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Top US Democrat under fire over 'torture' briefings

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a key ally of President Barack Obama, has come under fire over whether she has long known about harsh interrogation tactics used in George W. Bush's "war on terror.

world Updated: May 13, 2009 14:08 IST

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a key ally of President Barack Obama, has come under fire over whether she has long known about harsh interrogation tactics used in George W. Bush's "war on terror." "She was briefed on it and if she felt it was wrong she should have acted," Senator John McCain, the losing 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told reporters on Tuesday.
Most of the criticism has focused on why, if briefed, Pelosi did not do more to stop the use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, a technique many say amounts to torture.

"I was briefed on it, and I vehemently objected to it. We did the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. So we felt, I certainly felt, I could act on it," said McCain, a Vietnam War veteran with a long track record opposing torture.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled that in the early stages of the "war on terror" launched in the wake of the September 11 attacks, "everybody participated and significant people who count were briefed."

If an inquiry takes place, he added, "everybody who was involved in it, both on the administration side and the congressional side, will certainly be subject to inquiry."

The comments by the senior Republicans came after the Politico news website cited a source close to Pelosi as saying that the speaker had learned in early 2003 that the Bush administration was waterboarding terror detainees.

According to the source, she did not protest to the CIA out of respect for "appropriate" legislative channels. Last week, reports emerged that CIA officials had briefed Pelosi aide Michael Sheehy and Democratic Representative Jane Harman in February 2003 about interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, used on suspected top al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.

The CIA also reportedly briefed members of Congress 40 times on the controversial interrogation techniques. "Of the 40 CIA briefings to Congress reported recently in the press, I was only briefed once, on September 4, 2002, as I have previously stated," Pelosi insisted last week.

But at that briefing, she said, although internal memos about the interrogation techniques were mentioned, CIA officials said the methods had not been used.

In December 2007, Pelosi had indicated that she was informed in 2002 about interrogation techniques the Bush administration was considering for future use.

The controversy was revived last month when Obama's administration released internal memos from 2002 and 2005 in which Bush-era legal officials argued that tactics including simulated drowning, facial slapping, sleep deprivation and using insects to scare prisoners were not torture.

Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra wrote to top Obama administration officials on Monday to request the release of documents showing which lawmakers were informed about the interrogation program, as well as the circumstances surrounding the briefings.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, backed Pelosi. "I think it's a tempest in a teapot really to say: Well, Speaker Pelosi should have known all of this, she should have stopped this, she should have done this or done that," she said.

"I don't want to make an apology for anybody, but in 2002, it wasn't 2006, 07, 08 or 09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks."