“I was confident that I could squelch at least the more aggressive proposed EITs, then and there, if I wanted to,” Rizzo writes in his new memoir, “Company Man.” “Besides being the Agency’s chief legal officer, I had the experience, credibility, and influence to have made that call and to have made it stick. . . . It would have been a relatively easy thing to do, actually.”
But Rizzo didn’t do that. Instead, he asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to write memorandums to give the CIA legal cover to go ahead with the new interrogation regime. Those legal defenses — written by John Yoo, a deputy attorney general in the legal counsel’s office — were addressed to Rizzo himself, and they came to be known as the “torture memos” when the Obama administration declassified and released them in 2009.
It was those legal memos, Rizzo concludes, that prevented his confirmation as general counsel of the CIA. He held the job in an acting capacity for more than six years. He worked for 11 CIA directors over three decades
. Yet he was nominated for the top legal job at the agency only once. The Senate refused his confirmation, citing his role in the enhanced interrogation techniques.
Rizzo arrived at the CIA as an untested lawyer in January 1976 and rose to become arguably the most influential career lawyer in CIA history. In his book, he describes how a young man from Boston became the Zelig of the intelligence community, putting his mark on everything from proxy wars in Central America in the 1970s to the recent drone strikes in Pakistan.
Few books have this scope or insider perspective on the CIA. Rizzo seems to have been there for everything — from Iran-contra to Valerie Plame to the arrival of President Obama. And that makes “Company Man” a front-row seat on the hidden world of intelligence over the past 30 years.
“Practicing law at the CIA was unlike any other attorney job in the government,” Rizzo writes. “Few federal statues were meant to apply to the Agency’s activities, and those that did traced back to the late ’40s and were, by congressional design, cryptic and ambiguously worded. Judicial precedents (basic ‘case law,’ as it’s called) were virtually nonexistent.”
So, in many cases, Rizzo had to make things up as he went along. If he was troubled by that process, he doesn’t say so. Instead, “Company Man” lays out how he crafted presidential findings to pave the way for covert operations in Central America. In another episode, he attempted to stop publication of New York Times reporter James Risen’s book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration” (by the time he heard about the book’s revelations, the manuscript had already gone to press).
The most engaging parts of “Company Man” are the descriptions of the author’s role in putting together the legal framework for the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Rizzo details how closely he
monitored the interrogation program. He went so far as to visit the overseas secret prisons, known as black sites, where the harsh techniques were employed. Rizzo describes packing his usual casual attire, “a stack of Ralph Lauren polo shirts in a rainbow coalition of colors.”
He was wearing a pink one as he climbed into an unmarked car for the drive to one secret prison. “One of these burly, gun-toting guys took one glance at my pink shirt and suggested, with a tone of ill-concealed scorn, ‘Sir, why didn’t you just put a bull’s-eye on your back instead?’ ” Rizzo writes that he stuck to earth tones after that.
“The prisons I visited were hiding in plain sight, each housed in a squat, nondescript building that blended into the surroundings,” Rizzo writes. “The most striking feature in the command center was the bank of TV monitors mounted on the walls. And it was there, on the screens, that I first saw them, those guys whose fates had consumed so much of my time for the previous three years. They looked so . . . small, each in his individual cell, either sleeping, eating, or praying. So seemingly peaceful and harmless.” Anne Murray songs were playing in the background, something he suggests might be akin to torture.
What seemed to make the biggest impression on him was that the staff had an “almost paternalistic pride . . . in some of these remorseless killers . . . as if I were seeing the Stockholm syndrome in reverse, with the captors forming a bond of sorts with the captives they were cooped up with in those windowless, locked-down facilities.”
Rizzo’s attitude seems out of touch with what he was witnessing. His book makes the secret prisons seem downright humdrum — and because of his role in providing the legal justification for them, the description comes off as perhaps a smidgen self-serving.
The book also seems to engage in more than a little score-settling. Among other things, Rizzo claims that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward could not possibly have had an interview with CIA Director William Casey as he lay close to death in a hospital — the blockbuster contents of which Woodward laid out in his best-selling book “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987.” (The interview is important because Woodward said he asked Casey if he had known about the diversion of funds to the contras all along, and he reported that Casey “nodded yes.”) Rizzo maintains that security was too tight for this encounter to have happened and that the agency had just turned down a request from an Iran-contra staffer who wanted to meet with Casey in the hospital.
Adding his two cents to the Plame affair, Rizzo calls her outing as an agency officer “the best thing that ever happened” to her because she parlayed the event into a best-selling book and a movie deal.
Rizzo rose from humble beginnings to become a fixture in national intelligence. He was the son of a department-store executive from Worcester, Mass., who saw being accepted at Brown University as a turning point in his life — he was the first in his family to go to an Ivy League school. He says that it was among the well-heeled undergrads that he learned to appreciate fine clothes, though today he has put a decidedly less Brown spin on his choices.
I’ve sat next to him at several national security lunches in New York, and there is a reason he is known as the Beau Brummell of the intelligence community. At one lunch I recall, he wore a yellow-striped spread-collar shirt, a loud Thomas Pink tie, a Ralph Lauren suit and Armani shoes. “Company Man,” while engaging reading, is decidedly less flamboyant than his usual haberdashery. The book is by turns withholding and matter-of-fact, aggrieved and smug, and in the end could be read in one of two ways: as the diary of a legal enabler for the agency or as an atlas to navigate the dark, murky morality that governs the business of intelligence.
Dina Temple-Raston is the counterterrorism correspondent at NPR and the author of four books, including “The Jihad Next Door,” about the Lackawanna Six. She is
on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.