Remembering John Rizzo

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The CIA's long-time acting general counsel, John Rizzo, died suddenly earlier this month. Lawfare published my tribute to the man, reproduced below.

John Rizzo and I shared a path that goes back more than 50 years. We had parallel careers in the intelligence community and then in private practice at Steptoe & Johnson, but we first met as undergrads at Brown. John used to joke that this accounted for our good working relationship. The 1960s gave us each a bottomless fund of kompromat.

In fact, the real secret was John's deep reserve of institutional wisdom disguised as tart irony. In this regard, John's book, "Company Man," is as true to the man as any memoir ever written. It captures his refusal to take himself too seriously while taking with utmost seriousness his responsibility to apply the law to intelligence operations. For decades he was the last word on what CIA operatives could and could not do within the law. He knew that these judgments were as much about political prognostication as about applying abstract principles of law, and that critics of the American intelligence agencies would always second-guess his conclusions.

So he clearly foresaw the political winds that would prevent his formal promotion to CIA general counsel, though he had probably been the agency's de facto top lawyer longer than anyone who actually held the title. He knew that using harsh interrogation techniques would sooner or later make the agency vulnerable to claims of lawlessness and torture. He may not have been convinced that the techniques in question would be crucial to preventing another attack or defeating Al-Qaeda, but he was clear that the final call should not be made by lawyers. He threw everything into the effort to give the nation's leaders room to make the decision, including, it turned out, his own reputation.

I never heard John complain about the outcome of that chapter in his career. He was disappointed but not surprised by the attacks on the agency or on him. I think he was satisfied that he'd done his best to protect his institution from the kind of scandal that had engulfed it so often in the past. And events have largely proved him right.

He brought to that final chapter the same gentle humor that stirred realism into all his legal advice over the years. He even predicted—accurately—that his critics would use his obituary to get in a few last kicks.

John's irony was a bit like President Truman's 1948 "Give 'em hell, Harry" campaign. Truman insisted, "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell." So it was with John Rizzo. He just told the truth, and everyone treated it as humor.

I'm going to miss that. Just days before his death, John and I were exchanging messages about tricky intelligence law issues. His vision of how politics and law would shape the answer was as clear and humor-tinged as ever. But some hard truths cannot be softened by irony. The death of John's wife, Sharon, in April of this year was one. If the official cause of his death was a heart attack, the more accurate cause was a broken heart. In the end, even knowing that he'd done his duty as he saw it was not enough to keep him going.

That's true of us all, of course. The British political leader Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in defeat. Certainly all public lives end in death. What matters is not the ending but the doing. Judged in that light, John's is a life to be proud of.