John Rizzo – former CIA chief lawyer

5 minutes with... John Rizzo

John RizzoWhen did you decide to become a lawyer? Why? 

Midway through college I decided to concentrate on politics and government courses. Applying to law school seemed a logical extension. Also, this was during the Vietnam era – if I hadn't pursued post-graduate studies of some sort I likely would have been drafted into military service. Since I was utterly uninterested and unsuited for business or medical school, that left law school by default.

Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law? 

At the beginning, I expected – or at least hoped – a law career to afford me an opportunity to serve my government and country as opposed to private practice which, while an honorable (and doubtless more lucrative) calling, cannot offer the same opportunity.

Has it lived up to your expectations? 

My career in government – particularly my 34 years at the CIA – more than lived up to my expectations. It was consistently challenging and fascinating, and I always believed, from the start, that what I was doing was important in the larger scheme of things.

How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?

What I am known for, of course, are my activities at the CIA over three decades, especially post 9/11. My original decision to enter the CIA in the 1970s was a total leap of faith by a young lawyer, unworldly and utterly unschooled in intelligence matters; my post 9/11 prominence stemmed by the coincidental timing of ascending to the position of chief CIA lawyer at virtually the same time as the attacks. 

What do you consider to have been your big break? 

My big break came in late 1986, which was ten years into my career. I was appointed to serve as the CIA's focal point with the various outside bodies investigating the Iran/Contra affair. That role gave me unprecedented exposure to a high-profile political/media controversy and raised my own profile, both inside and outside the CIA, considerably.

"Spy organizations ... operate in ways not always consistent with the tenets and niceties of international law."  

What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started? 

Today's legal market, at least in Washington, is much harder to break into than was the case when I was starting out in the early 70s. I honestly don't believe, with the credentials I had then, that I would have any chance whatsoever of being hired as a young CIA lawyer today.

What achievement are you most proud of? 

I am most proud of the fact that I hired dozens of skilled and dedicated young lawyers to join the CIA over the years. Most of them are still there (the CIA legal staff now numbers around 150), and I consider that my true, enduring legacy.

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret? 

My biggest regret is that in my final few years I found myself being cast as a public, politically controversial and divisive figure. This after having served 25 years as an anonymous, nonpartisan public servant serving under presidents from both political parties.

What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession? 

What I loved most about my long CIA career was the astonishing diversity and uniqueness of the issues I dealt with – issues I never contemplated, much less studied, in law school.

Why did you choose to swap working in the intelligence community for BigLaw at this stage in your career?

I retired from the CIA in 2009 simply because, after 34 years, it was time. Then, never having been in private practice, I thought it presented a new challenge which would be invigorating. Which it has been. 

How does working for a BigLaw firm differ from the more secretive world of the CIA?

This may seem utterly obvious, but a big law firm (or even a small one) is a business, plain and simple, intended to generate profits for its members. The CIA can and has been described in many ways, but it decidedly can't be described as a profit-making business. 

How do you, as a lawyer, feel that domestic laws should apply in the case of the intelligence services?

US domestic laws – statutes and treaties – must and do apply to all CIA activities. International law, however, is a different matter. All intelligence agencies around the world, by the very nature of what spy organizations have always done and are expected to do, operate in ways not always consistent with the tenets and niceties of international law.

What law would you change, abolish or create? 

Honestly, I cannot think of a single current US law that hamstrings or threatens the CIA's assigned mission. I also believe the existing statutory regime is effective and sufficient; thus, I do not advocate the creation of still more laws governing intelligence activities. 

Who is your legal hero? 

Robert F Kennedy – not just as a lawyer but as a patriot and a man.

What career would you have in your second life? 

I recently published a memoir of my CIA career entitled Company Man. I enjoyed the experience of writing for a public audience, and I would like to do more of it. 

What slogan would you like to be remembered by? 

"He always tried his hardest to do the right thing, even when things were the hardest."

What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today? And secondly, to those who hope to ultimately get into the areas of law in which you are expert? 

My advice applies both to those entering the legal profession in general as well as those seeking a legal career in the national security field: get some life experience first, either right after college or right after law school. Travel the world, sample cultures and experiences different from your own, learn a couple of new languages. It will broaden you both professionally and personally.