WASHINGTON — After many failed attempts, Republicans have finally found a weak spot in Nancy Pelosi's political armor as a fight over detainee interrogations engulfs Pelosi, Republicans and intelligence officials.
The furor was heightened Friday when CIA director Leon Panetta pushed back against an assertion by Pelosi, the House speaker, that she had been misled by agency representatives seven years ago about harsh treatment of terrorism suspects, a claim that struck a raw nerve at the spy headquarters.
Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California and a longtime associate of Pelosi's, issued a statement that said the agency's "contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully" — a rebuttal of Pelosi's assertion on Thursday that she had been lied to by intelligence officials.
The deepening dispute over what Pelosi was told in September 2002 has challenged her credibility and raised new questions about whether she passed up an early opportunity to expose the Bush administration's harsh treatment of detainees.
Lawmakers and senior government officials say the public furor could also give momentum to the push for an inquiry into the Bush administration's interrogation policies, as well as into what senior members of Congress knew about the treatment of detainees. In his statement, Panetta said it would ultimately be "up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened."
As for the speaker, she faces a difficult period. But few think the sharp focus on the interrogation matter is a serious threat to the authority of Pelosi, a powerful figure who weathered previous Republican assaults with hardly a scratch.
"It is an embarrassment," said Ross Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University, "and clearly nobody wants to be embarrassed, particularly a speaker of the House. But other than that, there is nothing here that threatens her job."
Pelosi is not the only one with political exposure. Should any investigation determine that the CIA misled members of Congress, the result could be severely damaging to the agency and to the Republican leaders who have relentlessly pressed the issue against Pelosi.
Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida who as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee underwent a briefing similar to Pelosi's about three weeks after hers, sides with the speaker. He said he recalled a "bland" session.
"I do not have any recollection that day of there being a discussion of something that would have been as neon as waterboarding or other torture techniques," Graham said.
He said his confidence in the CIA's account of the briefings had also been shaken by what he said was an incorrect assertion by the agency that he had been briefed on four dates. Graham, who famously keeps a detailed record of his daily activities, checked and determined that the agency was wrong about three of the dates and that he had attended only one session before leaving the Intelligence Committee.
But Graham was not present for the briefing with Pelosi. The only other lawmaker present, Porter Goss, a Republican from Florida who was the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and later became CIA director, has contradicted her account.
Carl Hulse covers Congress for the New York Times.