A rather important story broke over the weekend, but it was generally overwhelmed by reports of megachurch shootings in Colorado and Oprah sightings in the heartland. By the time Monday arrived, most Americans had probably even paid greater attention to the news that, according to CNN, "Naked Men Shop for Skittles". I have no idea what this latter headline means, though I assume it denotes one of those amusing human interest tales intended to lighten our holiday spirits.
By contrast, there was nothing at all funny about the weekend's most significant story. It seems that the Central Intelligence Agency provided a briefing on interrogation techniques to several members of Congress back in 2002. Among those in attendance were three Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House of Representatives. According to witnesses on the scene, the subject of waterboarding was explicitly raised, and the technique described in gruesome detail. Nobody objected. Indeed, "at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder", though the story did not reveal the identity or partisan affiliation of this sadistic duo.
Not surprisingly, the blogosphere has seized on this issue with its characteristic thoughtfulness. Right-wingers are, of course, delighted. Google the combination of "Pelosi knew" and "waterboarding" and you will be rewarded with over 700 hits, many of which gloat, though not in so many words, that the docket at the next war crimes trial will at least now be bipartisan. Poor Nancy can't catch a break: when she objects to torture, she's a weak-willed San Francisco liberal; when she acquiesces to it, she becomes, in the words of one spelling bee also-ran, another in a long line of "lying, hypocrat Democrats".
Certainly, things don’t look particularly good for the Speaker and her two colleagues, Californian Jane Harman and Lynndie England's home state senator, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. They have evidently been aware of these brutal interrogation methods for five long years and have maintained their silence throughout, even after braver souls blew the whistle on torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Did the three Democrats plan to take these secrets to the grave, or perhaps to barter them for healthy advances on future memoirs? Would they have still held their tongues had the CIA briefed them on, say, thumb screws or bamboo shoots under the fingernails? Maybe a little electroshock therapy on the particularly high value prisoners?
To be fair, we don’t know precisely what Pelosi and Company were told by their undercover hosts. Officials may well have downplayed the brutality of the techniques and emphasized the fact that none of them would cause permanent physical damage to the detainees. Those making the presentations likely assured the members of Congress that only the most dangerous terrorists were being subjected to enhanced interrogations (though it's not clear how that makes it all right). Further, we have no idea how to interpret the Democrats' reactions to the information they received. Sometimes silence signals consent; other times it merely indicates that the observer is still processing information and may be too overwhelmed to respond.
Still, the news is far from comforting. Even the most sheltered lawmakers must comprehend that simulated drowning is a form of torture. Television dramas routinely portray this sort of activity to convey thuggishness to their audience. The mobster jams the stool pigeon's head deep into the toilet bowl. The rogue cop does the same to the uncooperative perp. The fear of drowning terrorizes all of us at a very primal level.
None of the Democrats present at the briefing has yet provided much in the way of explanation. Speaker Pelosi is particularly reticent. For her part, Congresswoman Harman says the following on her official web site:
"In early 2003, in my capacity at Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, I received a highly classified briefing on CIA interrogation practices from the agency’s General Counsel. The briefing raised a number of serious concerns and led me to send a letter to the General Counsel. Both the briefing and my letter are classified so I cannot reveal specifics, but I did caution against destruction of any videotapes.
"Given the nature of the classification, I was not free to mention this subject publicly until Director Hayden disclosed it yesterday. To my knowledge, the Intelligence Committee was never informed that any videotapes had been destroyed. Surely I was not."
This is consistent with press reports that the members' "ability to challenge the practices was hampered by strict rules of secrecy that prohibited them from being able to take notes or consult legal experts or members of their own staffs".
And this may, indeed, be the most important issue of all, far more than Nancy Pelosi's moral courage or Jay Rockefeller's legal culpability. How did we get to the point where elected members of Congress are not even allowed to take notes at a briefing by unelected, largely unaccountable members of the defense and intelligence services? If we ask our elected officials to provide consent, at least implicitly, to actions taking place in our name, shouldn't they have access to the counsel of attorneys schooled in international law and the Geneva Conventions? Say what you wish about the three Democrats, but they were placed in an unfair predicament where they could, without reflection, either speak or forever hold their peace.
The cult of secrecy that characterizes military intelligence in the United States almost guarantees that abuses will occur. Obviously, confidentiality is important, even during optional wars perpetrated by discredited presidents. Troops remain in danger and terrorists threaten the innocent. The senators, representatives, staffers, and lawyers involved in discussions about these matters should all receive the appropriate security clearances (actually, the relevant members of Congress already do). But once those clearances are granted, notes should be shared, deliberations should occur, and policies should be fully vetted in the days and weeks following each briefing. And follow-up meetings should take place between the lawmakers, the CIA officials, and the administration. That is how intelligent policymaking works and that is what the Framers intended with their system of checks and balances.
It is easy to see how the cult of secrecy serves the intelligence services and the executive branch. It should be equally clear from the events of the past several years, however, that it serves the country very poorly. President Bush routinely argues that any crack in his carefully constructed wall of confidentiality will cause Americans to die. In the meantime, something just as precious—our national honor—is experiencing its own lingering and public death.