What did Congress know about torture and when did they know it?

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)


Over the past 16 months, what members of Congress knew and when did they know it has slowly emerged in newspaper accounts. Four select members of Congress were notified in September 2002 when the CIA gave a secret high level briefing regarding the use of “harsh interrogation” and “overseas detention sites”.

U.S. law requires Congress be informed of covert activities, but allows for limited access to briefings in sensitive matters. In this meeting, four members of Congress were informed. They were Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Porter Goss, and Senators Bob Graham and Richard Shelby. The ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees sometimes described as the “Gang of Four”.

According to the Washington Post in December 2007, the four Congress members raised no objections to the “interrogation” techniques described, including waterboarding.

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.

Over the following years, approximately 30 secret briefings were given to Congressional overseers. In addition, to the members listed above, Rep. Jane Harman, and Senators Jay Rockefeller and Pat Roberts were also briefed in 2003. The entire House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed fully in 2006.

According to the NY Times, “the 2002 Gang of Four briefings left a hodgepodge of contradictory recollections that, to some Congressional staff members, reveal a dysfunctional oversight system.”

Pelosi “insists… that the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal – not that they were going to be used.” In the 2007 WaPo story:

Pelosi declined to comment directly on her reaction to the classified briefings. But a congressional source familiar with Pelosi’s position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage — they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice — and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.

TPM has Pelosi’s statement regarding what she knew in 2002. In part, she said:

On one occasion, in the fall of 2002, I was briefed on interrogation techniques the Administration was considering using in the future. The Administration advised that legal counsel for the both the CIA and the Department of Justice had concluded that the techniques were legal.

I had no further briefings on the techniques…

[To be continued…]

The NY Times notes that Rep. Goss, who George W. Bush later appointed to head the CIA, “recalls a clear message that the methods would be used.”

“We were briefed, and we certainly understood what C.I.A. was doing,” Mr. Goss said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

In the 2007 WaPo story, Goss explained, “Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing… And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.”

Members of Congress briefed by the CIA were restricted from consulting legal experts, their staff members, or even from taking notes. The NY Times reported Sen. Graham “did not recall ever being briefed on the methods, though government officials with access to records say all four committee leaders received multiple briefings.”

“Personally, I was unaware of it, so I couldn’t object,” Graham said.

However less than a month later, on October 9, 2002, Graham seemed to know certain things about the Bush-era disregard-for-the-law lawyering when he spoke on the behalf of Scott Muller’s nomination to be the CIA’s general counsel. Graham said in a statement to the Senate Committee on Intelligence that:

I would like a moment to speak about the issue of cautious lawyering at the CIA. I know from my work on this Committee for the past 10 years that lawyers at CIA sometimes have displayed a risk aversion in the advice they give their clients, particularly some of the lawyers assigned to the posts in the Directorate of Operations.

Unfortunately, we are not living in times in which lawyers can say no to an operation just to play it safe We need excellent, aggressive lawyers who give sound, accurate legal advice, not lawyers who say no to an otherwise legal operation just because it is easier to put on the brakes.

Among other links, Muller did not block the destruction of the CIA’s torture tapes and defended its use to Rep. Harman.

For his part, Sen. Shelby refused to discuss the CIA torture briefings. However four months earlier, Shelby leaked classified intercepted messages to Fox News and CNN on June 19, 2002. The Department of Justice did not press charges, but such a breach may have been used as leverage over the senator. Shelby was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee in November 2005.

Harman took up Pelosi’s seat on the House Intelligence Committee in January 2003. Recall in her statement earlier, Pelosi said “I had no further briefings on the techniques.” The rest of her statement continued, stating:

Several months later, my successor as Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, was briefed more extensively and advised the techniques had in fact been employed. It was my understanding at that time that Congresswoman Harman filed a letter in early 2003 to the CIA to protest the use of such techniques, a protest with which I concurred.”

Pelosi is trying to shift the responsibility unto Harman. However Harman revealed at the time coinciding   with the 2007 WaPo story that she “filed a classified letter to the CIA in February of [2003] as an official protest about the interrogation program. Harman said she had been prevented from publicly discussing the letter or the CIA’s program because of strict rules of secrecy. “‘

In February 2003, Harman wrote a  letter (pdf) to Scott Muller at the CIA concerning the use of torture:

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. Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the President?

Muller responded (pdf), the Department of Justice determined the “use of these techniques is fully consistent with US law.”

Changes were happening in 2003 in the Senate too, Graham was replaced by Sen. Rockefeller. According to the 2007 WaPo story:

Rockefeller also declined to talk about the briefings, but the West Virginia Democrat’s public statements show him leading the push in 2005 for expanded congressional oversight and an investigation of CIA interrogation practices. “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,” Rockefeller said in a statement Friday.

In October 2007, Rockefeller demanded the Bush administration release of the torture memos, which Obama released last week. At the time Rockefeller said in a statement: “The administration can’t have it both ways… I’m tired of these games. They can’t say that Congress has been fully briefed while refusing to turn over key documents used to justify the legality of the program.”

Sen. Roberts has refused to comment on his role in the CIA torture briefings, but in a 2006 interview with Human Events, he said of the effectiveness of waterboarding:

Roberts: That is one of the techniques that will not be used anymore.

Human Events: It’s definite?

Roberts: I’m not going to make any further comment about it.

Human Events: Do you think that’s good for national security. I mean, if it was an effective technique, according to this report?

Roberts: I’m not going to speak to that. There’s a series of techniques, and I think, overall, what is most helpful in interrogation is the fact that the detainee does not know what can be used. It’s the fear of the unknown and the fact that basically we know more than he does in regards to his activities. The length of that interrogation is also important, but I think that the situation with the waterboarding, I’m not sure how helpful that is. Obviously, if he says that’s the case then with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, but I’d rather not get into the techniques. A lot of it still is classified, let alone that it’s been in the press and as chairman of the committee I really can’t comment.

Of the seven past and present members of Congress who were charged with oversight in 2002 and 2003 of the CIA’s covert activities all but Rep. Harman failed almost completely. When Harman was stonewalled by the CIA, she apparently let the matter drop. She kept safe their dark, evil secret.

I feel each of these seven past and present members of Congress are not giving us the full truth of what they knew and when did they know it. The Republicans, obviously, will do everything in their power to protect their former leader from prison by making torture into a partisan issue. The Democrats seem content to shrugging their shoulders a la Sergeant Schultz saying, “I know nothing – NOTHING!”

For example, if Pelosi knew about the torture, then her complicity may be reason enough why she protected Bush and Dick Cheney when she became Speaker of the House in 2007. I think the time has come for the members who knew about the CIA torture program back in 2002 and 2003 to step forward and explain why they either failed to do their oversight job and how they will fix CIA oversight or why they’ve kept the truth about torture from the American people for the past 6 years.

When the people of United States finally investigate our country’s use of torture, we need also to examine the role taken by Congress. We must hold responsible those members who were informed about the use of torture and kept silent, or hold accountable those members that approved of torture and pressed the CIA to do more.


Cross-posted at Daily Kos.



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  1. the timeline of how Congress let this happen and what motivations they may have to prevent top Bush administration officials from being investigated and prosecuted.

    If you have any more details, please add them in the comments.

    • ANKOSS on April 24, 2009 at 14:47

    It highly improbable that the CIA and the White House delivered briefings to senior Congressional personnel without briefing documents. The way to stop the “He said, she said” nonsense about the substance of the briefings is to produce these documents. I believe that these documents will show that senior Democrats in Congress approved of torturing captives.

    • Viet71 on April 24, 2009 at 16:33

    On examination, they’re always so complex and confusing.

    Truth, on the other hand, is always straightforward and clear.  Sort of like E = mc(squared).

    What we’ve got here is a bunch of lies.

  2. Hummmm, appears that there was a lot of negligence involved back then — why is the question?  

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