Friday, May 15, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her eyes wide, her hands gesticulating wildly, on Thursday laid out a third version of what she knew and when she knew it about the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, edging ever closer to debating what the meaning of the word “is” is.

With even her own second-in-command now demanding more answers, the California Democrat, her voice barely audible at times, read a rambling statement at her weekly press briefing about her prior knowledge of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) employed under President Bush, insisting that she was not told in a September 2002 briefing that the U.S. government used waterboarding.

Minutes later, though, she acknowledged for the first time that her top security adviser had learned details of a February 2003 briefing in which lawmakers were told that American interrogators were in fact waterboarding suspected terrorists.

“My statement is clear, and let me read it again. Let me read it again. I’m sorry. I have to find the page,” said a flustered Mrs. Pelosi, shuffling through papers, her hands quivering a bit, as she sought to stick to her prepared text.

“When — when — when my staff person — I’m sorry, the page is out of order — five months later, my staff person told me that there had been a briefing — informing that there had been a briefing and that a letter had been sent. I was not briefed on what was in that briefing; I was just informed that the briefing had taken place,” she said.

The speaker’s weekly press conference drew a standing-room-only crowd of reporters tracking the steady drip, drip, drip of revelations that have come out over the past several weeks. Dressed in a key-lime green pantsuit and smiling broadly, Mr. Pelosi charged that the CIA lied to Congress and that House Republicans are using her as “a diversionary tactic” to deflect criticism from Mr. Bush.

Aside from not being briefed on what was in that briefing, she said she was very busy at the time — “I was fighting the war in Iraq at that point, too, you know” — and battling a Bush administration that was “misleading the American people about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

Repeatedly clearing her throat, she explained that she was briefed by the CIA in 2002, while on the House intelligence committee. Agency records indicate the Sept. 4 briefing included “a description of the particular EITs that had been employed” on al Qaeda detainee Abu Zubaydah, then the only suspected terrorist in U.S. custody. The previous month, he had been waterboarded a form of simulated drowning President Obama has declared is torture 82 times.


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But the speaker said Thursday that “the only mention of waterboarding was that the briefing in the briefing was that it was not being employed.”

“Five months later, in February 2003,” she said, “a member of my staff informed me that the Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member of the intelligence committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions.”

But she later took issue with her own words.

In a press conference last month, the speaker said she never knew about waterboarding. “Why did you tell us at the press conference —” one reporter said Thursday before being cut off by an agitated Mrs. Pelosi.

“Well, I told you what our briefing was. And our briefing was… We were told — in the briefing that I received, we were told that they had legal opinions that this was legal. We were not told that it was. … And we were told specifically that waterboarding was not being used.

“Then we find out just slightly more subsequent to that that, perhaps, they were using waterboarding long before they tell us.”

The reporter continued, “Now we know that, later, in February, you were told. It wasn’t in that briefing, but you were told.”

“By the time we were told,” Mrs. Pelosi said, “we are finding out that it’s been used before. … The point is that I wasn’t briefed. I was told — informed that someone else had been briefed about it. … Subsequently, the other members of the committee were informed.”

Another reporter asked whether she should have done more once she did know whenever that was.

“No, no, no, no, no,” she said. “It does not make me complicit, no.”

After the fourth question, Mrs. Pelosi’s spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, called out, “Last question!”

“Madam Speaker, on health care —” the reporter began, before laughter and boos drowned him out.

“Did you get booed? Did I hear you get booed?” Mrs. Pelosi said.

The speaker sought to make a hasty exit, but stopped halfway out, taking a last question, then, after speaking for 30 seconds, returned to the lectern. She looked confused as reporters continued to shout questions. ?Why didn’t you protest?? demanded one reporter as Mrs. Pelosi stood beside the lectern, then walked quickly to the door.

Mr. Elshami, his boss safely out of the room, looked back at the press corps and said, “Man, you guys are torture!”

A few minutes later, reporters still hanging about her door, the speaker came out, heading to the House floor. “Don’t you have anything else to do?” she said, still looking surprised. The throng mobbed her, moving like a scrum to the “Members Only” entrance, where she finally escaped, leaving the press corps still shouting questions.

Joseph Curl can be reached at

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