Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, December 9, 2016

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The CIA’s former top lawyer disputes Senate findings that the spy agency lied about its brutal interrogations of terrorists, insisting the tactics produced useful intelligence and flatly denying that the CIA misled the Bush administration, Congress and the American public.

At the same time, John Rizzo, who left the CIA as acting general counsel in 2009, said some CIA employees or contractors were overzealous in the use of the tactics but that the CIA informed lawyers at the Justice Department of the excesses.

Rizzo was responsible for helping to create the legal foundation for permitting waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and other aggressive methods he says were used on 30 people held at secret “black sites” around the world.

In his first extensive interview since McClatchy published the 20 key findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report last week, Rizzo strongly denied the panel’s conclusion that the 10 so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which he acknowledged were brutal, had failed to produce significant intelligence or to prevent more terrorist attacks.

“This program went on for six years,” Rizzo told McClatchy earlier this week. “And I watched daily — every night there was a meeting in those early years at 5 o’clock. It was chaired by the CIA director, George Tenet. And every night, during the course of those briefings, the career CIA analysts and operatives would sit there and recite the information that had been acquired from these detainees. I mean on a daily basis. I’m not an analyst or an operative, but I’m not stupid, and I sat there and listened to this relentlessly.”

Rizzo, who said he hadn’t seen the Senate report but only the published accounts of it, noted that some of the CIA officers and analysts providing updates on the interrogation sessions “were not generally enamored of the Bush administration” and thus weren’t inclined to exaggerate the interrogation program’s effectiveness.

“I was convinced that these techniques were yielding detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots,” Rizzo said. “Now was there ever a ticking time-bomb scenario? I don’t remember a particular (case of): ‘Tomorrow, LAX (airport) is going to blow up,’ but it was incremental and it was steady. And I became convinced just by listening to these career people that the program was yielding very, very valuable benefits.”

Rizzo’s central involvement in crafting the interrogation techniques led Senate Democrats to block his confirmation as CIA general counsel in 2007. He then served as acting general counsel until retiring in October 2009.

Rizzo’s comments mark the first detailed response from a current or former CIA official to the Senate report, which took four years to complete at a taxpayer cost of $40 million.

With Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claiming to have protected the homeland from follow-on terrorist attacks to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, the escalating fight between the Senate and the CIA raises an important question:

Did the aggressive interrogation techniques, which some current and former U.S. officials and foreign governments say constituted torture, help protect Americans?

Obama formally ended use of the tough interrogation methods within days of taking office in January 2009. Their use had subsided and several of the harsh methods had been abandoned in 2006, after Justice Department opinions justifying them were made public and U.S. abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused an international uproar.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, hasn’t released the 6,300-page report on her aides’ review of the interrogation program. The committee voted to send the report, its executive summary and the findings to the White House for declassification.