THE BLOG
06/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What, Exactly, Was Pelosi Supposed to Do?

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.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com