In early November 2010, the Justice Department announced its decision not to bring obstruction-of-justice charges against the CIA officials who had been involved in the decision, five years earlier, to destroy videotapes depicting the Agency’s 2002 interrogation of an Al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah. He was not just any terrorist thug. Zubaydah was a senior figure in the Al Qaeda hierarchy at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he had been the CIA’s first significant “catch” in the post-9/11 era. As such, he was also the first high-level Osama bin Laden lieutenant to be spirited off to one of the Agency’s newly constructed covert detention facilities—what would come to be infamously known around the world as “the CIA’s secret prisons.” Zubaydah had another dubious distinction: He was the first CIA detainee ever to be waterboarded. The CIA had captured it all on videotape. Three years later, the Agency burned the tapes.
The Justice Department criminal investigation into the tapes’ destruction, which lasted almost three years, was led by John Durham, a career federal prosecutor from Connecticut brought in specifically for the task. He was appointed in December 2007, shortly after the New York Times broke the story in a series of page 1 articles by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane. The series ignited an immediate firestorm in the media and Congress. As the Times accurately reported, no one in the CIA had ever told anyone in Congress that it had destroyed the tapes.
It was a hell of a story about a hell of a mess. And I knew it better than anyone, since I was the only member of the CIA’s top leadership to have been part of the episode from the beginning to just about its end. I was the Agency’s chief legal advisor for most of the eight years encompassing the story. The tale of the tapes’ destruction and its aftermath bedeviled me right up to the time of my retirement from the CIA in December 2009, after more than thirty years of service. The saga ended for me only when Justice announced there would be no indictments.
For the first three years, I fended off repeated entreaties from my Agency colleagues that I approve destroying the tapes, only to have them go behind my back and destroy them anyway in 2005. Then, after the story exploded in the media, I was the only CIA official to be hauled before Congress and grilled—alone—by two dozen angry lawmakers. Two years later, in September 2009, I had to testify for seven hours before a grand jury convened by the prosecutor, Durham.
The case was still hanging over me when I left the Agency for good two months later. In a long career fraught with dealing with controversies, it was the final one, and it was unfinished business. And so I could not drift gently, at long last, into a peaceful retirement. Would I be called back to testify before Congress? Before the grand jury? Would I be prosecuted for something I said, or something I did, somewhere along the way?
The November 2010 Justice Department announcement that there would be no indictments brought me a mixed range of emotions. First, of course, I felt a huge sense of belated relief. At the same time, it seemed oddly anticlimactic—by November 2010, the tapes’ destruction was old news, a distant if unpleasant memory.
Finally, it all struck me as very ironic. The entire affair, long and tortuous as it turned out to be, had begun for me way back at a time when I thought I was getting out of the line of fire at the CIA.
In October 2002, my nearly one-year tour of duty as acting general counsel was coming to a close. The Senate had just confirmed Scott Muller as the new CIA general counsel.
By this time, twenty-five years into my CIA career, I had “broken in” a number of incoming general counsels, so I had the drill down pat: The Office of the General Counsel (OGC) staff prepared briefing books containing summaries of key classified policy and legal documents as well as ongoing programs (per standard procedure, no incoming GC had access to classified information before reporting for duty), and I put together a list of the “hot” items that the new guy would have to confront the day he arrived on the job.
I felt a profound sense of relief about passing the Agency’s legal baton. Barely a year after 9/11, I could have put fifty items on the “hot” list. It seemed like every day we were facing a new, imminent Al Qaeda threat. And we had been operating in an entirely new and perilous legal terrain, capturing, brutally interrogating, and conducting lethal operations against senior Al Qaeda figures. I didn’t want Scott totally overwhelmed on his first day of work, so I was determined to keep the list short.
A couple of weeks before he arrived in November 2002, however, I learned about something I had no choice but to add to the list. Three months earlier, CIA officers, in a secret Agency detention facility overseas, began videotaping the first top Al Qaeda operative in our custody. He was also the first terrorist subjected to the Agency’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs). The sessions were captured on the tapes, apparently in graphic detail. Jose Rodriguez, the chief of our Counterterrorist Center (CTC), came to me seeking permission to destroy the tapes. Immediately.
The story began in March 2002, when the CIA and its Pakistani counterparts, with a combination of meticulous intelligence work and good luck, captured a senior Al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan’s third-largest city, Faisalabad. It didn’t come off quietly—there was a furious gun battle, and Zubaydah was shot three times. The Agency rushed a team of doctors from Johns Hopkins to Pakistan to save his life. It was hardly a humanitarian gesture; our intelligence indicated that Zubaydah was Al Qaeda’s main logistics planner for attacks against the United States. The CIA was desperate to keep him alive in order to find out what he knew about any upcoming attacks. This was barely six months after 9/11, and the government was still seized with dread about another horrific strike coming any day.
Zubaydah pulled through, and as soon as the doctors determined he was well enough to travel, he was whisked from Pakistan to the first of a succession of overseas detention facilities that would eventually enter into the public lexicon as “black sites” or “secret prisons.” Zubaydah, a young, smart, cold-blooded, unrepentant psychopath, was the first really “big fish” the Agency had caught post-9/11. Soon after the questioning began, CIA inquisitors became convinced, based on his smug and arrogant responses, that he knew a lot more than he was telling about Al Qaeda’s terrorist plans. By early April 2002, the Agency, lacking other options and desperate to stop another cataclysmic attack, made the fateful decision to explore tougher methods to try to get Zubaydah to talk. This was how the “enhanced interrogation program” came to be, along with yet another word soon to enter the public lexicon: waterboarding.
Later in the book I will provide an eyewitness narrative of the period from April through July 2002, when the Agency conceived the EIT program, which I shepherded through policy review at the White House and legal review at the Justice Department. This process culminated on August 1, when the Justice Department issued to me the first of what would come to be known in
Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA
Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA
In 1975, fresh out of law school and working a numbing job at the Treasury Department, John Rizzo took “a total shot in the dark” and sent his résumé to the Central Intelligence Agency. He had no notion that more than thirty years later, after serving under eleven CIA directors and seven presidents, he would become a notorious public figure—a symbol and a victim of the toxic winds swirling in post-9/11 Washington. From serving as the point person answering for the Iran-contra scandal to approving the rules that govern waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” John Rizzo witnessed and participated in virtually all of the significant operations of the CIA’s modern history.
In Company Man, Rizzo charts the CIA’s evolution from shadowy entity to an organization exposed to new laws, rules, and a seemingly neverending string of public controversies. Rizzo offers a direct window into the CIA in the years after the 9/11 attacks, when he served as the agency’s top lawyer, with oversight of actions that remain the subject of intense debate today. In Company Man, Rizzo is the first CIA official to ever describe what “black sites” look like from the inside and he provides the most comprehensive account ever written of the “torture tape” fiasco surrounding the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah and the birth, growth, and death of the enhanced interrogation program.
Spanning more than three decades, Company Man is the most authoritative insider account of the CIA ever written—a groundbreaking, timely, and remarkably candid history of American intelligence.