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Condoleeza Rice Questioned about Torture at Elementary School

May 4, 2009

Former Secretary of State under George Bush, Condoleeza Rice took questions from elementary school students before giving a speech at an historic DC-area synagogue. A 4th grader there asked Ms. Rice her opinion about the Obama administration’s comments about the Bush-era interrogation techniques of detainees. In part, she reiterated the general defense that September 11th was a scary time after which extraordinary techniques became necessary.

It strikes me that questions like the one asked by this student are often “gotcha” moments from parents with an axe to grind (what ten year old is independently concerned with the legality of the treatment of detainees by a former administration?) and maybe it was here, too. But Ms. Rice nonetheless deserves continued scrutiny of her position on this issue-even if that scrutiny is prompted by a question at an elementary school- after having given what, for a women of her experience, education and knowledge, is an absolutely disgraceful defense of George W. Bush’s torture authorization at Stanford recently. A quote:

“The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture,” Rice said at Stanford, before adding: “And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

Critics said the remark bore echoes of former president Richard M. Nixon’s notorious statement, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

This time, her answer was only slightly more subtle, but it nonetheless still managed to imply that, if the President authorized an action, it must have been legal.

“Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. After September 11, we wanted to protect the country,” she said. “But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country.”

The continuing defense of torture, by those from the Bush administration, as viable and necessary American policy is hard enough to justify. But Ms. Rice’s defense of it (both at Stanford and in DC) resting as it does on the notion that the President’s orders are inarguably legal, suggests one of three things: (1) Ms. Rice and her lawyers have crafted a public statement for her to give which attempts to obviate any legal responsibility she might have by asserting that she believed President Bush’s orders to be de facto legal; (2) Ms. Rice, by all accounts a smart, accomplished and educated policy expert, is somehow unaware that the President of the United States is subject to the laws of the country he leads or (3) that Ms. Rice is simply so loyal to Bush that she will say anything to protect him, even to go so far as to invoke Richard Nixon’s defense of his Watergate- era actions. Under any of the three scenarios, Ms. Rice should be ashamed for treating the law as if it has no meaning and for treating us as if we have no brains.

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