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Definitive account of CIA briefings still elusive

Unless memos on briefings about  interrogation techniques prove to be more precise than some who have seen them suggest, what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi learned may never be definitively understood.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sequestered in rooms buried deep within the Capitol and requiring top-secret clearances to enter, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have spent the past week leafing through documents at the heart of Washington's latest who-knew-what-and-when saga.

But rather than emerging with clear agreement on what the memos reveal about the CIA briefing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received in 2002, and whether she was aware that aggressive interrogation methods were being used on terrorism suspects, lawmakers remain as divided as ever about the story they tell.

And unless those detailed documents prove to be more precise than some who have viewed them suggest — or until the CIA is willing to declassify them — it is possible that what Pelosi and other lawmakers learned almost seven years ago about the use of waterboarding and other techniques may never be definitively understood.

Republicans who have seen the documents say they present a clear case that Pelosi (D-Calif.) was told about the waterboarding of a key al-Qaeda operative, rejecting her accusation that the CIA intentionally misled her about the interrogation technique, which simulates drowning. "I came away feeling comfortable in saying the speaker owes the [intelligence] community an apology at the least," said Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), a former FBI agent.

But Democrats, as well as some former intelligence officials, warn that the documents are far from definitive and reflect only after-the-fact recollections from CIA briefers who never intended to produce full transcripts of the sessions. "You can have a lot of interpretation either way," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), who said he "sped-read" the documents this week.

Pitched battle
Those documents, which were delivered to the intelligence panels last week, have become the latest front in the pitched battle to shape the legacy of the Bush administration's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Members of Congress are largely divided into two camps: One says that the CIA intentionally withheld information about the tactics it was already using against detainees, even as it was providing Congress with intelligence that led to an overwhelming bipartisan vote supporting the use of force in Iraq to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. The other says that Pelosi is covering up her original tacit support of techniques that she now labels as torture.

Pelosi and leading Republicans have asked for the briefing memos to be declassified, each side seeming to think their release will vindicate its cause. And on Thursday, House Democrats blocked a Republican effort to form a special committee to investigate Pelosi's allegation that CIA officials misled her.

But the speaker made clear yesterday that she does not intend to continue discussing the matter publicly. After a news conference devoted to the accomplishments of the Democratic Congress, she dismissed reporters' questions about the controversy.

"I have made the statement I am going to make on this. I don't have anything more to say about it," she said before departing for a week-long trip to China.

Conflicting recollections
The differing interpretations of the briefing memos mirror the conflicting recollections of Pelosi and three other congressional leaders about what they were told roughly a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the former representative who chaired the intelligence panel in 2002, has suggested that he and Pelosi left their briefing understanding "what the CIA was doing" and offering their support, while Pelosi said waterboarding and other aggressive techniques were mentioned only as legal tactics for future interrogations.

Even more deeply divergent are the recollections of Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former senator who chaired the Senate intelligence committee in 2002, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the panel's ranking Republican. In interviews this week, Graham said waterboarding was never mentioned by CIA briefers in their meeting. But Shelby said that he and Graham were specifically told that the technique had already yielded valuable information.

The CIA participated in more than 2,100 congressional briefings and meetings during the 110th Congress — an average of more than 20 sessions a week. But the agency declined to discuss details of specific briefings, and a spokesman yesterday again dismissed suggestions that the agency gave lawmakers a misleading portrait of the interrogations.

"The CIA takes seriously its responsibility to provide information to the United States Congress," said the spokesman, George Little.

How the briefing was run
On Sept. 4, 2002 — the House's first full day back in session after a six-week recess — Pelosi and Goss were summoned to the ultra-secure intelligence committee room on the fourth floor of the Capitol. No electronic devices are allowed to be taken into the room, which is so small some lawmakers have dubbed it "the padded cell." Only lawmakers and staff with high-level clearances are allowed past a Capitol Police officer who stands guard.

CIA records show the session was led by officials from its counterterrorism center, which at the time was run by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who later left the CIA amid questions about the destruction of videotapes of detainees being waterboarded. Intelligence officials did not consider the briefing "time sensitive" but simply an effort to bring the lawmakers up to speed on what was labeled a "highly sensitive collection activity," according to former intelligence officials. Shelby and Graham would not be briefed for another 23 days.

Two officials present during the briefings in 2002 said the talks were overshadowed by fears of more terrorist attacks. "It was wartime crisis mode, and all the chatter at the time was about a 'second wave,' " said one congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the briefings were classified. "The next attack was supposed to be even bigger, and everyone was taking it very seriously."

Against that backdrop, lawmakers from both parties pressed the CIA for details about what it was learning from a high-value captive: Abu Zubaida, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein. There was little, if any, questioning about how the information was obtained, according to the two participants.

"No one in either party was questioning interrogation tactics," said the congressional official. "People from [both] parties were saying, 'Do what it takes.' Their questions were, 'Do you have the authorities you need?' and 'Are you doing enough?' "

Cat-and-mouse game
Members of the intelligence committees in both parties say briefings can be a congressional version of a cat-and-mouse game. "If you don't ask the right question, you won't get the answer," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). Newcomers to the panels often fail to "do their homework enough to ask the right question," noted Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former chairman.

The House committee recently moved into more spacious, technologically advanced quarters in the Capitol Visitor Center. Each lawmaker's space has an individual monitor, and an internal instant messaging system allows committee staffers to alert lawmakers to messages from outside the secure room.

Some lawmakers, particularly those not on the intelligence committees, can become annoyed at the restrictions placed on them if they seek classified information, such as a bar on discussing the findings with their own staff members or with lawmakers who have not received the briefings.

For example, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said Treasury Department officials called him in June 2006 about an anti-terrorism issue relating to his panel's jurisdiction that was about to break in the news. Told he would be forbidden from criticizing the administration's actions after receiving a briefing, Frank recalled in a recent interview, "I said goodbye."

However, because he was told about the basic subject matter, Frank said he is barred from even confirming what the issue was.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Walter Pincus and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.