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How Pelosi Botched CIA Script

Nancy Pelosi and her staff thought they could end the controversy over her disputed 2002 briefing on Bush-era interrogations by rigorously prepping for a press conference last Thursday.

But she shredded the script.  

According to people familiar with the situation, the speaker had agreed to say only that she had been “misled” by intelligence officials during a September 2002 briefing on interrogation techniques.

But when reporters asked Pelosi if she thought the Bush administration had “lied” to her, she embraced the more emphatic word, nodding her head in agreement.

A GOP staffer, who had been stoking the Pelosi waterboarding story since it broke in April, couldn’t believe his luck. Within minutes of the press conference, he called a POLITICO reporter to say: “I can’t believe she did it! Why did she do it? She’s keeping the story alive.”

Pelosi, the most powerful speaker in a generation, has mastered the inside game of Hill politics — brokering compromises, soothing bruised egos and, above all, keeping her party’s factions happy enough to stay in the fold yet not so happy to make others get jealous. 

But like an intimidating power forward with an iffy jump shot, Pelosi has proved considerably less adept at the outside game — a point brought home by her inability to quell the firestorm over the waterboarding briefing.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Since the briefing controversy bubbled up last month, Pelosi has held no fewer than four media availabilities, often fielding questions after her aides shout for an end to the inquisitions. But each of her answers seems to have left reporters with more questions.

And in slipping from “misled” to “lied,” Pelosi has electrified her Republican enemies. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich called for Pelosi’s ouster Wednesday, saying that her statements had dangerously weakened the CIA’s morale.

“Every day they spend worrying about being politically persecuted is a day we are made more vulnerable to a nuclear attack on one of our cities, a biological attack on one of our subways, or a bomb going off in one of our malls,” Gingrich wrote on the website of the conservative magazine Human Events.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants Pelosi to step aside temporarily until her actions are investigated.

“She’s made some serious charges and should step aside until she proves them,” King told POLITICO.

Former Clinton adviser James Carville laughed off the suggestion. “People really like her, so the idea that they would dump Nancy Pelosi over a bad press conference is just ridiculous,” he said, adding, “I’m sure if she could have it back, she would have done the whole thing over.”

People close to Pelosi aren’t surprised by her unwillingness to give ground — even at the expense of her own image — saying she remains incensed at the Bush administration for misleading Congress on pre-Iraq war intelligence and its interrogation policy.

The CIA confirmed Wednesday that Pelosi has requested declassification of the notes from the 2002 briefing.

Despite the fondest wishes of Gingrich and company, few if any House Democrats are raising serious questions about Pelosi’s leadership — even though many have taken note of her struggles.

Asked about Pelosi’s performance last Thursday, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said: “I play golf in my leisure time, and there are days when I’m not hitting the ball so well.”

He quickly added: “But none of this is having any effect on the caucus.”

Clyburn said that the subject of Pelosi’s press conference was never raised during the leadership meeting last Thursday and that House Democrats were so focused on pendng energy and health care bills during Tuesday’s full caucus meeting that no one brought up the matter publicly.

And Democratic aides say President Barack Obama, who offered Pelosi words of support earlier this week, doesn’t think the controversy will cause long-term political damage.

Asked if battleground-state Democrats were endangered by Pelosi’s stumbles, Democratic Congressional Caucus Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) shot back: “It is not something that anyone is talking about in their districts. It’s all about energy and health care.”

But Pelosi’s No. 2, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, wandered briefly off script last week during a colloquy on the House floor, when he took issue with Pelosi’s charge that the CIA had lied to her.

“I have no idea of that, don’t have a belief of that nature, because I have no basis on which to base such a belief. And I certainly hope that’s not the case. I don’t draw that conclusion,” he said.

Hoyer quickly backtracked and has taken pains to emphasize his faith in Pelosi and the veracity of her account. “I think there was some misinterpretation of my remarks from last week,” the Maryland Democrat said Tuesday, adding, “I believe the speaker.”

But members are chattering privately about Pelosi. One Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was hoping the waterboarding mess would blow over quickly so the issue wouldn’t be used to bludgeon incumbents in the 2010 midterms.

“This has been an unmitigated disaster, but if this is all they’re coming up with, she’ll be fine,” he said.