By Marc Sandalow
Calbuzz Special Report
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s much-ridiculed explanation of her CIA briefings on waterboarding is entirely plausible.
Pelosi has made a rare spectacle of herself with her account of why she never objected to torture, opening herself to attack by Republicans and ridicule by no less a revered figure on the left than Jon Stewart.
She initially denied being briefed, then explained that her briefers only talked about the possibility of waterboarding in the future, and finally acknowledged that a top aid was specifically told that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded.
So, basically she’s gone from “I definitely was not told” to “I was told, but they used an auxiliary verb with a slightly more passive mood,” Stewart chuckled last week.
It’s entirely reasonable to ask why the San Francisco liberal didn’t scream to the heavens the moment she heard about “enhanced interrogation techniques.’’ Which is why Republicans –- who are about 0 for 20 in their long effort to bring down Pelosi –- have made the Speaker’s involvement their No. 1 talking point.
“Nancy Pelosi stepped in it big time,” declared GOP Chairman Michael Steele, who knows a good deal about “it’’ but does not know much about intelligence briefings or Pelosi’s involvement.
This much is clear. Someone is not telling the truth. Either the Speaker of the House or someone at the CIA is lying or badly misrepresenting what transpired. Only those with the highest security clearance can know for certain what happened behind the steel-encased safe rooms under the dome where briefings take place.
Nevertheless, here are four solid reasons to believe Pelosi’s account.
1.CIA director Leon Panetta wouldn’t hang Pelosi out to dry. Pelosi and Panetta have worked closely together for three decades. They met when Pelosi was chair of the California Democratic Party and Panetta was a young congressman from Monterey. When Pelosi came to Washington in 1987, Panetta was living with Reps. George Miller, Marty Russo and Charles Schumer and along with Pelosi were part of a Tuesday night dinner clique. Panetta squeezed into Pelosi’s car for hair-raising dashes to National Airport on many Thursday afternoons as the Northern California delegation raced to make the last flight back to San Francisco. He accompanied her on dozens of flights, recalling her demand for extra gobs of hot fudge on the sundaes they served on cross country flights. Pelosi urged Panetta to run for governor in 1998, and her daughter made up “Panetta for Governor’’ hats. Panetta has new obligations as CIA director, and he made clear his professional loyalties when he issued a statement Friday saying it is not CIA policy to lie to or mislead Congress. But the statement did not say that Pelosi was lying nor did it specifically contradict her claim about the contents of the Sept. 2002 CIA briefing. If the CIA has internal documents which show Pelosi is wrong, it is hard to image Panetta wouldn’t have warned her off.
2. Her story is consistent with other Democrats. Senators Jay Rockefeller and former Senator Bob Graham of Florida each received briefings during the same time period as Pelosi, and, like her, say they were not told about waterboarding. Graham — who political junkies might remember was passed over as a possible running mate for John Kerry in 2004 in part because of his seemingly pathological habit of keeping a meticulous journal — went back and checked his records and said that three of the four dates the CIA claims to have briefed him are wrong.
3. Pelosi is a creature of protocol and her account follows protocol. Why didn’t Pelosi do something dramatic to stop waterboarding when she – by her own admission – found out about it in February 2003? Conservatives say it is because she already knew and was complicit in its practice. Some of her own supporters on the left accuse her of being spineless. For anyone who prowls the halls of Congress – which Pelosi first did as a toddler when her father represented Baltimore’s Little Italy – her response was completely in line with her role as the House Democratic leader. Pelosi says she first learned that waterboarding had taken place from her aide Mike Sheehy in February, 2003. Sheehy told her that Rep. Jane Harman, D-LA, who had taken Pelosi’s spot on the Intelligence Committee had been briefed on the use of waterboarding, and had written a letter voicing her objection to the White House. Pelosi’s response: Good. She supported Harman’s objection. It would have been illegal for Pelosi to have exposed the secret practice. It would have been poor form for Pelosi to have overruled Harman and insisted that she write the objection herself. And it would have been foolhardy to believe that either of their objections would have made a difference. Only months before, Pelosi had led 60% of the House Democrats to vote against the war in Iraq, insisting that evidence from other intelligence briefings did not support President Bush’s claim that Iraq was an imminent threat. The White House response hardly suggested a willingness to heed the warnings. The only recourse available to Pelosi was to rally a majority of the House to pass legislation banning enhanced interrogations techniques. Which is exactly what she did, a year later. Bush promptly vetoed the legislation.
4. Pelosi is not a liar. During 21 years’ reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle, I encountered elected officials whom I regarded as friendly sources who looked me in the eye and lied. Pelosi is not one of them. Pelosi can be awkward, suspicious and at times disdainful of the press. She shunned me when I wrote her biography, refusing to grant me a single interview. But I have never seen a shred of evidence of her being untruthful. She is a meticulous woman who speaks carefully, even if it doesn’t always come out in complete sentences. Longtime staffer Mike Sheehy was with Pelosi in the Sept 4, 2002 briefing in which Pelosi adamantly insists she was told waterboarding had not been used. She would not have said so without Sheehy’s concurrence. Columnist Charles Krauthaumer noted Pelosi’s uncomfortable performance and tortured syntax at a news conference last week, calling it proof that she was not telling the truth. Clearly Krauthaumer has never been to a Pelosi news conference before.
Of course the political consequences of this episode may hurt Pelosi regardless. Shouts of “what did Pelosi know and when did she know it’’ ring through Washington at a time when Democrats want to be talking about cap and trade, health care and education. Democrats would rather attention be focused on President Obama than Pelosi. The headlines look bad for the Speaker. The facts, however, do not
Marc Sandalow is the author of “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi’s Life, Times and Rise to Power.” He is now an analyst for KCBS-radio and KPIX-TV, director of UC Merced’s Washington Program and director of journalism programs at the University of California’s Washington Center.