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CIA Lawyer: Waterboarding Wasn’t Torture Then, And Isn’t Torture Now

John Rizzo is the CIA's former acting general counsel. His new memoir is Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.

Audio

Aired 1/7/14

In the years following Sept. 11, many Americans heard the term waterboarding for the first time -- a technique aimed to simulate the act of drowning. Waterboarding was at the center of the debate about what the CIA called "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- and what critics called "torture."

John Rizzo, acting general counsel of the CIA in the years after Sept. 11, has written a memoir about his three decades at the agency. He talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.

Interview Highlights

On why he decided to join the CIA as a lawyer

Reading the revelations in the media of the findings of the ... Church Committee, led by Sen. Frank Church [D-ID], it exposed for the first time a number of eyebrow-raising CIA activities from the '50s and '60s, including assassination plots against foreign leaders, drug experiments on unsuspecting U.S. citizens ... it was a rather breathtaking array of misdeeds. ... And I was reading it as a young lawyer and thinking to myself, "I have no idea if the CIA has lawyers, but if they don't, they're probably going to need some now."

On when "enhanced interrogation techniques" began

It started a few months after [Sept. 11]. That was when the agency captured the first big fish of the al-Qaida command structure. ... Abu Zubaydah was thought to know if there were any ongoing plans or plots against the homeland. ... He was actually captured in Pakistan after a furious gunfight. He didn't come quietly. He was wounded fairly severely. ... As soon as he pulled through he, basically in the view of our experts, he was holding back and that he would never be forthcoming with what he knew if only the normal question-and-answer so-called Joe Friday approach was taken and so it was decided that extraordinary measures needed to be considered.

Keep in mind ... the context of the times here. The country was still in the throes of dread and fear that another attack was coming. Everyone in Washington -- on the hill in the government -- and I believe a large majority of the American people were demanding that the next attack on the homeland be averted at all costs, so the pressure was intense.

On the detailed list of interrogation techniques

These were techniques that I had never seen before. Reduced to writing they're quite graphic and quite detailed and I have to take responsibility for that because I was determined that the Justice Department, whether they approved them or disapproved of them, would have the most no-holds-barred, almost detached description of some very aggressive maneuvers. So it was I and the rest of the CIA leadership who insisted that each of these techniques be spelled out, that there be no misunderstanding between us and the Department of Justice about how these techniques would be administered.

... [The descriptions were written by] people in the counter terrorism center of the CIA, composed of operatives, analysts, psychologists all focused on the counter terrorism target.

On one technique that was considered to be even worse than waterboarding

As you may have surmised, because my book had to go through pre-publication review at the CIA, I was told that I had to not go into detail about what that one particularly gruesome technique was. I guess what I can say to you is: When I saw what waterboarding was, I had never heard that word before, but this technique I thought was even more chilling and scary than waterboarding -- which Lord knows I thought was quite chilling on its own right. It was very rough. ... something that would come out of an Edgar Allan Poe plot line.

... The Justice Department when they called me up they basically said: Look we have the opinion ready on the rest of the techniques but for this particular one we're not sure we can approve it. And with some sense of relief I told the Justice Department: Why don't we just drop it.

On seeking legal cover for the CIA

In fact it was I who sought the Justice Department's legal opinion. ... I thought it was important. I'd been around the agency long enough to know that proceeding down this path posed extraordinary peril in the future for the institution and the people who would be involved in the program, including myself. ... One of the motivations, considerations I had was to provide detailed and durable legal cover for our employees who were going to be operating in good faith under the conclusion of the Justice Department and their chief lawyer, me, that these things were legal.

On whether in retrospect, he believes waterboarding is a form of torture

No. I'm a lawyer and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded -- or more importantly if the Justice Department had concluded -- that these techniques constitute torture, we would never have done them. So I can't say they were torture. I didn't concede it was torture then, and I don't concede that it's torture now.

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