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.
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.”
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.
I happen to believe that the enhanced interrogation program was a mistake that tarnished the image of our country, and I say that with full awareness that it might have saved American lives. We did not use such measures to extract information from prisoners in any of our previous wars, including World War II, when our homeland was struck in a surprise attack, entire armies were on the move, and the future of civilization itself was at stake. We did not use such measures during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, when every day our soldiers were dying by the scores. The CIA should not have pushed the Justice Department into the business of writing highly detailed memos explaining, for example, whether prisoners could, or could not, be legally placed in boxes filled with insects to make them talk.
But I make my judgment from the comfort of hindsight, and with a keen awareness that I was not in the fight, except as a writer on the sidelines. John Rizzo was in the fight. And for that he deserves our respect and gratitude.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law and, most recently, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account.