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Pelosi and the Torture Briefings

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ABC News reports:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah in September 2002, according to a report prepared by the Director of National Intelligence’s office and obtained by ABC News. The report, submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee and other Capitol Hill officials Wednesday, appears to contradict Pelosi’s statement last month that she was never told about the use of waterboarding or other special interrogation tactics. Instead, she has said, she was told only that the Bush administration had legal opinions that would have supported the use of such techniques.

The report details a Sept. 4, 2002 meeting between intelligence officials and Pelosi, then-House intelligence committee chairman Porter Goss, and two aides. At the time, Pelosi was the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. The meeting is described as a “Briefing on EITs including use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a description of particular EITs that had been employed.”

This contradicts statements that Pelosi made in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and at a press briefing to the effect that while there were general briefings about techniques that the CIA had at its disposal, there was no actual briefing that the techniques had been used on specific occasions. That doesn’t absolve Pelosi and her fellow Congressional leaders of blame in the affair, but it is a significant distinction.

I am very skeptical about the ABC report. Some cautions are in order. First, the report does not say, as has been commented elsewhere, that Pelosi “signed off” on the techniques. An argument is being made that her silence can be taken to imply consent. That legal maxim works in some circumstances, but not in this one, particularly because the ground rules of these intelligence briefings require the silence of those who are briefed. That in my mind is a major issue that emerges from the torture controversy: is it appropriate to gag Congressional leaders this way?

Second, some figures in the CIA are now attempting to fight off calls for a probe into the Bush Program. Critics of such an effort have long seen the fact that Democratic Congressional leaders were briefed about the program as an Achilles heel. Use it to embarrass the Democratic leadership, they think, and any probe will be shut down. So it’s suspicious when the two prime figures in the briefing group, Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi, suddenly become the targets of mysterious leaks sourced from the CIA or figures close to it. Extreme skepticism is warranted.

Third, is the CIA note any more authoritative than Pelosi’s recollections, or the recollections of others who were there? No. In fact, you can count on it that both sides will have self-serving recollections. And there’s a line in that CIA memo that ABC failed to share with its readers when it first posted, but that Marcy Wheeler highlights in an insightful post this morning, namely that the memo is based on:

notes that summarized the best recollections of those individuals. In the end, you and the Committee will have to determine whether this information is an accurate summary of what actually happened.

Got that? Do you think that CIA briefers might go back to Langley and write up–long after the fact–a memo that reflects things they had in mind but did not in fact mention in the briefing? I’d call that human nature. And perhaps enhanced a bit now by a need to be able to say “gotcha” to Congressional leaders who are pushing for a probe.

Fourth, if anything, this helps make the case for an independent commission. Congressional inquiries are in fact subject to manipulation by the leadership. A commission would have the resources and time to get to the bottom of the question. And yes, what the Congressional leaders were told, and exactly what they did when presented with such information, is a critical point of inquiry. The Congressional leaders do need to be held to account for their inaction. Also, the current classified briefing process needs some careful review. Why are staff who have security clearances excluded? How can the restrictions imposed on Congressional leaders about discussing briefings be reconciled with the Constitutional role of Congress? The system failed over the last eight years. We need to ascertain exactly how it failed in order to prevent future incidents. And we need to give Pelosi credit for pushing for a probe, even when its results may well prove embarrassing to her. In this war of words, my instincts are clear. I’ll go with the people who are pushing for disclosure and candor over supposedly well-intentioned guardians of the deep-dark secrets who hide in the shadows.

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