- - Monday, January 20, 2014


By John Rizzo

Scribner, $28, 320 pages

This book by John Rizzo, the CIA’s longtime top lawyer, advertises itself as “the most authoritative inside account of the CIA ever written.” The blurb from The Washington Post’s David Ignatius concurs: “Think Of Tom Hagen, the Corleone family lawyer in ‘The Godfather,’ and you begin to get the flavor of what Rizzo had seen and heard if you’re interested in the inside life of the CIA, read this book.” The reader then reasonably expects an inside story on what U.S. intelligence does to collect information, how it analyzes it, what products it provides to help the president, State and Defense departments do their jobs, how it protects against foreign espionage and terrorism, etc. However, this book, just like the agency it describes, can stand as a definition of solecism. From beginning to end, it is about bureaucrats’ inward-looking concerns. Nothing more.

Although the book is not what the advertising promises, it really does provide an accurate picture of life inside CIA. Its exclusive focus on how bureaucrats jostle and feel about one another is entirely consistent with my eight years of experience dealing with CIA’s top levels on the U.S. Senate’s behalf. The substance of any matter notwithstanding, it always came down to which bureaucrat would gain or lose what. The bureaucrats’ personal interests come first. The welfare and reputation of the agency come second. Everything else is incidental. This book seems to describe a collective human ice cream cone licking itself.

The first chapter, placed out of chronological order because it deals with the alleged torture of terrorist suspects, the subject likeliest to interest readers, spends 30 pages detailing the angst that the author and other bureaucrats felt at the prospect that someone might accuse them of being among those on whose “watch” the tapes of the interrogations might be construed as having been mishandled, and the stratagems they used to get others throughout the government to share the appearance of responsibility.

The 19 additional pages devoted to this topic in Chapter 11 are the closest that the book gets to dealing with substantive matters. Here we read a list of the “enhanced techniques” that CIA interrogators proposed and the Justice Department approved for use on four “high-value” terrorist suspects, including sleep-deprivation, waterboarding, and a slap in the face — this carefully defined as what the fingers of the slapping hand should and should not touch. Mr. Rizzo reports being told that, as a result of these techniques, these terrorists went from bad attitudes to “learned helplessness” and were “prepared to talk.” To his credit, Mr. Rizzo adds: “probably not entirely fully and honestly, but enough to justify stopping the [enhanced interrogation techniques].” No clue as to what that might mean.

Mr. Rizzo does not entertain, nor does he report anyone entertaining, questions about whether anything these terrorists said was true or not, never mind of what use any of it has been or might be in winning the war on terrorism. Such considerations are simply outside these bureaucrats’ minds.

In fact, no one at CIA has the job of making sure that the information that it passes up the line is true. That is not part of anyone’s job description at the CIA, nor what makes or breaks anyone’s career. On the contrary, questioning the quality of collection or analysis — something known as counterintelligence — is something to which CIA has always been allergic. That in turn is because careers depend on the amount of stuff that can be passed up the line. Process, not substance, rules.

Since Mr. Rizzo’s job as a lawyer was about process rather than substance, it’s no surprise that the book is all about substance-free process. However, concentration on comity and process to the detriment of substance is rooted in the very conception of the Central Intelligence Agency; namely, its separation from responsibility for the government’s operations. This is a large subject unto itself. It is sufficient here to note that the U.S. government’s establishment of the CIA in 1947 is the only instance in history in which anyone has ever separated responsibility for intelligence from responsibility for operations.

Hence, save for about three pages, this book is about how Mr. Rizzo esteemed and was esteemed by estimable men, all of whom were friends of everyone else, all of whom dealt courteously with one another, and all of whom worked really hard to stay out of trouble while climbing their respective career ladders. The reader will be struck by how virtually everyone mentioned in the book, after being identified by his full name thereafter is referred to by his first name, if not by his nickname. This reads like an account of an elite college fraternity. One expects all of them to have wives named “Muffie.”

Alas, it has the ring of truth.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of “To Make Peace Among Ourselves And With All Nations,” forthcoming in April from the Hoover Institution Press.

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