John Rizzo, the chief legal counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency during the Bush presidency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has been opening up about what he experienced during those years as the administration, the agency, and its operatives, in the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, "took the gloves off" in their war against terrorism.
In his latest confessional piece, titled "I Could Have Stopped Waterboarding Before It Happened," published in Politico Magazine, Rizzo recounts a visit from unnamed members of the White House's Office of Legal Council (OLC) in April of 2002 and how they described for him the series of what they called "enhanced interrogation techniques" or EITs they were hoping to employ on CIA-held detainees.
Asked to approve them, Rizzo contemplated rejecting the "most frightening and terrifying" techniques—including the well-known water torture the OLC lawyers called 'waterboarding.' However, even though he admits forbidding them "would have been a relatively easy thing to do," he decided (while smoking a cigar and walking around CIA headquarters) that use of most of the practices should go forward.
That euphemism of "enhanced interrogation techniques" became a famous fill-in for torture sanctioned by the Bush White House, but even before the techniques became public knowledge (years later), Rizzo acknowledges he knew immediately that the CIA was about to go over the line.
"I had been around the CIA long enough," Rizzo writes at Politico, "to develop a gut instinct about what could get the Agency—and its people—into trouble down the road. And this had huge, unprecedented trouble written all over it."
And here's what the OLC described to Rizzo, in his own words, about the techniques they were about to use on captured terrorism suspects, including Abu Zubaydah, already being held at a secret CIA black site:
• Attention grasp: The interrogator would grab Zubaydah by the collar with both hands, pulling him closer to the interrogator.
• Walling: The interrogator would shove Zubaydah backward shoulder blades first, into a flexible false wall that would be designed to produce a loud noise. Zubaydah would have a protective collar placed on him to protect against whiplash.
• Facial hold: The interrogator, holding Zubaydah’s head immobile, would put one open palm on each side of his face, keeping fingertips away from Zubaydah’s eyes.
• Insult slap: The interrogator would slap Zubaydah in the face, taking care to keep his fingers spread and to strike between the chin and the earlobe. The idea would be to startle/humiliate Zubaydah and disabuse him of the notion that he wouldn’t be physically hit.
• Cramped confinement: The interrogator would put Zubaydah in a box—either a “big” one (allowing him to stand) for up to 18 hours, or a “small” one (where he would have to curl up) for up to two hours. For the small box, the interrogator would have the option to place a harmless insect inside. (At this point, I couldn’t resist interjecting: “Why an insect?” The response: “Zubaydah hates bugs. It’ll be something harmless, but he won’t know that.” The bug gambit, apparently, was not something ever done by the U.S. military in its SERE training.)
• Wall standing: The interrogator would have Zubaydah stand facing a wall from about four feet away, have him stretch his arms straight out in front of him, so that his fingers were touching the wall and could support his weight. He would be made to hold that position indefinitely, so as to induce discomfort or fatigue.
• Stress positions: The interrogator would have Zubaydah either sit on the floor with his legs extended in front of him and his arms raised over his head, or kneel on the floor while leaning back at a 45-degree angle. Again, the intent would be to cause discomfort or fatigue.
• Sleep deprivation: Zubaydah would be made to stay awake for up to 11 days at a time.
• Waterboarding: The interrogator would strap Zubaydah to an inclined bench, with his feet slightly elevated. A cloth would be placed over his forehead and eyes, and water would be applied to the cloth in a controlled manner—for 20 to 40 seconds from a height of 12 to 24 inches. The intention would be simulate the sensation of drowning. There was also another technique that I’m barred from describing that was so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.
Following these descriptions and a series of meetings, including one in which OLC lawyer John Yoo—now famous as the unrepentant chief author of the so-called "Torture Memos"—was introduced to the techniques, the torture regime was approved and CIA interrogators holding prisoners were notified the torture could begin.
Later, as senior Bush administration officials met to discuss the program, Rizzo offers a unique description of who attended such meetings and their behavior during discussions about torture. He writes:
As a backbencher in many of these meetings, I found it fascinating to observe the body language and dynamics of the various principals as (CIA Director George) Tenet would give detailed updates on the specifics of the EITs and how they were being administered. Some, such as Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, and Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would sit there stoically. Attorney General John Ashcroft was mostly quiet except for emphasizing repeatedly that the EITs were lawful. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was notable more for his frequent, conspicuous absences during these sessions—he kept trying to get his chief intelligence deputy to attend in his place but was always rebuffed by the White House. It was quickly apparent that Rumsfeld didn’t want to get his fingerprints anywhere near the EITs. Understandably, Tenet spent more time talking about waterboarding than anything else. Yet I don’t recall there ever being much in the way of resistance from any of his colleagues around the table. What instead sticks in my mind is how national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, for instance, seemed troubled by the fact that the detainees were required to be nude when undergoing some of the EITs.
But the most interesting figure of all at these meetings was Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now, there was a man giving off an unmistakable vibe of being there out of a sense of duty but intensely uncomfortable about it. At the end of each EIT update session, Powell, who seemed to view sleep deprivation as the most grueling of all the techniques, would bolt out of the Situation Room as fast as he could.
While Vice President Dick Cheney occasionally would sit in on the sessions, the one senior national security official who I believe was not knowledgeable about the EITs was President George W. Bush himself. He was not present at any of the Principals Committee meetings held by the National Security Council (in my experience over the years, it was rare for any president to attend such sessions), and none of the principals at any of the EIT sessions during this period—August 2002 through 2003—ever alluded to the president knowing anything about them or expressing the view that he needed to be told. I also never heard anything to that effect in the numerous other separate discussions on EITs we had with individual principals.
In the end, however, that conspicuous absence of Bush from these key meetings is confounded by Rizzo when he reads in Bush's own memoir that he was, in fact, briefed on the torture techniques. Admitting key details of the process by which the torture regime was approved, Bush seems to take responsibility for the decision even though Rizzo contends he "doesn't believe" that Bush was fully informed or played any role.
Rizzo calls Bush a "stand-up" guy for putting himself "up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era."
Well, that's one way to look at it.