Exit strategy: Speaker Pelosi vs. the CIA

Fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and balancing a domestic policy plate that resembles the buffet line at Bob’s Big Boy during Sunday brunch, the last thing President Obama needs right now is a provocative global confrontation that could quickly escalate into a full-scale war — not to mention suck attention away from his ambitious legislative agenda back home.

 Iran? North Korea? Middle East? Nah. All kid stuff by comparison. I am talking, of course, about “Nancy Pelosi versus the CIA” — a political firefight that shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon.

Requiring more time in the political situation room than Democrats on Capitol Hill would care to admit, CIA/Pelosi-gate took a serious turn Friday afternoon when CIA Director Leon Panetta was forced to step up and defend his agency against Speaker Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) charges that the CIA lied to her about its use of enhanced interrogation techniques
(EITs), including waterboarding.

 In a statement titled “Message from the Director: Turning Down the Volume,” Panetta, a former Democratic House member from California and chief of staff to President Clinton, wasted no time in deciding where his loyalties reside:

 “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.’ ”

 Acknowledging the “long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business,” Panetta warned CIA employees that even though the matter had reached a “new decibel level” with Pelosi’s charges, they should “ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission.”

 Easier done for Panetta and his CIA colleagues than Pelosi and hers.

The nervous hallways of Capitol Hill have been scientifically tested and proven to be a quintessential echo chamber of the first order under any circumstance, let alone when a sitting Speaker of the House declares rhetorical war on a government agency of such critical importance as the CIA. That said, the boom of Pelosi’s Thursday bombshell blast promises to reverberate this week as members return from their weekend break.

Trying to get the final word on the matter before heading into the weekend, Pelosi fired off her own end-of-week, post-Panetta volley, hoping it might somehow take the edge off her earlier remarks — which had fully ignited a political firestorm that had actually been burning since an April 23 Pelosi news conference on the topic.

No word from Pelosi Command HQ, but the Friday operation could easily have been codenamed “Operation Toothpaste Back in Tube” when she sent out a press release that said:

“My criticism of the manner in which the Bush Administration did not appropriately inform Congress is separate from my respect for those in the intelligence community who work to keep our country safe.”

 Explanatory distinction notwithstanding, Pelosi’s qualifying statement did not stop House GOP Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (Ohio) from going on CNN Sunday and then again on Fox News on Monday to deliver a nearly identical message to both networks:

“Lying to Congress is a crime. Purposely misleading Congress is a crime. And if the Speaker is accusing the intelligence community of lying to her or of purposefully misleading her, then she ought to present that evidence, turn it over to the Justice Department, have them prosecuted and, if that is not the case, then I think she owes our intelligence community an apology.”

It doesn’t appear that BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE, personally, will notch the matter up this week by taking it directly to the House floor, but his recent comments flash a big green light that he wouldn’t have a problem if someone else did just that.

Struggling to rally around a cohesive, coherent and relevant political message these days, Boehner gave no word on whether he’d slipped into a Sunday church service to give thanks for the timely political gift from above

Based on the way things are going, unless she decides to follow Boehner’s advice and actually apologize for her Thursday comments, the only chance Pelosi seems to have to get the Capitol press corps off the story is if President Obama helps her out and quickly names his replacement for retiring Justice David Souter.

Supreme Court nominations, of course, bring their own brand of trench warfare. But, based on the opening salvos of Pelosi v. CIA, President Obama’s Supreme Court fight by comparison could prove to be a veritable skip in the park.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.