Ex-CIA lawyer John Rizzo defends 'enhanced interrogation techniques'

John Rizzo, former CIA acting general counsel.
John Rizzo, former CIA acting general counsel. (Jay Mallin / Handout, The Baltimore Sun)

When the CIA's chief lawyer, John Rizzo, first came across the term "enhanced interrogation technique" shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was struck by the phrase's deceptive blandness.

The words sounded mild, possibly even salutary. But Rizzo knew they referred to the harshest methods used to elicit information from suspected terrorists in custody, including waterboarding, which mimics the experience of drowning.


For Rizzo and others, the "EITs", as they were called, were repugnant but necessary for ensuring the nation's safety. But to others, they were torture, pure and simple.

In his new book, "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA," Rizzo writes that there was a moment early in the planning stages when he could have killed the program with a swipe of his pen.


But he did not. In a recent phone interview, Rizzo said that despite the uproar that resulted when the techniques eventually were made public, if he could go back in time, he'd back the use of EITs all over again.

"Obviously, I've given that a lot of thought over the years," Rizzo said.

"In the months after 9/11, the country was in a state of fear and dread that the next attack was coming. We had the anthrax letters, the shoe bomber. If anyone was knowledgeable about the attack, it was [detainee Abu] Zubaydah. He was stonewalling, and we were running out of time. Extra measures had to be taken to make him talk. So despite all the controversy and opprobrium, I can't sit here now and say I wish I had stopped it."

Rizzo worked for the CIA for 34 years, and "Company Man" is filled with his insider's perspective on the intelligence scandals that consumed the nation during that period, from the Iran-Contra hearings to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the futile search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.


But when Rizzo reads Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, it's a sure bet that he'll be asked about his role in authorizing EITs — a topic he addressed candidly in an interview. His remarks have been edited for clarity and condensed for space.

You seem convinced that President George W. Bush never knew about the EITs, despite what he wrote in his 2010 memoir.

In specific, vivid detail, President Bush recounts conversations he had with then-CIA Director George Tenet. But I reached out to George, and he said he had absolutely no recollection of ever briefing President Bush on the EITs. I have to conclude that President Bush's account is just not accurate.

You say over and over again that the CIA never would condone torture. But how do you define torture? Where's the line that can't be crossed?

It's defined in the torture statute, but the statute itself is very vaguely worded. My understanding is that torture is prolonged, sustained mental or physical abuse that creates lasting damage to the person.

One of the proposed EITs, you write, clearly was over the line and never got approved. You don't identify that technique, but I've read that it may have been simulated live burial.

I can't confirm or deny that because they [the CIA] wouldn't let me tell you what it was. But I can tell you that it was like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe novel.

Does your opinion continue to be today that waterboarding is not torture?

Yeah, I still believe that waterboarding isn't torture. It certainly is harsh and brutal — I don't gainsay that.

But can't waterboarding result in permanent physical and mental damage and occasionally death?

No one did die. Whatever these things were, they didn't kill anybody. Was there lasting mental damage? That's a difficult one. These interrogation techniques were being administered to people who were psychotic, remorseless killers, so who's to know what further psychological damage might have been done? KSM [alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] certainly seems to be hale and hearty.

Why did you decide you needed to see the prisons where the detainees were being held in person?

The memos, if you take a glance at them, are both chilling in detail, but the descriptions of the EITs to me were detached, clinical. I had to humanize this whole strange situation that I and the agency found ourselves in. I felt I had to go out there and look at these prisons myself and see the conditions in which these people were being held.

It was very discordant when I finally saw the detainees through the monitors. They looked so harmless. They're these little guys, and they were praying or sleeping. It was hard to look at these people and keep focused on what KSM had done and proudly admitted to doing. Zubaydah was one of the most physically unprepossessing guys you'd ever want to see. He wasn't a wild-eyed Rasputin.

Did you watch any detainees undergoing an EIT?

I sort of went back and forth on that. In the end, I did not witness any live EITs. My responsibility was to be the lawyer, and I wanted to retain some objectivity, some detachment about the procedures themselves. I didn't think it was necessary for me to physically watch while these techniques were being administered.

You were concerned that you'd be prejudiced against using the harshest techniques?

Yeah, I thought I might react too viscerally, and that was not my role.

What are your thoughts on the argument that EITs didn't produce reliable, useful information that couldn't be gained in another manner?

Career CIA experts and analysts were convinced that the EITs were yielding useful, otherwise unavailable intelligence. This program went on for six years in an increasingly corrosive political environment. Everyone involved, including me, knew that this program was going to get us into big-time political trouble at some point.

We weren't sadists, we weren't masochists and we weren't stupid, so why would we have continued such a highly controversial program for so long if it wasn't yielding results? It beggars the imagination.

You point out that after Sept. 11, the CIA was raked over the coals for being too risk-averse and thereby failing to prevent the terrorist attacks. Was the EIT program a reaction to that criticism?

Yeah. Let's say [hypothetically] that after we captured Zubaydah, he had in his head details of a second attack. And let's further say that the EITs didn't get him to give us that information, and there then was a second attack. In the postmortems, do you think anyone would have accused us of being too tough on him in our interrogations? I guarantee you that what the public and congressional reaction would have been was: "Is this all you did? Are you kidding? This was nothing."

You find it ironic that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration shut down the EIT program but stepped up drone attacks.

The drone program started about the same time [as the EITs]. There was news reporting from 2002 on about terrorists getting blown to bits on the ground from the air. And yet it's only been in the last year or two that the same human rights groups who incorporated the interrogation program have made a peep about a drone program that was killing terrorists — and sometimes innocent bystanders.


The other thing about killing terrorists is that you can't get information about the next attack from a guy you've just blown into a thousand pieces.


About the book

"Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA" was released Jan. 7 by Scribner Publishing. 336 pages; $28.

If you go

Author John Rizzo reads at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or visit prattlibrary.org.

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