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Pelosi silence in '02 tortures her plea for truth commission now

Posted: Monday, May 18, 2009

Somebody call me when Nancy Pelosi gets her story straight.

So far, the House speaker's explanation of what and when she knew about the Bush administration's policy of torturing suspected terrorists is crookeder than Dick Cheney's smile.

Indeed, it has evolved from a straightforward avowal that, with apologies to Sgt. Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes," she knew "nothing! NO-thing!" about waterboarding, to an admission that maybe she knew a little something after all, given that she was briefed as early as September 2002, that the Bush administration was considering the tactic. Pelosi's explanation: She was told waterboarding had been "discussed," not that it was actually being used. Maybe you could give her a pass on it, except that we subsequently learn from the Washington Post one of her top aides was briefed in early 2003 that waterboarding "was in fact being used" against a terrorism suspect. It is inconceivable that he would have withheld that information from his boss.

And the ledge upon which she finds herself perched grows thinner than, well ... Dick Cheney's smile.

This all matters because Pelosi has been leading the charge for a so-called "truth commission" to probe the means by which the Bush administration convinced itself it was within its moral and legal bounds in torturing people. As Republicans have sensibly pointed out, that becomes problematic if you knew about said torture for seven years and said nothing.

Nor does Pelosi's excuse for her silence - the briefings were classified, so she couldn't talk about them - persuade. Granted, she could hardly have blabbed to CNN or The Miami Herald. But there was nothing to stop her from writing the White House or the CIA to register her objections - even if, as her defenders say, it would have done little good, given the Bush administration's legendary deafness to criticism. There is something to be said for getting things on the record, regardless.

At one level, this is just your usual Washington contretemps, with the usual allegations of hypocrisy and questions of what did she know and when did she know it. But at another level, it speaks elegantly to questions of national identity made urgent by the events of the Bush years.

The days after Sept. 11, 2001, when anthrax arrived by mail and everybody everywhere thought the next strike was imminent, the days when Team Bush beat the drums for war, claiming weapons of mass destruction were lying around all over Iraq, those days made it seem a quaint luxury to sit around debating who we are as a people.

In those days of heat, fear and panic, many of us - including, apparently, Nancy Pelosi - failed to consider what should be ever obvious: Our national identity is the one thing that makes us worth attacking or defending. We are a nation of laws, not men, we are better than those who attacked us, we are America and that has to mean something, even - "especially" - in days of heat, panic and fear.

When we compromise that, we compromise what cannot be replaced. Yet, when our national identity was most in need of defenders, they turned out to be tragically few. Our leaders sanctioned torture and to hell with who we are supposed to be. Now Pelosi wants a truth commission and you have to wonder if she is really ready for the truth it would likely find: That Bush betrayed his trust, yes, but that Pelosi and Lord knows who all else enabled him, conspired with him, by their very silence.

She didn't say what she should've when saying it would have mattered. Until and unless Pelosi admits that, her "truth commission" amounts to little more than partisanship and politics. And she can evolve no explanation that changes the obvious:

It's easy to speak up now. It would have been courageous to speak up then.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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