Irony isn't lost on retired CIA general counsel John Rizzo

Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A13

Who other than the acerbic John A. Rizzo, who served a long tenure as the CIA's acting general counsel, would use his first talk after retiring from government to lay out a series of ironies that illustrate the frustration felt by older agency professionals, given the treatment of their activities during the past decade?

Take the waterboarding of senior al-Qaeda operatives in 2002 and 2003, as Rizzo discussed it last week in his maiden public appearance before the American Bar Association's committee on law and national security.

He pointed out that while Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed were undergoing waterboarding in CIA detention, the United States was conducting lethal operations against terrorists. "There was never, ever, as far as I could discern, any debate, discussion, questioning on moral or legal grounds about the efficacy of the United States targeting and killing terrorists," he said.

"A lot of attention, a lot of criticism was given about the number of waterboarding sessions they [Abu Zubaida and Mohammed] had," Rizzo said, "but I don't believe there would have been nearly as much similar discussion about the number of bullets that would have been pumped into them if they had been killed rather than captured."

Rizzo, the CIA's acting general counsel from 2003 to 2009, was denied Senate confirmation because of his role in getting Bush administration officials to provide legal justification for harsh interrogation policies. "Mercifully, CIA is now out of that [interrogation and detention] business -- but they didn't get out soon enough to help me, unfortunately," he told the ABA audience.

He also saw an irony in the public's general acceptance of stepped-up Predator raids against terrorist targets in Pakistan, compared with the uproar last year over the disclosure that the CIA had studied the use of "hit squads" to go after terrorist leaders.

Given questions about casualties among women, children and civilians in the Predator attacks, Rizzo said, "it would seem to me that a cleaner and more effective and, in a perverse way perhaps a more humane way, was to train, for lack of a better term, hit squads . . . to find a high-value detainee and put a bullet in his head."

He then referred to the "shock and controversy" that accompanied the disclosure that such a unit was at least conceived of by the CIA soon after Sept. 11, 2001. "I don't understand the logic," Rizzo said. "If one is going to be conducting these lethal operations, and certainly by air or by Predator, it would seem to me that once you go down this road the more efficacious way to conduct these lethal operations is, in fact, via these unilateral operations on the ground."

In one of his colorful asides, Rizzo referred to "press accounts" in talking about the CIA's officially classified Predator operation, noting, to the amusement of his lawyer audience, that "I'm trying to say that now, 'according to press accounts' -- in that way I shield myself [from violating classification rules]. Very clever, I thought."

Contrary to general belief, he said, the agency did not see renditions as a means of turning terrorists over to third countries so that, "with a wink and a nod," they could be tortured, although there was concern that this might be the case. "There is no particular reason for you to believe me," Rizzo said, "but we have never done that . . . [and] it has never been our policy." The biggest risk in renditions has not been torture, he said, but that "a truly bad guy" is handed over "and the third country lets him go -- and we have seen that."

Rizzo warned that there could be repercussions from investigations of the CIA's interrogation activities, saying, "We have to consider what tools will be considered legally and morally permissible in the future."

If there were another successful terrorist attack, he said, "I can't imagine that the criticisms in the postmortems . . . were that the existing interrogation policies were too tough."

Foreseeing pressure to strengthen the rules, Rizzo predicted: "Given what had happened the past few years, I think the agency leadership and certainly the agency workforce would be highly reluctant about being asked again to engage in similar or come up with similar aggressive tactics in the future."

He quickly added, however, that the CIA is "fairly resilient" and will do whatever the president directs it to do, "consistent with the law."

"But," Rizzo concluded, "given the experiences and the investigations that have been pursued for the last few years, I don't think the agency as a whole would be eager to start down that particular road again."

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