I remember August of 1974 almost like it was yesterday. I was a young boy, spending the summer at my grandparent’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard, as I did every year. As I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a novel about rabbits on an odyssey to find a new home while, in the background, my Republican grandparents cried and my father cheered as they watched, for the last time, Richard Nixon alight Marine One on the White House lawn.

It was the last summer my father ever spent at the compound.

Watership Down was published in 1972, the same year in which a couple of bungling ex-CIA men got caught trying to burglarize the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, a headquarters located in one of Washington’s most prestigious addresses: the Watergate complex.

"2003 was the year that the CIA ... briefed the subcommittee that it had begun to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) ... as a formal instrument of the foreign policy of the United States."

Watergate set off chains of chains of events. It set off the chain of event that led two years later, as I read the book about the bunnies, to those images on the television.

And it set off a chain of events that reached back inside the CIA and turned it inside-out.

It revealed an agency that had used hot-wartime exigency as a rational for a vast, and illegal, program of domestic spying. It revealed an agency that had used cold-wartime exigency as a rational for programs of strategic assassination (literally) decapitating nations whose interests weren’t aligned with that of the United States.

It revealed an agency gone utterly amok. It revealed an agency that was out of control.

Fallout

Within a year after Nixon took his last presidential helicopter ride, and I had finished the last page of Watership Down, investigation committees led by Democrats and largely filled with Democratic-appointees had been formed to find out exactly what had been going on at the CIA and what to do about it.

1977, the year that I moved to Indiana permanently, witnessed the formation of a House Permanent Select Subcommittee on Intelligence. The subcommittee was charged with an oversight role, a regulatory role, to ensure that covert operations within the CIA would never again be conducted as the investigations had revealed they had been.

The subcommittee accomplished its mission via regularly, legally-required, classified briefings from the CIA to the members of the subcommittee on current CIA covert operations. Thus the subcommittee could evaluate the CIA’s programs against a standard of both legality and what a California congresswoman would term nearly 30 years later as being “consistent with the principles and policies of the United States.”

Waterworld

If I had any foresight, I’d have read a book with the word “water” in its title in 2003. As it was 2003 was the year that the CIA, per its legal requirement, briefed the subcommittee that it had begun to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) -- including waterboarding (i.e. torture) -- as a formal instrument of the foreign policy of the United States.

"By definition, torturing people is worse than killing them."

Every state in this country has laws forbidding the use of torture by law enforcement; they do not have laws forbidding the use of lethal force by law enforcement. The United States is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, a set of treaties that make it a violation of international law if any signatory uses torture as an instrument of war. The Geneva Conventions do not, however, make it illegal for any signatory to kill citizens as an instrument of war.

And there’s a very good reason for both of those: because, by definition, torturing people is worse than killing them.

Torture’s utility exists in two dimensions. Its second-to-none ability to induce terror in the tortured and its second-to-none ability to produce confessions from the tortured.

That’s why in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Ninteen Eighty-Four, the antagonist O’Brien strapped a cage full of rats to Winston Smith’s face and Smith immediately gave up his girlfriend, Julia.

It’s why in Dick Cheney dystopian reality, he ordered the waterboarding of an Iraqi prisoner of war and that POW immediately provided Cheney with a nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

But torture has no utility in providing actionable intelligence. A person being tortured will do or say anything that he or she believes will end the torture. You simply cannot torture the truth out of a person. But you can torture whatever you want them to say out of them, which is why O’Brien and Cheney used it.

Waterborn

Present at the 2003 briefing was California representative Jane Harman. Harman’s a Jewish democrat, but she’s no lefty. Staunchly pro-war from the get-go, Harman later became involved in something of a scandal when it was revealed that she had lobbied to have espionage charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) reduced in exchange for a promise from AIPAC that it would lobby then-House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to appoint Harman as the chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence.

"A person being tortured will do or say anything that he or she believes will end the torture."

Yeah.

Harman has also come under fire from the left for her passionate support of the White House’s warrantless wiretapping program, at one point calling for an investigation of the New York Times for breaking the story about the wiretaps.

Again, Jane Harman ain’t no lefty. Nor is she someone who, as a very pro-Israel Jew, would likely have a lot of sympathies for Islamic terrorists.

Nevertheless, what came out at the 2003 briefing so alarmed Harman that she wrote a letter to the CIA’s General Counsel in which she asked:

“…that what was described [the use of torture] raises profound policy questions and I am concerned about whether these have been as rigorously examined as the legal questions. I would like to know what kind of policy review took place and what questions were examined. In particular, I would like to know whether the most senior levels of the White House have determined that these practices are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States.”

Watership, down

As recent news has informed us, another Callifornia Democrat, Representative Nancy Pelosi, was also at the 2003 subcommittee meeting. Well, not her exactly but a proxy in the form of one of her staff, Michael Sheehy. Pelosi has confirmed that Sheehy briefed her on the content of the briefing and that he informed her that the CIA had divulged that it was waterboarding prisoners.

"Sadly, we know that the current Speaker of the House also knew what was happening."

And, again, we know what waterboarding is. It’s torture. No less than President Obama has so equated it.

So now we are where we are. We are confronted with the rat-strapped-to-your-face horror that the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, which is supposed to oversee the CIA and prevent the abuses of the past from repeating themselves, was informed that the CIA was repeating those abuses, in 2003.

And we know that the CIA was clear enough in its disclosure that at least one subcommittee member, a hawkish, pro-Israel, pro-war representative was disturbed sufficiently to ask the CIA’s General Counsel if the practices described really were “consistent with the principles and policies of the United States.”

And we know that the current Speaker of the House also was aware of what was happening.  That the CIA was using torture as an instrument of statecraft.

And did nothing, apparently, about it.

Only Nancy Pelosi can explain how this is possible but, heretofore, she has not been able to.  It’s possible that there is a misinterpretation.  It’s possible that she was not aware that what was transmitted to her by her aide was a description of torture.  But, if so, she has not yet explained that.

I hope that she can, and will.

But if it is the case that she knew it was torture and that she chose, in the face of that knowledge, to do nothing – or especially to do nothing as part of a pragmatic calculus going into the 2004 elections then she, the Democratic party, and its head the President of the United States, have a problem.

A big problem.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.