Former CIA Lawyer Defends Gina Haspel's Role At Agency After Sept. 11, Gina Haspel, nominated to run the CIA, was involved in the agency's torture program. NPR's David Greene speaks to John Rizzo, who was the CIA's acting general counsel.

Former CIA Lawyer Defends Gina Haspel's Role At Agency

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


President Trump is nominating Gina Haspel to lead the CIA. She is a veteran CIA undercover officer - undercover meaning undercover, which means we don't know a whole lot about her work. We do know that she helped run a secret CIA prison in Thailand. Terrorism suspects were waterboarded there. Many people call that torture. John Rizzo was a longtime CIA lawyer. He was acting general counsel after the 9/11 attacks. He made the case for techniques like waterboarding, and he's known Gina Haspel since the 1990s. And he joins us this morning.

Mr. Rizzo, welcome back to the program.

JOHN RIZZO: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So we're hearing from Gina Haspel's critics already, even though that - she was announced as the president's pick yesterday, saying that her involvement in torture makes her unsuitable to serve as the director of this agency. What is your assessment here?

RIZZO: Well, I mean, David, I was in the middle of all that at the time as the chief legal adviser for CIA. First of all, I do not believe that the word torture is what was and is actually legally accurate. They were very harsh, very brutal measures, but not torture. That said, we're talking about a period when this program was created that was nearly weeks from the 9/11 attacks when the country was gripped with, as you recall, a grave sense of foreboding that another major attack was imminent. So it's important to keep in mind the times in which those of us in the CIA, like Gina and me - and the pressures we had to face.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about that because you have spoken about this before, that that was a different time. And we should say, I know you have stuck to what you believe is this legal definition that these actions were not torture, although many people - and it's widely accepted by others that this was torture. But here in 2018, would you welcome her confirmation hearings as a new moment to debate what is appropriate in terms of treating terrorism suspects now that we're years on from 9/11 and that other era you're talking about?

RIZZO: Well, I think, actually, I hadn't thought of that before, but I think that would be a - at this point in time, a useful exercise. We're now - what? - 17 years out from 9/11. As you know, David, this issue was - has been so controversial, so divisive, especially in the first several years after 9/11 as the program - details of the program leaked out. I myself had a confirmation hearing that, let us say, did not go very well because - but that was in 2007 when the program was at its height. So now with the benefit of time, I think the country would be well-served by, you know, a reasoned non-emotional discussion about whether any kind of interrogation technique beyond the standard Q&A is ever justifiable or effective, for that matter.

GREENE: Do you believe, looking back now, that these kinds of actions that many call torture was necessary? Do you feel like that information was gotten out of these suspects because of torture? Or do you have some questions and maybe some regrets?

RIZZO: Well, I have some regrets, but I still continue to believe that the program was effective. I'm fully aware that the Senate intelligence committee, the Democrats, a couple years ago, issued a long, long report, you recall, that basically concluded the program was ineffective and unnecessary. On the issue of whether it was necessary or not, I mean, I've always contended, I don't know. I don't think anyone ever knows. Could normal techniques have elicited the kind of information that these extraordinary techniques elicited if, for instance, the FBI had stayed in, and the CIA had not gotten involved? I don't know. I can't say that these techniques were the only way to get this information. I have a strong feeling that the information in question - and there was a lot of it - would not have come nearly as quickly without resorting to more aggressive measures.

GREENE: I want to ask you about something else, another area where Gina Haspel - as some of her critics have been speaking up. And it was her order to destroy the videotapes of some of these brutal sessions where suspects were waterboarded. Isn't that an area of judgment where lawmakers - would you welcome them to really dig in? Because, you know, even the White House and many others said that videotapes, important evidence of how the U.S. government acts, should not be destroyed.

RIZZO: Well, I certainly - it's a legitimate area of inquiry for the committee. I mean, Gina was not - to be fair, Gina was not the official who actually did the order. The official who did the order was Jose Rodriguez, her boss at the time, chief of operations at CIA. And I might add, the...

GREENE: But she sent the cable to this prison to destroy these tapes.

RIZZO: That's correct. And, you know, I should add that I myself was not informed about this decision before it happened. So I felt blindsided at the time and, frankly, upset. But it certainly - yeah, it certainly is a legitimate area for inquiry. There was, mind you, a three-year criminal investigation by the Justice Department into the videotapes' destruction, and no charges were ever brought.

GREENE: Do you question her judgment, though, after that episode?

RIZZO: No. I understand - I mean, we, could have a whole 'nother segment on this. But I understand why she and Mr. Rodriguez decided that the tapes needed to be destroyed. It wasn't, in my view, an attempt to obstruct justice. They were genuinely worried that the tapes someday would be leaked to the public. And on the tapes, there were visual images of the CIA people who were doing the interrogations, and they thought those people would be put under terrorist risk. That was their rationale. And, as I say, I did not agree with the decision. They should not have done it. But I understand their rationale for doing it.

GREENE: All right, speaking about many of the questions that Gina Haspel might be asked in her confirmations as a CIA director with someone who knows her well, John Rizzo, former acting CIA general counsel. He's also author of "Company Man: Thirty Years Of Controversy And Crisis In The CIA." Mr. Rizzo, pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

RIZZO: Thank you, David.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.