The most salient—and most widely ignored—point in judging the competing claims of Nancy Pelosi and the CIA is that regardless of what Pelosi was informed of, whether in a quiet hint or in a full briefing behind closed doors, it wouldn’t make torture any less illegal or any more acceptable. That’s why the Pentagon and the FBI, which apparently did know what was happening in Dick Cheney’s dungeons, refused to participate in this wholesale breach of American and international law.
The rush to arraign Pelosi is a transparent attempt to divert attention from that paramount fact—the real crime. Frankly, it’s been pretty effective so far. The tilt against the House speaker has dominated Beltway chatter, the cable echo chamber, and even the network news.
Some of the criticisms are preposterous:
Q: Why didn’t she tell members of Congress what she knew—assuming she knew it?
A: Because that would have been a felony under national security statutes.
Q: Why has her explanation unfolded in awkward, decidedly unspun phrases?
A: Almost certainly because she was playing by the rules—which say you’re not supposed to discuss a top-secret briefing—while her pro-torture opponents regularly transgress that boundary.
I’ve known Nancy Pelosi for decades. She’s a person of genuine principle and integrity. As much as a politician can be, she’s prone to telling the truth. But when I suggested as much on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the rhetorical roof fell in as my conservative colleagues piled on. As I insisted then, however, there’s actually a persuasive case that the lying here isn’t being done by the speaker.
Pelosi made the mistake of saying out loud what everyone knows (if not in this instance, then in many others): that the CIA “misled” the Congress. Here, this more-than-plausible charge is made more credible by the carefully honed response from CIA director Leon Panetta. An outsider whose arrival wasn’t exactly cheered by CIA veterans, Panetta rushed to establish his credibility inside the agency by announcing that the records show that Pelosi and other congressional leaders were briefed “truthfully.” That sounds like a carefully crafted, technical truth. But there is a key word missing: Panetta never says they were briefed “fully.”
It is hardly beyond belief that the Bush-Cheney regime and its compliant CIA director George Tenet offered the congressional leaders little more than euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—and never owned up to what was actually going on. Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham reports that his own CIA briefings never mentioned that the U.S. was engaged in waterboarding. Graham, one of the straightest arrows ever to serve in Congress, would know. He keeps an encyclopedic daily diary so minutely detailed that it includes what cereal he had for breakfast.
Before Pelosi’s blunt comment about the CIA ratcheted up the pressure on Panetta, he conceded the dubious provenance of the agency’s records. They were, he said, “based on the almost seven-year-old recollections” of officials present at the briefings. According to The Washington Post, anonymous government sources have “suggested that the record might never be clear”—that there is “difficulty . . . establishing exactly what lawmakers were told.” What happened at these briefings? Did the CIA’s note-takers suddenly get a handwriting cramp?
As the media firestorm reached white heat, Panetta couldn’t take back his admission against interest—that, given the ambiguities, “ultimately it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions.” Not surprisingly, there’s a Catch-22 in this offer: Most members of Congress aren’t allowed to see the evidence.
The CIA rebuffed Pelosi’s request to release her own notes of her briefing, apparently on grounds of national security. But adversaries—and, in fact, the entire world—know that under the Bush administration, suspects were waterboarded repeatedly. Thus the question is a straightforward one: Is the use of waterboarding explicitly mentioned in believable, preferably contemporaneous, documents from the congressional briefing of September 2002—the only one that Pelosi attended? The ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, who has access to the evidence, reviewed it at CIA headquarters last week. His conclusion? “Based on those materials,” he said, he could not “make a judgment” that Pelosi was being untruthful.
History would not favor the CIA in a swearing contest. Its long catalog of deception isn’t limited to WMDs in Iraq or the illegal gun-running of the Iran-Contra scandal, when the agency was doing the bidding of presidents. In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA misled President Kennedy about the odds of success and about the availability of an escape route if the invasion faltered. (The agency had calculated—wrongly—that if things went awry, the president would be forced to order American air strikes.)
When practiced on Americans, the agency’s famous “disinformation” is the equivalent of “lie.” And you don’t have to conclude that the scrupulously parsing Leon Panetta is lying in order to suspect that his underlings are.
Speaker Pelosi has disclosed that after she left her post on the Intelligence Committee in 2003, she learned about the use of waterboarding from a staff member. Her successor on the committee, Congresswoman Jane Harman, wrote a letter opposing such tactics—a letter with which Pelosi agreed. But why, the critics persist, didn’t she then write a letter of her own? She should have—and you can get long odds betting that her objection would have made a difference to Bush and Cheney. And if you make that bet, perhaps you can double down on the proposition that the CIA would never hoodwink the Congress. Just don’t expect to hold onto your chips when all the cards are revealed.
The GOP’s congressional leaders can’t seem to focus on jobs or the economy or health care, but they have latched on to this temporary controversy as the latest refuge of the Party of “No.” They demand that the speaker own up to something she probably didn’t do—and then apologize for it. Supported by Dick Cheney’s push for the disclosure of classified memos, what the feckless Republicans may achieve in the end is precisely what President Obama is trying to spare them—and the country: a full-fledged truth commission. Should that come to pass, apologies will certainly be due—from Bush, Cheney, the CIA, and the rest of the gang that misled us into war and tortured the nation’s honor.