Panetta: Tune Out The Noise

CIA Director Leon Panetta does not want the CIA's he-said/she-said fight with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get in the way of day-to-day business. Continuing to cement his role as the agency's public advocate in a difficult political climate, he told his employees this morning to "ignore the noise," sending this message:

Message from the Director:  Turning Down the Volume

There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business.  It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I'm gone.  But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.

Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress.  That is against our laws and our values.  As the Agency indicated previously in response to Congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing "the enhanced techniques that had been employed."  Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

My advice--indeed, my direction--to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission.  We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country.

We are an Agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication.  Our task is to tell it like it is--even if that's not what people always want to hear.  Keep it up.  Our national security depends on it.

Leon E. Panetta

So Panetta is standing by the Director of National Intelligence report from last week that claimed Pelosi was briefed on "enhanced interrogation techniques," and equating her claims to the contrary, and the surrounding debate, to "noise."

The CIA records of the briefings are Panetta's source for this information, as explained by the memo. Pelosi has suggested the CIA should release them; so have Karl Rove and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

It appears from Panetta's message that the term "waterboarding" was not part of the explanation the CIA gave to Pelosi of its activities, but Pelosi says the briefers specifically told her that waterboarding had not been used. According to a 2005 Department of Justice memo, Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded the month before Pelosi was briefed.

So one of these things must be the case: Pelosi's story is false, Panetta's story is false, the 2005 DoJ memo is false, the CIA's records of the briefing are false, Zubaydah was actually waterboarded after Pelosi was briefed (also meaning the memo is false), or Pelosi's briefers had not been told of Zubaydah's waterboarding.

Regardless of what's true and what's not, Panetta has taken on a fight with Pelosi--and in doing so he's fulfilling a vital role for the Obama administration. Since becoming director of the CIA, Panetta has given the intelligence community cover in a hostile political climate--one in which some important figures want to investigate and prosecute the people responsible for harsh interrogations.

President Obama has to keep a good relationship with the intelligence community, and Panetta is doing that for him. At the same time, as an Obama appointee and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, Panetta has a certain political weight among Democrats--no one can call him a "Bush crony."

It was Panetta who pushed for Obama to make it clear that no one in the CIA would be prosecuted or revealed, and his point was that CIA agents need to know that they can carry out orders and do their jobs. That's what he's doing now, only this time he's seeking to insulate them from Pelosi's accusation.