Republicans said they were stunned Thursday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that she was powerless as minority leader to intervene in the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on terrorism suspects.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi told reporters that the CIA misled Congress on its activities, but she protested that she knew that any complaints by her about the use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics would fall on deaf ears.
Pelosi said in her weekly news conference that she supported a letter drafted in February 2003 by Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. -- the new ranking Democrat on the House intelligence panel who attended a briefing that month that included discussions on waterboarding -- and sent to the Bush administration, raising concerns over the program.
Harman was the "appropriate person to register a protest," Pelosi said
"But no letter or anything else is going to stop them from doing what they're going to do," she added.
Not so, said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "As a member of the Gang of Four, if the CIA proposes to do something that we think is wrong, we can do something about it. We've done something about," he said.
The so-called "Gang of Four" refers to the four members of Congress who serve in the chairman and vice chairman spots on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. In 2002, that group included Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Reps. Porter Goss, R-Fla, and Pelosi, D-Calif.
Bond said that as minority leader, Pelosi could have used a number of legislative tools to block the program, including using the Constitution's Speech and Debate clause, which protects lawmakers who wish to speak on the House floor on sensitive issues. She could also have insisted that other members be briefed on interrogation techniques; moved to cut CIA funds; insisted Congress go into closed session, like during Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Patriot Act revisions; or sought revisions to the National Security Act to change congressional notification requirements.
"So there's no excuse to say, 'I was powerless,'" Bond said.
Pelosi is under attack for shifting her accounts of what and when she knew about enhanced interrogation techniques. Republicans have charged her with hypocrisy and complicity for seeking to investigate the Bush-era program when she didn't protest earlier.
In fact, in November 2002, two months after Pelosi received her first briefing outlining enhanced interrogation techniques, she stood on the House floor to praise the intelligence community.
"The brave and dedicated men and women of intelligence community perform an invaluable service for our country, and I want them to know how impressed we've all been under frequently dangerous and demanding conditions. They deserve our appreciation," she said as she urged lawmakers to approve funding for intelligence operations.
On Thursday, Pelosi protested that when she moved to the top spot in the Democratic caucus, her priorities necessarily changed and a letter of complaint was not her responsibility.
"My job was to change the majority in Congress and to change --- to fight to have a new president because what was happening was not consistent with our values, certainly not true and something that had to be changed. We did that. We have a new president. He says he's going to ban torture," she said.
"But no letter could change the policy," Pelosi said. "It was clear we had to change the leadership of the Congress and the White House. That was my job."
Republicans' jaws dropped at her statements.
"Excuse me, we are elected to do public policy," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told FOX News. "We are not elected to use our positions only to elect a new majority or a new president. There's nothing more important than national security."
Hoekstra later said at a news conference, "You would think in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we would be focused on making sure we have the right policy in place -- and not focusing on the next election. ... Basically what the speaker said is that up until 2006, it was all about politics."
"The idea that a 10-year veteran of the Intelligence Committee would just rubber-stamp a program she thought was illegal or morally wrong is frightening, especially when the claim comes from a member who has never been afraid to challenge publicly the Bush administration. As members of Congress we have the constitutional authority and responsibility to take serious our oversight role," Bond said in a statement.
Indeed, if Congress was powerless to act prior to 2006, it was no secret to lawmakers. The Sept. 11 commission wrote in its July 2004 report that before the terror attacks of 2001, it was habitual for Congress to shake its oversight responsibilities of the intelligence community.
"The oversight function of Congress has diminished over time. In recent years, traditional review of the administration of programs and the implementation of laws has been replaced by a 'focus on personal investigations, possible scandals and issues designed to generate media attention.' ...
"Not just the (Director of Central Intelligence) but the entire executive branch needed help from Congress in addressing the questions of counterterrorism strategy and policy, looking past day-to-day concerns. Members of Congress, however, also found their time spent on such every day matters, or in looking back to investigate mistakes, and often missed the big questions -- as did the executive branch," reads the commission report.
In fact, the massive overhaul of intelligence operations passed in December 2004 -- the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 -- made no mention of interrogation methods or congressional oversight. Pelosi voted for the final legislation that was signed by President Bush.
It wasn't until September 2006, when the Military Commissions Act was passed by Congress, that an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was included to ban cruel, inhuman or degrading acts against detainees.
A senior aide to Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told FOXNews.com that "there are any number of ways" Pelosi could have registered an objection to CIA interrogation techniques.
Pelosi could have added her name to Harman's letter, sent her own letter or directly objected to CIA officials or to Bush and Vice President Cheney.
"She chose to avail herself of none of them," the aide said.
But Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that CIA officials were not seeking her approval when they notified her about the interrogation techniques because they had already begun using them.
"Moreover, it is ridiculous to argue that the speaker...could have prevented President Bush from carrying out this policy," he said in a statement. "Let's not forget the tactics the Bush administration employed on Congress. They tried to cut us out of everything. In 2002, Democrats were in the minority and the Bush administration didn't care what we thought."