Share This Page

CIA memoir 'Company Man' reveals what wasn't asked

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

There is a moment in John Rizzo's new memoir when the longtime CIA lawyer has the chance to change history. It is March 2002, and Rizzo has just been briefed on the agency's proposals for interrogating suspected terrorists.

Rizzo walks the grounds of the CIA, smoking a cigar, thinking about waterboarding and other unprecedented tactics that seem “sadistic and terrifying.”

Rizzo realizes that, on his own say-so, he can end the discussion right there. With the stroke of a pen, Rizzo, the CIA's acting general counsel, could kill the program before it starts.

“It would have been a relatively easy thing to do, actually,” he writes.

Then, he thinks about what would happen if terrorists struck again. People would blame the CIA. Rizzo would blame himself. And he couldn't deal with that.

So, despite his reservations, Rizzo sends the interrogation proposal to the Justice Department, beginning a process that gave the green light to tactics the United States once considered and prosecuted as torture.

Moments like this occur again and again in the roughly six chapters Rizzo dedicates to the CIA's post-9/11 response: People set aside nagging questions about morality (should we?) and focused instead on the legalistic question (can we?).

Rizzo's portrayal of key meetings offers an unprecedented and sometimes startling look at how uncomfortable the enhanced-interrogation techniques made people.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “didn't want to get his fingerprints anywhere near the EITs.” Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed “intensely uncomfortable.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was disturbed that the detainees were forced to be nude.

Yet, there were no discussions about whether this path would damage U.S. relationships with allies, harm U.S. long-term interests or weaken its moral standing.

Even though the interrogation program is more than a decade in the past, the topic remains timely. Since leaked documents showed the U.S. vacuuming up millions of domestic phone records, tracking cellphone locations and eavesdropping on calls, officials have defended the tactics as legal.

Once again, the question of whether the government should do something is getting less attention than the question of whether it can.

Many insiders have written memoirs about the post-9/11 CIA. Often, those who approved the interro-gation program are portrayed as two-dimensional heroes willing to make unpopular decisions to help the country.

Rizzo paints a less flattering but more revealing picture, one in which fear hung over important decisions. Fear of another attack, fear of blame, fear of political liability.

Depending on your politics and your views on waterboarding, that may make these figures more relatable and human, their decisions that much more wrenching.

Or it may make them seem cowardly.

Whatever conclusion you draw, Rizzo's book makes an important contribution to history and the debate over interrogation. And it serves as a reminder of how much fear drives decision-making in Washington.

For instance, Rizzo regrets not presenting the interrogation program to more people in Congress. Not because the legislative branch should have been fully aware of this unprecedented step, but because it would have headed off criticism of the CIA years later.

In a few key places, Rizzo skips the opportunity for what would have been important reflection. There is no analysis, for example, of the two psychologists who became the architects of the interrogation program despite limited background and expertise.

“Company Man” is tailor-made for CIA buffs. Rizzo's career as an agency lawyer spanned the decades from Iran-Contra to drones, with Russian turncoat Aldrich Ames, the rise of al-Qaida and some interrogation videos destroyed in between.

Though Rizzo never sheds his role as the company man, his book manages to strike notes that are both earnest and candid. That alone sets “Company Man” apart in the genre.

Matt Apuzzo is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.