Is Rice smarter than a 4th grader?

IS RICE SMARTER THAN A 4TH GRADER?…. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ran into a little trouble in April during a discussion with students at Stanford University, during which she denied waterboarding is torture and was necessarily legal because the president authorized the abusive techniques.

Yesterday, Rice was pressed on the same issue by another student, though this one was quite a bit younger.

…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? […]

“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 Lerner, a Washington-area fourth-grader, apparently intended to ask a more pointed question about torture, but his mother said “they” asked the student to “soften” his question.

As for the substance of Rice’s remarks, they’re obviously pretty unpersuasive. It’s basically a two-pronged argument: 1) we were all scared out of our minds at the time, so we took extraordinary measures; and 2) the extraordinary measures were all legal, so don’t worry about it.

The first — let’s call it the “temporary insanity” defense — might be more compelling were it not for the second. In fact, I’d actually like to hear more Bush administration officials make this argument explicitly, telling the country, “Look, there was a panic and we crossed lines we shouldn’t have. Cooler heads should have prevailed, but didn’t. For a short while, we lost our heads, but we eventually got back on track. It was a regrettable lapse of judgment that won’t happen again.”

That may or may not be persuasive, it may or may not free Bush administration of legal responsibility for wrongdoing. But it’s a hell of a lot better than, “Torture wasn’t torture, and crimes weren’t illegal.” Even a fourth-grader can see through that nonsense.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.