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Ex-CIA lawyer defends interrogation program, as Obama says looming report will detail torture

EXCLUSIVE: A senior CIA lawyer who was intimately involved in the agency’s “enhanced” interrogation program defended the controversial practices in an interview with Fox News and likened a Senate Democrat-led investigation to a kangaroo court bent on condemning the Bush-era practices.

The comments from former CIA lawyer John Rizzo came as President Obama signaled Friday that the probe’s forthcoming report will show “we tortured some folks.”

Rizzo, though, suggested the investigation was unfair in the way it was conducted.

“I’m a lawyer, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand, I think, that this was and is a star chamber proceeding,”Rizzo told Fox News on Friday.

Rizzo also accused some lawmakers of “craven backtracking” after they were initially briefed on the program years ago.

The forthcoming report is expected to be critical of the interrogation program. During a White House news conference on Friday, Obama confirmed that the long-awaited Senate Intelligence committee report into the Bush-era program, which included the waterboarding of Al Qaeda operatives, had been declassified, and its public release was now with the Senate committee leadership.

The president, in what appeared to be a softening of his tone, did say it was important to recall the fear that gripped the nation in 2001 after the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans.

“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks," the president said, adding, “It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks [CIA personnel] had.”

Rizzo predicted current agency Director John Brennan will withstand calls for his resignation. “I honestly put no stock in those people in Congress now who are calling for his [Brennan's] head. I think he will survive,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo, who wrote "Company Man"documenting his 34 years as a CIA lawyer -- seven as the agency's chief legal officer -- also said some of the lawmakers criticizing Brennan and the CIA interrogation program were the same members of Congress who were briefed on the controversial Bush-era program and its intelligence value, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“In the early years of the program there was absolutely no push back, no criticism from any of the members of Congress," Rizzo explained. "I think we at the agency made a mistake, and I hold myself partly responsible. The White House wanted the program held extraordinarily closely just to a few members of Congress. … We should have told as many people on the oversight committee as much as possible, to at least reduce the possibility of this kind of craven backtracking that we've seen from some of the members who were briefed.”

Rizzo said Brennan had been meeting with former senior CIA officers about the Senate report, and had tried to facilitate a viewing of the final report, so that they might have a chance to defend themselves, but it recently fell through.

“He's been with us ‘formers’ during this period. He has been the honest broker.... He has done the best he can. He is in an extraordinarily difficult position.”

Rizzo has spoken previously about the Senate report and his objections to the way it was put together -- based on classified cables and emails, not interviews with the key players.

“There’s going to be a 6,000 page report or at least a 500-page summary that is going to come out, be published to the world that basically accuses us of malfeasance, misfeasance, and misleading the congress the White House, the Justice Department,” he said.

Rizzo said the decision to deny the former CIA officers the opportunity to see the report in advance, so that they could respond to the serious charges, goes against the nation’s founding principles.

“I have not seen this report. So we weren't even [given] the opportunity to explain and defend ourselves during all those years this report was being put together. And now we are being denied the opportunity to even see what's going be said about us before this thing hits the streets. I just think that is not, in my view, the American way.”

If the Democrat-led investigation had interviewed him and others at the CIA, Rizzo said they would have provided context. Almost echoing Obama's comments, Rizzo said post-2001, the Bush administration, Congress and the American people expected another attack, and the CIA’s job was to derail it.

“Few months after 9/11, everyone, the American people, the Congress, were unanimous in saying to the CIA and other agencies, ‘do whatever you have to do to prevent the next attack,’ and everyone assumed, there wasn't a question of if we were, the homeland, was going be attacked again, but when,” Rizzo said.

“This program was extraordinary, but unprecedented, and it was developed in that kind of atmosphere of fear and dread, and it was a program none of us had ever contemplated before.… It was the fact that we had to do the best we could to protect the country, to put together a program we had never come close to doing before of time in a time of crisis.”

Rizzo said the constant criticism of the CIA, over a program that was publicly and officially shuttered in 2009, is having a negative and demoralizing impact on the CIA workforce, some of whom worked the original interrogation program and remain engaged in covert operations. Rizzo likened the damage to the risk-averse agency that was a contributing factor to the 9/11 attack.

“They wonder how they're supposed to take risks on some of these covert missions they're supposed to undertake now, with this as an example, that when the political winds shift, what they're doing now may be subject to all sorts of scrutiny and criticism and public exposure.”

 

 

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.