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COMPANY MAN: THIRTY YEARS OF CONTROVERSY AND CRISIS IN THE CIA
By John Rizzo
Scribe, $29.99

Does secrecy have a future? As a senior in-house lawyer with the CIA, John Rizzo spent several decades of his professional life protecting the secret work of America's peak foreign intelligence organisation during tumultuous times. Now retired, he believes that managing disclosure is preferable to simply trying to hide things.

Apart from anything else, he writes, increasingly it is becoming difficult for even the CIA to control the flow of information: ''If all my years and experience at the CIA taught me anything, it's that virtually every secret doesn't stay secret forever, and that the shelf life of new secrets is getting shorter all the time.''

In the early part of its history the existence of the CIA was not acknowledged officially, but, especially since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, the organisation has become one of the most widely recognised and scrutinised instruments of the American government.

Another reason suggested by Rizzo for the CIA to choose to share rather than withhold information is pragmatic. Those politicians in Congress who launch populist attacks on the CIA in order to further their own careers might pause if they are briefed as to what is going on and thereby brought within the circle of trust. Indeed, one of the ironies of executive power noted by Rizzo is that all US presidents, no matter how liberal their outlook, come to rely heavily on the CIA while in office.

American national politics, observes Rizzo, is replete with the ironies of absolute power. Barack Obama (along with prominent Republicans such as Senator John McCain) opposed the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques when seeking presidential office, and numerous probes have been launched by the Obama administration seeking to determine if CIA officers could be prosecuted for waterboarding or otherwise physically intimidating suspected terrorists.

But while the Obama administration denounced as torture what the CIA did to post-9/11 detainees, Obama has ramped up the drone program with the result that suspected terrorists, and civilian bystanders, are now being summarily executed outside the US in preference to any attempt at capture.

Rizzo comments drily that the CIA at least had an interest in keeping its detainees alive, since a dead terrorist suspect can provide no information that might be used to help thwart future attacks.

Rizzo claims to have no party political affiliation and says he has always voted on the basis of what he thought was best for the CIA, supporting candidates such as Al Gore and Obama at elections while also working well with George W. Bush.

Although Rizzo's memoir was vetted by the CIA before publication and offers little operational detail, Company Man does provide an insight into the organisational culture of the CIA.

All recruits have to undergo polygraph tests, though Rizzo tells us that lawyers can be expected to fall foul of the lie detector since their perception of the truth does not always fit in with a straightforward answer. Apparently one young lawyer was pinged by the polygraph when he was asked where he was born, and answered that he could not be sure since he couldn't confirm where he was at the time.

In addition to defending the CIA from external critics, Rizzo recounts having to deal with traitors discovered within the organisation such as Aldrich Ames, who caused many deaths. A poor performer with a drinking problem, Ames nevertheless was assigned to handle the most sensitive counter-intelligence involving operations inside the Soviet Union. With the wisdom of hindsight it may seem as though the identity of the mole should have been apparent to his colleagues. But, as is often the case, a traitor may prosper when he or she hides in plain sight.