Excerpts of interview with former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 16, 2014 


Former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, photographed in his home in Washington, D.C., April 15, 2014, was the main architect of the harsh interrogation techniques used against terror detainees at secret black sites around the world from 2002 through 2008. As the CIA's former top law who vetted the controversial program, he rejects leaked findings of a four-year Senate Intelligence Committee probe that the rough interrogations went beyond rules set by the Justice Department and produced little useful intelligence from detainees.


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McClatchy Pentagon Correspondent James Rosen sat down this week with John Rizzo, former CIA acting general counsel, to discuss recently published findings of a four-year Senate Intelligence Committee report on harsh interrogation techniques used on terror detainees. Here are excerpts from their interview.

MCCLATCHY: You put yourself right at the center of this. You write in “The Company Man,” your memoirs: “I have no doubt that if I had said the word, much if not all of the EIT (enhanced interrogation techniques) initiative would have quietly died before it was born.” So you sound like the legal kingpin.

RIZZO: Well, yeah, I was the legal architect at the agency.

MCCLATCHY: So you’re the right person to talk with.


MCCLATCHY: So here (in the book) you name two al Qaida big guys who were captured through the waterboarding intel from Zubaydah _ Ramzi bin al Shibh and Rahim al Nashiri. And then later on you say more broadly that everybody realized it might not be great for their careers, but what mattered is that it was good for the country.

RIZZO: I knew it wasn’t going to be good for my career.

MCCLATCHY: You said (in your memoirs) that you and others were staunchly “convinced that EITs were proving to be an indispensable element to discovering and thwarting a reprise of the 9/11 attacks.” That seems to directly refute one of the supposed findings of the Senate report: “The CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques did not effectively assist the agency in acquiring intelligence or in gaining cooperation from detainees.” What’s your response?

RIZZO: To state the obvious, it’s hard to respond to a one-sentence conclusion. I have no idea what was. . . .

MCCLATCHY: I will provide every caveat _ you said that you had not read the report, you were only going by published accounts.

MCCLATCHY: But back to the question that they didn’t produce good intelligence, they didn’t help prevent more terrorist attacks.

RIZZO: Well, Jim, this program went on for six years. And I watched daily – every night there was a meeting in those early years at 5 o’clock. It was chaired by the CIA director, George Tenet. And every night, during the course of those briefings, the career CIA analysts and operatives would sit there and recite the information that had been acquired from these detainees. I mean on a daily basis. I’m not an analyst or an operative, but I’m not stupid, and I sat there and listened to this relentlessly. And it just convinced me _ especially, as I said in the book, that some of these career CIA people were not generally enamored of the Bush administration, so it wasn’t like they were ideologues. But I was convinced that these techniques were yielding detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots. Now was there ever a ticking time-bomb scenario? I don’t remember a particular: “Tomorrow, LAX is going to blow up,” but it was incremental and it was steady. And I became convinced just by listening to these career people that the program was yielding very, very valuable benefits.

RIZZO: The other point I would make is that, you know, this program went on for over six years _ from 2002 through 2008. It was ended by President Obama the second day he took office.

MCCLATCHY: So that would have been actually into January of 2009.

RIZZO: And of course, as you know, the program, certainly after the first couple of years, because of leaks, had become pretty well known in the media. And it was becoming politically more controversial and toxic by the day. And it was reasonably clear that the agency was in a huge political firestorm. The question I would ask your readers: Why would the CIA continue in that kind of atmosphere _ that toxic, corrosive political atmosphere _ would the agency continue a program that wasn’t yielding anything?

MCCLATCHY: That’s a good point. In other words, the agency’s reputation was taking a hit.

RIZZO: Yeah, yeah. And you know anyone who was near it could see that their careers were being damaged. And me, my career was largely aborted because of the program. You know, the failed confirmation. If I didn’t think it was worthwhile, why would I have stayed involved with it? It wasn’t getting me anything career-wise.

MCCLATCHY: It’s interesting that you say your career was aborted. You were still the top lawyer at the CIA.

RIZZO: Yeah, I was still the chief legal officer. It would have been nice for the Senate to confirm and to actually be called general counsel. What I’m saying is that would have been the culmination of my career to be confirmed as general counsel, but I wasn’t because of this program. But no, one of the things that’s so strange is after this big conflagration over my nomination, I withdrew it; next day I go back to the office, I’m sitting in the same place, I’m still the chief legal officer.

MCCLATCHY: Sometimes when people withdraw nominations, they get replaced by another nominee. Why didn’t that happen with you?

RIZZO: Well, the Bush White House. . . .

MCCLATCHY: . . . didn’t want to signal political defeat.

RIZZO: Yeah. And the CIA director, who at that time was Mike Hayden, said, “You’re still my lawyer.” I actually stayed about eight months into the Obama administration. I was sort of amazed that I survived. I thought I was going to be the first guy out of there when they came in. (Laughing.) They called it torture, and here’s the chief legal architect.

MCCLATCHY: This is another important point [from the committee findings]: “The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.” We’ve got a DOJ document that we FOIAed – and I think this is the DOJ pushing back at some of the memos that came out. You know, the Yoo memo, the Bybee memo. But basically DOJ folks told Feinstein’s people that you guys misrepresented the EITs to them, that you did not give them the full extent of the program, and thus they were not able to provide a proper legal analysis. You say in your book that you guys went to a lot of effort to vet these programs and to describe them, in writing, in a number of memos to DOJ. So what’s your response to the claim that you – you – did not fully inform DOJ of the EITs that were subsequently used?

RIZZO: Well, I mean, it’s just false. First of all, if the implication is that – and it has to be directed at me – that I purposely misled the Department of Justice about what the techniques were and how they were being implemented, I absolutely reject that. Jim, four years this committee had this investigation, $50 million – they never once asked to interview me. Never. And I would have happily given the interview for as long as they wanted. I mean, I was just an $8 cab ride away. But why didn’t they do that? And not just me, they didn’t interview any CIA people. Now they claim that there was a pending criminal investigation ongoing by the Department of Justice into the (interrogation) program, and they were concerned that CIA people would be reluctant. Well, I wasn’t reluctant. Maybe some people would have been reluctant, but I will tell you – I’ve talked to some of my fellow. . . . There are probably two dozen senior CIA people that were heavily involved in this program, who are retired. I’ve talked to a number of them. I can tell you, a good many of them would have welcomed the opportunity to be interviewed. And none of them _ nobody (was interviewed). And here they are making an accusation about my honor and my integrity, without the basic fairness of giving me an opportunity to explain and defend myself. I just think that’s unconscionable. This one’s clearly aimed at me; there’s no getting around it. I’m the guy who was dealing with Justice, so they’re saying I gave – whatever – repeated, false, misleading. . . .

MCCLATCHY: “The CIA subjected detainees to interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA headquarters.” That could be cowboy operators operating beyond the scope of the program.

RIZZO: There were incidents when CIA interrogators went beyond the authorized techniques. So I’m not denying that. It didn’t occur frequently, but it did occur. But the point is, each time that was done and discovered, CIA reported it to the Department of Justice because anything that was beyond the authorized scope of the techniques was potentially a criminal violation. So I’m not aware of any unauthorized techniques that were not reported in a timely fashion to the Department of Justice, among those we learned about. So that conclusion is actually accurate, but if the idea is that we covered this up, nothing could be further from the truth.

MCCLATCHY: Can you give any quantitative sense of that? They were used for seven years.

RIZZO: At most, I would say six times. Just to be safe – eight times. Once a year, approximately.

MCCLATCHY: I assume if there’s bad stuff in one of the IG reports, it’s going to be in the Senate report.

RIZZO: (Laughs.) I’m guessing that’s right, Jim.

MCCLATCHY: So what about mock executions? Is that one of the excesses that you knew about?

RIZZO: Well, there was at least one instance – I don’t know about mock executions – where a detainee was threatened with execution. That’s the only one I remember. But I mean, this is like 12 years ago.

MCCLATCHY: What about threats of harm to the detainee’s family members?

RIZZO: I don’t remember that one, but I can’t deny it happened. I just don’t remember. It could have happened. I don’t know. But it clearly would have been beyond the scope of the authorized techniques.

RIZZO: Getting back to this notion that I repeatedly misled the Justice Department: If you read all those legal opinions that came back to me, they are extraordinarily detailed and graphic. And the reason they were is that we – meaning me, because I was – I didn’t personally write them, but they were given to me – I wanted to make sure that the Justice legal analysis was as complete and comprehensive as possible, with all of the most explicit facts about the program disclosed to them, before they made their decision. Because I didn’t want the agency to be in the position of Justice saying years later, “Well, you didn’t tell us everything.” So that’s why those memos. . . . I understand why the public found those memos shocking because they ARE explicit. But that’s the way I wanted them to be, so that there would be no misunderstanding about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

MCCLATCHY: And yet you reference in your book that as soon as the shit hit the fan, DOJ started moon-walking rapidly away from those memos.

MCCLATCHY: Did you see that Sen. Feinstein wrote a letter to President Obama expressing extreme disappointment that it’s going to be the CIA that decides which parts (of the report) are going to be declassified? You could see from the letter that Sen. Feinstein’s really pissed off by that. I assume you think that Senate oversight, congressional oversight, is an important part of our government. Do you think it’s proper for the Senate Intelligence Committee to spend four years, $50 million, doing a review, and you have it go to the president, and the president apparently farms it out to the CIA? So the CIA’s going to decide what the public is going to see about a Senate oversight report about the CIA. Do you think there’s a conflict there? Do you think the CIA should be in that position?

RIZZO: I think CIA is the agency most conversant with the facts of this program. You know, it’s regular order for that agency to do the first cut of a review. But it’s also important to remember – and people forget this sometimes – the president of the United States is the ultimate declassifier. I’ve been through a number of CIA declassification exercises of congressional reports in my time. And what happens is, CIA takes its cut – what they think should be redacted. It is then sent over to the White House with CIA’s explanations: ‘We think this paragraph discloses secrets.’ But the president is the declassifier in chief. So the White House is going to have the final say on declassification. It’s not gonna be CIA. So I understand the concern about CIA getting to censor its own conduct, but in the real world it doesn’t operate that way. If the Obama White House, if the president, thinks the CIA is basically defenestrating the findings of the committee, the White House has every right to overrule the CIA. So it’s important for people to understand that the final declassified version is not going to be a CIA . . . The CIA does not have the final word. The president of the United States has the final word.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for when Rizzo’s book “Company Man” was published. It came out in January.

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose.

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