'I Could Have Stopped Them': Ex-CIA Lawyer Defends Waterboarding Decision
In an interview, former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo says the US' waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation methods" for terror suspects had "deep trouble" written all over them. But he doesn't regret his decision to approve the measures.
After the terror attacks in the US on Sept. 11, 2001, John Rizzo, 66, was responsible for approving the Central Intelligence Agency's "enhanced interrogation techniques," the highly controversal torture methods used on terror suspects at Guantanamo and at "black sites" during the presidency of George W. Bush. He worked at the CIA from 1976 to 2009, ultimately becoming the agency's top lawyer. He has written about his expereinces in the newly published book, "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA."
SPIEGEL recently sat down for an interview with Rizzo in Washington, D.C. When officials first presented the idea of waterboarding to him, Rizzo says he didn't even know what it was. Looking back, he says he found the concept to be "harsh" and "brutal."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rizzo, what went through your mind when President Obama casually said recently, "We tortured some folks"?
Rizzo: I was startled to hear the president use such a breezy word like "folks" to describe hardened mass murderers of Americans. As for the president's use of the word "torture" to characterize the CIA interrogation program, I was not really surprised. He said much the same thing on numerous occasions dating back to his 2008 campaign. What did surprise me, in a good way, is that Obama went on to point out that the people who first conceived and carried out the program in the wake of 9/11 were under tremendous pressure to protect the country at a time of national crisis. He even called us patriots.
SPIEGEL: Prior to his presidency, Obama wasn't seen as a hardliner when it came to national security. As one of his first acts as president, he announced in January 2009 that he wanted to close Guantanamo. How did Obama's first dealings with the CIA go?
Rizzo: All incoming presidents as well as their key national security advisers are given briefings by the CIA of all ongoing covert operations. I was there when Obama was briefed on the current operations. With the exception of the interrogation program, he endorsed all operations and even intensified the general program. It was actually a bit of a surprise to me.
SPIEGEL: What do you think was responsible for his shift in thinking?
Rizzo: When Obama came into the White House, he reviewed the operations, found them all to be effective and valuable. Every US president fairly quickly comes to really value having the CIA at his disposal. The CIA reports directly to the president and responds to his wishes. It does what it does in secret, with no messy political debates. In Obama's case, I think he recognized it almost immediately. Take the attack in Abbottabad, Pakistan against Osama bin Laden. It was led by the CIA, not the military. That speaks volumes about the confidence the president had in the agency. Now we have this ongoing debate about the drone program and whether it should be transferred to the military. You can see there is a reluctance to do that -- not just in the Obama administration, but also by Congress.
SPIEGEL: After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the White House authorized the CIA to "do whatever is necessary." As someone who was in office at the time, what exactly do you think that meant?
Rizzo: The phrase is a characterization of the atmosphere and the consensus in the country. The overriding priority above all others, not only by the White House but from everybody, was to protect the country. We met everyday at 5 p.m. in the CIA director's personal conference room in Langley and discussed the situation. The room looks like a CEO's office, with wood paneled walls that are somewhat reminiscent of how it is portrayed in various spy movies. There's a large table, big enough to have about 35 chairs around it. That is where all senior CIA leadership would gather information, whether it be the group supervising the paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan, the group tracking financial resources or the experts on biological and chemical weapons. One by one, they would give a report every night. Our main concern was a possible second wave of attacks after Sept. 11.
SPIEGEL: Just days after 9/11, you also wrote up a list of possible covert actions. What did you suggest?
Rizzo: I actually wrote the first list the day of 9/11, literally two hours after the attack. Like everyone else, I was in a state of shock and bewilderment, but I knew that we were going to undertake counteractions that were unprecedented in my career. I scribbled down on my yellow legal pad conceivable options, including lethal operations against al-Qaida -- not just the al-Qaida elements who carried out the 9/11 attack, but also those who would be planning future attacks. The list included, for the first time in the history of the CIA, a program to detain and interrogate senior al-Qaida leaders.
SPIEGEL: Would you describe yourself as the architect of the renditions program through which suspected al-Qaida members were secretly kidnapped and abused?
Rizzo: I was certainly an architect of the interrogation program, even if I didn't originally come up with it. I was the legal architect of the proposed list of techniques and played the lead role in obtaining legal approval for their use.
SPIEGEL: Who came up with the original idea?
Rizzo: Our people from the Counter Terrorism Center. One day they came to my office and listed all the enhanced interrogation techniques for me. I had never heard of waterboarding. Some techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation
SPIEGEL: which kept those suspected by the CIA of terrorism awake for more than seven days non-stop ...
Rizzo: seemed harsh, even brutal to me. On the original list of proposed techniques was one which was even more chilling than waterboarding. It was never used.
SPIEGEL: What technique was it?
Rizzo: I'm not allowed to specify it; it is still classified. I had no preparation when the counterterrorism people came to me, and so my first reaction was one of being rather stunned by what was being proposed.
SPIEGEL: We consider interrogation techniques like waterboarding to be torture. Don't you?
Rizzo: Up until that point in my career, I was not conversant with the US anti-torture statute, so I did not know where the legal lines were.
SPIEGEL: But you approved the techniques.
Rizzo: It wasn't easy. I was the chief lawyer at the CIA. I had built up my reputation and a certain amount of credibility there. When the list was presented to me, they were just ideas that had not gone anywhere out of the CIA. I am confident that, if I had chosen to, I could have stopped them before they started. With respect to waterboarding and the more aggressive techniques, they clearly sounded brutal to me. I had been at the CIA long enough at that point to know when a proposed activity was bound to get the agency into trouble. From the beginning, this proposal had deep trouble written all over it.
SPIEGEL: So why didn't you stop it?
Rizzo: At the time, at the beginning of 2002, we had just captured our first high-level al-Qaida operative, Abu Zubaydah. He was in a newly constructed secret prison and our experts, at least, were convinced that he knew far more about a second attack being imminent. If anyone in al-Qaida would know that, it was Abu Zubaydah.
SPIEGEL: How did you finally make the decision?
Rizzo: I left my office that day and walked around the CIA headquarters building, smoking a cigar by myself and basically pondered what to do next. I distinctly remember sort of playing out the scenario in my head that I would stop these proposals because they were too brutal. And let's just say there had been a second terrorist attack in the ensuing days and, in the aftermath, Abu Zubaydah were to gleefully tell our interrogators, "Yes, I knew all about them, and you didn't get me to talk." There would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans dead on the streets again. And in the post mortem investigations, it would all come out that the CIA considered these techniques but was too risk averse to carry them out and that I was the guy who stopped them. I couldn't live with the possibility of that someday happening. So that's when I decided to seek definitive legal advice from the US Department of Justice about whether the planned interrogation techniques violated the anti-torture statute. If the Justice Department had come back with the conclusion that these did constitute torture, then we would not have carried them out.
SPIEGEL: You were partly responsible for a program that has been widely viewed around the world as torture. Were you conscious of that at the time?
Rizzo: Yeah. I knew that, either way, this was not going to turn out well for the agency. Our thoughts were more that we would be criticized if these interrogation techniques didn't work. Then we might have heard allegations like, "This is all you did? Why weren't you more aggressive?"
SPIEGEL: Can a democracy go any further than the CIA did? Would you have gone further?
Rizzo: That's an interesting question. No one has asked me that before. Given the atmosphere at the time, I think there was a strong possibility perhaps that we would have sought approval to undertake even more aggressive techniques.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret the decisions you made at the time?
Rizzo: I've given that a lot of thought in the ensuing years. We achieved two results with this program. There has been no second attack on American soil and bin Laden was killed. Sitting here today, 12 years later, it is very tempting to think that all of this would have happened without us having to resort to these interrogation techniques and all the damage to the US image. I can't honestly sit here and say I would have made any different decisions than the ones I made back in early 2002.
SPIEGEL: The program also included the black prison sites set up by the CIA.
Rizzo: That was an entirely new experience for us. Where would we have such a prison? We certainly couldn't construct a secret prison inside the United States. There was some thought originally about making it part of the Guantanamo facility in Cuba, but then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposed it. In those early days, I can remember sitting in meetings where options were thrown out there like having a mystery ship drifting around where these guys would be kept or private islands in desolate places around the world.
SPIEGEL: What were the arguments in the end for secret prisons in Eastern Europe?
Rizzo: The location of the secret prisons remains one of the few classified facts left about the program, so I can't go into details. I can say that the prison system was in effect for close to eight years and that the locations would change for security reasons.
SPIEGEL: The presidential directive you wrote with which George W. Bush allowed the targeted assassination of terror suspects was the most aggressive and riskiest in the CIA's history. What happened to the directive? Has it since been revoked?
Rizzo: It was signed just a few days after Sept. 11 and, as far as I know, it is still in effect today.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you describe everyday life in the secret service as "dealing with a devil." What do you mean by that?
Rizzo: One of the major questions for any intelligence service that operates in a democratic society is, how far does an intelligence organization go to protect the country, to protect its people? How close does the CIA need to get to some clearly unsavory characters in order to do its job? How close does the CIA get to groups that do harm or plan to do harm to America?
SPIEGEL: You've experienced all the major scandals of the past 30 years, from the Iran-Contra affair to waterboarding. Would you say that there is better oversight and that there are better controls over the CIA today?
Rizzo: Every major scandal resulted in an investigation by Congress or an outside commission. There was a period of retrenchment for the CIA after all of these. New rules were put in place. Reforms would be made, but the CIA would move on. The CIA is a very resilient organization.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rizzo, we thank you for this interview.
Stay informed with our free news services:
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2014
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles
Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.
Scribner, January 2014; 336 pages; Hardcover.
- Easy and comfortable: Order directly at Amazon.
Corriere della Sera
MORE FROM SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL
German PoliticsMerkel's Moves: Power Struggles in Berlin
World War IITruth and Reconciliation: Why the War Still Haunts Europe
EnergyGreen Power: The Future of Energy
European UnionUnited Europe: A Continental Project
Climate ChangeGlobal Warming: Curbing Carbon Before It's Too Late