Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Villagers throw down on Nancy Pelosi

Another of the forbidden May 28 batch of Abu Ghuraib photos
Correction 05/30/09: This photo had been previously published by Salon on 03/26/2006

Our national press corps truly is one of the strangest groups of people in the world. It takes a really superficial herd to decide that the villain of the torture policy is ... House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Maureen Dowd expounded her own raving, factually challenged version of the accusation in Cheney, Master of Pain New York Times 05/17/09. MoDo declared:

The stylish grandmother acted like a stammering child caught red-handed, refusing to admit any fault and pointing the finger at a convenient scapegoat. She charged the C.I.A. with misleading Congress, which is sort of like saying the butler did it, or accusing a generic thuggish-looking guy in a knit cap with gang tattoos to distract from your sin.
Yes, we live in a world where our leading celebrity pundits are aghast at the very notion that the CIA might lie about something like this.

To see several of the horde swarm to the attack at one, you can check out Meet the Press for 05/17/09.

MoDo does manage to say, after seven paragraphs trashing Speaker Pelosi as an utterly contemptible liar and pathetic phony - women in powerful positions always send MoDo's deeply strange gender obsessions into orbit:

Besides, the question of what Pelosi knew or didn’t, or when she did or didn’t know, is irrelevant to how W. and Cheney broke the law and authorized torture.
We should give MoDo and even the Villagers some credit here. It's now become acceptable for the Beltway Village to call torture by the name "torture", without the modifiers they've insisted on using up until the last week or so, e.g., "so-called torture", "what some describe as torture". And MoDo actually mentions the word "law", which is far more than you can say of the Shields-and-Brooks Clown Show of this past Friday.

But this is pretty faint praise of MoDo, whose column mainly reflects the obviously Republican-friendly meme that the Beltway Village has adopted wholesale, which is that Pelosi is a Big Liar and a terrible hypocrite. The fact is that we the public and presumably our so-called press corps don't have any solid evidence of what was said in those now-infamous briefings. Pelosi has said all along that she was not briefed in detail about what tortures the administration (specifically the CIA) was using, although the Village narrative that MoDo runs with as though it were Gospel truth is that Pelosi has been changing her story in some kind of guilty way.

Now, I'm obviously willing to defend Nancy Pelosi on this. The Republicans knew attacking her over this issue would appeal to the dysfunctions of what some describe as our press corps. Because it muddles that discussion about the fact that serious crimes were committed in the torture policy. It reassures the Villagers that all serious responsible people don't care whether crimes were committed in the torture policy, only "the left". Pelosi is also what the Democrats have badly needed in their Congressional leadership and urgently need in the Senate: a actual partisan leader. The Big Pundits think (Democratic) leaders in Congress should be "bipartisan" and should "reach across the aisle". Like Harry "I can't do anything until someone shows me we already have 60 votes" Reid.

It's also not clear to me that any of the Democratic and Republican members of Congress who received classified briefings on matters relating to the torture program committed any kind of crime by now trying to blow the lid off the program publicly. That doesn't necessarily make them profiles in courage. But part of the trap Cheney was setting with those selective briefings was that if the Dems exposed information from those briefings publicly, they could be accused of being unreliable with classified information, of endangering the troops, of committing treason, and so on. The danger of Republicans taking such a risk to expose the torture program they supported was negligible to the vanishing point.

If any Members of Congress committed actual crimes in connection with the torture program, they should prosecuted along with everyone else for whom there is good evidence of criminal behavior in that program.

But the accusations against Pelosi are based on a breathtakingly careless neglect of the facts in the public record up to this point. Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby is not a particular fan of Pelosi; he thinks she makes weak public statements for Democratic positions. In They sometimes invent your first time 05/16/09, he looks at the current popular press script against Nancy Pelosi and finds it to be fake. Part of the current anti-Pelosi script is that she has been guiltily changing her story about the briefings. He describes the particular journalistic infotainment technique involved:

[J]ournalists love the claim of "rolling disclosure" in a matter like this (though only if they want to make some pol a target, of course). Such belated disclosure is taken as a sign of the targeted pol’s bad faith. It’s a sign that the target had something to hide, that she wouldn’t be truthful until she was forced. Mainstream journalism of the 1990s is littered with episodes of this type. ...

Sad but true: When “journalists” get somebody in their sites, they simply luvv making this type of claim. Recent history teaches a grisly lesson: Even when rolling disclosure hasn’t occurred, “journalists” will sometimes pretend otherwise. They will sometimes ignore the very reports they themselves have typed in the past, so much do they want to pretend that their target never said this before. ...

In the world of love and romance, it’s said that you always remember your first time. In modern pseudo-journalism, they sometimes invent a pol’s first time, erasing her real first time in the process.
Actually, Somerby criticizes her for apparent carelessness in her comments on the CIA. I think he's being too critical of her on that point. But his is a reality-based criticism, based on his observations of how she frames issues as a key national Party leader. The Beltway Village practice is to fix on a script and squeeze the facts into it. Or, if necessary, just reinvent the facts.

Marcy Wheeler, who just won the prestigious Sidney Hillman Award for her investigative journalism online, has been following the torture crime story in great detail. She has been regularly challenging the current press corps narrative about that Vile Big Liar Pelosi on her Emptywheel blog, such as in The Two Torture Tape Suspects, the Pelosi Briefing, and the Panetta Statement 05/16/09. Marcy is an invaluable resource for those following this story. Indispensable at this point.

You will search MoDo's latest breakdown and the Meet the Press transcript in vain for anything remotely like the following explanation from Marcy referring to CIA Director Leon Panetta's letter which in the Village narrative was a decisive smack-down of Pelosi:

Panetta is stating two things:

  1. The contemporaneous records (that is, the CIA briefer's own notes on the briefing) show that the briefers "briefed truthfully ... describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed'" on Zubaydah.
  1. It is up to Congress to evaluate this evidence and "reach its own conclusions about what happened."
Now, first of all, Panetta is not saying (nor has anyone said, not even Porter Goss) that the briefers briefed Congress that these techniques had been used. I know this sounds weasely, but until someone says, in plain language, that the CIA told Congress those techniques had already been used on Abu Zubaydah, we should assume that's not what the notes reflect, because if they did, you can be sure both the briefing list and the public statements would say so. But no one is saying that. And against that background, Panetta is reiterating the statement that Congress should determine what happened--a reiteration of the admission that CIA's own briefing records are not the totality of the story.

The CIA briefing list records that the following people participated in the briefing: Nancy Pelosi, her staffer Michael Sheehy, Porter Goss, his staffer Tim Sample, briefers from the CounterTerrorism Center (CTC), and the Office of Congressional Affairs (OCA; elsewhere, we've been told four people, total, from CIA attended).

While CIA doesn't say it, the chances are very good that the head of CTC was among the four CIA officials who attended that briefing--he probably led the briefing. On September 4, 2002, the head of CTC was Jose Rodriguez.

Jose Rodriguez, you'll recall, is one of the key suspects in the torture tape destruction.
Marcy is still practicing what in most of the world is known as "journalism". She's not running beyond the available facts here, she's actually paying attention to them. She indicates what different kinds of claims would put the (real) story into a different light. Compare that one column of hers with media celebrity Maureen Dowd's. One is journalism, the other is raving, unhindered by facts.

It's not that Marcy's approach pretends to be neutral, objective or value-free. On the contrary, she practices advocacy journalism. She wants the perpetrators in the torture program charged and prosecuted. But that doesn't prevent her from having integrity in her reporting and writing. MoDo isn't advocating anything but Village idiocy. And her writing has no integrity whatsoever.

On the other side of the fog being kicked up by the Villagers, Marcy points out a particular reason why defenders of the torture program are coming after Pelosi so hard on those briefings: the crimes themselves are coming to light in very explicit ways now, and the torture-crime scandal is accelerating, despite the remarkable consensus among the political elites and the national press that the whole issue should go away and God forbid that any high-level criminals should be prosecuted over the torture crimes. And the various acts of deception used to cover them up until this point are also coming to light at a seemingly accelerated pace. The briefings to Congress are a key political defense of the program. If it is shown conclusively that the CIA or other intelligence officials were lying to the Congressional Democrats who are supposed to be part of their alibi, another big piece of the torturers' self-defense will have fallen.

In that light, Marcy gives this entirely plausible reading of Panetta's action in releasing the letter last week:

This is a statement reflecting not just the worries at CIA that they've been sold out again, asked to break the law, but then hung out to dry after the fact. This is a statement given at a time when the very people being investigated (probably)--Rodriguez and Goss--are two of the three key players in the briefing at the time.And this is a statement that narrowly affirms the accuracy of the briefing (given the briefing notes), while admitting that Congress should determine the full story. Yes, Panetta gives that narrow defense of CIA's statement. But the bulk of Panetta's statement implores the rest of CIA not to get hung up on the circus happening around them.

Panetta is doing two things. First, affirming that CIA has not misrepresented what got recorded in the briefing notes and that the language of the briefing notes is accurate--as far as that goes. And, at the same time, casting doubt on the full meaning of the statement while imploring the rest of CIA not to get distracted by yet another challenge to CIA's credibility.
This is not going away. Even in the best case - that perpetrators at all levels are prosecuted soon - the torture issue will haunt US policy for decades.

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