Fear drives decisions, CIA memoir reveals
John Rizzo Scribner WASHINGTON — There is a moment in John Rizzo’s new memoir when the longtime CIA lawyer has the chance to change history. It is March 2002, and Rizzo has just been briefed on the agency’s proposals for interrogating suspected terrorists.
Rizzo walks the grounds of the CIA, smoking a cigar, thinking about waterboarding and other unprecedented tactics that seem “sadistic and terrifying.”
Rizzo realizes that, on his own say-so, he can end the discussion right there. With the stroke of a pen, Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel, could kill the program before it starts.
“It would have been a relatively easy thing to do,” he writes.
Then he thinks about what would happen if terrorists struck again. People would blame the CIA. Rizzo would blame himself. And he couldn’t deal with that.
So despite his reservations, Rizzo sends the interrogation proposal to the Justice Department, beginning a process that gave the green light to tactics the United States once considered and prosecuted as torture.
Moments like this reoccur in the roughly six chapters Rizzo dedicates to the CIA’s post-9/11 response: People set aside nagging questions about morality (should we?) and focused instead on the legalistic question (can we?).
Rizzo’s portrayal of key meetings offers an unprecedented and sometimes startling look at how uncomfortable the enhancedinterrogation techniques (EIT) made people.
Donald Rumsfeld, then the defence secretary, “didn’t want to get his fingerprints anywhere near the EITs.” Then-secretary of state Colin Powell seemed “intensely uncomfortable.” Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, was disturbed that the detainees were forced to be naked.
Yet there were no discussions about whether this path would damage U.S. relationships with allies, harm U.S. long-term interests or weaken its moral standing.
Even though the interrogation program is more than a decade in the past, the topic remains timely. Since leaked documents showed the U.S. vacuuming up millions of domestic phone records, tracking cellphone locations and eavesdropping on calls, officials have defended the tactics as legal.
Again, the question of whether the government should do something is getting less attention than the question of whether it can.
Many insiders have written memoirs about the post-9/11 CIA. Often, those who approved the interrogation program are portrayed as two-dimensional heroes willing to make unpopular decisions to help the country.
Rizzo paints a less flattering but more revealing picture, one in which fear hung over important decisions — fear of another attack, fear of blame, fear of political liability.
Depending on your politics and your views on waterboarding, that may make these figures more relatable and human, their decisions that much more wrenching. Or it may make them seem cowardly.
Whatever conclusion you draw, Rizzo’s book makes an important contribution to history and the debate over interrogation. And it serves as a reminder of how much fear drives decision-making in Washington.