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Dems race to hearings on interrogation memos

The primary issue Wednesday will be the conduct of Justice Department lawyers who wrote or approved memos justifying waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harsh interrogation methods.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Casting aside their president's misgivings, Democrats are racing into hearings to criticize newly released Bush administration memos justifying harsh terrorism interrogations.

So far, however, the biggest embarrassment has engulfed a Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As Pelosi keeps trying to clarify when she initially learned of the interrogation techniques, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee scheduled a hearing Wednesday that was billed as the "first public hearing on torture memos since their release."

The Senate's public hearing — and House hearings to come — demonstrate that even a Democratic president can't stop his party's lawmakers from delving into what they consider embarrassments of a Republican administration.

Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs has said the administration prefers an inquiry already under way by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which operates behind closed doors with classified information.

Speaker clarifies
But Democrats can't control everything. On Friday, Pelosi, D-Calif., was forced to issue yet another news release repeating her past assertions that she had been briefed in 2002 only on new interrogation techniques that had been deemed legal and were planned for future use.

Her latest statement came three weeks after the Justice Department released formerly classified legal memos that detailed the CIA's harsh, once-secret interrogation program. Last week, CIA records were released showing that Pelosi was briefed in September 2002 on the harsh methods then being used.

That appeared to contradict Pelosi's version, which said she understood the techniques were only planned for future use. The CIA records, however, were vague on exactly what Pelosi was told.

Wednesday's hearing will be chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who also is a member of the Intelligence Committee and attended secret briefings on the interrogation methods by intelligence officials in the George W. Bush administration.

Whitehouse said in an interview that he offered legislation in the Intelligence Committee to ban the harsh methods. His measure became part of legislation that passed under the sponsorship of the committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

But Whitehouse said he never protested to the Bush administration because "it never crossed my mind that it would make the least bit of difference."

No feedback from Obama administration
The hearing of the Judiciary administrative oversight and the courts subcommittee, he said, will focus on legal issues that are not part of the intelligence inquiry. The primary issue is the conduct of Justice Department lawyers who wrote or approved memos justifying waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harsh interrogation methods.

A draft report from an internal Justice Department investigation said Bush administration lawyers who approved harsh methods should not face criminal charges but said two of the attorneys face possible professional sanctions.

"I have spoken to my leadership and to Sen. Feinstein. Everybody seems very comfortable with what I'm doing," Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said he had "no feedback of any kind" from the Obama administration. "I assume if they had discomfort they would have communicated that to someone. I get zero sense that the administration is concerned about what particular committee should do this."

A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said the administration would have no comment on Whitehouse's hearing.

One witness scheduled to testify Wednesday, Philip Zelikow, was among the Bush administration's top State Department officials who fought the interrogation techniques in fierce internal battles with former Vice President Dick Cheney and the Justice Department. He wrote a memo protesting that the techniques violated the Constitution.