What Did Pelosi Know?

Republicans are using reports that the speaker was briefed on torture to turn around the debate and duck further hearings. The Daily Beast's Scott Horton asks: Will the tactic work?

05.11.09 6:30 AM ET

Republicans are launching a counteroffensive as the torture debate heats up, trying to lower Democratic pressure for an official inquiry by claiming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was implicated. Democratic congressional leaders, they insist, were briefed in detail and acquiesced to the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”—waterboarding, stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation of up to eleven days and walling (slamming a prisoner’s head against a plywood wall. If Democrats want an inquiry, says former House Intelligence Committee chair, Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), “The first people that should be called in and held accountable ought to be Congress.”

"The bottom line is she and her key staff, they all knew about it," Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra says.

The Democrats, however, don’t see it that way. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who served as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee at times when Hoekstra chaired it, acknowledges briefings were held. But she says they covered only general information about the techniques that the CIA believed it had in its disposal, not specific reports that they had actually been used or its results. She also notes that given the secrecy required she was forbidden from discussing them with her staff or even other members of Congress.

On Thursday, ABC News broadcast a report derived from a summary that the CIA provided the Senate Intelligence Committee of the briefings furnished Congressional leaders at which the subject of torture came up: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah in September 2002, according to a report prepared by the Director of National Intelligence’s office and obtained by ABC News. The report, submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee and other Capitol Hill officials Wednesday, appears to contradict Pelosi’s statement last month that she was never told about the use of waterboarding or other special interrogation tactics.”

Pelosi, however, stood by her account and insisted that the report had it wrong. ABC had just been reprimanded by the New York Times and other media critics for falsely reporting the intelligence value of CIA waterboarding in a feature story by Brian Ross. In that case, ABC rushed to the airwaves with a story from a CIA officer who it turned out had no direct knowledge. Subsequent publication of Justice Department documents proved the ABC story incorrect. Was ABC taken for a fall a second time?

Among the details that ABC initially omitted from its report was a particularly telling one. The CIA schedule did not rest on contemporaneous records, but rather an after-the-fact attempt by CIA agents to reconstruct what had happened. In fact, the intelligence officers weren’t so confident of their recollection of what happened.CIA Director Leon Panetta, in a cover memo, stated that the information supplied the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was based on “notes that summarized the best recollections of those individuals. In the end, you and the Committee will have to determine whether this information is an accurate summary of what actually happened.” And indeed, former committee chair, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), almost immediately pointed out that the CIA schedule had an obvious error—showing him as present at a briefing he did not attend.

The ranking House Republican on its Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, busy campaigning for governor of Michigan, is dismissive of a push for further hearings or a commission of inquiry on Bush-era torture policy, both moves backed by Pelosi. He insists that Pelosi’s claim she was not informed that the techniques were used are nonsense: “Clearly her left wing is outraged that waterboarding was used. The bottom line is she and her key staff, they all knew about it.”

At this point, what congressional leaders learned about the Bush interrogations program and how they reacted to what they learned is certainly relevant though not central to any inquiry, and Republicans can be expected to keep pushing the issue to center stage. In any case, Democrats, at the time, were in the minority without influence over the Bush administration’s decisions. Very little information is now available to the public. It is noteworthy that Pelosi states she joined in an objection that Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), who succeeded her as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, following a briefing in 2003. According to the new CIA chronology, that was the first briefing at which the subject of waterboarding was raised.

A source close to Pelosi says she has nothing to fear from further disclosures. “We welcome further development of the facts and a full inquiry,” he said. “Those pushing this story badly want to avoid just such an inquiry. Isn’t that telling?”

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national security affairs for Harper's Magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.