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Roll Call

Pelosi Knocked Off Her Game

Speaker Under Fire on Torture

For Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it’s a new week of old questions: What did she know about harsh Bush administration interrogation techniques, and when did she know it?

Usually a master of message discipline, Pelosi has been thrown off balance by a mounting firestorm over whether she or her staff learned six years ago that intelligence officials were using extreme tactics such as waterboarding.

For weeks, the Speaker has insisted she didn’t, though a declassified report last week suggested otherwise.

And Republicans, sensing a rare opportunity, are moving to keep the heat on the discrepancy over competing versions of what precisely was disclosed at the classified briefings in question. The GOP is demanding the CIA release more documents showing exactly what Pelosi was told in 2002, as they continue a wider offensive targeting Democrats on security issues like the planned closure of the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detainee prison.

With a series of torture investigations already in the works, Attorney General Eric Holder set to appear Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee and the likelihood of either a series of Congressional hearings or a “truth commission,” the issue simply isn’t going away.

Pelosi’s camp is braced for the buzz saw awaiting the Speaker upon her return today from a surprise trip to Iraq. Their strategy: stick to their script and blast the GOP attacks as a politically motivated attempt to distract from abuses sanctioned by the Bush administration.

“While Republicans continue ignore the truth, we’re going to continue to move forward answering the questions and point out that their actions are nothing more than political posturing,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

The Pelosi firestorm has been pushed by Republican leaders reacting to a call by some liberals for criminal prosecutions of Bush officials over what they characterize as torture. Those calls come in the wake of President Barack Obama’s release of memos arguing that waterboarding, “walling,” sleep deprivation and other harsh techniques were legal.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) on Monday called on Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta to declassify and release memos that accompanied the briefings for Members of Congress.

“The American people should be given the full picture on what was known and agreed to on Capitol Hill on a bipartisan basis about the enhanced interrogation program,” Hoekstra said. “I think the administration should review the CIA notes and records from the briefings and, consistent with national security, make them available to the public.”

Hoekstra sent his request after he reviewed the records personally at CIA headquarters Thursday. He insisted the disclosure isn't just about Pelosi.

“This effort is not about one person, but what lawmakers in this institution, in both parties, were aware of and supported at the time,” Hoekstra said. “Releasing these records will help clear the air. Accountability for enhanced interrogation doesn’t begin with lawyers who offered opinions or interrogators in the field, it begins right here in the halls of Congress.”

It is not yet clear whether Pelosi will endorse Hoekstra’s request.

At the center of the dispute is a pair of briefings in which the CIA said Pelosi and Michael Sheehy, then a top aide, were briefed on “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the agency was applying to detainees. In September 2002, Pelosi, then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was briefed along with then-Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) that suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah had been subjected to the tactics and told of the “particular EITs that had been employed,” according to a report the agency released Thursday. That document said Sheehy attended a briefing in February 2003 that also discussed the techniques — specifically waterboarding, according to the Washington Post.

Pelosi responded Friday, stating again that the September 2002 meeting was her only briefing on the practices and that intelligence officials never disclosed they were actually using the tactics, only that they had the legal clearance to do so. And she pointed to a letter that Panetta attached to the declassified report suggesting it “may not be accurate.”

Pelosi appears to have earned some breathing room on the matter from human rights groups by calling publicly for an independent commission to investigate the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees — a push that could include an examination of the Congressional role in signing off on the programs.

But those advocates nevertheless want answers from Pelosi.

“It’s unclear what the Speaker knew and when she knew it,” said Geneve Mantri, the government relations director for terrorism and counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International. “But it only goes to focus the call that Amnesty International is making that we need a bipartisan commission of inquiry to look at all these issues.”

Wherever the facts lie, some senior House Democratic aides are worrying about the political fallout of an extended she-said, they-said showdown between the Speaker and the CIA. “It’s awkward the way it’s coming out in dribs and drabs, but she’s staked out turf” that she now has to defend, one aide said.

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