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Torture: What Were The Dems Supposed To Do?

It's difficult to know exactly what to make of the story by Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen in today's Washington Post detailing the briefings received by leading members of Congress--both Republican and Democratic--in which the CIA laid out its interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. It seems fairly damning:

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.

Andrew Sullivan (surprise!) takes the Dems to task: "At best, it seems to me, Democratic resistance to these war crimes was anodyne." This isn't entirely unfair; while Jane Harman apparently wrote a classified letter to the CIA in February 2003 objecting to the interrogation techniques, no one would describe that as a particularly forceful response. At the same time, though, it's not clear to me what Harman/Pelosi/Rockefeller should have done here. Going public, as Harman says in the article, wasn't an option, since the briefings they received were classified. Obviously the ideal course of action would have been some sort of meaningful oversight and/or legislation on the matter, but again, the Democrats seem to have been stymied by the Republican majority in Congress (said Rockefeller, "I proposed without success, both in committee and on the Senate floor, that the committee undertake an investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation activities.")

This feels like a case of Congressional Democrats making a cursory attempt to probe deeper into the CIA's conduct, failing, and not putting any energy into a fight that they deemed more or less unwinnable (particularly given the prevailing attitude in the months following 9/11). The reality is that on issues like these, the party that controls neither the executive nor the legislative branch has very little power beyond the ability to raise a fuss in the media, which was off the table here. One can fault the Democrats for not writing more classified letters to the CIA and not berating Bush more in private, but I can't imagine that that would have had much of an impact. It seems far more reasonable to judge Democrats on torture based on what they've done since regaining the majority--like, for instance, the vote last week by a Congressional conference committee to ban interrogation tactics not authorized by the Army Field Manual.

--Josh Patashnik