By Marc A. Thiessen
Friday, January 29, 2010; A21
In mid-2004, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi learned something from a CIA briefing that made her blood boil. Pelosi reportedly "came unglued" at the revelation and had "strong words" with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, demanding that the CIA abandon its plans. As a result, a top-secret finding that President George W. Bush signed to authorize the CIA's activities was revised. Pelosi succeeded in stopping the agency from moving forward with the controversial operation.
What drove Pelosi to action? Not the CIA's waterboarding of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. In a 2009 interview, a former senior Bush administration official directed me to a little-noticed item from Time magazine. According to this 2004 report, Pelosi objected to a CIA plan to provide money to moderate political parties in Iraq ahead of scheduled elections, in an effort to counter Iran, which was funneling millions to extremist elements. "House minority leader Nancy Pelosi 'came unglued' when she learned about what a source described as a plan for 'the CIA to put an operation in place to affect the outcome of the elections,' " Time reported. "Pelosi had strong words with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a phone call about the issue. . . . A senior U.S. official hinted that, under pressure from the Hill, the Administration scaled back its original plans." (Her role was also reported on this page by David Ignatius in 2007.)
Why is this important? Because on May 14, 2009, Pelosi, now speaker of the House, declared in a Capitol Hill news conference that she had opposed CIA waterboarding but was powerless to stop it. A former senior intelligence official told me in 2009 that he was shocked by Pelosi's claim because, he said, "Speaker Pelosi herself has stopped covert action programs that she has been briefed on by going to the White House. In that very same time frame [after she learned about waterboarding] Pelosi had gone back to the White House [over] a separate covert action program, expressed strong opposition to it. And the remarkable part to me, the White House backed off the program, changed one aspect of the program . . . she was particularly opposed to. And literally, the finding was pulled back and revised." If Pelosi had truly opposed waterboarding, he said, she had numerous ways to stop it -- but she didn't try.
At the time of her press briefing, Pelosi had been forced to acknowledge that she had learned in February 2003 that waterboarding was being used. Why, reporters asked, did she not object? Flustered, Pelosi claimed that it was not her place to complain because she was no longer the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "A letter raising concerns was sent to CIA general counsel Scott Muller by the new Democratic ranking member of [the] committee [Jane Harman], the appropriate person to register a protest." She made this claim five times during the briefing.
In fact, Harman's letter, since declassified, did not "register a protest"; it asked "what kind of policy review took place" and urged the agency not to destroy interrogation tapes. Moreover, when Pelosi made this claim, she knew that in 2004, when she was no longer the committee's ranking member, she had personally intervened with the White House to stop different covert action. She did not defer to Harman; she herself took action. Why was it "appropriate" for her to intervene then but not in the case of waterboarding?
Pelosi was asked by a reporter, "Do you wish now that you had done more? Do you wish it had been your own letter?" Pelosi replied, "No, no, no, no, no, no . . . No letter or anything else is going to stop them from doing what they're going to do." She made this claim three times during the briefing. All the while knowing that her phone call to Rice in 2004 had stopped the CIA from "doing what they were going to do" in a different covert operation.
As one of the top four leaders on Capitol Hill, Pelosi had numerous tools at her disposal if she had truly wanted to block waterboarding. She could have threatened to put a hold on funding for the CIA interrogation program, or held up funding for other administration priorities, or worked with her Senate counterparts to hold up nominees for senior CIA positions, or simply called the national security adviser -- as she reportedly did in the case of the Iraq program. Pelosi did none of those things when she learned about waterboarding. By her silence, Pelosi gave her consent -- and then misled the media by claiming she was powerless to act.
Journalists did not question Pelosi's claims -- and then they stopped questioning her. Pelosi announced that she would not take more questions on the topic, and the media complied. Reporters who relentlessly chased the Valerie Plame leak let the story drop. Pelosi's role in stopping another covert operation gives lie to her claims that she was powerless to stop waterboarding -- but the Washington press corps failed to "connect the dots." Now that the truth is out, will they continue to let her get away with not answering questions? We'll learn the answer at her next press briefing.
Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, is the author of "Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack."