There & Back Again: John Rizzo & Yuri Nosenko

John Rizzo gave thirty-four years of service as an attorney for the Central Intelligence Agency, serving with distinction under eleven directors and rising to acting general counsel.  Yuri Nosenko, who died in 2008, was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, a Soviet defector, and suspected double agent.

RizzoNosenkoWhat do they have in common?  A late night, one-on-one, vodka-soaked discussion of Nosenko’s three years of unremitting torture by Rizzo’s employer. The torture produced nothing, neither confirmation that Nosenko was a Soviet mole nor confidence that he was not.  In his new memoir, Company Man, Rizzo asserts that this meeting left an indelible impression on him as a young lawyer. But just how did he put that experience to use when he evaluated the legality of the “Enhanced Interrogation Program” that landed on his desk in the CIA General Counsel’s office after 9/11?

His answer is not found in his memoir.  But he did give an answer last week, when I asked him this question at an outstanding symposium on the future of national security law held at Pepperdine Law School.  The conference was organized by Professor Greg McNeal ably assisted by 3L Shelby Doyle and her team of student editors at the Pepperdine Law Review.

Comrade Nosenko’s story, and Mr. Rizzo’s answer, follow after the break.

The Rizzo-Nosenko meeting took place in 1977; Mr. Rizzo had started at the CIA the year before.  The torture, however, had occurred more than a decade earlier.  Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, Nosenko had arrived at the CIA claiming to know what the KGB knew about Lee Harvey Oswald.  Few believed he was a genuine defector.  Many were convinced that he was a double agent, and that his confession of this fact had to be extracted from him.  “So,” Mr. Rizzo observes in his memoir, “for three years, Nosenko was imprisoned in a tiny room in one of the agency’s facilities in downstate Virginia.  Deprived of sleep, cut off from any outside contact, subjected to relentless and brutal interrogation.”  Sound familiar?

When Mr. Rizzo ran his youthful errand a decade after Nosenko’s torture had (as he puts it) “[f]inally, mercifully” ended — and, one might add, ended fruitlessly — he found Nosenko living quietly in a “small, southern hamlet.”  He had been rehabilitated but was still suspected by CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton and others who were frustrated at the failure to break him and convinced he was a double agent.  Mr. Rizzo’s mission was fairly banal and he was under strict orders not to discuss Nosenko’s treatment with anyone, let alone Nosenko himself.  At the time, Rizzo wondered if this instruction was issued out of concern that Nosenko might file a lawsuit that publicly accused the CIA of torturing him.  Sound familiar?

Mr. Rizzo’s keynote remarks at Pepperdine may be heard here.  More interesting to me were his candid and self-reflective responses to Q & A (which begins at 17:44 on the webcast).  My question, sent up to the moderator on a 3 x 5 notecard, was the first one:

I read your book.  Thank you for writing it.  Yuri Nosenko was a Soviet defector subjected to three years of very harsh treatment aimed to break him.  He was feared to be a double agent.  He never turned, but doubts for some time remained until his death.  You highlight his case for several pages early in your book.  At first this seemed foreshadowing but you never mention it again.  Do you not think his case provided lessons for the Enhanced Interrogation Program’s later failings?

The experience of talking with Nosenko (other than constituting “[t]he most drunken night of my life”) obviously made an impression on the young lawyer.  Five pages of his memoir are devoted to the tale, complete with a shot-by-shot account of the physical effects of Nosenko’s home-brewed vodka.  But no amount of vodka, Rizzo recalls, “could have made me forget what he told me.”

So how did the cruelty that the Agency inflicted on Nosenko affect Rizzo’s later judgments about the efficacy, legality, or morality of such techniques?  In the remaining 250 pages of his book, Rizzo never mentions the encounter again.

But he did give this answer, after noting that he’d yet to field such a question elsewhere in his book tour, when I put the question to him at Pepperdine (I’ve cleaned verbal tics and stuttersteps from this transcription, which can be checked against the webcast hyperlinked above):

He was subjected to extraordinarily harsh techniques.  Not waterboarding.  But he was kept cooped up incommunicado, subject to sleep deprivation.  It was foreshadowing, that’s why I put it early on in my book, which is largely a chronological history of my time at the CIA.  And it did not, I will admit this.  It was only when I was starting to write the book and reconstruct events in my life, in my career, that it dawned on me that this Nosenko experience — and I had met him, as I say, years after the fact when he had been rehabilitated — echoed in such a strange and prophetic way the kinds of techniques that became part of the Enhanced Interrogation Program.  I mean, I never, from the time I met him in 1978 [sic] and learned his story, I never for the next twenty-five years had any reason to think about what it was like to be held incommunicado or what were the legal implications.  It was only after 9/11 that that happened.  So that’s why I put that anecdote in the book.  And I didn’t include it later because honestly it never figured in my formulations.  It probably should have.

Whether Mr. Rizzo had occasion to consider Nosenko-like scenarios between 1978 and 2001 is neither susceptible to easy confirmation nor relevant to my question and his answer.  What is relevant, and now so sadly confirmed, is that such a memorable personal encounter with a survivor of torture at the hands of the agency Mr. Rizzo devoted his professional life to serving, “never figured in my formulations.”

Mr. Rizzo began the wind up to his answer by noting rather flippantly that Nosenko’s treatment began in 1964 when Rizzo was just a teenager, “so this one’s not on me.”  This evoked chuckles from the audience, but it made me wonder.  Might someone joining the CIA today as a young lawyer write a memoir in 2040 that notes how his or her personal encounter with a survivor from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, or unnamed and unnumbered CIA black sites “never figured in my formulations” of the next cycle of inhumane treatment, torture, or abuse?

What did Mr. Rizzo take away from his encounter with Comrade Nosenko?  Nothing.  What a sad reflection on our difficulty learning from history, even when it touches us so directly.


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1 Response

  1. Matt says:

    I’ll admit that I have a hard time reading that and not thinking of him as a monster. Thanks for posting this. I hope that _some_ people will learn something.