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Spy vs. Speaker: The Panetta-Pelosi Snipefest

4 years ago
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The Nancy Pelosi-Jane Harman feud was still simmering when the House Speaker found herself in a standoff with another Californian, CIA Director Leon Panetta. It sort of makes me wish I could have been in those meetings of the California congressional delegation in early 1993 when all three served briefly in the House together. Aren't we Californians supposed to be mellow? And where is that famed Los Angeles philosopher Rodney King when we need him? ("People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?").

Evidently, Pelosi can't get along with all of her old friends these days, but this is not as strange as it seems, and it is not necessarily about her personality -- or Panetta's or Harman's. Yes, the Democrats control both branches of Congress and the White House, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and the grand foreign-policy aspirations of the Bush administration constitute a great piece of unfinished business. In other words, there's a lot for those in power to argue about.

It's not symmetrical, but the Democratic Party is split into three camps: The first (and smallest) group might be called the Lieberman Democrats. They -- and Harman is one of them -- want to continue the thrust of the previous administration's foreign policy, but without its rhetorical excess, its ineptness, or its waterboarding. A second, larger group of Democrats wants to back away from Bush's grandiose "freedom agenda" but do so practically, in ways that do not harm American security or prestige. This is where President Obama appears to be -- and presumably Leon Panetta. It's the centrist position within the Democratic firmament. The third faction, and it's not a small group, wants to indulge its bile on the Bushies. These Democrats dream of recriminations, "truth commissions," even criminal prosecutions -- of Dick Cheney, not bin Laden. This is the leftish territory of the Daily Kos and MoveOn.org -- and, increasingly, of Nancy Pelosi.

So these are genuine policy disagreements, and among people who know each other well, they tend to get personal. First, Jane Harman, whom Pelosi passed over for the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, got slimed by anonymous leaks about wiretapping and pro-Israel lobbyists and quid pro quos. She fought back, pointing out that, among the congressional leadership of the time, only she -- and not Pelosi -- objected to the CIA's "enhanced" interrogation techniques employed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and in the run-up to the Iraq war. That left Pelosi scrambling to explain away her acquiescence. Playing to her liberal base, Pelosi did not remind people that in the days after the attacks, with a mad anthrax terrorist on the loose, such techniques were popular -- heck, Bush's approval rating was in Eisenhower territory for the better part of two years. Majorities in the Senate and the House (not counting Pelosi) voted to authorize the commander-in-chief to invade a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. Instead of providing that context, she furnished several evolving versions of the truth.

In April, she said flatly that she'd never heard talk of waterboarding at the time. "We were not -- I repeat, were not -- told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used," she said. Subsequently, a Pelosi spokesman amended that denial, telling reporters that Pelosi had been told in a briefing that such methods were legal, but not that they had been employed. When other members of Congress who attended that briefing, notably Republican Porter Goss, said publicly that this wasn't true, Pelosi held her now-infamous press conference with its too-clever-by-half talking point that the CIA was "misleading the Congress" on torture just as the Bush administration was "misleading the American people (about) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Well, the two issues aren't really related, and many in Pelosi's audience, liberals as well as conservatives, saw her line as a rhetorical ploy. "I'll bet a 'truth commission' sounds a lot less attractive to her now than it did last Thursday," one former Democratic White House official told me Monday evening.

Among those who were less than impressed was Leon Panetta, who issued a statement the following day -- after giving the White House a heads-up -- disputing that the CIA had misled anyone. One California Democrat who knows both Panetta and Pelosi well said the Speaker, knowing Panetta, should have expected as much. "Nobody should have been surprised, least of all Nancy," this Democrat told me. "How could she think she could put him in a squeeze. Leon stood up to a president, for Chrissakes!"

This was a reference to Panetta's early political career. He actually first came to Washington as a Republican, working as a lawyer in Richard Nixon's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. When Panetta concluded that as part of its "Southern strategy" the Nixonites didn't want him enforcing the nation's fair-housing laws, he left the administration -- and the Republican Party. As Les Francis, a Californian who worked in the Carter White House and for Norman Mineta, yet another longtime California Democratic congressman, told me this week: "Panetta has a long history of standing on principle."

True, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Pelosi is wrong per se about the CIA. Panetta is certainly being a stand-up boss in defending his crew, but in an e-mail Monday night, Tim Miller, an old Washington hand and sometime presidential historian, pointed out to me something that needs saying: The CIA has at times in its history misled elected officials, including President Kennedy and President Ford, among others. Miller finds it "incredible" that anyone would be shocked that Agency officials might have provided a less than candid picture to Pelosi. His point is that if they would deceive a president, it doesn't stretch the imagination to think that they'd mislead a member of Congress.

It's a point well taken, and by the American people as well. A new Rasmussen Reports poll shows the American people are nearly evenly divided on whom to believe: 43 percent say they believe the CIA might well have misled Speaker Pelosi; 41 percent say they do not. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of either side, but a reminder that in politics, as in life, what goes around comes around.

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