The Magazine

From the Inside Out

A lawyer-spy makes the case for the CIA.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It was time for the CIA to lawyer up. In 1974, then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh broke a story exposing illegal covert actions conducted by the agency over a quarter of a century. Congressional investigations followed. The CIA emerged from the organizational ordeal wrapped in a dense web of new laws and regulations. A young, freshly minted attorney by the name of John Rizzo, working for the U.S. Customs Service in his first job, recognized that the newly reformed spy agency might need lawyers—lots of them. He signed up.

John Rizzo (2008)

John Rizzo (2008)

kevin dietsch / upi / newscom

After the obligatory background check, the polygraph, and some training, a nearly four-decade career began. It brought Rizzo to a wide variety of law-related assignments inside America’s lead intelligence agency, culminating in his service as acting general counsel—the CIA’s highest legal slot (when a presidentially appointed general counsel is not in place).

Serving under a parade of directors, Rizzo saw and heard a lot. The astonishing roster of his bosses begins with William Colby, followed by George H. W. Bush, Stansfield Turner, William Casey, William Webster, Robert Gates, James Woolsey, John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. Rizzo’s portraits of these individuals in action—some of them legendary figures in the history of American espionage—make this memoir worth the price of admission. But Company Man also holds interest for the light it sheds on a variety of quasi-secret subjects, some of them highly controversial. It also gives us insight into the set of problems that plague all democracies, and has hit America particularly hard: the human and bureaucratic difficulties that arise when an agency whose primary function is to break laws strives to operate under the rule of law.

A variety of tasks fell to Rizzo in his early days in the agency. These included: handling the continuing legal needs of defectors, who had been resettled in the United States under false names and with new life histories; providing benefits to the relatives of CIA “assets” who perished in its abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; and touring CIA stations out in the field, to answer legal questions from those actually doing the dirty work. More challenging assignments came next.

One of them was overseeing the CIA’s contribution to the 1978 espionage prosecution of William Kampiles, a 23-year-old CIA employee who sold a top-secret KH-11 satellite manual to the Soviets for a paltry $3,000, thereby blowing a multimillion-dollar reconnaissance program. The prosecution’s case had some significant holes; it turned out that a dozen other copies of the manual were unaccounted for, a fact that might have vividly demonstrated to a jury that the document was not regarded as particularly sensitive. A far more serious danger lurked: The CIA had learned of Kampiles’s crime from a mole inside the KGB. Rizzo and his colleagues had to exercise extraordinary care to ensure that no evidence in the case pointed in the mole’s direction, lest the Soviets reassign this invaluable asset to a coffin. 

In the end, Kampiles was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 40 years of hard time, of which he served 19. The mole survived.

As Rizzo gained experience, he assumed greater responsibilities in the realm of policy-making. Drawing up rules for dealing with journalists, clergymen, and academics was one such responsibility. The phrase “no operational use on an unwitting basis” summed up part of the CIA’s post-Church Committee approach to recruitment: No one in those three professions was to be duped into collaborating with the spy agency. Even though public trust of the CIA had fallen to a postwar nadir, Rizzo found himself surprised by how many academics and journalists “were willing, and sometimes downright eager, to get into bed with us.” 

Yet even so, institutions that had long helped the CIA to understand the world around them were shrinking back. Harvard was typical. Its then-president, Derek Bok, issued a rule requiring all staff to clear any CIA associations with senior deans; he then asked the CIA to pledge not to work with any Harvard employees who had not first cleared their assignment with the university. Stansfield Turner, Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, may have had his faults, but in this instance, he pressed back. His sensible view, as summarized by Rizzo, was that “if a U.S. citizen is willing to enter into a confidential relationship with the CIA because he/she wants to help the country, that is between the Agency and the individual, and no one else.”