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
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Success in this and other work brought Rizzo to what he calls his “career-making job assignment.” In 1979, just as the world was beginning to crash down on the Carter administration in Afghanistan and Iran, Rizzo was detailed to be the legal adviser to the Directorate of Operations (DO), the CIA’s undercover arm. Part of this position entailed giving guidance to the clandestine operatives as they brushed up against the law. It also entailed drafting “findings” and “memorandums of notification” that went back to the president for signature as the official (and sometimes highly specific) presidential instructions for CIA covert action. After Carter departed from office, this function thrust Rizzo into the center of the most serious crisis of Ronald Reagan’s presidency: the Iran-contra affair.

Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, had kept Rizzo in the dark about the intertwined operations in Iran and Nicaragua; but nevertheless, it fell to Rizzo to serve as point man in responding to the multiplying investigations of the CIA role in the arms-for-hostages deal. Rizzo offers a bird’s-eye view of the full imbroglio, as seen from his Langley perch. 

Among the questions he takes up is the veracity of Bob Woodward’s account of his last meeting with Casey. In his 1987 book Veil, Woodward claimed that he interviewed Casey as Casey lay on his deathbed, having suffered a stroke just as Iran-contra was coming to a boil. Rizzo scrutinizes the evidence that Woodward fictionalized this part of the book, and finds it convincing. In plain words, Rizzo calls the esteemed Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of Washington an out-and-out fabricator.

By the 1990s, as Osama bin Laden began to appear on the scene, and when the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, Rizzo was drawn into the counterterrorism battles of that decade. Should the leader of al Qaeda be captured or killed? That was the question the Clinton team agonized over, time and again. In the end, neither happened: It was only after September 11, 2001, that the United States began to combat terrorism with genuine resolution.

The CIA was in the cockpit of this new global war, and Rizzo was the attorney overseeing its most controversial programs: black sites abroad, where high-value terrorists were held; “renditions” to countries that practiced torture; “enhanced interrogation” by CIA employees. Although Rizzo is not reticent about pointing to CIA blunders here and there, he makes no apologies for basic agency policy, and he is a fierce defender of the rank-and-file operatives who carried out their sometimes-gruesome tasks—only to be investigated, first by career prosecutors in the Bush Justice Department and then by the current attorney general, Eric Holder. Rizzo gives an in-depth account of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the videotapes showing the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah; Rizzo himself opposed the destruction of the tapes and was taken completely by surprise when it occurred.

The debate over these matters—including, especially, whether the CIA engaged in torture—is not going to be settled by this book. Rizzo, who does not shrink from calling himself an “architect” of the enhanced interrogation program, rests his case on the claim that the program generated “significant, reliable, otherwise unobtainable intelligence about al Qaeda.” As such, he maintains that it was a major contributor to the agency’s success in preventing a second 9/11.

Given what was feared on 9/12, and in the days, weeks, and months afterward, the CIA’s accomplishment is nothing to deprecate. There is something morally repellent in the ease with which critics today slam those like Rizzo and Justice Department attorney John Yoo for making hard decisions in the midst of a crisis—even if one believes that some of their decisions were mistaken, or just plain wrong. There is something even more repellent in the ease with which figures like Nancy Pelosi—who was briefed on, and was therefore party to, key CIA decisions, including the use of waterboarding—have denied the truth and engaged in moral preening at the expense of more courageous individuals who have not run from their difficult choices.