John Rizzo, the longtime legal counsel for the CIA who was at the center of the agency’s torture regime, has a new memoir out in which he says that George W. Bush was lying when he claimed to have personally approved the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA against many detainees.
Rizzo’s most remarkable account concerns President Bush. Essentially, Rizzo concludes that Bush has lately invented a memory of himself as someone who was well informed and decisively in favor of waterboarding certain Al Qaeda prisoners, when, as far as Rizzo can tell, Bush seems not to have known at the time what the C.I.A. was doing.
In “Decision Points,” his 2010 memoir, Bush recalled that George Tenet provided a list of brutal interrogation techniques the C.I.A. proposed to use, and that Bush overruled “two that I felt went too far.” Later, when Tenet asked the President directly if he could employ waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush wrote that he answered, “Damn right.”
Yet, according to Rizzo, “The one senior U.S. Government national security official during this time—from August 2002 through 2003—who I did not believe was knowledgeable about the E.I.T.s was President Bush himself. He was not present at any of the Principals Committee meetings … and none of the principals at any of the E.I.T. sessions during this period ever alluded to the President knowing anything about them.”
Some of the chronology of events related to the C.I.A. interrogations that Bush provides in “Decision Points” doesn’t compute, according to Rizzo. Also, Rizzo would certainly have known if Bush had banned two techniques, but Rizzo has “no idea” what Bush might have been referring to in his memoir. Throughout this period, Rizzo, as he remembers it, was in daily contact with George Tenet, who said “nothing about any conversations he had with the president about E.I.T.s, much less any instructions or approvals coming from Bush.”
Rizzo writes, “It simply didn’t seem conceivable that George [Tenet] wouldn’t have passed something like that on to those of us who were running the program.” Rizzo got in touch with Tenet while preparing “Company Man” and Tenet confirmed “that he did not recall ever briefing Bush” on specific interrogation techniques being used at C.I.A. prisons. “I have to conclude that the account in Bush’s memoir simply is wrong,” Rizzo concludes.
Rizzo finds “the episode perplexing but nonetheless admirable on Bush’s part.” Typically, Presidents distance themselves from controversial C.I.A. programs, but, in “Decision Points,” Bush “put himself up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era when, in fact, he wasn’t,” thus taking responsibility.
But as the indispensable Marcy Wheeler notes, Rizzo has in the past admitted that the president had explicitly authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Al Qaeda detainees. And his history of being honest on such matters isn’t exactly stellar.
There are, as there always are with John Rizzo’s claims, obvious gimmicks. He apparently discusses the period from August 2002 — the date when DOJ’s OLC authorized torture for Abu Zubaydah, at which point much, if not all of the techniques approved, had already been used on him — through 2003, the year before Bush issued a second authorization for the torture program in Tenet’s last days. The key authorizations from the White House came before August 2002, as the torture was happening (and Coll should review these details if he wants to review Rizzo’s memoir competently). And we know Tenet did record Bush’s authorization for the program — he did it in a document Rizzo handled.
Marcy also says that “if Bush really was ignorant about the torture program, then it means the entire thing was illegal.” But of course, it was illegal whether Bush authorized it or not under the UN Convention Against Torture, which is the law of the land in this country.