But instead, he pandered to the CIA’s leadership and to the politicians who put them there.
A friend from Covert Action Magazine recently sent me a video of former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo giving an interview upon his retirement from the CIA. The interview is seven years old. But it is as current—and as infuriating—today as it was the day he sat for it.
Rizzo died last August, and he’s been quickly forgotten. But his legacy lives on. The prisoners whose capture, rendition, and torture he advocated for are still being held. None of them have been granted a trial before a jury of their peers. Indeed, many of them have yet to be formally accused of a crime. Yet they languish in Guantanamo. That’s thanks to John Rizzo and people like him.
Like many of you, my mother taught me that if I didn’t have something nice to say about somebody, I shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s been a tough rule to live by over the years, but I’ve tried. But when Rizzo died last August and I turned to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other outlets to read of his passing, not a single kind word came to mind.
My mother would be angry (or disappointed) with me for saying it, but, as I said at the time, the world is a better place without John Rizzo in it. Rizzo was the unapologetic godfather of the CIA’s torture program, a monstrous crime against humanity that he defended unabashedly until his death.
John Rizzo was a rather complicated figure. I knew him well from my days as the Executive Assistant to one of the CIA’s Associate Deputy Directors. I was former CIA Director George Tenet’s morning briefer during the Iraq War, and Rizzo routinely sat in on the sessions. He was a nice enough guy—quick with a smile and a nod. He was dapper, with a well-groomed beard that made him look more like a 19th century businessman in search of his top hat than a seasoned and very political attorney whose job it was to lay out the legal justifications for horrific crimes yet to be committed.
Rizzo told a German newspaper in 2014 that immediately after I led a 2002 raid that resulted in the capture of Abu Zubaydah, then thought to be the Number 3 in al-Qaeda’s leadership, he “strolled around CIA headquarters smoking a cigar and ponder(ing) the possibility of a second terrorist attack after which Mr. Zubaydah would gleefully tell our interrogators, ‘Yes, I knew all about them (additional terrorist plans), and you didn’t get me to talk.’”
He went on that, “There would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of American dead on the streets again. And in the post-mortem investigations, it would all come out that the CIA considered these techniques but was too risk-averse to carry them out, and that I was the guy who stopped them.” He told The Hill newspaper in 2015, “Sure, I thought about the morality of it. But the times were such that what I thought would have been equally immoral is if we just unilaterally dismissed the possibility of undertaking a program that could have potentially saved thousands more American lives.”
Rizzo missed the point in 2002 and he missed it again in 2014 and 2015. Nobody doubted his patriotism. Nobody doubted that he wanted to disrupt the next terrorist attack. We all did. But we also all took an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” We took an oath to uphold the laws of the United States. And no number of legal backflips can justify committing war crimes or crimes against humanity.
That’s what Rizzo authorized. He opened a Pandora’s box that couldn’t be closed again. He crossed a line that couldn’t be uncrossed. He gave the green light for torture, for murder, for international kidnappings. He made the annual Human Rights Report that Congress mandates of the State Department every year a bad joke. And he never doubted or second-guessed himself. He was supposed to be the Constitution’s last line of defense inside the CIA. But instead, he pandered to the CIA’s leadership and to the politicians who put them there.
It was interesting to me that when Rizzo died, the two people the Washington Post found to talk about him for his obituary were George Tenet and former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, Rizzo’s bosses and co-conspirators in heinous human rights abuses.
One of his post-CIA colleagues at the Washington, DC power law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, however, analyzed Rizzo’s career more clearly, perhaps not even realizing what he was saying.
He wrote, “For decades he was the last word on what CIA operatives could and could not do within the law. He knew that these judgments were as much about political prognostication as about applying abstract principles of law, and that critics of the American intelligence agencies would always second-guess his conclusions. He knew that using harsh interrogation techniques would sooner or later make the agency vulnerable to claims of lawlessness and torture. He may not have been convinced that the techniques in question would be crucial to preventing another attack or defeating al-Qaeda, but he was clear that the final call should not be made by lawyers. He threw everything into the effort to give the nation’s leaders room to make the decision, including, it turned out, his own reputation.”
And there it is: The admission that Rizzo cared more about—sacrificed his career for—politics rather than for the Constitution and the rule of law. Rizzo could have said, “This is wrong. We’re a nation of laws. We’re a nation of respect for human rights. We won’t put ourselves on the same level with the terrorists.” But he didn’t. That is his legacy, no matter how many post-mortem interviews find a second life on YouTube.
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.