The Pelosi Plot Thickens

Created: February 26, 2009 12:01 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

For those of you who missed it, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show last night featured a terrific and news-breaking interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.),  in which Pelosi talked about, among other things, holding Bush administration officials criminally accountable.

As I’ve written before, Pelosi has been a bit cagey in the past about just what sort of criminal accountability she’s looking for.  She has previously mentioned holding former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Bush aide and adviser Karl Rove — both of whom ignored congressional subpoenas while citing executive privilege — in contempt of Congress, as well as investigating the politicization of the Justice Department, but Pelosi has been relatively quiet on the authorization of torture by former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Last night, Pelosi clarified her views a bit — sort of. Asked by Maddow if she’d support a ‘truth commission’ along the lines of the one proposed on the Senate floor yesterday by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Pelosi said she supports an investigation, but she isn’t happy about providing immunity for Bush officials who broke the law. “I want to go forward but as we try to have reconciliation … I don’t think we should have immunity for some of those issues,” she said.

On one hand, this suggests that she’s even more gung-ho about prosecuting alleged criminal activity during the Bush administration than most members of Congress. But as Maddow pointed out later, that view also gives Pelosi a convenient excuse to oppose the Leahy truth commission, just as it’s gaining momentum — not only in Congress, but with the American public. That could be a way to prevent an in-depth investigation into exactly how it is that the U.S. government came to authorize the torture of terror suspects — including the role of Democrats who were briefed on the CIA’s tactics.

Not one to let such things go, Maddow specifically asked Pelosi about that as well. Pelosi’s response?

Sure, Pelosi said, some Democrats were briefed, but “they did not brief us that these enhanced interrogations were taking place … they were talking about an array of interrogations that they might have at their disposal.” In other words, the Bush administration briefed Democrats that they might use waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” involving abuse and humiliation, they just didn’t tell the Democrats that they were already using those tactics.

Frankly, I’m not sure what difference that makes. So what if she knew that they might use waterboarding the next day, but hadn’t used it yet?  Pelosi’s subsequent point, that there was no way for the Democrats to object publicly about those techniques if they were unhappy about them, seems to me more valid. That is, after all, what a classified briefing means: you can’t talk about it later.

Pelosi said she’d like to change that:

These are issues you can’t even talk to your staff about. And that just isn’t right. Because it gives all the cards to the administration. And if you say anything about it you have violated national security … and that’s what we’re going to change. You don’t want any president, Democrat or Republican, to have that kind of authority.

No, we don’t. Because we’ve already seen the consequences. If we take Pelosi at her word,  she’s now supporting prosecution of former Bush officials for all sorts of lawbreaking, as well reforming restrictions on how members of Congress can use classified information to object to the executive’s tactics.

In the end, though, who knew what, when and why it all happened still remains muddled. It sounds more and more like both a truth commission that gets at the whole story AND targeted prosecutions based on the evidence that comes out, is going to be the best way to move forward. However, as human rights lawyers have pointed out to me (and as I discussed with Rachel Maddow on her TV show last week) the two really have to happen simultaneously. Otherwise, given the strict statutes of limitations on torture and other federal crimes, we could end up with a thorough report on senior Bush officials who broke the law, and no way left for the government to prosecute them for it.

Of course, it will take some convincing to get a majority in Congress — not to mention President Obama — to agree to that; but the American public, according to the latest polls, is already well on its way.

It seems Americans have taken to heart the much-cited mantra that we’ve now heard from both Pelosi and the new president: “No one is above the law.”