No Comment — May 6, 2009, 9:29 am

A Talk with Condi’s Interrogators

On April 27, Condoleezza Rice went to a reception at a Stanford University dormitory, which was followed by a private dinner with some of the students. Stanford undergrads Jeremy Cohn and Sammy Abusrur took the opportunity to pose some demanding questions, while a third Stanford student, Reyna Garcia, captured the event on film. The tape was posted to the Internet and quickly worked its way on to the news in the U.S. and around the world. I discussed the event with Cohn and Abusrur.

Q: What gave rise to your sparring match with Condoleezza Rice?

Cohn: First of all, I should say that I never intended our conversation to become a “sparring match.” I knew that my questions were not soft questions, but I specifically went in with the intention of keeping my words civil.

I had seen an email a few weeks ago advertising that Rice would be coming to my dorm to speak with and have dinner with several students. I immediately signed up to be in the pool from which the students would be randomly selected. I thought about the questions that I might ask, though I really doubted that I would be able to ask anything, especially once I was told I was not one of the students selected for the dinner. I went to the meet and greet, which was open to the dorm as a whole, and as students began to leave, I approached Rice, though only after encouragement from one of my friends.

harper-pic-jeremy-cohn

After my second question things became less civil, but you can watch the video and make your own decision about how things developed. She began to get defensive after my comment regarding World War II. After that our conversation wasn’t as polite.

Abusrur: I am a freelance photographer and was photographing Rice as she conversed with students at the Roble dormitory at Stanford. It bothered me that almost all of the students–except for the ones protesting outside–seemed thrilled to see her. They were simply lobbing banal questions and comments at her. Weren’t they aware of her history as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the Bush Administration? Finally Jeremy began asking Rice about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. I was disappointed when she deflected his questions with patronizing comments and finger-wagging. Rice’s defensive attitude prompted me to consider asking her a question, so I put down my camera and told her that I had a question. I told her about the recent report I had read concerning her approval of the use of torture by the CIA, and she objected, and I said, “not torture, waterboarding.” She seemed happy at that. Then it struck me to ask her whether she thought waterboarding was a form of torture. First, she replied that she did not authorize anything but just “conveyed” the authorization of the administration. At the time, her claim struck me as being similar to the Nuremberg Defense. Then I repeated my question: was waterboarding torture? Her response that, “By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture,” sounded eerily like President Richard Nixon’s infamous response to David Frost: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” I was delighted with her very revealing response. In fact, it was the highlight of my four years at Stanford.

Q: What kind of reaction have you gotten after the YouTube video began to circulate?

Cohn: Mostly positive. Several students, alumni, and locals have sent me positive emails thanking me for my part. People around campus have recognized me and shaken my hand and voiced their approval. They were happy that I posed tough questions, and several also noted that Rice was evasive. On the other hand, one student told me that he “did not think I was as smart as Rice.” Another student told me he thought Rice’s responses were accurate and appropriate.

sammy-abusrur

Abusrur: It’s been a unique experience. I had absolutely no idea that a video even existed before a friend sent me the link to it. I was excited that it had been captured on video; I was able to share my experience with my family and friends. Once the video spread around campus via email lists and Facebook, friends poured in their support. One friend started calling me Sammy “Frost” Abusrur.

Q: Rice kept insisting to you that she had to grapple with tough choices. How successfully do you think she did that? Did her eight years of stewardship as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State leave the world a better place?

Cohn: It’s true that she had to deal with some enormously difficult choices. However, I have wondered and continue to wonder about many of her actions since 9/11. And I do wonder about our diplomatic progress in the past few years.

I think the reputation of the United States suffered. Many of the Administration’s actions reflect poorly on the United States: holding prisoners indefinitely without trial, utilizing interrogation methods that many consider torture, decrying the human rights violations of one nation while remaining silent about the violations of our allies. Whether we like it or not, many nations believe that the United States violated international treaties with our treatment of detainees and enemy combatants. These perceptions of the United States affect how we interact with every other nation and its people. And ultimately these perceptions do affect our security.

Abusrur: I am not a political scientist, nor an international relations major, so I am not going to pretend that I am an expert on this subject. However, in my opinion, Condoleezza Rice’s eight years in the Bush Administration were a disaster for the United States. Evidence has shown she failed to act on intelligence warning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, approved torture, and finally, unconditionally supported Israel’s campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Lebanese and Palestinian children, women, and men. Therefore, I don’t think history will look back kindly on Condoleezza Rice. Indeed, the Bush Administration left the world in a worse state than it found it.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today