The Democrats’ risky focus on torture

Barack Obama warned Democrats in Congress against making a partisan cause out of the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation tactics.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ignoring him — loudly — and the party, from the president on down, may pay the price.

So far, it’s Pelosi who’s suffered the greatest harm.

It may never be resolved exactly when she first learned that waterboarding had been used against terror suspects — in 2002 when she was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee or five months later after she became her party’s leader.

But the Democrats’ claim to the moral high ground on the issue has been blemished by her explanation this week that in early 2003 she shifted her attention to winning political control of the House and didn’t wage a protest against what she now calls torture.

She says the CIA and the Bush administration misled her about when the waterboarding, which simulates drowning, began. But Republicans don’t have to fight that battle. They only have to keep the focus on her, and they have done that well — as evidenced by her multiple attempts to explain herself.

Americans already know the ending to this movie that’s being played backward: Detainees were waterboarded, head-slammed, face-slapped, stripped naked and deprived of sleep. If the public isn’t outraged already, will hearings to show who did what in the Bush administration gain converts?

And what of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s contentions? He says harsh interrogations yielded information that stopped attacks. If that’s shown to be true, people may end up thanking Cheney, although he had a setback Thursday. The CIA denied his request to declassify memos that he says would prove him right.

Before this political saga is finished months from now, both sides will score points and Democrats will have their good days. An internal Justice Department report, soon to be completed, may recommend disciplinary action against one or more of the Bush attorneys who wrote memos concluding the interrogation tactics were legal.

That certainly would be grist for Democrats in future hearings.

But it doesn’t eliminate the danger signs.

A Senate hearing this week, the first on the interrogations since Obama’s warning last month, broke along party lines within seconds.

Democrats called a witness — former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan — who testified with considerable drama from behind a screen to hide his identity.

He said al-Qaida senior operative Abu Zubaydah clammed up under rough interrogation by CIA contractors. Soufan insisted that Zubaydah gave up valuable information about "dirty bomb" terrorist Jose Padilla when his team used a non-threatening approach to gain his confidence and outwit him.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pointed out that Soufan wasn’t present for the rougher tactics and said he didn’t know the whole story.

Bush administration documents released by the Justice Department say Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times, and Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times, gave up critical information because of the technique.

Last month, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, told employees in a memo that interrogations that included waterboarding had secured useful intelligence. Blair later issued a public statement that said it was not known whether the same information could have been obtained without harsh techniques — the same position Obama has taken when asked.

An incident at a news conference by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., showed just how nervous the Democrats have become.

Asked whether hearings on the Bush policies would open the door for an inquiry into Pelosi’s intelligence briefings, Hoyer responded: "What was said and when it was said, who said it, I think that is probably what ought to be on the record as well."

After the news conference, he and aides called some reporters — who thought he was referring to Pelosi — to assure them the comment only meant the investigations should look at the Bush interrogation policies.

But the biggest sign that the effort could backfire politically came from President Obama.

On April 21, addressing congressional proposals for a bipartisan commission to study the interrogations, the president said: "I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations."

If Obama is right, Democrats could be perceived as harming national security. That would be a major stumble that could give the Republicans an issue in next year’s congressional elections.


Larry Margasak has covered Capitol Hill since 1983.