Book Review: Company Man

16:00, Jan 18 2014
John rizzo
TIME WAS NOT RIGHT: John Rizzo says the CIA chose not to tell the White House about the tapes of terror suspects.

As the title says, John Rizzo was a company man; an anonymous career civil servant, albeit one working for a spy agency.

So if it wasn't for torture - described by Rizzo as "the most repellent word in the English language" - it's doubtful anyone would be publishing his memoirs.

For years, Rizzo was the senior lawyer at the CIA, and it was to him the famous "torture memo" of 2002 was addressed: A letter from White House lawyer John Yoo authorising the CIA to use EITs (extraordinary interrogation techniques) on terror suspects held in "black sites" on foreign soil - to me and you, things like waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation and physical violence.

company man
Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA John Rizzo Scribe $37

Rizzo was at the CIA for a very long time, so there's chapters of observations on more venerable scandals like Iran-Contra, where he has some insight but not a great deal more than a well-connected journalist.

It's when he reaches the top, and 9/11 happens shortly after, that it all gets interesting.

Rizzo is charged with deciding whether to allow his men in the field to use these new EITs on the first wave of Al Qaeda suspects, particularly a Bin Laden offsider named Abu Zubaydah. His decision is to not make a decision, but to punt it on to Yoo and others.


There's one paragraph where he mentions wrestling with the issue at home one night, but from then on he takes a remarkably cavalier attitude, never wavering from resolute support for EITs and scorning those who dare call it torture.

And yet it's not until very late in the piece that he finally decides to visit one of these "black sites" for himself, packing a suitcase full of pastel-coloured Ralph Lauren polo shirts.

Otherwise, he's rather sneering ("we recorded Zubaydah alone in his cell, either saying prayers, sleeping, reading, or otherwise - um - entertaining himself"), particularly of politicians and those who opposed EITs.

There's also some classic lawyer-speak, such as this gem when he discusses the fact that the CIA secretly recorded some interrogations, kept the tapes secret for some years then ultimately destroyed them (a decision he stoutly opposed): "No one in the White House had been told about the existence of the tapes. It was not a matter of hiding them. Instead, our thinking at the CIA was the time was not ripe."

Rizzo does display at least some moral compass about the atrocities at Abu Ghraib (carried out by the regular US army rather than the CIA), saying it "made EITs look almost benign in comparison" and was "horrifying".

But eventually, abandoning EITs is an entirely pragmatic decision for him - there's no moral epiphany, just "if they are torture, cruel or degrading by [government's] 2004 legal standards, we weren't going to do it anymore".

No former CIA employee has the right to free speech. Anything they write must be passed by an internal committee, a committee so stringent it stripped a third of the manuscript of The Interrogator, former CIA agent Glenn Carle's expose on the EITs.

They removed from print such vital secrets as a quotation from a T S Eliot poem and calling somewhere a "sh**hole".

And yet Rizzo discusses how accommodating these censors were with his own manuscript, where he merrily details decision-making processes (and hands out the blame right and left), a sign that he's still an insider.

Rizzo finally falls when he stonewalls through a Congressional hearing to confirm his appointment as the CIA's senior legal counsel, where he refuses to debate rendition or concede he should have objected to EITs in the first place.

This, he explains, is because so many people were depending on his judgment that they did not constitute torture, "one of the most repellent words in the English language", and he could not let them down.

And so it was that stripping a man naked, slapping him in the face and simulating death by drowning were never torture in Rizzo's world.

This staunchness was the undoing of a 32-year career but also, no doubt, the making of substantial money from these morally-challenged memoirs.

Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA John Rizzo Scribe $37

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