Once again, the Central Intelligence Agency is embroiled in controversy. The latest involves CIA agents tapping into the congressional emails of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Director John Brennan has since apologized.
On a related note, during last Friday’s news conference, President Obama reviewed a historical perspective on an earlier CIA controversy known as enhanced interrogation techniques, or “EITs.” These were methods used to extract strategic information from captured terrorists.
The president and some members of both political parties have called the use of EITs “torture.” However, attorney John Rizzo holds a different perspective on this issue. The following narrative summarizes his view:
Rizzo was a CIA lawyer for almost 34 years. Recently, he published his memoirs in a book titled “Company Man.”
Just before his career began in 1976, the Office of General Counsel at the CIA had only nine attorneys. Within six months, it doubled in size to 18. (He was number 18.) By the time of his retirement in 2009, there were approximately 120 full-time lawyers who made up the CIA’s legal team.
What was the need for so many legal beagles in an organization known for its spy operations? Rizzo claims it began in 1974, with stories published in the New York Times about lawless CIA ventures. These ranged from assassination plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro to drug experiments on unsuspecting Americans.
As a result, Frank Church held several congressional hearings in 1975. The senator made no bones about calling several witnesses before the public eye and exposing some of the agency’s darkest secrets. Rizzo says that this was the catalyst for expanding attorney positions within the agency. The new counselors called themselves “church babies.”
But fast-forward to September 2001: The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists, using hijacked airliners. The CIA and the military, as President Obama stated last Friday, were now under “enormous pressure” to cover all bases and prevent any future catastrophes. That’s when the EITs program was born, which Rizzo helped draft.
Soon after 9/11, an al-Qaida bigwig named Abu Zubaydah was captured. Attempts were made to obtain any and all information about planned terrorist campaigns. According to Rizzo, Zubaydah could not be broken by ordinary interrogative methods. He seemed to relish taunting his captors.
The CIA lawyers, with the backing of the Bush Justice Department, approved various techniques for dealing with such a situation. They ranged from sleep depravation to the now-famous “waterboarding.” Rizzo points out that there were CIA officials who believed these methods were quite helpful in breaking Zubaydah, as well as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as “KSM.”
Lawyers from the CIA did not think EITs were “torture.” Most, if not all, of these methods were not invented by the CIA. Rizzo states: “... the U.S. military has used them for years in training exercises (called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) on thousands of soldiers to prepare them in case they were captured and subjected to such practices by the enemy.”
But as Americans began to feel safer, perceptions changed. Rizzo writes: “Media leaks about the CIA secret prison system and the EITs had begun, drip by drip.”
Once again, Congress got into the act. The George Washington Law School graduate opines: “The political pendulum began to swing back from ‘Protect us at all costs’ to ‘What the hell have you guys been up to, anyway?’”
As a result of this reversed attitude, some careers in the CIA were trashed. Directors came and went. Rizzo, although nominated for CIA general counsel by President Bush, reluctantly withdrew his nomination because of involvement with the “scandal.”
Consequently, the long-time CIA attorney and one-time acting general counsel reveals that the Obama administration, by using executive orders, scrapped all EITs — along with “black sites” or secret prisons that were located in friendly countries.
The irony of Rizzo’s tale is that so many in the CIA did what they could to protect Americans “at all costs” during a very trying time. But instead of “thank you for your service,” the Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, considered pursuing criminal charges. However, investigations against various CIA employees were dropped in 2012. As a consequence, no prosecutions took place.
In the final analysis, the question still remains as to whether EITs were “torture,” as President Obama and others have asserted, or were simply necessary procedures to prevent thousands of innocent lives from being lost.
Future events will most assuredly decide.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.