05.18.09

GOP's Torture Tricks Backfire

Republicans might think they’re being clever by drawing Nancy Pelosi into the torture controversy. But as Daily Beast columnist Matthew Yglesias argues, they’re playing right into Democrats’ hands.

Just when it seemed to many that the right had lost its mojo, give conservatives credit: They're still enormously good at ginning up controversies and controlling the news cycle. Thus a story that was once about the Bush administration's decision to authorize barbaric and illegal acts of torture has successfully been morphed into a to-do about Nancy Pelosi's account of CIA briefings.

As political gamesmanship, it's been masterful. I particularly like the way the right has managed to trot out an endless procession of figures willing to express outrage that anyone would ever hint that the CIA might mislead a member of Congress. From conservatives' incredulous responses, you'd think Pelosi had suggested that little green Martians stole her briefing memos. Obviously, I wasn't in the room with Pelosi and whoever briefed her, but anyone with any recollection of history should be aware that it would hardly be unusual for the country's marquee intelligence agency to do something like that. Indeed, deception of Congress has been a common occurrence in the agency's history, and one former director, Richard Helms, was even convicted of lying to Congress.

The CIA is typically a president's tool of choice when he wants to get someone to do something illegal. When you do something illegal, there's typically a need for a coverup, and with the coverup comes the deception.

None of which has anything in particular to do with a unique CIA penchant for dishonesty. Rather, the crux of the matter is that the CIA is typically a president's tool of choice when he wants to get someone to do something illegal. When you do something illegal, there's typically a need for a coverup, and with the coverup comes the deception.

Helms' conviction related to the Nixon administration's role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile. In the 1980s, CIA Director Bill Casey misled Congress about the Reagan administration's illegal continued support of anti-Sandinista terrorist organizations in Nicaragua. Under George W. Bush, the United States government embarked on the repeated torture of terrorism suspects in violation of American and international law. This fact was kept secret from the American people for the normal reason presidents like to keep illegal activity secret. It's illegal, after all, and "keeping it secret" is what people normally try to do after they commit crimes.

That basic logic hardly amounts to a proof that Pelosi was kept in the dark, and she almost certainly knew more about what was going on at the time than, say, I did. But it does suggest deception is a plausible scenario. And more to the point, it gets us refocused on the real issue here, which is not about what briefings were or were not given to Congress but about the underlying activity that was the subject of the briefings. We've had, for example, a steady drip of evidence, most recently from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, indicating that one main use of Bush-era torture was to compel people to "confess" to the existence of various ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

And here's where the right's tactical acumen comes up short. Various conservative commentators have expressed their hope that gunning for Pelosi will blunt progressive calls for a "truth commission" to thoroughly investigate what really happened on Bush's trip to the "dark side". Fox's Neil Cavuto said we might be in a "Mexican standoff" wherein Pelosi would agree to drop the idea of investigations to prevent herself from attracting scrutiny. Steven Hayes, Dick Cheney's official biographer, said, "Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about truth commissions have to be stopping and saying, OK, wait a second." What conservatives are missing here is that this is a fight they were winning before they started gunning for Pelosi. Their best ally in this fight was Barack Obama, whose desire to "move forward" rather than focusing on the past had been the subject of much consternation. Had conservatives simply reached out to grab the hand that was being extended to them, they could have gotten what they wanted.

But in their zeal to score a tactical win, the right has made a truth commission more likely not less likely. Obama wanted to avoid a backward-looking focus on torture in part because it distracted from his legislative agenda. But if we're going to be looking backward anyway, thanks to conservatives' insistence on complaining about Pelosi, then the move forward strategy lacks a rationale. And far from forcing a standoff in which Pelosi will abandon her support for an investigation, the right has forced her into a corner from which she can't give in to moderate Democrats' opposition to such a move without looking like she's cravenly attempting to save her own skin.

There's no sign that Pelosi or anyone else is backing off the truth-commission idea. And, indeed, by suggesting that Pelosi could be a target of an investigation, conservatives have helped cleanse the idea of the odor of victor's justice. The question of CIA briefings of congressional leaders would, after all, be a legitimate subject of inquiry. And it's very possible that, done rigorously, Pelosi and other Democrats, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), could wind up getting a black eye or two. But however bad an investigation might make the members of Congress who were supposed to be preventing illegal conduct look, the people actually doing the misdeeds are going to look even worse. Today, the congressional Republicans look extremely clever. But in a few months' time, we'll look back on this as yet another example of a conservative tactical victory that winds up backfiring. After all, selecting Sarah Palin looked brilliant for a week or two. And the anathematization of Obama's stimulus proposal seemed like an unexpected coup until it wound up pushing Arlen Specter into the arms of the Democrats. Gamesmanship, in short, can only get you so far. But conservatives sure are good at it.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.