Top Pelosi Aide Learned of Waterboarding in 2003

As ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, Rep. Jane Harman was briefed on waterboarding.
As ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, Rep. Jane Harman was briefed on waterboarding. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

A top aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended a CIA briefing in early 2003 in which it was made clear that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were being used in the interrogation of an alleged al-Qaeda operative, according to documents the CIA released to Congress on Thursday.

Pelosi has insisted that she was not directly briefed by Bush administration officials that the practice was being actively employed. But Michael Sheehy, a top Pelosi aide, was present for a classified briefing that included Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), then the ranking minority member of the House intelligence committee, at which agency officials discussed the use of waterboarding on terrorism suspect Abu Zubaida.

A Democratic source acknowledged yesterday that it is almost certain that Pelosi would have learned about the use of waterboarding from Sheehy. Pelosi herself acknowledged in a December 2007 statement that she was aware that Harman had learned of the waterboarding and had objected in a letter to the CIA's top counsel.

"It was my understanding at that time that Congresswoman Harman filed a letter in early 2003 to the CIA to protest the use of such techniques, a protest with which I concurred," Pelosi said in the Dec. 9, 2007, statement.

Precisely what Pelosi learned in classified intelligence briefings she received on interrogations has become a flash point in the battle over the effectiveness and legality of the methods used to extract information from alleged al-Qaeda operatives in the first years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Republicans have accused Pelosi and other Democrats who attended the earliest classified briefings of knowing what CIA operatives were doing and offering their support for the methods, including waterboarding. They argue that Pelosi, who served as the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee until January 2003, objected only after the use of the techniques became public several years later.

"I have every belief that either she or [Harman] were told waterboarding was going on. I have no doubt that the Democratic leadership on this committee in the House knew it was going on," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), who has been the top Republican on the intelligence panel since fall 2004.

Hoekstra, who requested the history of agency briefings of members of Congress, is also seeking notes made by the CIA during each briefing, documents that he said last week include "a very precise accounting of the substance of each briefing." He said those memos would detail "not only the specific information provided, but also the degree of bipartisan consensus that existed with respect to the programs in question."

In a letter to Hoekstra, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the classified memos describing what was said at each briefing would be available at CIA headquarters for review by congressional staff, according to an agency official.

Although the CIA did not initiate the requests for the details of its many briefings of members of Congress, beginning in September 2002, senior officials have chafed at criticism of their interrogation activities from lawmakers who, when made aware of the programs over past years, mostly did not object. One former senior agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the substance of the briefings is classified, said some lawmakers, after being told of the enhanced techniques, "questioned whether we were doing enough."

The fierce debate was sparked three weeks ago by the release of Bush-era Justice Department memos that expanded the legal guidelines for CIA agents interrogating alleged al-Qaeda operatives. The new documents released to Congress by the CIA on Thursday stated that Pelosi was briefed on the "use of" harsh interrogation techniques in September 2002, although the documents do not state that waterboarding was mentioned.

The absence of any description in the new documents of her being briefed on waterboarding has become a critical distinction for Pelosi. She has said that briefers discussed waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques as legal options but that they never told her such methods were being used.

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