Confirmation Hopes Dimming for Top CIA Lawyer John Rizzo is the nominee for the top legal job at the CIA. He was deeply involved in establishing the agency's interrogation and detention policies – perhaps too involved, for the Senate intelligence committee's tastes. The CIA, meanwhile, is going on four years without a permanent general counsel.
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Confirmation Hopes Dimming for Top CIA Lawyer

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Confirmation Hopes Dimming for Top CIA Lawyer

Confirmation Hopes Dimming for Top CIA Lawyer

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Now, the story of a man who would very much liked to be named the CIA's top lawyer. His name is John Rizzo, and he has already held the CIA's most senior legal job for much of the past six years as acting general counsel. But the permanent post has proved elusive. And a recent hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee may have done more to harm Rizzo's chances than to help them.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: In his favor, John Rizzo can count three decades of experience as a CIA lawyer. He's well liked by the agency's spies who say nobody understands better the complex laws that guide intelligence operations. Still, it looks as though Rizzo's qualifications may not be enough to sway the intelligence committee.

Mr. JOHN RADSAN (Former CIA Lawyer): My best guess is that John is not going to get confirmed.

KELLY: That's John Radsan, himself a former CIA lawyer and former colleague of Rizzo's.

Mr. RADSAN: My question is what's going to happen? Will the committee vote against him, will the Senate vote against him, or will they try - behind the scenes - to negotiate with John to get him to withdraw his candidacy to be the Senate-confirmed general counsel.

KELLY: A Senate staffer, who asked not to be quoted by name in order to speak more candidly, confirms there is not a lot of support on the committee for Rizzo. John Rizzo was never going to have an easy confirmation ride. He was deeply involved in setting up the CIA's detention and interrogation programs, programs that have proven highly controversial. But even Rizzo's supporters say he didn't do himself any favors at his confirmation hearing back in June.

Rizzo repeatedly dodged senators' questions such as this one from Democrat Carl Levin.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Have detainees been rendered by us, including the CIA, to countries that use torture?

Mr. JOHN RIZZO (Acting General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency): You know, that's an important question. I would - the only way I could give it a proper answer would be in a classified session.

Sen. LEVIN: I'm not asking you which countries. I'm just asking you whether we've ever rendered detainees to countries which use torture.

Mr. RIZZO: Well, again - if you don't mind, Senator, it's difficult to give a yes or no answer to that in an open session.

KELLY: Even though Rizzo offered to answer in closed sessions, senators complained about what they called his evasive answers. And the Senate aide says, quote, members who were on the fence or even leaning towards him listened to that and made up their minds not to vote for him.

Two months later, no vote has been held. And Democrat Ron Wyden has gone so far as to put an indefinite hold on Rizzo's nomination.

Elisa Massimino is with Human Rights First, one of several advocacy groups that have written senators to express concern about Rizzo's involvement in overseeing the treatment of detainees.

Ms. ELISA MASSIMINO (Washington Director, Human Rights First): One of the most important responsibilities of a government lawyer is to tell his political superiors no when they want to do something that violates the law. It doesn't appear that John Rizzo raised any concerns. So, yes, I think that he bears some personal responsibility for that.

KELLY: But others believe that Rizzo has been made the fall guy for decisions actually made above his pay grade.

CIA spokesman George Little doesn't put it quite like that, but he does point out that the CIA's detention and interrogation program was approved at the highest levels.

Mr. GEORGE LITTLE (Spokesman, Central Intelligence Agency): The CIA did not authorize the program on its own, our government did. And Mr. Rizzo has been extremely forthright in trying to provide our officers a clear legal framework they need to help protect our country.

KELLY: Practically speaking, it may not actually matter much whether Rizzo gets confirmed. Given that he's already served for years as the CIA's acting general counsel, he could just continue in that role unless and until the Senate gets around to voting.

But John Radsan, the former CIA lawyer, says that would miss the point.

Mr. RADSAN: We've been in limbo for a long time. It's important to come to some resolution. John Rizzo is a fine lawyer. There are other fine lawyers out there that could serve as the Senate-confirmed general counsel. A choice is better than no choice.

KELLY: That's a point not lost on the members of the intelligence committee who say they're keenly aware the CIA has now gone three years without a permanent top lawyer.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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