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How the CIA Went off the Rails on Torture and Kidnapping, and No One Is Responsible

Former CIA counsel John Rizzo's book, 'Company Man' reveals an astonishing capacity for denial.
 
 
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Photo Credit: YouTube.com/Screenshot/CNSFordhamLaw

 
 
 
 

In the months following 9/11, it seems Washington just couldn’t say “no” to the CIA. The agency’s budget shot through the ceiling. Suddenly the CIA not only commanded private armies, it even had a state-of-the-art air force! Between 2006-2007, the CIA drove a proxy war, mobilizing Ethiopia’s army to invade Somalia. It was perhaps the most audacious war the CIA ever triggered. But it hardly raised a stir in Washington, where reinvigorated secrecy ensured that hardly anyone knew about it — and where to this day few analysts even understand what the CIA’s little war, in which thousands of innocent civilians perished, was about. The CIA also bore core responsibility for a nine-year-long drone war in Pakistan: 300 strikes with more than 3,000 fatalities, almost all of this in an area that U.S. military strategists describe as the core of the battlefield in the current war. It also ran, jointly with the military, drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia. None of this is what the authors of the National Security Act had in mind with the words “covert operation.” In fact, virtually the only people in the world from whom these activities were kept secret were American voters.

Throughout this period, the dapper and good-natured John Rizzo was the CIA’s senior career lawyer. One would hope to find in his memoir a deep account of the policy battles that led to the CIA’s transformation, and particularly the legal issues. There is no other time in American history when the public has been riveted by legal policy issues as luridly appealing as those that emerged in 2004-2007. Gruesome accounts of homicide and torture in secret prisons run by the American government rocked the world. The scandal opened with now-iconic photographs from Abu Ghraib, and spread as stories emerged from Bagram, Camp Nama, the CIA’s Salt Pit prison north of Kabul, its secret prison near Rabat, Morocco, and Guantánamo. President Bush insisted that “we do not torture.” But an avalanche of secret U.S. legal documents quickly showed otherwise.

John Rizzo was at the center of this storm.

"Company Man" offers an interesting collection of vignettes from a 35-year career in the agency, but its essence is a rationalization of the CIA’s decision to operate black sites and use torture. Rizzo chronicles the steps that led to these decisions and then to back away from them. We discover, for instance, as John Kiriakou first revealed, that the key decisions about the use of waterboarding, mock burial, the cold cell, longtime-standing, sleep deprivation and similar techniques, were taken by the CIA both to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and to the White House. They were ultimately reviewed and approved by the National Security Council (NSC) Principals Committee (consisting of key cabinet officers, the national security advisor, the president and vice president). Only two members of the NSC openly voiced reservations: Condoleezza Rice didn’t like enforced nudity. Colin Powell objected to sleep deprivation. (Kiriakou, a former CIA case officer and analyst, is currently serving a prison term for what he revealed.)

Donald Rumsfeld, who once stormed out of a party when asked about war crimes, didn’t want to be in these meetings. John Ashcroft was “mostly silent.” But Dick Cheney stood tall for torture and was a forceful dissenter from President Bush’s late 2006 decision to eliminate it. One curiosity: in his recent biography, Bush proudly took responsibility for the use of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but Rizzo doesn’t recall that Bush was ever actually briefed on them.

Rizzo makes clear that going into this process he had one key worry. It was never whether the techniques were legal or moral. Rather it was how he could protect CIA personnel from the risk of prosecution at some point in the future. The strategy he developed to accomplish this reveals Rizzo as a consummate Beltway insider. By involving the White House at the highest level in the decision, he ensured that accountability would, if pursued, have to reach to the very top of the government. Federal prosecutors would of course find it impossible to open a criminal inquiry into the entire National Security Council, particularly with the attorney general personally blessing the whole process. And by securing opinions from OLC, Rizzo was effectively securing a get-out-of-jail-free card for his team — ensuring that no one at Justice would dare bring charges against them. We see how well this strategy worked later on, when Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to examine a number of cases flagged by a CIA inspector general. The evidence was copious, but the prosecutor declined to press charges in any of the 101 cases, including those involving homicide. Any other decision would have led to the top. All the way to the top.