For Democrats pushing an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing in the war on terrorism, the GOP now has a two-word response: Nancy Pelosi.
Republicans say new revelations about a CIA briefing Pelosi received in 2002 have given them their best shot yet at blocking a sprawling probe into Bush administration interrogation techniques by allowing them to insist that its targets would include the speaker of the House.
“If someone is going to schedule hearings, I believe that the first witness should be Nancy Pelosi,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member on the House intelligence committee, told POLITICO. “Clearly, she was involved in policy formulation.”
According to records released last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Pelosi and other congressional officials were told in 2002 that enhanced interrogation techniques had been used on terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah. The report appeared to contradict Pelosi’s claims — made earlier and again after the report was released — that she had been told only that such techniques might be used in the future, not that they had already been used.
According to a 2005 Justice Department memo released this year by the Obama administration, Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times by the time Pelosi was briefed in 2002.
In light of the intelligence report, Republicans say that any probe into torture should be broadened to include what Pelosi knew and how much influence she had in shaping the Bush administration’s controversial policies.
The GOP’s goal, according to congressional Republicans, is to dissuade Democrats from pursuing an inquiry that could lead to the prosecution of Bush administration officials by making it clear to Democrats that Pelosi and other lawmakers would have to testify, too.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview that if Pelosi failed to object to the techniques at the time, she was “an enabler” and “an accomplice” if any crimes were committed. If an investigation goes forward, King said, Pelosi should be forced to divulge what she knew.
In a statement Friday, Pelosi said she had been advised at the 2002 briefing about techniques the Bush administration was “considering using in the future” — and that she’d been assured they were legal. Pelosi also pointed to a letter from CIA Director Leon Panetta saying that the memo’s description of the briefings “may not be accurate.”
Still, Republicans believe they now have Pelosi caught in a jam: To satisfy her liberal base, she’s got to keep pressing for an investigation into potential crimes by the Bush administration. But if Republicans can score points with the “what did she know and when did she know it?” question, Pelosi also may have an interest in putting this issue aside.
“I’ll be very curious to see how she deals with it,” said a senior House GOP aide. “Does she stop talking about it and piss off her left?”
Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for the speaker, said Saturday that Republicans are “trying to politicize intelligence with irresponsible actions” and that Pelosi still supports an inquiry into the use of the interrogation techniques. The House and Senate intelligence committees have launched internal reviews, but it’s unclear whether they will expand beyond classified inquiries.
So far, Democrats seem determined to keep their inquiries focused on the Bush administration.
“There should be no effort to divert attention from the fundamental question of why this policy was created and who was responsible for its design and execution,” said Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs an intelligence subcommittee that is taking part ina review of harsh interrogation techniques.
The documents released last week showed that the CIA held 40 briefings for a host of members of Congress from 2002 until March 2009 on the interrogation tactics, but that Pelosi participated only in the first briefing in September 2002. She was the top Democrat on the intelligence committee at the time.
Calls for an investigation into potential wrongdoing by Bush administration officials are expected to mount once the Justice Department releases a long-anticipated report on the memos that authorized the tough interrogation techniques.
The report is expected to criticize John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, three former top officials in the department’s Office of Legal Counsel who were the prime authors of the controversial torture memos.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said it’s only fair to include Pelosi and other Democrats in any investigation that follows.
“If it’s fair game to second-guess the lawyers in the Justice Department who were doing their job for doing a legal opinion that was asked for, then it’s fair game to investigate the intelligence officers who asked for the opinion, the Bush administration officials who approved the interrogation techniques, the members of Congress who might have known about it and the Clinton administration officials who knew about it, including Eric Holder, who was deputy attorney general,” Alexander said.
He added: “I believe President Obama’s first instinct was right when he said we should look forward.”
The Obama administration has resisted calls from Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress to pursue an investigation into the use of the brutal interrogation techniques — but has not ruled one out.
The intelligence document released last week does not specify the techniques on which Pelosi was briefed, nor does it make any mention of waterboarding. Nonetheless, Republicans are now prepared to argue that Pelosi bought into — or at least signed off on — what the Bush administration was doing.
“They were American torture programs — if you want to call them torture — because Republicans and Democrats knew about them, and did nothing to stop them,” said Hoekstra, who called for the release of additional memos to detail what Pelosi was told in the 2002 briefing.
In a hearing last Thursday before a Senate panel, Alexander pointedly asked Attorney General Eric Holder whether it was safe to assume that the use of the interrogation techniques should be broadened to include members of Congress or the Clinton administration.
“Hypothetically, that might be true. I don’t know,” Holder said.