Quantcast

Pelosi Biographer: Why I Believe Her On the CIA and Waterboarding

May19

nancypelosiBy 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.


subscribe to comments RSS

There are 13 comments for this post

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    THANK YOU, MARC — for authoritatively confirming my “gut instincts”. I based my belief solely on her atypical “game face” rather than the effervesent Nancy Pelosi in good times; further, she seems “more than merely miffed” during the Press Conference. On issue resolution: I am hopeful Leon Panetta’s DCI position can assist – first with a rapid declassification(s) of any contrary, minority footnotes or opinions of the George Tenet DCI reports = “slam dunk(s)” on a key related item. [If GWU National Security Project gets involved via a FOIA request – only God will known how long that can take! When the Bush memoirs from office become available, shall Tenet’s firing be based – at least partially – on this capital issue? Just curious! Complicating this issue: “The Daily Telegraph” is reporting within the past week that Tony Blair’s tenure as Brit P-M also(!) involved “sexed-up” intelligence to justify going to war in the Middle East! In both cases: Who’s in charge? Can be no longer trust our intelligence source(s)? And some timely less than noble inquiries into that subject!!!! For instance, once the commitments were made by two allied governments to commit treasure and blood to the battlefield — only to find false premises on which those decisions were based — we may end up with a “Wristoniza- tion of the entire US Intelligence Community” during the Obama watch as president! That does really scare me in both near- and longer terms.

  2. avatar Anonymous says:

    are you kidding me. Panetta said she was wrwong in no uncertain terms. She lied, got caught and is showing her true “politics above country” ways. She should be prosecuted, not defended. Mr. Sandalow, you do your own profession a great disservice.

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    “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…”

    I believe her exact words were “Jane you ignorant SLUT! God how I hate that grandstanding cow!” Marc, you can believe what you want of Ms Pelosi’s account but it is plain to all that her political spinning is only digging her a deeper hole. You say she is truthful and I say that depends on what your meaning of “is” is!

  4. avatar Rich Robinson says:

    The CIA lying, Republican diversion tactics, gambling at Rick’s–I’m shocked.

    Also, if you are going to call someone ignorant or a cow, you should at least have the spine to use your real name.

    Cowardice is the legacy of the Bush era.

  5. avatar Anonymous says:

    Nancy is lying. She knew. If your staffer is briefed, THAT MEANS YOU HAVE BEEN BRIEFED! You can’t blame it on a staffer! And if she hadn’t screwed Jane out of the chairmanship of the committee that she was the only one qualified to chair, she would have stood up and defended Nancy. Jane has a lot of class to be keeping silent during this ruckus, given the damage she could do.

  6. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Actually, I follow Panetta very closely, having urged his appointment, and that is not what he said.

    >Anonymous said…
    are you kidding me. Panetta said she was wrwong in no uncertain terms. She lied, got caught and is showing her true "politics above country" ways. She should be prosecuted, not defended. Mr. Sandalow, you do your own profession a great disservice.

  7. avatar Anonymous says:

    I’d like to know where the GOP gets the chutzpah to act as though they are patriotic supporters of the CIA after 8 years of distain and abuse of the agency, including but not limited to burning Plame and associated CIA employees, and treating the agency as the official Iraq fall-guy. No shame.

  8. avatar Anonymous says:

    ANON – @ 5:36 a.m. = WHICH Of the two DCI LEON PANETTA documents are you talking about? OR are you getting your info from a filtered source? Just a small suggestion: “CONSIDER YOUR SOURCE”!

  9. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    You are conflating two separate events, that happened quite a ways apart.

    You are also forgetting that the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman of the time backs up Pelosi's account.

    >Anonymous said…
    Nancy is lying. She knew. If your staffer is briefed, THAT MEANS YOU HAVE BEEN BRIEFED! You can't blame it on a staffer! And if she hadn't screwed Jane out of the chairmanship of the committee that she was the only one qualified to chair, she would have stood up and defended Nancy. Jane has a lot of class to be keeping silent during this ruckus, given the damage she could do.

    May 19, 2009 10:07 AM

  10. avatar Anonymous says:

    BILL – I AGREE WITH YOUR ASSESSMENT(s) OF LEON. SEE MY EARLIER POST OF A FEW MOMENTS AGO.

  11. avatar Anonymous says:

    Bill Bradley is correct. Panetta said it was not agency “policy” to mislead, but nothing about whether that happened in this case. And in the case of Bob Graham, it appears he challenged their list of briefings and they had to admit that there were no briefings on 3 of the 4 days they originally claimed to have briefed him.

  12. avatar Anonymous says:

    SO, in the light of a new morning – what do we have? The dire prospect of a cabul of rogue intell folk who are jerking about the decision-makers & decision-makers in BOTH the U. S. and(!) also in Great Britain following in lock-step. DAMNIT all! It stinks like a newly minted meadow muffin in the cow pastures of the Mid-West, y'all! AIN'T FUNNY. LEON MAY NEED A USN Adm. (ret.) BOBBY INMAN led commission to sort things out so the guilty can be damned and decks cleared for the next battle engagement!!!

  13. avatar Anonymous says:

    So exactly which version of hers is correct. She has made several condradictory statements. I don’t belive that she lied, just that she is easily confused and has been for years.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • CIGNA