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May 26, 2009

It's Not About Nancy

The debate over torture took a strange turn last week. Suddenly, it's not about whether or not torture is wrong. It's about what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it.

The Speaker of the House is locked in a dispute with the CIA over whether or not she was briefed in 2002 on whether waterboarding had already been used on terror suspects in U.S. custody. And because of this, the GOP smells blood.

They say Pelosi, who had steadfastly opposed torture in all forms for as long as the issue has been on the table, is guilty of lying about her previous position, hypocrisy, "slandering" of the CIA or worse. A letter signed by several right-wing heavyweights, led by Ed Meese, has even called for both a congressional investigation and for Pelosi to step down though it's hard to see what the point is of an "investigation" when we know she's just going to resign.

If Pelosi lied, it certainly doesn't speak well of her. And her public handling of this has certainly been less than stellar, especially her bumbling press conference last week. But the conservative outrage seems very much misplaced, for several reasons.

First of all, we still don't know exactly what happened. What Pelosi was told in that briefing remains in dispute. Sen. Bob Graham, who was also there, backs up Pelosi's account, as does Congressman-turned-CIA Director Porter Goss. No one in the room was allowed to take notes, and besides this was seven years ago. People on either side of the dispute may very well have forgotten key details.

Secondly, even if she was told about waterboarding at the time, what exactly should Pelosi have done? Come out with classified information implicating administration officials, and possibly face prosecution? Pelosi was House Minority Leader at the time. She couldn't have stopped the policy from being implemented, simply because she lacked the power to do so. I'm reminded of the core GOP belief that Barney Frank, who was the ranking committee member of the minority party at the time, is singlehandedly to blame for the entire financial crisis.

Thirdly, are we supposed to be outraged that Pelosi insulted the integrity of the CIA? The Bush-Cheney folks did that regularly for eight years, with their talk of an "anti-Bush cabal" in Langley. And I think a dispute over who said what in a meeting is considerably less of an outrage than, say, the dispute over whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But the most ridiculous part of this story is the idea that what Pelosi did is somehow a bigger story, and a bigger outrage, than the approval and use of torture itself. It isn't not even close. I don't see how being briefed about a policy, if she was, gives her as much culpability as having ordered the policy.

I also don't see the argument that anti-torture liberals are being hypocrites for slamming the originators of the torture policy while giving Pelosi a pass? Guess what they're not giving Pelosi a pass. The most strident anti-torture voices out there led by Andrew Sullivan haven't lifted a finger to defend her.

But even if everything negative that's been said about Pelosi is true, why would she have to resign? She is accused of no crime. When politicians resign, it's usually because of criminal charges, or a sex scandal, or a lack of confidence in their leadership. There's nothing like that going on here.

The slamming of Pelosi is clearly a GOP political ploy. The party realizes that the constant hammering of Obama isn't working all the socialist-tarring in the world can't get him below a 65 percent approval rating and perhaps Pelosi will make an easier target. This "scandal" clearly has no legs. It will instead likely join the very long list of Things the Republicans Screamed About in 2009.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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