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Rev. Ron Stief Headshot

John Rizzo, If Torture Is 'Sadistic,' Why Did You Approve It?

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In his new book, Company Man, former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo defends the CIA's use of torture and details his role in approving it. He then describes how, while flatly asserting that the CIA would not torture, he and others in the agency and the Bush administration provided legal cover for "enhanced interrogation techniques" that redefined torture.

None of this is new. What may be new is Rizzo's own admission that, when given the details and asked about the legality of "enhanced interrogation techniques," he felt that some of them "sounded sadistic and terrifying."

Among the "enhanced interrogation techniques" Rizzo recalls being asked to approve were:

  • Cramped confinement: Depending upon the shape of the box, the detainee would be forced to stand or curl himself inside a box for hours a time. An insect could be put into the box with the detainee.
  • Sleep deprivation: The detainee would be forced to stay awake without sleep for up to 11 days at a time.
  • Wall standing and stress positions: The detainee would be forced to remain standing with his arms out in front of him, or sitting with his arms overhead, or kneeling while leaning back at a 45-degree angle. The detainee would be forced to maintain this position for an indefinite period of time to induce stress, fatigue and pain.
  • Waterboarding: The detainee would be strapped 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 for 20 to 40 seconds from a height of 12 to 24 inches in order to simulate the sensation of drowning.

These are unequivocally acts of torture and are held to be so by international consensus. The president's January 2009 executive order ending the use of torture brings the United States back in line with this consensus. Rizzo writes about these techniques, "What I had to think about -- bugs in boxes and simulated drowning -- would have been unimaginable to me only an hour before. ... It just seemed so frightening, like a plot line out of Edgar Allan Poe."

Rizzo details an internal meeting where he told CIA Director George Tenet that the techniques would be illegal if they met "the torture threshold," and that if they did, "it doesn't matter what the justification is, even if it's being done to prevent another nine-eleven." According to Rizzo, Jose Rodriguez (who was later responsible for the illegal destruction of the torture videotapes) responded by saying, "Our people won't do anything that involves torture," to which Tenet added "You're damn right."

Where Rizzo's story turns from a failure of conscience to a failure of judgment is when he abandoned his own moral discomfort telling him that some of these acts were "sadistic," "terrifying" and "brutal," ignored the moral (and legal) prohibition against torture and then decided to find legal cover -- through the Office of Legal Counsel -- for the CIA to use these "sadistic," "terrifying" and "brutal" techniques anyway.

What adds to the tragedy of Rizzo's moral collapse is this -- with the moral integrity of the nation also at stake, we still have to rely on first person "recollections" of memoirists like Rizzo to find out what really happened. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee has produced a classified 6,000-page report that could give us a much deeper and richer insight into the realities of CIA torture, and why, when and how the United States broke the seal on becoming a nation that officially tortures. The Senate report has yet to be released publically, and a growing drumbeat is calling for the truth. By the end of 2013, religious leaders in all 50 states had published op-eds in their newspapers calling for the Senate Intelligence Committee to release this report, based on the argument that torture is immoral and unacceptable under any circumstances.

John Rizzo's particular story may soon be forgotten. But the story of what the United States did under his watch will not. It's time for the Senate Intelligence Committee to end the speculation by releasing its report on CIA torture.

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