Playing the Pelosi card

What? CIA operatives concealed the truth about torture from a San Francisco liberal? No!

By Gene Lyons
Published May 21, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

It took them a while, but Republican thinkers and their media enablers appear to believe they've found a way to turn the torture issue against Democrats. Enough tiresome rhetoric about the rule of law and America's lost moral compass. Let's take the discussion back to the junior-high level, where everybody's most comfortable. Let's have a national witch hunt.

Skeptical analysts at wrote the perfect headline: "What did President Pelosi know, and when did she know it?" To House Republicans and drumbeaters like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, that's the big question. Not whether CIA interrogators under the orders of the Bush White House violated all norms of civilized behavior frantically trying to prove one of Dick Cheney's most cherished delusions: nonexistent links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, used to justify invading Iraq.

Not, that is, whether agents of the U.S. government used Stalinist techniques for Stalinist ends: to secure "confessions" supporting decisions previously made for ideological reasons. But whether or not CIA briefers told a minority congresswoman in September 2002 that captured al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah had already been waterboarded 82 times at Guantánamo.

In a press conference last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted she'd been told in 2002 only that "enhanced interrogation" had been declared legal by the Justice Department. Not that it had been used, but that it could be used at the president's discretion. She further intimated -- hold your hats -- that CIA briefers had misled her, a shocking calumny that sent Republicans reeling to the fainting couches.

What? CIA operatives, faithful adherents of the Boy Scout oath, conceal the truth from a known San Francisco liberal? Who could believe such a thing? Not Rep. John Boehner, who demanded that Pelosi either prove the charge or resign. Gingrich also demanded a full-scale probe.

Pelosi, of course, has long sought an investigation of the Bush administration's use of torture, with particular reference to bogus intelligence. "Let's have an investigation," she keeps saying, "and see who's right."

Less high-minded GOP savants went to work on Pelosi's makeup, hair and clothing. That dashing babe-magnet, talk-radio comedian Limbaugh made Botox jokes. On CNN, chivalric Republican consultant Alex Castellanos quipped, "If Speaker Pelosi were still capable of human facial expression, we'd see she'd be embarrassed, because, right now, she is in a very Nixon-like position."


Evidence for the latter proposition is surprisingly thin. Pelosi's attackers cite an allegedly dispositive rebuke by President Obama's CIA director, Leon Panetta. Viewed with even minimal skepticism, however, Panetta's remarks look like a carefully lawyered nondenial denial.

"Let me be clear," Panetta said. "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values." The day a CIA director of either party admits otherwise will be a memorable one indeed. Panetta also stated that "contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah."

Of course there's truth, and then there's the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The last two we haven't yet seen. Panetta carefully neglects to affirm the accuracy of said records. As, in fairness, he probably cannot. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, longtime intelligence committee chairman, says he was shown CIA documents listing four torture briefings he'd supposedly received. Three of the dates conflicted with his own meticulous diaries. The agency admitted error.

The incomparable blogger Digby suggests applying "enhanced interrogation techniques" to all concerned. "After all, if they were reliable enough to keep the nation safe from evildoers," she writes, "they would certainly be reliable enough to get politicians and bureaucrats to admit what happened in some CIA briefings."

You can tell the media thinks they've got Pelosi on the run, however, because they've already begun improving the story. Both the New York Times and Washington Post, Bob Somerby points out, ran same-day stories stating that Pelosi admitted "for the first time" last week learning of Abu Zubaydah's waterboarding in 2003, making her look evasive. In fact, a press release stating that has been featured on Pelosi's Web site since December 2007. When a Democrat's in the cross hairs, such errors are rarely corrected.

Here are some things we do know: In September 2002, Pelosi had zero authority over the CIA. Whatever briefings she received were classified.

In October 2002, President Bush told the nation, "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb making and poisons and gases" -- false intelligence now known to have been produced by torture.

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated the bogus claim to the United Nations.

In January 2004, Cheney told the Rocky Mountain News that "detainees in Guantánamo" had confessed operational links between Baghdad and bin Laden -- subsequently proven false by several government probes.

So, yeah, let's investigate Pelosi. Botox, lip gloss and all.

Copyright © 2009, Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

MORE FROM Gene Lyons

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Nancy Pelosi D-calif. Republican Party Terrorism