By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 15, 2009
Nancy Pelosi is a woman of many talents. Yesterday, she performed the delicate art of backtracking while walking sideways.
The speaker of the House had just read a statement accusing the CIA of lying and was trying to beat a hasty retreat from her news conference before reporters could point out contradictions between her current position and her previous statements.
"Thank you!" an aide called out to signal an end to the session. Pelosi walked, sideways, away from the lectern and, still sidling in a sort of crab walk, was halfway to the door when a yell from CNN's Dana Bash, rising above the rest of the shouting, froze her in the aisle.
"Madam Speaker!" the correspondent called out. "I think there's one other question that I would like to ask, if that's okay."
"Sure, okay," Pelosi said, in a way that indicated it was not okay. Pelosi had no choice but to sidle back to the lectern.
Over the next few minutes of shouted questions -- "They lied to you? Were you justified? When were you first told? Did you protest? Why didn't you tell us?" -- the speaker attempted the crab-walk retreat again, returned to the lectern again and then finally skittered out of the room.
The session was bound to require fancy footwork. Intelligence officials last week released documents indicating that Pelosi was briefed in September 2002 about the use of aggressive questioning techniques. The CIA also disclosed that a top Pelosi aide had been briefed in early 2003 that waterboarding was being used to question terrorism suspects.
Republicans pounced: "Nancy Pelosi was an accomplice to 'torture' " said a headline on a piece by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal. Particularly problematic was Pelosi's statement on April 23 that "we were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used."
Pelosi was out of sorts as she met reporters in her ceremonial office yesterday. "I want to read a statement, because I need to take the time out to do this," she said awkwardly, fishing around for the papers before her. "So bear with me for a moment, because it'll be shorter if I read it. But I am, again, in the -- in the busy schedule that we have, I think it's important to take the time to read this to you."
Carefully, she read that "those briefing me in September 2002 gave me inaccurate and incomplete information" about waterboarding. She admitted that an aide had been briefed a few months later, but then she moved to her fallback argument: It didn't matter if she was told about waterboarding, because "it was clear we had to change the leadership in Congress and in the White House."
NBC's Mike Viqueira was the first questioner. He asked if she had been "complicit" in the use of techniques such as waterboarding because her aide had been told that such techniques were in use.
"My statement is clear, and let me read it again. Let me read it again," she said. She looked for her statement. "I'm sorry, I have to find the page," she said. She read a few lines, then paused. "I'm sorry, I had the pages out of order." By now she had begun to employ her hands in the conversation, raising an index finger, circling her hands and finally moving both hands as if conducting an orchestra.
ABC's Jonathan Karl wanted to make sure he'd heard right. "You're accusing the CIA of lying to you?"
"Yes, misleading the Congress of the United States," Pelosi repeated. As she answered, she held a fist up, waved her index finger, formed her hand into an O, pushed her hair back, then resumed leading the orchestra. She appeared to have developed a case of dry mouth and was swallowing hard.
Now questions were being shouted from all around the room; Pelosi chose one from the back. Did she wish she had done more to object? "No, no, no, no, no, no," Pelosi said. "As I say in my statement," she repeated, looking down at her papers again.
Chad Pergram of Fox News asked if the episode makes it more difficult to have a "truth commission" to probe the use of harsh interrogation methods. Pelosi went back to her written statement: "And that's why I say in this . . ."
An aide was already trying to shut down the session with a "last question" cry, but Pelosi found a reporter who asked about health care -- and then demanded a follow-up. The other reporters grumbled. "Did you get booed?" Pelosi teased.
It was then that the speaker tried to crab-walk out of the session, and CNN's Bash stopped her in her tracks, demanding to know why Pelosi said last month that she hadn't known waterboarding was being used.
"I meant 'we,' we in that -- in that -- meeting," she attempted to answer.
"We were all clearly trying to get at the broader question of whether you knew about waterboarding at all," Bash said. "And the idea that we got from you was that you were never told that waterboarding was being used. But now we know that later, in February, you were told."
"That was beyond the point," Pelosi tried to argue.
As more skeptical questions were shouted, Pelosi opened her eyes wide. She licked her lips. She chopped the air with her hand and moved her arm like a windshield wiper. She swallowed hard. She used both hands to clear her hair from her face as she fired off pleas that "I wasn't briefed," "I wasn't informed" and "They misled us."
"That's it -- we're done!" a Pelosi aide said as the reporters continued to shout questions. Finally, in a burst of sideways energy and with the help of her aides, the speaker crab-walked out of the room.