In October 2002, my nearly one-year tour of duty as acting general counsel was coming to a close. The Senate had just confirmed Scott Muller as the new CIA general counsel.
By this time, twenty-five years into my CIA career, I had "broken in" a number of incoming general counsels, so I had the drill down pat: The Office of the General Counsel (OGC) staff prepared briefing books containing summaries of key classified policy and legal documents as well as ongoing programs (per standard procedure, no incoming GC had access to classified information before reporting for duty), and I put together a list of the "hot" items that the new guy would have to confront the day he arrived on the job.
I felt a profound sense of relief about passing the Agency's legal baton. Barely a year after 9/11, I could have put fifty items on the "hot" list. It seemed like every day we were facing a new, imminent Al Qaeda threat. And we had been operating in an entirely new and perilous legal terrain, capturing, brutally interrogating, and conducting lethal operations against senior Al Qaeda figures. I didn't want Scott totally overwhelmed on his first day of work, so I was determined to keep the list short.
A couple of weeks before he arrived in November 2002, however, I learned about something I had no choice but to add to the list. Three months earlier, CIA officers, in a secret Agency detention facility overseas, began videotaping the first top Al Qaeda operative in our custody. He was also the first terrorist subjected to the Agency's Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs). The sessions were captured on the tapes, apparently in graphic detail. Jose Rodriguez, the chief of our Counterterrorist Center (CTC), came to me seeking permission to destroy the tapes. Immediately.
The story began in March 2002, when the CIA and its Pakistani counterparts, with a combination of meticulous intelligence work and good luck, captured a senior Al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan's third-largest city, Faisalabad. It didn't come off quietly—there was a furious gun battle, and Zubaydah was shot three times. The Agency rushed a team of doctors from Johns Hopkins to Pakistan to save his life. It was hardly a humanitarian gesture; our intelligence indicated that Zubaydah was Al Qaeda's main logistics planner for attacks against the United States. The CIA was desperate to keep him alive in order to find out what he knew about any upcoming attacks. This was barely six months after 9/11, and the government was still seized with dread about another horrific strike coming any day.
Zubaydah pulled through, and as soon as the doctors determined he was well enough to travel, he was whisked from Pakistan to the first of a succession of overseas detention facilities that would eventually enter into the public lexicon as "black sites" or "secret prisons." Zubaydah, a young, smart, cold-blooded, unrepentant psychopath, was the first really "big fish" the Agency had caught post-9/11. Soon after the questioning began, CIA inquisitors became convinced, based on his smug and arrogant responses, that he knew a lot more than he was telling about Al Qaeda's terrorist plans. By early April 2002, the Agency, lacking other options and desperate to stop another cataclysmic attack, made the fateful decision to explore tougher methods to try to get Zubaydah to talk. This was how the "enhanced interrogation program" came to be, along with yet another word soon to enter the public lexicon: waterboarding.
Later in the book I will provide an eyewitness narrative of the period from April through July 2002, when the Agency conceived the EIT program, which I shepherded through policy review at the White House and legal review at the Justice Department. This process culminated on August 1, when the Justice Department issued to me the first of what would come to be known infamously as the "torture memos," which legally approved waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics against Zubaydah. After I received the Justice memo, the waterboarding of Zubaydah began, with my knowledge and concurrence.
What I didn't know then and wouldn't know until two months later was the decision—I could never determine whether someone at CIA Headquarters or in the field with Zubaydah came up with the idea—to videotape Zubaydah around the clock while he was in custody, including periods of interrogation. When he first told me about the videotaping in October 2002, Jose offered two reasons. First, our people at the interrogation site wanted to make sure everything Zubaydah said was recorded and preserved. They were taking careful and copious contemporaneous notes, which were duly transcribed in cables sent back to CIA Headquarters every day, but they were terrified they might miss something. It's important to note here that, prior to 9/11, the CIA had never in my quarter-century experience held and questioned anyone incommunicado. In a popular culture steeped with films, TV shows, and potboiler spy novels portraying the CIA as a no-holds-barred instrument of mayhem, this may be hard for an outsider to believe. But it's true. The videotaping was seen not just as a reference tool but as a security blanket.
The other reason Jose gave me for the decision to videotape Zubaydah was more basic: His people didn't want the SOB to die on them. CIA medical personnel at the detention facility monitored Zubaydah round the clock, but he was about to face some very tough interrogation in the most solitary of confinements. If Zubaydah were to die in captivity, who would believe—either inside or outside the CIA—that they weren't to blame? Videotaping Zubaydah in captivity would cover their asses.
After several days of taping, however, everyone who had bought into the idea looked at the videotapes, compared them with the notes transcribed and forwarded to headquarters, and concluded that the notes captured everything Zubaydah was saying. In fact, the notes were better; Zubaydah's voice was occasionally inaudible on the recordings, but the interrogators had been able to get down most everything he was saying. Besides that, Zubaydah had recovered from his wounds and was exhibiting no desire to journey to the afterlife—even with the seventy-two virgins presumably awaiting his arrival—anytime soon. The hundred or so hours of videotapes were packed up and stored at the detention facility.
But Jose's sudden desire that October to destroy the tapes was not spurred by an urgent need to eliminate unnecessary clutter. It was based on what the tapes showed.
From Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, by John Rizzo. Copyright 2014 John Rizzo. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.