Why Is Condi Rice Joining the Torture Debate?

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

What prompted Condoleezza Rice to break a self-imposed silence on the Bush Administration's controversial use of harsh interrogation techniques on terror detainees?

Friends and colleagues of the former Secretary of State say it was not something she had planned, but that she was simply responding to questions in public settings. Others suggest she's determined not to let former Vice President Dick Cheney, who left office with a popularity rating in the sub-basement, become history's spokesman for Bush policy on Gitmo. In either case, Rice's recent comments mean she will be drawn into the widening debate about the Administration's record on interrogation. (See pictures of inside Guantanamo Bay.)

Having steered clear of the recent furor over President Obama's release of the so-called torture memos, the former Secretary of State weighed in with two public pronouncements in quick succession. Asked about waterboarding during a dorm visit with students at Stanford University, where she is now a political science professor, she said that "by definition if it was authorized by the President," the controversial technique was legal. The sound bite, with its inadvertent (and unfortunate) Nixonian resonance, raised eyebrows on the right and hackles on the left.

On Monday, Rice returned to the subject at greater length during a Q&A session with students at a primary school in Washington. Bush, she said, was determined to protect the country after 9/11, but "was very clear that we would do 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."

Rice's spokesman, Colby Cooper, cautions against reading too much into the timing of her defense of her former boss. "She was asked a question, and she's not going to not answer a question if asked," he says.

But was that the only reason? Vijay Padmabahnan, who teaches law at New York's Cardozo School and was in 2006 the State Department's counsel on detainee issues, says the Obama Administration's release of the torture memos "is going to force former Bush officials who were involved in the decision-making to explain why the Administration thought it was necessary to use enhanced interrogation techniques."

And just because members of Bush's inner circle might remain united in their faith that their policies were sound doesn't mean that they agree about who is best positioned to argue their case in public now. In fact, some former Bush Administration officials are relieved Rice spoke up because she does a better job, in their view, of representing the former President's thinking than Cheney. "Condi's view is more nuanced, and it's a more accurate reflection of President Bush's thinking — Cheney's take is his own," says one former Bush official familiar with the internal White House discussions on the CIA's interrogation policies. Even if it weren't more accurate, there is little denying that the always quite popular Rice is a better spokesperson than Cheney.

Rice's friends say she in no way relishes playing a bigger role in the inevitable review of Bush era policies. They add she has no intention of trading rhetorical punches with Cheney, and unlike the former veep, she's unlikely to go on TV to defend Bush's policies. But Rice, who is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution, does have other speaking engagements coming up. And it's a safe bet that as the review of Bush interrogation policies heats up, she will be taking on another role in service of her old boss.

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