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Rutgers U. Should Not Honor Condoleezza Rice

[Updated (5/3/2014, 10:55 a.m.): Condoleezza Rice decided on Saturday not to give the May 18 address, according to NJ.com. "Rutgers' invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time," she said.]

The Rutgers University Board of Governors has invited Condoleezza Rice to speak at the 2014 commencement and to receive an honorary doctor-of-laws degree. No one is denying her right to speak, but many Rutgers faculty members and students are appalled by the board’s decision to grant Rice the university’s highest honor. In response to that decision, my colleagues and I are planning a teach-in, to be held on May 6. We want to give our students a firmer grasp of their own recent history, in which Rice played a major role in the most troubling events.

The choice to celebrate Condoleezza Rice is dismaying for several reasons. One is procedural. Contrary to previous practice, faculty members were involved only minimally in choosing the commencement speaker, and members of the Rutgers community at large were not consulted. The selection committee apparently proceeded on its own and in secret.

The most important reasons for opposing the board’s choice are substantive. As national-security adviser to President George W. Bush, Rice knowingly collaborated in the Bush administration’s campaign of distortions and untruths that sold the invasion of Iraq to the American people. In promoting the false claim that Saddam Hussein was determined to acquire nuclear weapons, she told the nation that in the search for weapons of mass destruction, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Yet even as she made that pronouncement, experts in the administration’s own Energy Department were refuting the argument that the aluminum tubes Iraq had purchased were meant to be used in centrifuges for nuclear-weapons production. Nor did subsequent U.N. inspections reveal any evidence of a nuclear-weapons program in Iraq. Like her colleagues, Rice knowingly misrepresented the debate to justify an invasion, which had calamitous consequences for thousands of American soldiers and the Iraqi population.

But the gravest charge that can be brought against Rice is simple: There is no question that while she was national-security adviser and later secretary of state in the Bush administration, Rice condoned, facilitated, and sought to justify torture.

This statement depends on specific evidence, which one can only assume the Rutgers board did not know about when it made its offer. She “conveyed the authorization,” in her own words, for “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees in July 2002. The phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” is a euphemism for torture, which included forcing detainees to maintain painful bodily positions, depriving them of sleep and food, and slamming their heads against a wall. It also included waterboarding.

Rice approved those practices even before the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had produced the “torture memos” that were designed to protect administration officials from future prosecution—“get-out-of-jail free cards,” in the words of Jack Goldsmith, who was head of the office during 2003-4. Well into 2005, Rice continued to join the other principals on the National Security Council in approving torture.

But in February 2006, Rice’s aide Philip Zelikow warned the administration that the techniques it was using could be considered “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” and were therefore prohibited under U. S. law “even if there is a compelling state interest asserted to justify them.” He later concluded that the Bush interrogation techniques constituted “a felony war crime.”

Rice may have been influenced by this memo and by the Supreme Court decision in June 2006 (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), which ruled that the Geneva Conventions against torture applied to the U.S. government’s treatment of detainees. Whatever the reason, Rice began privately to urge an end to torture as administration policy—or so Zelikow later told the Senate. Her shift may improve her standing, however slightly, with historians. But it does not excuse her earlier participation in a “felony war crime.”

And the troubling fact remains: In public, Rice persisted in temporizing about torture. In 2008, testifying before Congress, she claimed that she could not remember the details of the White House position on CIA interrogation techniques. A few days later, at Stanford University, she shifted her stance, telling students that “if it was authorized by the president, then it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.” This was a version of Richard Nixon’s infamous assertion: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” It also recalls the bureaucratic functionary’s classic defense that he was “just following orders” in carrying out war crimes.

As recently as April 2013, in a video meant to accompany the opening of the Bush Library, in Dallas, Rice defended the administration’s torture program, making the dubious claim that it kept us safe in the years following 9/11—a claim that even the CIA refused to make in a report issued in 2004.

Let us not be distracted by the falsely conceived question: “Does it work?” Torture is not a legitimate topic for tactical debate. Nor is it a partisan political matter. It is a legal and moral matter. Cruel and inhumane punishment is not only an offense against the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. It is also an offense against fundamental standards of human decency.

Rice sanctioned the use of torture and has continued to defend it even after a top aide warned that she and her colleagues were violating the law. To invite her to address the Rutgers graduating class, and then to award her a doctor-of-laws degree, is a travesty of all the ideals the university embodies. Our students deserve better. Most of all, they deserve the truth.

Jackson Lears is a professor of history at Rutgers University.

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