The Man Who Knew Too Little

Readers seeking a vicarious adrenaline kick may be disappointed by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s memoir of his three decades at the agency. In thrillers, the CIA is swashbuckling and sinister, replete with cloaks, daggers, and Technicolor deeds of derring-do. But Rizzo was the agency’s top lawyer, not its top spy, and Company Man—his meandering account of a life in the bureaucratic trenches—portrays not a glamorous world of espionage but a grayish realm of meetings and memos, committee reports and congressional hearings, presidential findings and memoranda of notification.

Yet if Rizzo’s memoir falls short of thrilling, it’s often distinctly chilling. As the book’s title proudly proclaims, John Rizzo is the quintessential company man. For 34 years, he provides the agency with the legal assistance he feels its patriotic employees deserve, and he refrains from judgment when confronted with “vexing” issues such as CIA support for Guatemalan death squads or, more recently, the waterboarding of terrorist detainees.

Rizzo reserves his opprobrium for those who threaten, disrespect, or damage the interests of his beloved agency. Thus, when a young Pakistani man opens fire in the CIA’s parking lot in 1993, killing two employees, Rizzo seems unsure of what bothers him most: that members of the CIA “family” have been “randomly slaughtered, just for trying to get to work on a sunny Virginia morning” or that newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton, in a “hurtful … snub,” fails to show up to their memorial service. (Rizzo is too concerned with this “unforgivable slight” to note that the shootings, while appalling, were not entirely random: Mir Aimal Kansi, the perpetrator, later explained to CNN that his motivation was anger at “the policy of the U.S. government in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinian people.”)

Aldrich Ames, convicted in 1994 of selling classified CIA information to the Russians, is condemned as an “irredeemable drunken lout” whose “boorish and brazen behavior” should have been recognized sooner as that of an “evil, destructive traitor.”  James Risen, the New York Times reporter whose 2006 book State of War revealed a failed CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, is similarly censured by the upright Rizzo, who declares him “irresponsible and sneaky.”

Even alleged al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Zubaydah is criticized less for his role in the devastating September 11 attacks than for his irritating behavior toward his CIA jailers. Contemplating Zubaydah’s “ordinary and unprepossessing” appearance, Rizzo recalls “the famous title of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann: The Banality of Evil.” But Rizzo—presumably referring to the subtitle of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—does not dwell on this troubling theme. Instead, he moves on smoothly to recount Zubaydah’s capture after a 2002 gunfight in Pakistan. As soon as Zubaydah recovers from his wounds, complains the offended Rizzo, the “twisted, smug little creep” takes “to taunting our people.” Zubaydah feeds his CIA interrogators “little tidbits that were either old news or outright lies … all the while taking care to torment his questioners by making clear … that he knew far more about ongoing Al Qaeda plots than he was ever going to tell us.”

It is this “torment” that inspires Zubaydah’s interrogators to seek alternative ways to extract information from their prisoner. Thus, recalls Rizzo, was born the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”


In some ways, Company Man is best understood as the story of John Rizzo’s extended love affair with the CIA. Born in 1947 into an Italian-Irish family outside Boston, Rizzo, the only son, leaves behind his parents and sisters for Brown University. A self-described “naïve, immature kid,” he joins the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where he meets “a group of guys that would become lifelong friends.” The “guys” give the grateful Rizzo “a lifelong taste for fine clothes and good cigars” and “a badly needed set of social skills.” At Brown, he also attends a lecture by Lyman Kirkpatrick, the CIA’s recently retired—but still patrician and “strikingly handsome”—former executive director. Rizzo is awed: “Kirkpatrick had the aura of someone older, wise, immortal, even.”

Who wouldn’t want to join the immortals? A few years later, Rizzo finds himself in a low-level legal position in the customs division of the Treasury Department. He yearns for something more and, arriving at the CIA in 1976, he is overjoyed to discover that everyone there “radiated a sense of pride and esprit de corps.” The young attorney delights in the “camaraderie … the knowledge that we were all part of an exclusive, selective, secret club—that no one on the outside could really fully know or understand—created an unspoken but unique and unbreakable bond.”

Rizzo describes the denizens of his new fraternity in the simplistic language of schoolboy romance: Robert McNamara, who served as CIA general counsel from 1997 to 2001, is “a smart, honorable guy.” CIA inspector general John Helgerson is “honorable and fair-minded.” Robert Gates, CIA director and later secretary of defense, is an “honorable, decent man.” Even Terry Ward and Fred Brugger, two operatives fired in 1995 after lying to Congress about their connections to Guatemalan death squads, are described as “honorable, self-effacing professionals.”

Indeed, Rizzo bears an occasional resemblance to Jerry Westerby, the title character in John le Carré’s 1977 spy classic The Honourable Schoolboy. Like Westerby, Rizzo just wants to belong; he prefers to avoid grappling with underlying questions of ethics or strategy. “Point me and I’ll march,” Westerby tells spymaster George Smiley. “Tell me the shots, I’ll play them. World’s chock-a-block with milk-and-water intellectuals armed with fifteen conflicting arguments against blowing their blasted noses. We don’t need another.”

Rizzo displays a similar lack of moral curiosity as he walks readers through many of the CIA’s most controversial programs, from the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s to the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” programs. Despite an often-numbing level of detail—the book opens with a 30-page account of how the CIA came to destroy videotapes showing the 2003 waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed—Rizzo consistently misses the point. He’s anxious to convince readers that he would never have sanctioned the destruction of those videotapes (which were, after all, vital CIA records). But though he notes that CIA Inspector General John Helgerson had “misgivings about the wisdom and morality of the interrogation program from the outset,” Rizzo doesn’t take the trouble to describe, much less grapple with, the nature of Helgerson’s concerns.

Rizzo assumes the role of ever-helpful lawyer and scribe. When President Jimmy Carter leaves office, CIA Director William Casey orders Rizzo to “write a new, broadly worded finding” for Reagan’s signature, one that will enable the CIA to step up its covert support for right-wing forces in Central America. Rizzo comes up with a finding “as expansive as I could make it.” Is increased CIA support for Guatemala’s death squads, Nicaragua’s Contras, and El Salvador’s brutal junta a good idea? Rizzo doesn’t ask.

His complaisance is duly rewarded; even Dewey Clarridge—the “swashbuckling” chief of covert CIA operations for Latin America, later indicted for lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair—gladdens Rizzo’s heart by instructing his staff that “every proposed operation of any significance had to be run by me first. … [Clarridge and Latin America–based colleague Chuck Hogan] seemed to recognize … that a lawyer needed to be involved in everything they were now doing.” A cynic might suggest that Clarridge’s willingness to seek legal guidance was fueled by his confidence that Rizzo would never provide an answer he didn’t like. But Rizzo is no cynic. No matter that others view Clarridge as a “Machiavellian schemer”—the loyal Rizzo finds him “honest and candid in all his dealings with me.”

Later, Rizzo tries his best to protect Clarridge and others implicated in Iran-Contra from having to testify in a hearing open to the press. To Rizzo, it’s a matter of agency honor. Were Clarridge and his fellows complicit in a secret program to sell weapons to Iran, an avowed U.S. enemy, and funnel the proceeds to Nicaragua’s Contra insurgents, in clear violation of an explicit congressional ban? Maybe, maybe not. But “these were active-duty, career veterans of the spy service. The thought of them being paraded and pummeled on national television just seemed unfair and unseemly.”

With the Iran-Contra affair, Rizzo recalls, “I truly came of age as a CIA lawyer.” By chance, Rizzo was himself able to remain untainted: In 1985, he had left the CIA’s Directorate of Operations to spend a year at the CIA inspector general’s office. “If I had still been the [Directorate of Operations] lawyer in 1985,” he reflects, “I have no doubt that I would have been brought into the loop” when the “disastrous” Iran-Contra scheme was developed. But he was not, and his genuine ignorance protected him.

Contemplating this bit of moral luck brings Rizzo a rare flash of self-knowledge. “Perhaps,” he muses, “things might have turned out differently if I had been given a say—for a time I was pleased to believe that—but the truth is they probably wouldn’t have. The arms-for-hostages initiative was conceived and approved at the highest levels [and] in all likelihood I would have gone along, whatever my private misgivings might have been.”

We’re left in the dark, of course, about what Rizzo’s misgivings about Iran-Contra “might have been,” and any doubts he had about later CIA activities appear to have been rare and quickly overcome. Rizzo recalls that when briefed on the 1984 kidnapping and torture of CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley (“a wonderful fellow”), he found the account of Buckley’s ordeal “indescribably chilling and heartbreaking. … The memory of it … would stay with me.” But he never connects the dots between this memory and the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation of detainees.

In 2002, with Abu Zubaydah thumbing his nose at interrogators, Rizzo is inclined to facilitate the approval of a variety of “enhanced interrogation techniques” proposed by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. These range from waterboarding, “stress positions,” and prolonged sleep deprivation to “cramped confinement” in a small box into which “the interrogator would have the option to place a harmless insect.”

“I have to admit that I didn’t ask a lot of questions,” Rizzo says. Though some of the proposed “enhanced interrogation techniques” struck him as “sadistic and terrifying,” Rizzo is determined not to say no to his beloved band of brothers. He’s not quite willing to give an unqualified yes, however. “What I can’t do is sit here and tell you … if [this] legally constitutes torture,” he informs CIA Director George Tenet and Counterterrorism Center Chief Jose Rodriguez.

“Our people won’t do anything that involves torture,” Rodriguez declares. “You’re damn right,” Tenet adds. Thus reassured, but unwilling to be the final decision maker, Rizzo punts. It occurs to him that in the future some may think that the CIA’s proposed interrogation techniques “were not only barbaric but lapsed into criminality.” He wants “legal cover” before moving forward.

Happily for Rizzo, cover is provided by an obliging John Yoo at the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. In the end, nearly a hundred terrorism suspects were detained and subjected to interrogation at CIA “black sites.” Although Rizzo insists that the CIA never employed the “harmless insect” tactic, Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded some 183 times before the “enhanced interrogation techniques” program ended. Other detainees were deprived of sleep for more than a week by having their arms elevated in chains anchored to the ceiling.


Later the memos between Yoo, Rizzo, and other Justice Department officials became public, and the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) program came in for bipartisan condemnation. “It’s all torture,” a stone-faced Senator John McCain told CIA Director Porter Goss. To Rizzo’s dismay, the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld declared that the treatment of al-Qaeda detainees was governed by Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, potentially bringing CIA interrogators deemed to have used cruel or humiliating techniques under the ambit of the federal War Crimes Act. Leon Panetta, appointed director of the CIA by newly inaugurated President Barack Obama, declared during his 2009 Senate confirmation hearings that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” program constituted “torture.” “Just like that, he publicly branded us as war criminals,” Rizzo observes sadly.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Rizzo, to his credit, is willing to shoulder much of the responsibility. “If I had said the word” back in 2002, he admits, “much if not all of the EIT initiative would have quietly died before it was born. It would have been a relatively easy thing to do, actually.” But he feared being “too timid” and perhaps being held responsible for a future terrorist attack. His support for the program also “comes down to something pretty basic: Every, and I mean every career CIA employee who was involved in the program believed in it wholeheartedly and unswervingly.”

Congress is unimpressed by Rizzo’s loyalty, and the torture scandal ultimately sinks his chances of being confirmed as CIA general counsel in 2007. So he soldiers on as acting general counsel, never quite sure why the whole thing caused such a fuss. (Indeed, he expresses sorrow that he never had the chance to share with Congress and the public his “perspective on the essential role that the rule of law plays in the intelligence world.”)

Hannah Arendt would have had stern words for John Rizzo, but in the end I find it oddly difficult to condemn him. Even after three decades at the CIA, Rizzo retains a peculiar innocence—a profound bewilderment about the strange world in which he finds himself. Visiting a “black site” for the first time in 2005, he dons his “casual attire”: a pink Ralph Lauren polo shirt, for which he is scornfully rebuked by his hard-bitten CIA security escorts. Abashed by this sartorial error—and resolving henceforth to wear “earth tones”—Rizzo proceeds to the secret prison. There, for the first time, he sees the detainees “whose fates had consumed so much of my time for the previous three years.” They look, he notes in mild astonishment, “so … small.”

That’s John Rizzo, company man. He yearned to do good, but far more than that, he yearned to belong—a yearning at once so vast, and so pitiably small.

You may also like