Pelosi, speak to us

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a tough, skilled and experienced politician who has never given Republicans ground. But the controversy over her briefings on interrogation tactics in the wake of Sept. 11 is doing just that. Republicans now have a credible issue on which to question the powerful Speaker — and instead of answering questions, Pelosi is blaming the GOP for a “distraction.”

If anyone knows how destructive distractions can be, it’s Pelosi. She has watched for years as distractions have harmed or ruined political careers on both sides of the aisle. Now that she finds herself in the spotlight, she should find a way to lessen the glare.

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The question of what Pelosi knew and when she knew it has led to two more important, and potentially politically damaging, questions. If Pelosi was briefed just on enhanced interrogation techniques and the legal green light the administration had received to use them, how could she not understand they would be used? And even if Pelosi assumed her briefing to be an abstract discussion, but she found such procedures objectionable, why did she choose to do nothing?

Pelosi first insisted she was briefed only once — in September of 2002 — about interrogation techniques but was not told they were used. But a new account, that Pelosi intelligence aide Michael Sheehy informed her after he was briefed in February of 2003 that waterboarding had been used on Abu Zubaydah, calls into question Pelosi’s initial statements.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed such techniques, said Pelosi should have asserted herself if she opposed them as well. Pelosi’s home-state colleague and rival, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), described her objections in a classified letter at the time, and though Pelosi agreed with the letter, she did not sign it. She isn’t known to have registered her objection in any other formal manner, either at briefings or through other channels to the Bush administration.

Perhaps Pelosi didn’t protest because, like many of her colleagues, she feared a second attack on U.S. soil. But Pelosi has said nothing of the sort. Most Democrats aren’t rushing to Pelosi’s defense and have grown mute in the face of stepped-up criticism from the GOP. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) echoed the Pelosi staff spin about Republicans looking for a distraction but also defended Pelosi, saying, “To some degree she was in a position where ... she was bound by requirements of secrecy as a condition of those briefings, so it’s a little bit of a conundrum there as well.”

The GOP doesn’t plan on letting go, and neither do Democrats intent on pursuing the politically charged issue of torture. Hearings began this week in the Senate; more will follow. As the controversy swirls around Pelosi, her own supporters will be waiting to see if she continues pressing for a truth commission. President Obama made clear his unease with looking back when he said as a candidate: “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch-hunt.”

It is hard to imagine a truth commission moving forward that would exclude Speaker Pelosi. The Speaker should start speaking out about all of this, now.



Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.