Democrats: Hypocrites on torture?

The continuing hue and cry over the use of torture on suspected terrorists seems to have set a new standard for hypocrisy even in this town where it always has been considered an art form, practiced at the highest levels without a hint of shame.

Take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support for a full-scale investigation of the CIA’s admitted use of such questionably legal tactics as water boarding and wall slamming during the interrogation of key al-Qaeda figures following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on America. More specifically, the entire Democratic congressional leadership wants to nail those lawyers in the administration of George W. Bush whose legal opinions justified the practices.

Well, it turns out that Pelosi most certainly knew about the use of these methods long before it became public knowledge, probably as early as 2003, but did nothing until it presented one of those opportunities for political posturing and possible gain for which she has become famous. One of Pelosi’s top aides actually was present at a briefing on the use of these techniques on an alleged al Qaeda operative six years ago, according to recent news accounts.

Moreover, Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California, then ranking minority member of the House Intelligence committee, also was at the briefing delivered by top CIA officials about the water boarding employed during the questioning of terrorist Abu Zubayda. In 2007 Pelosi said she concurred with a Harman protest about the use of the technique to the CIA’s legal counsel following the briefing, a tacit admission that she was aware of the controversial methods. But for about four years Pelosi apparently kept her mouth shut until the issue of torture became a political hot potato for the Republican White House.

The fact is that many Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress had some inkling that there were extreme measures being used to try to elicit information about possible future 9/11 attacks and considered such methods necessary to fight a faceless enemy. Republicans have claimed all along that Democratic leaders so suddenly angered over the situation were not only aware of the use of water boarding but also approved of it — clearly believing that most Americans initially at least were not opposed.

But it is the very nature of political parties not to waste opportunities for embarrassing their opposition while at the same time overlooking their own complicity. Congress is particular adept at this, carrying out a few oversight responsibilities to the extreme while ignoring others. Without a degree of political advantage very little gets done.

President Obama has made it clear he will not tolerate any continuation of practices that violate national or international law but that he does not want repercussions for the CIA at a time when morale is crucial to delivering accurate intelligence. The Justice department has made it clear that it doesn’t plan to prosecute the lawyers whose opinions gave the Bush White House legal justification. It probably should end there given Pelosi’s newly discovered vulnerability.

But over and over again the Speaker has shown an inability to resist the hard-nosed politics of her upbringing in Baltimore where her father was mayor. She was raised on ward politics and too often shows a decided lack of conciliation to the opposition that her high- ranking post requires. It is not an uncommon failing. Republican Newt Gingrich, one of the architects of GOP resurgence of the ’90s, was guilty of the same lack of statesmanship when he was speaker and ultimately lost his job because he committed some of the same errors of his predecessor, Democrat Jim Wright of Texas.

The events of 9/11 were so shocking to the American psyche that they led to overreaction in a number of areas, including the invasion of Iraq — not unusual under the circumstances. Pelosi had been a ranking Democrat on the Intelligence committee and was privy to any number of secrets. It will be difficult for her to pursue a position of innocence. It may be too late for her to drop the matter now. That’s too bad. Her reputation won’t be enhanced in all this.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)