House speaker undermines Democrats' fight against torture

December 17, 2007|By John Nichols

Few serious observers of Congress would deny that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a disappointing leader for House Democrats. But now she appears to be something more troubling: a serious hindrance to the fight against the use of crude and objectionable torture techniques.

Democrats, and Republicans with a conscience, have gotten a good deal of traction in recent months in their battle to identify the use by U.S. interrogators of waterboarding - a technique that simulates drowning in order to cause extreme mental distress to prisoners - as what it is: torture. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a GOP presidential contender, has been particularly powerful in his denunciations of this barbarous endeavor.

Now, however, comes the news that Ms. Pelosi knew as early as 2002 that the United States was using waterboarding and other torture techniques and, far from objecting, appears to have cheered on the use of such tactics.

The Washington Post reported last week that Ms. Pelosi, who was then a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, was informed by CIA officials at a secret briefing in September 2002 that waterboarding and other forms of torture were being used on suspected al-Qaida operatives.

That's bad. Even worse is the revelation that Ms. Pelosi apparently supported the initiative.

According to the news reports, Ms. Pelosi had no complaint about waterboarding during a closed-door session she attended with Florida Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Republican who would go on to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.

"The reaction in the room was not just approval but encouragement," recalls Mr. Goss.

How encouraging? It is reported that two of the legislators demanded to know whether waterboarding and other methods that were being employed "were tough enough" to produce the desired levels of mental anguish to force information from suspects who, under the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution, cannot be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment.

Was Ms. Pelosi one of the "tough-enough" cheerleaders for waterboarding? That is not clear, as the speaker has refused to comment directly regarding her knowledge of torture techniques and encouragement of their use. Another member of the House who is closely allied with Ms. Pelosi did tell the Post, however, that the California Democrat attended the session, recalled that waterboarding was discussed, and "did not object."

If this is the case, Ms. Pelosi has provided aid and comfort to the Bush administration's efforts to deviate not just from the standards set by international agreements regarding war crimes but from the provision of the Bill of Rights that establishes basic requirements with regard to the treatment of prisoners in the custody of the United States.

Those deviations are precisely the sort of impeachable offenses that Ms. Pelosi has said are "off the table" regarding President Bush. Her association with the administration on the matter of torture calls into question the speaker's credibility on questions of how and when to hold the administration to account. It also raises a more mundane political question: When Republicans such as John McCain are standing up against waterboarding, isn't the credibility and the potential effectiveness of the House Democratic Caucus as an honest player in the debate profoundly harmed by the involvement of its leader in behind-the-scenes meetings that by all accounts encouraged the use of that technique?

John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, where this article originally appeared.

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