By: Anuradha Pandey, guest blogger
The recent uproar over whether or not top congressional Democrats knew about the interrogation techniques the C.I.A. employed on terror suspects is an example of smokescreen politics and hypocrisy at their best.
Instead of addressing the question at hand â€” whether or not the interrogation techniques can be identified as â€œtortureâ€ and if they are therefore illegal â€”Republicans are instead accusing Democrats of being complicit in the C.I.A.â€™s â€œadvanced interrogation techniquesâ€ program that Bush administration Department of Justice lawyers deemed legal and necessary to the War on Terror. This debacle has been particularly disastrous for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
C.I.A. records released this week show that four members of Congress were briefed on September 4, 2002: Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Representatives Pelosi and Porter Goss (R-FL). This group is the â€œGang of Four,â€ the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
These four members of Congress could not have taken any action to change or stop the program once the Bush administration had decided to implement it. They needed the whole of Congress to exercise the Constitutionâ€™s checks and balances, but could not have told their colleagues because disclosing the information would have harmed the agencyâ€™s operations and would have been political suicide.
In the last few weeks, Pelosi has been in the middle of a political disaster waiting to happen as one of the most hated Democrats in Congress. According to the New York Times:
Congressional Republicans on Friday accused Democrats of full complicity in the approval of the Bush administrationâ€™s brutal interrogations, citing a new accounting that shows frequent briefings for some top Democrats on waterboarding and other harsh methods starting in 2002.
The new chart of briefings, prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the first full listing of briefings, appears to call into question the assertion of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she was never told that waterboarding and other methods were used, only that the Central Intelligence Agency believed they were legal and could be used.
Pelosi said that she knew of waterboarding as an interrogation technique but that she was not told that it had actually been used on the detainee and terror suspect Abu Zubaydah. Again from the Times:
Ms. Pelosi said that at the sole briefing she attended as the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in September 2002, the only mention of waterboarding by C.I.A. officials was that while it was deemed to be legal, the technique was not being used.
Pelosi said that she only found out after the September 4th briefing that waterboarding had been actually used while Goss said he specifically remembers being told about it, though it is not clear whether that means he was told that it had been used on Zubaydah.
While it is deplorable that Pelosi did not acknowledge until it was disclosed in late 2007 that she knew about the Bush administration’s sanction of torture, any objection to waterboarding after the September 4th briefing would have come too late because Zubaydah had already been tortured 83 times that month.
She still asserts that she was told that waterboarding was not being used, though she did admit that she knew by early 2003 that detainees were being subjected to it.
The Speaker apparently saw little recourse to challenge the practice except by regaining Democratic control of the House and Senate.
On the one hand, it seems ridiculous for Republicans to use this as a political distraction to both try to destroy Pelosi’s political career (the outcry from her liberal supporters has been considerable) and to take attention away from the fact that Republicans and the Bush administration sanctioned torture as a method of interrogation.
On the other hand, Pelosi is a polarizing figure who has tended to alienate people ever since she became Speaker. Pelosi is as much a slimy politician as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). I have no qualms criticizing her because I often consider myself too liberal for even the Democratic Party.
If Pelosi had been from a conservative district she’d be comparable to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the woman who called for the investigations of Democratic members of Congress who were supposedly unpatriotic Ã la Joseph McCarthy.
I’d have liked to know that top congressional Democrats already knew about the interrogation techniques. However, I recognize that Pelosi and Graham couldn’t have done anything because the administration’s decision to only brief four members of Congress was a calculated political move so those members had no choice but to stay silent.
The possibility of political fallout on the part of the administraion was abated because they could say that they had indeed warned Congress and that ranking members had the chance to object. This entire situation is ridiculous, and should not distract (though it probably will) from the investigation of those DoJ lawyers who decided torture was legal.
This is another shining example of Congressâ€™ inability to transcend infighting to get anything done and to correct past sins.
Related New York Times article here.
Anuradha Pandey is a graduate student at the University of Florida. She has a B.A. inÂ History, Religion and a minor in French from UF. Currently, she is a candidate for an M.A. in British Imperial History and hopes to pursue a PhD in the same field. In her spare time she is a political junkie.