Top CIA Official: Obama Changed Virtually None of Bush’s Controversial Programs

September 1, 2011

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged “a top to bottom review of the threats we face and our abilities to confront them.” He promised a sweeping overhaul of the Bush administration’s war on terror, which he criticized for compromising American values.

But FRONTLINE has learned from a former high-ranking CIA official that even before he took office, Obama’s team “signaled” they had no intention of rolling back secret programs begun under the Bush administration. In his first televised interview, for next Tuesday’s Top Secret America John Rizzo, a 34-year agency veteran described as “the most influential lawyer in CIA history,” tells FRONTLINE:

I was part of the transition briefings of the incoming Obama team, and they signaled fairly early on that the incoming president believed in a vigorous, aggressive, continuing counterterrorism effort. Although they never said it exactly, it was clear that the interrogation program was going away. We all knew that.

But his people were signaling to us, I think partly to try to assure us that they weren’t going to come in and dismantle the place, that they were going to be just as tough, if not tougher, than the Bush people.

Rizzo, who was forced to withdraw his nomination to become CIA general counsel because of controversy over his role in developing the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation policies, also told us:

With a notable exception of the enhanced interrogation program, the incoming Obama administration changed virtually nothing with respect to existing CIA programs and operations. Things continued. Authorities were continued that were originally granted by President Bush beginning shortly after 9/11. Those were all picked up, reviewed and endorsed by the Obama administration.

Look for more of our exclusive interview with Rizzo, where he talks about his role in approving enhanced interrogation techniques, and creating the CIA’s secret detention system, next week. Top Secret America airs Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 9 pm (check local listings).

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