Several high-profile Democrats finally broke their silence on Tuesday, defending Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from GOP critics who say she has not been forthcoming on what she knew about the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques, as a Senate subcommittee prepares to hold the year’s first public hearing on the program.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) all questioned the GOP’s line of attack on Pelosi, saying the minority was glossing over the abuse of detainees as well as distorting the facts about how classified information is handled in Congress.
“I think it’s a tempest in a teapot, really, to say, well, Speaker Pelosi should have known all of this. She should have stopped it. She should have done this or done that,’— Feinstein told reporters.
Hoyer, Pelosi’s No. 2, blasted Republicans on Tuesday for trying to create distractions from what he called the real issue: the harsh interrogation techniques the Bush administration employed and the legal underpinning for doing so.
But Hoyer also advocated a thorough review of who knew what about the programs — a look that could include Pelosi and other lawmakers briefed on the techniques at the center of the controversy.
“Frankly, the information about what was said and when it was said, and who said it, I think that probably ought to be on the record as well so the American public knows that,— Hoyer told reporters at his weekly roundtable.
Republicans for weeks have hammered the Speaker for insisting that intelligence officials never told her they were using severe tactics on detainees. Instead, Pelosi has said, CIA briefers merely told her they had the legal authority to do so. But the GOP got new ammunition for its charge that the Speaker has been obfuscating with the release last week of a declassified CIA report detailing 40 Congressional briefings on the matter.
The document states that a September 2002 briefing that Pelosi attended — as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — included information on “enhanced interrogation techniques,— including their use on top al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah. Six months later, a top Pelosi aide was briefed on the techniques, which reportedly included waterboarding and other methods that critics have called torture.
House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) took a different approach when he waded into the debate on Tuesday. He said a full accounting of what Congressional leaders knew and when could endanger national security, and he blasted Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) for pushing for such disclosures.
“It’s irresponsible what Republicans are doing, particularly in Mr. Hoekstra’s case,— Reyes said. “When you’re asking to declassify material that’s been classified for a very good reason — that’s the height of irresponsibility.—
Reyes said the GOP is “trying to keep this alive politically more than they’re interested in what actually happened.—
But Feinstein said classified briefings are often vague and purposely so.
“It’s very hard to know exactly what anybody was actually told unless you were there,— she said.
Feinstein, who said she was not briefed on the interrogation methods until the end of 2006, said her experience has been that the CIA designs the briefings to be as “benign— as possible.
“They’re not going to tell you about excesses or problems. They do it in a benign manner,— she said.
Feinstein noted that it took her some time to piece together what she had actually learned at her initial briefing.
“It’s often hard to really pin it down. I know it took me a little bit of time when I had the first briefing,— she said. “What began to dawn on me is, all of this is dependent on how these things are administered, in what combination, over what period of time, what the detention circumstances are, what the sanitary conditions are, how the detainee is treated, what he’s fed — until it becomes a very big circle that you’ve got to pierce to get inside to see what the real effect of something is.—
Durbin said his experience was similar when he sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this decade.
“I realized how little we could actually communicate about what was going on in the committee, and I’m sure [Pelosi] feels the same obligation as a leader when she’s briefed on classified material. It isn’t as though you’re angry and you end up saying, Well, I’m going to take this to the caucus,’— Durbin said. “People don’t understand that … there is a limited amount you can do. I was involved with some things on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which I think were historic, and I can’t tell you what they were.—
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is chairing a hearing today on the Bush administration’s legal justification for harsh interrogations, agreed that there is little Members can do to object to something they have learned about in a classified setting.
“When this was brought to my attention, I moved legislatively to get something accomplished,— said Whitehouse, who joined the Intelligence panel in 2007. “But it never crossed my mind that writing a personal letter to [then-Vice President] Dick Cheney was going to change anybody’s mind. That was to me an exercise in folly. I mean, who’s kidding who here?—
Whitehouse, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, said his hearing would dig into how the Bush Justice Department developed the legal opinions that were used to justify the use of harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding, sensory deprivation, stress positions and other tactics regarded as torture in the international community. President Barack Obama released the minimally redacted memos earlier this year.
The hearing comes as Democrats on the Hill anxiously await a report from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility that is likely to recommend that the lawyers who wrote the “torture memos— be disciplined or disbarred for writing faulty legal advice.
Whitehouse said he hopes his hearing will examine “how widespread the legal dissent was at the time and how it was squelched and … what the analysis is of legal misconduct from the point of view of attorney disciplinary action. That sets the stage for a better understanding of the OPR report when it comes out.—
Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.