John Rizzo: The Most Influential Career Lawyer in CIA History

The CIA's Acting General Counsel John Rizzo will retire this summer — and not entirely on his own terms. His role in the CIA’s interrogation program hurt his chances of a Senate confirmation for the agency’s top legal post.

June 29, 2009

Reporting from Washington -- In his memoir, former CIA Director George J. Tenet described the agency's first course of action in a crisis. "Despite what Hollywood might have you believe," Tenet wrote, "you don't call in the tough guys; you call in the lawyers."

For more than three decades, that almost always has meant making a call to John A. Rizzo.

The acting general counsel at the CIA, Rizzo has guided generations of agency leaders on the legal contours of clandestine operations and the often-ensuing investigations. At CIA headquarters, he is known for his eye-watering wardrobe -- with ties, cuff links and suspenders colored like scoops of sherbet. His legal approach, however, always accommodated shades of gray, earning him a reputation among spies as an ally who understood the murky morality of what they do.

When he retires this summer, Rizzo will go out as the most influential career lawyer in CIA history, having risen to the top of the agency's legal ranks while leaving his mark on classified programs from proxy wars in Central America to Predator strikes in Pakistan.

But Rizzo, 61, will not be departing entirely on his own terms. He was never given the formal title of general counsel -- despite holding the job in an acting capacity for more than six years -- because of Senate objections to his role in the CIA's use of severe interrogation methods. He probably will be followed by questions over how well the CIA, and the country, were served by his decisions. And he leaves behind an agency battered by criticism, accused of using torture by the nation's president.

Martyr or enabler?

Rizzo's supporters say he has been made a scapegoat.

"In many ways John was sort of martyred to political correctness for doing the hard mission for the agency," said former CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who described Rizzo as a "rock solid" advisor and pushed his nomination to be general counsel.

But others questioned Rizzo's approach, saying he often was focused on what could be interpreted as legal rather than what was right.

"John was kind of the legal enabler of the agency," said a senior CIA official who worked with Rizzo and requested anonymity when discussing the agency. "His approach was always to find a way legally for the agency to do what it wanted to do."

Rizzo declined requests for comment.

Even as the interrogation controversy escalated over the last three years, Rizzo's name was rarely mentioned among those of other lawyers, including John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, who were more closely associated with the program. But that changed when the White House released Justice Department memos in April arguing that waterboarding and other brutal methods did not constitute torture. Rizzo's name was at the top of each memo, making clear his role in requesting those controversial rulings.

Rizzo had never dealt with legal questions about interrogation until officials from the agency's Counterterrorism Center approached him in 2002 with a list of techniques they wanted to employ to get a suspected Al Qaeda captive, Abu Zubaydah, to talk. Among them was waterboarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a plank and doused to make him feel he is drowning.

If Rizzo was troubled by the proposal, he didn't say so, according to officials familiar with the matter. Instead, he set about making sure the agency had legal cover for the inevitable day those interrogation methods would come to light.

Rizzo had lived through earlier scandals and was acutely aware of the stakes. In a 2007 videotaped discussion with students at a law school in Minnesota, Rizzo said his greatest regret was that he had not been "more aggressive or intrusive" in trying to uncover or prevent the CIA's involvement in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the 1980s.

Rizzo kept close watch on the interrogation program. Once, during a 2005 trip by senior CIA executives to Kabul, Afghanistan, Rizzo disappeared from the crowd after dinner with Afghan intelligence officials. It wasn't until the next day, one participant remembered, that Rizzo revealed he had arranged a midnight trip to the Salt Pit, a secret CIA prison on the outskirts of the city, to see detention operations up close.

A CIA detainee had died at the site in 2002. But Rizzo came away newly assured that the operation was well-run, former officials said.

Career lawyer

Rizzo grew up in Boston, the son of a department store executive. He was a bright student with a small frame and an easy way with people. It was after joining a fraternity at Brown University that he acquired his trademark taste for flamboyant clothes. He's a fan of pinstriped Ralph Lauren suits, Thomas Pink ties and Armani shoes. Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden joked that if Rizzo "could get away with it, he would come to work in spats."

After law school at George Washington University, Rizzo joined the CIA in 1976, just as the agency was emerging from scathing congressional investigations into Nixon-era abuses. Within three years, Rizzo was designated the attorney for the Directorate of Operations, the CIA branch that conducts clandestine missions. His predecessor had lasted only a year, but Rizzo rapidly established a rapport with the officers of the "DO."

Being a CIA lawyer involves navigating issues that tend not to come up in law school. One of Rizzo's first tasks was devising rules for CIA operatives in Central America, where the agency was backing anti-communist rebels. At issue was whether the CIA could have informants on its payroll who were working for death squads. In a classic Rizzo ruling, he concluded it was acceptable as long as the source wasn't carrying out assassinations himself. If the informant was tapped to pull the trigger, Rizzo came up with what he called the "shoot in the air scenario," meaning that the CIA hire could go ahead with the assignment as long as he made sure that he missed.

A fan of spy novels and movies, Rizzo has Zelig-like connections to some of the more intriguing episodes of CIA history. When then-CIA Director William J. Casey collapsed at agency headquarters shortly before he was scheduled to testify before Congress on the Iran-Contra scandal, it was Rizzo who was waiting outside Casey's office. He was there to prepare Casey for the hearing, but the director was taken away by paramedics, and subsequently died of brain cancer.

In the Bush era

Rizzo was never regarded as an ideologue. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, he found himself surrounded by Bush administration attorneys who were committed to pushing the limits of executive power and granting the CIA unprecedented detention and interrogation authority. Some former colleagues said they are puzzled by Rizzo's acquiescence.

"Maybe Rizzo didn't count on the boundaries changing as the perceived threat from Al Qaeda decreased or as political postures changed," said John Radsan, who served as assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004. "Or maybe Rizzo factored this in, and accepted the consequences."

Defending his decisions, Rizzo has told colleagues that although the CIA has faced criticism for its interrogation methods, failing to prevent a follow-on attack might have led to its dismantling. Rizzo appears to have succeeded in inoculating agency employees from prosecution. But critics, including President Obama, contend that the cost to the country was considerable.

As the controversy escalated, Rizzo worked to contain the damage. Goss said that he ordered the interrogation program halted in late 2005, based largely on Rizzo's advice. A year later, it was Rizzo who helped arrange for the Red Cross to gain access to CIA detainees after their transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Nevertheless, Rizzo paid a price. He had hoped to become the first career lawyer to be named general counsel at the CIA. But he was forced to withdraw after members of the Senate Intelligence Committee made it clear that if they were to hold a vote, Rizzo would lose.

In his confirmation hearing, Rizzo frustrated lawmakers by refusing to disavow the infamous Justice Department memo arguing that torture had to involve physical pain "equivalent in intensity" to organ failure, or even death. The memo was "an aggressive, expansive reading" of the law, Rizzo said. "But I can't say that I had any specific objections to any specific parts of it."

The man nominated to replace Rizzo, former Justice Department lawyer Stephen W. Preston, was similarly reluctant to denounce the agency's methods during his confirmation hearing last month. Repeatedly pressed on whether waterboarding constituted torture, Preston replied, "I have not reached that conclusion."

Even so, Preston was confirmed and is expected to move into Rizzo's office on the seventh floor of the CIA headquarters building this week.

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