With the “what did she know and when did she know it” questions more or less resolved — Pelosi learned that the Bush administration was waterboarding detainees no later than February 2003 — Republicans are now directing their attacks on the muted, indirect way in which she responded.
On Tuesday, GOP leaders openly scoffed at Pelosi’s claim she was prevented from opposing the policy six years ago because the briefings were classified.
“If she felt it was wrong, she should have acted,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime waterboarding critic, told POLITICO on Tuesday. “Let me just tell you, I was briefed on it — and I vehemently objected to it. We did the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
McCain, who drew criticism from the left for opposing a Democratic waterboarding ban last year, added, “I’m sure she has her argument, and we’ll see if the American people agree.”
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly dismissed such criticism as “Republican attempts to create a distraction” from their own culpability on interrogation.
Over the past week, a half-dozen senior Republican and Democratic aides canvassed by POLITICO have outlined a menu of options Pelosi could have pursued to protest harsh interrogations.
All agreed she could have written a classified letter to the CIA — as Rep. Jane Harman, her successor on the intelligence committee, did after she was briefed on the technique in February 2003.
Pelosi, they said, also could have pressured President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney directly by requesting a meeting with them, or by buttonholing them during previously scheduled meetings, or by writing a letter to them.
“To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t do any of those things,” said Rep. Pete Hoeskstra (R-Mich.), currently the ranking member of the House intelligence committee.
“We were in the minority at that point,” replied Daly, who dismissed the idea of protesting directly to the White House. “We were not in a position to change the policy. When the Democrats took over in 2007, we passed a bill outlawing torture — and the president vetoed it, with the support of Sen. McCain.”
Pelosi has angered Republicans by pushing for a “truth commission” into the Bush administration’s possible use of torture, but the news that she learned of waterboarding in 2003 has left her on the defensive.
When asked about Pelosi’s predicament on Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) offered no sympathy and seemed to grow angrier as he spoke.
“If we’re going to look backwards, as some have insisted, then we need to make sure we talk to everybody instead of just harassing lawyers who were asked for their opinion in the Department of Justice,” he said. “And let’s talk to members of Congress who knew about them and may have encouraged them.”
Even some of Pelosi’s supporters are frustrated with her obtuse, less-than-direct answers to questions about classified briefings — as well as her claim, advanced through aides, that she had no “appropriate” avenue of protest in 2003.
“She’s done a horrendous job,” said a top Democratic consultant who otherwise is a Pelosi fan. “She’s really dug herself a hole.”
Pelosi has said that, when she was briefed on interrogation techniques in September 2002, she was told only that the Bush administration believed it had the legal authority to use harsh techniques and was considering doing so in the future.
That account was later contradicted by a CIA docket of congressional briefings, which indicated that Pelosi — then the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence comittee — had been given “particular” details of interrogations.
Pelosi has said she never did anything to encourage the interrogation practices — and she has told reporters that she supported Harman’s missive to the CIA, which registered “profound” concerns about the tactics employed.
But Pelosi didn’t co-sign Harman’s letter — and, even by her own team’s account, she communicated her support to Harman indirectly, through an aide. Harman’s office has refused repeated requests over the past three days to comment on Pelosi’s involvement — or lack thereof — in drafting the letter.
And some independent observers have begun to question Pelosi’s account of her own actions.
On April 23, Pelosi told reporters: “We were not, I repeat, were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.”
But this week, sources close to Pelosi admitted that Mike Sheehy, a former top intelligence aide, was, in fact, briefed on waterboarding on Feb. 4, 2003.
Sheehy informed his boss of the technique shortly after, sources said.
Such inconsistencies prompted PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times, to give Pelosi’s statement a “false” rating on its widely cited “Truth-O-Meter.”
A Pelosi aide responded: “You have been reporting all these stories about Democrats questioning the CIA documents, you have CIA having to write a disclaimer with the documents released and you have Republicans playing politics with security. The only ‘false’ here is all the misinformation being put out by the other side.”