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
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.