Robert Scheer is the editor of Truthdig, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America(Twelve).
Nancy Pelosi is no Dick Cheney, nor a George W. Bush. She was neither the author of a systematic policy of torture nor has she been, like Cheney and most top Republicans in Congress, an enduring apologist for its practice. It is a nonsensical distraction to place her failure to speak out courageously as a critic of the Bush policies on the same level as those who engineered one of the most shameful debacles in US history.
But what she, and anyone else who went along with this evil, as lackadaisically as she now claims, should be confronted with are the serious implications of their passive acquiescence. Why did she not speak up, or if it were a matter of a lack of reliable information, demand an accounting from the executive branch, as befits a leader of the loyal opposition in Congress?
If the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and later House Democratic leader, lacked the authority to publicly question a policy of torture, then how can we condemn, indeed imprison, ordinary soldiers who thought it their duty to follow orders?
Even though Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded eighty-three times before the September 2002 briefing of Pelosi, she now claims she was told only that the practice might be used and that it had been approved by the Bush Justice Department as legal. Wasn’t that approval in itself sufficiently alarming to justify a strong and public dissent? Certainly that would have been the appropriate response when Pelosi aide Michael Sheehy, along with Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., were informed by the CIA in no uncertain terms five months later that Zubaydah had been subjected to specific “enhanced” methods including waterboarding. Pelosi admits to possessing that information, but according to one of her aides quoted in Politico, after Harman’s letter questioning the practice received “no response” from the CIA, “there was nothing more that could be done.”
Why not? Does the CIA or the White House that directs its activities stand above the law without any congressional restraint, as mandated by the US Constitution that Pelosi has sworn to uphold?
Should the members of the 9/11 Presidential Commission not have been informed that two of the “key witnesses” upon whom their report was based had provided the information critical to the report’s conclusions only after being waterboarded a total of 266 times? On Page 146 of that report, there appears a boxed disclaimer that even the commissioners, possessed of high security clearances, were not allowed to meet, let alone cross-examine, the witnesses or even talk with those who did the interrogations.
As the presidential commissioners conceded in their report, “We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting.”
In short, the basic narrative of the origins and conduct of the 9/11 attack that so fundamentally perverted American politics relied on cherry-picked information that the White House and its operative in the field chose to release to the commission. As a result, we the public still know nothing of certainty about the financing of the terrorist organization emanating from Saudi Arabia and the UAE or the logistical support supplied to the Taliban and Al Qaeda by agencies of the government of Pakistan.
What the public was offered was not an unvarnished look at the available evidence concerning the attack but rather a fear campaign justifying an undifferentiated and illogically constructed international war on terror. As Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff to Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., the Democratic leader following 9/11, put it: “You have to remember, in the 2002 period, the whole atmospherics, it was all about scaring people every day.”
That fear-mongering drove a majority of Democrats to support the president in his invasion of Iraq, the one Arab nation where Al Qaeda had been most brutally oppressed by its sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. The “key witnesses” affirmed that reality even after being subjected to torture, which would have proven deeply embarrassing to the Bush administration were it revealed in open court proceedings.
By acquiescing to the cover-up of unpleasant truths in the treatment of prisoners, Pelosi contributed to the betrayal of the ideal of public accountability that is the bedrock of our system of governance, which Congress is charged with protecting.