House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued at a press conference Thursday that Republicans are focusing on how much she knew about CIA enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002 and 2003 as a "diversionary tactic to take the spotlight off those who conceived, developed and implemented these policies, which all of us long opposed."
Yet, Pelosi's failure to protest what she alternately calls "enhanced interrogation methods" and "torture" -- depending on whether the controversy threatens to make her look bad or the Bush administration -- goes to the very heart of whether or not the "truth commission" she supports is anything more than an exercise in cynical partisan finger-pointing.
If Pelosi believes that the use of these techniques -- including waterboarding -- was so patently objectionable, why did she not use her political capital to end the practices as soon as she learned of them?
Pelosi rejects a timeline released by the CIA that states that, as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, she received a Sept. 4, 2002, "briefing on EITs" and their use with al-Qaida biggie Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded.
Thus Pelosi supported remarks she had at an April press conference: "We were not, I repeat, were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used. What they did tell us is that they had some legislative counsel -- the Office of Legislative Counsel opinions that they could be used, but not that they would." That is, the CIA did not tell her it was waterboarding detainees.
Former GOP House Intelligence Committee Chairman turned Bush-CIA-chief Porter Goss disagreed. He wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he claimed that Pelosi and others "understood what the CIA was doing" and "gave the CIA our bipartisan support."
The nonpartisan website PolitiFact.com gave Pelosi an unambiguous "false" rating on its Truth-O-Meter, with the explanation: "At PolitiFact, we normally would be reluctant to make a Truth-O-Meter ruling in a he-said, she-said situation, but in this case, the evidence goes beyond the competing accounts from Pelosi and Goss. We are persuaded by the CIA timeline, which the agency says is based on 'an extensive review of (the CIA's) electronic and hardcopy files.'"
Thursday, Pelosi claimed outright that the CIA had misled her about what it was doing in the 2002 briefing -- and called for the release of documents to verify her version of events.
There was a new development at the Thursday press event: Pelosi admitted that, as House speaker, she learned about the use of "certain techniques" -- apparently, including waterboarding -- in February 2003, after the CIA briefed Republicans, a Pelosi intelligence aide (Michael Sheehy) and her replacement as senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Venice (Los Angeles County).
While Pelosi did nothing to try to stop waterboarding, she explained, Harman was "the appropriate person to register a protest" -- as Harman did in a letter to CIA counsel Scott Muller.
Protest? The letter, which reads like the weakest of weak editorials, Harman -- see sidebar -- began with an homage to the "difficult balance between security and liberty," then observed that Bush lawyers assured those at the briefing that the (words redacted) techniques to be "within the law." She noted "that what was described raises profound policy questions" and asked if Bush had authorized them. In the letter, Harman seems most concerned not with waterboarding, but with the CIA inspector general's plan to destroy videotape of Zubaydah. She urged the CIA to reconsider, as the "fact of destruction would reflect badly on the Agency."
That's the big protest -- that the use of these methods "raises profound policy questions." Talk about feckless. As for Pelosi, her stilted explanations on the subject are even more unimpressive. Clearly, she painted herself into a corner -- and then made matters worse when she was forced to admit that she knew about waterboarding in 2003.
If the CIA's interrogation methods were so outrageous that they now warrant a "truth commission" -- a process likely to destroy the careers of Bush administration and CIA officials who supported the policies -- why is it that they did not even rate a milquetoast memo when the San Francisco Democrat learned of them?
I have to assume that Pelosi did not see these acts as criminal -- that waterboarding did not become "torture" until it was politically expedient for the Democrat leadership to label it so. As Pelosi made clear, she was busy trying to win the House back for Democrats. Her priorities were clear. It was "my job," Pelosi said, to win elections.
A final riddle: How do you turn something Pelosi has denounced as "torture" into "certain techniques?" Add the words: CIA briefing.