House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's extraordinary accusation that the Bush administration lied to Congress about the use of harsh interrogation techniques dramatically raised the stakes in the growing debate over the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies even as it raised some questions about the speaker's credibility.
Pelosi's performance in the Capitol was either a calculated escalation of a long-running feud with the Bush administration or a reckless act by a politician whose word had been called into question. Perhaps it was both.
For the first time, Pelosi (D-Calif.) acknowledged that in 2003 she was informed by an aide that the CIA had told others in Congress that officials had used waterboarding during interrogations. But she insisted, contrary to CIA accounts, that she was not told about waterboarding during a September 2002 briefing by agency officials. Asked whether she was accusing the CIA of lying, she replied, "Yes, misleading the Congress of the United States."
Champions and villains
Washington now is engaged in a battle royal of finger-pointing, second-guessing and self-defense, all over techniques President Obama banned in the first days of his administration. Both sides in this debate believe they have something to prove -- and gain -- by keeping the fight alive.
Both sides have champions and villains. Pelosi has become a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives, and a hero to the left, much as former vice president Richard B. Cheney has become a target of the left and the darling of many on the right.
The speaker's charges about the CIA's alleged deception and her shifting accounts of what she knew and when she knew it are likely to add to calls for some kind of independent body to investigate this supercharged issue, though Obama and many members of Congress would like to avoid a wholesale unearthing of the past at a time when their plates are full with pressing concerns.
Closing the books on the George W. Bush years has proven harder than anyone imagined -- certainly harder than Obama hoped. The intensifying argument over what the CIA told Pelosi and when comes on top of the debate over whether any Bush administration officials should face legal action for their roles in authorizing or implementing the interrogation policies and whether a national commission is needed to get to the truth.
The speaker's discomfort was evident yesterday as she was grilled by reporters for the first time since the CIA issued information suggesting that she and others were told about the use of the techniques, including waterboarding, at a classified briefing on Sept. 4, 2002. Pelosi was then the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
The CIA said the briefing included Pelosi and then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (Fla.), who was the committee chairman at the time and who later became CIA director. Two House aides also attended. The CIA's account said the subject was enhanced interrogation techniques and the particular methods used on Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known by the nom de guerre Abu Zubaida.
Five months later, on Feb. 5, 2003, after Pelosi had left the intelligence committee, the CIA briefed the panel's chairman and ranking minority-party member on the detainee interrogation program. Pelosi said her aide Michael Sheehy, who attended that briefing as well as the September briefing, told her that agency officials said they had used waterboarding in some cases. "He said that the committee chair and ranking member and appropriate staff had been briefed that these techniques were now being used," she said yesterday. "That's all I was informed."
Conservatives say that, if Pelosi was so opposed to torture, she should have spoken out forcefully when she learned that these techniques were being employed. Her failure to do so then leaves her in a weakened position to protest now, they argue. An op-ed article by senior Bush White House adviser Karl Rove in yesterday's Wall Street Journal asked directly: "So is the speaker of the House lying about what she knew and when? And, if so, what will Democrats do about it?"
Pelosi gave some ground on the question of whether she had been informed that waterboarding was being used -- though by her account she did not learn about it until February 2003, rather than in 2002, and then only from her aide. Instead of registering her protest to the administration, she said, she set out to help Democrats win control of Congress and elect a Democrat as president.
But in attempting to defend herself, Pelosi took the remarkable step of trying to shift the focus of blame to the CIA and the Bush administration, claiming that the CIA accounts represented a diversionary tactic in the real debate over the interrogation policies. That amounted to a virtual declaration of war against the CIA at a time when the Obama administration already has rattled morale at the agency with the release of Justice Department memos authorizing the harsh interrogation techniques.
House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) was quick to challenge Pelosi. Within minutes of her contentious news conference, he emerged to question her accusations. He left no doubt that Republicans believe that the speaker has made a major misstep that will hurt her and perhaps her party as this controversy plays out.
The various parties all have their own priorities now. Pelosi not only wants to clear her name but also favors a truth commission to answer questions about how the interrogation policies came to be and whether they were as effective as Cheney and others claim. Cheney is determined to defend the policies he helped shape and to force the new administration into a different posture on its anti-terrorism strategy. Outside groups, and the grass-roots activists they speak for, are prepared to continue litigating the Bush presidency.
Obama has already moved on his policies, deciding to fight the public release of photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners after earlier saying he favored their release. He cited potential danger for U.S. soldiers that could be caused by the photos' release, but he must have concluded that the photos would set off another storm at home as well.
The president wants the focus kept on the future and the energies of his entire administration, from the CIA to the Defense Department, as well as the relevant committees on Capitol Hill, engaged in producing an effective policy in Afghanistan and sorting through such difficult questions as what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, once that facility is closed next year.
Pelosi is not out of the woods. She could have saved herself some trouble by admitting earlier that she had been informed that the CIA was using waterboarding. By doing what she did yesterday, she has assured that she will remain a central character in the political fight that is raging. But whether by design or accident, she also succeeded in enlarging a controversy that is no longer a sideshow.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.