In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA developed a new counter-terrorism program, keeping detainees in secret remote locations known as “black sites” and using controversial interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. And, as acting general counsel of the CIA, John Rizzo signed off on those and other moves. He joins us to discuss his three-decade career with the agency during which he faced scandal and controversy as one of its chief lawyers.


  • John Rizzo Former acting general counsel, Central Intelligence Agency


  • 13:06:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The Central Intelligence Agency has a history dotted with controversy, from the Iran Contra Scandal that came to light in 1986, to the introduction of a brutal interrogation technique called water boarding after 9/11. And whenever a crisis hit, it landed on John Rizzo's desk. As one of the agency's most prominent lawyers, he stamped his approval on some of the more contentious CIA programs in recent history.

  • 13:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd also helped the agency save face when any one of them erupted in scandal. He joins me now to explore the decisions, the secrets, and public relations disasters that defined his 30 year career inside America's spy agency. John Rizzo worked as a lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency for 34 years. During his last seven years, he acted as the agency's Chief Legal Officer. His new book is a memoir. It is called "Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA." John Rizzo joins us in studio. Welcome.

  • 13:07:55

    MR. JOHN RIZZONice to be with you, Kojo.

  • 13:07:57

    NNAMDIFor many of us, our knowledge about the CIA is limited to the scandals that make headlines. And pop culture depictions like the television series, "Homeland" or the film ”Zero Dark Thirty," and perhaps, as a young lawyer, back in 1976, you knew just as little about what the agency was like, on the inside, as the rest of us did. Can you describe what it was like, when you first were hired as a lawyer, in that year?

  • 13:08:26

    RIZZOWell, you're right about my not knowing anything about the agency when I entered in January, 1976, other than pop culture and a couple of James Bond books that, of course, every high school kid of that era, including me, would read. But that was it. I knew nothing about, and I knew no one in the CIA. I knew nothing about the institution. In those days, the CIA -- and relatively speaking, CIA has a fairly high official profile now, as opposed to the mid-70s. So, it was a blank slate for me.

  • 13:09:09

    NNAMDIExcept for one thing. After you had seen what was unfolding with the CIA and Watergate, you apparently said, this looks like a joint which needs a lawyer.

  • 13:09:23

    RIZZOYeah. Yeah, that was -- pretty much sums it up, Kojo. Yeah, at the time, I was here in the D.C. I had just gotten out of law school a couple years earlier. I had an entry level job as a lawyer at the Treasury Department, which was fine for what it was, but I was in my mid-20s. I was young. I was ambitious. I found the atmosphere at Treasury stultifying, in terms of the bureaucracy, and I happened to be reading, like everyone else was in D.C. those days, the Church Committee proceedings. This was the first major investigation.

  • 13:10:01

    NNAMDISenator Frank Church of Idaho leading the Intelligence Committee.

  • 13:10:03

    RIZZOThat's correct. And I'm just reading it like anyone else, watching it on TV, and it occurred to me, I have no idea whether the CIA has lawyers, but if they don't, I bet they're gonna need some. So, that's what -- I just, drove resume -- shot in the dark.

  • 13:10:18

    NNAMDIThence, a career was launched. You'd been at the agency 10 years when the task of saving agency officials from the Iran Contra Scandal fell squarely in your lap. Top US officials had facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran to fund rebel fighters in Nicaragua. Top level members of the CIA were involved. What was it like then to defend the agency against such incriminating reports?

  • 13:10:42

    ANNAWell, that was my first real big time immersion, or connection, to a CIA scandal. So, I'd been there 10 years, and done some interesting and important work, I think, but that was, this was, as you recall, a real Washington beltway melodrama. And televised hearings, gavel to gavel. And that was a focal point, between CIA and the Iran Contra Committees, headed by Daniel Inouye and Lee Hamiton, joint committee. And it was like -- it was one year out of my life. I did nothing else. And it was, you know, it was, to sum it up, it was an almost embarrassingly wonderful experience for me.

  • 13:11:27

    RIZZOI say that embarrassing because it was such a traumatic event for the rest of the agency, but it really gave me a real exposure to a major Washington story, and, as I say in the book, perversely enough, I enjoyed the hell out of the experience.

  • 13:11:46

    NNAMDIWell, you could have enjoyed the hell out of the experience, because you were not in the middle of it, so to speak. You were kind of looking through the window, because at that point, you happened to be spending a year in the Inspector General's office at the CIA, and so you had no direct ties to the scandal that eventually ensued. Do you ever consider what would have happened if you had been a part of the Iran Contra discussions?

  • 13:12:09

    RIZZOYeah. That was -- that, Kojo, was one of the many serendipitous breaks during my career, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Had I been in my previous position, which was a lawyer for the DO, the Director of Operations, you know, the spy service, I would have been in the middle of crafting those provincial documents authorizing the arms sales to Iran. For a time, I sort of liked to think that if I had been there, I could have stopped it, or deterred it, but the fact of the matter was, I probably would have gone along, and I would have been sucked in. My career would have been tainted, and that would have been that. So...

  • 13:12:57

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with John Rizzo. He worked as a lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency for 34 years. During the course of the last seven years, he was the agency's Chief Legal Officer. He's got a new book. It's a memoir. It's called "Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA." 800-433-8850 is our number. How do you think public opinion about US intelligence gathering and the CIA has changed over the years? Does scandals like the 1986 Iran Contra fiasco or not too distant reports of water boarding affect your perception of the spy agency?

  • 13:13:31

    NNAMDITell us how. 800-433-8850 or you can send email to John Rizzo, the Iran Contra debacle portrayed the CIA as an aggressive, almost reckless agency. How would that scandal influence the way the agency operated in the years that followed? And how did it factor into your own considerations as the agency's lawyer?

  • 13:13:54

    RIZZOWell, it cause, as I indicated earlier, it was a massive debacle for the CIA. A number of very senior officials not only had their careers terminated, but were pursued by federal criminal investigation, led by an independent counsel named Lawrence Walsh. And it was traumatic for the institution. And what happened, in the aftermath, is what I would see happen in the aftermath of every major scandal or flap I was involved in, was a retrenchment. There was a feeling of drawing back, not being as aggressive or risky in its operations.

  • 13:14:45

    RIZZOSo, it did have a real chilling effect for actually quite a few years after 1987.

  • 13:14:52

    NNAMDIBut then came the September 11th terrorist attacks. That day, as news of the attacks came in, instead of being evacuated with the rest of your colleagues, you stayed in the CIA building, and imagined what the terrorist attacks might mean for the agency in the coming months. How did 9/11, like the Iran Contra Scandal, more than a decade earlier, redirect the course of the spy agents?

  • 13:15:17

    RIZZOYeah. First of all, I am afraid I wasn't quite -- my reasons were quite that heroic. I stayed in the building after it was evacuated because I looked out from my top floor office, in the CIA executive wing, and saw that all the roadways to outside the agency, the parking lots, were jammed. And so I figured I might as well stay and try to do something productive, which was to -- you know, I’m a lawyer, so I did what a lawyer does. On that terrible morning, I took out my yellow legal pad and tried to think of every conceivable legal option the President might ask CIA to undertake.

  • 13:15:59

    RIZZOThese were -- and, you know, largely included things we had never done before.

  • 13:16:04

    NNAMDIThe CIA was criticized for not detecting or preventing such a devastating attack on American soil, but you question the argument that a more aggressive approach, by then President George W. Bush or the agency, could have stopped those attacks from happening. You write, quoting here, despite the best efforts of everyone from George Tenet, Director of the CIA on down, we just didn't do it. For a lot of people, that's gonna be a difficult response to swallow, isn't it?

  • 13:17:17

    RIZZOWell, it is a difficult response to swallow. But, you know, in this memoir, I tried to be as candid as I could. The fact of the matter was that the CIA had all the intelligence collection antennae out in the months and years before 9/11. There were covert action provincial findings on the book, which were, while not as aggressive as they could have been, should have been, and would have been enough to uncover the attacks and move to deter and prevent them before they happened. So there was no lack of legal authority, I don't think.

  • 13:17:22

    RIZZOIt was simply a, the only way to put it is a massive intelligence failure.

  • 13:17:24

    NNAMDIDo you think that the agency was not aggressive enough because it was still feeling the effects of the fallout from the Iran Contra Scandal a decade earlier, and therefore was not pursuing sources as actively or aggressively?

  • 13:17:37

    RIZZOWell, I mean, I don't want to use that as an excuse, but the fact of the matter was, in the early 90s, the agency was being buffeted by charges, that you may recall, that it was consorting -- had been consorting during the Central America Contra years, with death squads in Central America, Guatemala and elsewhere, that it was immoral, had American blood on its hands. And it came under sustained attack, and, you know, some elements of the media, and certainly some elements in Congress said it was a rogue agency bent on mayhem and human rights abuses.

  • 13:18:22

    RIZZOAnd, that indeed, had a chilling effect, I think, the term that came into the lexicon after 9/11, it did cause a certain degree of risk aversion about getting too close with unsavory people and unsavory forces in the world.

  • 13:18:37

    NNAMDIIs it fair to say that that all ended with 9/11?

  • 13:18:42

    RIZZOWell, I mean, yeah. I mean, certainly the Congress and the media turned on a dime and the criticism became not that we were too aggressive, but we hadn't been aggressive enough. And so sure, I mean, we, the agency went on an all out effort, as is now known, to be as aggressive as possible, to prevent another imminent attack on the homeland, which, in the early months after 9/11, you recall, was -- everyone's expectation, fear and dread. And so we were authorized by President Bush to basically pull out a lot of stops we had never pulled out before.

  • 13:19:30

    NNAMDIWhich brings us to the case of Abu Zubaydah. In 2002, the CIA captured this Al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, who was believed to be a key player in planning Al Qaeda's attacks. It was then that the agency developed a program of, quoting here, enhanced interrogation techniques. The list, as it was presented to you, included sleep deprivation, forcing Zubaydah into stress positions and water boarding, a technique that simulated the feeling of drowning. What went through your mind as you were briefed on these harrowing descriptions of interrogation tactics?

  • 13:20:10

    RIZZOWell, I mean, I was stunned. I was sitting in my office and some folks from our counterterrorism center came up to see me. Zubaydah at that point had been in custody for several weeks. You know, as you indicated, it was though by all of our experts that if anyone were to know inside information about the next terrorist attack on the homeland, it would be...

  • 13:20:38

    NNAMDI...this guy.

  • 13:20:39 would be this guy. And he, in the view of our experts and interrogators, was holding out, was basically thumbing his nose at his interrogators saying, I know what you want me to say but you can't make me say it. So it was in that context that the counterterrorism center felt it had to change the equation with this guy and come up with more aggressive techniques to bring him out of this sort of smug arrogant view that we couldn't make him talk.

  • 13:21:12

    RIZZOAnd so that was the genesis of the techniques. But when they came and talked to me or laid out what it was they thought would be effective and necessary, you know, for instance I had never heard of waterboarding. I had never been in the military so I didn't know what the term was until they described it to me. And it did sound harrowing.

  • 13:21:32

    NNAMDIWell, as you say yourself, you found it harrowing -- it sounded harrowing. You found some of these tactics to be disturbing. At any point did you consider trying to stop them?

  • 13:21:43

    RIZZOSure. I mean, I -- I mean, one practical problem I always had with the agency is that time was deemed to be of the essence. Again, this is early 2002 . The expectation of everyone is that it wasn't going to be if there was going to be another attack. It was when. And so, you know, frankly there wasn't unlimited amount of time to mull the wisdom or efficacy of these kinds of measures. But I -- you know, there was still time enough for me to have stopped them. They hadn't left the building yet, so to speak. They hadn't gone anywhere.

  • 13:22:27

    RIZZOSo as I -- after I got this briefing on what the techniques were, I was trying to process it and I remember distinctly walking around CIA headquarters building in Langley, smoking a cigar, playing out the implications. I knew -- I had been at the agency long enough and I had seen enough scandals and scrapes and misadventures to know when the agency was about to get itself into big time trouble. And this has big time trouble written all over it.

  • 13:22:53

    RIZZOSo sure, there was a temptation to go to the CIA director, at the time George Tenet, and say, look this is -- this stuff was never done before. Some of it sounds harrowing. I don't know if it constitutes torture, but we should stay away from this. But then I played out that scenario. If I had done that -- and I believe I could've made that recommendation stick if that was my recommendation to stop them, or stop them before they started -- what if Zubaydah had had information about the next attack? And what if he didn't tell us because we didn't employ these kinds of techniques?

  • 13:23:31

    RIZZOAnd what if there're again thousands of bodies lying in rubble around the street somewhere? I would've known deep down that that second nightmare scenario having come true, that I would've been partially responsible for that. And I simply couldn't countenance the possibility of having to live with that.

  • 13:23:54

    NNAMDIWhat about the arguments that were made by people who, even today, make the argument that those enhanced interrogation techniques are not as effective as other kinds of techniques in getting information out of people? What were you hearing about that?

  • 13:24:11

    RIZZOWell, at the time I didn't hear anything about that. If anything the thought was that the techniques were not aggressive enough, that we had to be even tougher. Now, you're right, Kojo, in subsequent years some FBI -- former FBI officials who were present at the initial interrogation of Zubaydah claimed that they were making progress with him and that they could've gotten the same information without resorting to these admittedly harsh and brutal techniques.

  • 13:24:45

    RIZZOThe fact of the matter is, I was dealing with senior FBI leadership at the time in Washington and I never heard that. And no one else ever heard it. So, you know, I mean, if we had -- if that had been the position the FBI was going to take, sure, we would've paused and considered it. But the fact of the matter is no one in any position of authority back then objected to the techniques, including the relatively few members of Congress we briefed so on.

  • 13:25:17

    NNAMDISpeaking of the FBI, one of the reasons of course they got involved is because when this decision came to you and you considered it, you essentially punted it. You let the justice department ultimately decide whether any of the techniques were torture and therefore illegal. Its decision came to be known as the torture memos. At that point you'd already been with the agency for more than two decades. Why did you decide to take the decision to the Justice Department?

  • 13:25:42

    RIZZOWell, the office in the Justice Department that I referred this matter to was the Office of Legal Counsel, which was and always has been the ultimate legal authority inside the executive branch for questions -- for significant questions of federal statutory interpretation or the constitution. And in fact, we at CIA, I had on a number of occasions over the previous years, taken particularly thorny legal issues to OLC. So this was not a new departure.

  • 13:26:13

    RIZZOAs a practical matter, moreover, I mean, if I had given my legal blessing as a CIA general counsel, chief legal officer, honestly I'm not sure that that would've been -- provided sufficient legal protection for the people in the agency who were actually going to be undertaking the program.

  • 13:26:35

    NNAMDIAnd had you made that decision, could OLC have overruled you?

  • 13:26:39

    RIZZOOh, yes, yes. There were -- yeah, there had been occasions in the past where our office, CIA general counsel's office that reached a legal conclusion, but referred it to OLC for confirmation or -- and OLC had basically reversed this. If we had had more time, Kojo, at the time we would've done our own internal legal analysis of the torture statute and whether it applied to these activities. But, again, I just have to keep coming back to the context at the time. We -- I didn't think we had the time to do that.

  • 13:27:16

    RIZZOAnd so instead I just took the initial proposal in the explicit detail and sent it over to OLC to get a final resolution frankly to protect the agency.

  • 13:27:27

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with John Rizzo. His new book, it's a memoir, it's called "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA." John worked as a lawyer for the CIA for 34 years. During the last seven he acted as the agency's chief legal officer. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. How much trust do you place in government agencies like the CIA? Do you believe that these agencies are acting according to the country's values and its interests, 800-433-8850? You can shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:29:56

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with John Rizzo. He worked as a lawyer for the CIA for some 34 years. During the past seven of those years he acted as the agency's chief legal officer. He has a new book out. It's a memoir called "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA." John Rizzo joins us in studio. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Should government agencies like the CIA be held more accountable to the American public? Why or why not, 800-433-8850?

  • 13:30:28

    NNAMDIJohn Rizzo, you talked with the men who used the interrogation techniques on alleged al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And you said that one of them had no doubt that it was sleep deprivation above all else which brought him to a state of so-called learned helplessness and convinced him to talk. Do you ever question the value of waterboarding or sleep deprivation, for that matter, as intelligence-gathering techniques?

  • 13:30:56

    RIZZOYeah, first of all, let me respectfully suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not an alleged al-Qaida operative.

  • 13:31:04

    NNAMDIHe was...

  • 13:31:04

    RIZZOBy his own admission...

  • 13:31:05

    NNAMDI...without a shadow of a doubt.

  • 13:31:06

    RIZZOYeah, by his own boastful admission he was the master mind of 9/11. In terms of the effectiveness of the techniques, sleep deprivation or waterboarding or, you know, the other techniques that were approved, yes, I believe -- you know, this program went on for six years. I was observing it closely all of that time. I was observing the results. I was observing the people, the career CIA people who were carrying out the program. And, you know, from my perspective, the unanimous view of everyone who was involved in that program was said it was yielding important significant intelligence benefits.

  • 13:31:53

    RIZZONow that begs the question of whether the same kind of information could've been gleaned without, you know, resorting to these techniques which over the years became so controversial. And honestly, I think that's unknowable. I can't -- you know, I can't say that none of the information could've been acquired otherwise. But I have to believe -- and I still believe that the program was valuable.

  • 13:32:24

    NNAMDIYou're right that agency operatives had, quoting here, "no intention of employing the interrogation techniques any longer or any more harshly than was absolutely necessary. Why were you so convinced of that? Were you never concerned that these methods might be used excessively?

  • 13:32:43

    RIZZOWell, I mean, yeah, I mean, that was -- yeah, we were mindful -- I was mindful about that. Now in fairness, I should say that over the years, there were isolated occurrences where unauthorized techniques were used. But, you know, one such unauthorized incident like that is bad. But for the length of the program, those were very isolated. By and large, the people who conducted the program -- and these are not, you know, these are government -- career government people, GS12s, 13s and 14s -- acted entirely within the constraints and the procedures of the program.

  • 13:33:29

    RIZZOThey honestly had -- you know, they -- for instance, waterboarding was only used on three of the high valued detainees we had. And during the course of the program, we had close to 100. So it was used selectively and the only one deemed absolutely necessary.

  • 13:33:46

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Don your headphones, please because we have Gloria in Davidsonville, Md. who'd like to speak with us. Gloria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:33:56

    GLORIAHi. Now I'm 83 and I think I don't have to worry about anything, but during the '70s I was in the Civil Rights marches and that kind of thing. And the FBI followed me for two-and-a-half years. They came to my house, interrogated me and -- for a long time. And so my -- I just have this thought that if someone had tortured me, I would've admitted to anything. And I wonder how the author feels about that.

  • 13:34:32

    NNAMDIYour turn, John Rizzo.

  • 13:34:34

    RIZZOYeah well, that's a -- you know, that's a -- you know, that's a criticism and it was -- you know, it was fairly substantial backing in the -- during the years of the program. All I can tell you is that the information that was derived both during and after the techniques were stopped on detainees was checked and double checked to assure its validity and to assure -- you know, frankly CIA didn't take bogus information and run down blind alleys and waste time and resources on false leads.

  • 13:35:20

    RIZZOSo, I mean, was this a perfect failsafe system? Probably not but, you know, the information was checked and cross checked, you know, diligently and continuously.

  • 13:35:32

    NNAMDIGloria, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Richard in Washington, D.C. Richard, your turn.

  • 13:35:38

    RICHARDYes. My question is, I wonder why one of the reasons for not condoning torture isn't that so that we can maintain the moral high ground against others if it's used against us. And if the reason to that is that others are worse than we are then it seems to me that once you've put torture on the table, how does that entitle you to determine the severity of it by whoever uses it?

  • 13:36:01

    NNAMDIIs that one of the considerations that you had...

  • 13:36:06

    RIZZOOh, yeah, sure.

  • 13:36:06

    NNAMDI...John Rizzo?

  • 13:36:07

    RIZZOSure. And again, that's an absolutely valid, legitimate concern to have about starting down this road. And, you know, that was one of several reasons. I approached it with such trepidation. You know, it was a very difficult time and it was a very, you know, difficult time to make these kinds of decisions. These measures, we thought, first of all if they -- you know, if the Justice Department had concluded that legally they were tortured they would never have been started in the first place. So, you know, torture is a legally defined term in U.S. statutes. But, you know, the entire country, I think it's fair to say, in those -- you know, for a year or two at least after 9/11, you know, were united in a consensus and demand that that second attack be deterred.

  • 13:37:15

    RIZZOAnd these techniques were thought at the time, well, you know, not just I but a number of people considered them brutal. But, you know, were deemed to be necessary, indispensible and honestly unavoidable.

  • 13:37:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. During the briefings you note that Condoleezza Rice was most troubled by forced nudity while Colin Powell seemed uncomfortable with just about everything, but was most disturbed by sleep deprivation. What were you able to learn about these prominent U.S. officials from their responses to these interrogation techniques?

  • 13:37:53

    RIZZOYou know, what you're referring to is meetings in the White House situation room that took place in the -- during the early years of the program, 2002, 2003. And I would attend these meetings -- this was a meeting of the national security which is called principals group, all the present chief foreign and national security advisors. So I would accompany the CIA director, George Tenet, be basically back bencher. And that's how I made these observations.

  • 13:38:24

    RIZZOYou know, one thing I note in the book that was striking to me is that, you know, none of these officials -- and there were, you know, others in the room, Secretary Rumsfeld...

  • 13:38:35

    NNAMDIWho apparently tried not to be in the room as much as possible.

  • 13:38:37

    RIZZOYeah. Yeah, yeah, he did his best to avoid these meetings. You know, he's -- he was obviously a longtime savvy Washington operator and apparently did not want to be -- get his fingerprints anywhere near the program. But with respect to the other participants, which included then Attorney General Ashcroft, there wasn't much debate or much concern or objection to waterboarding. As I note in the book, the concerns of the principals seemed to be going in different directions.

  • 13:39:12

    NNAMDIIndeed. You talk about the fact that the White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would sit there stoically. The impression I get from reading your book is that most of those people felt that they were in a situation where by virtue of their position they had to be in, were hearing things that were A. not pleasant, B. that they weren't sure about the legality of it but C. decided it was best not to say anything at all.

  • 13:39:45

    RIZZOYeah, yeah, I don't think that's an unfair interpretation to make. You know, Kojo, being a longtime Washington observer, this kind of hesitation over hugely sensitive political issues is not uncommon.

  • 13:40:03

    NNAMDIYeah, because throughout your book, top officials seem to be constantly trying to distance themselves from the agency and its actions.

  • 13:40:12

    RIZZOYeah. Yeah, I mean...

  • 13:40:13

    NNAMDIThis is Washington, yeah.

  • 13:40:14

    RIZZOYeah. And, you know, honestly, as the program, you know, as it inevitably would, parts of the program started leaking out fairly early on -- the water boarding and the other techniques, and the fact that there were secret prisons, another unprecedented step in the post-9/11 era. And it was becoming toxic politically. And, you know, the same congressional leadership that, when we first briefed them about these techniques in late 2002, endorsed them and in some cases wondered why they weren't even tougher.

  • 13:40:53

    RIZZOYou know, we're begin -- and we would periodically brief them -- you know, they were beginning to step away from it as 9/11 receded into the national memory. I mean, it wasn't -- mercifully, we didn't have that second attack. And so, as you know, it's inevitable that time changes political perspective.

  • 13:41:13

    NNAMDIHere's Frank in Arlington, Virginia. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:17

    FRANKWhen did you lose your scruples? Do you do that when you become a lawyer? This stuff is illegal. You know that. Why did you not resign immediately?

  • 13:41:34

    NNAMDIJohn Rizzo?

  • 13:41:36

    RIZZOOkay. Well, I like to think I kept my scruples as a lawyer -- under a career lawyer to CIA for over three decades. You know, I'm -- if I had ever thought or concluded that they were illegal...

  • 13:41:55

    NNAMDIFrank seems to feel that this is an easy decision to make. You hear water boarding, you hear sleep deprivation. You look in the dictionary, it says torture. End of discussion.

  • 13:42:05

    RIZZOWell, it would have been easy to make a decision that we're not going to even consider these things. But, as I indicated earlier, the decisions at that point in our country's history were not easy for those of us inside CIA and inside the national security community. It was, you know, it was a wrenching decision not just for me, I think, but others who were involved. But, you know, we collectively concluded that our duty was to protect the country and in a legal way. And that's what I tried to do to the best of my ability.

  • 13:42:43

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Frank, thank you for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Any questions you want to ask a CIA lawyer? Now's your chance. 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet at Kojoshow or email to Or you can simply go to our website,, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:54

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with John Rizzo. He has a new book, a memoir, called "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA," where he worked as a lawyer for 34 years. During the last 7, John Rizzo acted as the agency's chief legal officer. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Among the list of interrogation techniques that you reviewed in the period following 9/11, you mentioned that one was too brutal for the Justice Department to accept. But the CIA didn't allow you to go into further detail.

  • 13:45:29

    NNAMDIWhat would this book look like if it never went to the CIA for prepublication reviews?

  • 13:45:36

    RIZZOWell, I mean, it would have...

  • 13:45:36

    NNAMDIWe didn't know what that was.

  • 13:45:38

    RIZZOYeah. Well, all former CIA officials -- employees who write books about their work or their careers -- you know, we are all obligated -- we sign an agreement when we enter the CIA, we have to submit all our writings to the agency, to a publications review board there. So I did that with this manuscript. I had a certain advantage in that, when I was at the CIA, I actually crafted the rules for publication review. So I had a fairly strong familiarity with what...

  • 13:46:09

    NNAMDIYou have a hand in your modeling.

  • 13:46:10

    RIZZOYeah, with where the lines were. So, and I wrote, you know, I wasn't interested in, you know, just getting into a huge battle. So I wrote -- when I was writing the manuscript, I was mindful of where the lines were. A few places I thought I'd push it a little bit, see what happened. But, you know, the CIA, they were very fair with me. I mean I -- what was finally published, I'd say was 90, 95 percent of what I had originally written.

  • 13:46:36

    NNAMDIThe tone of your book is extremely candid. But, if a reader buys this book hoping that you'll be divulging all of the agency's secrets, he or she might walk away disappointed. What do you hope the public will learn from your story anyway? I'll tell you what I learned. I learned a little bit more about process than I knew before, which was one of the reasons I was interested in the book. What was the process by which these decisions were handed down?

  • 13:46:59

    NNAMDIThe other thing I learned is that, while that process did not apparently include the then President George W. Bush, in his own accounting of it, in his own book, he said that he was informed every step of the way. And you, being a part of the process, says no way could he have been informed every step of the way. Here is a guy standing up for a policy that he may not have been intimately involved in, because, well, he's just that kind of guy. He's a standup guy.

  • 13:47:32

    RIZZOYeah, that's what I called him. It was -- yeah, it's remarkable to me because, having served in the CIA so long, you know, I was able to observe a number of different presidents and a number of different White Houses and, you know, there would be a tendency from time-to-time for the White House or even a president, himself, to always try to distance themselves from what the CIA was doing, even if they were doing what that particular president or White House was authorizing them to do.

  • 13:47:59

    RIZZOSo, when I read President Bush's memoir, where he describes having conversations with CIA Director George Tenet in 2002, 2003, approving some proposed techniques, vetoing others, it just -- it didn't ring a bell with me. And I was living that program every day, talking with Tenet every day. He never mentioned anything about any directions or knowledge from President Bush. So I just, what I did was I contacted George -- George Tenet, who is still a friend. And I said, Did you have these conversations with him? And he said, I have no recollection of that.

  • 13:48:32

    RIZZOSo, I mean, in his memoir, if the president had talked about conversations along these lines with Condoleezza Rice or the vice president, you know, that I could understand. But he was so specific and so vivid about having the conversations with Tenet. And Tenet doesn't remember them. And who could, I mean, who could ever forget conversations with the president about something like that? So I had to conclude that President Bush's account was inaccurate. But as I say, in a perverse way, he was unusual in my experience.

  • 13:49:04

    RIZZOHe was standing up -- taking responsibility for being up to his neck in something that, from my perspective, I don't think he was, certainly at the beginning.

  • 13:49:15

    NNAMDIWhat do you hope people will learn from this story, take away from this book?

  • 13:49:19

    RIZZOWell, I -- you know, I did the book because there have been, I don't know of any previous CIA memoirs, inside memoirs, that encompass such a period of time, 34 years -- basically from the mid-70s to when I left at the end of 2009, which is the modern history of the CIA. So I thought, you know, the arc of my career paralleled that of the agency, with all the controversies and crises. And I thought, you know, it would be an interesting if not unprecedented insider account of a large swath of the agency's history, in which I was an observer and frequently a participant.

  • 13:49:55

    RIZZOThe other thing I wanted to accomplish, briefly, is, you know, to -- I don't think the public normally associates lawyers with the CIA. And I wanted to make the point that over, not just after 9/11, but throughout my entire career, lawyers intrinsically are part of everything the CIA does. So I wanted to do what I could to dispel the myth of the CIA being a rogue, untethered elephant.

  • 13:50:20

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. This time to Oloo (sp?) , in Greenbelt Maryland. Oloo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:27

    OLOOYeah, I just want to come to the author's rescue a little bit. I'm sure whatever decision they took then, you know, it was in the best interests of the country. Our fight is really trying to -- the authority to say now that, Oh, well, this was illegal. You know, but back then, you know, around that tremendous player, this man's criminal. These are career people. You know? Whatever they did, they did, you know, with the best interests of the country. You know, so they just cut themselves slack.

  • 13:50:53

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, John Rizzo? He said this was done -- and frankly the book points that out -- that John Rizzo believed that these people were doing this in what they saw as the best interests of the country. So, even though people may disagree with what they did, you feel the context is important.

  • 13:51:08

    RIZZOYeah. Yeah, I mean, these people were career CIA people. I mean they had been there for many years, like I had been. And, you know, they would not -- I mean they would not -- I know those people. I worked with three generations of them. They were doing what they both thought was necessary, but just as important, but that was authorized and proper. They would not have done any of these techniques if they thought they were illegal or if they thought they were useless -- keeping in mind that this program went on for six years and under increasing political attack and appropriate.

  • 13:51:50

    RIZZONow, you know, ask yourself, why would an agency, why would people inside the agency continue to conduct a program that was becoming toxic and career threatening, if they weren't convinced, as I was, that the program was yielding results?

  • 13:52:06

    NNAMDIWhen The New York Times broke the story that the CIA had videos showing water boarding in practice and that those video tapes had been destroyed, Congress was furious. You testified in front of a Congressional committee, alone, playing the role of what you would call public punching bag. But, in fact, you tell us that you ordered the agency not to destroy the tapes. So why, then, did you agree to go in front of Congress and be its whipping post?

  • 13:52:36

    RIZZOWell, the swear-in shows I didn't have any choice. I was the chief legal -- this was in late 2007, early 2008 -- I was still the chief legal advisor there. All of the figures -- and I had been involved in the video-tape issues from the beginning. And the fact of the matter is, I was the only CIA official left who had been involved in it from the beginning. So even though I opposed the destruction and thought I had made it clear to the director of operations that they were not to destroy the tapes, you know, I was the only guy left standing out there and the only one Congress could get to.

  • 13:53:23

    NNAMDIOn to Josh in Washington D.C. Josh, your turn. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:29

    JOSHHi, thanks very much. My question is, you had said that, you know, everyone was interested in preventing the second attack. And I'm wondering how those kinds of policy concerns could override any sort of or directly influence legal interpretation. It seems to me like, you know, an attorney general who's not in favor -- who's concerned about gun violence, not defending an interpretation of the second amendment that he believes in that might be a wider interpretation.

  • 13:54:04

    NNAMDIThe relationship between your job as an attorney and your concerns about defending the country.

  • 13:54:13

    RIZZOYeah. Yeah. I mean they're not, you know, they've never been, in my career, mutually exclusive. And in this particular instance of the program, you know, the legal analysis of the program, if it were torture -- if it were legally constituting torture, then any, you know, justification that it was nonetheless necessary to prevent another 9/11, I mean that just wasn't available. If it's torture, it's torture, no matter what the rationale was. And, you know, and we all knew that and certainly the Justice Department factored that in.

  • 13:54:52

    RIZZOIn terms of the danger to the country, I mean, I will say that that led to my -- played into my determination not to squelch these things at their infancy, to play it out, to do the legal analysis and see whether or not it did constitute torture legally.

  • 13:55:16

    NNAMDIYou know, in the last year, we've learned a lot about the intelligence-gathering techniques of the NSA, National Security Agency, thanks to former government contractor, Edward Snowden. And many Americans have been appalled by what the government has been doing in the name of national security. How do you think public opinion on national security today differs from what it was in the years directly after 9/11?

  • 13:55:39

    RIZZOWell, I mean, I think the, you know, the political pendulum has swung. I mean, this is -- this was inevitable and this is totally understandable that it's been 12 years and we've not had a second major attack in the homeland. I think 9/11, while still a searing memory, is becoming more and more distant. I mean, that's just natural. So, I mean, mercifully, you know, we've not had a second attack. So that's a blessing. But I think that inevitably what happens is there is this thought, certainly in parts of the media and the Congress, you know, the feeling swings more towards protecting civil liberties, even if it puts at risk perhaps valuable national security programs.

  • 13:56:30

    NNAMDIAnd, finally, the Obama administration today is fighting terrorism through drone strikes, killing suspects through the air rather than interrogating them on the ground. Given the blowback that the CIA faced because of the black sites, water boarding, covert interrogations, do you think the drone strikes are being viewed as a less-risky counterterrorism strategy?

  • 13:56:50

    RIZZOWell, I think, I mean, I think that was an inescapable conclusion that I made in the book that, you know, people now, I think, sometimes overlook the fact that the drone program began in 2002, almost contemporaneously with the interrogation program.

  • 13:57:10

    RIZZOAnd, think back, during all those years, 2003 through 2008, 2009 -- with all this opprobrium, you know, directed towards the interrogation program, which after all was a program of obviously harshly interrogating terrorists -- there was not a word that I saw, and I was watching, from human rights groups or even the Congress about a program that was also going on for all the world to see, where CIA and the U.S. government were killing terrorists from a distance, blowing them to pieces and sometimes occasional innocent bystanders.

  • 13:57:48

    RIZZOFor some reason, that kind of thing, until very recently, was considered morally justifiable.

  • 13:57:56

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. John Rizzo's new book is a memoir. It's called "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA." He was a lawyer there for 34 years. During the last 7, he acted as the agency's chief legal officer. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:11

    RIZZOThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:12

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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