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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In the years following 9/11, waterboarding became a household word. That simulated drowning technique, used on detainees believed to be withholding valuable information, became part of what the CIA called its enhanced interrogation techniques. Critics, including President Obama, have called it torture.

John Rizzo was the CIA's top lawyer who helped usher in those interrogation techniques, at a time when the CIA was under great pressure to prevent another attack. Rizzo calls his new memoir "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy And Crisis In The CIA. In fact, it was one crisis in particular, in the 1970s, that led him to the agency.

JOHN RIZZO: Yeah. Perversely enough, that was the reason I - I decided to join CIA; reading the revelations in the media of the findings of what was called the Church Committee, led by a senator named Frank Church. It exposed, for the first time, a number of eyebrow-raising CIA activities from the '50s and '60s including assassination plots against foreign leaders, drug experiments on unsuspecting U.S. citizens, mail openings during the Vietnam War.

It was a rather breathtaking array of misdeeds, is the only way to put it. And I was reading it, as a young lawyer, and then thinking myself: I have no idea whether the CIA has lawyers but if they don't, they're probably going to need some now.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's fast-forward to post-9/11. In the book, you trace the origin of enhanced interrogation techniques within the CIA. It's quite a history. It includes waterboarding, which became hugely controversial. How did it start?

RIZZO: Well, it started, actually, a few months after 9/11. That was when the agency captured the first big fish of the al-Qaida command structure, a guy named Abu Zubaydah. And Abu Zubaydah was thought to know if there were any ongoing plans or plots against the homeland. And he was captured; he was actually captured in Pakistan, after a furious gunfight. He didn't come quietly. He was wounded fairly severely.

The agency brought doctors from Johns Hopkins over to the black site where he was taken, to make sure he pulled through. And as soon as he pulled through, he basically - in the view of our experts, he was holding back. And he would never be forthcoming with what he knew if only the normal question-and-answer - so-called Joe Friday approach - was taken. So it was decided that extraordinary measures needed to be considered.

Now, keep in mind, Renee, the context of the times, here. The country was still in the throes of dread and fear that another attack was coming. Everyone in Washington - on the Hill, in the government - and I believe a large majority of the American people were demanding that the next attack on the homeland be averted at all costs. So the pressure was intense.

MONTAGNE: The CIA was not allowed to just plunge in willy-nilly to do this. And that's where you come in. You were the top lawyer on this, and there had to be a legal basis for it. So part of developing a legal basis involved you and others getting a look at a list of what was being proposed. One thing about that list that grabbed me was the descriptions on the list of these techniques. And, you know, just as an example, one is called walling - as in pushing a detainee against a wall. And it was very particular: shoulder blades first. The detainee would have to have a protective collar placed on him, to prevent whiplash. I mean, it's almost surreal when you read it now.

RIZZO: Well, believe me, it was rather surreal to me at the time, too. I mean, these were techniques that I had never seen before. Reduced to writing, they are quite graphic, and quite detailed. And I have to take responsibility for that because I was determined that the Justice Department, you know, whether they approved them or disapproved them, would have the most no-holds-barred, almost detached description of some very aggressive maneuvers. So, I mean, it was I and the rest of the CIA leadership who insisted that each of these techniques be spelled out; that there be no misunderstanding between us and the Department of Justice about how these techniques would be administered. So that's how those descriptions came about.

MONTAGNE: And who spelled them out? I mean, who was coming up with the techniques and proposing them?

RIZZO: These were people in the counterterrorism center of the CIA, composed of operatives, analysts, psychologists; all focused on the counterterrorism target.

MONTAGNE: There was one technique - in your words, it was so gruesome that not only you and others at the CIA in the legal department, but also the Justice Department judged it too extreme, and stopped short of approving it. Can you give us a sense of what would have been worse than waterboarding?

RIZZO: Yeah. You know, as you may have surmised, because the - my book had to go through pre-publication review at the CIA, I was told that I had to not go into detail about what that one particularly gruesome technique was. I mean, I guess what I can say to you is, you know, when I saw what waterboarding was, I mean, I had never heard of that word before. But this technique, I thought was even more chilling and scary than waterboarding - which, Lord knows, I thought was quite chilling on its own right. So it was very rough - I mean, something that would come out of an Edgar Allan Poe plot line.

MONTAGNE: Well, our imaginations usually make things worse than they actually are, but I guess we'll have to, what...

RIZZO: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...you know, we'll leave it to our imaginations?

RIZZO: Yeah. And you can be fairly liberal in letting your imagination run. It was far and away, I think, the toughest of the toughest. And, you know, the Justice Department, when they called me up, you know, they basically said, look. You know, we have the opinion ready on the rest of the techniques, but for this particular one, we're not sure we can approve it. And with some sense of relief, I told the Justice Department: Well, then, why don't we just drop it?

MONTAGNE: Now, there was, at this point in time, an infamous memo - and it's come to be known as the torture memos - the Justice Department basically saying that these harsh techniques didn't rise to the level of torture. Remind us what torture would have been defined as.

RIZZO: Yeah. And those torture memos, of course, were all addressed to me, as the chief legal officer. And in fact, it was I who sought the Justice Department's legal opinion. So...

MONTAGNE: To give the CIA legal cover. But was that, effectively, really, to - in a sense, cover your and the CIA's rear end?

RIZZO: Well, I suppose that's one way of putting it, Renee. Yeah. I mean, I thought it was important. I'd been around the agency long enough to know that proceeding down this path posed extraordinary peril in the future for the institution and the people who would be involved in the program, including myself. But no, I think it's fair to say - and I don't shy away from the fact that one of the motivations, considerations I had was to provide what I thought would be detailed and durable legal cover for our employees who were going to be operating in good faith under the conclusion of the Justice Department and their own chief lawyer - me - that these things were legal.

MONTAGNE: Well, I just asked you if, you know, what the Justice Department's definition of torture was. I could say it involved permanent bodily harm, organ failure or death. But looking back, regardless of that definition, is waterboarding torture?

RIZZO: No. I mean, I'm a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded - or more importantly, if the Justice Department concluded that these techniques constituted torture, we would never have done them. So, I mean, I can't say they were torture. I didn't concede it was torture then, and I don't concede it was - it's torture now.

MONTAGNE: John Rizzo was the CIA's top lawyer in the years following 9/11. Tomorrow, we'll hear more, including why Rizzo didn't keep an interrogation program he was deeply uncomfortable with, from coming into being.

You can read an excerpt from "Company Man" at npr.org.

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