White House Withdraws Pick for Top CIA Lawyer

The Bush administration has been forced to withdraw its candidate for the top legal post at the CIA. John Rizzo says he's stepping aside. His nomination for the role of CIA general counsel ran into trouble with lawmakers months ago.

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The Bush administration has been forced to withdraw its candidate for the top legal post at the CIA. John Rizzo has more than three decades experience as a CIA lawyer. But his nomination for the role of CIA general counsel ran into trouble months ago. And yesterday, he wrote to the White House to say he's stepping aside.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has the story.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Senators on the Intelligence Committee were just minutes away from voting yesterday on the nomination of John Rizzo. But just as they were about to step inside their private hearing room, word arrive from the White House - Rizzo's nomination had been withdrawn. The news drew sighs of relief from some Senate staffers who say they'd hope to avoid a vote out of respect for Rizzo's long service at the CIA.

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, says there's little question of the outcome have the vote gone ahead.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I talked to a great many of my colleagues on the committee. And I think it's fair to say I was not the only one with a significant number of concerns about the nomination and had it actually gone to a vote, I think, I would have had significant bipartisan support for defeating the nominee.

KELLY: Rizzo was always going to face a tough ride before the Intelligence Committee. He spent much of the last six years as acting general counsel. That places him at the center of the CIA's most controversial programs, including the interrogation and rendition of suspected terrorists.

But opposition to Rizzo hardened considerably after his confirmation hearing this past June. Senators criticized what they called evasive answers to questions. And several say they were shocked by his views on what's known as the Bybee memo. That's the notorious 2002 memo that claimed that pain had to reach a level associated with organ failure or even death to constitute illegal torture. Anything short of that was permitted. The Justice Department later withdrew the memo. But this summer, Rizzo told senators that…

Mr. JOHN RIZZO (Acting General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency): I did not certainly object to the memo. My reaction was it was a - aggressive, expansive reading. But I can't say that I had any specific objections to any specific parts of it.

KELLY: Senator Wyden, who ended up leading the opposition to Rizzo, says that answer was unacceptable.

Sen. WYDEN: He did not indicate that he wished he had objected and really had no regrets about it. So I think that his views, with respect to some of the critical legal issues, were way out of the mainstream.

KELLY: Yesterday, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano defended Rizzo, saying CIA director Mike Hayden believes he's an outstanding lawyer but respects his decision.

In his letter yesterday to the White House, Rizzo gives no specific reason for his withdrawal, saying only that it was in the best interests of the CIA and its lawyers. According to a copy of that letter obtained by NPR, Rizzo says he'll keep working at CIA and that he has always acted in full compliance with U.S. and international law.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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