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Ex-CIA lawyer on waterboarding: 'My conscience is clear'

Jan. 10, 2014 at 8:09 AM ET

The nation’s top CIA lawyer after the September 11 attacks, the man who convinced the Bush administration to sign off on waterboarding techniques, says he has no regrets about the controversial interrogation method.

“Extraordinary measures had to be taken,” John Rizzo said about the now-illegal technique, which he asserts was not inhumane.

“No, if it had been torture, we wouldn’t have done it,” he told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Rizzo recounts the genesis of the waterboarding program along with numerous other stories from his three decades at the spy agency in his memoir, “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.”

Waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, was front and center in a debate over the “enhanced” interrogation methods used on al Qaeda terrorist suspects following the attacks of September 11.

Rizzo won Justice Department approval for the practice but said the program originated from the CIA with him and a few others.

Read an excerpt from Rizzo's book 'Company Man' here

Rizzo began his CIA career in the 1970s. He helped the agency orchestrate the daring escape of six Americans held hostage in Iran, as portrayed in the Hollywood motion picture, “Argo.” He says the character portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Oscar winning movie “was fairly close.”

During the Ronald Reagan era, he dealt with the Iran-Contra scandal in which senior administration officials secretly oversaw the illegal sale of arms to Iran. Rizzo’s job was to explain the CIA’s illicit role to an angry Congress.

“I was learning it at the same time the American people were,” he said.

Over the years, he also has witnessed the CIA oversee the hunt for agency mole Aldridge Ames and the unraveling of former operative Valerie Plame. He also dealt with the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Ultimately, Rizzo’s career was cut short by the controversy over waterboarding and how he oversaw the use of the technique. He said he did what he had to prevent a second terrorist attack against the United States.

“Looking back on the times and what I had to do — my conscience is clear,” he said.

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