John Rizzo, former CIA counsel

John Rizzo, long-time counsel at the CIA (he was CIA general counsel during the George W. Bush administration) spoke at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena this evening in connection with his recently published memoir, the appropriately titled “Company Man.”

He arrived late, having gotten stuck in traffic which was apparently related to today’s Glendora fire. He spoke briefly, then opened the floor to questions. I asked the first one.

During his remarks, he referred to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I started out by saying that while he might call them enhanced interrogation techniques, normal people regarded them as torture.

I then said, “In his book Torture Team, British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands identified six of your legal colleagues in the George W. Bush administration as bearing direct responsibility for approving torture — David Addington of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office; John Yoo and Jay Bybee of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; Doug Feith, the No. 3 official in the Department of Defense; and Jim Haynes, general counsel for the Department of Defense.”

At this point I was interrupted by a member of the audience, a 40-ish looking clean-cut guy, who, it later turned out, had undergone the military’s SERE training from which Bush-era torture techniques were reverse-engineered. He challenged me to ask a question; I told him to wait eight seconds.

“Inasmuch as torture violates the Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the federal Torture Statute, the federal War Crimes Act and the Eighth Amendment ot the U.S. Constitution, would you support prosecution of these officials for war crimes,” I asked, “and if not, why not?”

In response, he unsurprisingly said no, he would not favor prosecution, and that he thought that techniques such as water boarding were brutal, but didn’t rise to the level of torture. He also gave a brief aria on the dismal “It’s a post-9/11 world” theme with a dollop of the ticking time bomb theory thrown in for good measure.

A young man in the back asked what I thought was a great question — Did Rizzo ever come across something so horrible, so morally offensive in his work as CIA general counsel that he considered resigning? Rizzo thought about it briefly and said no.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the questions (although not all of them) were critical, as it looked like a pretty white-bread suburban audience.

I did get a second bite of the apple, asking the last question of the Q&A as well as the first. (And I will grudgingly give Rizzo credit for calling on me again, as he knew he was going to get a hostile question.) If he felt that nothing U.S. interrogators did during the George W. Bush administration constituted torture, I asked, what in his opinion would an interrogator have to do for his or her actions to rise to the level of torture?

He gave two specific answers: pulling out fingernails and severing a limb. It’s my understanding that as many as 100 men died under interrogation by US interrogators (notably CIA), military and contractors during the George W. Bush administration. That wasn’t torture. But pulling out fingernails is. Unbelievable.

Rizzo comes across as pleasant, mild-mannered and self-effacing. He must have a very good barber, as he has this elegant, curvy sort of beard. But, as another member of the audience said to me after the presentation, he’s emblematic of the banality of evil. Well, that’s my report. Onward and upwards.

Photo by Project for Government Oversight, used under Creative Commons license