A lawyer's spy legacy

John Rizzo knows how he’ll be remembered.

The nattily dressed 67-year-old Boston native spent half his life as a lawyer with the CIA, and he may be its most influential legal mind ever.

But it is the last decade of his career there, when Rizzo oversaw the building of a legal framework for “enhanced interrogation” techniques, that has come to define his legacy. 

“I know what the first paragraph of my obituary is going to read,” he said recently, speaking in the conference room of the Steptoe and Johnson law firm, where he has spent time since 2010: “ ‘John Rizzo, lead counsel, legally approved the torture programs’ — because the euphemism now is torture.”

“So I’ve accepted that, as to the extent I’m known at all, it’ll be for that,” he said.  

Oversight of the controversial interrogation regime — which many people, including President Obama, call torture — was just the last chapter in a long career at the CIA.

Rizzo was 28 when he joined the spy agency in 1976, amid heightened scrutiny from the Church Committee, created to investigate the CIA’s monitoring of Americans and political interference overseas.

 The young lawyer had grown tired of the “stumbling bureaucracy” of the Treasury Department, his first job out of law school, and found himself fascinated by the intrigue of the CIA.

“I’m watching these hearings, and all these things coming out about plots against Castro and drug experiments against unwitting U.S. citizens, and I’m thinking, ‘I know nothing about CIA,’ ” Rizzo said. “I don’t even know if CIA has lawyers, but it occurred to me that if they don’t have lawyers, they may need some now.”

It wasn’t until a decade later, in the midst of the Iran-Contra affair, that Rizzo began to feel the heat of the spotlight.

As the “choke point” of interaction between the CIA and Capitol Hill, Rizzo was the main point of contact throughout the scandal.

“It was the first time I had ever been exposed to this kind of media political-circus-like atmosphere,” he said. “Looking back, I think that’s where I really made my bones. ... I would call it the turning point.”

Then came 9/11, and the CIA’s notion to subject detainees to brutal interrogation techniques.

“I was the first lawyer to ever hear of this proposal in 2002, just a few months after 9/11,” Rizzo said.

“I had been around long enough to know that, boy, this is going to be trouble. Somewhere, somehow, some day, this is going to be trouble.”

In summer 2002, Rizzo, then the agency’s acting general counsel, asked the Justice Department for an opinion about whether it would be legal to subject a Saudi man named Abu Zubaydah to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harsh measures.

At least 39 CIA detainees were eventually subjected to those and similar practices, which sparked a firestorm for the George W. Bush administration and drew universal denouncement from human rights activists.

Bush nominated Rizzo to be the CIA’s top lawyer in 2007, but he withdrew the nomination later that year amid partisan acrimony over the interrogation program. Rizzo continued to serve as the acting general counsel until he left the government in 2009.

Rizzo has maintained that most of the interrogation practices, with the exception of the few that were not authorized by the Justice Department, were legal.

“Sure, I thought about the morality of it,” he said. “But as I say, the times were such that what I thought would have been equally immoral is if we just unilaterally dismissed the possibility of undertaking a program that could have potentially saved thousands more American lives.”

Rizzo also oversaw the CIA’s increased use of targeted drone killings, which began under Bush and accelerated under Obama. The drone strikes never attracted as much public outrage as the interrogations, but Rizzo has come under fire as the legal watchdog for both programs.

“He was the lawyer who oversaw the CIA getting involved in two major episodes of human rights abuses: detention and torture and forced disappearances being the first, and the second being unlawful drone strikes,” said Naureen Shah, the head of the Security and Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA. “That’s a remarkable career for a CIA lawyer.”

The CIA is not an agency for those averse to criticism.

Rizzo, for his part, appears resigned to the history. 

If the country remains free from another major terror attack, “I can’t see any administration ever going down the road of anything like the interrogation program,” Rizzo said.

“If there is another attack, then I’m confident the political winds will once again shift and CIA will be told to stop being so risk averse,” he added. “I just find that inevitable.”

After stepping down in October 2009, Rizzo wrote a memoir titled Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.

In 2010, former National Security Agency (NSA) general counsel Stewart Baker asked him to come aboard at the Steptoe and Johnson law firm.

“He’s got an unparalleled grasp of intelligence law and history, and great respect in the intelligence community for his legal judgment,” Baker, a partner at the firm, told The Hill. “We have built a practice here that really focuses on the intelligence community, understanding where it’s going, what it’s doing, what the legal problems are associated with its activities.”

Rizzo’s dashing fashion sense has also had an effect.

“He has raised sartorial standards at the firm substantially,” Baker quipped.

Now, Rizzo wants to devote more energy to Steptoe, where he has been working part time.

Intelligence agencies are still under public scrutiny, though the NSA has received the most recently. Last week, Obama signed legislation ending that agency’s controversial bulk collection of records about U.S. phone calls.

The CIA won’t change, Rizzo said, and neither will the public scrutiny. 

“One of the lessons I learned was CIA is a very resilient organization,” he said.

“Every two or three years there’s some huge flap,” he added. “It sounds perverse, but I was fortunate to be involved in those.”