Thursday, May 14, 2009
waterboarding, have been demonstrated to be lies, Speaker Nancy Pelosi today held a news conference at which she did two things:
(1) Admitted for the first time that her previous stories, indeed, were lies; and
(2) Claimed that CIA briefers lied to her in 2002.
She dressed up this serious accusation about the CIA by casting it as part and parcel of the Bush Administration's misleading Congress and the American people about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
So Pelosi is forced to acknowledge that she's be lying to us, to the press, and probably to her own Members for years, but shifts the headlines away from this confession by accusing the CIA of misleading her.
No doubt, she thinks that this stratagem will rally the Democratic left to her side, since the there are few targets the left likes to hit more than the CIA. Plus, the CIA will have to be constrained in its response, because it does still generally prefer to operate in secrecy, Nancy Pelosi is still Speaker of the House which holds the purse strings, the President will not be pleased by dragging out this dispute, and the Agency is now headed by a Democrat.
However, Pelosi is far from out of the woods. As WaPo's Chris Cellizza points out, she's adding more fuel to the fire. Republicans are not going to let the issue go away. And even if her shot at the CIA took the headlines today, at least some in the press are going to revisit the questions about her own credibility, given that she just admitted to lying this morning. And while CIA will have little to say officially, current and former CIA officials -- some of whom have just been accused loudly by the Speaker of gross misconduct or even breaking the law -- are unlikely to let this pass.
After all, who is she accusing? Not the mid-level briefers who were, in effect, messengers:
She is accusing George Tenet, then Director of the CIA, a Bill Clinton appointee who has until now held his tongue about this whole "torture" controversy.
She is accusing James Pavitt, a career officer who was Deputy Director for Operations at the agency during the period in question and may be best remembered as a guy who didn't much care for Bush.
She is accusing Stephen Kappes, another career officer who was Pavitt's top assistant in 2002-2003 and who Obama begged to stay on at the agency as Deputy Director under Leon Panetta.
She is accusing John McLaughlin, also a CIA professional, who held the second-in-command post Kappes has now from 2000 to 2004.
She is accusing John Brennan, a CIA veteran and counter-terrorism expert who was Obama's chief campaign advisor on intelligence and now serves as Deputy National Security Advisor in the White House. Brennan served as Deputy Executive Director of the CIA from March 2001 to March 2003.
She is accusing Cofer Black, a senior operations officer who headed the CIA's Counterterroism Center from 1999 through late 2002. Black played a key role in developing the response to 9/11 and no doubt had a hand in the enhanced interrogations.
Some of these guys are Republicans. Some are Democrats. All are professionals. None will appreciate being called liars and worse. Some will leak more stuff about Pelosi to the press. One or two may speak out publicly, to the extent the Agency will allow them. In any event, Pelosi's presser today will not be the last word.
Finally, it's important to keep in mind that whether Pelosi knew about waterboarding in September 2002 or February 2003, she is telling a bald-faced lie when she says there was nothing she could have done about it.
Although the specifics of the requirements to brief Congress about covert operations have changed several times in the past 33 years, the whole point of these requirements has been the same since passage of the Hughes-Ryan Act in 1974: briefing exists for the express purpose of enabling Congress to exercise its legislative and oversight authority by refusing to fund operations or forbidding them through legislation. Pelosi's claim that she was hamstrung by being bound to secrecy is nonsense. Nothing prevented her from proposing legislation. More importantly, nothing prevented her from proposing new limitations on CIA's secret budget that would have barred abuse of detainees.
In any case, the act of objecting strenuously to Tenet and threatening action would have been enough to stop the interrogation program in its tracks. Tenet would have known that to defy the House or the Senate would inevitably result, at a minimum, in leaks that would have outed a secret operation. The President theoretically could have ordered him to proceed anyway, but the interrogation program had been proposed by the CIA, so why would Bush intervene? If he did, he'd have found that a reluctant CIA is fully capable of dodging such orders (and even leaking the orders to Pelosi!).
The long and short of this is that Nancy Pelosi is a big liar who has now decided to make the CIA the whipping boy. My own view about why Pelosi and the others did not object is that at the time (2002-2003), they were just as concerned as anyone at the White House or the CIA about the possibility of a second attack on the U.S., in light of the void of information about al Qaeda, and were prepared to do whatever was necessary. They really ought to have the courage to own up to this. But of course, courage is not a common virtue among politicians.
What do you think of Pelosi's latest line? Post a comment.
Posted by J. E. Burke at 1:41 PM