Taunted by the GOP, Nancy Pelosi throws a punch—at the CIA.

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May 15 2009 10:06 AM

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Taunted by the GOP, Nancy Pelosi throws a punch—at the CIA.

Nancy Pelosi. Click image to expand.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 

Nancy Pelosi is tough. With Republicans already attacking her, she's picked a new, even bigger fight with the CIA. At a press conference Thursday, Pelosi said the CIA lied in the past, is lying in the present, and generally makes a habit of it. "They mislead us all the time," she said. The weaker among us would be content to fight just one foe.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Pelosi is on the attack because she's been on the defensive. Republicans charge that she's a hypocrite. She wants a truth commission to examine the role of Bush officials who authorized enhanced interrogation techniques (some of which amounted to torture), but she was in the loop when those techniques were first discussed and didn't cry foul. 

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Pelosi has insisted she was not briefed by the CIA about the use of water-boarding or any enhanced interrogation techniques, but the CIA recently undermined her case. The agency released an account of a September 2002 meeting that the CIA says Pelosi attended and at which those harsh techniques were discussed. Pelosi said the CIA account was wrong and then went a step further. She said briefers in that meeting explicitly said water-boarding was not being used. We now know that at the time Abu Zubaydah had been water-boarded 83 times. Pelosi charged the agency with deliberately misleading Congress as part of the larger effort to mislead the nation in the run-up to the Iraq war.

The reason this new attack on the CIA is such a bold and perhaps very bad idea is that the CIA is very good at these battles. As a senior Bush administration official once put it after losing several rounds of Washington warfare to the CIA, "We brought a knife to a gun fight." Bush administration officials engaged in a protracted fight with the CIA over exaggerated claims the president made in a speech about Saddam Hussein's attempts to buy uranium in Niger. Every time an administration official would assert that it was the CIA's fault that Bush got it wrong, a contradictory piece of evidence would appear in the newspaper, leaked by people within the CIA. Dislike of the agency is perhaps the only thing Speaker Pelosi and Dick Cheney can agree on.

Who is telling the truth in the Pelosi matter? It's hard to know in what is now a classic Washington case of he said/she said. There weren't a lot of people in the key September 2002 meeting who can come forward to corroborate events, though former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who was then chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, has backed up Pelosi's criticism of the CIA in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Former Rep. Porter Goss, who attended the meeting with Pelosi, has taken the CIA's side. But he's a Republican who later went on to run the CIA. He's got political reasons to contradict her as part of the GOP's broader attempt to distract attention from a past where Republicans are in far more political and legal danger. And Goss has residual reasons to stick up for the guys who once worked for him.

Current CIA Director Leon Panetta, a Democrat from California who once served with Pelosi in Congress, released a statement that suggested that these techniques were discussed but that also said the agency couldn't be certain. Pelosi didn't help her credibility Thursday when she admitted that despite earlier denials, she did later know water-boarding was being used. Her explanation for the discrepancy: Her previous denials were about what she personally had been briefed on. She learned about water-boarding from a staffer. That kind of parsing is hard to sustain in a public fight. It also raises questions about why, if she was so adamant about torture, she didn't do more at the time. By contrast, when John McCain learned about water-boarding, he did get exercised about it and took measures to stop it.

Yesterday, administration officials and Democratic political veterans were puzzled by Pelosi's gambit. She's put the spotlight on herself and has given weakened Republicans a fight they can enjoy, engage in, and possibly win. They can't put a scratch on the popular president, but Pelosi and the Democratic Congress are not as popular. Normally a politician in Pelosi's position could say she's moving forward to do important business rather than picking at the past, but she and other Democrats are the ones advocating for rummaging through the past.

The escalating mess is exactly why President Obama didn't want a thorough look into the question of torture. Fights like these distract from his effort to get politicians to focus on other matters, and the arguments potentially weaken his party by either undermining its high-road position on torture or making leading Democrats look unsteady, as Pelosi looked during her halting and jittery press conference. As one former senior Bush official put it, "Their real political problem [with investigating torture] is when they look back, they will find many of their own there. This shit storm will leave everyone stinky. Or might just leave their side in deeper doo-doo for the worst political sin: hypocrisy."

At some point the president may be asked what his view of the Pelosi matter is. It's a tricky spot. He doesn't want to get in the middle of a he said/she said debate. If he defends Pelosi, he alienates the CIA. That relationship is already tender because Obama released Bush-era torture memos against the wishes of the CIA, whose agents participated in the torture. On the other hand, if Obama defends the CIA, he undermines his leader in the House and angers her liberal supporters.

At the moment, it looks as though the controversy has put more momentum behind the idea of a truth commission to sort out all of the competing claims. Pelosi renewed her call for one, as did her House counterpart, Minority Leader John Boehner. At the rate the debate is going, perhaps by the time such a commission has started its work Pelosi will have found a third fight to pick.