THE BLOG
05/16/2009 12:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of the Speaker of the House

As of May 16, several national newspaper and television headlines were adopting an accusatory tone critical of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that undoubtedly tickled the actual authorizers (Vice President Cheney et al) and the actual practitioners (Central Intelligence Agency) of torture during the previous administration, 2001-2009. For example: "CIA Director Panetta Rebuts Pelosi's Charges," Washington Post, May 16.

Having worked for a Senate leader on Capitol Hill, I can attest that--when leaders of Congress are notified of major covert operations--the briefings are often incomplete at best and are sometimes prone to gloss over what is really going on. A full briefing on relevant CIA activities is seldom guaranteed.

Despite CIA Director Leon Panetta's morale-booster claim that agents do not mislead Congress--he was not at Langley during the last administration and is in no position to know when the CIA has prevaricated with Congress--they have lied to and misled members of Congress on numerous occasions in the last 30 years! Sens. Goldwater and Rockefeller, among others, have so charged. Get real!

It should be noted that under the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, and the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, the Executive Branch is required to ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are kept "fully and currently informed"of U.S. intelligence activities, including any "significant anticipated intelligence activity."

House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), has accurately described what usually happens in reality:

When the CIA comes in to notify you about a very sensitive intelligence program, you don't have the opportunity to get all your questions answered or to review legal documents. You're not allowed to consult with any lawyers or experts. You're not even allowed to discuss the matter with your colleagues or your staff.

Are Pelosi's critics suggesting that half-informed Democratic leaders (not in the Executive Branch) should have stopped the Republican leaders of the Executive Branch (the White House of Bush/Cheney) from ordering the torturing of terrorist suspects, a practice that began even before the Justice Department had signed off on its legality?! Moreover, is the CIA suggesting that Congress should have intervened after being briefed, the company in effect pleading: "Stop us, before we torture again"?

After all, the two houses of Congress--let alone the Speaker--have no investigative agency of their own and no way to question the veracity of the intelligence agencies in public, without being bludgeoned for divulging state secrets. Even the rules of the House and Senate prohibit members from publicly disclosing CIA criminal/illegal acts that have been "classified," unless they read it into the Congressional Record--and thereby risk censure by their respective bodies. Violations of the Geneva Conventions on torture would certainly qualify!

Rep. Pelosi was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in 2002; and became House Minority Leader in 2003. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the period after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has said that he also was not briefed by CIA officials on the actual use of waterboarding in 2002. I believe Sen. Graham. Moreover, he has questioned whether information provided by the CIA on the content of intelligence briefings is accurate, noting that agency officials reported he attended briefings on days that his personal journal shows he did not.

Senators and Representatives were saddled with these dilemmas by a highly secretive, "unitary executive" White House under Cheney/Bush. What would the critics have had members of the intelligence committees (and the leaders of House and Senate) do if they knew they were not getting a "serious" briefing? Sam Stein is correct: we are missing the forest for the trees.

As Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrated, he was willing to engage in national security "thuggery" to keep the lid on all sorts of nefarious activities.


William E. Jackson, Jr. is the former Chief Legislative Assistant to the Senate Democratic Whip, Alan Cranston, D-CA.