Correction to This Article
This A-section article about a Senate intelligence committee hearing misattributed a quote to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). It was Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who said "I am not a lawyer." Warner is a graduate of the University of Virginia law school, and he served as assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

Senators Question CIA Nominee on Torture

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

John A. Rizzo, who has spent much of the past five years honing the CIA's interrogation policies, knows how to avoid answering questions under pressure -- at least in public. In nearly two hours of Senate testimony yesterday, his longest response by far was six sentences long.

For much of the session, Rizzo confined himself to "Yes, sir," "No, sir" and "I think I'd best address that in closed session."

Senators used the rare open hearing of the Select Committee on Intelligence, held to consider Rizzo's confirmation as CIA general counsel, as an opportunity to air concerns about the long-secret CIA detention and interrogation program. What they wanted to know, and asked in a dozen different ways, was whether Rizzo had helped provide a legal rationale for torture. If he did, said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), "it's very difficult for me to vote for you."

Asked if he approved of a Justice Department opinion that only pain resulting in "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" qualified as torture, Rizzo carefully said he "did not object." Perhaps it "did appear overbroad," he added, "but I can't say that I had any specific objections to any specific parts of it."

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) observed that there is a difference between failure to object and approval. "I'm not a lawyer," Warner said with a chuckle, adding that he "learned that little lesson" from Rizzo's formulation.

Affable and calm, Rizzo rolled a pen between his fingers as he issued other parsimonious replies to the five Democrats and two Republicans present. Dapper, white-haired and bearded, he resembled a slimmed-down Santa Claus in civilian dress more than Hollywood's version of a CIA consigliere.

Rizzo has spent virtually his entire career at the agency, including serving as acting general counsel for most of the time since September 2001 -- a job in which he passed judgment on the legality of numerous operations never meant to be publicly disclosed or debated. If confirmed, he will be the first person to hold the job who has risen through the ranks.

When Rizzo arrived at the agency more than three decades ago, the CIA had 19 lawyers, compared with more than 100 today. At the time, he said in his opening statement, it was deep in the doldrums. The Senate had just exposed intelligence excesses -- including assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro and others -- and was demanding a major overhaul.

One change was to subject the agency to stronger congressional oversight, Rizzo said. But he explained that it took the 1980s Iran-contra affair, during which he served as the agency's "focal point" for dealings with Capitol Hill investigators, to convince him of the importance of coming clean with Congress.

"I saw firsthand the tremendous damage my agency sustained -- and all of it stemmed from the fact that, as an institution, CIA had kept the intelligence committees in the dark," he said. "Worse yet, a few senior CIA officers -- people I had worked with and admired for years -- wound up being prosecuted for misleading Congress." Careers were ruined along with the agency's reputation, Rizzo said.

The "indelible" lesson he learned, he said, was that the "CIA courts disaster whenever it loses sight of the absolute necessity to inform the intelligence communities on a timely basis what they need to know in order to perform effective, constructive oversight."

But there were limits to what he thought they needed to know in an open session, with reporters, the public and representatives of the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and other organizations in the audience.

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