I.F. Stone used to joke that what passed for investigative journalism in Washington was actually just the restating of what was already in the public record at the appropriate time.
So it is that The Politico is making a big deal today about supposed “revelations” regarding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s knowledge of the Bush-Cheney administration’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” House Republicans, and their amen corner in the media, are claiming that “new revelations” suggest Pelosi had a role in promoting the use of waterboarding.
“If someone is going to schedule hearings, I believe that the first witness should be Nancy Pelosi,” Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, the hyper-partisan Republican who serves as the ranking member on the House intelligence committee, chirps in the Politico report. “Clearly, she was involved in policy formulation.”
That’s sexy spin.
Unfortunately for Hoekstra and the Politico, it is detached from reality. And that detachment is being promoted by defenders of the Bush-Cheney administration who are working night and day to block a comprehensive inquiry into potentially criminal abuses of power by the former president and vice president and their aides.
First off, we have little in the way of “new revelations.”
Some of us began writing a year and a half ago about the fact that Pelosi, a longtime member of the House Intelligence Committee, was briefed in 2002 on waterboarding. Here’s a link to “Pelosi and Torture” — a piece I wrote in December, 2007.
After detailing concerns about Pelosi’s participation in meetings where waterboarding was discussed — and the suggestion that she and others might have asked if the techniques being used were “tough enough” — I argued that:
If this is the case, Pelosi has provided aid and comfort to the Bush administration’s efforts to deviate not just from the standards set by international agreements regarding war crimes but from the provision of the Bill of Rights that establishes basic requirements with regard to the treatment of prisoners who are in the custody of the United States.
Those deviations are precisely the sort of impeachable offenses that Pelosi has said are “off the table.” Her association with the administration on the matter of torture necessarily calls into question the speaker’s credibility on questions of how and when to hold the administration to account. It also begs a more mundane political question: At a point when Republicans like John McCain are earning points with their forthright stances against waterboarding, isn’t the credibility and the potential effectiveness of the House Democratic Caucus as an honest player in the debate profoundly harmed by the involvement of its leader in behind-the-scenes meetings that by all accounts encouraged the use of that technique?
Pelosi has since offered a relatively detailed and, to the view of many observers, compelling defense of her participation in the CIA briefings. To wit:
Of the forty CIA briefings to Congress reported recently in the press, I was only briefed once, on September 4, 2002, as I have previously stated. As I said in my statement of December 9, 2007: ‘I was briefed on interrogation techniques the Administration was considering using in the future. The Administration advised that legal counsel for both the CIA and the Department of Justice had concluded that the techniques were legal.’ I had no further briefings on the techniques.
My understanding of the briefing I received is consistent with the description that CIA General Counsel Scott Muller provided to Congresswoman Jane Harman in a letter dated February 28, 2003, which states: ‘As we informed both you and the leadership of the Intelligence Committees last September, a number of Executive Branch lawyers including lawyers from the Department of Justice participated in the determination that, in the appropriate circumstances, the use of these techniques is fully consistent with U.S. law.’ As reported in the press, the accompanying memo from CIA Director Panetta concedes that the descriptions provided by the CIA may not be accurate.
Reasonable people may differ on whether the speaker is being as forthcoming as need be — although former Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham has stepped forward to corroborate her statements — and on the extent to which she is complicit with the former administration. I remain disappointed about Pelosi’s decision to block the necessary accountability moment in 2007, and I remain genuinely concerned that her caution with regard to impeachment was influenced by personal and political considerations rather than by the best interests of the republic.
But our purpose now should be to get beyond the base political positioning and partisan gamesmanship that has blocked not just accountability but the restoration of our system of checks and balances.
This brings us to the question Pete Hoekstra unwittingly poses: Should Pelosi be encouraged to testify — before a Senate inquiry (my preference), some other congressional hearing or an independent commission — about what she knew and when she knew it?
Indeed, with the mounting evidence — much of it provided by former Vice President Dick Cheney in his confessional interviews with friendly journalists — that the Bush-Cheney administration conspired to create a false legal construct to “justify” the use of torture, Pelosi’s testimony could be highly significant.
Pelosi should be grilled on this. If if she feels some heat for her past actions, so be it.
When all is said and done, however, it is likely that she will be a bit player in this drama.
It would seem that Pelosi is in a position to confirm that the former administration and its allies at the CIA lied to Congress and the American people about illegal activities that were in direct conflict with the Constitution.
The point here ought not be to condemn nor to absolve Pelosi, or others who participated in those briefings.
The point should be to get to the truth of what an administration that enjoyed something akin to absolute power in 2002 did with that power.
Cheney’s statements suggest that the truth will be far more harmful to the former vice president, his aides, his lawyers and others associated with the Bush-Cheney administration than to the current Speaker of the House.
Pelosi participated in those briefings as a relatively new member of the leadership team of a minority caucus in a House of Representatives that after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was dramatically deferential to the executive branch.
In other words, it is absurd to suggest that she was — or could have been — a definitional player in the outlining or implementation of schemes to employ cruel and unusual punishment to extract dubious information from prisoners of the United States government.
As such, Pete Hoekstra’s claim with regard to Pelosi — “Clearly, she was involved in policy formulation” — is ridiculous on its face. Hoekstra’s ranting can and should be exposed for what it is: An attempt to scare Democrats (and sensible Republicans) away from pursuing a needed inquiry into who actually formulated, authorized and practiced deception with regard to the use of torture techniques.
What to do? Call Hoekstra’s bluff.
Pelosi should agree to testify, thoroughly, cooperatively and under oath.
George Bush, Dick Cheney and all of their aides and lawyers should be expected to do the same.
As someone who has been highly critical of Pelosi on these issues, I don’t see grounds for a credible claim that “she was involved in policy formulation.” (If she was, of course, then she, too, should be held to account.)
I do see grounds for a credible claim that Pelosi was lied to.
And I am certain that the Speaker has a responsibility to help investigators get to the bottom of the question of who formulated those torture policies — and the lies associated with them.