Nancy Pelosi has been engaged in an uncomfortable dance around her knowledge of detainee torture over the past few weeks. In the latest installment of her awkward twisting routine, Pelosi now says that the CIA mislead her during briefings. "We were told explicitly that waterboarding was not being used," she told reporters at a presser today. This, after weeks of saying she was never briefed about waterboarding. She also informed reporters that her top national security adviser learned that prisoners were being waterboarded in a February 2003 briefing. Pelosi says her response was to let Jane Harman, a longtime Pelosi frenemy who replaced the Speaker as the top Dem on the Intelligence Committee, take the issue up with the Administration. She also reiterated her call for an independent Truth Commission to delve into who knew what when, who did what to whom, and who said any of this was OK in the first place.
Pelosi's statements today must be like nails down a chalkboard for the White House. Obama has made it clear he wants to move past this issue, and has given the idea of a commission a cool reception. But try as he might, it continues to make headlines - with a little help from Dick Cheney. Like him or loathe him (either way, he really doesn't care), the once media-shy Cheney has effectively kept this issue in the news. Obama has other priorities now, both ones forced upon him - like the economy, the ailing auto industry and Afghanistan/Pakistan - and ones he's actively seeking to address, most notably healthcare. The last thing he wants is for his agenda to be derailed by a prolonged, convoluted debate of the culpability of Bush-era officials (on both sides of the aisle) with regards to this messy, unpleasant yet ultimately profound issue. But he might not get a say in it.
Obama may be ready to move on, but a lot of his voters aren't. Many are eager to see officials held to account for their actions. So far, Obama has made clear his personal stance against torture, but has been pushing off real litigation. That's not going to be enough for some. If torture is part of Bush's legacy, how it is dealt with could well be Obama's. And if Obama is serious about restoring America's image in the world, he's going to need to show that when people undermine American values - like humane treatment of prisoners - they can't walk away from their actions, even if they've been voted out of office. Yes, an independent commission will be distressing and unsavory, and it will keep torture in the headlines. But that's happening anyway. The country isn't moving on. Perhaps Obama's best move is to support an independent commission, effectively handing over the torture issue. This helps remove him from centerstage in this debate, freeing him to carry on with his agenda. And, perhaps most significantly, history will show that his administration actively dealt with another problem handed to him, this time one of the most important ethical issues of our day.