What, Exactly, Was Pelosi Supposed To Do?

[ Posted Monday, May 18th, 2009 – 16:37 UTC ]

Listening to the news over the past week, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Nancy Pelosi was personally responsible for torturing prisoners. Because that's how the storyline seemed, if you had just beamed in from Mars and didn't know anything else about the debate on prisoner interrogation. The problem is, we have not just arrived on this planet, and Nancy Pelosi will ultimately wind up in the history books with a footnote (if that) in the description of what took place under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But her critics in the past few days have remarkably failed to answer a very basic question (not that the media is really asking, but maybe they'll get around to it) -- what, exactly, was Nancy Pelosi supposed to do?

In other words, set aside for a moment the relative culpability of Pelosi versus others involved. Assume the worst her critics are charging her with in the "what and when did she know?" debate -- that she was told a month or so after waterboarding had happened that it was being used. And then answer the question: "What would you have done in her place?" Any critic of the Speaker of the House today should be able to come up with an answer to that, or else their criticism should be discounted as sheer partisanship and political games.

Let's review a few facts, and then lay out the possible courses of action for Pelosi at the time. The Central Intelligence Agency is, by law, required to brief certain members of Congress on covert activities. This is a safeguard put in place since the abuses of the agency came to light in the 1970s. The CIA is required to brief not only the White House, but also the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader, and the ranking minority and majority members of both houses' intelligence committees. These eight members of Congress -- four from each party -- are given secret briefings by the CIA to inform Congress what is being done in the American peoples' name.

That is "secret" not in its normal English-language sense of "not in the public view" but in its national security sense of "closed-door hearings where classified information is disseminated." This is important.

Nancy Pelosi, in the time period being talked about, was the House Minority Leader. Republicans controlled the House at the time. This is also important.

Those are the basic facts. Now, whether you believe the current director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, or Nancy Pelosi about what was said in those briefings, the subject of waterboarding came up at some point, in relation to "this is what we're doing/considering doing/about to do (take your pick) to detainees." Pelosi tried to split this hair in a disastrous press conference last Thursday, but no matter how that hair is split, she still knew enough to make up her mind on the central issue -- should the United States of America waterboard prisoners?

Which brings us to our central issue: what should she have done at the time? Let's look at the options as I see them.


Agree with the policy, or do nothing.

If Pelosi agreed with the Bush policy, she could have done nothing, or publicly supported it (without, of course, revealing details). Or, if she disagreed, she could have done nothing, and the Bush policy would have continued. Net result: no change in policy, no political risk for Pelosi.


Speak privately to the president, or send him a strongly-worded letter.

Pelosi could have gone to see Bush, and let him know exactly how she felt about the waterboarding issue. She could have even put it in a letter (as Jane Harman did), which she could point to later in defense of her anti-waterboarding position. Net result: Bush and Cheney crack jokes about wimpy Democrats, no change in policy, would have given Pelosi a "cover your ass" political chip she could have played at a later date.


Leak it to the press.

Pelosi, if she felt strongly that America was about to do something it should not do, and was otherwise powerless to influence the decision, could have put the debate squarely in front of the American people by leaking the story to the press. Net result (remember, this was mere months after 9/11 happened): the press could have declined to run the story (a real possibility in the jingoist times this took place), or they could have run it and a massive investigation would have followed to find the leak. This is classified information in wartime, after all. If the press gave Pelosi up, she could have faced prison or (at the very least) being stripped of her security clearance and (quite likely) been forced out of her leadership position in the party. If the press refused to give her up, the reporters would have faced prison time.


Shout it from the mountaintops -- go public.

Pelosi could, of course, been so morally outraged that she went public with the story and put her own face on the opposition to waterboarding. This would have been the morally correct thing to do, for those who live in black-and-white moral universes, but it would have had severe consequences. Pelosi herself would have been hounded mercilessly by Republicans. She almost certainly would have immediately faced charges for revealing classified information. She would have been called "traitor" and "treasonous" by many, for revealing secrets to the enemy in wartime. Net result: Pelosi would have lost her security clearance, faced a court case, given the Republicans even more reason to beat Democrats up on "national security" politically, and (even in the best case scenario) would have reduced herself to merely the "House member from San Francisco" and been stripped of her leadership by frightened Democrats looking at the next election cycle. Bush policy would have remained unchanged, although we would have had the whole Cheneyesque "enhanced interrogation techniques are not torture, because we say so, and we don't torture (as long as we get to define what that means)" debate a little bit sooner than it actually happened.


Resign and shout it from the mountaintops.

Pelosi could have resigned from either her leadership position, or from the House itself, and gone public with the story. Apart from committing political suicide, this would have had almost exactly the same effect as the previous answer. Net result: Pelosi would have been in a lot more danger of actual jail time as a result, because instead of just being "a voice of dissent from a Democrat in Congress" she would have been relegated (by the media, mostly) to "left wing lunatic" status, and seen as a pariah from her own party. Think: Cindy Sheehan. And the Bush policy would have been debated more forcefully in public, but likely would have remained unchanged anyway.


Win the House majority back, then do something about it.

Pelosi, however, could have played the long game, and worked as hard as she could to win back the House (and support efforts to win back the Senate) for Democrats, which would have given her the power to actually change policies as the majority. Being in the minority in the House is no fun, because there isn't even the filibuster threat to keep you relevant. Minority party status in the House is about as powerless a position in Washington as you can get. So Pelosi could have gritted her teeth, put her nose to the grindstone, and worked to win the House for her side, so something could be done. Net result: with Democrats in power in the House, they could have served as a serious check on the Bush policy, and with the purse-strings firmly in hand, could have forced changes in the policy as soon as Democrats prevailed.


Wait until there is enough political cover, then say you're against it.

Or Pelosi could have taken an even longer view, and diligently worked to gain a majority; but then when such a majority was won, refused to challenge Bush on any of his wartime policies, and continued passing every bit of legislation he asked for on the foreign policy front. Pelosi could have led Democrats (in the meantime) to fund two wars, provide amnesty for illegal wiretapping, indeed even provide amnesty for torture itself -- retroactively. When Pelosi was finally given cover by a Democrat winning the White House (who himself took and is taking the political heat for declaring America's torture period over), she could have loudly supported such a president. Net result: exactly where we are today.


As you can see, I hold no one completely blameless in this sorry chapter in American history. Republicans who are now gleefully (while attempting to appear quite prim) jumping on Nancy Pelosi for her actions (and inactions) during the time period in question have not answered the basic question: "What was she supposed to do about it?" If any Republican can now say with a straight face that he or she would have respected Pelosi going public back then, and not called her a traitor, I would like to see that (although I would stand well clear, just in case a bolt of lightning struck them down from the sky). Because they simply have no credibility for somehow taking Pelosi to task for not going public, when they would have immediately led the calls for chucking her in jail had she done so.

This was classified information given in a secret briefing. It's hard to get around that fact, which is why almost all of the news stories on Pelosi in the past week have completely avoided even mentioning it. It makes for a better storyline without pointing out this fact, so it is conveniently omitted.

Pelosi's hands were tied. She could not go public. She could not leak the story. At least not without breaking the law. She could have sent a letter to Bush, which would have achieved exactly nothing, except to provide her with a political "out" later on. For her own reasons, she did not do so.

Pelosi can be defended for being in an impossible situation at the time. Even if she disagreed with the policy, there simply wasn't much for her to do about it. She could have introduced legislation to stop it, but you have to remember her minority status at the time. The bill would likely not even have made it out of committee, even if she had chosen this route. Or, conversely, the Republicans may have let it sail through to the floor, to force Democrats to vote on it (probably about a month before a congressional election), to use against them in campaign ads. Either way, Bush would not have changed his policy.

What is inexcusable (to me at least) was what Pelosi did in 2007 and 2008 -- after she became Speaker of the House. With her own party in charge, Pelosi absolutely refused to tackle the issue head-on. And by that time, the information was public and "national security secrets" were no longer even an issue.

When Pelosi was first briefed on waterboarding, she had no legal way to raise a public objection. She could have raised private objections, which would not have accomplished anything more than making her feel better for having done so. And even if it had gone public, these were the days of flag pins, car window flags, yellow ribbons, and all the rest. So even a public debate would not have gotten very far (at least in my reading of the situation).

It seems to me that critics of Pelosi -- whether coming from the left or right -- would do well to concentrate on the last two years of Bush's second term, when Pelosi could have been a "profile in courage" and instead gave Bush exactly what he wanted.

But that's not the way the storyline goes, at least not so far in the mainstream media. But what I find ironic is that the entire fracas may actually get us closer to some sort of "truth commission." Republicans (at least some of them) now seem a lot more open to the idea, now that Pelosi may get ensnared by such a fact-finding commission. They see it as an opening to blunt criticism over Bush and Cheney for their actions, since "Democrats were told about it at the time and are therefore culpable as well."

I really don't have a problem with that. I've always said a truth commission should search for the truth, and if some Democrats suffer as a result, then so be it. The truth of what was done in the name of the American people is (to me, at least) about country, and not about politics.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


13 Comments on “What, Exactly, Was Pelosi Supposed To Do?”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    There is no one - absolutely no one - who can get to the crux of the matter of a complicated and sensitive issue like this one surely is, with precision and clarity, like you do on a regular basis.

    I have always thought that as much as Obama/Biden would like to travel down the path toward the truth and accountability for the actions of Bush administration officials - especially the condoning and justification of the use of torture - they have been extremely reluctant to lead the way because of the high probability that a rabid variety of partisanship may rise up and derail their vast and critical agenda.

    I agree that all of this may very well get us closer to a grande 'truth commission' that can at least avoid the kind of destructive partisanship that may have characterized such a commission before everyone and their brother - of all political stripes - was publically calling for one!

    All's well that ends well? I hope so.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    By the way, I can honestly say that I have never, never, ever listened to a press conference so excruciatingly torturous as the one Speaker Pelosi gave the other day.

    I couldn't help but think - somebody, please, shoot her and put her out of her misery. THAT'S A JOKE!!!

    But, seriously...if we get through this torture debate in one piece with some real accountability at the other end - in whatever form that may take - and the assurance that the US will never again be put in this position again where it has to fight to restore its credibility in the world and reclaim its global leadership role, then it will have occurred DESPITE speaker Pelosi and not because of anything she did to help make it happen.

    And, if I never see her in front of a microphone again, it will be too soon. NOT A JOKE!!!

  3. [3] 
    dt wrote:

    What could she have done?
    She could have gotten a spine and stood up for her convictions as a democrat/liberal/anti-bush or whatever.
    She could have voted against the Iraq invasion. The vote to invade Iraq passed with a greater majority than the first war did when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
    She could have given a clear and honest explanation of her knowledge. Rather than looking flustered and confused. Where's the "truth and accountability" that B.O. campaigned on now that the Dem's are in power)
    She could admit her error and move on. You need to remember,if you take the time to ask, most of the population outside the grandstanding beltway doesn't care much about enemy combatant's "rights" if it saves even one life of an american, or frenchman, or U.N peacekeeper.

    Of course, noone , except Cheney, wants to know if it worked or not. That would be undermine the idea that maybe, just maybe, Bush/Cheney got it right.
    How about she could make an effort to find the Truth, not just politically expedient factiods.

  4. [4] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    answer the question: "What would you have done in her place?" Any critic of the Speaker of the House today should be able to come up with an answer to that, or else their criticism should be discounted as sheer partisanship and political games.


    Two points:

    (1) Let's remember that in 2006, the torture had stopped. The Abu Ghraib fiasco scared the torture-mongers so badly that they stopped waterboarding and walling. As Obama observed in an interview published this weekend, Dick Cheney had already lost the internal debate over this issue. Whether we want to say it or not, there was less impetus for immediate action.

    Which brings me to (2), the fact that any investigation of these abuses would have to rely on documents the Bushies were unwilling to declassify. Even if Pelosi had set aside the Democratic agenda for the sake of hearings and commissions, we can have no doubt the Bushies would have fought against disclosure tooth and nail. And because of the president is legally and Constitutionally in charge of the national security apparatus, no one could force Bush to declassify a damn thing. Only a regime change could bring that about.

    I'm not saying it was right; I'm not even saying that I agree with it. But Pelosi made a realist's decision in 2006. What else was she supposed to do?

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    The question, "what should she have done" is not really the central question.

    You see, the real issue isn't that she stood silently by while torture was being done on scumbag terrorists.

    The issue is that she lied and tried to hold Bush/Cheney accountable when she KNEW that they followed the letter of the law and briefed Congress..

    Pelosi tried to ignore her own culpability in the issue and THAT is why she is in hot water right now..

    As I mentioned before, Pelosi made the RIGHT decision then by backing the Bush Administration.

    However, she has made the WRONG decision now by lying about it.


  6. [6] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I think that Pelosi and everyone else who knew that the US was torturing people should have tried to change the policy of the Administration. I don't think they would have been successful without going public but they should have tried. I am very disappointed in the Obama Administration for allowing this policy to continue. Obama talks the talk but his actions, or inaction, shows what he really believes. I know that some might say he is biding his time until the right moment but I am not buying that anymore.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Again, the question must be asked.

    If practically everyone who is in a position to know the facts of an issue, nearly universally say that a certain course of action is the CORRECT course of action, how can anyone claim different??

    Based on nothing more than subjective emotionalism??


  8. [8] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Heheheheh. Michale, you always make me laugh. Subjective emotionalism. That's a good one. If Limbaugh and Hannity haven't picked that one up yet, they should.

    Of course what you mean is that anyone who disagrees with you is emotional and that you are completely rational. Brilliant!

    Just for the record, I like Nancy Pelosi, but one of my big issues w/ the Democratic party was that they never offered much resistance to many of the things they completely disagreed with. True, this resistance may not have had any actual effect at the time, but you start to forge a different identity from the ruling party. One that offers different ideas.

    You may have to work for a while because as Obama has stated, you often need the political will in able to be able to accomplish things. And this may have to be generated on the ground. To paraphrase FDR, "I agree with you, now make me do it."

    This is why I don't like to think she was completely helpless. No one is completely helpless. Especially not a U.S. Congresswoman. That's why Nancy comes off looking kind of like a "Nancy" on this one.

    Of course, I also think that in the scheme of things, this Pelosi thing is a big distraction. It's little more than a political effort to pin something on one of the top Democratic leaders.

    May you live long and prosper Mr. Uber-rationalist,

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Of course what you mean is that anyone who disagrees with you is emotional and that you are completely rational. Brilliant!

    Not at all..

    Answer me this.

    Are you against Capital Punishment? Animal Testing?

    Because the same logical and rational reasons for Capital Punishment and Animal Testing are the same logical and rational reasons for torturing terrorists.

    The all save innocent human lives and only animals are hurt, injured and/or killed..

    but one of my big issues w/ the Democratic party was that they never offered much resistance to many of the things they completely disagreed with.

    And couldn't the reason for that is because it's necessary? That's my entire point.

    Look at all of Obama's reversals.. He takes a position on one thing or another and then, when he finds out the REALITY of the issue, he reverses himself. Just like he did with FISA, just like he did with the torture pics, just like he did with the Commissions and just like he will do with Gitmo.

    If someone you know and respect takes a position that you disagree with, isn't it even CONCEIVABLE that you might be wrong??

    This is why I don't like to think she was completely helpless.

    She wasn't.. She could have done many MANY things to distance herself from the issue or shine the light of day on it.

    The fact that she CHOSE not to is indicative of one thing and one thing only.

    She felt that what was being done was necessary. Nay, there are reports that she felt that they (the CIA) weren't doing ENOUGH...

    Of course, I also think that in the scheme of things, this Pelosi thing is a big distraction.

    Ahh, but would you think it was all a big distraction if it were President Bush instead of President Obama and Speaker Hastert instead of Speaker Pelosi?

    Of course not.. :D

    May you live long and prosper

    Back atcha... :D And remember, in the shadowy world of counter-terrorism, then ends OFTEN justify the means..


  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth -

    Thanks for the kind words!

    I still don't have a problem with a commission along the lines of the 9/11 commission. They ALL (Dems and Repubs) signed off on their report at the end of it, and politics didn't really enter much into it (except on the subject of what they agreed NOT to look at -- the political side of things). I still think some respected blue-ribbon types on both sides of the aisle could be put together -- OUT of the glare of the media spotlight, conduct a sober and non-partisan investigation, and make a report to America on the subject. Call me naive if you will, but I think we're cabaple of that.

    And you're right. When I wrote last Friday's FTP column, I had not seen clips of the Pelosi presser. If I had, I doubtlessly would have given her a MDDOTW as well, because it was a painful performance to watch.

    dt -

    I'm behind on my comments, but it does make it easy to say "see what I had to say about Pelosi on Tuesday." Especially take note of the Frank Dwyer column which he wrote in response to this column (and which caused me to write the Tuesday column).

    Osborne Ink -

    Thank you for including "walling." The American media is fascinated by waterboarding, but nobody wants to talk about "slamming prisoners 20 or 30 times into a wall by a towel wrapped around their neck." Or the fact that we literally beat to death dozens of prisoners.

    As for your second point, I have to disagree. They could have fought a grand court battle over "executive privelege" which, in my opinion, truly should have been fought. Nixon lost the only real court battle on the subject, and Bush pushed the envelope on this so far that it needed to be challenged. Dems did not, including even such lefty heroes as Pat Leahy. They just didn't have the stomach for a court fight. They should have. Because now Bush's executive privelege claims have been allowed to stand, and THEY WILL be cited by future presidents to cover up all sorts of things.

    To put it another way, "L'Etat, ce n'est pas Bush." Apologies to King Loouie....

    Michale -

    When, exactly, did Pelosi try to "hold Bush/Cheney accountable"? I must have missed that, which surprises me because lefties have been crying for just that for a long time. Seems like it would have been in the news. I'm just saying....

    Stan -

    I seriously wonder when "Obama Disillusionment" is going to set in with the public at large. So far, he's been doing pretty well in the polling, but I keep waiting for his numbers to tick down when different people, for different reasons, begin to see him in a different light. This happens to every new president, it's not just Obama, but I still haven't seen it yet. It is inevitable, though. You can't please all the people all of the time.

    akadjian -

    You put your finger on something I've been wondering for a while now -- whether Obama is playing the "you've convinced me, now force me to do it" game or not. I gotta think about this... I feel a column coming out of it...

    And, hey, watch your language! Some of my best friends are named "Nancy." Heh.

    Michale -

    I have to admit, I wouldn't bet many quatloos right now on whether Obama will fulfill his pledge to close Gitmo in a year....


  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:


    Or the fact that we literally beat to death dozens of prisoners.

    Are there any reports that this was done? I am seriously curious. If ANY prisoner had died, I would have thought it would have made the {sic} "news"..

    {Democrats} just didn't have the stomach for a court fight.

    They were more concerned about their political careers than they were about doing what is (they think) right for their country.

    And some people STILL think that Democrats are any better than Republicans. It's mind-boggling...

    When, exactly, did Pelosi try to "hold Bush/Cheney accountable"?

    Of late, Pelosi et al have be pushing for a "truth commission" which is a Democrat euphemism for holding Bush and Cheney accountable..

    I have to admit, I wouldn't bet many quatloos right now on whether Obama will fulfill his pledge to close Gitmo in a year….

    I don't see how he can..

    But an early test will come in the next few weeks/months. An HVT is being moved from Gitmo to NYC for trial. If this goes smoothly, then a case could be made that moving terrorists into the US might not be all the gloom and doom people say. Under these conditions, Obama might make his Gitmo Closing deadline.

    On the other hand, if something happens or, worse, an actual terrorist attack with the intent to free the scumbag, you can bet that ALL Americans will be clamoring for more Bush/Cheney...

    But what is really interesting is the White House itself is saying that the decision to close Gitmo was hasty and not well thought out.


  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Don't have time for a full answer, but as to your first comment, I can look up the links if you need them later, but the facts are as follows. Over 100 (forget the exact number, 106? something like that) prisoners of ours in Iraq and Afghanistan died in our custody. Around three dozen of them, on their death certificates (from the US military, no less), cause of death was listed as "homicide." These are prisoners who arrived at the prison in good health, not someone who died from battlefield wounds.

    It was in the media, briefly, and occasionally someone brings it up, but it's the elephant in the room that nobody in DC really wants to talk about. The argument swirls around "is waterboarding torture" but nobody addresses "walling" or literally beating people to death, since both are quite obviously well within even Bush's definition of "torture."

    Some of the photos Obama's not releasing show the dead bodies of these prisoners, and their wounds. They are evidence of crimes, in other words. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been held responsible for these crimes. Some of the Abu Graib photos (the ones already released) show one such corpse as well.

    Anyway, I can dig up the links later, but that should give you enough to find the evidence if you google a little bit.


  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    According to HUMAN RIGHTS FIRST there have been 141 deaths of enemy combatants while in US custody.

    HRF themselves admit that these some of these deaths include a death at a detainee’s home, a death during an alleged escape attempt, and death at the point of capture but after a person’s surrender. Also included in these deaths are 38 detainees who died when their detention facilities were struck by mortar attacks, and five deaths of detainees killed in U.S. custody by other detainees.

    I mean, seriously.. Come'on... It's war.. And in war, sometimes people die. Even POWs, detainees, enemy combatants and what have you..

    I am not saying that US forces are perfect, that they have always acted exemplary and are god's gift to warfare...

    But honestly. Don't American forces deserve, at the VERY least, the benefit of the doubt??


Comments for this article are closed.