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Physicians for Human Rights Opposes Bush Nominee for CIA General Counsel; Urges Senate to Reject Nomination

Summary of Rizzo's Record

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), today announced its opposition to President Bush's nominee for CIA General Counsel, John A. Rizzo, currently the acting CIA General Counsel.

As both Deputy General Counsel and as the acting CIA General Counsel, Rizzo has been at the epicenter of the Administration's legal efforts to justify the use of techniques by the CIA, which are widely believed to constitute torture. Based on the record of his tenure as acting CIA General Counsel, and on statements he made at his open nomination hearing on June 19, 2007, PHR's board has taken the extraordinary step of voting to formally oppose Rizzo's nomination, urging the Senate Select Intelligence Committee to vote against his pending confirmation.

"If the US Congress is serious about ending the abuse of detainees and restoring the rule of law, it should not confirm an official deeply implicated in the process that led to the abuses," stated Leonard S. Rubenstein, Executive Director of PHR. "Voting down Rizzo's nomination will send a strong message that this Congress is serious about ending the use of torture."

John A. Rizzo has served without Senate confirmation as the acting CIA General Counsel, the agency's top legal advisor, during most of the period since September 11, 2001. During this time, the CIA has been criticized by PHR, other human rights groups, and the international community for detention and interrogation practices which constitute torture and violate US and international law.

"While we do not yet know all the facts surrounding the development of the CIA's abusive interrogation policies and Rizzo's role in developing them, we do know that he was given a clear opportunity to repudiate those policies at his hearing and failed to do so," stated Rubenstein. "An official who condones torture should not hold a leadership position in the US government."

In statements made to Congress, Rizzo continues to consider CIA interrogation practices "humane" and still finds no reason to object to the extreme definition of torture contained in a critical Justice Department memorandum.

In the summer of 2002, then White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales solicited a legal opinion from the Justice Department regarding the use of torture. That memo asserted the President's right to order the torture of detainees, a position that violates domestic law and US treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture and other international agreements.

The 2002 Justice Department opinion, drafted by then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, defined torture so narrowly as to exclude all but treatment "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." This definition opened the door to the authorized use of a wide range of techniques that have long been considered methods of torture. The Bybee memo also asserts that the President, as Commander in Chief, can ignore laws that have been enacted by Congress and authorize U.S officials to engage in torture. When the memo was subsequently leaked in 2004, it was repudiated by the Justice Department following public outcry.

At his June 19 hearing, Rizzo acknowledged that he reviewed the 2002 Bybee memo that created an extreme definition of what constitutes torture. There is no indication that Rizzo objected to the analysis or the conclusion at the time. When asked during the hearing if he now believes he should have objected to the Bybee memo when he reviewed it, Rizzo answered, "I honestly can't say I should have objected at the time." He added that he found the memo "reasonable" although he was willing to concede that it was "overbroad for the issue that it was intended to cover."

Within the CIA, Inspector General John Helgerson reportedly concluded in a 2004 report that CIA interrogation techniques "appeared to constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" prohibited under international law. According to press accounts citing senior intelligence officials, the Inspector General's findings were "vigorously disputed by the agency's General Counsel."

During Rizzo's confirmation hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked Rizzo whether he thought in 2002 that the CIA's interrogation regime was "humane." Rizzo replied that "We believed then, and we believe throughout the process, that the CIA (interrogation) program as it was conceived …was conducted in a humane manner." It is now clear from press reports that what Rizzo considers the CIA's "humane" interrogation program, conducted in conformity with legal guidance coming from his office, has included authorizing interrogators to employ the following tactics: forcing detainees to stand for up to 40 hours; holding detainees naked in cells chilled to 50 degrees and then dousing them with cold water; and to simulate the experience of drowing. While maintaining that such practices are humane, Rizzo conceded that "there had been some concerns that were expressed" by CIA interrogators who feared prosecution for carrying out the authorized interrogations.

Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Rizzo if, in his opinion, the Geneva Convention's Common Article 3, designed to protect combatants from "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment," applied to the fourteen "high-value detainees" transferred from CIA custody to Guantanamo Bay last year. Those detainees include 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high level al-Qaeda operatives.

Rizzo first said that "Common Article 3 was certainly applied to the fourteen" — but later clarified his statement to say that it was only after the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in July 2006 that Common Article 3 applies to al-Qaeda that its standards were applied. "I can't tell you, before the Hamdan decision, that those standards were applied to enemy combatants before then," Rizzo said.

When asked by Senator Levin if the U.S. has rendered suspects to countries known to practice torture, Rizzo said that he could not answer the question in open session. Levin persisted, saying he was not asking for names of countries but just a general answer. Rizzo still refused to answer in open session, leaving a clear implication that the answer was "yes."

PHR's Policy

As a non-partisan organization focused exclusively on the protection of human rights, PHR typically neither supports nor opposes nominees for office but instead demands that they uphold human rights and holds them accountable for their actions. But PHR's mission to advance human rights may require it to oppose the appointment of someone to a position under certain limited circumstances: When the person's record is "so inimical to human rights that there is a strong likelihood that his or her appointment would seriously undermine human rights standards or practice in the United States or abroad."

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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