The CIA lies to Congress, at least it has many times in the past. We know it, and so do Republicans in Congress. Which is why all this faux patriotic indignation over the suggestion that the CIA misled Congress in briefings over detainee treatment is just raw political theater.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and other congressional Republicans are relishing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's tiff with the CIA regarding what she knew about waterboarding and when she knew it. Now they want an investigation — a ploy to keep the issue in the news, no doubt.
Pelosi says that she was misled by the CIA in a secret September 2002 briefing by not being told that detainees had already been subjected to waterboarding. The CIA counters with notes of the meeting that say she was informed that such techniques "had been employed."
In the prior month a CIA detainee had been waterboarded 83 times.
While it is possible that Pelosi is conveniently not recalling properly, I think it is more likely that the CIA has it wrong, and the agency soft-pedaled to Congress what it was doing to prisoners.
Remember, this is the agency that destroyed 92 videotapes of abusive interrogations, presumably including waterboarding, in order to prevent anyone, including members of Congress, from seeing its tactics.
Helping Pelosi's case are the recollections and records of Florida's retired Sen. Bob Graham, who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee also received a CIA briefing on detainees a few weeks after Pelosi.
Graham says the briefing was relatively routine and involved information that had been obtained from detainees, not the process of extracting it. "If something as dramatic as torture had been a subject of that meeting I would have remembered it," Graham says.
He also says that because staff was in attendance at the briefing, extremely sensitive subjects such as waterboarding would not have been broached.
But what truly impugns the credibility of the CIA's account is the agency's faulty recordkeeping. The Pelosi dispute is all about whether the CIA kept an accurate account of its congressional briefings. It didn't.
The CIA claimed that Graham was briefed about detainee treatment on four separate occasions in 2002. But when Graham checked the dates with his meticulous daily diaries he found that there were no briefings on three of the four dates the CIA cited.
Even CIA director Leon Panetta acknowledges that the CIA's records on its congressional briefings on interrogation techniques aren't necessarily reliable. He recently wrote in a letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, "(Y)ou and the committee will have to determine whether this information is an accurate summary of what actually happened."
History, too, helps to guide us in judging who is telling the truth: Pelosi or the CIA. Here are just some of the more notorious examples of the CIA misleading Congress:
• In 1977 CIA director Richard Helms pleaded guilty to perjury after telling the Senate that the CIA was not involved in a Chilean coup.
• In the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA had a hand in illegally selling arms to Iran to help finance the Nicaraguan Contras, then lying about it to Congress.
• After a plane carrying Baptist missionaries was shot down by the Peruvian military in 2001 because a CIA surveillance aircraft had wrongly identified it as a drug smuggler, Congress was not told of endemic problems in that CIA counternarcotics program.
And on the detainee issue specifically, the Washington Post reported in 2006 that Mary McCarthy, a former CIA deputy inspector general, was convinced that the CIA had lied in multiple congressional briefings about detainee treatment by failing to disclose the abuses or denying them outright.
Ultimately, Pelosi vs. CIA is a sideshow to divert attention from the real issue, which is that our intelligence agency engaged in a pattern of torture and abuse of prisoners. Who knew about the abuse, when and who approved it are important questions, but they need to be posed to all the principals involved, including the former president and vice president.
When that is the kind of investigation Republican leaders want to launch, they'll finally be putting country before politics.