WASHINGTON — “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA” (Scribner), by John Rizzo
There is a moment in John Rizzo’s new memoir when the longtime CIA lawyer has the chance to change history. It is March 2002, and Rizzo has just been briefed on the agency’s proposals for interrogating suspected terrorists.
Rizzo walks the grounds of the CIA, smoking a cigar, thinking about waterboarding and other unprecedented tactics that seem “sadistic and terrifying.”
Rizzo realizes that, on his own say-so, he can end the discussion right there. With the stroke of a pen, Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel, could kill the program before it starts.
“It would have been a relatively easy thing to do, actually,” he writes.
Then he thinks about what would happen if terrorists struck again. People would blame the CIA. Rizzo would blame himself. And he couldn’t deal with that.
So despite his reservations, Rizzo sends the interrogation proposal to the Justice Department, beginning a process that gave the green light to tactics the United States once considered and prosecuted as torture.
Moments like this occur again and again in the roughly six chapters Rizzo dedicates to the CIA’s post-9/11 response: People set aside nagging questions about morality (should we?) and focused instead on the legalistic question (can we?).
Rizzo’s portrayal of key meetings offers an unprecedented and sometimes startling look at how uncomfortable the enhanced-interrogation techniques made people.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “didn’t want to get his fingerprints anywhere near the EITs.” Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed “intensely uncomfortable.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was disturbed that the detainees were forced to be nude.
Yet there were no discussions about whether this path would damage U.S. relationships with allies, harm U.S. long-term interests or weaken its moral standing.
Even though the interrogation program is more than a decade in the past, the topic remains timely. Since leaked documents showed the U.S. vacuuming up millions of domestic phone records, tracking cellphone locations and eavesdropping on calls, officials have defended the tactics as legal.
Once again, the question of whether the government should do something is getting less attention than the question of whether it can.
Many insiders have written memoirs about the post-9/11 CIA. Often, those who approved the interrogation program are portrayed as two-dimensional heroes willing to make unpopular decisions to help the country.
Rizzo paints a less flattering but more revealing picture, one in which fear hung over important decisions. Fear of another attack, fear of blame, fear of political liability.
Depending on your politics and your views on waterboarding, that may make these figures more relatable and human, their decisions that much more wrenching.
Or it may make them seem cowardly.
Whatever conclusion you draw, Rizzo’s book makes an important contribution to history and the debate over interrogation. And it serves as a reminder of how much fear drives decision-making in Washington.
For instance, Rizzo regrets not presenting the interrogation program to more people in Congress. Not because the legislative branch should have been fully aware of this unprecedented step, but because it would have headed off criticism of the CIA years later.
In a few key places, Rizzo skips the opportunity for what would have been important reflection. There is no analysis, for example, of the two psychologists who became the architects of the interrogation program despite limited background and expertise.
“Company Man” is tailor-made for CIA buffs. Rizzo’s career as an agency lawyer spanned the decades from Iran-Contra to drones, with Russian turncoat Aldrich Ames, the rise of al-Qaida and some interrogation videos destroyed in between.
Though Rizzo never sheds his role as the company man, his book manages to strike notes that are both earnest and candid. That alone sets “Company Man” apart in the genre.