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Who to Trust -- Pelosi or the CIA?

By Jason Leopold
May 20, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is under fire for complaining that the CIA misled her in classified briefings about the Bush administration’s abusive treatment of “war on terror” detainees.  Republicans and many media pundits have accused Pelosi of scapegoating the CIA for her failure to protest those techniques in a timely fashion.

But the history of the CIA is replete with examples of agency officials obscuring key details when telling members of Congress about controversial programs. In the 1980s, CIA Director William Casey was famous for mumbling over such points and gruffly reacting when asked to repeat himself.

Other times, the CIA’s official briefing records have clashed with the contemporaneous notes of congressional participants. For instance, former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Florida, says an intelligence document, which claimed he was briefed about the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program on two dates in 2001 and 2002, was contradicted by his own schedule, which showed that no such briefings took place.

Graham also said that during briefings he did attend, he was never told that the Bush administration planned to spy on American citizens.

In an interview with ABC’s “Nightline” on Dec. 15, 2005 – after the New York Times disclosed the existence of the warrantless wiretapping program – Graham said he attended meetings in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and discussed surveillance activities, but added that neither Cheney nor then-National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden spoke about a plan to spy on Americans. (CIA Director George Tenet also took part in the meeting.)

“The issue was whether we could intercept foreign communications when they transited through U.S. communication sites,” Graham said. “The assumption was that if we did that, we would do it pursuant to the law, the law that regulates the surveillance of national security issues. …

“There was no suggestion that we were going to begin eavesdropping on United States citizens without following the full law. There was no reference made to the fact that we were going to use that as the subterfuge to begin unwarranted, illegal — and I think unconstitutional — eavesdropping on American citizens."

Graham suggested that Cheney and the intelligence officials had lied to him and other members of congressional intelligence panels.

Cheney and other Bush administration officials – aided by Republican lawmakers – responded to Graham’s comments with a fierce counterattack, much like they are doing now against Pelosi. In another “Nightline” interview on Dec. 18, 2005, Cheney said Graham, as well as other members of Congress knew that the administration intended to spy on the phone calls of some Americans.

“He knew,” Cheney said. “I sat in my office with Gen. Hayden, who was then the head of NSA, who's now the deputy director of the National Intelligence Directorate, and he [Graham] was briefed as long as he was chairman of the committee, or ranking member of the committee.”


Reporting on the controversy, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed, “high-ranking intelligence official” who said Graham is “misremembering the briefings.”

A four-page memo from Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, which was turned over to Congress several months later, contained the dates lawmakers were briefed about the surveillance program, briefings that began shortly after President George W. Bush signed a highly classified executive order that removed some  legal restrictions against spying on US. citizens.

The memo contained four dates that alleged Graham – along with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and their Republican counterparts, Rep. Porter Goss and Sen. Richard Shelby – were briefed on Oct. 25, 2001, Nov. 14, 2001, April 10, 2002, and July 8, 2002. A cover letter accompanying Negroponte’s letter said the briefings took place at the White House.

But Graham, who famously keeps a detailed journal of his daily schedule, said he checked those dates against his own records, which revealed no briefings on Oct. 25, 2001 and April 10, 2002. The memo had claimed Graham was the only lawmaker briefed on April 10, 2002. On July 8, 2002, the document said Graham and Shelby were briefed.

“When I got those dates, I went back to my notebooks and checked and found that on most of the dates there were no meetings held,” Graham said in September 2007. “In fact, in several of them, I wasn’t in Washington when the meetings were supposed to have taken place. So I stand by what I said.”

Graham said he did attend briefings on the two other dates but he told the Washington Post “there was no discussion of anything [about spying on Americans' telephone calls] in the meeting with Cheney."

"I came out of the room with the full sense that we were dealing with a change in technology but not policy," Graham said.

The dispute then is nearly identical to the one now playing out in Congress about a similar document cited by the CIA supposedly showing top Democrats receiving briefings about the Bush administration's torture program.

Two weeks ago, after the CIA turned over a document to Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, that contained the dates and a summary of the briefings given to a select group of congressional leaders about “EIT’s” or “enhanced interrogation techniques...employed,” Graham revealed that three of the four dates in which he was said to have received briefings don’t match his records.

“When I asked the CIA when was I briefed, they gave me four dates, two in April and two in September of '02. On three of the four occasions, when I consulted my schedule and my notes, it was clear that no briefing had taken place, and the CIA eventually concurred in that. So their record keeping is a little bit suspect,” Graham said.

One of the disputed dates for a briefing on interrogations – in April 2002 – fell in the same month as one of the supposed briefings on surveillance. In both cases, Graham said no briefings took place.

Moreover, Graham said he was not told about the CIA’s torture techniques, which the agency’s records claim were explained to Graham and Shelby, R-Alabama.

The CIA document also alleged that Pelosi was given a full accounting of the torture program in 2002 and 2003. In claiming last week that the CIA misled her and other members of Congress, Pelosi said the CIA briefers obscured the fact that the agency already had begun subjecting prisoners to the near-drowning of waterboarding and was using other torture techniques.

Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at

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