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Changing fortunes: John Rizzo, former top lawyer for the CIA, worked for the agency for 34 years. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Tim

John Rizzo
Scribe, 320pp, $29.99

The gathering of intelligence is a hot potato right now, thanks largely to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden exposing its intrusions into the private lives and personal computers of many individuals, both prominent and faceless.

Yet only a few years ago the issue was less heated and more contained.


We generally recognised and accepted that most countries had professional outfits that spied on other countries, and thus let us feel secure in our beds at night; and while spooks were terrific material for books and films, part of the fascination of Smiley and James Bond was the far-fetched nature of their jobs.

Nevertheless, despite the cloud of unknowing in which it shrouded itself, the very real US Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, attracted publicity whenever one of its activities was outed - as during the discovery that the proceeds of arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Nicaraguan resistance movement, the ''contras''.

What we, and no doubt most Americans, were not privy to, or not until the sudden resignation of a CIA employee called Oliver North became headline news, were the behind-the-scenes discussions, debates and decisions.

At that time, John Rizzo, the self-styled ''Company Man'', was a relatively new boy working as a lawyer in the Office of General Counsel, the legal wing of the CIA.

The ''Iran-Contra affair'' lasted from 1986 to 1992, and several of Rizzo's chapter headings point to his, and its, progress: ''Entering the Secret Club''; ''Not Your Everyday Legal Issues''; ''The Calm Before the Storm''; ''The Wheels Come Off''; and ''The Iran-Contra Hangover''.

Over 34 loyal years with the CIA, Rizzo's fortunes rose, flourished, hovered, and, finally, crashed.

Several times he was elevated to the post of acting or deputy general counsel of the CIA, a position traditionally filled by someone from outside the agency and, in 2007, was even nominated by the Bush administration to be general counsel of the CIA.

However, a nomination is not an appointment; action stagnated, and on the morning the selection committee was due to meet, Rizzo withdrew, preferring retreat to rejection. The reasons for the vicissitudes studding this man's career - and, let's be clear, we are talking about an honest, high-minded individual with an excellent brain and good intentions - are contained in some of the most controversial acts by, or perpetrated upon, the United States government in recent years, including the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the attacks on the Twin Towers, and the Abu Ghraib furore.

One of the outcomes, in 2002, was the establishment of the Enhanced Interrogation Program, which was conceived as the specifying of persuasive measures that would not constitute ''torture''.

For example: ''sleep deprivation'' must not last longer than 11 days at a time; the height from which the water is dripped during water-boarding must remain within set limits.

They were later interpreted by the incoming Obama administration as its very essence.

''Torture'' is apparently a matter of where you stand, politically as well as morally.

To say that judgments relating to the treatment of captured terrorists were wrangled over for a long time in very high places is an understatement; and certainly their effect on the professional fate of one man was not the main point.

Yet the plight of the once-influential Rizzo, with his lawyer's mind for niceties and nuances, his inability to see round corners and his struggle to do the correct thing, is a gripping, affecting and revelatory story.

Shakespeare's Malvolio gave us three ways of acquiring greatness, but Rizzo shows how easily it can be lost or taken away.