Nancy Pelosi now says she never knew of the harsh interrogation techniques in any detail. Her comment brings to mind the question famously asked in 1973 by then Senator Howard Baker, at the Watergate Hearings, in his capacity as Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Watergate Committee: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" When the White House tapes were disclosed, and revealed that President Nixon knew more about his administration's cover-up of the Watergate campaign scandal, his fate was sealed; Nixon resigned within days, as his support in Congress collapsed.
Peggy Noonan writes of torture hearings and the damage they surely would cause, in a riveting column:
Why have reservations, then, about release of the memos and the investigations that will no doubt follow?
For these reasons. Prisoner abuse has been banned. Mr. Obama himself, as he notes in the quote above, banned it. It's over. The press, with great difficulty, and if arguably belatedly, did and is doing its job: It uncovered and revealed the abuse. The historians are descending, as they should. Hearings, commissions or prosecutors would suck all the oxygen out of the room and come to obsess the capital, taking focus off two actual, immediate and pressing emergencies, the economy and the age of terror. Hearings, especially, would likely tear up the country as we descended into opposing camps. They would damage or burden America's intelligence services, and likely result in the abuse of those who acted from high motives, having been advised their actions were legal. As for the memo writers, some of whose constitutional theories were apparently tilted to the extreme in favor of the executive, it is hard to see how it would help future administrations, or this one, to have such advice, however incorrectly formulated, criminalized.
Finally, hearings would not take place only in America. They would take place in the world, in this world, the one with extremists and terrible weapons. It is hard to believe hearings, with grandstanding senators playing to the crowd, would not descend into an auto-da-fé, a public burning of sinners, with charges, countercharges, leaks and graphic testimony. This would be a self-immolating exercise that would both excite and inform America's foes. And possibly inspire them.
Meanwhile, a resurgent Taliban is moving toward Islamabad and, possibly, the Pakistani nuclear arsenal; Israel and Iran are at loggerheads; and Iraq and Afghanistan continue as live and difficult wars. And that's just one small part of the world.
What a time to open a new front, and have a new fight, and not about what is but what was.
Nancy has been quoted by several GOP Members in the room when she was briefed, asking if the detainees were being pushed hard enough for information. This was shortly after 9/11, when Nancy feared she and the Golden Gate Bridge would be blown into the Pacific by al-Qaeda. Nancy now feels safe, and has for years, and wants to extract (well, torture--slowly and with maximum pain) the maximum possible political damage for the GOP out of this mess. If there is a Truth Commission on Torture, or what ever it will be called if created, I join those who call for Nancy to be sworn in as first witness. And I dream that a tape will be discovered, with Nancy's voice on it, calling for tougher pressure on detainees.
Wesley Pruden writes of Nancy:
Perhaps the president imagines that nobody cares much about what happens to lawyers, but he has set in motion something neither he nor anyone else can control. Some of the Democrats in Congress, eager now to join the mob, will regret what they cry for. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for one, was a member of the House intelligence committee and sat in on super-secret briefings after Sept. 11. She concedes that she heard about waterboarding but she doesn't remember exactly what she heard. Just like Barack Obama sleeping through 20 years of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's rabid sermons, Ms. Pelosi dozed through the briefings. Her colleagues on the intelligence panel say they remember her demanding that the CIA do more to get the "intelligence" to prevent another attack.
Republicans in the Senate, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are finally finding their voices. So is Joe Lieberman, a courageous Democrat. If we're going to have hangings, Ms. Pelosi may be at risk of becoming our most famous female hangee since Mary Surratt paid her debt at the end of a rope for hanging out with John Wilkes Booth.
This probably will not happen. But back in 1973 no one dreamed that the President of the United States would (a) tape his private meetings and (b) not burn the tapes. The rest was, as they say, history. Here the history is still to come.