Days after telling students at Stanford University that waterboarding was legal "by definition if it was authorized by the president," former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was pressed again on the subject yesterday by a fourth-grader at a Washington school.
Rice, in her first appearance in Washington since leaving government, was at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital before giving an evening lecture at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. She held forth amiably before a few dozen students about her love of Israel, travel abroad and the importance of learning languages, then opened the floor to their questions.
The questions had been developed beforehand by students with their teachers and had not been screened by Rice. At first, they were innocuous: What was it like growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala.? What skill did she want to be best known for?
Then Misha Lerner, a student from Bethesda, asked: What did Rice think about the things President Obama's administration was saying about the methods the Bush administration had used to get information from detainees?
Rice took the question in stride. saying that she was reluctant to criticize Obama, then getting to the heart of the matter.
"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."
She added: "I hope you understand that it was a very difficult time. We were all so terrified of another attack on the country. September 11 was the worst day of my life in government, watching 3,000 Americans die. . . . Even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal, and I hope people understand that we were trying to protect the country."
Misha's mother, Inna Lerner, said the question her son had initially come up with was even tougher: "If you would work for Obama's administration, would you push for torture?"
"They wanted him to soften it and take out the word 'torture.' But the essence of it was the same," Lerner said.
Rice touched off a firestorm last week when she told students at Stanford that "we did not torture anyone."
"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."
Rice did not seem to hold Lerner's boldness against him. Because he missed the group photo she took with his classmates, she posed for a couple of solo shots with him -- and chatted briefly with him about Russia, the land where his parents are from and the one that Rice, a Russia expert by training, had told the students was her favorite abroad.