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

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He defended the agency’s attraction of suspected terrorists, but helium was aboriginal much reflective astir it than astir of his colleagues.

John Rizzo, the Central Intelligence Agency’s acting wide   counsel, connected  his mode   into a House Intelligence Committee proceeding  successful  2008 to reply  questions astir  the demolition  of C.I.A. interrogation videotapes successful  2005. 
Credit...Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sam Roberts

Aug. 12, 2021Updated 11:42 a.m. ET

John Rizzo, the reflective but resolute Central Intelligence Agency lawyer who sanctioned the concealed detention and torture of suspected Islamic militants aft the attacks connected New York and Washington connected Sept. 11, 2001, and who approved drone strikes that targeted terrorists overseas but that were besides blamed for sidesplitting and wounding countless civilians, died connected Aug. 6 astatine his location successful the Georgetown vicinity of Washington. He was 73.

The origin was seemingly a bosom attack, his son, James W. Rizzo, said.

Mr. Rizzo, a 34-year C.I.A. veteran, presumed from the opening that the morality and legality of waterboarding, slumber deprivation, starvation and different techniques, euphemistically described arsenic enhanced interrogation, would aboriginal beryllium second-guessed.

Preventively, helium insisted connected archetypal getting the Justice Department to stipulate formally that nary American laws oregon overseas treaties would beryllium violated by the techniques, and that nary 1 moving for the C.I.A. would beryllium taxable to prosecution. The stipulation concluded that lone symptom linked to organ nonaccomplishment would represent amerciable torture.

Mr. Rizzo aboriginal recalled that successful aboriginal 2002, aft Abu Zubaydah became the archetypal high-level Al Qaeda operative to beryllium captured, helium near his office, strolled astir C.I.A. office smoking a cigar and pondered the anticipation of a 2nd violent onslaught aft which Mr. Zubaydah would “gleefully archer our interrogators, ‘Yes, I knew each astir them, and you didn’t get maine to talk.’

“There would beryllium hundreds, possibly thousands of Americans dormant connected the streets again,” helium told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel successful 2014. “And successful the post-mortem investigations, it would each travel retired that the C.I.A. considered these techniques but was excessively risk-averse to transportation them out, and that I was the feline who stopped them.

“I couldn’t unrecorded with the anticipation of that someday happening,” helium said.

“Sure, I thought astir the morality of it,” helium said successful an interrogation with The Hill successful 2015. “But arsenic I say, the times were specified that what I thought would person been arsenic immoral is if we conscionable unilaterally dismissed the anticipation of undertaking a programme that could person perchance saved thousands much American lives.”


Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

While Mr. Rizzo unfailingly defended the C.I.A., helium distinguished himself from astir of his colleagues by second-guessing immoderate of what went connected nether his watch, including the enduring carnal and intelligence interaction of torture.

“In hindsight, that should person travel to the fore,” helium told The New York Times successful 2016. “I don’t deliberation the semipermanent effects were ever explored successful immoderate existent depth.”

He told the PBS programme “Frontline” successful 2011: “To me, the more intriguing question — and, I think, unknowable question — is, Could the aforesaid accusation person been elicited without the usage of these extraordinarily arguable techniques? And, arsenic I say, I deliberation that is yet unknowable.” (He did astatine 1 constituent admit a erstwhile F.B.I. interrogator’s decision that the techniques had nary effect connected their subjects.)

Mr. Rizzo ne'er ducked responsibility; helium erstwhile said helium was “the ineligible designer of the projected database of techniques and played the pb relation successful obtaining ineligible support for their use.”

But the backlash outgo him a promotion. For 7 years helium had held the titles of lawman counsel and past acting wide counsel. But erstwhile President George W. Bush sought to elevate him to wide counsel, legislature absorption forced him to retreat the nomination. Mr. Rizzo continued to service arsenic acting counsel until helium retired successful 2019.

To support bureau employees, Mr. Rizzo sought yearly reassurance from the lawyer wide that the interrogation techniques “did not ‘shock the conscience’ oregon interruption planetary pact obligations oregon interruption U.S. home law,” Bill Harlow, a erstwhile spokesperson for the agency, said by email.

“When the lawyer wide declined to bash truthful successful the outpouring of 2004,” helium added, “the bureau promptly suspended the program.”

Hina Shamsi, manager of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed Mr. Rizzo’s information and also sued psychologists who had shaped the interrogation program, said successful an email, “Instead of adhering to instrumentality and ethics, his actions shamefully subverted them successful an effort to supply ineligible screen for the Agency’s amerciable and immoral actions.”

General Michael V. Hayden, a erstwhile C.I.A. director, wrote connected The Cipher Brief this week that “many an operations serviceman would archer you that John walked them backmost from immoderate of their much originative approaches to quality challenges, but determination were galore much who proceeded with the assurance that John, and much importantly the law, had their back.”

John Anthony Rizzo was calved connected Oct. 6, 1947, successful Boston to Arthur and Frances (McLaughlin) Rizzo.

He graduated from Brown University successful 1969 with a bachelor’s grade successful governmental subject and earned a instrumentality grade from George Washington University Law School successful 1972. After moving for the Customs Service, helium joined the C.I.A. successful 1976 aft a Senate probe into abuses successful quality gathering. He was 28 and, by his admission, “too starry-eyed.”

When helium retired, helium received the agency’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He became a visiting chap astatine the Hoover Institution and elder counsel astatine the Washington instrumentality steadfast Steptoe & Johnson.

In summation to his son, from his matrimony to Priscilla Walton Layton, which ended successful divorce, helium is survived by a stepdaughter, Stephanie Breed Darga; 2 sisters, Maria Marolda and Nancy Rizzo; a granddaughter; and a step-grandson. His wife, Sharon (Knight) Rizzo, died successful April.


In his publication “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis successful 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 main researcher for a Senate survey of the detention and interrogation program, said successful an email, “This contradicts the C.I.A.’s authoritative nationalist presumption (true to this day) and Bush’s memoir, which Rizzo calls retired for being inaccurate.”

“Rizzo wrote that helium viewed Bush’s prevarication arsenic ‘admirable,’ and grounds that Bush was a ‘stand-up guy,’” Mr. Jones said. “I deliberation that says it all: Rizzo viewed defending the C.I.A., adjacent if that included misleading Congress and the American people, arsenic patriotic and admirable.”

Mr. Rizzo said suspected terrorists were detained astatine concealed “black sites” overseas lone due to the fact that the Defense Department had refused to location them connected subject bases.

“We brainstormed,” helium told The Times successful 2014. “Do we enactment them connected ships? We considered a deserted island. It was calved retired of necessity. It wasn’t immoderate diabolical plot.”

Mr. Rizzo was upset that helium had not been consulted earlier videotapes of the interrogations were destroyed successful 2005. He acknowledged that immoderate interrogation tactics were “sadistic and terrifying,” but helium said, without elaborating, that “there was different method truthful gruesome that the Justice Department aboriginal stopped abbreviated of approving it.” That method was aboriginal identified arsenic a mock execution.

Although Mr. Rizzo was the astir disposable defender of the interrogation programme — a nattily-attired nationalist look of the spy bureau — helium was much introspective astir it than galore of his colleagues.

“I cognize what the archetypal paragraph of my obituary is going to read,” helium told The Hill. “‘John Rizzo, pb counsel, legally approved the torture programs.’” He conceded, though, that “if I had chosen to, I could person stopped them earlier they started.”

Barring different large panic attack, helium said, “I can’t spot immoderate medication ever going down the roadworthy of thing similar the interrogation program.” He added, “If determination is different attack, past I’m assured the governmental winds volition erstwhile again shift, and C.I.A. volition beryllium told to halt being truthful hazard averse.”

Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting.

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