
“The CIA comes to the Congress, withholds information about the timing and the use of this subject. They--we later find out that it had been taking place before they even briefed us about the legal opinions and told us that they were not being used,” she said.
When a reporter directly asked Pelosi if she was accusing the CIA of lying to her, Pelosi said she was accusing the CIA of misleading Congress.
“Madame Speaker, just to be clear, you're accusing the CIA of lying to you in September of 2002?” asked a reporter.
“No, misleading the Congress of the United States,” said Pelosi, “misleading the Congress of the United States."
A moment later in the press conference, Pelosi reiterated this accusation. “So yes, I am saying that they are misleading--that the CIA was misleading the Congress,” said Pelosi.
She also said the CIA “did not represent the facts” in regard to the issue of torture.
“And I, as I say, have taken special interest in this issue, over time, take pride in it and the work that we have done, on the issue of torture,” said Pelosi. “So I was pretty sensitive to what they would be briefing us and what they said they were doing and what they didn't. But they did not represent the facts in that regard."
Toward the end of her press conference, Pelosi said of the CIA: “They mislead us all the time.”
The next day, CIA Director Leon Panetta rebuked the House Speaker through a public statement to agency employees, stating that the CIA’s records indicated that the agency had briefed Pelosi accurately in September 2002, describing for her the “enhanced techniques” that had been used on Zubaydah.
“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress,” said Panetta. “That is against our laws and our values. 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.’”
Panetta also told the CIA employees: “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.”
Later that day, at the White House press briefing, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to say whether President Obama, in light of Panetta’s statement, agreed with Pelosi’s accusation that the CIA had lied to her.
“Okay, let me ask you about Speaker Pelosi,” a reporter asked. “Yesterday she said that she--it was her belief that the CIA lied to her. The CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a message to employees today that it is important for them to focus on their job, not listen to all this noise, that they take any kind of accusation of that nature very seriously. Does this White House agree with the Speaker that the CIA lied to her? Does it have any opinion on the propriety of the airing that kind of accusation publicly?
“I think you’ve heard the President say this a number of times: the best thing that we can do is to look forward,” said Gibbs. “The President is spending his time on any number of issues, including keep the American people safe, by looking forward.”
The reporter then said: “Yes, but it is a crime, what the Speaker alleged. … That’s a serious allegation, one that would be--would necessarily alarm the American public at a time of war, which the President, I know, as you’ve told us, takes very seriously.”
Gibbs responded: “He does, and Major, I appreciate the invitation to get involved in here, but I’m not going to RSVP.”
On Monday, Gibbs again evaded giving substantive answers to questions about Speaker Pelosi’s accusations against the CIA. He declined to say whether the president believed the speaker should come forward with evidence to back up her accusation that the CIA misled her, he declined to say whether the president agreed with his CIA director that the agency had not misled Congress, and he declined to say whether the president thought the CIA director was “right or wrong.”
He did say, however, that the president does have confidence in Speaker Pelosi.
“Some have suggested that Speaker Pelosi should come forward with evidence of the allegation that the CIA misled her. Does the president agree that she should have some evidence?” a reporter asked.
Gibbs said: “You know, I appreciated the opportunity to get involved in this on Friday, and I declined, and I haven't changed my mind on Monday.”
“Does the president have confidence in Speaker Pelosi?” asked a reporter.
“He does,” said Gibbs.
Later in the press conference a reporter returned to the issue of the CIA and the Speaker of the House, asking Gibbs whether the President agreed with his CIA director that the CIA was not misleading Congress.
“If I could go back to CIA and Pelosi, I'd just try this one different way. But--Panetta's issued a statement. Does the president agree with Panetta that the CIA is not in the business of misleading members of Congress?” asked a reporter.
“I appreciate the opportunity. I'm--I would point you to my remarks from Friday,” said Gibbs.
“So we can kind of be in limbo on whether or not the president agrees with the CIA director?” asked a reporter.
“I appreciate the hypothetical,” said Gibbs.
Still later in the press conference, a reporter returned to the issue of Pelosi and the CIA, and this time Gibbs declined to defend CIA Director Panetta on behalf of the President.
“Does the president believe his CIA chief was right or wrong?” asked a reporter.
Gibbs summarily dismissed the question, referring to his earlier non answer. “We did this earlier. You can do that from earlier,” said Gibbs.
That ended discussion of the integrity of the CIA at Monday’s White House briefing.
In sum: In two consecutive press briefings over a span of four days, the White House has declined to defend the CIA, and the assertions of President Obama’s CIA director, against a charge by the Speaker of the House that the agency misled Congress.