The question that matters about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and waterboarding is not just what the California Democrat knew and when she knew it - but also why this matters in the broader debate over torture.
Pelosi had insisted that she was never informed that the Central Intelligence Agency was waterboarding detainees, as opposed to knowing that the practice was among the "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved for possible use. But at a news conference last Thursday, she acknowledged that she was told by her CIA-briefed aide in February 2003 that waterboarding had taken place. At the same time, she maintained that in a September 2002 briefing, the CIA told her that waterboarding "was not being employed." Asked if she were accusing the CIA of lying to her at that briefing, Pelosi said "yes, misleading the Congress of the United States." Pelosi's recollection conflicts with the CIA's account of the briefing.
You don't have to buy into the over-the-top attacks by Pelosi's opponents - former speaker Newt Gingrich characterized her comments as "the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime" - to believe that it matters if the speaker of the house is misstating or shading the truth on an important issue. Pelosi's shifting accounts and faltering performance at her news conference were far from reassuring. At the same time, if Pelosi's version of the 2002 briefing is correct - and former senator Bob Graham (Fla.), who at the time was the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, has said he was not told about waterboarding in a separate briefing during the same period - there was a disturbing breakdown in keeping lawmakers apprised of intelligence activities. If Pelosi and Graham are mistaken, then the CIA is being done a disservice.
In fact, there are two issues that make this fight important beyond the question of Pelosi's veracity and reputation - and both could be addressed by the independent commission we have called for. One has to do with the functioning of the intelligence oversight system and reforms that may be needed. Are leaders of the intelligence committees being appropriately informed? Should information be shared more broadly? Given the constraints of classified information and pledges of secrecy, is there an adequate mechanism for lawmakers to express opposition or concern?
Second, at a time when many are calling for prosecutions or other forms of accountability, it's important to understand how wide a circle understood and did or did not endorse the methods being used. As Philip Zelikow, counselor to Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state, testified last week at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Justice Department's torture memos, "The U.S. government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented program in American history of cruelly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one. It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part ... Precisely because this was a collective failure it is all the more important to comprehend it and learn from it."