John Rizzo, C.I.A. Lawyer Who Sanctioned Waterboarding, Dies at 73

He defended the agency’s treatment of suspected terrorists, but he was later more reflective about it than most of his colleagues.,


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John Rizzo, the reflective but resolute Central Intelligence Agency lawyer who sanctioned the secret detention and torture of suspected Islamic militants after the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and who approved drone strikes that targeted terrorists abroad but that were also blamed for killing and wounding countless civilians, died on Aug. 6 at his home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. He was 73.

The cause was apparently a heart attack, his son, James W. Rizzo, said.

Mr. Rizzo, a 34-year C.I.A. veteran, presumed from the beginning that the morality and legality of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation and other techniques, euphemistically described as enhanced interrogation, would later be second-guessed.

Preventively, he insisted on first getting the Justice Department to stipulate formally that no American laws or foreign treaties would be violated by the techniques, and that no one working for the C.I.A. would be subject to prosecution. The stipulation concluded that only pain linked to organ failure would constitute illegal torture.

Mr. Rizzo later recalled that in early 2002, after Abu Zubaydah became the first high-level Al Qaeda operative to be captured, he left his office, strolled around C.I.A. headquarters smoking a cigar and pondered the possibility of a second terrorist attack after which Mr. Zubaydah would “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,” he told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in 2014. “And in the post-mortem investigations, it would all come out that the C.I.A. 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,” he said.

“Sure, I thought about the morality of it,” he said in an interview with The Hill in 2015. “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.”

While Mr. Rizzo unfailingly defended the C.I.A., he distinguished himself from most of his colleagues by second-guessing some of what went on under his watch, including the enduring physical and psychological impact of torture.

“In hindsight, that should have come to the fore,” he told The New York Times in 2016. “I don’t think the long-term effects were ever explored in any real depth.”

He told the PBS program “Frontline” in 2011: “To me, the more intriguing question — and, I think, unknowable question — is, Could the same information have been elicited without the use of these extraordinarily controversial techniques? And, as I say, I think that is ultimately unknowable.” (He did at one point acknowledge a former F.B.I. interrogator’s conclusion that the techniques had no effect on their subjects.)

Mr. Rizzo never ducked responsibility; he once said he was “the legal architect of the proposed list of techniques and played the lead role in obtaining legal approval for their use.”

But the backlash cost him a promotion. For seven years he had held the titles of deputy counsel and then acting general counsel. But when President George W. Bush sought to elevate him to general counsel, congressional opposition forced him to withdraw the nomination. Mr. Rizzo continued to serve as acting counsel until he retired in 2019.

But the backlash cost him a promotion. For seven years he had held the titles of deputy counsel and then acting general counsel. But when President George W. Bush sought to elevate him to general counsel, congressional opposition forced him to withdraw the nomination. Mr. Rizzo continued to serve as acting counsel until he retired in 2019.

To protect agency employees, Mr. Rizzo sought annual reassurance from the attorney general that the interrogation techniques “did not ‘shock the conscience’ or violate international treaty obligations or violate U.S. domestic law,” Bill Harlow, a former spokesman for the agency, said by email.

“When the attorney general declined to do so in the spring of 2004,” he added, “the agency promptly suspended the program.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed Mr. Rizzo’s nomination and also sued psychologists who had shaped the interrogation program, said in an email, “Instead of adhering to law and ethics, his actions shamefully subverted them in an effort to provide legal cover for the Agency’s illegal and immoral actions.”

General Michael V. Hayden, a former C.I.A. director, wrote on The Cipher Brief this week that “many an operations officer would tell you that John walked them back from some of their more creative approaches to intelligence challenges, but there were many more who proceeded with the confidence that John, and more importantly the law, had their back.”

John Anthony Rizzo was born on Oct. 6, 1947, in Boston to Arthur and Frances (McLaughlin) Rizzo.

He graduated from Brown University in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a law degree from George Washington University Law School in 1972. After working for the Customs Service, he joined the C.I.A. in 1976 after a Senate investigation into abuses in intelligence gathering. He was 28 and, by his admission, “too starry-eyed.”

When he retired, he received the agency’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He became a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and senior counsel at the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson.

In addition to his son, from his marriage to Priscilla Walton Layton, which ended in divorce, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Stephanie Breed Darga; two sisters, Maria Marolda and Nancy Rizzo; a granddaughter; and a step-grandson. His wife, Sharon (Knight) Rizzo, died in April.


In his book “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA” (2014), Mr. Rizzo suggested that President Bush had been unaware of the interrogation techniques until 2006.

But Daniel J. Jones, who was the chief investigator for a Senate study of the detention and interrogation program, said in an email, “This contradicts the C.I.A.’s official public position (true to this day) and Bush’s memoir, which Rizzo calls out for being inaccurate.”

“Rizzo wrote that he viewed Bush’s lie as ‘admirable,’ and evidence that Bush was a ‘stand-up guy,'” Mr. Jones said. “I think that says it all: Rizzo viewed defending the C.I.A., even if that included misleading Congress and the American people, as patriotic and admirable.”

Mr. Rizzo said suspected terrorists were detained at secret “black sites” overseas only because the Defense Department had refused to house them on military bases.

“We brainstormed,” he told The Times in 2014. “Do we put them on ships? We considered a deserted island. It was born out of necessity. It wasn’t some diabolical plot.”

Mr. Rizzo was upset that he had not been consulted before videotapes of the interrogations were destroyed in 2005. He acknowledged that some interrogation tactics were “sadistic and terrifying,” but he said, without elaborating, that “there was another technique so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.” That technique was later identified as a mock execution.

Although Mr. Rizzo was the most visible defender of the interrogation program — a nattily-attired public face of the spy agency — he was more introspective about it than many of his colleagues.

“I know what the first paragraph of my obituary is going to read,” he told The Hill. “‘John Rizzo, lead counsel, legally approved the torture programs.'” He conceded, though, that “if I had chosen to, I could have stopped them before they started.”

Barring another major terror attack, he said, “I can’t see any administration ever going down the road of anything like the interrogation program.” He added, “If there is another attack, then I’m confident the political winds will once again shift, and C.I.A. will be told to stop being so risk averse.”

Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting.

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