Yesterday's Washington Post article on Congress' long knowledge of CIA "enhanced" interrogation techniques certainly casts the current "torture tape" controversy in a completely different light. And, if we're reading the tea leaves correctly, look for that so-called "scandal" to die a quick (and deserved) death.
According to the paper, members of Congress received more than 30 briefings on CIA detention facilities and interrogation methods, beginning in the fall of 2002. Post staff writers Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen based their story on interviews with "multiple officials" who had first-hand knowledge of the briefing program. As they report:
In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter. The lawmakers who held oversight roles during the period included Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), as well as Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan).
Individual lawmakers' recollections of the early briefings varied dramatically, but officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support. "Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing," said Goss, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 1997 to 2004 and then served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006. "And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement."
The initial briefing was followed by 29 additional presentations over the next five years, an average of one every two months. According to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the program, the briefings outlined the interrogations methods being used, along with the information collected.
Sources tell the Post that Congressional participation in the briefings was usually limited to the "Gang of Four," the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. In some cases, a few staff members were also allowed to attend.
And, despite the frequent updates, Congressional recollections of those briefs has grown rather fuzzy:
Graham said he has no memory of ever being told about waterboarding or other harsh tactics. Graham left the Senate intelligence committee in January 2003, and was replaced by Rockefeller. "Personally, I was unaware of it, so I couldn't object," Graham said in an interview. He said he now believes the techniques constituted torture and were illegal.
Pelosi declined to comment directly on her reaction to the classified briefings. But a congressional source familiar with Pelosi's position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage -- they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice -- and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.
Harman, who replaced Pelosi as the committee's top Democrat in January 2003, disclosed Friday that she filed a classified letter to the CIA in February of that year as an official protest about the interrogation program. Harman said she had been prevented from publicly discussing the letter or the CIA's program because of strict rules of secrecy.
Roberts declined to comment on his participation in the briefings. Rockefeller also declined to talk about the briefings, but the West Virginia Democrat's public statements show him leading the push in 2005 for expanded congressional oversight and an investigation of CIA interrogation practices. "I proposed without success, both in committee and on the Senate floor, that the committee undertake an investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation activities," Rockefeller said in a statement Friday.
In a meager attempt to support their argument, Congressional sources complained about the program's "secrecy" requirements, their inability to take notes during the briefings, or consult with legal advisers on matters presented by the CIA.
Phul-eeze. Those complaints are the Congressional equivalent of the "dog ate my homework." Congressmen and Senators know the "secrecy" rules when they sign on as a member of the intelligence committees. Ditto for note-taking; besides, after more than two dozen briefings over the course of five years, you'd think their recollections would be better (and they actually are).
Truth be told, Congress has just learned a hard lesson about the intel bureaucracy. The same establishment which has been fighting with the Bush Administration is more than capable of taking on the House and Senate leaders, past and present. When Congress began talking about an "independent counsel" to investigate destroyed interrogation tapes, the CIA trotted out some inconvenient facts and effectively, put the lawmakers in their place.
As we've now learned, key members of Congress knew about "water-boarding" long before the term entered the public lexicon, and they received routine updates on the interrogation program for five years. That's why it made eminent sense to destroy the interrogation tapes. Congress had already been briefed on the subject, to include the names of those interrogated and what they revealed. And apparently, virtually no House or Senate leader voiced objections to the program--until it became politically expedient.
There's a word for that kind of breath-taking flip-flop, that occurs with regularity inside The Beltway. It's called hypocrisy, and its foremost practitioners are members of the U.S. Congress.
In our view, the CIA deserves credit for doing the sensible thing and destroying the tapes. Left on the shelf, those videos would have inevitably leaked, potentially exposing agency personnel who conducted the interrogations. Many of those CIA employees are covert operators, the same status to which Valerie Plame aspired. However, unlike Ms. Plame, the CIA staffers in the videos didn't blow their cover through an entry in Who's Who, or through a feckless spouse who readily traded his wife's status for political and personal gain.
The staffers who interrogated Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other Al Qaida prisoners deserve to have their identities protected. Entrusting that responsibility to a hyper-partisan Congress--over the course of a drawn-out "investigation" and accompanying leaks--is nothing more than a fool's errand.
It's rather ironic (yet completely appropriate) that Congress would be more concerned about the long-blown cover of Ms. Plame, rather than protecting the identities of genuine, front-line covert operatives. Call it another exercise in legislative hypocrisy, led by the usual suspects.