The CIA briefed four Congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, on the controversial practice of waterboarding over five years ago. Not only did no one object to the practice during the September 2002 briefing, but one attendee asked the briefer whether the technique was tough enough:
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.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Congressional leaders from both parties would later seize on waterboarding as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Bush administration's counterterrorism effort. The CIA last week admitted that videotape of an interrogation of one of the waterboarded detainees was destroyed in 2005 against the advice of Justice Department and White House officials, provoking allegations that its actions were illegal and the destruction was a coverup.
Yet long before "waterboarding" entered the public discourse, the CIA gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.
This puts a completely different light on the controversy. While Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- in both chambers of Congress have railed against the White House for supposed torture, in reality Congress willingly supported the procedure in over two dozen briefings. Only one person raised any objection during two years of using the procedure.
That doesn't settle the question as to whether waterboarding constitutes torture, but it certainly calls into question the notion that politics has nothing to do with the debate. The CIA stopped using waterboarding after 2003, and apparently have only used it on three detainees: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and an unidentified al-Qaeda prisoner. Only well after the practice had been abandoned did Congress raise objections to its use, and then never acknowledging their own acquiescence to it earlier. That lack of honesty allowed them to paint themselves as shocked, shocked! that waterboarding had been used as an interrogation technique.
Given that the CIA ended the practice at about the time that one member of Congress in 30 briefings complained about it, I'd call this a wash in terms of responsibility. The reason the CIA briefs the selected few on highly classified covert matters is not to get a rubber stamp on their activities, but to allow oversight and get approval for their covert activities. If Congress couldn't find it objectionable when waterboarding was employed, they have little to complain about years afterward.