Congressional Hypocrisy On “Torture”

UPDATE 05/15/09: I’m taking the rare step of bumping this post back up top, as there has been a lively give and take in the comments and the Nancy Pelosi angle has thrown this story into high relief…


It’s been well-established from newspaper reports, including work by the NY Times (wrong – I misremembered, as the former President would say – it was the Washington Post), that top Congressional figures from both parties were well aware of the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, including waterboarding, since late 2002, and that, with the exception of Jay Rockefeller, they registered no complaints or protestations whatsoever, no matter their “shocked that gambling is taking place in Casablanca” attitude now.

If for no other reason, this is why you can be certain there will be no Congressional appetite for prosecutions – because once you establish the illegality of the actions, then most of Congress is complicit in a crime – for to be aware of criminal activity and not to report it is itself criminal.

ABC News has the story on a report from the office of the Director of National Intelligence that has been submitted to Congress detailing these briefings:

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.”

EITs stand for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a classification of special interrogation tactics that includes waterboarding.

…The report also details dozens of other meetings with members of Congress — though not with Pelosi present — where the use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques was described.

The Senate intelligence committee’s chairman and ranking member, Bob Graham and Richard Shelby, were given a briefing similar to the one with Pelosi and Goss on Sept. 27, 2002, according to the report.

On Feb. 4, 2003, a briefing on “enhanced interrogation techniques” for Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., revealed that interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri were taped.

In addition, that briefing “described in considerable details” the techniques used, including “how the water board was used.”

A similar briefing the following day included Goss and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who by that time had become the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, when Pelosi moved on to become minority leader.

The report is accompanied by a letter from CIA Director Leon Panetta to intelligence committee leaders that describes the way it was compiled: “This letter presents the most thorough information we have on dates, locations, and names of all Members of Congress who were briefed by the CIA on enhanced interrogation techniques. This information, however, is drawn from the past files of the CIA and represents [memorandums for the record] completed at the time and 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. We can make the MFRs available at CIA for staff review.”

Despite Panetta’s open invitation to reinvent history, the fact that the report was compiled from contemparaneous notes is, in fact, powerful evidence of its accuracy – for at the time, no one had reason to engage in any sort of cover-up.  In a court of law, these memos would represent near-total proof of the complicity of Congress in these actions.

Expect a lot of posturing in the short term, enough to at least plausibly claim that the issue was thoroughly looked into, then a quiet retreat…

93 comments to Congressional Hypocrisy On “Torture”

  • Jacques, I sincerely believe, along with the Republican leadership in Congress, that Pelosi is playing a game of chicken because her credibility is at stake and she believes the underlying documents WON’T be released.

    I hope they are (and some top Congressional Republicans are calling for those documents to be released too – either they’re barking mad or they know the documents will back them up, right? That’s the two choices you gave)…because I’ll wager a large sum of money Pelosi is lying, not the CIA.

    You asked for a quote from prior to now that Pelosi knew in 2002. I gave it to you. Not satisfied, you questioned the WaPo reporters, who are also career professionals, and basically suggested they were sold a bill of goods.

    But you have absolutely nothing to base this on other than your gut feel that Pelosi is too smart to lie…

  • The current head of the CIA, longtime Democrat Leon Panetta, has said the memos back up the assertion that Pelosi was briefed, and that they were composed contemporaneously…is he also part of the massive CIA coverup you assert?…

  • My final argument to you for the evening: since Pelosi was so reluctant to admit she knew in 2003 (and offered the lame excuse for not complaining that “it wouldn’t have done any good and so I tried to win back Congress(!!!)”, why should I or you or anyone trust her about 2002?…

  • Jacques, I sincerely believe, … that Pelosi is playing a game of chicken because her credibility is at stake and she believes the underlying documents WON’T be released.

    Why would she believe that? The Yoo/Bybee memos have been released. The facts surrounding the interrogations in question are now pretty much public knowledge.

    What deep, dark secrets (which couldn’t be redacted) could possibly be in those memos which would prevent their release?

    And, no, Panetta pointedly doesn’t put much stock in the details about who was briefed about what, when.

  • And I don’t think this is playing out the way you and Pelosi seem to think it is. From the NY Times:

    The issue is emerging as one of the toughest tests of Ms. Pelosi’s tenure, as she finds herself fending off accusations of hypocrisy from Republicans for criticizing the interrogation methods, even though she had known about them, and from liberal critics who say that she should have raised the alarm earlier if she knew what was transpiring.

    …Ms. Pelosi was present at a C.I.A. briefing in September 2002 that a recently released C.I.A. account says included discussion of techniques that “had been used” against a terrorism suspect.

    That briefing was the only one that Ms. Pelosi attended in person, and on Thursday, she repeated her assertion that the only mention of waterboarding during the session was that while it was deemed to be legal, the technique was not being used.

    “We later find out that it had been taking place before they even briefed us about the legal opinions and told us that they were not being used,” she said.

    But she went on to acknowledge for the first time that she had been told five months later, in February 2003, that top lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee had been briefed on the use of tough interrogation methods on terror suspects, including waterboarding.

    She said the account had been provided by a staff member who attended the briefing. She did not speak out at the time due to secrecy rules, and so was not complicit in any abuse of detainees, she said.

  • As to Bob Graham, a fellow Democrat who was briefed, supporting Pelosi, let’s turn to two other people who were present and briefed but who happen to not be from Pelosi’s party (from the same article as the prior comment) and to the CIA briefers themselves, who were obviously there:

    The C.I.A., reacting to Ms. Pelosi’s comments, said Thursday that a chart prepared by the director of national intelligence and cited last week by Congressional Republicans to show that Ms. Pelosi had taken part in a September 2002 briefing on interrogation techniques was “true to the language in the agency’s records.”

    An agency spokesman, George Little, said the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had pointed out in a recent letter to Congress that the information “is drawn from the past files of the C.I.A.” and represented contemporaneous memorandums “and notes that summarized the best recollections of those individuals.”

    The chart said that in a briefing on Sept. 4, 2002, attended by Ms. Pelosi, the interrogation methods that “had been employed” against a prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, were described. According to the legal memorandums released last month, Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times the month before the briefing.
    Porter J. Goss, a former C.I.A. director who as a Republican congressman from Florida attended the September briefing with Ms. Pelosi, said in an article published in The Washington Post that lawmakers were suffering from “amnesia” if they “claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as ‘waterboarding’ were never mentioned.”

    An aide to Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee in 2002, said Thursday that Mr. Shelby recalled that in a separate 2002 Senate briefing, “not only did the C.I.A. briefers provide what was purported to be a full account of the techniques, they also described the need for these techniques and the value of the information being obtained from terrorists during questioning.”

    I don’t think you want to hitch your horse to this wagon…

  • Panetta offered an open invitation to place whatever weight Congress chose on the veracity of the memos, but he most certainly confirmed that the chart was in perfect agreement with the contemporaneous memos.

    What’s Pelosi’s motivation? She’s throwing up a smokescreen, trying to make it about September 2002, when the larger issue is she acknowledged knowing since 2003 and doing nothing…her credibility is shot, and she’s desperate…

  • Oh, and yet more on the relation between our torture program, and the desire to uncover a Saddam/al Qaeda link.

  • That’s also a smokescreen – getting back to the original premise of this post, top Democrats have known since (take your pick – 2002 or 2003, I really don’t care which) that the techniques they now decry as illegal affronts to everything we hold dear were being used, and they (at least Nancy Pelosi) didn’t say a word until the political winds shifted and it was advantageous to do so. That’s a profile in cowardice…

  • steve

    Maybe Diane Feinstein is right:

    Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, backed Pelosi.

    “I think it’s a tempest in a teapot really to say: Well, Speaker Pelosi should have known all of this, she should have stopped this, she should have done this or done that,” she said.

    “I don’t want to make an apology for anybody, but in 2002, it wasn’t 2006, 07, 08 or 09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks.”

    The whole article is here:

  • Smokescreen, Mark? You want to talk about a smokescreen? How about trying to turn an inquiry into torture by the US government into a partisan game centered around how much you don’t like Nancy Pelosi?

  • steve

    Panetta contradicts Pelosi, says the CIA doesn’t lie:

    What’s the over/under on her tenure as Speaker?

  • Panetta’s memo, in full:

    There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I’m gone. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.

    Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values. As the Agency indicated previously in response to Congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing “the enhanced techniques that had been employed.” Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

    My advice-indeed, my direction-to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country.

    We are an Agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication. Our task is to tell it like it is-even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it. [emphasis mine]

    The second highlighted sentence

    Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

    is a strange qualification to add, following the first. Why would Panetta be hedging his bets, leaving it up to Congress to “reach its own conclusions” as to whether the “contemporaneous records” are correct?

  • steve

    Good catch! Clearly, to me, Panetta’s main purpose is to shore up or boost morale, such as it is, from any damage that may have come from Pelosi saying she was misled by the CIA. The second sentence you highlight reads like advise from a lawyer: here’s is what I know and my opinion of what it says, but it’s not my job to tell you what to decide or do…

    This just gets curiouser and curiouser.

  • Pelosi supports an investigation. Let the chips fall where they may no matter what party she’s from.

    But again, as far as smokescreens go, she’s a hell of one. It seems that people going after her seem to think that maybe lying about hearing something about waterboarding (which they may or may not consider torture) is far worse and more relevant to the debate than, you know, actually torturing people.

  • steve

    What’s stopping them, and who are they? Who has the power to investigate? Who is perpetrating this smokescreen?

  • Fargus, I raised substantive issues about Pelosi’s hypocrisy. It’s not about something as childish as whether I like her or not.

    As Steve says, who’s stopping them? The Democrats hold both houses and the presidency. Who’s the mysterious power that’s preventing them from getting to the bottom of this? Or just maybe, as I said, their own complicity is what’s stopping them…

  • The Democrats hold both houses and the presidency. Who’s the mysterious power thats that’s preventing them from getting to the bottom of this? Or just maybe, as I said, their own complicity is what’s stopping them…

    What, exactly, would be happening right now, were the Democrats not complicit in torture?

    You’ve argued elsewhere that, with so many other pressing issues to occupy them, the President and the Congress should not get “distracted” by an investigation into the torture regime established by the previous Administration.

    Here, you seem to be arguing that, instead, they are dragging their feet in such an investigation (because they don’t want their own complicity exposed).

    Which is it? Are they moving too slowly, or too fast?

  • I’m consistent in my belief that such an investigation will turn into a partisan showcase – I’m merely pointing out that with the Democrats holding all the levers of power, they can investigate fully with little to hold them back…the fact that they CAN doesn’t mean I support them in doing so…

  • Seems to me that harping on the side-issue of what exactly Nancy Pelosi knew, and when did she know it is precisely an attempt to turn the investigation into “a partisan showcase”.

    And, since she’s the one (not her critics) who’s calling for a “Truth Commission,” I don’t see where, even in this instance, the alleged foot-dragging on the Democratic side is to be found.

    Can you point to any evidence of such Democratic foot dragging? Or is your assertion simply that the investigation into the previous Administration’s torture regime would be further along by now, absent that behind-the-scenes foot-dragging?

  • Note that I said “would be further along”, not “should be”.

    I understand that you oppose investigating what — at first blush — appear to be flagrant violations of both US and International Law.

  • I can’t prove anything because I can’t see into the minds of anyone, despite my best efforts. However, my point was made in the post itself about a week ago:

    Expect a lot of posturing in the short term, enough to at least plausibly claim that the issue was thoroughly looked into, then a quiet retreat…

    The liberal supporters of the Democrats expect an accounting. The Democrats in power, however, are not terribly anxious to look too deeply, because they know they won’t come out smelling like roses, either. So they call for commissions and investigations, but they’re able to form these commissions and launch these investigations at will, since they hold all the strings at the moment. They’re trying to straddle the line…

    It’s not a complicated argument…

  • I oppose investigating the actions that took place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, yes, that’s a true statement. I also am on the record as saying I think we went too far and I’m glad we stopped.

    It was a unique event on a scale surpassing any historical event since World War II. It was an extreme time, and people were anxious about further attacks, as Diane Feinstein was quoted as saying above…

  • I oppose investigating the actions that took place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, yes, that’s a true statement. I also am on the record as saying I think we went too far and I’m glad we stopped.

    There are a lot of people who oppose prosecuting those responsible for the torture program. But prosecuting is not quite the same thing as investigating. Many such people (among them, I gather, Nancy Pelosi) are calling, instead, for a Truth Commission.

    I find that unsatisfactory. But it’s better than nothing.

    Do you oppose even a Truth Commission (presumably on the grounds that that, too, would be “a partisan showcase”)?

  • It would depend on the makeup of the commission…if it was a genuinely bipartisan effort, such as the 9/11 Commission, that would be more palatable…

  • Bob from Ohio

    A “Truth Commission” cannot be like the 9/11 Commission because the interrogation issue is highly polititicized. Everyone on the 9/11 commision was on the same page, deflect criticism from both the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration.

    Who appoints the members? Who sets the agenda? Who hires the staff? Who is the staff?

    The “Truth Commission” is just a way to bankrupt lower rung Bush officials and set perjury traps.

    I, and many more, will reject such a commission period, no matter what “conservative” stooges serve on it.

  • Indeed, a Truth Commission presupposed a certain general, albeit pained, acknowledgement that what was done was wrong.

    As long as there remain a significant number of people who think like Bob, criminal prosecutions are the only way to go.

    On a related note, yet more from McLatchy.

  • Bob from Ohio

    criminal prosecutions are the only way to go

    Like a Holder led “Justice” department with DC juries will have any credibility.

    Anyways, the Pelosi fiasco illustrates why this will not happen. The political results are too unpredictable.

  • The political results are too unpredictable.

    I was thinking the same thing about the Pelosi “fiasco.”

    Anyway, I’m thinking “Special Prosecutor”, like the one looking into the US Attorneys “fiasco.”

  • Oh, please – Matthew Yglesias suggests we’re falling right into Pelosi’s hands? Oh, yeah, she’s that clever, all right…funny how she went into hiding and avoided all the Sunday talk shows this weekend, since she’s got us where she wants us…

  • When you’ve got Michael Steele, on MTP, calling for a Truth Commission, I say it’s time to take Sunday off, and have a picnic.

  • I hardly think the Chairman of the RNC is going to be making that decision…
    Meanwhile, in the real world, as opposed to that of the partisan hacks such as Yglesias, Democrats are running for cover from the whole issue:

    The Obama administration and Democrats in Congress sought to change the subject Monday, making it clear they want to talk about anything but waterboarding.

    When grilled about the deep rift that opened publicly last week between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the CIA, Democratic officials talked instead about their ambitious agenda on a range of issues.

    After disputing Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) version of events on detainee interrogations late last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Monday that he would prefer to move forward instead of investigating the policies of the intelligence community during the Bush administration.

    The White House, too, refused repeatedly to be drawn on the subject, and party aides on Capitol Hill said they are focused on policy not waterboarding politics.

    During a speech to the Pacific Council on International Policy, Panetta said he understands the calls from activist groups and some lawmakers to probe who was responsible for enhanced interrogation techniques.

    However, Panetta stressed that an investigation could distract from the CIA’s ultimate objective.

    “I don’t deny them the opportunity to learn the lessons from that period,” he said. “But … we have to be very careful that we don’t forget our responsibility to the present and to the future. We are a nation at war; we have to confront that reality every day. And while it’s important to learn the lessons of the past, we must not do it in a way that sacrifices our capability to stay focused … on those that would threaten the United States of America.”

    Despite several questions at his daily briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs again refused to wade into the debate. Gibbs did say that President Obama has complete confidence in Panetta.

    House Democratic aides told The Hill they are focused on policy, not waterboarding politics.

    You really still want a seat on this train? Well, no worries, there are plenty of empty ones to choose from…

  • You really still want a seat on this train?

    Investigating the torture program of the previous Administration?

    You bet!

    It was flagrantly illegal (under US and international law) and immeasurably tarnished our reputation in the world. If you want to be able to say, with a straight face, that we are a nation of laws, then it certainly should be investigated. And if a strong-enough case can be built, then those responsible should be prosecuted.

    If this little tempest in a teapot moves the ball forward, then I say, “Bring it on!”

  • Bob from Ohio

    You got to do better than Yglesias to bolster your points. He wants his pound of flesh, like you, and will grasp any straw.

    Pelosi gives the worst press conference since Nixon in 1962 and it is a master stroke. Yeah, Yglesias is a genius.

    As for Michael Steele, find a republican who thinks he is doing a good job. He is widely seen within the party as a disaster.

    Pelosi is speaker of the House. She can establish a special committee today. Or direct Judiciary to hold hearings. Why doesn’t she?

    No “Truth Commission” and no prosecutions. I have said that for 3 years and see no reason to think otherwise now.

  • No “Truth Commission” and no prosecutions. I have said that for 3 years and see no reason to think otherwise now.

    Of course not, Bob.

    If it had turned out that it was Dick Cheney, himself, wielding the scalpel to slice up Binyamin Mohamed’s genitals, you, for one would insist that it was a perfectly justified.

  • steve

    “It was flagrantly illegal (under US and international law)… if a strong-enough case can be built, then those responsible should be prosecuted.”

    Which is it, flagrantly illegal or a case of dubious certitude?

    Here’s a quote from a fellow, a lawyer and professor, that specializes in Constitutional Law and Legal Ethics:

    “… In my opinion, the most basic problem with any suggestion of incompetence is that the memos’ essential legal conclusions are correct. There is a fundamental distinction in the law between what constitutes actual, legal “torture” under applicable standards and what may be harsh, aggressive, unpleasant interrogation tactics but not, legally, “torture …”

    The whole thing is here:

    including this info about the author: “Michael Stokes Paulsen is university chair and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis. He was an attorney-adviser in the Office of Legal Counsel from 1989-91.”

    The point being not that what was done was or was not torture, but rather that your assertion of “flagrantly illegal (under US and International law)” is, at best, a debatable point-of-view. Also, the behavior of the Justice department so far displays a hyper-partisan rather than dispassionate approach to the issue.

    I would like there to be a non-partisan review of what was done, how and why it was justified, a determination of whether or not laws were broken, and a recommendation as to changes needed to settle the question of what may and may not be done in the future. Unfortunately I believe doing this is impossible.

  • Bob from Ohio

    No “Truth Commission” and no prosecutions. I have said that for 3 years and see no reason to think otherwise now.

    I meant that there will be none. That you will be disappointed.

    However, you are right that I don’t care about what happened to Binyamin Mohamed. The guy is an admitted terrorist:

    He has claimed that while he did attend al Faruq training camp, that was before 9/11 and he did so to fight in Chechnya.

    Maybe you, for one, think those school kids killed by his buddies was justified?

  • However, you are right that I don’t care about what happened to Binyamin Mohamed. The guy is an admitted terrorist

    That probably explains why he was released from Guantanamo, and given asylum in Great Britain.

    And what about Maher Arar?

    Also a terrorist?

  • Bob from Ohio

    That probably explains why he was released from Guantanamo

    He was released because “useful idiots” agitated for it and we caved for political reasons.

    He trained to kill Russian civilians. Makes him a terrorist. You can apologize for him if you want.

    That is what your side likes to do. You never believe what the US says about these people and everything they say you swallow hook, line and sinker. They are all innocents to you.

  • He was released because “useful idiots” agitated for it and we caved for political reasons.

    The “useful idiots” in question, being the US Supreme Court, and Judge Susan Crawford, the Head of the Office of Military Commissions.

    Nice to know how you feel about the rule of law.

    And, I suppose, the British took him in, because they’re effete, terrorist-lovin’ Europeans.

    But, just to be clear, because he “trained to kill Russian civilians” (I never knew you were such a hard-line Putin symapathiser!), even the most barbaric of torture is fair game?

    And what of Maher Arar? What deprived him of even the smallest vestige of humanity?

  • Bob from Ohio

    I don’t want even Russians to be murdered, whatever Putin’s crimes might be. You are ok with that I see.

    Law does not rule, it serves. The people rule here. The Supreme Court’s decisions in War on Terror cases are appallingly bad.

  • Law does not rule, it serves. The people rule here.

    The Founding Fathers, who believed very strongly in the inalienable rights of man, would disagree with you. They put in place a system where those rights could not be abrogated, no matter how popular the cause.

    I don’t want even Russians to be murdered, whatever Putin’s crimes might be.

    Binyamin Mohamed never murdered everyone. Nonetheless, he apparently crossed some threshold. beyond which — according to you — he may justifiably be subjected to even the most barbaric acts of torture.

    Maher Arar, apparently, also crossed that threshold of yours.

    Where, exactly is that threshold, Bob?

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