Condie's exchange with Barbara Boxer is bound to get the most press, simply because it was the most combative; the media (including the punditocracy and the blogosphere) loves to focus on overt conflict, since it provides a brainless narrative line. But of what I heard of the testimony, the most telling exchange was this one she had with Senator Christopher Dodd:
Say what? It's "not very appropriate" for the prospective Secretary of State, whose responsibilities include advancing the international protection of human rights, to comment on whether certain interrogation techniques constitute torture?
SEN. DODD: Is it your view, as a human matter, that water- boarding and the use, as we saw, in prisons in Iraq of nudity -- is that torture in your personal view, as a nominee here for the --
MS. RICE: Senator, I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques, but let me talk about Abu Ghraib, because that was not acceptable.
SEN. DODD: I'd like to just get your views on just a simple matter. It's a simple question I'm asking. I'm... asking about some very specific techniques that were used, whether or not you consider them to be torture or not.
MS. RICE: Senator, the determination of whether interrogation techniques are consistent with our international obligations and American law are made by the Justice Department. I don't want to comment on any specific interrogation techniques. I don't think that would be appropriate, and I think it would not be very good for American security.
Dodd goes on:
Dodd asks Rice two crucial questions, that to my mind speak directly to her suitability to be a leader of our government. First, he asks what her "human reaction" is to waterboarding as an interrogation technique; second, he asks her whether waterboarding constitues "torture." Both questions get right at whether Rice has the moral character suitable to be running State.
SEN. DODD: Well, let's leave it, if that's your answer, there. It's a disappointing answer, I must say. The face of U.S. foreign policy is in the person of the secretary of State, and it's important at moments like this to be able to express yourself aside from the legalities of things, how you as a human being react to these kinds of activities. And with the world watching, when a simple question is raised about techniques that I think most people would conclude in this country are torture, it's important at a moment like that that you can speak clearly and directly without getting involved in the legalisms questions. I understand these involve some legal determinations, but as a human being how you feel about this, about to assume the position and be responsible for pursuing the human rights issues that this nation has been deeply committed to for decades, is a very important moment.
MS. RICE: Senator, I maintain the commitment and will maintain the commitment of the United States to norms of international behavior and to the legal norms that we have helped to --
SEN. DODD: Let me ask you this, then. What would happen if someone did this to an American? What would happen if we saw on television that a captured American was being subjected to these kind of activities? How would you react to it?
MS. RICE: Senator, the United States of America -- American personnel are not engaged in terrorism against innocents.
SEN. DODD: I wasn't asking you what they have been charged with. I'm asking whether or not, if you saw an American be treated like this, how would you react?
MS. RICE: We expect Americans to be -- because we are parties to the Geneva Conventions, we expect Americans to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
SEN. DODD: Of course we do. And do you consider these kinds of activities to violate the Geneva Conventions?
MS. RICE: We believe that there are certain categories of people, the al Qaeda, for instance, who were not covered by Geneva, that in fact it would have been a stretch to cover them under Geneva, would have weakened Geneva to cover them. But the president said that they had to be treated, as military necessity allowed, consistent with the application of Geneva.
SEN. DODD: Do me a favor. At the end of all of these hearings, I'd like you to spend about 15 minutes with John McCain and talk to him about this stuff. I think you'll get some good advice when it comes to the subject matter, someone who has been through this, about what the dangers are when we have sort of waffling answers about these questions and then Americans can be apprehended and what happens to them.
Let me move on, because I don't want to take up the committee's time on this particular point, but I'm troubled by your answer.
To Dodd's first question, Rice had no reply. (Dodd even made the moral work easy for her, by asking her what she would feel if she heard of an American being waterboarded; but she still wouldn't answer.) There are only two interpretations of this refusal or inability to answer: either she in fact had no "human reaction," or she is refusing to testify before Congress, which if I were a Senator with any self-respect, would immediately cause her to lose my vote.
To Dodd's second question, she replied with boilerplate about "commitment to norms of international behavior" -- but given her unwillingness to define the key terms of those international norms, the boilerplate becomes meaningless. Saying you defend an abstract principle without being willing to discuss specific applications is the definition of intellectual dishonesty. It's like saying "I support the first amendment," but then refusing to define what you mean by "speech" or "religion" or "assembly"; or like posing as a defender of the second amendment, but refusing to discuss what the phrase "A well regulated militia" might mean.