- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In disparaging the CIA and accusing the agency of lying last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has become a “wrecking ball” to the morale of officers risking their lives in the field, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee said Tuesday.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, also told The Washington Times he thinks that President Obama will not be able to keep his promise to close the detention facility for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, saying the president has come to realize that other countries won’t take the detainees and that the detainees are too dangerous to house in the U.S.

Mr. Hoekstra’s comments came as Senate Democrats broke with Mr. Obama over funds to close the detention camp, refusing to bankroll the project until the White House presents a plan for relocating hundreds of terrorism suspects imprisoned there.

In an interview with editors and reporters, Mr. Hoekstra said Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, hasn’t done anything illegal that would disqualify her from being speaker, but said Democrats will have to decide whether she is the right person to lead them. Still, he said, from his standpoint, she has endangered the country.

“She has single-handedly become a wrecking ball, a wrecking crew through the morale of the intelligence community,” he said. “These are people that have been on the front lines. They have seen their friends die, and they have taken risks to keep America safe, and this speaker has now said you may be prosecuted.”

The congressman, who is retiring at the end of this term and is running for governor of Michigan, also had critical words for his party, saying Republicans aren’t ready to take bold stands, and it is costing them politically among voters eager for reform.

“In ‘93 and ‘94, we took the bold steps to be able to capture that, and people saw us as part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he said. “Right now, that opportunity exists, but I’m not sure we’re willing to take bold enough stands that people see us being the agent of change they’re looking for.”

He said the government should stop siphoning transportation money to Washington to dole out to bad projects like the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” or to the “turtle fence” in his district that keeps the reptiles from being squashed by cars on a road. He also said people are “as mad as they can get” over the state of public education, and said Republicans should abandon the “sellout of core Republican values” embodied by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which created a larger federal role in education.

As for Mr. Obama, Mr. Hoekstra said the president has gotten a wake-up call since taking office on issues such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay or creating military commissions to hold trials for some detainees.

“What he found out was, when he became president and had the responsibility, it’s like, ‘Wow - you mean if I go and schmooze with the Europeans, they won’t take 20 [detainees]? If I have a nice dinner with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, he won’t take 20 of the guys from Gitmo?”

He said given the information that Mr. Obama has now learned about the dangers posed by detainees, “I think January 23 of 2010, I expect Gitmo will still be open.”

Mr. Hoekstra, in his ninth term, has been the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since 2004.

In recent weeks, that’s put him in the center of the controversy over interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects, and he has become a chief critic of Mrs. Pelosi, who he said has demoralized CIA officers.

“They’re frustrated, disappointed, and they are angry.”

Mrs. Pelosi has faced criticism for having known about the use of harsh techniques but failing to take action to stop them - only to later blast the Bush administration for approving them.

Mrs. Pelosi has disputed what she actually knew, and said she had few options to object.

The controversy is taking a toll on Mrs. Pelosi’s approval ratings. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll showed her at 39 percent approval, down 12 percentage points since January.

Asked about Mr. Hoekstra’s comments on Mrs. Pelosi’s leadership, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said Congress has accomplished much with Mrs. Pelosi at the helm this year.

“This is the most productive Congress in 70 years, and this week alone, we are producing major consumer-protection legislation on credit cards and housing and on track to report a climate-change bill. We are working to create jobs, while others are working to create a smoke screen on their failed policies of the past and rejected by the American people.”

As for the CIA’s morale, Mr. Elshami referred back to Mrs. Pelosi’s statement Friday in which she said she didn’t intend to blame the agency as a whole, but rather the Bush administration that ran the agency.

“We all share great respect for the dedicated men and women of the intelligence community who are deeply committed to the safety and security of the American people. My criticism of the manner in which the Bush administration did not appropriately inform Congress is separate from my respect for those in the intelligence community who work to keep our country safe,” she said.

Even though he now finds himself defending the CIA, Mr. Hoekstra has been a harsh critic in the past, even accusing the agency of withholding information and participating in a cover-up.

In 2006, he wrote a letter accusing the Bush administration of withholding information about some intelligence activities: “The U.S. Congress simply should not have to play ‘Twenty Questions’ to get the information that it deserves under our Constitution,” he wrote.

And after an investigation showed the CIA withheld information from Congress about the downing of a missionary’s plane in Peru in 2001, Mr. Hoekstra accused “rogue” agency employees of misleading Congress.

Mr. Hoekstra has called for the Obama administration to declassify and release the records from those meetings, but said e-mails leading up to those briefings should also be made public. He said that would make clear whether the CIA intended to withhold information or intended to fully brief the leaders.

Mr. Hoekstra said he can’t be sure Mrs. Pelosi was told specifically about waterboarding in 2002, but he said enhanced interrogation techniques were usually talked about as a unit.

He also said it’s impossible to forget being briefed about harsh techniques. He said his first briefing on the subject was in the White House Situation Room, and the briefers actually demonstrated techniques such as a facial grasp.

Mr. Hoekstra said Mrs. Pelosi as leader could easily have gotten more information about the use of waterboarding in 2003, and he ridiculed her claim there was nothing she could do to protest the techniques other than to win Congress back for Democrats.

“She said we are going to do this terrible thing, and we are going to damage our reputation around the world, totally inconsistent with American values, and I’m not going to do anything except go back to my office and figure out how I can become speaker of the House. I mean, that’s her words, not mine,” he said.

He also disputed characterizations of Rep. Jane Harman’s letter in 2003 to the CIA about the briefings in which she asked for the legal underpinnings. Mr. Hoekstra said that wasn’t an objection to the program, it was just a request for more information.

“I could have signed that letter,” he said. “It was not ‘stop it.’ ”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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