The CIA director strongly rejected accusations the agency had misled US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about alleged torture of detainees amid a political uproar over the conduct of the "war on terror."
"Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values," spy agency chief Leon Panetta said in a statement to Central Intelligence Agency employees.
Panetta said there was a "long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," but he said "the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress."
The CIA statement came a day after Pelosi, President Barack Obama’s top Democratic ally in the House of Representatives, charged the CIA had deceived her in 2002 about alleged abuse of detainees during ex-president George W. Bush’s administration.
At issue is when the California Democrat, who is now second in line for the presidency, found out that the CIA was using waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Pelosi said the CIA briefed her just once, in September 2002, telling her only that Bush-era advisers had decided such practices were legal while assuring her that waterboarding, or simulated drowning, had not yet been used.
When informing members of Congress about interrogation methods used in the case of Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, CIA officers told the truth, Panetta said, citing agency records of meetings.
"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,’" he said.
"Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened."
The CIA director, a former member of Congress who recently took over the agency after being appointed by Obama, advised employees to overlook the dispute, saying: "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."
Responding to Panetta’s statement, Pelosi insisted her criticism was directed at how the previous administration informed Congress and not at CIA officers, who she said she held in "great respect."
"What is important now is to be united in our commitment to ensuring the security of our country; that, and how Congress exercises its oversight responsibilities, will continue to be my focus as we move forward," she said in a statement.
Pelosi has denied that her lack of formal objections to harsh tactics made her complicit in the abuse of detainees.
The House speaker has drawn Republican charges that she knew years ago about harsh techniques — such as waterboarding — that she now denounces as torture and wants formally investigated.
The finger-pointing is part of a wider debate about whether the Bush administration crossed legal and moral lines in its treatment of terror suspects after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Democrats in Congress accuse Bush-era figures of approving torture while former vice president Dick Cheney and other voices on the right say their actions helped save American lives.
Republicans have fought efforts to name a blue-ribbon commission to look into who authorized what and when, while warning that any formal probe should expose Democratic leaders who did not forcefully object to the extreme interrogation methods.
In 2003, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Jane Harman, wrote a letter of protest about the treatment of detainees to the CIA — a letter Pelosi says she agreed with, but did not sign, and she says she did not send a letter of her own.
"No letter or anything else was going to stop them from doing what they were going to do," she said Thursday. "My job was to change the majority in Congress and to fight to have a new president."
Pelosi and Republicans have urged the CIA to release the full details of briefings for lawmakers to clarify the dispute.
The CIA says detailed agency notes on briefings for lawmakers were available for review by qualified congressional staff.