The Harman Letter: A Conundrum

Here is a conundrum.

Speaker Pelosi said in her 5/14/2009 statement.

Five months later, in February 2003, a member of my staff informed me that the Republican Chairman and the Democratic Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions. Following that briefing, a letter raising concerns was sent to CIA General Counsel Scott Muller by the new Democratic Ranking Member of the committee, the appropriate person to register the protest.

Speaker Pelosi claims that a letter sent by the then Democratic Intel Committee leader Jane Harman was the appropriate way to register her protest to the application of EITs, what she now calls illegal torture.

Our media guides confirm Speaker Pelosi’s characterization of this letter. David Brooks says on the Newshour:

The climate has changed. A lot of people’s opinions have changed. And so she was told — and we now know for sure — in 2003, early 2003, about some of this stuff. A colleague of hers, Jane Harman from California, a representative, wrote a letter in protest. Nancy Pelosi didn’t.

And with confirmation from E.J. Dionne on the All Things Considered Brooks says again (4:30):

Well I don’t want to associate myself with Rush but I thought her performance this week was pathetic and even worse than pathetic it was dishonorable. She was told in 2003 about the water-boarding. Some people like Jane Harman, a colleague from California, a Democratic Congresswoman, wrote a letter objecting. Nancy Pelosi did not write a letter.

So the historical narrative presented by Pelosi, unquestioned by the news media, and ingrained into the public consciousness is that in 2003 Democrat Harman sent a letter protesting and objecting to the CIA’s use of torture.

Now then, let’s read the letter.

Dear Mr. Muller:

Last week’s briefing brought home to me the difficult challenges faced by the Central Intelligence Agency in the current threat environment.  I realize we are at a time when the balance between security and liberty must be constantly evaluated and recalibrated in order to protect our nation and its people from catastrophic terrorist attack and I thus appreciate the obvious effort that you and your Office have made to address the tough questions.  At the briefing you assured us that the [redacted] approved by the Attorney General have been subject to an extensive review by lawyers at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice and the National Security Council and found to be within the law.

It is also the case, however, that what was described 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.  Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the President?

You discussed the fact that there is videotape of Abu Zubaydah following his capture that will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry.  I would urge the Agency to reconsider that plan.  Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law, the videotape would be the best proof that the written record is accurate, if such record is called into question in the future.  The fact of destruction would reflect badly on the Agency.

I look forward to your response.



Well gosh. Where is the protestation? Where is the objection? Where is the hint of offense to the conscience over interrogations or mention of torture? She is simply asking whether the President has “rigorously examined” the “profound policy questions” and consequentially “approved” the “enhanced techniques.”

Speaker Pelosi obviously believes that this letter provides her the cover of registering a protest. One must wonder then whether Speaker Pelosi has ever even read Rep. Harman’s letter. Or whether Brooks, Dionne, Block, Lehrer, or any of the host of reporters, editors and columnists who repeat or fail to challenge this narrative have ever read Harman’s letter. This false narrative about this letter has the effect of providing her cover only because everybody presumes its truth. How does such a counterfactual narrative become the perceived reality? How was this myth spawned? This is an important question that really does demand an answer.

Find your own but here is mine. This is a common occurrence. First I will state it in general terms. Interest/political groups develop narratives to serve their own purposes. News organizations provide the media through which political groups reach the public. When large percentages of the media are personally sympathetic to a particular interest/political group, they tend to be less critical of the narrative of the interest/political group and so the narrative tends to be adopted by everybody.  Most of us don’t have the time or resources to go back into the factual details.

In this case Democrats took the campaign position that President Bush’s interrogation policies were criminal. To avoid the charge of hypocrisy they insisted that a letter from Harman had always maintained their firm stance on the criminality of these EITs. As this campaign claim was repeated over and over again, the MSM — which is (approx.) 90% comprised by Democratic voters — was not inclined weigh in against the Democrats on this campaign issue. Voila a myth is born.

Perhaps if David Brooks was not so eager to disassociate himself with myth-busters like Rush he would not be so easily caught up in false narratives.