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The Speaker Speaks

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, May 15, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now claiming that intelligence officials misled her about the use of waterboarding when she was briefed in 2002. Previously, it was reported that she, as the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee at the time, had been told about waterboarding as an interrogation technique and had raised no objections to it -- a claim that obviously called into question the speaker's support for a "truth commission" to find out who (else) took that position.

"We were told that they had legal opinions that it was legal and were not told about other legal opinions to the contrary," Pelosi told reporters this week, describing the briefing. "We were told specifically that waterboarding was not being used." Pelosi claimed that she learned about CIA waterboarding later from other members of Congress. "I wasn't briefed. I was informed that somebody else had been briefed about it," she said.

I'm not sure I would have asked to see the opposing legal opinions if I'd been told about waterboarding in 2002, and I teach this stuff. Like most Americans, I was still sufficiently shell-shocked and terrified in 2002 that if you caught me on a day I had to fly, I probably would have nodded encouragingly upon hearing of enhanced interrogation, and encouraged whoever was telling me about it to let the frontline folks do whatever they needed to do to protect our children.

And I'm not embarrassed to admit it, even though, seven years later, I think President Obama rightly banned torture.

For an intelligence official to mislead a senior -- or any -- member of Congress in a briefing on critical issues of national security is a very serious charge. If substantiated, I expect it would and should be grounds for dismissal of that individual, as well as any others who heard what was said or knew what was done and remained silent.

It seems to me that the charges Pelosi has now leveled against the CIA are far more serious than those aimed at Pelosi herself. In choosing this route to defend herself, Pelosi has also dramatically increased her own vulnerability.

Most people could forgive Pelosi for feeling as so many of us did in 2002. We were a terrified nation. Who was ready to say stop when doing so might bring down another airplane or building? Reasonable people can and do disagree as to what counts as "torture" and when coercion becomes unproductive, as well as unjustifiable. Claims that waterboarding, in fact, produced useful information need to be examined to determine whether that information could also have been secured by other means.

But there's nothing to agree or disagree about when it comes to intelligence officials misleading Congress. Pelosi didn't say she might've misunderstood. She isn't saying things have changed. As I understand it, she is claiming that intelligence officials lied to her. That needs to be investigated. If Pelosi was misled, those responsible should step aside. If she wasn't -- if she is pointing at others to avoid taking responsibility for herself -- then she will face loud calls to do so herself.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports .

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