Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently tried to defend the Bush administration’s torture program in a discussion with a group of Stanford students on April 27. Channeling Richard Nixon, Rice said that “by definition,” once the president authorized “enhanced interrogations,” they were automatically legal:
Q: Is waterboarding torture in your opinion?
RICE: I just said, the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.
Today, Dan Abrams released the transcript of a panel discussion he conducted with former attorneys general John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales that same day. When Abrams asks them a question similar to the one posed to Rice, Ashcroft and Gonzales come to a very conclusion — Nixon is wrong:
ASHCROFT: When the President does it. If he has the authority to do it, it means it’s not a crime.
ABRAMS: Take away the caveat there. If has the authority to do it. What President Nixon was saying was “When the President does it, that means its not illegal.”
ASHCROFT: Well, no. Obviously the President does not have carte blanche to do things – [Applause] that are illegal. [...]
ABRAMS: Do you disagree with President Nixon as well? [...]
GONZALES: I think that’s its dangerous to say that the President would have that kind of authority.
Also in the interview, when asked how about the job President Obama is doing, Gonzales replied, “I tend to follow President Bush’s model in terms of saying less — as opposed to Vice President Cheney’s [Laughter]. I’m often asked the same question.”
DA: Let me ask you – I want to read a famous quote, Attorney General Ashcroft. Richard Nixon. . .when he said “The President does it – [Laughter] that means it’s not illegal.” And the follow up was, “If the President for example approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of the threat of internal peace and the order of significant magnitude, then the President’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out without violating the law, otherwise, they’re in an impossible position.” Do you agree with Richard Nixon?
JA: There are –
AG: I’m glad he asked you that – [Laughter]
DA: Well, you’re getting it too. [Laughter]
AG: I want to see how he answers that.
JA: There are things that a President only has the authority to do. And no one else has the authority to do.
DA: But when the President does it –
JA: When the President does it. If he has the authority to do it, it means its not a crime.
DA: Take away the caveat there. If has the authority to do it. What President Nixon was saying was “When the President does it, that means its not illegal.”
JA: Well, no. Obviously the President does not have carte blanche to do things – [Applause] that are illegal. And the law –
DA: Even because of national security?
JA: That’s correct, there are certain things the President doesn’t have the right to do, even in national security. But there are significant powers that the President has in national security, and I believe that there are some powers that are “inherent’ in the presidency that come to him in the constitutional designation as Commander In Chief.
DA [to AG]: Do you disagree with President Nixon as well?
AG: I think that the President can make the decision for the executive branch. But the courts have the final say. The framers envisioned a system of checks and balances, and the checks on the executive branch are the decisions by the court. And so if the courts tell President Nixon that he’s done something that’s unlawful –
DA: But if the courts haven’t ruled on it yet. There’ll be times when the President will have to make a decision. President Nixon was saying — if the President approves something because of national security, or because of the threat to internal peace and order, than the President’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out to carry it out without violating the law.
AG: I think that’s its dangerous to say that the President would have that kind of authority.
A group of students and faculty at Truman University are protesting the school’s decision to award Ashcroft an honorary degree and allow him time to speak at commencement.