Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta owes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an apology — or, at the very least, a clarification.

In May, when Republicans claimed she had been briefed in 2002 by the Central Intelligence Agency about the Bush-Cheney administration’s torture regimen, Pelosi said: Pelosi accused the CIA of “misleading the Congress of the United States” for years.

CIA Director Leon Panetta denied the charge in blunt language.

“Let me be clear: It is not our practice or policy to mislead Congress,” said Panetta. “That is against our laws and values.”

That was a blunt statement.

Unfortunately, Panetta was wrong.

Now, he needs to be just as blunt in setting the record straight.

According to Friday’s The Washington Post:

Four months after he was sworn in, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta learned of an intelligence program that had been hidden from Congress since 2001, a revelation that prompted him to immediately cancel the initiative and schedule a pair of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill.

The next day, June 24, Panetta informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the program and the action he had taken, according to Democratic and Republican members of the panels.

The program had not merely been hidden from Congress.

It was kept secret — perhaps because it involved illegal spying on the American people — as part of a deliberate plot to keep the House and Senate in the dark about a gross violation of the CIA’s mission.

“Instructions were given not to brief Congress,” explained Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

In fairness to Panetta, he does not seem to be the bad guy here.

Piecing together what we now know, it appears that the director may have been lied to by CIA staffers.

After learning about the secret program, Panetta did shut it down.

Then he briefed key members of Congress.

He gets points for those moves.

But he now needs to make it clear that what he said in May was wrong.

Panetta does not have to beat himself up. He can explain that he was. himself, a victim.

But Panetta owes Pelosi, the Congress and the American people an admission that his statement of two months ago created a false and unfair impression.

He could say: “It was the policy of the CIA to mislead Congress.”

He could say: “The CIA violated our laws and values.”

Or Panetta could just keep things straight and simple and say: “The Speaker was right.”