Parsing For Dummies

by digby

Marcy Wheeler unpacks the absurd notion that Leon Panetta made a slam dunk with his statement on Friday, so thoroughly rebutting Nancy Pelosi that she might as well slink back to San Francisco and start selling Grateful Dead memorabilia online, she's so over.

Here's what Panetta said:

Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values. As the Agency indicated previously in response to Congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing “the enhanced techniques that had been employed.” Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

No, I don't doubt that it is not the policy or practice to mislead Congress. I would imagine they have all kinds of rules against that, including the law of the United States which makes it a crime. That doesn't mean that they've never done it.

Panetta is playing with language here in the same way that Bush and Obama both use the awkward locution "America doesn't torture" when asked if anyone was ever tortured. There was a time when such things ("it depends on what the meaning of is, is") made reporters and gasbags spend days parsing this language to prove that a politician was a slimy liar. But that was back when it really mattered.Now nobody wants to play the blame game.

I'll let Marcy take the rest of this and get to the substance of Panetta's statement:

Panetta is stating two things:

1. The contemporaneous records (that is, the CIA briefer's own notes on the briefing) show that the briefers "briefed truthfully ... describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed'" on Zubaydah.
2. It is up to Congress to evaluate this evidence and "reach its own conclusions about what happened."

Now, first of all, Panetta is not saying (nor has anyone said, not even Porter Goss) that the briefers briefed Congress that these techniques had been used. I know this sounds weasely, but until someone says, in plain language, that the CIA told Congress those techniques had already been used on Abu Zubaydah, we should assume that's not what the notes reflect, because if they did, you can be sure both the briefing list and the public statements would say so. But no one is saying that. And against that background, Panetta is reiterating the statement that Congress should determine what happened--a reiteration of the admission that CIA's own briefing records are not the totality of the story.

The CIA briefing list records that the following people participated in the briefing: Nancy Pelosi, her staffer Michael Sheehy, Porter Goss, his staffer Tim Sample, briefers from the CounterTerrorism Center (CTC), and the Office of Congressional Affairs (OCA; elsewhere, we've been told four people, total, from CIA attended).

While CIA doesn't say it, the chances are very good that the head of CTC was among the four CIA officials who attended that briefing--he probably led the briefing. On September 4, 2002, the head of CTC was Jose Rodriguez.

Jose Rodriguez, you'll recall, is one of the key suspects in the torture tape destruction.

Read on, to get the full picture.

I will take the simple route here and just point out that if Panetta's statement "ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened" isn't weaselly, CYA language then nothing is. He doesn't know what happened in those briefings and he knows very well that those notes aren't reliable. After all, the most anal retentive politician in Senate history has already disputed these briefing memos by going back to his own infamously detailed notes.

My rule of thumb on this stuff is when politicians use awkward tenses and odd phrases instead of a simple declarative answer in response to a simple question, they are playing lawyer games. Sometimes it's a legal necessity --- they are trying to protect themselves. I would say that Bush and Clinton, as presidents defending their actions, probably fall into that category. Clinton was trying to explain lying in a civil case that had subsequently been dismissed. Bush was trying to explain that he didn't commit war crimes. I'm sure both of them had lawyers telling them to use these awkward phrases to legally protect themselves. Panetta and Obama, on the other hand, are trying to cover up crimes of the previous administration, which is political rather than legal.

Whatever the motivations, when you have presidents and high government officials speaking as if English is their second language, it's usually a fairly good sign that they aren't being straightforward. (Granted, with Bush it was pretty much all the time...) We can't expect the press to pursue this unless sex involved, but it's something to keep in mind for your own understanding of events.