WASHINGTON – CIA Director Leon Panetta fired back at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday, saying agency records showed officials had “briefed truthfully” about its interrogation program, and urging the CIA work force to ignore the political rancor consuming Capitol Hill.

Panetta’s comments came one day after Pelosi, D-Calif., accused the agency of misleading Congress by failing to inform her during a fall 2002 briefing that the CIA had already used waterboarding and other severe methods on an al-Qaida suspect.

Panetta’s statement, which was directed to CIA employees but released publicly, marks a rare instance in which the secretive agency’s leadership has chosen to publicly challenge a high-ranking lawmaker.

“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress,” said Panetta, a former member of the House of Representatives from California. “That is against our laws and our values.”

The statement is likely to keep Pelosi at the center of a roiling controversy over CIA interrogation methods that President Barack Obama banned during his first week in office. As it has evolved, it now pits Pelosi against Panetta.

Republicans have accused Pelosi of hypocrisy for being a vocal critic of the CIA’s interrogation operations even though she appears to have made little attempt to alter the program when she first learned about it more than six years ago.

CIA records indicate that Pelosi attended a briefing in September 2002 during which she was told about agency interrogation techniques that had been used. The records do not indicate with certainty that waterboarding was covered.

A month earlier, the CIA had used the simulated drowning method on al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times.

Pelosi has repeatedly claimed that she was not told that waterboarding was being used, only that it was a method under consideration. But on Thursday she raised the stakes of the issue by accusing the CIA of deliberately concealing the truth.

“The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” she said Thursday. She acknowledged that five months later she was informed by a senior aide that waterboarding was being used.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid being drawn into the controversy, but Panetta emerged Friday to defend the agency. Panetta did not directly say that Pelosi was wrong in her assertion, citing agency records.

“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.’ “

In his note, Panetta also asked agency employees to overlook the controversy.

“My advice – indeed, my direction – to you is straightforward,” Panetta told employees. “Ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission … Our task is to tell it like it is – even if that’s not what people always want to hear.”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-15-09 1838EDT

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