Pelosi traps Obama in CIA feud

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   May 15, 2009 at 12:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has dug herself into a deep pit in her escalating row with the CIA -- and she is dragging a reluctant President Barack Obama into the hole with her.

Pelosi, D-Calif., has accused the CIA of "misleading" the U.S. Congress regarding what she was told, and when, about interrogation techniques and, in particular, waterboarding.

On Thursday, Pelosi said that in 2003 she was told by an aide that the CIA had informed other members of Congress that waterboarding had been used. But she said the CIA is wrong when it says she was told of the use of waterboarding in a 2002 briefing.

Media members at the session asked directly -- and often -- if Pelosi now claims the CIA lied. She said, "Yes, misleading the Congress of the United States."

Such an act would clearly be illegal, and Pelosi's accusation, as well as obviously being very serious, raises other important questions: If she is correct, why would the CIA do it, particularly in very limited congressional sessions? What would the CIA gain? Why would Pelosi make such an accusation?

Pelosi has been a consistent protester of Bush administration use of harsh interrogation techniques, but Republicans claim since she didn't complain about it when she first learned of it, and that therefore, for years she tacitly but very clearly approved of the policy.

Pelosi said that, rather than protest the policy, since she wasn't going to change any Bush White House minds with a letter, she went out to change the government and work to have Democrats elected to Congress and the White House. Eventually, that policy proved successful.

But Pelosi's new accusations, even if they work for her tactically in the short term, could prove to be a long-term strategic nightmare for Obama and his still inexperienced administration.

Obama has moved clearly and forcefully to end the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques that could be construed as torture. But the president has also made clear he does not want to launch any witch hunt or purge of CIA personnel who carried out the waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques under orders from their political superiors. He visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., specifically to show agency officials he respects them and is supportive of their work to protect the national security of the United States.

If Pelosi does not back down on her latest accusations, however, pressure will grow for a full-scale "truth commission" to probe what she and other members of Congress knew about waterboarding and torture and when they knew it.

Inevitably, once the precedent for such a no-holds-barred investigation is set, it won't end there. Congressional and independent investigators would be exposing the inner workings of the CIA and the rest of the U.S. national security establishment to the world. That could prove extremely dangerous to maintaining the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence in defending the nation against future terrorist attacks. And if any of them happened during Obama's time as president, he would be widely reviled as being responsible for them.

A truth commission could lead to criminal prosecutions against former members of the Bush administration. That would polarize the American people and the U.S. political process to a dangerous degree. And it would also establish the precedent for some future angry, nationalist conservative administration to conduct similar prosecutions against Obama or some of his senior officials. It is clear that the president realizes this and does not want to go there.

Launching a truth commission is also at odds with the president's carefully calibrated centrist policy of restoring the rule of law to U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism operations without alienating or demoralizing the services and personnel who must continue to carry out such activities.

Another sign of the president's moderation and pragmatism in this area is his anticipated decision to allow military tribunals to handle cases of some of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while permitting them more legal rights than before.

This move is further proof of how complicated and difficult the national-security issues that were addressed by operating the Guantanamo Bay facility remain.

During his yearlong presidential clamoring, Sen. Obama as a candidate was a strong critic of the tribunals when the Bush administration was operating them. But now he finds himself maintaining them.

The president is expected to ask for a four-month delay so that additional legal rights, such as a ban on coerced evidence, can be implemented.

Amid all the criticism being thrown against Obama on the torture probe and military commission issues, it remains clear that he is trying in good faith to navigate a careful middle ground in his policies.

But Pelosi's latest accusations have torpedoed that strategy. As also happened on the $787 billion stimulus spending package, the president and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, have failed to rein in the headstrong House speaker, and she is making a mockery of their plans.

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