John Rizzo: The Lawyer Who Approved CIA’s Most Controversial Programs


September 6, 2011
A 34-year agency veteran, Rizzo has been described as “the most influential career lawyer in CIA history”. In this rare interview, he describes his role in many of the “unprecedented” actions the CIA undertook after 9/11, including helping draft the “extraordinary” presidential authorization that provided the legal underpinnings for many of the war’s covert actions, and helping come up with the “enhanced interrogation program” and the CIA’s secret prison system (the disclosure of which would later derail his nomination to become CIA general counsel). Rizzo also tells FRONTLINE that during the presidential transition, Obama’s team “signaled” that they had no intention of rolling back many of the CIA’s controversial programs. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 21, 2011.

So I want to start on 9/11. Can you tell me where you were, how long you’d been at the agency, and what did you think would happen with the CIA as a result of the attacks?

First of all, I arrived at CIA as a young lawyer in January 1976, so at the time of 9/11 I had been a lawyer at CIA for quarter of a century.

On that morning, I was sitting in my office on the seventh floor, the top floor of the CIA headquarters building; that is, the so-called executive suite where all the senior officials sit. And there are large plateglass windows that sort of wrap around all of the offices, so one gets a very clear view of the Virginia countryside and the sky.

At the CIA that morning, I believe that virtually everyone at CIA first learned about the attacks the way the rest of the country learned about them, by seeing the towers burning on television. …

There was an evacuation ordered right about that time in the morning for all CIA personnel who were not needed to stay to obviously work in reaction to the attacks. So there was a general evacuation. I was the deputy general counsel at the time. The general counsel, along with several of then-Director [George] Tenet’s top officials, met with Director Tenet in another building in the complex. So they left the seventh floor. So there were a few of us still left on the top floor of CIA headquarters. But I decided to stay.

Shortly after that, maybe the next day or the day afterward, people know pretty certainly who it is, and Congress and the president know that they have to beef up the resources to stop whoever it is and stop potentially another attack. President Bush gives the CIA $1 billion, quickly, to do whatever it takes to respond. Can you remember when you are suddenly given resources to plus up? How do you go about doing that? Was it an overwhelming request?

First of all, before the resources came, we had to get the requisite authorization to carry out the operations that were contemplated. And in point of fact, that first morning of 9/11, in my office on the seventh floor, I started to scribble out what I thought to be multiple actions the agency might be directed to undertake in response to the attack.

That culminated a few days later in a presidential authorization or finding, signed by President Bush, that delineated the particular kinds of actions, operations, most of them unprecedented in my 25 years of experience at CIA. That in turn led to the allocation of the kinds of resources you just described.

So you drafted the finding?

I was not the only person that drafted the finding, but I was one of a select group of lawyers in the national security legal community who coordinated on the language of the finding. But the original language was drafted at CIA.

So it’s been widely reported now, the finding on Sept. 11 did give permission to the agency to take whatever means necessary. Can you tell us briefly what a finding is?

Sure. A finding, as I indicated, is a written presidential authorization that is literally signed by the president of the United States, and it directs CIA to undertake certain operations abroad, covert action operations abroad. Covert actions are actions to influence foreign events or somehow affect the foreign landscape in one way or the other without those activities being acknowledged or disclosed by the U.S. government.

So why did it need to be all secret, even from the start? Why isn’t it like a military operation where of course we’re going to respond to the enemy? Why does that need to be covert?

The findings are specific. I spent most of my career drafting presidential findings, and there is a certain art form to them. They are written broadly enough to be all-encompassing of the objectives the president, whoever that president may be, wants to carry out.

But they also have to be specific in terms of the kinds of operations that are to be undertaken, the country or countries in which those operations are to be carried out. There’s a lot of detail that simply can’t be safely, for operational reasons, be publicly disclosed, or they would be rendered ineffective or thwarted.

So when you looked at the final product — which must have been quite extensive, because we know there were many countries involved and all sorts of different actions — if you looked at that request in the history of the CIA, was that the largest, biggest effort you’d been asked to undertake?

Yeah, absolutely. As I say, pretty much my entire career had been spent one way or the other in drafting presidential findings and reviewing the implementation of those findings. I had never in my experience been part of or ever seen a presidential authorization as far-reaching and as aggressive in scope. It was simply extraordinary.

… Was there any debate over how far it should go, or was that just not in anybody’s mind at the moment?

The meetings I attended, both inside CIA and National Security Council deliberations, I don’t remember hearing anyone at the time — and the time, of course, was a day or two after 9/11 — expressing any reservations about the scope of the activities being proposed.

Same with Congress?

Absolutely. …

[How involved were President Bush and Vice President Cheney?]

Most presidents, and vice presidents for that matter, do not get into the weeds, as it were, about what is to be contained per se in the presidential finding, a new covert action program. The direction typically — and this was the direction we received from the president right after 9/11 — is, in [CIA’s Counterterrorism Center former director] Cofer Black’s immortal words, “take the gloves off”: Give me a set of options, proposed operations that ratchet up to the maximum extent possible the pressure on Al Qaeda, to find bin Laden and everyone responsible for these attacks, and also to prevent the possibility of any such attack happening. It was broad; it was that kind of broad.

What was left for CIA to do is translate that into specific operational initiatives. For instance, the president and the vice president did not direct CIA to create the enhanced interrogation program per se. We were directed to capture and detain high-value Al Qaeda officials and obtain information. That was it. The program, the specifics, and certainly the waterboarding, all the other techniques, those were put forward by CIA.

At some point, though, before the president signs the finding, are they adding any input that the language needs to be stronger? Is Dick Cheney even involved at that point?

Sure, sure. The vice president was involved.

Do you remember in what way?

I mean, all of these findings are reviewed beginning with the National Security Council, the various secretaries through the vice president’s office to the president. And as you know, Mr. Cheney was very interested in intelligence issues.

So all of these people saw the finding on its way through. Frankly, the finding was so aggressive and comprehensive that honestly there wasn’t much more that could have been added. So I don’t recall the vice president calling down and saying, “We haven’t thought of this; we haven’t thought of that.” …

So when you do get the money, the resources to start plussing up the organization, what is the pace like to fulfill the mission that you need to fulfill?

Keep in mind, 9/11 was clearly sui generis, so I will describe the pace there. Again, it was a pace that I had never seen, witnessed before with respect to the implementation in the past of new presidential findings. So I wouldn’t generalize from what I’m about to tell you to all covert actions.

But as you indicated, there was a flood of money and also a flood of authorities, a flood of responsibilities that we were directed to undertake, obviously immediately. It frankly overwhelmed the system that was then in place. It overwhelmed the infrastructure that was in place.

So there was a frenetic effort to build up the operational cadre. The Counterterrorism Center of CIA overnight increased severalfold. Employees, officers who were literally on their way overseas to other assignments were told to turn around and come back in order to join in the counterterrorism effort. Massive expenditures [were] required to go out and acquire the kinds of equipment, facilities that were going to be needed. So it was a pace that I had, as I say, never seen before.

… Is it accurate to say that in order to fill those jobs so quickly, you couldn’t do it with federal employees? In fact, the law made it a little more difficult. You had to then begin hiring contractors.

Absolutely correct, yeah.

Was that a necessity? Did people just think it was a good idea? Was there no other option?

Well, all of those. First and foremost, though, it was a necessity. The manpower levels at CIA had been starting to rise again in the year or two previous to 9/11 after having been diminished for most of the 1990s, but nowhere near the levels, and not only the levels in number, but the levels of experience needed to carry out the kinds of missions that we were suddenly asked to carry out.

So there were lots of CIA retirees who were called back into service. They had to be hired back by contract. And there was a necessity to go out to the contractor community, the industrial contractor community, and let [in] lots and lots of contracts.

… I remember people telling me that they were recruiting in the CIA cafeteria sometimes. Did it get to a point where it was hard to keep people because the contractors who were on the job were recruiting on the job?

It did get to be an issue. 9/11 spawned a number of new things, one of which was a phenomenon where former intelligence employees formed private consulting companies to consult and contract with CIA. And it is true that some of these former employees would come onto CIA headquarters to carry out their contracts and actually recruit current CIA employees with, frankly, far more money than these CIA government employees who were serving at the time. So it did become vexing.

Did it create a brain drain of a certain sort?

I don’t know. Keep in mind what would happen was that those who decided to retire or resign were hired by these private outfits and then recycled back into CIA as contractors. So there wasn’t a diminution of the experience or level; even the faces, a lot of them, were the same. It’s just that these people were making a lot more money than they had in the government.

You mentioned the authority and responsibility that came along with the response to 9/11 on the CIA. Can you talk a minute about the authority, because, as has been written a whole lot about, the executive branch was very aggressive in its interpretation of executive authority and what it meant to be at war with this particular noncombatant organization. It led you to things that became controversial eventually, the CIA interrogations. The CIA hadn’t done interrogations for how long? Decades?

Not in my career. I mean, I started in 1976, and before 9/11, we were never directed to capture people and hold them incommunicado, much less apply any kinds of even arguably coercive interrogation techniques. So again, we were tabula rasa in that whole area.

Tabula rasa, but also thinking the next attack’s going to happen. Can you just describe what the nature of the conversations were like when you’re coming up with things that, again, had never been done before? Some people have to be debating whether they’re legal or ethical or the right thing to be doing. Were there those kind of debates?

Sure. Take what came to be known as the enhanced interrogation program. I was, as you know, in the midst of all of that, and I was present at the creation of it. As I indicated, this was an unprecedented kind of program CIA was asked to undertake. The techniques, the enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were presented to me as potential options.

The reason the enhanced interrogation program came to be in concept was a few months after 9/11, when the CIA first began capturing and holding very high-level Al Qaeda officials, beginning with a man named Abu Zubaydah. Abu Zubaydah made it clear shortly after his detention and confinement, after days of regular sorts of questioning, that he simply was not going to say anything else, and that he made it clear in his own smug and arrogant way that there were certain things he knew that were going to happen, but he wasn’t going to tell his inquisitors, and they couldn’t make him.

That gave the impetus to coming up with, if legally possible, a set of techniques that would work on someone like that, who was thought to likely have information about a possible next imminent attack on the homeland.

When it gets put on paper, do you feel like the agency writ large backs that up, or are there people even then who are saying, “What are we doing?”

No. Honestly, as I say, I was present at the creation of that program. Now, I can’t account for every single CIA employee at that point. But keep in mind, the interrogation program was always very closely held. But within that relatively narrow category of people inside CIA who were aware that such a program was under consideration, I never heard — and I think I would have heard — any dissent, any moral objection.

What I did hear, and to a certain extent I shared this view, was that undertaking this program would present risks to CIA down the road.

What kind of risks?

I had been at CIA long enough to know that life in CIA and life especially as a CIA lawyer, for me, had been a series of pendulum swings, between CIA being directed to be extraordinarily aggressive to, when the political winds would shift, as they inevitably would every few years, CIA would be accused of being the so-called rogue elephant who was operating and in control and had to be reined in.

By 2001, I’d been through this [on] a number of occasions. And the old-timers like me knew intuitively that someday the political winds would change, and the atmosphere immediately post-9/11, which was “do everything necessary to prevent another attack from happening,” that if another attack did not happen over time, the pendulum would shift again, and CIA’s actions retrospectively would be scrutinized and criticized. And this clearly was a very aggressive, by any measure, a very aggressive program.

And that’s what happened: The pendulum swung.


While we’re in this subject area, the CIA hadn’t held detainees, maybe a couple Soviets, but mainly you hadn’t held detainees. Now you’ve got to keep them somewhere and use these methods. So the idea comes about that you’ve got to create your own prison system, and again, that needs to be secret. Again, was there much concern? What are we doing with our own penal system? How is this going to end?

Again, creating a prison system was something certainly in my 25 years we had never done. The consensus of the experts, the counterterrorism analysts and our psychologists, was that for any interrogation program of high-value, senior Al Qaeda officials — and we’re talking here about the worst of the worst, the most psychopathic, but knowledgeable of the entire Al Qaeda system — that for any interrogation to have any effect, it was essential that these people be held in absolute isolation, with access to the fewest number of people.

That quickly led to the conclusion that facilities had to be built overseas, secret facilities, to house these people.

Because [there was] no other option for that?

Theoretically we could have asked other countries to hold them, and we would get access to them in the prison systems or the prisons of foreign countries. But again, that wouldn’t be isolation. We wouldn’t have control over them. We couldn’t monitor them all the time, as was necessary.

What about Gitmo?

That was briefly, very briefly considered. Again, in these first weeks, it was frantic. People were coming up with ideas and rejecting them, coming up with new ideas almost on a daily basis.

I do recall Gitmo being briefly considered, but very briefly, because Gitmo, of course, is a U.S. military installation, albeit in Cuba. The perceived need here was for our detainees — and these were not your normal Gitmo-level detainees; again, this was the senior leadership of Al Qaeda — had to be held separately, had to be held in isolation somewhere else.

Now, clearly the United States was not an option, so that left foreign countries, foreign areas. …

So, looking back now, do you think it was a good idea, or do you think there was an option that perhaps you should have taken, another road?

Obviously I’ve given some thought to that since I left, having been so heavily involved in the program and seeing firsthand the kind of criticism, opprobrium, that the agency as an institution and those of us in the agency who were part of that program received as the years went on. So that was a long and heavy and painful hit.

I do think that the program, without question, yielded as a result of these techniques extraordinarily valuable intelligence. I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that. I noticed that in the wake of the Osama bin Laden takedown, the administration, sometimes grudgingly, seemed to concede that the CIA’s interrogation program played a role in the long trail of evidence that ultimately led to UBL.

To me, the more intriguing question — and I think unknowable question — is, could the same information have been elicited without the use of these extraordinarily controversial techniques? And, as I say, I think that is ultimately unknowable.

And same with the prisons? Do you think there was another way; that had you worked a little harder, you could have come up with another way to keep people?

Probably. The only viable option would have been to ask our foreign allies to hold these people themselves. Perhaps that might have worked, and perhaps that might have given the agency more insulation and protection. But the idea of us having to have control and the strict isolation that was deemed to be required for this program, I just — to this day I don’t see any other way it could have been done.

Does it seem a little ironic that, having acted on the president’s orders, that your career then gets nixed because of those two things we just mentioned, basically, right? [You were] headed toward, I think, the longest serving acting general counsel.

I was, I was. My time cumulatively as acting general counsel was the second longest in CIA history for any general counsel. And it’s true, I was denied the nomination being confirmed as the CIA general counsel largely as a result of my involvement in the interrogation program.

I suppose that’s ironic. But on the other hand, I was a career CIA employee. I would have been the first career CIA lawyer to become general counsel. But I made a voluntary, conscious decision to allow my name to be put into the political process, and it became political. So overall, I have no complaints and no regrets.

So we’ve got new authorities, new money, contractors. We also have an increased responsibility and authority within the CTC [Counterterrorism Center]. Can you talk for a minute about what it was before and how it became sort of the center of the universe there, if I read it right?

Yeah. The Counterterrorism Center was created in 1986 by then-CIA Director Casey, William Casey, himself a very enigmatic and controversial figure. The first head of the Counterterrorism Center was a very colorful, highly effective but controversial CIA operative named Dewey Clarridge. So that’s how it started in 1986. Keep in mind, that was a period of the hostages being taken in the Middle East, of the airport hijackings in Europe, the airport attacks. So it was a different era of terrorism, before Al Qaeda, but there was still a looming, growing terrorist threat. So that’s how it started.

The idea from the beginning was to meld under one roof and in one workspace the CIA covert operatives who would undertake counterterrorist operations with the CIA analysts whose job it was to analyze terrorist threats around the world and bring those two disciplines together. That’s how it started.

It was supported by one lawyer. We had a lawyer from our office assigned to the Counterterrorism Center. To give you some sense of scale, there are now — the lawyers responsible for sitting in the Counterterrorism Center are in the double figures.

So the Counterterrorism Center in the years since 1986, by and large it grew, but not meteorically. After 9/11, of course, it grew and expanded exponentially.

And Cofer Black, who’s well known himself, was the head of it at the time. Can you describe for someone who’s never met him Cofer’s personality and his approach to that job?

Cofer was a good friend. I’ve known him for years. He is a larger-than-life figure as a CIA operative. There’s always been the popular perception out there of what a CIA senior spy looks and sounds and acts like. The image does not usually fit the reality. In Cofer’s case, it absolutely fit the reality.

He was a brilliant, brave operative who had served in very dangerous spots overseas. And he was a very creative thinker. He was also — was and is — a first-class character.

He was sort of the face of the agency in the beginning. Do you remember that testimony that became so famous, because he said, “All you need to know is there was pre-9/11 and post-9/11, and after 9/11, the gloves come off”? And of course, all of our antennae go up. Did you watch that? I think you were there.

I was. I was. I was. Yes, I remember that. And I listened to it avidly.

What were you thinking when he said that?

Cofer’s a hell of a guy with the sound bite. Always was. But he meant it. And this very legalistic process I described to you earlier, about how this presidential finding was reviewed and signed, but that it conferred extraordinary new authorities on CIA to conduct aggressive operations, you boil all that down to simple terms, and it boils down to the way Cofer described it: We were told to take the gloves off.

It was sort of the “all you need to know” aspect that bothered, sitting in the audience, people like me, who wanted to know a lot more about what the country was doing to respond. And it gets to the question of secrecy. At that time, did it feel as if the bubble of secrecy just was growing and growing as the programs inside of it were multiplying? How were you going to keep all of this secret? And was it even a good idea?

Well, you’re right. The number of secrets grew significantly, because the programs expanded; new programs are created. As you know, every time there’s a program, there’s a new code word attached to it, and it becomes secret.

I think most of the secrecy certainly at the time these programs were implemented were absolutely necessary. But you’re also right; it makes it extraordinarily more difficult to keep all of these things secret all of the time.

For one thing, these were far-ranging activities necessarily involving more and more people inside CIA, and more and more people outside CIA who were being asked to cooperate with CIA. In other words, more and more people were learning more and more secrets. And that, as you know, proved an extraordinarily difficult thing to keep control of.

I’ve written one time that Greystone was the largest covert action program since the height of the Cold War, or probably ever. Do you agree with “ever”; that it became, if you put all the elements together, the largest covert action program in history?

Well, let’s put it this way: I was with CIA since 1976. I was aware of all the existing covert action programs against the former Soviet Union that were ever undertaken over the years. Taken together, the cumulative number of those operations pales in comparison to the number of programs, number of activities the CIA were asked to carry out in the aftermath of 9/11 in the counterterrorism arena.

… As you are undertaking more and more programs — some of them become controversial later — is it ever a question [of] do we have the public’s buy-in for this sort of aggressive action, or did you assume you did? Did it matter? Did you even talk about it?

Well, sure, we talked about — especially, again, taking the interrogation program, as more and more details leaked out over time, some of which were accurate, some of which were ridiculously overblown, … there was some discussion among some of us at the agency at the time: “Look, there must be a way to acknowledge in some way, shape or form that yes, there is such a interrogation program — and not necessarily of CIA, but of the administration; [to] announce, ‘Look, here are the parameters,'” not where the prisons were located, or not even what the specific techniques [were] that were being employed, but some description [of] what the program was and what the program wasn’t.

I think that could have been done — and I include myself in this — we should have tried, pushed harder to have that done, because I think what inevitably happened, the interrogation program was kept under unusually tight wraps. Very few people outside of CIA in the executive branch knew the details of it. Only very senior leadership of Congress knew details about it. And as a result, it was cloaked in mystery and intrigue, and [under] a frankly sinister veil that turned out to serve no one well, especially the CIA.

To just follow up on that, there are many people in the world that think the CIA tortured lots of people. And a lot of those criticisms come from overseas, where the reputation of the CIA is to be torturers. First of all, did the CIA torture? And second of all, do you ever think you can get that reputation back?

On the latter ground, I don’t know. I don’t know. Perhaps it will come in time. I am hoping that the successful operation against bin Laden has gone at least some ways toward restoring CIA’s reputation and image as an effective tool and legitimate tool and moral tool of the U.S. government.

The program, in my estimation, was not torture. If it had been torture, if I had thought or concluded it was torture, torture is a federal crime. CIA does not engage in activities that violate U.S. law, most certainly activities that could conceivably violate the torture statute.

So had we at the agency considered what we were doing as torture, we wouldn’t have done it.

But don’t you put yourself in a spot when you have to think, is waterboarding torture? There’s no real case law on that. You’re weighing now this one technique and what it feels like, what it does to someone. Did that take a lot of time? Did you roll that around an awful lot to make sure that you were on OK ground?

Oh, I mean, it blew the circuits. Before the counterterrorism people came to me with their proposed list of techniques, [and] included in it was waterboarding, I had no idea, no idea what waterboarding was. Once it was described to me — and it didn’t take an advanced legal degree to come to this conclusion that it certainly sounded very rough, very tough — I did not know whether it amounted to torture. Mercifully, in the 25 previous years, I had never had to become conversant with the torture statute.

So what I decided to do was to seek definitive legal guidance from what was and is the ultimate legal arbiter in the executive branch of the U.S. government; that is, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. And as you know, they rendered opinions, which I was the lucky guy to have them addressed to, that concluded that these techniques did not violate the torture statute.

And when you read those, were you convinced they did it correctly?

I thought the memos were persuasive. As you say, I had nothing to base this on. But they’ve now been declassified, so obviously readers can judge for themselves, and have judged for themselves. But I certainly at the time, and continue to think that these were tightly reasoned, persuasive legal documents.

What’s happening in the rest of the IC [intelligence community]? The CIA is growing. The military is growing.

The FBI is growing.

FBI, Special Ops in the military, you’re all supposed to work together, but that’s rocky sometimes. You must have noticed a phenomenal growth around you as well.

Sure, sure.

Did you ever think: “Is this too much? Do we really need X? I’m reading too many of these reports that sound alike.”

Yeah, from time to time you would hear about a program that sounded awfully close to another program that you had been briefed about a month or two earlier, or you would see a contract being let for a specific task, and the amount of money being allocated for that task seemed, even to the layman, exorbitant. So, sure.

And I’m sure inevitably there was a lot of waste and redundancy that came about when there was so much money available. I mean, the Congress was pushing money out the door toward not just CIA, but the entire military and intelligence community.

… The DNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] is five Wal-Marts stacked on top of each other now. That’s how big it is: 500,000 square feet. … Do they do 500,000 square feet worth of work, the DNI?

Clearly the Office of DNI, since its creation in 2004 until, well, certainly during the time I was there, and I left in December 2009, grew like Topsy.

If you go back and look at the congressional debates and committee hearings that led ultimately to the creation of the Office of DNI by Congress, it was never intended to be as large as it became, both in terms of the people and in terms of its physical space.

So something happened, probably the usual Washington thing [that happens with] a bureaucracy. Any bureaucracy that’s created must by necessity become ever larger. And that’s basically how I saw the Office of DNI develop.

What about NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]?

NCTC, I must confess, I thought, and many people thought at CIA, that its assigned tasks, its assigned responsibilities, seemed awfully close to what the assigned tasks and responsibilities were of the Counterterrorism Center, except that the Counterterrorism Center was given an operational role to carry out covert operations, and NCTC was simply a big, multi-agency analytical horror. But the Counterterrorism Center had, from the beginning, and certainly since 9/11, had grown into a multidimensional analytical center, with detailees from other agencies of the government.

So NCTC, what you’re saying is they did the analysis, but it didn’t go anywhere operationally. So they’re doing the analysis for the policy-makers sort of to brief them, but not to take action with that.

Yeah. … One has to wonder how many more analysts and how many other buildings do you need to look at the same materials, especially, as you say, when it’s an entity that in and of itself has no operational mandate to carry out any counterterrorism.

So if you go to the “Christmas Day bomber” [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab], the thing that comes out about the NCTC and the DNI during that is that no one is in charge. [Former DNI] Denny Blair says, “We didn’t run the threats to ground because it was nobody’s job to do that.” Do you remember that?

Yeah, that was quite striking. I had just retired from the agency at that point, so I wasn’t on the inside. But I found that statement and that concession quite striking and, frankly, revealing.

… After 10 years of building up these institutions, is there a person in charge of counterterrorism other than the president, who’s busy with other things?

Not really. Obviously, CIA and the CIA director has a major and increasing role as being the pointy end of the stick on the counterterrorism count. But there are other agencies that have a piece of the action. No, I don’t see any counterterrorism czar, except the existing framework of the National Security Council, and ultimately the president of the United States.

Is that OK? With Osama bin Laden, of course, everyone’s going to be laser-focused. But with the vast majority, do you need to have someone who’s looking over at least that element so you don’t have people duplicating and wasting energy and not getting the best analysis and the best heads?

Sure, it would be ideal to do that. And from a parochial standpoint, I would think that by experience and expertise and technical expertise, the CIA and the CIA director should play that primus inter pares role.

What’s the reason that that doesn’t exist? What’s the reason there is still, 10 years later, not one person?

I think there’s this multiplicity of agencies now, in one way or the other, in the counterterrorism fight. You, by implication, have a number of Cabinet departments. You have the FBI inside the Justice Department. You have the Defense Department, which, as you know, contains, among other agencies, the National Security Agency [NSA]; the National Reconnaissance Office [NRO] under the Department of Defense. And then, in recent years, we have now had the creation of yet another agency with responsibilities to the counterterrorism area, Department of Homeland Security.

Those are Cabinet agencies. There are turf fights. There are congressional patrons for each of those agencies. It is simply proving difficult, if not impossible, to get, frankly, agreement and consensus even inside or outside the executive branch that it should be one guy on top of all of that.

So it’s never going to happen.

Frankly, politically, I don’t see how it could happen. I mean, the Office of DNI was created with a noble purpose, but in fact the Congress did not empower the Office of DNI to basically crack heads and lord over all of the other agencies that were involved in counterterrorism issues. …

Obama came into office. Obviously he said he wanted to close Guantanamo. That hasn’t happened. He did say no more enhanced interrogations. But in general, the covert action programs and other things that were going on, was there a big change?

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.

And some of them they put more resources into.

Absolutely. So from the CIA vantage point, very little had changed, other than we were out of the interrogation business.

And the “black sites” business.


Were you surprised at that? Did you think that there would be more thrown out?

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.

Did their signaling surprise you? I mean, at one point were you ready, given the campaign rhetoric, for a big change, and that was a relief?

This predated a time when a new CIA director had not been named yet. The president indicated there would be a new CIA director, but we didn’t know who. So I just speak for myself, having been through a number of these transitions during my career, I found it’s only when the new head of the CIA comes in that you get a much clearer sense about where the agency is going to be headed in the years ahead. …

So when [you heard] Leon Panetta’s name, does that immediately say to you no big change, or do you have to still wait and then find out later?

Yeah, we had to wait. I had to wait. Leon Panetta was a surprise pick to most of us at CIA. Most, virtually all of us had never met him in his previous government positions. He didn’t seem to have any discernable interest or expertise in national security matters. And of course, he had been a politician.

Three strikes?

Having said all that — (laughs) — I think having worked with him for eight months, I think he turned out to be probably the most effective CIA director that I worked for in my career. So it just shows you that initial reactions can be wrong.

You’ve got to tell me why you think that.

I found in years of observation, to be a successful CIA director you had to be three things: You have to be close to the president; you have to have an effective and cordial working relationship with the Congress, particularly the intelligence committee; and you have to establish rapport and win the support of the agency workforce.

I worked under 10 CIA directors in my time. Some of them had one of those qualities; some of them had two of those qualities. Leon Panetta, it turned out, had all three of those qualities. So that’s why I put him in that category. And he was also personally very generous and kind to me, so that colors my thinking as well.

Let’s skip to the Osama bin Laden raid and killing. So where are you then, the night that you hear that he’s —

I’m at home — (laughs) — just an old retiree, sitting by the TV set.

Did you find out because you were watching TV, or did someone tell you?

Actually, I was watching, I regret to say, a program on cable, and my son sent me an e-mail saying they got him. So then I flipped over to one of the networks and then heard the president.

What was your feeling at the time?

Great relief and pride for the agency. From a more personal standpoint — I had at that point been retired from the agency for over a year; I had made a conscious decision when I retired that I’d spent 34 years at CIA, that it consumed my life, [and] I loved every minute of it, but when the day would come that I would retire, that would be it. When it was over, it was over, and I would sever my ties, which is what I had done. And I had not actually regretted it or really missed CIA all that much, which surprised me.

That night, when I was watching the president and it was made clear almost immediately that it was a CIA-led operation, that was the first time since I’d retired that I wished I had been back there.

Your phone wasn’t ringing off the hook?

I got some phone calls. (Laughs.)

You got some phone calls, yeah. And when you look back on that, what we know now about that operation, is there anything that stands out to you as lessons learned for either the notion that part of this has gotten so big or the notion that people can work together?

I think it was encouraging that this was clearly a joint, well-coordinated effort between CIA and the military. I suspect there were many other agencies lending intelligence support, NSA, NRO, the others. And it all seemed to come together so effectively and cleanly, and, frankly, carried out in such secrecy that I found it refreshing and encouraging.

Now, how much of that can be replicated in the future I suppose remains to be seen.

Is it an end of an era in a way? Are they bookends, 9/11 and his death, coming when it does?

Yeah, I think so. Obviously, terrorism will go on, but for many of us who were at CIA at 9/11, the effort to find bin Laden from the first day was all-consuming.

I must say, watching the president that night on television, the night of the bin Laden operation, I was puzzled to hear him say that when he assumed office, he directed the CIA to, I think the phrase he used, “redouble its efforts to find bin Laden.” Well, I’m here to tell you, the CIA did not have to be told to redouble its efforts to find bin Laden. That had been an all-consuming objective, literally from the day after 9/11.

… Thinking about the diminishment of Al Qaeda worldwide and what we built here to deal with Al Qaeda and the money we spent and the economic situation we’re in, do you think it’s time to, as [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates said, take a deep breath and sort of do a reassessment of this big thing that has been created in response?

Absolutely. Secretary Gates, of course, was a longtime CIA official. I had known him for many of those years. I mean, he speaks with a unique, extraordinary perspective. So I agree absolutely on the necessity of a reassessment.

So tell me a little about why.

A terrorist threat will continue in different iterations, in different ways. But the superstructure, the tentacles, the sprawling nature of the intelligence community and its affiliated contractors, it has gotten so large over the years that I think the death of bin Laden and the successful way it was carried out would be a just and legitimate point for looking back over our collective shoulders and saying to ourselves, “Do we still need all of this?” Perhaps we do, but if not now to do such a reassessment, when?

Let’s go to Afghanistan briefly. The fall of Kabul, the CIA led that operation. It was the first time you did such a big run on the ground. What did that victory mean to the agency’s morale or just how it thought of itself?

It was an enormous jolt. I mean, the shock and anger in the CIA, frankly the deep sense of embarrassment and shame about 9/11 having happened on CIA’s watch, the quick and effective and actually creative victory by a small group of CIA operatives in Afghanistan was an enormous morale boost for what was a beleaguered and somewhat beaten-down organization. So it was huge. …

More Stories

After Uvalde, Gun Safety Groups Amped Up Spending in Texas This Year, But Will Still Likely Be Outspent
In Texas this year — against the backdrop of the first legislative session since the deadly shooting in Uvalde — gun rights groups are likely to outspend gun safety groups.
June 2, 2023
A Year After the Uvalde Shooting, Robb Elementary Student Remembers Her Slain Best Friend
Caitlyne Gonzales made it out of Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022. Her best friend, fellow fourth grader Jackie Cazares, did not. Caitlyne, her parents, and Jackie’s parents share their story with correspondent Maria Hinojosa in the new documentary ‘After Uvalde.’
May 30, 2023
“Somber Day” in Uvalde as Community Commemorates One Year Since Robb Elementary Shooting
From our partners at The Texas Tribune: Numerous vigils and memorials in Uvalde marked one year since the massacre at Robb Elementary School.
May 24, 2023
“Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah” Filmmaker on Showing the Impact of War on Humans
The FRONTLINE documentary traces the long-lasting aftermath of the battle of Fallujah through two families, one Iraqi and one American.
May 23, 2023