Sunday TV interview shows escalated the current debate in the capital about what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew, and when she knew it, about waterboarding and other prisoner-interrogation techniques post 9/11. Reading between the lines, it seems clear her staff had been briefed several years ago by the CIA; that her staff then briefed her; and that, afterward, she claimed variously she had not been briefed and/or that the CIA had lied to her about the matter.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, has defended his agency avidly and, in doing so, has challenged Pelosi's credibility. She is in a no-win box and would be best served to just plain stop talking about the matter until media and political pressure have subsided. In the end, she will be embarrassed but almost certainly not censured (as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed).
Several things should be said about the agencies and institutions involved. Pardon first-person references, as they are the easiest way to tell the story.
First, the intelligence agencies. I served for a time as an Army intelligence-analyst at the Pentagon in the Kennedy administration and, then, was a consumer of intelligence in my jobs in the Johnson and Carter administrations. The CIA traditionally has had the best and most reliable analysis in the U.S. government. That analysis, over the years, has sometimes been at odds with conventional policy wisdom in the Executive and legislative branches. This certainly was so during the Vietnam War era, when both in Washington, D.C. and Saigon analysts painted a picture of events far less rosy than that dispensed by the Defense Department and even the State Department.
Leading up to the Iraq intervention, CIA analysts also were far more skeptical than the intervention's principal sponsors, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. CIA Director George Tenet compromised the agency, however, by providing the famous "slam dunk" conclusion that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq — thus justifying the venture. Tenet's lapse should be seen as that of an ambitious bureaucrat cozying up to the White House. A mistake — and an exception.
The CIA, however, has been less than pure in its operational and counterintelligence functions. CIA executives traditionally have sloughed off its questionable activities with cowboys-will-be-cowboys justifications. Borderline activities, it is quickly explained, often are undertaken by "contract employees" rather than regular CIA staff officers.
For a time, during the Vietnam War period, the CIA also involved itself illegally in domestic activity. I had my own brushes with the agency as they attempted my surveillance in the 1970s, while I was active in the anti-war movement, and earlier in the LBJ years when I attempted to free the National Student Association from CIA control. I find the agency's denials of free-wheeling interrogation techniques and operations in third countries unconvincing, no matter what the supporting memos of the time might say. I suspect them to be paper trails purposely laid so as to provide "plausible deniability" if activities are later questioned. Do I have confidence that interrogation existed only within strict limits? Not at all.
Next, as to the Congress. The Congress is us, sometimes imperfectly representing the outlooks and wishes of the American people at any given time. Defense Department, State Department, and intelligence-agency officials tend to take a dismissive view of a majority of Senators and House members.
A handful of senior Intelligence, Defense, and Foreign Relations-related legislators are treated with deference and respect. But others, including at any given time, lower-ranking legislators as well as purely "political" leaders — Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid would fall, for instance, into this category — are often patronized or not trusted with the most sensitive information. Their obligatory briefings may or may not be as full as those provided to leaders of relevant Congressional committees. The briefings, however, be they full or limited, come from the analysis side of the intelligence agencies and are trustworthy.
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