- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009


Uh-oh. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s performance at her press conference re waterboarding has raised, according to The Washington Post, “troubling new questions about the speaker’s credibility,” The dreaded T-word: “troubling.”

I doubt it will “trouble” the media for long, or at least not to the extent of bringing the Pelosi speakership to a sudden end - and, needless to say, I’m all in favor of Mrs. Pelosi remaining the face of congressional Democrats until November 2010. But her inconsistent statements do suggest a useful way of looking at America’s tortured torture debate:

Question: What does former Vice President Dick Cheney think of waterboarding?

He’s in favor of it. He was in favor of it then; he’s in favor of it now. He doesn’t think it’s torture, and he supports having it on the books as a vital option. On his recent TV appearances, he has sometimes given the impression he would not be entirely averse to performing a demonstration on his interviewers, but generally he says its use should be a tad more circumscribed. He is entirely consistent.

Question: What does Mrs. Pelosi think of waterboarding?

No, I mean really. Away from the cameras, away from the Capitol, in the deepest recesses of her - if she’ll forgive my naivete - soul. Sitting on a mountaintop, contemplating the distant horizon, chewing thoughtfully on a cranberry-almond granola bar, what does she truly believe about waterboarding?

Does she support it? Well, according to the CIA, she did way back when, more than six years ago.

Does she oppose it? According to Mrs. Pelosi, yes. In her varying accounts, she has:

c Accused the CIA of consciously “misleading the Congress” as to what it was doing.

c Admitted to having been briefed that waterboarding was in the playbook but that “we were not - I repeat - were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.”

c Belatedly conceded she knew back in February 2003 that waterboarding was being used but had been apprised of the fact by “a member of my staff.”

As she said on Thursday, instead of doing anything about it, she decided to focus on getting more Democrats elected to the House.

It’s worth noting that, by most if not all of her multiple accounts, Mrs. Pelosi is as guilty of torture as anybody else. That’s not an airy rhetorical flourish, but a statement of law. As National Review’s Andy McCarthy points out, under Section 2340A(c) of the relevant statute, a person who conspires to torture is subject to the same penalties as the torturer.

Once Mrs. Pelosi was informed that waterboarding was part of the plan and actually was being used, she was in on the conspiracy and was as up to her neck in it as whoever actually was sticking it to poor old Abu Zubaydah and the other blameless lads.

That is, if you believe waterboarding is torture.

I don’t believe it’s torture. Nor does Mr. Cheney. But Mrs. Pelosi does. Or so she has said, latterly.

Alarmed by her erratic public performance, the speaker’s fellow San Francisco Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein attempted to put an end to Mrs. Pelosi’s self-torture session. “I don’t want to make an apology for anybody,” Mrs. Feinstein said, “but in 2002, it wasn’t 2006, ‘07, ‘08 or ‘09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks.”

Indeed. In effect, the senator is saying waterboarding was acceptable in 2002 but not by 2009. The waterboarding didn’t change, but the country did. The war was no longer America’s war, but George W. Bush’s war. And waterboarding was no longer a bipartisan interrogation technique with the explicit approval of both parties’ leaderships but a grubby Bush-Cheney-Donald H. Rumsfeld war crime.

Mrs. Feinstein has provided the least worst explanation for her colleague’s behavior. The alternative - that Mrs. Pelosi is a contemptible opportunist hack playing the cheapest but most destructive kind of politics with key elements of national security - is, of course, unthinkable. Mrs. Feinstein says airily that no reasonable person would hold dear Mrs. Pelosi to account for what she supported all those years ago. But it’s OK to hold Mr. Cheney or some no-name Justice Department backroom boy to account?

Well, sure. It’s the Miss USA standard of political integrity: Miss California USA Carrie Prejean and President Obama have the same publicly stated views on gay marriage. But the politically correct enforcers know Mr. Obama doesn’t mean it, so that’s OK, whereas Miss Prejean does mean it, so that’s a hate crime.

In the torture debate, Mrs. Pelosi is Mr. Obama and Mr. Cheney is Miss Prejean. Mr. Cheney means it, because to him, this is a national security issue. Mrs. Pelosi doesn’t, because to her, it’s about shifting political-viability breezes.

Still, it does make you wonder whether a superpower with this kind of leadership class should be going to war at all. Over at the New York Times, elderly schoolgirl Maureen Dowd riffed off Mr. Cheney’s defense of waterboarding and argued that no matter when the next terrorist attack comes, the former vice president would be the one primarily responsible. He is, she said, “a force multiplier for Muslims who hate America.”

Really? Last week, while Mrs. Pelosi was preoccupied with her what-did-I-know-and-when-did-I-know-that-I-knew-it routine, the Daily Telegraph in London reported what is believed to be the second mass poisoning of Afghan schoolgirls, this time at Ura Jalili Girls’ High School in Charikar. Fifty students had to be hospitalized after a mysterious “poison gas” infected the classrooms.

As you may recall, under the Taliban, it was illegal for girls to attend school, and Afghan insurgents have made a sustained effort to make the price of female education too high. So, in an effort to identify the poison, blood samples have been taken to Bagram Air Base to be analyzed by the U.S. military, taking time off its hectic schedule of mass torture.

Does waterboarding so outrage the Muslim world that it drives millions of young men into the dark embrace of al Qaeda? No. But the media fetishization of U.S. “torture” is certainly “a force multiplier” for Muslims who don’t so much hate as despise America, not least for its self-loathing.

One of the few U.S. commentators to pick up on the Afghan schoolgirls story was Phyllis Chesler, who wrote about it under the headline “The High Cost of Western Idealism.” America and its few real allies fight under the most constrained and self-imposed rules of engagement ever devised - and against an enemy that rejects every basic element of the Geneva Conventions.

Perhaps we are so rich, so smart, so advanced that we can fight with one arm and both legs tied behind our backs and still win - eventually. Along the way, many innocents will suffer. But better that than that a Guantanamo detainee with a fear of insects should have a caterpillar put in his cell.

Watching the Democrats champing at the bit last week, I thought perhaps we could cut to the chase and handcuff Mr. Cheney and Mrs. Pelosi to a radiator in the basement of a CIA safe house somewhere.

But on reflection, this would be an unacceptable level of torture. It would be ungallant to say for whom.

— Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller “America Alone.”

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