Condoleezza Rice’s troubling journey

Sidney Blumenthal
9 December 2005

The metamorphosis of Condoleezza Rice from the chrysalis of the protégé into the butterfly of the state department has not been a natural evolution but has demanded self-discipline.

She has burnished an image of the ultimate loyalist, yet betrayed her mentor, George HW Bush's national-security advisor Brent Scowcroft. She is the team player, yet carefully inserted knives in the back of her predecessor, Colin Powell, climbing up them like a ladder of success. She is the person most trusted on foreign policy by the president, yet was an enabler for vice-president Cheney and the neo-conservatives. Now her public-relations team at the state department depicts her as a restorer of realism, builder of alliances and maker of peace.

On her first trip to Europe in February 2005 she left the sensation of being fresh by listening rather than lecturing. The flirtation of power appeared to have a more seductive effect than arrogance. So the old face became a new face. But on this week's trip the iron butterfly emerged.

Also in openDemocracy on the United States, the “war on terror”, and torture:

David Rose, “Guantánamo: America’s war on human rights” (September 2004)

Clive Stafford Smith, “Torture: an idea for our time” (August 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, “Captured by Guantánamo” (September 2005)

Andrew Blick & Stuart Weir, “The rules of the game: Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy” (November 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “America’s secret prisons: Alvaro Gil-Robles interviewed” (November 2005)

Mats Engström, “The European union’s anti-terror plans: lift the secrecy” (November 2005)

Michael Naumann, “The CIA archipelago” (December 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Into the whirlwind

Rice arrived as the enforcer of the Bush administration's torture policy. She reminded the queasy Europeans that their intelligence services, one way or another, are involved in the rendition of hundreds of suspected terrorists transported through their airports for harsh interrogation in countries like Jordan and Egypt or secret CIA prisons known as "black sites." With her warnings, Rice recast the western alliance as a partnership in complicity. In her attempt to impose silence, she spread guilt. Everybody is unclean in the dirty war and nobody has any right to complain. "What I would hope that our allies would acknowledge," she said, "is that we are all in this together."

For the European leaders, facing publics hostile to US policy in Iraq and torture, Rice's visit was disquieting. In Italy, prosecutors have issued indictments of twenty-two current and former CIA operatives for their "extraordinary rendition " of an Egyptian suspect; among those indicted is the former Rome CIA station chief, whom an Italian judge has ruled has no immunity from prosecution. Italian foreign minister Gianfranco Fini, asked about renditions, said, "We know absolutely nothing. We have not one single piece of knowledge." If the Italian government knew the facts, it would investigate, he added.

In Britain, the foreign office released a diplomatic disclaimer that it has "no evidence to corroborate media allegations about the use of UK territory in rendition operations." But upset members of the House of Commons have launched a parliamentary inquiry into whether the UK has violated the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Foreign minister Jack Straw sent Rice a letter requesting any "clarification the U.S. can give about these reports in the hope that this will allay parliamentary and public concerns."

When the Washington Post reported on the eve of Rice's trip that CIA prisons holding US detainees exist in Romania, Poland and other eastern European nations, it triggered an explosion. Even though Romania and Poland denied the report, the European Commission and the Council of Europe began investigations. The commission declared that for any member state to harbour a CIA prison would be "extremely serious" and would bring down sanctions upon it.

In Germany, Rice was greeted by the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, eager to repair relations with the Bush administration made awkward by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the Iraq war. Rice's visit was supposed to smooth over the conflicts of the past, but instead it surfaced new ones that indicated that the divisions between Germany – and Europe – and the US are rooted in the Bush administration's fundamental policies.

Rice arrived in Berlin on the heels of a Washington Post report about the rendition, to a secret CIA jail in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit, of a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri who was tortured and imprisoned for five months in a case of mistaken identity. After meeting with Rice, Merkel announced that Rice had acknowledged that the US had made a "mistake" in the case. But Rice countered with a statement denying she had said that at all. The reconciliation with Germany was botched; Merkel was embarrassed; and Rice's credibility, at least in the German press, was left in tatters.

Rice had hoped to quell the controversy before she landed. On Monday, as she boarded her plane at Andrews Air Force base in Washington, she delivered a lengthy statement on torture. Her speech was remarkable for its defensive, dense and evasive tone. It was replete with half-truths, outright falsehoods, distortions and subterfuges.

Her remarks can never sway or convince any European leader, foreign ministry or intelligence service, which have the means to make their own judgments. In her effort to persuade world opinion and reassure the American public, she raised the debate over torture to greater prominence and virtually invited inspection of her claims.

A question of torture

Rice has made memorable statements in the past.

There was her appearance before the 9/11 Commission, in which she had trouble recalling the CIA's Presidential Daily Briefing of 6 August 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US," and dismissed its significance.

There were her many assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

There was her attack on Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief on the National Security Council, for his disclosure that both she and the president did not regard al-Qaida as an urgent threat before 11 September 2001, as a "scurrilous allegation."

But her remarks on torture may turn out to be her most unforgettable full-length speech, tainting her tenure as secretary of state as indelibly as Colin Powell's speech making the case for the Iraq war before the United Nations blotted him.

"Torture is a term that is defined by law," said Rice. "We rely on our law to govern our operations." She neglected to explain that "torture" as she used it has been defined by presidential findings to include universally defined methods of torture, such as waterboarding, for which US soldiers were court-martialled in 1902 and 1968 specifically on the basis of having engaged in torture.

But the Bush administration has rejected adherence to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," in the term of then White House legal counsel and now attorney-general Alberto Gonzales; rejects torture as it is defined in the United Nations Convention Against Torture (although the US is a signatory); and rejects torture as it is interpreted by other international expert bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights, whose judgments are binding on the nations of the Council of Europe.

"The United States does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances," Rice insisted in her statement. "Moreover, in accordance with the policy of this administration: The United States has respected – and will continue to respect – the sovereignty of other countries."

But was the kidnapping of the Egyptian suspect in Italy that has resulted in the twenty-two indictments of CIA operatives a fiction? Have the Italian prosecutors been made aware that the event was a figment of their imaginations? Was holding el-Masri, the innocent German, not a violation of the sovereignty of another country?

Rice continued: "The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured."

But the German government was reported to have a list of 400 flights over European airspace for the purpose of renditions. And Amnesty International reports that there have been 800 such flights. Once again, Rice relies upon her own definition of "torture" to deny it.

She went on: "The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured." In fact, the US receives assurances from those countries that it would be unlikely that the suspects will be tortured, a technical loophole that provides for a washing of hands. Everybody on all sides understands that there will be torture, as there has been.

Rice's legal interpretations were authoritative, bland and bogus. It is hard to say whether they should be called Orwellian for their intentional falsity or Kafkaesque for their unintentional absurdity.

"International law allows a state to detain enemy combatants for the duration of hostilities," she said. But the administration has vitiated international law with its presidential findings. The "global war on terror" is a conflict without end; its time limit extends into perpetuity. So long as terror is used as a tactic, or the threat of terror exists, which it always does, a state of war, such as it is, justifies indefinite detention.

Then, Rice presented as the administration's position precisely the position it opposes: "Detainees may only be held for an extended period if the intelligence or other evidence against them has been carefully evaluated and supports a determination that detention is lawful. The US does not seek to hold anyone for a period beyond what is necessary to evaluate the intelligence or other evidence against them, prevent further acts of terrorism, or hold them for legal proceedings."

But the Bush administration has refused to place detainees within the criminal justice system. Instead, they have been kept in a legal limbo, denied the protections of both the US justice system and the Geneva Conventions. The administration has hid "ghost detainees" from the International Red Cross. If the suspects are criminals, they have not been tried as criminals.

Rice cited two cases to make her point: Carlos the Jackal, the international terrorist captured in Sudan in 1994, and Ramzi Youssef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. But, unlike current detainees, both were put on public trial, Carlos in France, Youssef in the United States. And the European Commission on Human Rights issued a report that Carlos's rights were not violated. Both cases refuted in their particulars the larger argument Rice was making.

One case Rice did not cite was that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured al-Qaida operative, whose claims about Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD were used by the administration to build the case for the Iraq war. "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," President Bush said on 7 October 2002, drawing on al-Libi's information. Al-Libi also provided the basis for a dramatic high point of secretary of state Powell's UN speech: "the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al-Qaida.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton. He is the author of The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

Also in openDemocracy by Sidney Blumenthal:

“Bush’s Potemkin village presidency” (September 2005)

“Republican tremors” (October 2005)

“George W Bush: home alone” (October 2005)

“Dick Cheney’s day of reckoning” (November 2005)

”Dick Cheney’s shadow play” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

"Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate to you now, as he himself, described it." But al-Libi had been tortured and repeated to his interrogators what they had suggested to him. The Defense Intelligence Agency reported in February 2002 that al-Libi's information was dubious, and the CIA also questioned its credibility in a report in January 2003 – both reports made before the war.

Rice's various statements created a pandemonium across Europe that she tried to quiet with a clarification Wednesday in Ukraine. The policy she had just declared we did not follow she announced we would no longer pursue. "As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States' obligations under the CAT [U.N. Convention Against Torture], which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States," Rice said at a press conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Where was Condi?

Rice's erratic journey also raises the question of her own part in the policy. The Washington Post story on el-Masri reports that Rice intervened on the side of informing the German government, a disclosure that resulted in el-Masri's release. This fact suggests that Rice has a degree of authority and knowledge in the realm of detainees and "black sites."

Since 2003, Rice has repeatedly told representatives of Human Rights Watch and other similar organisations that the US does not torture. There is no trail of memos tracing her involvement in the titanic struggle over US torture policy between Powell and the senior military on one side and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft's justice department on the other. Was the national security advisor completely out of the loop? On 19 November, ABC News reported: "Current and former CIA officers tell ABC News there is a presidential finding, signed in 2002, by President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and then-attorney-general John Ashcroft, approving the [harsh interrogation] techniques, including waterboarding."

That technique has its origin in the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed, in 1490, a baptised Christian who was a secret Jew, a converso named Benito Garcia, was subjected to water torture. The process drew out of him a confession of the ritual murder of a Christian child by crucifixion to get his blood for a magic ceremony to halt the Inquisition and bring about Jewish control. The incident greatly helped whip up the fear that led to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, as described by James Reston Jr in his new book, Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors.

Since the inquisition, the method of waterboarding has been little refined. But Rice, like Bush, says we did not and will not torture anymore.

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