Former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo: Bush didn’t know about torture

In a new memoir, Rizzo alleges the former president was little involved in the CIA's initial embrace of torture

Topics: C.I.A., Central Intelligence Agency, john rizzo, George W. Bush, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Torture, Water-boarding, enhanced interrogation techniques, The New Yorker, Steve Coll, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, ,

While the embrace of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture) remains one of the most controversial aspects of the George W. Bush presidency, a new memoir from former CIA lawyer John Rizzo alleges that on this crucial decision, “The Decider” was one of the last high-ranking officials to know.

According to a report from Steve Coll of the New Yorker, Rizzo writes in his upcoming memoir, “Company Man,” that while administration officials such as George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney were present at briefings on the CIA’s torture sessions, Bush himself was never in attendance. What’s more, Rizzo writes that while he was in near constant communication with then-CIA Director George Tenet, he could not recall a single instance of Tenet’s communicating a message or directive from Bush.

“The one senior U.S. Government national security official during this time—from August 2002 through 2003—who I did not believe was knowledgeable about the E.I.T.s [enhanced interrogation techniques] was President Bush himself,” Rizzo writes. “He was not present at any of the Principals Committee meetings … and none of the principals at any of the E.I.T. sessions during this period ever alluded to the president knowing anything about them.”

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Some of the chronology of events related to the C.I.A. interrogations that Bush provides in [his memoir] “Decision Points” doesn’t compute, according to Rizzo. Also, Rizzo would certainly have known if Bush had banned two techniques, but Rizzo has “no idea” what Bush might have been referring to in his memoir. Throughout this period, Rizzo, as he remembers it, was in daily contact with George Tenet, who said “nothing about any conversations he had with the president about E.I.T.s, much less any instructions or approvals coming from Bush.”

Rizzo writes, “It simply didn’t seem conceivable that George [Tenet] wouldn’t have passed something like that on to those of us who were running the program.” Rizzo got in touch with Tenet while preparing “Company Man” and Tenet confirmed “that he did not recall ever briefing Bush” on specific interrogation techniques being used at C.I.A. prisons. “I have to conclude that the account in Bush’s memoir simply is wrong,” Rizzo concludes.

Rizzo finds “the episode perplexing but nonetheless admirable on Bush’s part.” Typically, Presidents distance themselves from controversial C.I.A. programs, but, in “Decision Points,” Bush “put himself up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era when, in fact, he wasn’t,” thus taking responsibility.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

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