(CNSNews.com) – The former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lawyer who signed off on the agency’s now defunct rendition, detention and enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) program in 2002 characterized recent allegations by Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that the CIA was spying on congressional staff investigating it as "purely political."
“I think it’s purely political,” John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel, told CNSNews.com.
“I mean, keep in mind that the real ball is this Senate report, this 6,200-page report that the committee staff worked on for what, four years. And it was an effort that was done strictly by the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. No Republican members or staff participated. So I mean, at bottom, this whole thing is not a non-partisan or bi-partisan kind of thing. It’s strictly an exercise by Democrats.”
Rizzo suggested that Feinstein blew a routine disagreement way out of proportion for political reasons.
“From what I can tell, looking at it from the outside, this boils down to basically something that I was involved in many times during my career, which is a dispute between CIA and a congressional committee about the limits or the terms of access by the committee to CIA documents,” Rizzo told CNSNews.com.
“I mean, I don’t fear any crimes committed here by anybody. So I’m surprised this has taken on a life of its own the way it’s escalated, frankly, way beyond what it should have. It could have and should have been handled much more quietly behind the scenes [instead of] turning into this big public drama.”
In a March 11 speech on the Senate floor, Feinstein charged that the CIA had “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution” by searching computers and surreptitiously removing classified documents the agency had provided the committee during its four-year investigation of the controversial Bush-era program.
But CIA Director John Brennan - who assured Feinstein during his Feb. 7, 2013 nomination hearing that he would provide “all documents that come under my authority as Director of CIA” the committee needed to carry out its oversight responsibilities - has publicly denied that the CIA conducted unauthorized surveillance on Intelligence Committee staff.
Noting that “my CIA colleagues and I believe strongly in the necessity of effective, strong and bipartisan congressional oversight” in a March 11 speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Brennan said afterwards, “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
The committee’s ranking Republican, who also underscored the fact that the GOP was not involved in either the investigation or the subsequent dust-up with the CIA, took a wait-and-see approach.
“The Republican committee members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and staff were not involved in the underlying investigation of the detainee and interrogation report,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told Senate colleagues on March 12th.
Since “no forensics have been run on the CIA computers,” Chambliss said at the time, “there are still a lot of questions that must be addressed,” adding that a special prosecutor may have to be named to sort things out.
When CNSNews.com asked Rizzo if he believed the agency had been spying on Congress, he replied: “Believe me, I was there for three decades. I know all the people there. I know the people who are in the middle of this particular flap. And you know, CIA wouldn’t do that.
“It appears what happened here that CIA came of the view that the Feinstein staffers had surreptitiously acquired access to documents they weren’t entitled to and were off-limits. And they got upset about it. They viewed it as a potential security breach.
“So this notion to somehow make this into a huge flap, arguing that CIA is spying on Congress, or a violation of the separation of powers, from all I can tell is just pure hyperbole. As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”
Rizzo said the CIA, where he served for three decades, only conducts covert operations that are explicitly authorized by the president.
“CIA does two things: it collects intelligence and then, and only then, when it’s directed by the president, conducts covert action operations. This is when you try to influence events. And by law, only the president can authorize a covert action program by a written, what’s called a ‘finding’.
“So I mean, that’s my primary point here, that the CIA acts at the behest of the president of the United States and follows his orders, his instructions, and his directions, and that’s always been the case, no matter which political party he’s from,” he told CNSNews.com.
“It’s hard to imagine now, since so much about the program is now public, but at the time it was treated very sensitively. And there’s a special mechanism in place for these kinds of particularly sensitive covert actions, where the Agency briefs the leadership of the Congress, basically the speaker of the House, the minority leader, the Senate majority leader, the Senate minority leader, plus the heads of the Intelligence committees. So the congressional part of this was kept for about three years to that, what they call the Gang of 8, that small group.
“However, beginning in 2006, the full intelligence committees were briefed. It was opened up to everyone, and so Dianne Feinstein was aware of this program, what it was and what it had been, since 2006.”
Rizzo added that he didn’t remember Feinstein being “very vocal” about the controversial program, which included the waterboarding of suspected terrorists.
When asked to comment, a spokesman for Feinstein told CNSNews.com that “Senator Feinstein stands behind her remarks,” in which she pointed out that “the origin of this study: The CIA’s detention and interrogation program began operations in 2002, though it was not until September 2006, that Members of the Intelligence Committer, other than the Chairman and Vice Chairman, were briefed. In fact, we were briefed by then CIA Director Hayden only hours before President Bush disclosed the program to the public.”
Feinstein also stated in her speech that “the interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”
The CIA program was shut down by President Obama in 2009 shortly after he took office, and what are often referred to as “torture memos” have been declassified by the Obama administration. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that there would be no more criminal prosecutions of CIA employees who participated.
Rizzo predicted that the current stand-off between Congress and the CIA will eventually die down, but not without damaging the trust that is essential to safeguarding the nation,
“The whole relationship between the CIA and its congressional overseers has to be one of trust,” Rizzo explained. “You can be giving them extremely classified information, and you have to be able to trust that they will safeguard it properly, and not exceed the boundaries which they originally agreed to.”
“Both sides are publicly dug in now, which is unfortunate, because when you’re publicly dug in, it’s hard to extricate yourself,” Rizzo told CNSNews.com.
“But ultimately I think this tempest will go away, and I don’t think any criminal charges are going to be brought against anybody. So I think this made for a bunch of sexy headlines, but I think the whole incident will just dissipate.”
In his recently published book, “Company Man,” Rizzo wrote about “the role of Congress in the EIT program, which the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel signed off on in a top secret Aug. 1, 2002 memo addressed to him.
DOJ “concluded that none of the EITs that the CTC (Counterterrorist Center) originally proposed violated the torture statute.” Rizzo has stated publicly that he does not believe waterboarding or other EITs were torture.
“I'm a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded — or, more importantly, if the Justice Department had concluded — that these techniques constitute torture, we would never have done them,” he told NPR.
But Rizzo also wrote in his book that the CIA should have “insisted at the outset that all members of the intelligence committees be apprised of all the gory details all along the way, on the record, in closed congressional proceedings. To allow all of our congressional overseers – to compel them, really – to take a stand and either endorse the program or stop it in its tracks.”
Not doing so, he wrote, “is my biggest regret about the role I played in the EIT program.”