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Democrats grill Bush CIA nominee about detainees

Reuters | June 20, 2007
David Morgan

President George W. Bush's pick for top CIA legal officer came under fire from Senate Democrats on Tuesday for his role in an interrogation and detention program that brought accusations of torture against the United States.

John Rizzo, White House nominee for CIA general counsel, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he issued a legal opinion in 2002 stipulating that CIA detainee practices were lawful under international treaties against torture, including the Geneva Conventions.

But the career CIA lawyer also said he did not oppose an August 2002 Justice Department memo that said torture would not occur unless the detainee experienced pain serious enough to accompany organ failure or death.

"I did not certainly object to the memo," Rizzo said at his public confirmation hearing. "My reaction was that it was an aggressive, expansive reading."

He said he agreed with the Justice Department's subsequent repudiation of the early analysis as overbroad.

Rizzo was unwilling to speak freely about CIA policies including secret prisons, interrogation techniques and the transfer of detainees to countries that human rights advocates say employ torture techniques.

The hearing continued behind closed doors. But his public testimony, at times limited to one and two-word answers, stirred misgivings among committee Democrats.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she was concerned about Rizzo's possible role in laying what she called a flawed legal foundation for interrogation techniques that critics have described as torture.

"If you were part of that legal foundation, it's very difficult for me to vote for you because I believe that one of the reasons we are so hated abroad is because we appear to be hypocrites," the California Democrat said.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, suggested Rizzo's remarks to the committee about the 2002 Justice Department memo were inconsistent with his comments in an earlier private meeting with Levin.

"Did you not tell me that you thought it was a reasonable statement?" asked Levin, referring to the memo's passage about organ failure.

Replied Rizzo: "If I did, senator, I meant to put it in a different context ... I did not object to that statement at the time. I did not."

Levin also took issue with Rizzo's unwillingness to admit publicly whether CIA detainees have been transferred to countries that use torture. Rizzo said he would instead answer the question during the closed-door session.

That, according to Levin, put Rizzo at odds with a December 2005 statement by Bush in which the president said: "We do not render to countries that torture."

"He could not answer that question in public," Levin noted to the panel's Democratic chairman, Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia.

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