Pelosi Playing Defense on Torture

Nancy Pelosi didn’t cry foul when the Bush administration briefed her on “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects in 2002, but her team was locked and loaded to counter hypocrisy charges when the “torture” memos were released last week.

Many Republicans obliged, led by former CIA chief Porter Goss, who is accusing Democrats like Pelosi of “amnesia” for demanding investigations in 2009 after failing to raise objections seven years ago when she first learned of the legal basis for the program.

“As soon as the president made the decision to release [the memos], I was telling people that the Republicans were going to come after us, saying she knew about it and did nothing,” said an adviser to Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking on condition of anonymity. “And I’m sure we’re going to get hammered again when they release all those new torture photos,” the person said.

 But Pelosi’s allies were less prepared to confront the fallout from her convoluted answers during three sessions with reporters last week — answers that raised new questions and handed Republicans a fresh line of attack on a speaker at the height of her power.

“I’m puzzled, I don’t understand what she’s trying to say,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and currently the committee’s ranking minority member.

“I don’t have any sympathy for her — she’s the speaker of the House; there should be some accountability. She shouldn’t be given a pass,” added Hoekstra.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised to keep up the heat, telling reporters last week, “She and other leaders were fully briefed on all of these interrogation techniques. There’s nothing here that should surprise her.”

Democrats dismiss such talk as a sideshow, arguing that the criticism of Pelosi is nothing compared with the long-term damage done to Republicans by the disclosure of Bush administration interrogation abuses.

“The Republicans may have won a news cycle, but we’re doing what we want to do,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, pointing to Pelosi’s legislative successes during President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office.

Nonetheless, Pelosi finds herself on the defensive at a time when she needs to be on the offensive, pushing through a record-breaking budget, health care reform, a controversial cap-and-trade proposal and a supplemental funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.

To make matters worse, Pelosi’s troubles cast renewed scrutiny on her fraught relationship with Rep. Jane Harman, the hyperkinetic California Democrat who lobbied her relentlessly — and unsuccessfully — to become Intelligence Committee chairwoman in 2006. 

A week ago, Congressional Quarterly reported that Harman had been secretly wiretapped by Bush administration intelligence officials and was overheard promising a suspected Israeli agent she would advocate on behalf of two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage.

In return, CQ reported, the agent promised to enlist Pelosi’s friend Haim Saban to pressure the speaker to tap Harman as committee chair by threatening to withhold contributions. Nothing became of the scheme, and Pelosi says Saban, a billionaire and major Democratic benefactor, never strong-armed her.

At a roundtable discussion with reporters in her office on Wednesday, Pelosi claimed government officials had told her “maybe three years ago” that Harman had been bugged — but indicated she hadn’t been told of the content of the recorded conversation.

A day later, CQ reporter Joel Stein cited three former intelligence officials who contradicted that account, saying Pelosi was, in fact, told of the substance of the wiretap.

Daly said the speaker stood by her version of events.

Pelosi also complicated matters at the roundtable by telling reporters, “Many, many, many of Jane’s friends talked to me about her being named chair of the committee” and scoffed at Harman backers’ charge that she had been promised the post.

“I’ve heard some people say to me, ‘Oh, she was promised in writing she would be the chairman’ — completely not so,” Pelosi said.

That, in turn, sparked public pushback by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Pelosi’s No. 2, who pointed to a 1999 letter from then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt promising Pelosi the intelligence post.

House Democrats say the Harman matter is likely to blow over fairly soon. More serious, they say, are questions raised by Pelosi’s knowledge of the torture memos.

Pelosi supports the creation of a “Truth Commission” to root out wrongdoing by the Bush administration on interrogations — putting her at odds with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama, who want the matter dealt with exclusively by congressional committees.

That has sparked charges of hypocrisy.

Republicans have been circulating a December 2007 Washington Post report that quoted Bush administration officials saying Pelosi did little to block “enhanced interrogation techniques” in 2002 when she was briefed as the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

At a press briefing last week — one she hoped would focus on the legislative accomplishments in Obama’s first 100 days — Pelosi said she didn’t raise objections because intelligence officials didn’t divulge they had actually begun using the techniques at the time of the briefing.

“We were not — I repeat — were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used,” she said.

However, that account seemed to be contradicted by a Senate Intelligence Committee timeline that found House leaders were briefed “in the fall of 2002, after the use of interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaida. CIA records indicate that the CIA briefed the chairman and vice chairman of the committee on the interrogation.”

And Porter Goss, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Pelosi was the ranking member, made the same point in a Saturday Washington Post op-ed.

“The chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists,” Goss wrote. “I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues.”

Pelosi dismissed such criticism, telling reporters the 2002 briefing was strictly classified, and she was hamstrung from raising objections with officials or even sharing information with other lower-ranking committee members.

And Pelosi says that Democrats did raise red flags when the extent of the administration’s program became apparent.

In an e-mail to reporters, Pelosi said that Harman — who replaced her as the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee in 2003 — “filed a letter in early 2003 to the CIA to protest the use of such techniques, a protest with which I concurred.”

But Hoekstra, a frequent Pelosi critic who supported most Bush administration policies, said he has often raised objections to officials during intelligence briefings and shared his misgivings with his leadership.

“I’ve never felt hamstrung,” he said. “If there were things I heard that made me nervous, I’d tell John Boehner or [former Speaker Dennis Hastert], ‘You guys have to get briefed up on this because I’m uncomfortable with what I heard.’ ... It was my job to let my boss know so that he could take what he believes is appropriate action.”

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