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The debate over torture is exposing one the dilemmas of a democracy. Congress is supposed to know what's going on in government yet it's rarely clear how to keep congress involved when the information is considered classified - secret. Today Democrats on the senate judiciary committee hold a hearing on the so-called torture memos made public last month. Republicans have seized on a CIA memo released last week. They say top Democrats were briefed on the interrogation techniques during the Bush administration and that the Democrats did not act to stop them. The question for some Democrats is how much they really knew and whether they could have done anything.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: The memo that CIA sent Congress details more than three dozen congressional briefings on interrogation methods. It included participant, dates and subject matter. Republicans have used that memo to suggest Democrats who had been briefed were complicit in what the majority party is now denouncing as torture. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it yesterday, if congressional Democrats want to put the past on trial by probing the so-called torture memos.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Senate Minority leader): we'll want to know who all was briefed, who all approved such techniques — I think all of those are fair questions.

WELNA: But Democrats don't think it's fair to focus on who took part in the briefings. Two years ago, before Dianne Feinstein became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she was briefed by the CIA on its interrogation techniques. Feinstein says she was merely told in abstract accounts, rather than consulted about what the CIA was doing.

Ms. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Because you're called in, and you sit down, and somebody tells you in a most pure sense, without any of the real world attributes attached to it, what we intend to do. And that's kind of it.

WELNA: Feinstein's briefing came more than four years after former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham was briefed by the CIA when he chaired the intelligence panel. Graham disputes the CIA's contention that he was told about enhanced interrogation techniques used on a detainee who already had been waterboarded. But even if he had been told, Graham says it would have all been classified information.

Former Senator BOB GRAHAM (Democrat, Florida): There's not much you can do, because you can't talk to anybody. You certainly couldn't talk to your own colleagues. You could talk to the executive branch and express your concerns, but there aren't a lot of effective options available to you.

WELNA: When Democrat Jay Rockefeller was chairing the Senate intelligence panel in late 2007, the CIA admitted destroying videotapes of the waterboarding of two detainees. At the time, Rockefeller was seething — he said he'd had been told of those tapes' existence in a classified briefing years earlier, but was unable to disclose that information.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): I'm really angry about it. It's the manipulation of the Congress — the use of two people out of the Senate, two people out of the House — because nobody else can be told, including our committee. We can't even talk to anybody. And they say, Oh, they're briefed.

WELNA: Still, Republicans maintain that Democrats who were briefed actually supported the CIA's actions. Pete Hoekstra is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, doesn't buy the Democrats' position that they were constrained from acting on what they had learned.

Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): I've been involved a number of times where I've seen things that I don't like and have gone either public - very carefully to make sure I don't disclose classified information -or gone directly to the speaker of the House or the president and said that I wanted policies changed or felt that they needed to be changed. I think it's sheer nonsense to believe that you can't do anything.

WELNA: Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday, that Democrats did act by expanding the group of lawmakers being briefed beyond just eight leaders.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Once we realized what was going on, we took some actions: We forced changes in the gang of eight. We, secondly, forced changes in the detention and interrogation practices.

WELNA: Still the conundrum remains, no matter how many members are briefed, how to act publicly on practices and policies that remain classified.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

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