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Book Review: Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA by John Rizzo

Published by Scribner (2013)
Reviewed by Benjamin Wittes
Sunday, April 20, 2014 at 9:14 PM

In our conversation the other day for the Lawfare Podcast, longtime CIA lawyer John Rizzo jokingly—but only sort of jokingly—composed the first paragraph of his own obituary: “John Rizzo, who approved a controversial CIA program post-9/11 to interrogate suspects—a program that many observers [regarded] as torture—died today.”

Are you comfortable with having your obituary open that way, I asked him?

“I’m resigned to it,” he replied.

Rizzo’s new book, Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, only intermittently reflects the resignation he professes to the fact that his remarkable career has been almost entirely overshadowed by his work, towards its end, on the interrogation program. Rizzo opens it with an account of the destruction of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation tapes, and Osama Bin Laden and the post-9/11 era occupy roughly the last half of the book. But between the two is a long look back at Rizzo’s history in the agency, and this long block of text represents a stubborn insistence that his career and his work are far more than the decisions to seek legal guidance from the Justice Department on the parameters of the torture statute or to let his agency explore the boundaries of acceptable coercion and brutality in interrogating terrorist suspects. The CIA interrogation program may be his obituary’s opening, the book seems to be saying, but don’t stop reading there.

I have intentionally refrained over the past several months from reading any of the reviews of Rizzo’s book on the theory that I wanted to read it free of the praise it was bound to receive from some quarters and criticism it was bound to receive from others. So I have only an atmospheric sense of how the book has been received. Ken Anderson and I, I should add, have also struggled to find an appropriate reviewer for the book. We approached a number of people who had the sort of granular experience in the agency that would make for a useful insight into a book like this. All declined on the theory that their work with Rizzo created conflicts.

That itself says something: For Rizzo’s is a career that spans the modern CIA, from the period immediate following the Church Committee to the beginning of the Obama administration. Rizzo was the 16th or 17th lawyer in the general counsel’s office at the agency. Today there are around 150. He is the first, he tells me, to write a memoir. And a lawyer’s memoir spanning this sweep of the agency’s modern history, by its nature, captures something that lies at the core of the modern project of intelligence. Rizzo’s book is really about the necessity and the difficulty of running a clandestine intelligence agency and its covert actions under the rule of law in the face of a fickle political process that will not stand by tomorrow what it demands of the agency today.  

Company Man lacks an overt thesis. In some respects, this is a stylistic virtue. Rizzo has his pet peeves and his arguments laced in here and there, and he’s a flamboyant character who doesn’t pull his punches either. So his views certainly come through. But at the end of the day, he’s not really trying to persuade the reader of much. He stands by the interrogation program, for example, but he doesn’t spend any time defending it. Instead, he notes the controversy, says what he thinks about it and what he thought at the time, mentions that the arguments are well-ventilated elsewhere, and moves on.

The book, rather, is a collection of stories organized around the trajectory of his career: How did those tapes come to be destroyed? How did the program start? How did it evolve over time? It’s a series of tales about questions like this—as well as similar questions about earlier episodes. It’s a series of reflections on the many CIA directors under whom he served. It’s a series of accounts of his interactions with Congress. And it’s laced throughout with anecdotes—some of them very funny—about the sort of people one only meets or interacts with while working for a clandestine intelligence agency.

But there is a latent thesis here, one that Rizzo never states directly but which lurks in every chapter and which occasionally burbles up to the surface. It shows up more overtly when Rizzo talks about the book, as in our conversation on the podcast. It runs something like this:

The exponential growth of lawyers at the CIA reflects a long-term attempt to keep the agency both within the law and within the boundaries the political system sets for the agency and within which the political system promises to by the agency’s conduct. But at the end of the day, the lawyers have not been able to keep the CIA out of trouble—and all the lawyers in the world probably never will be able to. The reason, as Rizzo put it to me, is that the CIA is the pointy spear of US foreign policy. It represents the ability for presidents to get things done quietly, effectively (when all goes well), deniably, and subject almost entirely to their own discretion. Sooner or later, presidents all turn to it, because the world is such a tough place that, over time, the covert action tool becomes irresistible. And when they do turn to it, they tend to ask the agency to do things that the political system then will not stand behind when the political winds shift. The result is a recurrent cycle of what what we might call goaded aggressiveness leading to recriminations and scandal.

One can try to mute this tendency at the front end, say, by writing good covert action findings and by fully briefing members of Congress on programs that may become politically dicey. Rizzo drafted many of the early findings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his discussion of this work is one of the most interesting parts of the book. And he faults himself in the interrogation context for not insisting on wider briefings to the full intelligence committees and for not insisting that briefing sessions be on the record and transcribed so that members could not later claim to have been blindsided. Lawyers, moreover, have a huge role to play in the back-end management of the scandals, protecting the agency from the predictable whiplash that develops when politicians later feign shock at the aggressiveness they once demanded. One of the few truly bitter sections of the book is Rizzo’s discussion of post-9/11 charges of risk aversion, which came hot on the heels of the pre-9/11 recriminations for the agency’s having done business with unsavory characters in Latin America.

In the end, however, the basic interlocking sine waves that define the CIA’s relationship with the political system—in which the agency vacillates between cycles of under-aggressive and over-aggressiveness in the eyes of a political system that itself vacillates between action-forcing prodding and embarrassed moralizing—are probably impossible to remediate. The basic problem, after all, is not legal in character. It is that what we want from our clandestine intelligence agency is not static, and it is not consistent either. Politicians, like two-year olds, want now what they want now, never mind what they demanded yesterday or will demand tomorrow. Yet unlike two-year-olds, their love is conditional and transient, their embrace one of momentary convenience, not either of affection or of true bond.

Rizzo is a good story-teller, and his book is therefore an easy and engaging read, but there are disadvantages to his highly-narrative style of developing his themes. For one thing, the latent thesis remains latent. We learn a great deal more about what he was thinking at the time that events took place than we do about what larger lessons he draws about his career and experience. Occasionally, he inserts a comment about a given step’s having been a blunder. And there’s a brief section at the end about lessons learned, but it’s all pretty spare. In general, Rizzo tells you the story of his career—at least those parts of it that are most salient to him—and is largely content to have you figure out what to make of it all.

Rizzo’s voice is an unusual one for Washington. It is not the voice of a partisan. The figures for whom he expresses affection and admiration range from Leon Panetta and William Webster to Porter Goss, David Addington, and William Casey. Rizzo is a guy who could be nominated by President Bush as CIA general counsel, describe him in warm terms, vote for President Obama—largely, it seems, out of distaste for John McCain because of McCain’s handling of the interrogation controversies for which he received such wide acclaim—and then become an ardent fan of Panetta’s for his standing up to the new president about the declassification of the interrogation memoranda.

Rizzo’s voice, to put it bluntly, is that of—as his title suggests—an institution man, a person who has spent his professional life defending an agency facing nearly constant criticism and who measures people to a predominant degree by how squarely and straightforwardly, whatever their views may be, they deal with his client. This fierce institutional partisanship, which coexists in him relatively smoothly with a kind of blithe non-partisanship with respect to political party, generates a perspective that may confuse those who orient their politics around left-right divisions. It will also, I suspect, enrage those who will see a certain amorality in it all. Faced with the Iran-Contra scandal, after all, Rizzo’s instinct by his own account was to protect the agency, and he seems outraged by the conduct at issue in the scandal chiefly for the trouble it caused and the damage it did the agency. Faced with the possibility of what would be, by his own account, brutal interrogations, his chief concern was to keep his people—and his agency—out of trouble. To those who pick up Company Man with strong prior moral convictions about the propriety of the many matters he treats, and interrogation is only one of them, Rizzo will often come off as talking about the wrong issues. The company man, after all, and the moralist speak very different languages, and legalism can be an awkward lingua franca for them to share.

But in that sense, Rizzo is just being honest. In a world of people who measure things, events and people by how true they are to liberalism or conservatism, how good they are for political movements, or whether they meet or offend some abstract sense of justice or morality, this is a man who measures the world by how it interacts with the agency he served and loved. This is a lawyer with a client—a single very long-term client. At the end of the book, when Rizzo describes his retirement, he notes that he was certain when he left the CIA that he would never have another full-time job. After all, he reasons, Joe DiMaggio never remarried after having been married to Marilyn Monroe. This is Rizzo tipping his hand. He is still, after all these years, somewhat in awe of his professional bride. 

To put it simply, I liked this book very much. It is not the definitive source on any of the many subjects it covers. It doesn’t try to be. It tries, rather, to tell the story of one man whose story is wrapped up in the many twists and turns of the CIA’s modern history of triumph, failure, and scandal, and whose personal story offers an important window into why those triumphs, failures, and scandals probably can’t ever be separated. 

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