What did Pelosi know, and how did the CIA tell her?

A short primer in the intelligence-briefing policies in Washington, by one who saw it from the inside
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barrack Obama: Democrats are in political trouble.

A short primer in the intelligence-briefing policies in Washington, by one who saw it from the inside

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.

Finally, concerning the President and the American people. The President and his principal foreign policy/national security advisers receive a daily briefing as the first order of business each morning. A written summary is distributed to a limited list, with backup information attached. Some Presidents, but not all, receive a personal briefing from the CIA director. Others depend on their national security advisers (in the Obama administration, General Jim Jones) to serve as middlemen. Either way, they get a fresh briefing each morning and updates during the day, if events dictate.

Is the information in the briefs trustworthy? Mainly, yes. As assistant to Vice President Humphrey during the Johnson administration, I read them daily and often followed up with questions to analysts who had prepared them. Even at the peak of controversy over Vietnam, I never had reason to believe that the briefs had been doctored to cater to Johnson's opinons or expectations. It was good, straight stuff and provided a solid information base to policymakers exposed to it.

The information provided by analysts never was to blame for bad policy; that responsibility lay with elected officials who drew wrong conclusions from it. I feel sure that was true in the recent Bush administration as well — with the exception of Tenet's famous lapse regarding weapons of mass destruction. (Information since has confirmed that Tenet did that on his own and in opposition to the opinion of informed CIA analysts). The White House, as always, should bear responsibility for decisions taken.

The current Pelosi flap is only one of several which has taken place over the years regarding intelligence-agency communications with the Executive and legislative branches. In this instance, did Pelosi screw up by denouncing policies of which she was aware and to which she did not object? Yes. I doubt that anyone lied to her. On the other hand, might her briefing have placed less emphasis on these policies than should have been the case? Maybe so.

Just one more illustration that eternal vigilance is necessary to keep the system honest.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.