Madame Speaker, Have You No Decency?

The Democrats are in quite a fix. In an attempt to satisfy their netroot base and continue their vendetta against the Bush administration they have set themselves up for the charge of hypocrisy, perhaps the only unforgivable sin in politics. The subject of course is the CIA interrogation tactics.

In their efforts to smear and perhaps prosecute Bush administration lawyers and specifically two attorneys -- John Yoo and Jay Bybee -- who drafted the now-released interrogation memos, they have themselves become ensnared in a bubbling controversy.

Politico reports:

For Democrats pushing an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing in the war on terrorism, the GOP now has a two-word response: Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans say new revelations about a CIA briefing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received in 2002 have given them their best shot yet at blocking a sprawling probe into Bush administration interrogation techniques by allowing them to insist that its targets would include the speaker of the House. "If someone is going to schedule hearings, I believe that the first witness should be Nancy Pelosi," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member on the House intelligence committee told Politico. "Clearly, she was involved in policy formulation."

But it is not just Republicans who are going in for the kill. Mainstream reporters like Mara Liasson ("this becomes a big problem, because it looks like the Democrats are being hypocrites") and liberal columnists like Marty Peretz ("I'm Sick of Pelosi, Her Sanctimony and Her as Speaker; Maybe She Should Hand the Gavel Over to Jane Harman") have joined the conservatives who wonder how it is that Pelosi can seek to prosecute Bush officials for failing to realize they were condoning "torture" when she and other Democrats seemed unconcerned about these same practices when they were briefed.

Pelosi is not alone, of course. Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee from 2007 to 2009, is hip deep in this as well. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The West Virginian was briefed at least 12 times more about interrogation techniques, legal authorities and other aspects of the program. The last, in June 2008, was offered to 10 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and covered "discussion of EITs and the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] opinions. Specific mentions of waterboarding numerous time."

Yet in October 2008, following a Washington Post report on the existence of the OLC memos, Mr. Rockefeller disclaimed any knowledge of the opinions. "If White House documents exist that set the policy for the use of coercive techniques such as waterboarding, those documents have been kept from the committee," said Mr. Rockefeller. "That is unacceptable, and represents the latest example of the Bush Administration withholding critical information from Congress and the American people in an attempt to limit our oversight of sensitive intelligence collection activities."

This exchange between Senator Lamar Alexander and Attorney General Eric Holder was revealing:

ALEXANDER: If you're going to investigate the lawyers whose opinion was asked about whether this is legal or not, I would assume you could also go to the people who created the techniques, the officials who approved them, and the officials in Congress who knew about them and may have encouraged them.

HOLDER: Hypothetically that might be true, I don't know. What I want to do is look at, in a very concrete way, what that OPR report says and get a better sense from that report about what it says about the interaction of those lawyers with people in the administration and see from there whether further action is warranted.

Democrats now complain that Republicans who call for inclusion of Pelosi and other lawmakers in any "truth" probe are "playing politics with national security." Well, that's rich.

The contretemps is entirely one of the Democrats' own making. The decision to criminalize and potentially prosecute Bush administration officials is a unique political witch hunt, heretofore never attempted by any party or administration. By raising the issue of the Democrats' involvement and lack of objection to the enhanced interrogation policies, Republicans are making clear just how partisan an affair this is. They are also making clear how lacking in merit is the underlying premise of the accusers that, of course, these methods had to be torture because everyone would have concluded that their use "shocked the conscience." Well, except for those lawmakers who attended some 40 briefings.

It is far from certain where this is all leading. Democrats might persist in their ongoing inquiries, currently being held out of public view, but resist any and all calls to include congressmen and senators within the inquiry. A "just our version of the truth" doesn't seem like a formula likely to engender public confidence. The controversy already swirling over Pelosi's involvement will only intensify as Republicans rush to claim a cover-up is now underway to conceal the Democrats' involvement.

Another option is to pursue hearings, letting the chips fall where they may. That could well provide ample ammunition to Pelosi's critics on the Left and Right to argue that she has lied about her involvement and deserves some sort of rebuke, if not loss of her gavel. Well, that seems a long shot given Pelosi's iron grip on the House.

Or this might all quietly fade into the political ether. The Justice Department probe of Bush administration lawyers Bybee and Yoo could conclude with no recommendation for further action. And the congressional hearings would wrap up with some mumbling about how awfully the Bush administration behaved in employing enhanced interrogation techniques to prevent further attacks on Americans. (Well, they would spin it more delicately than that).

But there is no easy escape from the corner in which Democrats now find themselves. What was intended as a free swing at the Bush administration and one more sop to the leftwing of the Democratic Party has become a radioactive game for those who started it. But this should come as no surprise. History tells us that congressional bullies who attempt to use the awesome power of their office as a political weapon are often exposed and disgraced.

June 9 is the 45th anniversary of that memorable occasion when Army lawyer Joesph Welch turned the table on Sen. Joe McCarthy, asking, "Senator, may we not drop this?... You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

History has long forgotten the name of the young Army lawyer whose reputation McCarthy was besmirching (Fred Fisher), but McCarthy's has become fixed in our collective memories as the epitome of an unprincipled and lawless bully. It remains an open question whether Pelosi's name and those of other Democratic inquisitors will take on a similar connotation.