The CIA and Torture

November 6th, 2014

Your article on CIA counsel John Rizzo ’69 overlooks some important elements of our Bush/Cheney descent into torture (“A Clear Conscience,” September/October). First, as the Senate Intelligence Committee report will shortly show, it didn’t work. The torture of the detainee referenced in your article actually interrupted highly productive interrogation by CIA and FBI professionals.

In addition, the technique was designed by amateurs who specialized in foreign torture techniques designed to create propaganda, and it was condemned by professional interrogators from the military, from law enforcement, and from the CIA itself, which saw it as bad professional technique.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the legal opinions on which the enhanced interrogation techniques stood were a sham. They were factually wrong, failed to cite relevant legal precedent, used an unrelated standard from health-care reimbursement law, and were kept overclassified to prevent peer review from those not in on the sham (and of course subsequently withdrawn by the Department of Justice).

Finally, the failed program was wreathed in deception —of Congress, of senior administration officials, and of the American people—to cover up its failure.  And God knows what harm was done to a country that leads by the power of its example and inspiration when America joined the dark ranks of torturing nations.

Sheldon Whitehouse
Newport, R.I.

The writer is a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island and a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.


I appreciated the article on former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo. I found it interesting and fair. As a former operations officer at the CIA for twenty-eight years, I had many opportunities to work with John Rizzo, who not only understood the nature and the culture of the clandestine service, but also did his best to find legal ways to get things done expeditiously and always, in his mind, in the best interest of the country. He was forced often to make difficult decisions, some of which members of the clandestine service did not like, but when all was said and done, he was usually correct. He was respected at all levels of the agency and within all disciplines, including both analytical and operational. There have been many fine CIA officers from Brown over the years. John Rizzo was one of the best. 

Joseph Augustyn ’71AM
Fairfax, Va.


John Rizzo says he’s confident the prisoners subjected to waterboarding and sleep deprivation torture that he okayed as a ranking CIA lawyer suffered no permanent physical or psychological damage. How would he know? Such presumption and insensitivity coupled with the information that he “enjoys clothes,” smokes imported cigars, and lives in an elegant Georgetown residence add up to a near caricature of Ivy League hubris that I am surprised the editors of BAM would banner on the cover.
Sean Mitchell ’70


I wonder how many of the senators who refused to confirm John Rizzo as CIA permanent general counsel lost a loved one in the 9/11 catastrophe. 

Constantine E. Anagnostopoulos ’49
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.


Lawrence Goodman had a golden opportunity to profile a controversial alumnus, someone who changed the course of our country. As far as I can tell, he squandered that opportunity on an apologist puff piece made of softball interview questions. My professors at Brown taught me to ask the hard questions and challenge my perceptions. I’m sorry to see that my alumni magazine does not share that philosophy.

Sam Musher ’01
Somerville, Mass.


As a constant and mostly enthusiastic reader of the BAM, I was disappointed with both the tone and the lack of thoroughness of this article. While I appreciate that Rizzo was under pressure to provide a legal justification for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the wake of the horror that was 9/11, his narrow focus on the letter of the law avoided not only the moral and long-term political implications of the use of EITs, but also the fundamental question of whether or not they would accomplish their stated purpose.

If Rizzo had thoroughly “consulted with outside psychologists, completed a psychological assessment and reviewed the relevant literature on this topic,” as described in the Bybee letter, he might have come to doubt the efficacy of EITs in the first place. By not doing so, he became one of many bureaucrats and politicians who failed to obtain the information necessary to make good, well-reasoned decisions about this critical issue at a key juncture in our nation’s history.

Andy Wisch ’87
Comment from


Abu Zubaydah was a known and confessed terrorist who most likely had information that could save thousands of American lives. He was not in the United States or a U.S. citizen. As the smoke and dust of 9/11 still hung in the air, what did the CIA officers do? They did not feed him one appendage at a time to the alligators and dispose of the evidence. They did not even begin torturing him. They went up their chain of command to ask “What are our legal limits?” Imagine the national spy agencies of Russia or China doing such a thing. How about Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Brazil, or Mexico?

What did the CIA actually do?  Officers in the field escalated to headquarters, which went to legal counsel, which went to the Department of Justice for an official ruling. In light of these meta-facts, perhaps the question should not be “Is waterboarding legal?” but “Shouldn’t our national spy agency be less constrained with foreign terrorists?”

Robert M. Alloway ‘66
Washington, D.C.

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Related Issue
November/December 2014