CIA Lawyer Kept Sept. 11 In Mind When Debating Waterboarding

In the second part of our interview with the CIA's former top lawyer, John Rizzo says he felt he had the power to stop the agency's waterboarding program before it began. Rizzo explains to Renee Montagne why he decided to let the program continue. Rizzo's new book is Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

During the seven years after 9-11 that the CIA used what it called enhanced interrogation techniques, three detainees endured the harshest technique: waterboarding.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of 9-11. Another was Abu Zubaydah, known as al-Qaida's travel agent, for helping coordinate attacks.

MONTAGNE: Their experience with waterboarding - what many critics call torture - has generated outrage for years. John Rizzo was the CIA's acting general counsel at the time, and helped usher in the program of enhanced interrogation.

GREENE: He is out with a memoir, and he joined us to look back at the controversies and crises in his long career at the CIA, including one not of his making.

MONTAGNE: As the CIA's top lawyer, you found yourself the center of a huge scandal, which involved videotapes: many, many hours, over several days, that documented the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, one of al-Qaida's operatives. Those tapes were destroyed against your expressed wishes, and many other higher-ups. Mostly, I think many of us thought, well, they were destroyed because the CIA didn't want to look so bad. It would be a scandal. But you suggest there was a little bit more to it than that.

JOHN RIZZO: Yeah. You know, those of us who were opposed to those tapes being destroyed - speaking of myself - I mean, any sentient lawyer, I think, would have said to a client, look, this will not look good. If you destroy these things, people are going to assume you're destroying them because there's something hideous or wrong in them.

But I do think that the people - and I'm talking here about the head of, first, the Counterterrorism Center, and then later, the director of operations, a man named Jose Rodriguez, a man whom I did and continue to respect and consider a friend. But he was convinced - when he first came to me, urging the approval to destroy them - he said he was convinced that sooner or later, these tapes would be made public somehow, somewhere. And I distinctly recall him saying someday, these things are going to be shown on "60 Minutes." I know it. And when they are, the faces of the agency interrogators, even if there's some attempt to hide their identities, people will find out about them. Bad guys will find out about them, and these people will be in jeopardy.

MONTAGNE: You do also write, though, that you have no doubt - you were that powerful and that high up - that if you'd said the word, if you'd pushed it, much, if not all, of the enhanced interrogation initiative would have died before it was born. That's how you put it. Why didn't you? Because you had doubts.

RIZZO: It's somewhat inchoate, and especially trying to explain my rationale in 2002. Now, we're in - 12 years later. But it's necessary to go back in time. The country was in the grips of extreme peril and dread. Most everyone, I think it's fair to say, assumed that it wasn't a question of if, but when the next major attack was coming in early 2002. And here we had a fellow, Abu Zubaydah, that all of our experts claimed that if there was going to be another such attack, this guy Zubaydah would know about it. And in the professional conclusion of our interrogators, he wasn't talking. He was holding back. He was never going to talk.

So, sure, I could have - I mean, at that point, I had enough experience and reputation in, you know, my position at the time. You know, I could have gone to the CIA director and - George Tenet, and told him I think these are risky, dangerous. I don't know whether they constitute torture or not. But regardless of what the legal definition is, we shouldn't do this. And that would have ended it, I'm confident.

But what if I had done that? And what if there had been a second attack a week or a month afterwards, and there were thousands of bodies lying in the streets or in rubble somewhere, and we shied away because it was me? It was me who convinced the CIA leadership not to do it. And Abu Zubaydah is meanwhile telling his captors that you guys didn't get me to talk. In the final analysis, I couldn't countenance a thought of having to live with that possibility. So, that, more than any other, is what caused me to not basically stop this idea in its infancy.

MONTAGNE: Much of what we've been talking about took place during the Bush administration. In the Obama administration, catching and harshly interrogating reputed terrorists has given way, more or less, to killing them: targeted killings by unmanned drones. You retired in 2009, but you have some knowledge of this, direct knowledge of this. How is it decided who to target?

RIZZO: There are details about the drone program I simply can't address, because it remains a classified U.S. government program, notwithstanding all the public pronouncements that have been made by senior officials. And, you know, I was not allowed to get into that kind of operational detail in the book. I mean, suffice it to say, it's not willy-nilly, that there is a vetting process. It's a very careful - and I assume continues to be - a very careful, selective process.

MONTAGNE: Although you did once describe it to Newsweek magazine as a hit list, which is pretty dramatic.

RIZZO: Yeah. Yeah. You would have to raise that, wouldn't...

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: You got in trouble for that, too, didn't you? You said too much.

RIZZO: Yeah. Yeah. That's a - yeah. That's a - I mean, that's another story in and of itself. But that was my fault, my mistake. And I was told not to talk about it in those terms again. So that's one of the reasons I have to be circumspect now.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me just ask you one thing that is your opinion. On one of the last pages of the book, you know, in a section, sort of, lessons learned, you refer to the drone program as one of the more ironic lessons - I mean, just your opinion. How do you mean by that?

RIZZO: Well, the drone program was begun, actually, about the same time that the enhanced interrogation program was done, back in 2002. And I know it was no secret this was happening. It was reported. And yet during all of those years - and not, actually, frankly, until the last year or two - was there ever, that I could discern, any objection on moral or legal grounds from Congress, from human rights organizations, about the U.S. government conducting an organized program of killing. While at the same time, an organized program of admittedly aggressive interrogations was deemed to be morally and legally unjustifiable and reprehensible. And I found that dichotomy - and I still do - ironic.

MONTAGNE: But, in hindsight, looking back at this entire program, would you dispute that enhanced interrogation techniques do not and did not produce useful intelligence, or at least intelligence that couldn't be gotten otherwise?

RIZZO: Well, I mean, let me say this: I'm not going to tell you that it is absolutely impossible. I think that's unknowable, honestly. I can't tell you that the information that we derived couldn't have been gotten. It's just a question of: How long would that have taken? And would it have been too late?

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

RIZZO: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John Rizzo's memoir, "Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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