WASHINGTON - The top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday got into a public dispute with the CIA over what she knew about harsh interrogation techniques in 2002 in the latest twist in a Washington political firestorm.
The troubles of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened to divert Democrats from President Barack Obama's economic agenda when many Americans would like to put Bush-era controversies behind them.
She has been caught up in a debate over what she knew about the techniques when they were being used and why she did not speak out to oppose them if she knew about them.
Pelosi accused her critics of drawing attention to what she might have known about the interrogation techniques as a tactic to avert attention from those who conceived, developed and implemented these policies.
The debate over interrogation methods has become a source of tension as liberals press Obama for the prosecution of Bush-era officials and Republicans insist the techniques produced intelligence that helped avert September 11-style attacks.
The CIA last week contradicted Pelosi, saying she had been told about the use of methods such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, in a September 2002 briefing.
The spy agency had issued a chart saying Pelosi, then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Porter Goss, the committee chairman at the time, were given a description of the particular EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques) that had been employed.
A besieged Pelosi held a news conference to give her side of the story, saying she was briefed that the Bush administration had legal opinions that concluded the use of these procedures were legal.
The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed, she said.
She accused the CIA of misleading Congress. She said the agency gave me inaccurate and incomplete information about the use of harsh interrogation techniques at the 2002 briefing.
The CIA said then it had not used them yet when in fact they already had been used, as was later learned, Pelosi said.
'NOT WHERE YOU WANT TO BE'
CIA spokesman George Little stuck to the agency's language.
The language in the chart -- 'a description of the particular EITs that had been employed' -- is true to the language in the agency's records.
While the case is trouble for Pelosi, it does not appear to be jeopardizing her status in the House.
But it does prolong a storyline that is distracting for Washington when Obama wants to focus on repairing the U.S. economy, overhauling the U.S. healthcare system and tackling global warming.
It makes a story that just keeps going and gets everybody into fuzzy areas of credibility and that's not where you want to be, said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
I don't think it sinks her, but it can't be pleasant.
House Republican leader John Boehner said Pelosi's comments continue to raise more questions than provide answers.
And I've dealt with our intelligence professionals for the last three and a half years on an almost daily basis. And it's hard for me to imagine that anyone in our intelligence area would ever mislead a member of Congress, he said.
Pelosi has been a vocal proponent of a congressional truth commission to investigate the use of harsh questioning methods that Obama banned when he took office.
Obama, who already has a full plate of problems, has shown signs of trying to back down from comments last month in which he suggested perhaps a bipartisan panel should probe what happened.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday said Obama believes the Senate Intelligence Committee is the proper place for a probe. The committee is conducting a closed-door inquiry that could take up to a year.
Gibbs spoke on the same day that Obama announced he had changed his mind and decided to have administration lawyers try to block the court-ordered release of dozens of photographs that are said to show the abuse of detainees.