The Company and a question of trust

January 6

A new book has gotten me thinking about the growing mistrust in our government.

The book is “Company Man,” by John Rizzo, who was a lawyer at the Central Intelligence Agency for 34 years. He spent the last seven as acting general counsel.

Rizzo arrived in the aftermath of the Church Committee’s exposure in 1975 of CIA assassinations and domestic spying. He eventually witnessed close up the Iran-contra scandal, the Aldrich Ames spy case, the cleaning out of “dirty assets,” the rise of terrorism and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Iraq invasion and weapons of mass destruction fiasco, and finally the waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation” of al-Qaeda leaders.

I covered all those events, and though each one exposed flaws in how the CIA and some of its operatives may have behaved (my stories have involved some officers who were subsequently indicted and others who lost their jobs), I have a much greater respect for the work of the agency and other elements of the intelligence community than I did in 1962, when I came across a stupid CIA operation in which a case officer was serving undercover as the public relations representative for an African president.

Rizzo, however, is a “company man,” so don’t read his book to see the agency at its worst. Tim Weiner told that story in his 2007 book, “Legacy of Ashes,” which a New York Times reviewer called “a litany of failure from the CIA’s early days.” Rizzo’s book is the counterpoint: how presidents have ordered CIA personnel to undertake covert actions and then allowed the agency to take the fall when things failed.

“Company Man” highlights that trust is a two-way street, especially when activities are clandestine. We are asked to trust those who execute such orders, but they must be able to trust the leaders who issue the orders if things don’t work out.

Consider one of Rizzo’s earliest anecdotes. On Oct. 5, 1986, a U.S. cargo plane was shot down carrying arms from El Salvador to the Nicaraguan contras, who were opposing the leftist Sandinista government. The lone survivor was Eugene Hasenfus, a U.S. citizen who said he was working for the CIA. At the time, Congress had passed a law barring the agency from aiding the contras.

On Nov. 5, 1986, there were reports that a small weekly in Lebanon had disclosed that the United States had been secretly delivering arms to the Khomeini regime in Iran in an effort to gain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.

After the White House initially refused to comment, President Ronald Reagan made a nationally televised speech on Nov. 13, 1986. “The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists,” Reagan said. “Those charges are utterly false.”

A day later, Rizzo, who that year had moved to the CIA Office of Congressional Affairs, was assigned to deliver to Capitol Hill two presidential findings. One, signed by Reagan on Jan. 17, 1986, said a purpose of the arms would be “furthering the release of the American hostages held in Beirut.” The second finding, signed by Reagan on Dec. 5, 1985, “seemed intended to secure presidential approval for activities [ the arms shipments to the contras] the CIA had already undertaken,” and it “flew in the face of the law” by approving a covert activity retroactively, Rizzo writes.

“As soon as I read them, my heart sank. In the first place they contained language . . . [that] starkly contradicted the avowed policies of not only Reagan but also presidents going back to the dawn of the terrorism era, no ransom or bargaining for the release of hostages. They also gave the lie, in black and white, to what the president had just told the American people.”

What was most politically explosive, Rizzo writes, is that in both findings Reagan directed the CIA “not to brief the Congress of the United States . . . until such time as I may direct otherwise.”

Normally such findings would have been sent to the congressional intelligence committees within 48 hours, or at least to the two committee chairmen and ranking members and the House and Senate leadership.

Not only did mistrust develop in Congress, which began investigations, but Rizzo told me last week that the episode bred cynicism among agency personnel, since much of what was being questioned had been started by the White House and kept from all but a handful of CIA officials.

Another episode Rizzo records involves “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation — “torture” in the popular vernacular.

Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, when CIA experts feared another attack, the “public and their elected representatives demanded that the government prevent it from happening, whatever that took,” Rizzo writes. “To the CIA, that meant not only taking bin Laden’s key henchmen out of circulation but getting them to talk.”

At the time, the agency “was being pilloried in Congress and the media for having been ‘risk averse’ in the years leading up to 9/11.” There had been a cleansing of “dirty assets” in the mid-1990s, when Congress and the news media questioned the CIA’s use of operatives involved in human rights violations in Central America during and after the Reagan administration.

Risk-averse attitudes before Sept. 11 turned into “protect us at all costs,” Rizzo writes. But by 2009, after there were no attacks and waterboarding was publicized, a criminal prosecution was launched, and the refrain became “what the hell have you guys been up to, anyway?”

Sound familiar to you folks at the National Security Agency?

One message I take away from Rizzo’s book is a twist on an old Reagan saying. When it comes to alleged CIA, NSA and other intelligence-agency misdeeds, the approach by the news media, Congress and the public should be “mistrust but verify.”

To read previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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