Saturday, May 16, 2009

She’s a decoy

Let’s assume that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew back in 2002 that the CIA was performing waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation tactics upon terror suspects. Let’s assume Representative Pelosi said nothing about it for years. This makes her a hypocrite, a coward (as were many Democrats back then), and possibly a liar – which is not exactly rare in Washington (on both sides of the aisle).

The result is that it only reduces her power on this particular subject. It paints her as part of the problem and not part of the solution, which is the kinder way of saying what many GOP leaders were saying about Pelosi as the week wore on.

But it also brings to light that the Bush administration had been torturing people from the get-go.

Pelosi’s silence over the last few years does not exonerate the men who drafted the torture memos and the men and women who authorized them to do so. The Bush administration’s degree of culpability for torturing prisoners is an order of much greater magnitude. Pelosi did not conjure up the dangerous legal theories used by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales, and Steven Bradbury to justify torture. She didn’t decide to call off FBI interrogators who were being successful using normal methods and replace them with CIA operatives and contractors who were willing to torture. Cheney and Rumsfeld were the ones who did that.

Pelosi was not the one who allowed the men who wrote or authorized those memos to remain in their positions or gain promotions in the Bush Administration. She was not the one who publicly labeled the soldier guards at Abu Ghraib as “rogues and renegades” even though they were just following orders. Cheney and Rumsfeld were the ones who did that.

Philip D. Zelikow, counselor to Condoleezza Rice when she was Secretary of State, made this statement at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Justice Department's torture memos, "The U.S. government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented program in American history of cruelly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one. It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part . . . Precisely because this was a collective failure it is all the more important to comprehend it and learn from it."

There are several issues that make this fight important beyond the question of Ms. Pelosi's truthfulness and reputation – and they could be addressed by an independent commission. Is the intelligence oversight system functioning as it should? Are leaders of the intelligence committees being appropriately informed? Should information be shared more broadly? With the constraints of classified information and pledges of secrecy, is there any way that lawmakers can express opposition or concern? Reforms may be needed which only an independent commission could discern. It would help to educate us all about the routine interaction between parties on sensitive intelligence matters.

Pelosi's claims that she did not learn in 2002 of waterboarding being used by the CIA have been corroborated by Senator Bob Graham. She is not my heroine (I wish someone else was Speaker) but it is quite a stretch to say she's lying to cover her butt because she doesn't need to cover her butt. The accusations from the GOP and the media that she’s complicit are a distraction from the real issue. Many in the Bush administration did horribly worse. In using torture they ignored our constitution, twisting the meaning behind our national laws, and have yet to be held to account. Pelosi was not the tail wagging the dog. The Democrats had no power back then. None…notta…zilch.

Pelosi is being used by the Republicans as a decoy. She is not the important issue. If you are following the Republican lead and going after Pelosi, then you are doing just what the Republicans want you to do – taking your eyes off the ball. “The ball” is the fact that torture was authorized and used by Bush-Cheney to justify the Iraq war.