16 May 2009

Pelosi's War

The San Francisco Chronicle recently quoted the Speaker of the House as saying that her motto is: "The best preparation for combat is combat." It would seem that Pelosi has acquired herself a war with the last agency on Earth that she should engage: the CIA. After weeks of repeatedly changing her story, Ms. Pelosi came out swinging: 'Pelosi waited for her regular weekly press conference to address the issue, after a trip to Iraq had left unanswered for nearly a week media reports fueled primarily by GOP sources making accusations. "Yes, I am saying that they are misleading - that the CIA was misleading the Congress," Pelosi said. She said she would "be very happy" if the CIA would release the notes from the 2002 briefing so that everyone could see for themselves. She repeated her call for a "truth commission" to air the facts.'

The press conference was almost painful to watch, with the Speaker fidgeting, shuffling her notes, practically wringing her hands and clearly contradicting not only her prior statements but her own statement of a few minutes earlier. The Washington Times article title declared, 'Lady's got ants in her pants.' More interestingly, the article took at look at the kind of defense Pelosi's increasingly desperate press conferences has raised from her own side of the aisle. All except her most partisan supporters seem to be more interested in a self-CYA than in fully backing their Speaker, even if they're not quite ready to throw her off the train. 'Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, attempted to defend the speaker with the argument that what someone said seven years ago must be measured against the temperature of the times in the wake of 9/11, when nearly everyone was terrified of a "second wave" of attacks. But Democrats have to be careful with this line of argument, lest they arouse speculation about just why there has been no "second wave."'

The liberal bastion SLATE Magazine, while expressing apparent admiration for Pelosi's toughness, seemed a little concerned over the tenor and mood of the latest press conference. 'Pelosi is on the attack because she's been on the defensive. Republicans charge that she's a hypocrite. She wants a truth commission to examine the role of Bush officials who authorized enhanced interrogation techniques (some of which amounted to torture), but she was in the loop when those techniques were first discussed and didn't cry foul. ... Pelosi said the CIA account was wrong and then went a step further. She said briefers in that meeting explicitly said water-boarding was not being used. We now know that at the time Abu Zubaydah had been water-boarded 83 times. Pelosi charged the agency with deliberately misleading Congress as part of the larger effort to mislead the nation in the run-up to the Iraq war. [As if that was relevant] ... At some point the president may be asked what his view of the Pelosi matter is. It's a tricky spot. He doesn't want to get in the middle of a he said/she said debate. If he defends Pelosi, he alienates the CIA. That relationship is already tender because Obama released Bush-era torture memos against the wishes of the CIA, whose agents participated in the torture. On the other hand, if Obama defends the CIA, he undermines his leader in the House and angers her liberal supporters.'

Laughing at the Speaker (something increasingly easy these days, alas, although she lends herself to a good soundtrack) is all well and good, but what is the real significance of her almost manic behavior? Does it really matter if she calls the CIA a bunch of liars, and spends yet more precious time ragging on the Bush Administration? Does it matter when she obviously flounders, 'parses' her answers, and blames her aides? Does it matter that the Administration has selectively released memos to make its own case, but refuses to declassify documents that may demonstrate the efficacy of the programs in question? In fact it does. Certainly it matters that the person third-in-line for the Presidency is showing herself up as a hypocrite and a liar. It matters that the day after Pelosi attacked the CIA and declared them to have lied to the Congress (a federal offense), she tried backtracking in response to Leon Panetta (no friend of the Bush Administration) shot back in defense of his agency. The New York Times thinks this is merely a rare stumble in Pelosi's stride. 'Mr. Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California and a longtime associate of Ms. Pelosi, issued a statement that said the agency’s “contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that C.I.A. officers briefed truthfully,” a rebuttal of Ms. Pelosi’s claim on Thursday that intelligence officials had lied to her.The deepening dispute over what Ms. Pelosi was told in September 2002 has challenged her credibility and raised new questions about whether she passed up an early opportunity to expose the Bush administration’s harsh treatment of detainees.'

But an even more significant argument remains, and once again, Charles Krauthammer has nailed the issue. He began his most recent part of this discussion by revisiting the argument that there are exceptions that would allow torture. 'That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you "do what you have to do." The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks.' Krauthammer then advanced his argument with specific regard to Pelosi. 'On the morality of waterboarding and other "torture," Pelosi and other senior and expert members of Congress represented their colleagues, and indeed the entire American people, in rendering the reasonable person verdict. What did they do? They gave tacit approval. In fact, according to Goss, they offered encouragement. Given the existing circumstances, they clearly deemed the interrogations warranted.Moreover, the circle of approval was wider than that. As Slate's Jacob Weisberg points out, those favoring harsh interrogation at the time included Alan Dershowitz, Mark Bowden and Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. In November 2001, Alter suggested we consider "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies" (i.e. those that torture). And, as Weisberg notes, these were just the liberals.'

The problem that Krauthammer raises with Pelosi's backpedalling is her attempt to bite the dog she earlier fed. If she had the courage of her convictions, she would have followed the lead of Rep. Jane Harman, and put her name to the protest letter, rather than later claiming 'but I concurred.' Instead, she now pretends that she wasn't willing to go along with whatever it took to ensure there was no further attack. It was the right decision at the time, and she should be willing to stand by it. Instead she's proving herself to be a coward, and in the process, Pelosi and her supporters are contributing to the demoralization and handicapping of the CIA. That won't be helpful in the future as we try to avert other attacks. Of course, that's the optimistic view. The more cynical view is that Pelosi is so incompetent, that she has no idea what she's being briefed on and what her role as Speaker is. Her pretense that she was really accusing the Bush Administration, not the CIA (who does she think developed the intelligence and briefed her on on it), doesn't make it clear which of these views is the more correct.

There's an even greater opportunity looming for the Democratic leadership to stumble over conflicting ethics and party demands; that of what to do with the Guantanamo detainees. Already, certain Congressional members are backing out as fast as their lips can move, as is made clear in the Wall Street Journal article entitled 'Democrats Discover Gitmo's Virtues.' '''We're not going to bring al Qaeda to Big Sky Country. No way, not on my watch," declared Montana Sen. Max Baucus. "I wouldn't want them and I wouldn't take them," insisted Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Not Quantico, piped up Virginia's Mark Warner. After all, it "is in a very populated area in the greater capital region." Look, "Alcatraz is a national park and a tourist attraction, not a functioning prison" for terrorists, said the office of California's Dianne Feinstein.' Hey I don't blame them, I don't want suspected terrorists in my backyard either. But it's foolish and hypocritical to yell and scream about the evils of GITMO, and then refuse to accept and deal with the consequences. 'This was not part of the Obama team's calculation. It figured it would get its bucks and make its calls. Releasing specific plans for where it intends to land these detainees will cause geographic uproars. But six weeks ago, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions sent the first of two letters to Mr. Holder demanding to know the administration's legal authority for transfers, given that the federal Real ID Act prohibits admission to the U.S. of any alien who has engaged in a terrorist activity. The ranking member of the Judiciary Committee has yet to receive a response.'

President Obama's response to the growing issue over what to do with the detainees seems to be a delaying action; he's reviving the military tribunal system for some of the detainees, much to he dismay of his more liberal supporters. The New York Times reported that the lack of a suitable detainment policy for the Guantanomo prisoners and the revival of the military tribunals (along with the expansion of the action in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is creating a rift within the Democratic party. From the Guardian: 'Defendants will be given the opportunity to pick their own lawyers and be provided with more protection if they do not testify. The decision to persist with the tribunals was immediately attacked by critics. "It's disappointing that Obama is seeking to revive rather than end this failed experiment," said Jonathan Hafetz, a national security lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's no detainee at Guantánamo who cannot be tried and shouldn't be tried in the regular federal courts system. "Human rights campaigners point out that during last year's presidential campaign Obama called the tribunal system "an enormous failure" and that he vowed to "reject the Military Commissions Act". But the president's aides say he never rejected the possibility of using military commissions altogether, if they could be made fairer.'

The problem with hypocrisy is that it always shows up in the worst way at the worst time. The Democrats are going to have to come to terms with that before they effectively govern.

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