If you've been reading the Washington DC-based press of late, you might have the impression that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is the mastermind of the US's torture regime. DC reporters have been obsessing for over a month now on the manufactured controversy of whether Pelosi was briefed by the CIA on its use of torture against suspected members of al-Qaida.
The controversy, as usually presented, is not just factually wrong. The entire controversy serves to obscure a seemingly systematic attempt to claim that Democrats in congress signed off on the Bush administration's torture programme as long ago as 2002.
First, let's look at the factual problems. Speaker Pelosi has consistently said the same thing for three months: when the CIA briefed her [PDF] and her Republican counterpart Porter Goss, on 4 September 2002, they did not tell Pelosi or Goss that the CIA had already been torturing Abu Zubaydah for over a month. Pelosi said: "We were never told [torture techniques] were being used," on 25 February. She said: "We were not - told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used," on 23 April. And she said: "The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed," on 14 May.
And surprisingly, given the faux controversy, Porter Goss's version completely accords with Pelosi's statements. When he says, "I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed," he is admitting both that he doesn't remember the CIA telling him and Pelosi that the techniques had already been employed, and that they only spoke of waterboarding in the prospective sense. If Nancy Pelosi should have known - according to Goss - that the torture techniques "were to be used," he is ceding the argument that they weren't already told those techniques had been used.
So in spite of the month-long hyperventilating over a conflict between Pelosi and Goss, there is no conflict on Pelosi's main point: the CIA misled at least two members of congress by not admitting they had been torturing for over a month.
But that month-long faux controversy has successfully distracted the DC press from the real story: that the CIA has consistently claimed to have briefed Democrats in congress, only to be proved wrong.
The CIA once claimed it had briefed Senator Bob Graham, then chair of the Senate intelligence committee, four times on torture: twice in April 2002, and twice in September 2002. After Graham referred to his meticulous notes and showed there had been no briefing on three of those dates, the CIA admitted it had briefed him just once, in late September 2002. And when it finally got around to briefing Graham in late September 2002, he maintains, it told him nothing about waterboarding.
The CIA tried to claim [PDF] it briefed Pelosi adequately, in her role as the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, on "description[s] of the particular torture techniques] that had been employed." But even Porter Goss' account reveals they weren't briefed that waterboarding had been used.
The CIA tried to claim [PDF] that it briefed Senator Jay Rockefeller, the new ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, on ""how the water board was used" in February 2003, until Rockefeller pointed out he wasn't at that briefing.
The CIA lists John Murtha, then the senior Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee for defense, as attending a briefing on the "full detainee program, including the 13 [torture techniques]". But it now admits Murtha didn't stay for the torture techniques part. And even though it lists Murtha's staffer, Paul Juola, as attending, the CIA later had to admit [PDF] he wasn't at the briefing, either.
Four times, the CIA has claimed to have briefed Democrats, only to be proved wrong.
And those are key briefings. The CIA tried to claim it had briefed Bob Graham before it started torturing Zubaydah. It tried to claim it briefed Nancy Pelosi in timely fashion. It tried to claim it briefed Jay Rockefeller on its intent to destroy tapes of Zubaydah's torture, and before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the third person to be waterboarded under the program. And it tried to claim it briefed Murtha or his staffer on whatever torture-related appropriations it was seeking in 2006. But all those claims were - at the least - overstated.
But those weren't the only lies told - apparently - about the briefing on this programme. Philip Zelikow, Condoleezza Rice's aide while she was secretary of state, describes torture champions claiming members of congress approved the program to win internal argument on torture within the administration.
I step away from this with some concern. I will tell you on the inside, when I was arguing - we were having heated arguments about these policies on the inside in the White House situation room. And the argument would often be deployed against me and my colleagues, that, well, we briefed the following members of congress - name, name, name, name, name - and they don't have a problem with it. So, in other words, they're using - these briefings are being used, actually, to deal with arguments on the inside of the administration. Yet I hear what you're saying and what other members of congress have said.
Given that Zelikow attributed [PDF] the US's embrace of torture to "a collective failure, in which a number of officials and members of congress [and staffers], of both parties played party," he seems to believe Democrats were briefing in timely fashion. But even the CIA admits they weren't.
Which brings us back to the whole Pelosi faux-controversy. Normally, when a source has to admit they were repeatedly and consistently wrong, journalists will stop treating that source - the CIA, in this case - as credible. Not so for the torture briefing wars. Instead, journalists seem intent on pretending that Pelosi and Goss disagree on the facts.
On the only point that matters, legally, they seem to agree: the CIA did not tell congress it was conducting torture, even a month after it started doing so. That is, the CIA did not fulfill legal mandates that it inform congress about CIA actions.
And that is what the Pelosi briefing controversy is really about.