Pelosi and Waterboarding: Why all the Fuss?

| Sat May 16, 2009 11:02 AM EDT

Strangely absent from the recent coverage of Pelosi's past knowledge of U.S. torture policies is any acknowledgement that this story is old news. Really old news. Way back in December, 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined, "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002." It hit Pelosi with the exact same allegations that have been so breathlessly reported as of late:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

 So what's new? For one, Republicans are under intense moral and political threat and see a chance divert responsibility for their misdeeds back to Democrats.

To be sure, Pelosi should have taken action against U.S. torture policies as soon as she was briefed on them. And she's now paying the price for being too politically cowardly—or opportunistic—to address this issue head-on when the Post broke the story back in 2007. But it's disingenuous for the press and Pelosi's political rivals to feign outrage over what Pelosi knew and when. What did they know and when? Assuming they read the news, why didn't they make an issue of this back in 2007?

One politician did make an issue of the Post story at the time. Cindy Sheehan, the Peace Mom, ran a quixotic campaign against Pelosi for her House seat last year, and garnered 16 percent of the vote and very little press. Key to her electoral strategy was capitalizing on liberal outrage—surprisingly tepid outrage, it turned out—over what Pelosi knew. She even called for Pelosi to be stripped of her leadership post over the news. "I was appalled and really saddened," Sheehan told me at the time. "We can't be represented by a person like this."

Seventy two percent of San Francisco voters thought otherwise.

With Sheehan's failed challenge in mind, it's hard to put credence in today's New York Times story on Pelosi's political fate, which quotes Bay Area resident Delphine Langille of San Ramon: "I'm very skeptical of what she's saying, Langille told the Times on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, "and when she goes to get re-elected, this could really damage her credibility." Yeah right. There's simply no way a Republican could ever mount a viable challenge in San Francisco, no way the Democratic establishment would ever try, and no way--as we've seen--that a third party outsider will take her down.

Politics is morally mushy business. The political climate was clearly more pro-torture back in 2002 than it is now. A braver politician might have spoken out sooner, but also might not have risen to the Speaker post. The interesting thing about San Franciscans is that they are politically sophisticated enough to entertain a race like Sheehan's while also voting for a pragmatist like Pelosi. And they can certainly distinguish between the moral clarity—or absolutism—of someone like Sheehan, and the immoral opportunism of liberal-come-lately Republicans. Let's hope the press and the rest of the nation eventually figure this out too.