WCW Home News Recent News 1-2-14 The C.I.A.’s Lawyer: Waterboarding and Memory
1-2-14 The C.I.A.’s Lawyer: Waterboarding and Memory PDF Print E-mail

By Steve Coll

From The New Yorker | Original Article



John Rizzo heads into a closed-door hearing with the House (Select) Intelligence Committee. on January 16, 2008.

C.I.A. memoirs have become a well-populated genre. As with mysteries or science fiction, most entries are at least diverting, as long as you are willing, on occasion, to suspend disbelief. On the intelligence-memoir shelf, the best reads usually come from rogues—for example, “A Spy for All Seasons,” by Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, of Iran-Contra notoriety, or Robert Baer’s two volumes of notes on his black-sheep career in the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations. (Baer’s work inspired the film “Syriana.”) Later this month will arrive another volume, “Company Man,” an often revealing and funny memoir by John Rizzo, who worked as a lawyer at the C.I.A. for thirty years. Like Clarridge and Baer, Rizzo writes in the acerbic, nothing-to-lose voice of a borderline scoundrel. In fact, he is a deeply loyal agency insider. Between 1976 and his retirement, in 2009, he helped nine different C.I.A. directors to paper over crises, manage Presidents and White House staffs, and outlast congressional inquiries.

“Company Man” is newsy on the legal underpinnings of American counterterrorism policy after September 11th, and on the subject of torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (E.I.T.s), as Rizzo and others who endorsed or accepted their use prefer. Rizzo provides a clear, detailed account of his decision-making and his role in the C.I.A.’s interrogation program. It includes how he might have stopped the whole ugly business by objecting forcefully when the techniques were first proposed, in furtive meetings on the C.I.A.’s executive floor, in the spring of 2002; why he decided not to stand in the way; and how he induced (suckered is more like it) the Justice Department into writing the infamous “torture memos” that sought to legally justify the C.I.A.’s activity.

We don’t yet have a reliable or full chronology of the use of torture and harsh interrogation techniques in C.I.A. prisons, but we do know that, beginning in the summer of 2002, several senior Al Qaeda prisoners were waterboarded or subjected to extensive sleep deprivation, or both, in an effort to extract intelligence from them about future plots. These prisoners included Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Rizzo provides an eyewitness account of how the early brutal interrogation sessions were described in detail to President George W. Bush’s leading national-security advisers in the Situation Room. George Tenet, the C.I.A. director at the time, went through the interrogations for the Principals’ Committee—cabinet members and senior White House aides who worked on national security. Condoleezza Rice, then the national-security adviser, chaired the sessions. Vice-President Dick Cheney and two of his top aides sometimes sat in.

As Tenet described, case by case, how the C.I.A. used waterboarding and other harsh methods on its Al Qaeda detainees, the White House chief of staff Andy Card and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “would sit there stoically,” Rizzo writes. Attorney General John Ashcroft “was mostly quiet except for emphasizing repeatedly that the E.I.T.s were lawful.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “was notable more for his frequent, conspicuous absences…. It was quickly apparent that Rumsfeld didn’t want to get his fingerprints anywhere near” the C.I.A.’s interrogation program. Condi Rice seemed “troubled by the fact that the detainees were required to be nude when undergoing some of the E.I.T.s. Colin Powell, on the other hand, seemed to view sleep deprivation as the most grueling of all the techniques.”

None of these senior Bush Administration decision-makers has yet provided a full or thoughtful account of their recollections, emotions, or practical analysis in endorsing the C.I.A.’s interrogations. This forgetting is a bipartisan phenomenon. Agency officials briefed Nancy Pelosi in September, 2002, about waterboarding that was then underway, notes of that meeting show, but Pelosi later claimed that she had heard no such thing. Other senior Democrats who were briefed about brutal C.I.A. interrogations in 2002 and 2003 have suffered from similar impairments.

Rizzo’s most remarkable account concerns President Bush. Essentially, Rizzo concludes that Bush has lately invented a memory of himself as someone who was well informed and decisively in favor of waterboarding certain Al Qaeda prisoners, when, as far as Rizzo can tell, Bush seems not to have known at the time what the C.I.A. was doing.

In “Decision Points,” his 2010 memoir, Bush recalled that George Tenet provided a list of brutal interrogation techniques the C.I.A. proposed to use, and that Bush overruled “two that I felt went too far.” Later, when Tenet asked the President directly if he could employ waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush wrote that he answered, “Damn right.”

Yet, according to Rizzo, “The one senior U.S. Government national security official during this time—from August 2002 through 2003—who I did not believe was knowledgeable about the E.I.T.s was President Bush himself. He was not present at any of the Principals Committee meetings … and none of the principals at any of the E.I.T. sessions during this period ever alluded to the President knowing anything about them.”

Some of the chronology of events related to the C.I.A. interrogations that Bush provides in “Decision Points” doesn’t compute, according to Rizzo. Also, Rizzo would certainly have known if Bush had banned two techniques, but Rizzo has “no idea” what Bush might have been referring to in his memoir. Throughout this period, Rizzo, as he remembers it, was in daily contact with George Tenet, who said “nothing about any conversations he had with the president about E.I.T.s, much less any instructions or approvals coming from Bush.”

Rizzo writes, “It simply didn’t seem conceivable that George [Tenet] wouldn’t have passed something like that on to those of us who were running the program.” Rizzo got in touch with Tenet while preparing “Company Man” and Tenet confirmed “that he did not recall ever briefing Bush” on specific interrogation techniques being used at C.I.A. prisons. “I have to conclude that the account in Bush’s memoir simply is wrong,” Rizzo concludes.

Rizzo finds “the episode perplexing but nonetheless admirable on Bush’s part.” Typically, Presidents distance themselves from controversial C.I.A. programs, but, in “Decision Points,” Bush “put himself up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era when, in fact, he wasn’t,” thus taking responsibility.

There are, of course, other possible explanations, assuming that Rizzo’s account is more reliable than Bush’s. Unconsciously or otherwise, Bush might prefer to be recalled as a decisive leader willing to make unpopular decisions in the name of public safety rather than as a novice President who too often ceded control of his first term to Cheney. (With Peter Baker’s recent, terrific book about the Bush and Cheney Presidency, “Days of Fire,” that meme, already part of our collective memory of the Bush years, has new reporting to back it up.)

We are left with an incipient history of counterterrorism detention and interrogation during the early Bush years that is disproportionately influenced by C.I.A. and White House memoirs, polluted by what were apparently Bush’s false recollections, and by the dubious assertions of Democratic office holders trying to cover their reputational backsides—and virtually no raw, contemporaneous records for the public to see of what actually happened, of who said what to whom.

In 2014, that could finally change. A six-thousand-page classified investigative report about C.I.A. interrogations of Al Qaeda prisoners, by the Democratic staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is complete; it has been awaiting declassification review for more than a year. The C.I.A. has composed a lengthy reply brief, challenging some of the Senate staff report’s findings. There may also be a third unpublished internal C.I.A. investigative report on the subject. Nothing is certain, but the best bet is that, this year, either declassified summaries of some of that material will finally be released or some of it will leak.

The publishing of independent history and the forging of accurate collective memory about state-sponsored violence can never be considered finished. In the case of waterboarding, it has barely started. Rizzo’s memoir is an important contribution, but it won’t be the last word.


Copyright © 2023 War Criminals Watch. All Rights Reserved.
War Criminals Watch is a project of World Can't Wait

We're on Facebook