May
20
2009

Does the CIA Ever Lie?

Parsing the Pelosi torture controversy

The debate over Bush-era torture tactics like waterboarding has morphed into a full-blown Washington scandal. But the target isn't the Bush administration officials who ordered the torture; instead, the corporate media's focus is on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who claims that she was not fully briefed by the CIA on the use of waterboarding in late 2002. The prevailing assumption in much of the coverage is that the CIA couldn't possibly have misled members of Congress--despite the fact that this has happened repeatedly.

The media reaction has been intense. Right-wing pundits and the Fox News Channel are treating the issue as the most important political story of the moment. Pelosi is "undermining our national security. She's emboldening our enemies," declared host Sean Hannity (5/15/09). MSNBC's Morning Joe has covered the subject repeatedly, with host Joe Scarborough expressing utter disbelief (5/15/09) that the CIA could possibly have misled Pelosi, since Congress could cut off the CIA's funding. "They would never lie to Congress, because they would be crushed," Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.) said on the show.

More centrist pundits tended to focus their criticism on Pelosi's handling of the controversy. MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked (5/15/09): "Just how much damage did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi do to herself yesterday? Her accounts of what she knew about waterboarding and when she knew it are so confusing, so ever-changing and so convoluted that she's made herself an easy target for Republicans and now for the CIA itself."

The Washington Post's Dan Balz wrote (5/15/09) that Pelosi "took the remarkable step of trying to shift the focus of blame to the CIA and the Bush administration, claiming that the CIA accounts represented a diversionary tactic in the real debate over the interrogation policies. That amounted to a virtual declaration of war against the CIA." It's unclear why it's "remarkable" to suggest that the discussion should focus on the agency and the administration that had a secret torture program, rather than on someone who may or may not have been informed about the program.

While Pelosi's performance at her May 14 press conference has been derided throughout the media, it is hard to see how Pelosi's story has been, as Matthews put it, "so confusing, so ever-changing and so convoluted." A compilation of Pelosi's statements put together by the Washington Post (5/15/09) show her taking a straightforward and consistent stance that she was only briefed once about interrogation techniques and was told the U.S. was not using "waterboarding."

Of course, without having attended the briefings, there is no way to judge who is telling the truth--the CIA or Nancy Pelosi. But the media frenzy over the divergent stories seems to discount the idea that the CIA would ever mislead lawmakers about its actions. This view is hard to square with history; as Adam Serwer noted at the American Prospect's blog Tapped (5/15/09), a recent book on the CIA by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner recalled several examples, including former CIA director Richard Helms telling the Senate in 1973 that the CIA had no involvement in that year's coup in Chile, a lie that led to Helms pleading guilty to perjury in 1977. Weiner also described CIA director William Casey's frequent dissembling in the Iran/Contra scandal.

In 2001, a plane carrying Baptist missionaries from Michigan was shot down in Peru as part of a drug interdiction program run by the CIA and Peruvian officials. The victims' cause was taken up by Republican lawmakers, and an ensuing internal CIA investigation "concluded that agency officials deliberately misled Congress, the White House and federal prosecutors" about the incident (Washington Post, 11/21/08). "CIA officials in front of my committee may have allowed incomplete or misleading statements to be made," Rep. Pete Hoekstra told the Post (R-Mich.). Hoekstra's concerns are ironic considering, as the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence committee, he has emerged as one of Pelosi's chief antagonists, calling the speaker's charges that she had been misled by the CIA "outrageous accusations" (CNN American Morning, 5/18/09).

As Jason Leopold recalled (Truthout, 5/15/09), the Washington Post reported in 2006 that Mary McCarthy, the CIA's former deputy inspector general, believed the CIA was lying about its interrogation practices when it briefed lawmakers. As the Post reported (5/14/06), McCarthy "became convinced that on multiple occasions the agency had not given accurate or complete information to its congressional overseers."

The evidence against Pelosi, meanwhile, is often wildly overestimated. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote dismissively (5/17/09) of Pelosi's "campaign for self-vindication," since to him the evidence is clear: "If you read the CIA's careful 10-page summary of the 40 briefings it has given to Congress since 2002 on 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' it's pretty hard not to conclude that Pelosi is shading the truth to retrospectively cover her backside." Not really; the summaries are short descriptions of the subjects that were covered in the briefings. Pelosi was briefed on one occasion (9/4/02), according to the CIA's summary, which does not mention the term "waterboarding" being used, though it is specifically mentioned in the summaries of 12 other briefings. Ignatius went on to recall an instance during Iran/Contra where the CIA was apparently more honest than its critics in Congress--a rather narrow view of that scandal.

In addition, another Democratic lawmaker--former Sen. Bob Graham--was listed as having been briefed four times. When Graham--a famously meticulous diarist--told the CIA that he was actually only briefed once, they agreed and corrected their records (NPR, 5/15/09). Why such records are treated as if they are beyond question is puzzling. Rep. David Obey (D.-Wisc.) complained that the summaries listed a staffer as having been briefed on interrogation techniques who, according to Obey, had actually been specifically excluded from the meeting (Associated Press, 5/19/09).

In short, an agency has been accused of breaking the law and has admitted to destroying key evidence (videotapes of some interrogation sessions) that could implicate its personnel in that lawbreaking (Washington Post, 12/7/07). The same agency has a record of misleading members of Congress (among others) about its activities. And somehow the point of the current media scandal is whether or not Nancy Pelosi is telling the truth?