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John Rizzo, wearing a blue-pinstripe suit, tangerine tie, and matching cuff links, wafted past photographers and reporters staked out in the Capitol last week, waving and grinning. “Who was that?” a tourist standing nearby asked. Rizzo and his entourage then descended into the Crypt, as the Capitol’s subterrain is called, where he was to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on the events leading up to the CIA’s destruction in 2005 of tapes of interrogations. The CIA’s acting general counsel, Rizzo, 60, joined the agency in 1976, then one of 19 lawyers advising the spy agency. The timing was auspicious. Congress had just finished rummaging through the CIA’s operations, uncovering details of attempted assassinations, failed coups, and domestic spying. The work of the Church and Pike committees — so named for their chairmen, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.) — in the 1970s spawned congressional oversight of the CIA and the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The agency needed a good lawyer, and, if recent events are any indication, not much has changed. Congress is currently investigating the tapes’ destruction, and the attorney general has appointed a federal prosecutor from Connecticut to lead a criminal probe. Meanwhile, lawyers for several detainees at Guant�namo Bay have tried to persuade federal judges to hold inquiries of their own. Rizzo, as the CIA’s chief legal officer, who presides over more than 100 lawyers, will be instrumental to all of the above. But his supporters say he’ll ride it out. “No other lawyer is close to Rizzo in terms of intelligence community experience. He has been through the agency’s ups and downs. And this is another down period,” says A. John Radsan, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law and CIA assistant GC from 2002 to 2004. PAPA RIZZO A slight man who wears a white beard that invites unlikely comparisons — “a diminutive Ernest Hemingway,” one of his friends calls him — Rizzo is described by former colleagues as a sharp wit who has survived for three decades in the world of intelligence on his ability to act decisively without appearing overcautious. “There are lawyers who do everything they can within the bounds of the law to help their clients complete their mission, and there are lawyers who want to be like an inspector general and say �no’ as often as possible,” says Bryan Cunningham, a Denver-based homeland security consultant who was assistant general counsel under Rizzo from 1994 to 1998. “John is the first type of lawyer.” But while he’s unafraid to advance the mission, some say Rizzo is careful not to leave a footprint. “Rizzo keeps his hands clean. He doesn’t spend his time writing memos and doing research. Other people do that for him,” Radsan says. A spokesman for the CIA said Rizzo would not be available for comment for this article. Rizzo, who has been the agency’s acting general counsel on and off for six years, was formally nominated to the post in 2006. He withdrew his name in September 2007 in the face of intractable congressional opposition. Senate Democrats decried his endorsement of the 2002 Justice Department memo that concluded that inflicting any physical pain short of organ failure was not torture, and they harbored doubts about his work on the legal foundations of the CIA’s overseas detention and interrogation program. President George W. Bush has not submitted another nomination, meaning Rizzo will likely see out the rest of Bush’s term as acting general counsel. One of his former colleagues says Rizzo expected pique from the senators, but he regretted what he saw as political posturing. “John was disappointed because he was hoping the committee would take into account his years of service and understand that he was an honorable man trying to deal with very difficult circumstances,” says Jeffrey Smith, a partner at Arnold & Porter and CIA general counsel from 1995 to 1996. Smith, who strongly opposes the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, adds, “If he would have said, �Oh, they were wrong,’ then the very officers he had been advising for years would be put at some risk. He felt like the man in the middle.” Rizzo, when asked about the memo in his confirmation hearing last June, said he hadn’t objected to it at the time, but told his questioners that it was “overbroad for the issue it was intended to cover.” The interrogation policy was revised in 2004. Rizzo was acting general counsel in 2005 when Jose Rodriguez Jr., then head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, approved the destruction of the tapes, which depicted CIA officers using harsh interrogation techniques on suspected al-Qaida operatives at a secret CIA facility in Thailand in 2002. Rizzo emerged from the closed hearing last week saying only, “I told the truth.” In a news conference after the hearing, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the committee chairman, praised Rizzo for his “highly detailed” testimony, saying he supplied the committee with names of others with knowledge of the destruction of the tapes. Rizzo appeared voluntarily, without a subpoena and without private counsel. In 1995, Rizzo was named senior deputy general counsel, the agency’s No. 2 legal officer, and prior to that he was the deputy GC for operations and intelligence activities. In both capacities, he was responsible for legal work “on covert actions, covert programs, electronic interceptions — all of the things you think about when you wonder what a lawyer does at the CIA,” says Russell Bruemmer, who was special counsel to then-Director of Central Intelligence William Webster from 1987 to 1988, and the agency’s general counsel from 1988 to 1990. Bruemmer says Rizzo advised operatives involved in the 1989 invasion of Panama and the rendition of Lebanese terrorist Fawas Younis, who was captured during an FBI operation in Cyprus in 1987, to the United States. Younis’ transfer marked the first time U.S. authorities retrieved a foreigner from another jurisdiction, Bruemmer says. Rizzo was also the agency’s lead counsel in dealing with the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra affair and helped with the legal work that ended up in the apprehension of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, who were charged with blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. (Fhimah was acquitted in 2001.) “He was a superb lawyer with great judgment, but most importantly, he managed to convince the operating people he was really on their side even when he had to say no,” says Bruemmer, now a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Part of that comes from seniority and experience, but he makes friends easily, former colleagues say. “He’s a person who, intellectually, you enjoy engaging,” says Elizabeth Parker, CIA general counsel from 1990 to 1995. Parker, now dean of the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, says Rizzo’s sense of the absurd defuses tension around him — and then there’s his flirtation with fashion. When Robert De Niro was researching his 2006 movie “The Good Shepherd,” a not-entirely-fictional account of the dawn of the CIA, he was introduced to Rizzo at the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters. Rizzo, recounting the meeting at a roundtable discussion at William Mitchell College of Law last March, said that De Niro was “totally incredulous that the CIA had lawyers.” “Yes sir, we have 120 of them,” Rizzo told him. The men shook hands, and after Rizzo turned to walk away, De Niro called out after him. “Hey, nice threads.”
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected]. Senior reporter Pedro Ruz Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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