- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Democrats brushed aside questions about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but as hearings begin Wednesday it was clear that questions about who knew and approved of enhanced interrogation techniques have expanded beyond the Bush administration to include Mrs. Pelosi and others in Congress.

The No. 2 House Democrat on Tuesday said revelations that Mrs. Pelosi knew about waterboarding terrorism suspects as early as 2003 - contrary to several previous statements - have not undermined the California Democrat’s credibility within the caucus.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, insisted Mrs. Pelosi’s evolving story has not caused her to lose support of fellow Democrats. “I think the Republicans are simply trying to distract the American public with who knew what, when.”

A Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report released last week that described congressional briefings about enhanced interrogation techniques showed Mrs. Pelosi was briefed in September 2002 about so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, which included waterboarding.

Waterboarding, a tactic that simulates drowning and denounced by President Obama as torture, has become a centerpiece for criticizing the purported excesses of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

Mrs. Pelosi, who recently said she was never told that waterboarding would be used on terrorism suspects, responded by questioning the accuracy of the intelligence memo.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn echoed Mr. Hoyer.

“These political attacks on the speaker come from a party in disarray,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “Republicans are simply distracting from the substance of the debate.”

But rank-and-file Democrats remained mostly mum.

Questions about Mrs. Pelosi’s predicament that The Washington Times posed in phone calls and e-mails to nearly two dozen House Democrats - members ranging from staunch antiwar lawmakers to the party’s hawks - yielded few responses aside from “no comment.”

“I don’t think people are running away from this issue,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said. “This almost incessant focus on what the speaker knew is a distraction.”

Scrutiny has increasingly honed in on Mrs. Pelosi as Democrats prepared to start investigating who in the Bush administration signed off on harsh methods used by the CIA to extract information from detainees in the war on terrorism.

Republicans, who have struggled to gain momentum since Democrats assumed complete control of Washington in January, eagerly latched on to the issue.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, requested Monday that the CIA declassify and publicly release records fully detailing congressional briefings on interrogation techniques.

“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,” Mr. Hoekstra said.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Wednesday will feature testimony from the former head of the 9/11 commission and several law professors on the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, which signed off on harsh interrogation techniques. Mr. Obama’s April release of the OLC memos sparked a political firestorm.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is one of several high-ranking Republicans who recently said any probe of interrogation tactics should include not only former administration officials, but also members of Congress who were briefed by the CIA on the program.

Of the several lawmakers who were briefed, Mrs. Pelosi is the highest-ranking. She has also received a great deal of attention for being an outspoken critic of Bush anti-terrorism policies, and for conflicting accounts of her September 2002 briefing.

Her initial claim that she was never told that the U.S. was going to waterboard terrorism suspects was contradicted by a CIA timeline leaked last week. While she raised questions about the CIA document, she did not directly dispute its account of her being informed about the use of harsh tactics on a suspect named Abu Zubaydah.

On Tuesday, the Politico reported that an aide of Mrs. Pelosi’s was briefed in 2003 that the CIA had waterboarded Zubaydah.

Mr. Hoyer, a one-time Pelosi rival who would be next in line for speaker if she were to step down, described questions over what she knew and when she knew it as “a distraction” from the bigger story of “what was done.”

“I don’t know a lot of people, including former members of the administration, who don’t believe what was done is not properly identified as torture,” he said.

The Maryland Democrat also echoed an explanation given by Mrs. Pelosi that she was unable to object during her one briefing by the CIA in 2002 because “she was bound by the requirements of secrecy.”

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