The Tortuous Logic of Nancy Pelosi

Even I – quintessentially cynical when it comes to politics and politicians – was shocked (shocked!) by the ease with which the Democratic talking heads and their blogger auxiliary took up the defense of Nancy Pelosi. Her obvious culpability in the unfolding story of how torture was legitimized in the eyes of seemingly reasonable people is such a challenge to supposedly anti-torture Democrats that one’s response to it represents a veritable litmus test of one’s honesty, integrity, and ideological consistency. It’s sad, but true, that not many alleged progressives with a public platform are earning a passing grade.

As might be expected, the worst is MSNBC ranter Keith Olbermann, who used to be a reasonable person – long ago and far away – but has, since the election, turned into the worst sort of party-lining hack and all-around hatchet-man, a kind of Bizarro World version of Sean Hannity. He led on Friday with the news of Pelosi’s growing vulnerability on this issue, repeating all of her talking points, which were no more convincing coming out of his mouth than they were coming out of hers. Indeed, Pelosi, after accusing the CIA of "misleading" Congress, i.e., lying to her, backtracked, but not Olbermann. He tried to get frequent guest Jonathan Turley, a noted legal expert, to agree with his pro-Pelosi spin, but Turley wasn’t biting: he pointed out that even if what Pelosi is now saying is true – that she didn’t know anybody had been waterboarded, that this was going to be a future scenario – there is no record that she had any objections. She avers it was her job just to be notified, but, as Turley says, the point of notification is to act.

The speaker of the House is in an increasingly tenuous position. Nothing less than her credibility is at stake. To have Leon Panetta directly contradict her, by issuing a statement declaring that the CIA briefed her "truthfully" and appending to that a general statement addressed to CIA agents who might have been demoralized, even angered, by Pelosi’s charges, is a real slap in the face.

One amusing side aspect of all this is gauging the reaction from Democratic Party loyalists. Speaking of which, we hear not a peep from the bloggers over at the Huffington Post. Arianna herself is too busy calling for the legalization of drugs to bother with such mundane matters as whether prominent figures in both parties went along with the Bush administration’s torture agenda, and her Hollywood-celebrity fellow airheads are similarly preoccupied with such pressing matters as the evil of Dick Cheney. Yet no drug ever invented is going to anesthetize them and their partisan comrades against the pain they’ll experience if they continue to press on the torture issue, as it becomes increasingly clear that no one in D.C. is going to emerge from this with clean hands.

That isn’t stopping them from pushing back, however. And what a truly pathetic sight it is! HuffPuffer Sam Stein’s "coverage" of the Pelosi brouhaha is titled "Bush Critics Frustrated as Torture Debate Shifts to Pelosi." Therein, a gaggle of anonymous Democratic strategists the author met at Hollywood cocktail parties bemoans the fact that the speaker is receiving any scrutiny at all. This is "changing the subject."

But what is the subject, anyway? Isn’t it finding out how the freest country on earth began taking lessons from the KGB, the North Koreans, and the Gestapo on how to extract information from recalcitrant prisoners? If so, then the complicity of our most powerful politicians – and the failure of the "oversight process," as they call it – is an integral part of the story.

Furthermore, this inquiry into what Pelosi knew is doubly legitimate since she has made a point of accusing the Bush administration of war crimes – in an appearance at the beginning of this year on the Rachel Maddow Show, for one – and is calling for a "truth commission." This raises the question: is she a hypocrite, as well as a liar and a torture-enabler? Many a high-and-mighty political figure has fallen for far less, and it simply terrifies the Democratic wing of the blogosphere that her time may have come.

E.J. Dionne, the liberal columnist for the Washington Post, echoes the exculpatory mantra by citing the example of Sen. Bob Graham, whose note-taking is legendary for its punctiliousness. Graham claims to have met only once with the CIA on this matter, not four as the CIA records have it. Yet surely CIA Director Panetta, in rebutting Pelosi’s off-the-wall accusation, must have checked those records and come up with some basis for claiming that there was indeed a meeting during which his agency briefed her "truthfully."

Laura Rozen throws off the pretense of objectivity and spins a complex web of supposition that allows her to fob it all off as much ado about nothing. Money quote:

"Because the CIA record says something does not make it true. Panetta is saying it’s true that our records say something, not that what the records say are true or accurate (and how would he know – he just got there, he can look at the records but not know if they are accurate)."

In short, the CIA is lying – and Panetta is a hapless fool who’s just defending his agency to get in good with the veterans. Yet this doesn’t quite wash. After all, Panetta could have said nothing, or he might have said something a little vaguer. However, what he did say was quite explicit:

"There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I’m gone. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.

"Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values. As the agency indicated previously in response to congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’ Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

"My advice – indeed, my direction – to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country.

"We are an agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication. Our task is to tell it like it is – even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it."

How to reconcile that unequivocal statement with what Pelosi claims – "We were not, I repeat, were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used" – is a task some partisan Democratic bloggers have taken up with alacrity, notably Marcy Wheeler, AKA "emptywheel," who writes:

"There’s a better way to understand this. First, look at Panetta’s statement about the briefings themselves.

"’As the Agency indicated previously in response to congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’ Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.’

"Panetta is stating two things:

"The contemporaneous records (that is, the CIA briefer’s own notes on the briefing) show that the briefers ‘briefed truthfully … describing "the enhanced techniques that had been employed"’ on Zubaydah.

"It is up to Congress to evaluate this evidence and ‘reach its own conclusions about what happened.’

"Now, first of all, Panetta is not saying (nor has anyone said, not even Porter Goss) that the briefers briefed Congress that these techniques had been used. I know this sounds weasely, but until someone says, in plain language, that the CIA told Congress those techniques had already been used on Abu Zubaydah, we should assume that’s not what the notes reflect, because if they did, you can be sure both the briefing list and the public statements would say so. But no one is saying that. And against that background, Panetta is reiterating the statement that Congress should determine what happened – a reiteration of the admission that CIA’s own briefing records are not the totality of the story."

If the definitive history of ideological blindness and partisanship is ever written, then surely Wheeler will figure prominently: her prose epitomizes what happens to the English language and logic itself when they are forced into the procrustean bed of a predetermined conclusion.

Panetta writes that Pelosi and others were briefed on "the enhanced techniques that had been used" – citing the CIA’s own records – yet, according to Wheeler, Panetta did not say this, only that it is up to Congress to draw its own conclusions. This, she claims, is "a reiteration of the admission that the CIA’s own briefing records are not the totality of the story." What admission? The only admission around these parts is Pelosi’s – that she failed to tell the truth in the first place, when she said she’d never been briefed at all.

There’s a better way to understand this, says Wheeler, but first, put on these ideological blinders…

For a long time, Speaker Pelosi has coasted along on the strength of her position in the Democratic Party machine. She has never faced a serious challenge to her congressional seat in San Francisco, where Democratic Party machine politics rules. Yet now that the focus is on her, and her ability to react, speak, and make a coherent argument, it is clear that she can do none of these things competently. She’s become an embarrassment to her party, to Congress, and – most importantly – to the Obama administration, which, you’ll notice, is refusing to defend her. Maybe they know something that Laura Rozen and Marcy Wheeler don’t – ya think?

What I know is this: it is truly a disgusting sight to see the blue-state propagandists churning out complex (and incoherent) "explanations" that give Pelosi a "get out of jail free" card. If she were a Republican, these same people would be calling for her head.

As for Pelosi herself, she has always been second-rate, and now she’s in way over her head. The sooner she admits she lied and takes her lumps, the better off she’ll be. It’s sheer arrogance that has her denying the obvious and making a bigger fool out of herself every time she opens her mouth – and, as with so many others, that sort of hubris will be her downfall.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].