House Speaker Nancy Pelosi learned in early 2003 that the Bush administration was waterboarding terror detainees but didn't protest directly out of respect for "appropriate" legislative channels, a person familiar with the situation said Monday.
The Pelosi camp's version of events is intended to answer two key questions posed by her critics: When, precisely, did she first learn about waterboarding? And why didn't she do more to stop it?
Pelosi has disputed a CIA document, released last week, that shows she was briefed in September 2002 on the "particular" interrogation techniques the United States had used on Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah. Pelosi has said she was told then only that the Bush administration was considering using certain techniques in the future - and that it had the legal authority to do so.
But there's no dispute that on Feb. 4, 2003 - five months after Pelosi's September meeting - CIA officials briefed Pelosi aide Michael Sheehy and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), then the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, on the specific techniques that had been used on Zubaydah - including waterboarding.
Harman was so alarmed by what she had heard, she drafted a short letter to the CIA's general counsel to express "profound" concerns with the tactic - going so far as to ask if waterboarding had been personally "approved by the president."
According to the Pelosi confidant, Sheehy told Pelosi about the briefing - and later informed Pelosi, the newly elected minority leader, that Harman was drafting a protest letter. Pelosi told Sheehy to tell Harman that she agreed with the letter, the Pelosi insider said. But she did not ask to be listed as a signatory on the letter, the source said, and there is no reference to her in it.
Pelosi and Harman, sometimes bitter rivals, have still not discussed the controversy since it broke three weeks ago, according to Democratic insiders.
Sheehy has not responded to several calls and e-mails seeking comment on what he told Pelosi during this period. But the Pelosi confidant - who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity - insisted that Pelosi did all that she could have done.
"She felt that the appropriate response was the letter from Harman, because Jane was the one who was briefed," said the person. Pelosi "never got briefed on it personally, and when Harman got a 'no response' from the CIA, there was nothing more that could be done."
Republicans aren't buying it.
"If Nancy was so concerned about the waterboarding, why did she let someone else write the letter?" asked Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee. "If she was so upset, why did she let someone else raise objections?"
Hoekstra has asked the CIA for documents on its congressional briefings, and he told POLITICO Monday that he has made a request for e-mails from agency staffers detailing their interactions with Pelosi and other House and Senate members. Steve Elmendorf, who served as chief of staff to former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), said that coming so soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it would have been difficult politically for Pelosi to do more to protest interrogation techniques the Bush administration was using.
"You have to remember, in the 2002 period, the whole atmospherics, it was all about scaring people every day," said Elmendorf. "People were legitimately concerned that we were going to be attacked again, and there was a constant drumbeat coming from the Bush administration of, 'Bad things could happen, bad things could happen.' Nobody wants it to happen on their watch."
Republicans have found a rare avenue of attack against Pelosi over the waterboarding briefing, at time when the speaker is ramming through paradigm-shifting legislative proposals on behalf of the Obama administration. That grilling is likely to continue today when the speaker returns from a grueling weekend trip to Baghdad.
Still, Democrats are rallying to the speaker - and questioning the accuracy of the CIA's description of its congressional briefings.
An aide to former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) took issue Monday with the entry for a Feb. 4, 2003, briefing in which a Rockefeller staffer was reportedly told "how the water board was used."
"We are not in a position to vouch for the accuracy of the document," a Rockefeller spokeswoman said. He "has repeatedly stated he was not told critical information that would have cast significant doubt on the program's legality and effectiveness."
Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time Pelosi was briefed, told The Washington Post's PlumLine blog that he wasn't told of waterboarding then, either - despite a Sept. 27, 2002, briefing entry indicating he was given details of Zubaydah's interrogation.
"I do not have any recollection of being briefed on waterboarding or other forms of extraordinary interrogation techniques, or Abu Zubaydah being subjected to them," said Graham, adding: "Something as unexpected and dramatic as that would be the kind of thing that you would normally expect to recall even years later."
Even so, Democratic insiders acknowledge that Pelosi has not handled the media furor surrounding the interrogation briefings - and what she was told and when - in a timely or aggressive manner.
"I don't know whether the story is overplayed or they're misjudging it," said a Democratic leadership aide. "I don't know, maybe they haven't been aggressive enough."
This aide added: "I think they're good at walking and chewing gum - that's not the problem. I don't think they recognized that this issue has the legs that it does."
By By Glenn Thrush and John Bresnahan