Nothing better illustrates the extent to which the United States has turned its back on the rule of law than when the likes of Condoleezza Rice are asked to address graduates and receive doctoral degrees honoris causa at university commencements. Ms. Rice – in my view a war criminal – was accorded those honors Saturday by the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest college in the U.S.
Unlike Rice’s other university appearances in recent years, there was not the slightest sign of unhappiness, let alone protest. Most of the graduating seniors were not yet ten years old in 2003 when Rice played a key role helping President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney launch a war of aggression against Iraq. So, the graduates’ ignorance may perhaps be understandable, but it does not speak well for their grasp of recent history.
It is far less excusable for the patrician leadership of William and Mary to have bestowed this honor on Rice. Did the news not penetrate their ivory tower that last year Ms. Rice was prevented from being accorded similar honors by irate students at Rutgers University, who were sickened at the thought that their commencement would be sullied by Rice’s presence?
One of the leaders of the “No Rice” campaign at Rutgers last year (a senior at the time), Carmelo Cintrón Vivas, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that the “students felt that war criminals shouldn’t be honored. … Someone who has such a tainted record as a public servant in this country should not … get an honorary law degree for trying to circumvent the law. … That’s not fair to any student graduating or not graduating at Rutgers University.”
He found “ludicrous” the familiar argument that Rice’s academic achievements outweigh her political positions: “If we look into a lot of international criminals and just bad people in history, a lot of them had great academic careers or great medical careers. … Your career is one thing, and the way you act as a person, as a human being, is another one. And that’s why we make this an issue about human rights.”
How to explain the contrast between the apathy prevailing at William and Mary and the awareness and activism at Rutgers? Perhaps one clue is the marked difference between the costs of attending. Tuition and fees are significantly higher at William and Mary, located in Williamsburg, Virginia. Another clue might be seen in the remarkable “tradition” of asking predominantly conservative Republican speakers to do the honors, and to get the honors, at commencement.
In contrast to the scene at William and Mary, this year’s commencement at Rutgers awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters to Frances Fox Piven, a highly respected scholar and advocate for poor working people. Piven’s recent books include The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism. Piven also won the Shirley Chisholm Award for “leadership toward social and economic justice.”
Looking at the assembled graduates at William and Mary, I could not help but mourn the fact that they were being sent off into life by Rice instead of Piven. I would expect Piven to address the pressing challenges facing the “99 percent” – and the injustices behind the growing unrest in Baltimore, St. Louis and other troubled cities. Rice did not mention any of that on Saturday. It was all about her – a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that, although black in Birmingham, Alabama, she nonetheless grew up relatively privileged.
Worse Still: War Crimes
Rather than some profile in courage or a person of steadfast principles, Condoleezza Rice represents malleability in the face of criminality and evil. She is a profile in cowardice and expediency, the opposite sort of lesson in how to live one’s life than Piven or many other worthy commencement speakers would be expected to present.
When President George W. Bush told Ms. Rice to scarf up any and all “evidence,” no matter how sketchy or deceptive, to prove that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), she led the fraudulent campaign to present the “intelligence” needed to deceive Congress into supporting a war that fits the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal’s definition of a “war of aggression as the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Rice played her role as drum majorette for war with exceptional enthusiasm – conjuring up the danger of “mushroom clouds” from Iraq’s (nonexistent) nukes; “yellowcake” uranium from darkest Africa (based on crudely forged documents); and aluminum tubes (that turned out to be standard Iraqi artillery tubes) but she said were for refining uranium.
Rice led the parade, with Dick Cheney’s indispensable help, promoting the various manufactured “evidence” against Iraq. The fraudulent nature of those spurious claims was laid bare in a July, 23, 2002 British document, The Downing Street Memorandum, published by The London Times on May 1, 2005. Established as authentic, the memo exposed the unconscionable attempt to “fix” the intelligence to justify a U.S./U.K. attack for “regime change” in Iraq.
It was widely known at the time that, despite Dick Cheney’s repeated claims, Iraq had no functioning nuclear weapons program. But that did not stop Condoleezza Rice from warning in September 2002 that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Her drumbeating for war was greatly assisted by the compliant “mainstream media,” but she led the charge.
The dissents to the Bush-Cheney-Rice “big lie” – such as the warnings issued by us Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) – were repressed. Some of our pre-war warnings were written in Memoranda for the President. There were three before the attack on Iraq: (1) “Today’s Speech by Secretary Powell at the UN” (Feb. 5, 2003, warning of week intelligence and catastrophic consequences from an attack on Iraq); (2) “Cooking Intelligence for War” (March 12, 2003); and (3) “Forgery, Hyperbole, Half-Truth: A Problem With the Intelligence, Mr. President” (March 18, 2003).
With those memos and copious other warnings on the record, I can be perhaps forgiven for taking offense on Saturday as Ms. Rice piously urged reason, courage, honesty, humility and optimism on the graduates. Without apparent irony, she advised them to avoid being caught in an echo chamber, don’t think you are absolutely right, seek out people to challenge you, be wary of a constant Amen to everything you say.
The above is almost verbatim, since I was able to take good notes while watching the commencement event via live stream. The friends who invited me had “forgotten” to tell me who the commencement speaker was and stressed that tickets were available only to immediate family. My hosts were prompted by a (not unreasonable) fear that I would be constitutionally unable to sit quietly watching Condoleezza Rice give hypocrisy a bad name.
But aggressive war was only one of George W. Bush’s abuses of power. There also were kidnapping, black prisons, torture, unconstitutional surveillance in violation of the Fourth Amendment, etc. What role did Ms. Rice play in those?
In spring 2008, ABC News, citing inside sources, reported that beginning in 2002, at President Bush’s behest, National Security Advisor Rice convened his most senior aides (Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and Tenet) dozens of times in the White House during 2002-03 to sort out the most efficient mix of torture techniques for individual captured “terrorists.”
The torture advisers planned and approved the use of various methods – even choreographing some of them – including near drowning (waterboarding), sleep deprivation, physical assault, subjection to extremely cold temperatures to cause hypothermia and so-called stress positions.
At one point Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed aloud his misgivings: “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
Rice herself personally conveyed the White House group’s order to the CIA to commence waterboarding of prisoners, telling the CIA: “Go do it. It’s your baby” in July of 2002, even before Bush administration lawyer John Yoo wrote his famously faulty “torture memo” to “legalize” what they were doing. Such memos were an attempt to provide what a later Justice Department lawyer would label a “golden shield” from future criminal accountability for everyone involved. Other lawyers aptly describe Yoo’s memos as a kind of “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Initially, ABC News attempted to insulate the President from this sordid activity. But Bush spurned the protection, bragging that he knew all about these activities and approved.
After photos leaked depicting horrible inhumane abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Major General Antonio Taguba was assigned to investigate, he called the interrogation program that Rice and other officials had devised a “systemic regime of torture.” The list of approved techniques for the CIA had migrated down the military chain of command via Rumsfeld, one of the main participants at the White House meetings. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Misguided Honor for Condi Rice.”]
In 2008, the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial, Judge Susan J. Crawford, was forced to dismiss war crime charges against an important 9/11 suspect when she concluded that the U.S. military tortured the Saudi national by interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”
The difficulty that university officials experience in giving proper weight to these sordid facts about Condi Rice may stem in part from a political decision – the one made by President Barack Obama to “look forward as opposed to looking backward.” That decision could hardly be seen as based on adherence to the law, since all accountability for crime inherently requires examining past actions.
Rice’s leading role as White House action officer for torture was reiterated recently in a new book The Great War of Our Time, by Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA. Morell writes: “After the CIA presented a range of possible [interrogation] techniques to the White House, National Security Advisor Rice told us one of the techniques crossed the White House moral line and it was not to be used” (page 275).
Wherever that moral line was it apparently didn’t exclude waterboarding, which was among the tactics approved.
Almost seven decades ago, Robert H. Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg provided these prescient remarks to serve as what he believed would turn out to be a necessary guide for the future. He included this in his opening address:
“I am too well aware of the weaknesses of juridical action alone to contend that in itself your decision under this Charter can prevent future wars. Judicial action always comes after the event. Wars are started only on the theory and in the confidence that they can be won. Personal punishment, to be suffered only in the event the war is lost, will probably not be a sufficient deterrent to prevent a war where the war makers feel the chances of defeat to be negligible.
“But the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to law. And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”
A Bad Precedent
The William and Mary experience on Saturday is hardly the first time a university has succumbed to the “prestige virus” and given some powerful celebrity high honors at a commencement despite the person’s deplorable actions. There are, sad to say, numerous examples, including an earlier one involving Ms. Rice.
Condoleezza Rice gave the commencement address at Boston College on May 22, 2006, and was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (yes, George Orwell, that is ironic.). This was while she was serving as Secretary of State – after her deceptive sales job for the Iraq War but before the ABC News revelations in 2008 about her direct oversight role in torture.
Ten days before the commencement at BC, Steve Almond, adjunct professor of English, resigned in protest. Here are excerpts from his letter to BC’s president, Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.: “I am writing to resign … as a direct result of your decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be the commencement speaker at this year’s graduation.
“Many members of the faculty and student body already have voiced their objection to the invitation, arguing that Rice’s actions as secretary of state are inconsistent with the broader humanistic values of the university and the Catholic and Jesuit traditions from which those values derive.
“But I am not writing this letter simply because of an objection to the war against Iraq. My concern is more fundamental. Simply put, Rice is a liar. She has lied to the American people knowingly, repeatedly, often extravagantly over the past five years, in an effort to justify a pathologically misguided foreign policy. …
“This is the woman to whom you will be bestowing an honorary degree, along with the privilege of addressing the graduating class of 2006. … Honestly, Father Leahy, what lessons do you expect her to impart to impressionable seniors? … that it is acceptable to lie to the American people for political gain? …
“I cannot, in good conscience, exhort my students to pursue truth and knowledge, then collect a paycheck from an institution that displays such flagrant disregard for both. I would like to apologize to my students and prospective students. I would also urge them to investigate the words and actions of Rice, and to exercise their own First Amendment rights at her speech.”
Professor Almond was hardly alone. About a third of Boston College’s faculty members signed a letter objecting to Rice’s appearance. And here is how the New York Times reported the commencement event:
“Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered the commencement address on Monday at Boston College to an audience that included dozens of students and professors who stood, turned their backs and held up signs to protest the war in Iraq.
“A small plane flew overhead twice, pulling a sign that said, in red letters, ‘Your War Brings Dishonor.’ Outside Alumni Stadium, where 3,234 students received diplomas, protesters marched up Beacon Street holding signs reading ‘No Blood For Oil’ and ‘We’re Patriotic Too.’”
“Inside, however, Ms. Rice received a standing ovation when she was introduced, and she drew applause throughout her address.”
In his 1987 autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, Daniel Berrigan wrote of “the fall of a great enterprise” — the Jesuit university. He recorded his “hunch” that the university would end up “among those structures whose moral decline and political servitude signalize a larger falling away of the culture itself.”
Berrigan lamented “highly placed” churchmen and their approval of war, “uttered … with sublime confidence, from on high, from highly placed friendships, and White House connections.”
“Thus compromised,” warned Berrigan, “the Christian tradition of nonviolence, as well as the secular boast of disinterested pursuit of truth — these are reduced to bombast, hauled out for formal occasions, believed by no one, practiced by no one.”
Fr. Berrigan was particularly concerned with the devolution of Jesuit universities like Boston College. But, clearly, his observations apply not only to “highly placed” churchmen, but also to others – like the highly placed folks responsible for inviting Condoleezza Rice to the commencement exercises at William and Mary.