Waterboarding it is not, but Nancy Pelosi’s increasingly self-discrediting campaign to deny any knowledge of the coercive interrogation measures used on senior al-Qaeda terrorists – measures that a large and growing body of evidence suggests she has known about for years – has made for torturous viewing.
The latest twist in the House Speaker’s great unraveling came last Thursday, when Pelosi leveled the sensational charge that the CIA was deliberately “misleading the Congress” when it released records placing her among those who attended a 2002 closed-door briefing on enhanced interrogation techniques, almost certainly including waterboarding, that had been used on al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Taken aback by the gravity of the charge, some reporters wondered if Pelosi was really accusing the CIA of lying about her role in the briefings. She was.
Pelosi may well have been counting on backing from CIA Director Leon Panetta. As of early last week, it seemed that Pelosi would indeed have an ally in Panetta, an Obama appointee and fellow California Democrat. When the CIA initially released the records of the 2002 briefings, Panetta had softened the initial blow to Pelosi by stating that “descriptions provided by the CIA may not be accurate.” Pelosi promptly seized on the statement to imply that there was reasonable doubt about what she had known of the interrogation measures in use in 2002.
Panetta dispelled any such doubt on Friday, however, as he resoundingly rejected Pelosi’s claims. “Let me be clear,” Panetta wrote in a memo to CIA employees. “It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress.” Devastatingly for Pelosi, Panetta stood firmly by the CIA’s account of the 2002 briefing, noting that “[o]ur 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.’” Panetta didn’t specifically say that Pelosi was lying, but one didn’t have to read deeply between the lines to grasp the upshot.
If picking a fight with the CIA backfired, compounding Pelosi’s woes was her forced retreat from the claim that she was unaware of the kinds of interrogation techniques in use between 2002 and 2003, and that she was told only of the kind of techniques that could potentially be used.
In truth, this was always a tenuous claim. By all available accounts – including several reports in the Washington Post; a timeline of briefings prepared by Democratic Senator John Rockefeller; and the admission of a top Pelosi aide that she had been briefed about the harsh interrogation tactics – Pelosi’s recollection of events was highly suspect.
The point is in any case moot. Pelosi has now acknowledged that she had in fact been told by an aide that CIA was using waterboarding during interrogations. That puts the lie to her April 23rd assurance that “we were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.” On the contrary, Pelosi had known full well that the interrogation methods she now condemns as “torture” had been used.
In a desperate bid to save face, Pelosi still maintains that she didn’t know about waterboarding in September 2002, but only in 2003. But even if one chooses take her rapidly shifting word over the CIA’s exact records, the latest admission does nothing to bolster her political brand. At worst, Pelosi is a liar. At best, she comes off as a cynical opportunist: Having known about waterboarding as long ago as 2003, she chose to stay silent until it became politically convenient to speak up several years later. Not only that, but by her own admission Pelosi cast aside the torture issue to focus on what she calls changing “the leadership in Congress and in the White House” – that is, electioneering.
Integrity is not the first word one would use to describe that record.
Nor did Pelosi help her cause when, late last Friday, she backtracked yet again, withdrawing her previous charge that CIA had deliberately lied to Congress and instead blaming – who else? – the Bush administration. “My criticism of the manner in which the Bush administration did not appropriately inform Congress is separate from my respect for those in the intelligence community who work to keep our country safe,” Pelosi announced in a statement late Friday. This attempt at damage control has fallen on deaf years: With her belated admission that she had been briefed on interrogation measures, Pelosi is ill-fit to play the Bush administration’s victim.
Even the Obama administration has taken this view. If Pelosi hoped that the president would rally to her side, she miscalculated. When asked to referee the debate between Pelosi and her critics last week, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly declined the “invitation to get involved here.” As her credibility dwindles, Pelosi increasingly stands alone.
There is considerable justice in Pelosi’s current plight. In charging that the Bush administration was sanctioning “torture” and then lying about it to Congress, Pelosi had hoped to turn the intelligence debate into a political spectacle. Now she has. What she didn’t anticipate is that she would become the spectacle.