Democratic leaders tried Tuesday to muffle the ongoing flap over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) knowledge of Bush-era interrogation tactics, but the controversy continued to lumber forward on new questions about the accuracy of CIA record-keeping.
At the center of the institutional showdown: Pelosi and CIA Director Leon Panetta, two Northern California Democrats with a friendly history of side-by-side service in the House and continued cooperation after Panetta decamped to become chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
The two have been locked in an unlikely faceoff that has pitted Pelosi’s credibility as a national leader against Panetta’s fragile standing as a new director with no background in the intelligence world.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) stoked the skirmish anew Tuesday by firing off a letter to Panetta demanding that he correct a document at the center of the uproar. Obey said a report the agency released 13 days ago inaccurately stated an Appropriations panel staffer attended a 2006 briefing, when that aide remembers being turned away at the door.
The May 7 report touched off a firestorm by contradicting Pelosi’s repeated statements that she was never alerted to brutal interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. And the Speaker inflamed the uproar in her response, accusing the agency of regularly misleading lawmakers.
Panetta initially slapped back with a memo to agency employees standing behind their truthfulness, but both sides have worked since to turn down the volume in the spat.
Pelosi released a statement Friday declaring her “great respect— for intelligence officials and making clear that her quarrel was with the Bush administration. Panetta in a Monday speech in Los Angeles pointed to a “rough period— in the agency’s relations with Congress and pledged to do “everything I can— to improve them.
The agency followed suit Tuesday in response to Obey’s letter, conceding the document could contain mistakes. “As the agency has pointed out more than once, its list — compiled in response to Congressional requests — reflects the records it has,— CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said. “These are, in the agency’s case, notes and memos, not transcripts and recordings. CIA isn’t hyping anything.—
The latest back and forth came as party leaders declared the controversy dead while downplaying any tension between Capitol Hill Democrats and Langley brass.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) reproached reporters for keeping the story going, saying Republicans “are going to stay on it as long as you guys keep printing it, as long as it keeps to be a television item.
“Not about the substance, but about the distraction,— he said. “And as long as you want to feed on it, the Republicans will continue to feed you.—
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, said Panetta “had a responsibility to his agency, and the Speaker had a responsibility to tell her story. If there’s a difference of opinion, it may be accounted for by the fact that it’s been seven years.—
Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also declined to answer questions about tension between the CIA and Congress.
“I think the director of the CIA can send out any letter he wants at any time,— Feinstein said. “I think different people regard it differently. I think everything’s been said that should be said. I think the time has come to put this to bed and move on. … I really think this is an enormous and unfortunate distraction.—
The Speaker’s history with Panetta dates at least to Pelosi’s earliest days in the House in the late 1980s, when she was welcomed into a tight-knit social circle that included Panetta, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and then-Reps. Durbin, Marty Russo (D-Ill.), and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). They regularly gathered Tuesday nights for Italian dinners, frequently at the Capitol Hill rowhouse of then-Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.).
After Panetta moved to the White House to become President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, he still consulted Pelosi on matters related to California, according to a former Clinton administration official.
And in 1994, when Pelosi was challenging the Clinton administration to reject “most favored nation— status for China over human rights concerns, Panetta warned Clinton to expect the San Francisco lawmaker would pose “a big problem,— according to the Pelosi biography “Madam Speaker.—
Despite Pelosi’s tangles with the Clinton administration over China, “it never became an issue— between Pelosi and Panetta, the former administration official said. “It wasn’t defining.—
In 1996, Panetta helped save Pelosi’s seven-year campaign to transform the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco into a park.
The quest, a defining legislative effort of Pelosi’s early years in the House, had drawn a veto threat from Clinton over environmental concerns. Panetta helped revive it in last-minute negotiations with Pelosi, Miller and House Republican leaders, smoothing the way for passage, 404-4.
That same year, Pelosi publicly pushed Panetta to jump into the California gubernatorial race. “He has credibility on the left and the right,— Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle in July 1996. “He brings to the Democratic Party entree into the state’s agricultural and Italian American communities, neither of which have been particularly supportive of Democrats in the past.—
She kept up her public campaign to encourage him to run for two years, though Panetta ultimately decided against a bid. Rumors circulated in 2003 that Pelosi once again wanted Panetta to declare for governor, this time as disaffected Californians gathered signatures to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat — but Pelosi denied the reports.
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.