What did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?
That’s hardly the question that the Democratic House Speaker wanted asked when she recently threw her support behind the Orwellian-sounding “Truth Commission” to investigate former Bush administration staffers who drafted the harsh interrogation techniques that Democrats now call “torture.” But with evidence mounting that Pelosi was briefed on those same interrogation methods as far back as 2002 – and did nothing to oppose their use – Pelosi may soon become the object of the political inquisition she once hoped to lead.
Last week, for instance, it emerged that one of Pelosi’s central claims – that she, along with other Congressional Democrats, was entirely in the dark about the kinds of interrogation tactics being used on high-level terrorist detainees – was almost certainly fiction. Records released to Congress by the CIA revealed that Pelosi was among the Congressional leaders who in 2002 were informed that “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) had been used on al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Specifically, the records indicated that during a September 4, 2002 meeting, Pelosi was one of those briefed “on EITs including use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a description of the particular EITs that had been employed.” There was no specific mention of waterboarding, but given that the Zubaydah was one of only three detainees on whom the procedure was used, there is every reason to think that Pelosi knew full well what interrogators were doing.
The point is significant because it directly contradicts Pelosi’s previous claim that she had been told only that enhanced interrogation techniques “could be used” but not that they were. “We were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used,” Pelosi said last month, insisting that she was informed only that “they could be used, but not that they would” be. After last week’s revelations, that defense no longer holds water.
In a backup line of defense, Pelosi has taken to quoting CIA Director Leon Panetta’s protective qualifier that the “descriptions provided by the CIA may not be accurate.” But this is a thin reed to which to cling. As it happens, the CIA reports are just one sign of many that Pelosi’s professed ignorance of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques is untenable.
In fact, they are not even the latest sign. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Michael Sheehy, a top Pelosi aide, attended a 2003 CIA briefing in which he was told that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques had been used on Zubaydah. According to a “Democratic source” quoted by the Post, “it is almost certain that Pelosi would have learned about the use of waterboarding from Sheehy.”
Nor is this the first time that the Post has embarrassed Pelosi by dredging up some inconvenient history. A December 7, 2007 report in the paper noted that “In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.”
The Post story went on to record that “Among the techniques described… was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder.”
It is a measure of Pelosi’s rapidly dwindling credibility that even the Obama administration’s recent release of the so-called “torture memos,” outlining the interrogation techniques used by the CIA in 2002 and 2003, failed to further her case against Bush administration officials.
One reason is that a timeline accompanying the memos prepared by the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator John Rockefeller, included the salient detail that “[i]n the fall of 2002, after the use of interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah, CIA records indicate that the CIA briefed the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Committee on the interrogation.” Those records also showed that the intelligence committee was briefed on the interrogation program in 2003, “after the use of interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.” Since Pelosi was then the ranking Democrat on the House committee on intelligence, it strains credulity to believe that she was unaware that these techniques were in use.
Indeed, many on the Democratic base don’t believe it. In an amusing irony, the same partisan activists that Pelosi has been trying to appease with her posturing for a political witch hunt against the previous administration now sees Pelosi as a traitor for having known about the coercive interrogation techniques and said nothing to stop them. Search the netroots' blogs and you will find Pelosi denounced as an “accessory” to torture, among other unflattering distinctions. On the website AfterDowningStreet.com, whose banner calls for “Bush-Cheney Trials in ‘09,” Pelosi was named by posters among the “complicit Democrats who must resign immediately…and [be] prosecuted for war crimes.” From a favorite of the Left, Pelosi has suddenly become an apostate.
It’s a role reversal Pelosi clearly didn’t anticipate when she spent the past few years decrying the supposed injustice of the Bush-era interrogation policies. During a grandstanding November 2005 “press stakeout,” for instance, Pelosi self-righteously lectured the Bush administration about the folly of “torture,” citing her “many years on the [Senate] Intelligence Committee” as proof that she would never condone something so contrary to the “priorities of our citizens.” In a shot at President Bush, Pelosi added, “When we put our young men and women in harm’s way, we always owe the American people the truth, and that is what the Congress is asking the President for: the truth.”
Now Congress, or at least some leading Republicans are asking the same thing from Nancy Pelosi. Led by Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, they are calling for an investigation to determine what figures like Pelosi really knew about the interrogation policies they came to denounce after it became politically expedient.
Whether or not they succeed, the implied lesson is an important one: Second-guessing intelligence officials laboring under the threat of terrorist attack to keep the country safe will have serious repercussions, not least for Congressional leaders seeking to politicize their work for partisan gain. Perhaps there’s a case for a “Truth Commission” after all.