John Rizzo Latest Target for DOJ Probe into Leaking

It pains me to defend John Rizzo. After all, his willful dumbness–or more likely, outright deceit–played a key role in our country’s approval of torture.

Still, I have mixed feelings about investigating–and probably reprimanding, but not prosecuting–him.

The Justice Department is investigating whether a former top U.S. intelligence official, John Rizzo, improperly disclosed classified information about the CIA’s drone campaign, one of the spy agency’s most secretive and politically sensitive programs.

People familiar with the matter say that the CIA’s general counsel’s office opened the probe in March, shortly after Newsweek published an article in which Rizzo — who had retired in 2009 after serving as the CIA’s acting general counsel — outlined an array of specific details about how CIA officials choose terrorists for drone strikes and which American officials sign off on actually carrying them out.


Investigations into current or former senior CIA officials like Rizzo are exceptionally rare, and people familiar with the investigation said they expected this one to end with some sort of formal reprimand, and possibly a financial penalty such as a decrease in his government pension, rather than with his imprisonment. Until the Justice Department decides what it wishes to do, however, the CIA cannot take any action.

Rizzo may have spoken on the record for this article out of pique that his torturers, but not Obama’s drone killers, had come under criticism (plus, I’d dispute that the drone strikes haven’t come under criticism).

But this kind of information is actually crucial for citizens in a democracy to know:

How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is a relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story. The president does not review the individual names of people; Rizzo explains that he was the one who signed off.


Under another Bush order, signed several years later, a variety of people who worked in terrorist camps could be targeted, and not just named terrorism suspects; at that point, the pool of potential candidates reviewed by CIA lawyers became much larger. Despite the secrecy surrounding these orders, their scope has become clear. “The authority given in these presidential findings is surely the most sweeping and most lethal since the founding of the CIA,” William C. Banks, director of Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, told a House committee.

The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, where lawyers—there are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzo—write a cable asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages.


The cables that were “ready for prime time,” as Rizzo puts it, concluded with the following words: “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” There was a space provided for the signature of the general counsel, along with the word “concurred.” Rizzo says he saw about one cable each month, and at any given time there were roughly 30 individuals who were targeted. Many of them ended up dead, but not all: “No. 1 and No. 2 on the hit parade are still out there,” Rizzo says, referring to “you-know-who and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri,” a top Qaeda leader.

The NJ notes that Leon Panetta has made revealing comments on the record. I’d go further and observe that the descriptions of Panetta’s approval of strikes offered in Joby Warrick’s book suggest someone else has shared similar levels of detail on drone strike decision-making.

So are we investigating the Secretary of Defense, too?

And at the same time, if Rizzo is simply reprimanded for his on-the-record leaking, while whistleblowers like Jeffrey Sterling are investigated for years and prosecuted, it won’t serve justice any more than simply ignoring Rizzo’s obvious exposure of information that the government has declared state secrets over.

The truth of the matter is there are few secrets in Washington. Rather, there’s just the profoundly undemocratic brokering of information serving to disempower citizens and protect the national security establishment. There’s no way to make that system look like it operates under rule of law, because as it exists today, it is fundamentally arbitrary.

So, sure, if John Rizzo were punished, I’d take some pleasure that he was punished for … something. But ignoring the crimes of torture while pretending our secrets exist under some kind of legal regime is just silly.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. scribe says:

    At best, this is going after Al Capone for tax evasion: up past his hips in the filth of torture and extrajudicial killings, targeted and otherwise (a/k/a murder), Obama and his admin cannot prosecute the people who did that dirt for those crimes. So, they go after them for leaking.

    More likely, it’s just another attack in the war on leaking and transparency. Payback, after a fashion.

    I’d love to be in on the meeting when the greymail gets delivered, though. That would be entertaining….

  2. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: @scribe: Yeah, I was thinking Al Capone, too.

    And also thinking that the people who get investigated all seem to piss off John Brennan. Himself a leaker of note.

  3. scribe says:

    @emptywheel: Brennan being both one of the worst offenders – on wiretapping, torture and who knows what else – and one of Obama’s worst choices to retain (right up there with Bush’s US Attorneys, as a group).

    Like I said, at best this is Al Capone. More likely, it’s payback.

  4. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I’ll fall into the sympathy column.

    I watched Rizzo, at a Harvard Law School symposium, twist himself into rhetorical knots trying to advocate for more transparency in the drone program without being to actually acknowledge there is a drone program. He seemed genuinely pained that he couldn’t be straightforward about certain elements, and not just because he thought the program was well run. He also made note that he had his wrist slapped already for “exceeding his brief”.

    Meanwhile, everyone else on the panels who knew about the drone program stayed mute because, well, the first rule of drone club is you don’t talk about drone club.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Rizzo, not the president, signs off on the list of people to be the subject of lethal action – extrajudicial killing – by the US? That’s like the ship captain letting the third mate decide where to aim and fire his guns and missiles. It doesn’t matter whether he lets the bosun’s mate do it, it’s still the captain’s ass on the line.

  6. Tom says:

    It’s important to remember that the legal sanction of these murders provides two benefits.

    One, the obvious one, is to give legal cover — as Bush discovered in 2008, when you have some in-your-pocket lawyer sign a memo saying something is legal, you have a get out of jail free card. If you get nailed for doing whatever it is, you can always claim your lawyer told you it was OK, and your lawyer can always claim he THOUGHT it was OK…

    But the second, equally important although more ephemeral purpose of this legal hand-waving is to provide moral blessing. You see, many of those at the top have a last vestige of conscience… a poor, shriveled up, atrophied thing, but still, a conscience nonetheless. And getting this sort of legal blessing — and make no mistake, lawyers ARE the priests of our time, speaking in a language nobody understands, making final judgement on our (legal) souls — absolves them, in their mind, of the murder of another human being.

    Just listen to how Rizzo talks in the linked-to article. It’s all fist pumps and “tango down” language, not a bit of introspection about “we just turned another living human being into a red, sticky vapor.” It’s a carefully compartmentalized mind state where people are “targets” to be “eliminated,” not fellow human beings to be murdered. Whatever the terrorists may have done in the past notwithstanding, by adopting their language, their ultimate objectification of humans into “for us or against us,” they WIN.

    So, the lawyers are key. Just like the kings of old would get blessings from a priest to both legalize their bloody crusades, and salve the king’s conscience, the killers in government today seek legal absolution. Bought and paid-for lawyers like Rizzo are key to that success, and the powers that be hate nothing more than to find their paid-for blessing dispenser has turned on them.

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