The former CIA lawyer was the unapologetic godfather of the agency’s torture program, a monstrous crime against humanity that he defended unabashedly until his death.
By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News
Last week I read in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other outlets that former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo had died.
Though I was brought up to say nothing about someone rather than something unkind, not a single kind word came to mind. My mother would be disappointed to hear me say this, but the world is a better place without John Rizzo.
Rizzo was the unapologetic godfather of the CIA’s torture program, a monstrous crime against humanity that he defended unabashedly until his death.
He was a complicated man. I knew him well going back to my days as the executive assistant to one of the CIA’s associate deputy directors. When I was former CIA Director George Tenet’s morning briefer during the Iraq War, Rizzo routinely sat in on the sessions.
On the surface, 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 a top hat rather than what he was: a seasoned, very political attorney whose job was to lay out the legal justifications for horrific crimes yet to be committed.
In 2002 I led a raid that captured Abu Zubaydah — then thought to be No. 3 in Al Qaeda’s leadership. In 2014, Rizzo told Der Spiegel that immediately after Zubaydah’s capture
“I walked around the CIA headquarters building, smoking a cigar by myself and basically pondered what to do next. I distinctly remember sort of playing out the scenario in my head that I would stop these proposals because they were too brutal. And let’s just say there had been a second terrorist attack in the ensuing days and, in the aftermath, Abu Zubaydah were to gleefully tell our interrogators, ‘Yes, I knew all about them, and you didn’t get me to talk.’ There would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans 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. I couldn’t live with the possibility of that someday happening.”
Asked if he regretted his decision to justify torture, he said: “I can’t honestly sit here and say I would have made any different decisions than the ones I made back in early 2002.”
Rizzo told The Hill 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.”
Missing the Point
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, murder and international kidnappings.
Rizzo made a joke out of the annual Human Rights Report that Congress mandates of the State Department every year. 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’s interesting that the two people The Washington Post found to talk about Rizzo for his obituary were 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, D.C., power law firm Steptoe & Johnson, however, analyzed Rizzo’s career more clearly, perhaps not even realizing what he was saying. He wrote on Lawfare blog,
“For decades [Rizzo] 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 — even 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 will be his legacy.
John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Your mother should be pleased that you made it through the whole article without once referring to its subject as “Ratso”. If you bumped into him in the hallway did he ever say “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!”
Great article. And see also Ray McGovern’s comments at his own website about Rizzo and those that honored him at Fordham and its Center on National Security.
Rest in peace? Sounds like Christain coded speech for burn in hell. Of course if that existed he’s on board for a big promotion.
Somehow it always seems to boil down to: protect/defend your own hide.
The comments, and the point of the article, do not reflect reality.
In a street fight you do not say to the other guy, “You can fight dirty,
but I will use boxing gloves.”
… which of course makes the United States no better than terrorists, in your own words.
Well, why were “we” in the “street fight” in the first place…..
As a non-interventionist I think that really is the critical question at hand. I admit I’m biased.
Rest in peace Rizzo.
It is time for better ideas.
If you want to torture people, that’s on you. Your problem, though, is that it’s illegal. You’ll have to change the law and be out there publicly as a torture supporter. You can’t just pretend that the law doesn’t exist because you don’t like it.
Of course you’re entirely right John, torture is morally and legally indefensible. And US politicians, the CIA, military chose to get into a “fight” with people and nations across the globe for their own nefarious reasons. As we say where I live in Northern England, nowt to do with “humanitarian intervention” or other phoney declarations like “nation building”. NATO and Co are more into destroying nations while killing as many of the people living there as they can.
I would never defend what was done on 9/11, also indefensible, but it wouldn’t have happened if the US weren’t occupying and putting military bases across the globe. The existence of the MIC breeds terrorism, something I believe no honest person would deny. These of course are facts conveniently ignored by Rizzo and others who defend the indefensible.
I’ve noticed that lots of Americans are cool with torture and murder, so long as it’s foreigners who suffer and so long as it’s their own team, D or R, which is doing the torturing or murdering.
Of course, what goes around comes around and now torture is common in the US for those of us who are not rich or well-connected.
He had bosses who ghoulishly ordered and watch from above the proceedings, having their top apparatchik at CIA Gina Haspel directly oversee the operations.
The USA is a colonial, expansionist, genocidal, torturing settler state.
So, this particular Rizzo is no longer with us – wonderful news – until one realizes there are others just like him that will step right into his shoes. From the piece, on what Rizzo could have said and done regarding our behaviors – “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 we are indeed on or below that immoral threshold of terrorists – we are a nation that does not respect human rights (as we claim to ourselves and the world) we pay attention to the laws only as they apply to other countries. We are above the laws that we demand all others comply with. Terrorists are US. Can’t with a straight face claim otherwise when faced with the facts of our killing history.
Goodby and good riddance to a very useful idiot to the CIA. I cannot agree more.
Interesting John, that you phrase things in your last paragraph so artfully.
When the government wants to justify it’s latest assault on the Constitution and the rule of law far too many times the course of events has been unquestioned because of some quasi loyalty test both parties engage in, the CIA always leading the way, generally with the aid of DOJ. The fix in.
They got caught here because there was no way to keep these things secret. You like TOP SECRET. CIA’s dirty side got exposed because they no longer care and they proved it by sending you to prison.
The comment by this man’s colleague at Steptoe and Johnston, just how many decades did was he at those controls of the conduct of CIA officers. ?
Another, ” man of great zeal but little understanding”, to paraphrase the late great Justice Louis D. Brandies .
As it turns out a very bad man.
A very useful idiot for the functionary of the Deep State.
Grammatical pedantry: We won’t put ourselves on the same level with the terrorists.” But he didn’t.
Shouldn’t it be: But he did (put himself on the same level with the terrorists).
I was initially confused because of familiarity with a Police Commissioner of Philadelphia who became the city mayor, Frank Rizzo. Wikipedia
During Rizzo’s second term, two reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer, William K. Marimow and Jon Neuman, began a long series about Philadelphia police department’s patterns of police brutality, intimidation, coercion and disregard for constitutional rights. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper.
This was the period when I was a regular reader of TPI. The two phenomena, using violence abroad with torture and assassination, lately including drones, and using violence domestically, brutality by police and prison guards are related. For long time they were a ticket to political carriers as voters believed that this is what makes them safe while negative consequences are born by people who do not deserve compassion. A segment of legal community supports both, and this segments seems to be still in control, all the way to Prosecutor Generals and Supreme Court, although with varying degree of frankness.
Well said, John.
Well, I reckon we all got to die eventually.
I also reckon you get what you give.
Rest in peace Rizzo and good riddance.
Maybe the heavens above will have a lesson for you to learn.
Maybe, maybe not. I’m guessing probably not.