WASHINGTON -- The CIA’s former top lawyer disputes Senate findings that the spy agency lied about its brutal interrogations of terrorists, insisting the tactics produced useful intelligence and flatly denying that the CIA misled the former Bush administration, Congress and the American public.
At the same time, John Rizzo, who left the CIA as acting general counsel in 2009, said some CIA employees or contractors were overzealous in the use of the tactics but that the CIA informed lawyers at the Justice Department of the excesses.
Rizzo was responsible for helping to create the legal foundation for permitting waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and other aggressive methods he says were used on 30 people held at secret “black sites” around the world.
In his first extensive interview since McClatchy published the 20 key findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report last week, Rizzo strongly denied the panel’s conclusion that the 10 so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which he acknowledged were brutal, had failed to produce significant intelligence or to prevent more terrorist attacks.
“This program went on for six years,” Rizzo told McClatchy earlier this week. “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.”
Rizzo, who said he hadn’t seen the Senate report but only the published accounts of it, noted that some of the CIA officers and analysts providing updates on the interrogation sessions “were not generally enamored of the Bush administration” and thus weren’t inclined to exaggerate the interrogation program’s effectiveness.
“I was convinced that these techniques were yielding detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots,” Rizzo said. “Now was there ever a ticking time-bomb scenario? I don’t remember a particular (case of): ‘Tomorrow, LAX (airport) 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's central involvement in crafting the interrogation techniques led Senate Democrats to block his confirmation as CIA general counsel in 2007. He then served as acting general counsel until retiring in October 2009.
Rizzo’s comments mark the first detailed response from a current or former CIA official to the Senate report, which took four years to complete at a taxpayer cost of $40 million.
With Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claiming to have protected the homeland from follow-on terrorist attacks to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, the escalating fight between the Senate and the CIA raises an important question:
Did the aggressive interrogation techniques, which some current and former U.S. officials and foreign governments say constituted torture, help protect Americans?
Obama formally ended use of the tough interrogation methods within days of taking office in January 2009. Their use had subsided and several of the harsh methods had been abandoned in 2006, after Justice Department opinions justifying them were made public and U.S. abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused an international uproar.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, hasn’t released the 6,300-page report on her aides’ review of the interrogation program. The committee voted to send the report, its executive summary and the findings to the White House for declassification.
Rizzo, who earlier this year published memoirs called “Company Man” in which he described the birth and development of the detainee interrogations, also rebutted the Senate report’s conclusion that “the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” according to a McClatchy article last week.
“It’s just false,” Rizzo said of the finding. “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.”
Rizzo, who’s likely to be named in the Senate’s investigative report, said it was his idea to seek legal justification for the interrogation program _ and to make sure it didn’t violate U.S. and international anti-torture laws and conventions _ by asking the Justice Department to provide detailed legal memos.
Three of the Justice Department memos, drafted by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, sparked widespread controversy when they were released between 2004 and 2008 because of their detailed descriptions of the approved interrogation techniques, among them waterboarding _ which simulates drowning _ prolonged sleep deprivation, wall standing, facial hold, insult slap and cramped confinement in a box.
“I understand why the public found those memos shocking because they ARE explicit,” Rizzo said. “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.”
Rizzo’s response to the Senate report is likely to further exacerbate already high tensions between the CIA and the main Senate committee charged with overseeing it under a broad constitutional mandate.
Feinstein has accused the CIA of monitoring the committee’s computers and possibly impeding its investigation by removing digital documents her aides had identified. The agency, in turn, said Feinstein’s staff removed unauthorized documents from a secret CIA facility. Both sets of charges have been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation.
In a passionate 45-minute speech on the Senate floor last month, Feinstein said the CIA may have broken the law and even violated the Constitution by infiltrating her aides’ computers and obstructing a Senate oversight investigation.
For his part, Rizzo partially agreed with another key finding of the Senate probe: “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.”
Rizzo acknowledged there were excesses that went beyond the 10 enhanced interrogation techniques he’d vetted within the CIA and then cleared with the Justice Department.
“There were incidents when CIA interrogators went beyond the authorized techniques. So I’m not denying that,” he said. “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 that conclusion (of the committee) is actually accurate, but if the idea is that we covered this up, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Soon after ending the program in 2009, Obama said CIA officials or agents who had acted “within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance” they’d received on the detainee interrogation program would not be prosecuted. But he said “those who formulated those legal decisions” could have their cases reviewed by Attorney General Eric Holder. Five years later, there have been no prosecutions for the harsh interrogations, even those that Rizzo acknowledges went over the line.
While saying he respects Feinstein as a “serious person” who’s been a strong defender of national security programs, Rizzo criticized the California Democrat and her aides for having failed to interview him or his former colleagues before completing the report and sending it to the White House.
Rizzo said he took the claims that he and his colleagues had withheld important information about the interrogation program from the Justice Department as a personal and professional slight.
“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,” he said. “I just think that’s unconscionable.”
Rizzo said he and other former senior CIA officials who were centrally involved with developing and overseeing the harsh interrogations would have been more than willing to discuss them with Senate investigators.
“There are probably two dozen senior CIA people that were heavily involved in this program, who are retired,” he said. “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 (were) _ nobody.”
Rizzo, who worked at the CIA as a lawyer for 34 years before his retirement, said the Senate Intelligence Committee’s approach differed substantially from earlier congressional probes into controversial CIA programs such as the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
He also noted that those previous probes had produced bipartisan reports in which Republican and Democratic lawmakers stood behind the findings.
In the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the enhanced-interrogation program, by contrast, the panel’s Republican members bowed out four months into the investigation.
“When the CIA was criticized in those other investigations, it was on a bipartisan basis,” Rizzo said. “That’s not the case here. This is strictly a political exercise by the Democratic side of the Intelligence Committee to castigate a Bush-era program.”
Rizzo said Feinstein’s concern that the CIA would decide which portions of the massive report should be declassified, which she expressed last week in a letter to Obama, was misplaced.
“I’ve been through a number of CIA declassification exercises of congressional reports in my time,” Rizzo said. “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 I understand the concern about CIA getting to censor (a review of) its own conduct, but in the real world, it doesn’t operate that way. . . . The CIA does not have the final word. The president of the United States has the final word.”
When the declassification is complete and the inevitable public outcry ensues, Rizzo views it as a fulfillment of a prophetic warning he issued in November 2002, shortly after the harsh interrogations had started being used on terror detainees.
Speaking at an American Bar Association forum in Washington on the law and national security, he said: “We at CIA have to be careful what we wish for. The agency has gotten all the authorities it has requested, but I wonder what will happen if something goes awry. The pendulum is bound to swing back, and today’s era of political consensus for increased intelligence authorities will come to an end sometime in the future. It will be good for the country when the terrorist threat is perceived to be less, but it could be bad for the CIA.”
Sipping from a glass of white wine at a Georgetown lounge all these years later, Rizzo boiled down his prophecy.
“In a way, the CIA is a victim of its success at keeping the country safe,” he said.
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.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.