- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said she had no recourse to stop the use of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding after receiving a classified briefing from the CIA in 2002 - an explanation the top Republican on the House intelligence committee called “the lamest of lame excuses.”

As scrutiny over who knew what about the controversial tactics has turned back to Congress, Mrs. Pelosi sought to distance herself from revelations that she and other key Democrats were kept in the loop by the CIA between 2002 and 2006.

“But don’t leave anybody with the impression that some of the things that they were doing, that there was something that was tacitly or in any way received approval from us,” she said.

Mrs. Pelosi, who was briefed by the agency as the ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, suggested that the current system - in which sensitive information is shared chiefly with only the top members of the House and Senate intelligence committees - needs tweaking so that all members of the committees have the same information.

“They don’t come in to consult. They come in to notify,” she said. “You can’t change what they’re doing unless you can act as a committee or as a class.”

As for charges the lawmakers could have sought to cut off funding if they disapproved of the tactics, she noted that the Appropriations Committee ultimately has that authority.

But Rep. Peter Hoekstra, currently the ranking Republican on the House intelligence panel, described her comments as the “lamest of lame excuses,” saying she could have gone to then-Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt to discuss her concerns.

“The minority leader has the same type of clearances that she has,” said Mr. Hoekstra, of Michigan. “Guess what - so does the president.”

Within the past three years, Mr. Hoekstra said he “can think of at least specifically three or four cases” in which he raised concerns about an issue with Minority Leader John A. Boehner or former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. In a couple of instances, he was granted an audience with then President Bush.

“Last time I checked, the appropriators were part of the House of Representatives,” he said when asked about the intelligence panel’s influence over funding decisions.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, ranking member of the Senate intelligence panel, called Mrs. Pelosi’s comments “frightening.”

“The idea that a 10-year veteran of the intelligence committee would just rubber-stamp a program she thought was illegal or morally wrong is frightening, especially when the claim comes from a member who has never been afraid to challenge publicly the Bush administration,” said Mr. Bond, Missouri Republican. “As members of Congress we have the constitutional authority and responsibility to take serious our oversight role.”

The offices of current intelligence chiefs Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, declined to comment on the Pelosi remarks. Mrs. Pelosi also said some members would prefer not to get such briefings so they could raise public objections. She did not say how they would know about classified details without the briefings.

Several Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have called on President Obama to release more information regarding the interrogation techniques and the success of the program. Mr. Hoekstra has asked for an unclassified list of the dates, locations and names of all members of Congress who were briefed on the techniques.

Mrs. Pelosi is one of several prominent Democrats, including Mrs. Feinstein, who is open to the possible prosecution of Bush administration officials who signed off on the use of the techniques, which Mr. Obama has deemed torture. Mr. Obama, who previously said he was opposed to such prosecution, now said it is up to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday, Mr. Holder did not say - and was not pushed to answer by members of the House Appropriations Committee - whether he will seek to prosecute Bush administration officials involved in the authorization of interrogation techniques that critics have deemed torture.

“I will reiterate what I said last week, consistent with what the president has said as well,” Mr. Holder said. “Those intelligence community officials who acted reasonably and in good faith and relied on Department of Justice opinions are not going to be prosecuted.”

Speaking about the issue broadly, the attorney general said he would not “permit the criminalization of policy differences, however it is my responsibility as the attorney general to enforce the law.

“If I see evidence of wrongdoing I will pursue it to the full extent of the law, and I will do that in an appropriate way,” he said.

Earlier this week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a declassified memo detailing the timeline of its CIA briefings. According to the document and an intelligence source, the chief and ranking members of the committee were briefed by the agency more than 30 times on the techniques that some Democrats now want Bush administration officials to be investigated for authorizing.

Philip D. Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and former director of the 9/11 Commission, said that Mrs. Pelosi’s concerns “have some merit.”

“One of the problems in exercising oversight [over the intelligence committee] is that the power of the purse is mainly held in the Appropriations Committee,” he said. “That’s why the 9/11 Commission was calling for a merger of the authorizing and appropriations functions, and for the declassification of the top line of the intelligence budget.”

But, Mr. Zelikow added, “I don’t want to say she’s helpless in this situation.”

At the time Mrs. Pelosi was briefed, the intelligence panel was passing annual authorization bills to sign off on intelligence activities. More recently, appropriators have included authorizing language in their funding legislation for intelligence programs.

A congressional intelligence staffer noted that opponents of the CIA program could have “used the Speech and Debate clause to expose them; they could have insisted on other members being briefed; they could have cut CIA funds; they could have sought a change to the National Security Act to change the notification requirements; instead they did nothing.”

• Ben Conery contributed to this article.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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