It’s still one of my favorite photos from the Bush Administration. This ran in a NYT article in the Music section dated April 9, 2006, and it read, as we posted at the time, like “fiddling while Iraq burns.” In light of the Senate C.I.A. torture report summary released yesterday, however, it strikes a different chord. April 2006, according to the account published in the NYT, also marked the first time the C.I.A. director briefed Bush about the torture program that had been going on for the past few years. That said, the report only hints at how much Bush, and particularly Rice and Cheney, knew about the systematic abuse but played it off.
Which brings us back to the old refrain of what did they know and when did they know it.
According to The Times story about the Administration’s role:
… Condoleezza Rice, who was the president’s national security adviser in his first term, has written about discussions with Mr. Bush about the program, at least on a general level. Another senior White House official from that era said in an interview this year that he, too, recalled the president being briefed and rejecting at least one technique. Bill Harlow, a former C.I.A. spokesman who helped Mr. Tenet write his own memoir, checked with the former director in response to a request this year and said that Mr. Tenet “said that while he did not personally brief the president” on the techniques, “as the program was being established, he has no doubt that either Condi or Steve Hadley did at the time.” Stephen J. Hadley was Ms. Rice’s deputy.
Other accounts indicated that the president’s staff deliberately shielded him from graphic descriptions of the interrogations. According to “500 Days” by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald, Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, took Mr. Tenet’s request to use harsh techniques on Abu Zubaydah to the president. When Mr. Bush asked what kind of techniques, Mr. Gonzales replied, according to the book, “Mr. President, I think for your own protection, you don’t need to know the details of what’s going on here.”
If there is one theme developed at The Bag over those four years, it was Ms. Rice’s persona as an innocent (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.). With all that was written about the media’s collusion with the administration in the early days of the Iraq War especially, this extended feature about Ms. Rice’s musical and social prowess in Washington certainly struck an odd note as the war in Iraq, by then a slog, continued to deteriorate. It’s not that many on the left weren’t shouting hard questions, and even illuminating the stories and the documents that were emerging about torture, it’s that the larger public — all too caught up in the lingering strains of 9/11 and the administration’s chorus of fear of “the evil doers” — were all too willing to be played.
Which brings us back to the timing, considering the photo, appearing April 9, 2006, in that milleu:
In the summer of 2002, when she requested a delay in using the techniques to learn more about them, the C.I.A. told her that “countless more Americans may die unless we can persuade A.Z. to tell us” what he knows. Ms. Rice relented. A few days later, her legal adviser told Mr. Tenet’s chief of staff that the C.I.A. had approval to use the techniques but that “there would be no briefing of the president on this matter,” the Senate report says.
By the time the C.I.A. director came in April 2006 to give Mr. Bush the agency’s first briefing about the interrogation techniques it had been using since 2002, more than three dozen prisoners had already been subjected to them.
Given the explosive nature of the torture program and the need for deniability, the ability to lull both the public and the media represented the highest form of art.
Looking back from now, by the way, there’s also a darkly funny element at the end of that interminable and subject-changing bio piece about the would-be music prodigy. Pointing out the Secretary of State would not be Secretary of State forever, the question arises what her next great ambition might be. Talk about world of hurt… there’s the presidency of Stanford, but even more so, there’s the bigger dream — of becoming the Commissioner of the NFL.
(photo: Stephen Crowley for The New York Times caption: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, center, with her chamber group; from left, Soye Kim, Joshua Klein, Robert Battey and Lawrence Wallace. The group plays as often as every other week.)