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Pelosi's torture predicament

The House speaker's changing stories on Bush administration briefings on the subject raise more questions than they answer.

May 18, 2009

Republicans are exulting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's increasingly defensive explanations about when she knew about torture by CIA interrogators. But you don't have to be a partisan to recognize that the possible acquiescence of Democrats in waterboarding and other cruelties is worthy of further investigation.

Pelosi long has insisted that, in her role as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, she was told in a September 2002 briefing only that extreme techniques such as waterboarding had been deemed legal and that the administration might use them in the future. She repeated that account at a news conference Thursday -- but this time added that a staff member had told her in February 2003 that the techniques actually had been used.

At her news conference, Pelosi also accused the CIA of lying to her during the original briefing, prompting CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to contradict her account.

Delighting in Pelosi's predicament, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that "the speaker has had way too many stories on this issue." The allegation that Pelosi knew about, but did nothing to stop, the use of waterboarding dovetails with the Republican narrative that Democrats initially went along with what they now call torture.

But there's more than just partisan politics at stake here. What Pelosi knew -- and what she did about it -- matters. In 2007, Porter J. Goss, a former chairman of the intelligence committee who later served as President George W. Bush's CIA director, told the Washington Post that "there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing" among important members of Congress. "And the reaction in the room was not just approval but encouragement."

This is important because, if it's true, it suggests hypocrisy on the part of Democrats such as Pelosi who have been highly critical of waterboarding and other torture. And it raises serious questions about Congress' oversight role. If Pelosi and others were indeed kept fully in the loop on these practices, why did they fail to do whatever was necessary to stop them? Even if she couldn't go public, why did Pelosi fail to register her dissent in the strongest terms?

We have argued that Congress' role in torture ought to be scrutinized by a nonpartisan panel modeled on the 9/11 Commission. That body also should examine the genesis of the interrogation policy, the contrivance of its legal rationale and, finally, whether there is any truth in former Vice President Dick Cheney's frenzied insistence that waterboarding and similar methods saved "perhaps hundreds of thousands" of lives. Much as President Obama may have wished to move beyond what he called a dark and painful chapter, there remain too many unanswered questions.

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