John Rizzo, former chief legal officer at the CIA, told The Daily Caller News Foundation he is “not prepared to vote for either candidate” in the 2016 election.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “put personal politics and a desire for privacy, ahead of protecting information.” While Donald Trump has made “a number of his pronouncements in the foreign policy and national security arena, I find naïve,” Rizzo, told TheDCNF.
TheDCNF: What are your thoughts on the 2016 presidential election, and the qualifications as well as the policies of the two main candidates: Republican nominee, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
JR: You know, I was at the CIA for 34 years as a lawyer. I served under seven presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, and I was – and I think so are most career people at the [Central Intelligence] Agency – apolitical. CIA employees will serve and they are at the service of any president, whoever is in office, and they will adjust accordingly, which is what I did.
Now having been retired on the outside for several years, I, like any other citizen, have to make a choice on who to vote for. I must say at this point, I am not prepared to vote for either candidate. With Mr. Trump, a number of his pronouncements in the foreign policy and national security arena, I find naïve, in some cases ignorant, and sometimes alarming. And honestly, his foreign policy advisers, at least those he has identified to date, are not either well-known, with tremendous experience themselves in the national security community. So that’s a concern.
With respect to Mrs. Clinton, we all know about the emails and the FBI investigation and FBI Director James Comey’s conclusion. I tell you, my particular take on that, and I think I probably am reflecting the thinking of longtime CIA insiders, one thing I have learned over the years is that obviously the president is at the top of the food chain in terms of who the CIA reports too. But equally important, and actually on a day-to-day basis and more relevant to the Agency, is who are the people the president surrounds himself or herself with in the Oval Office? I’m talking about the National Security Council, the [White House] Chief of Staff, whoever is in the paperchain going into the Oval Office.
What I found confounding and alarming about this whole email mess, which of course, reams have been written about it from various perspectives, from my own parochial, CIA perspective, I assume if Mrs. Clinton wins the presidency, she’s going to bring along as her closest aides. Many of her closest aides from her State Department days, who clearly either [were] insensitive to or actually enabled her creation of a separate and unprotected email system, which contained classified information, that was subject to potential hacks.
TheDCNF: Would you say she put politics and personal desires of her own career ahead of the country?
JR: Well, ahead of [the] country, I don’t know about that, but I think she put personal politics and a desire for privacy, ahead of protecting information. I don’t think there’s any two ways about it. This is sort of an inside baseball thing but, not so much her, but her closest aides around her knew what she was doing, knew what the system was. And from what I can tell from the press accounts, no one ever said, “Madam Secretary, this is insecure [and] not a good idea.” They apparently, actually enabled her, and these are people, I mean, I don’t know Jake Sullivan, but he was a key aide of hers who was in the middle of all this email traffic and knew, [of the] existence of the email system, [and] he is her chief foreign policy adviser now on the campaign. [There’s also] Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin, and that’s what worries me, that she will bring these kinds of people. Not to mention Sid Blumenthal, who is in a different category, but she’s going to bring these people into the White House with her and they are going to be in the chain for the highest secrets. Once you’re in the White House, you get the gold, so that’s what alarms me about her and her candidacy.
TheDCNF: Since it is ultimately at the discretion of the president, do you think that Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton should actually be receiving national security briefings right now going forward?
JR: Well at this point, honestly, I mean, again, seeing many candidates, nominees of parties over the past 35 years, getting their national security briefings after their convention victories, to tell you the truth, what they’re going to be getting is classified but it’s not actionable. It’s not what President George W. Bush once famously referred to as, “the sexy stuff.”
I’m not that alarmed about either of them getting these briefings, they’ll be done by career CIA people. So, no, I mean, that’s okay. You know, there could be an issue about who either candidate will let in the room with them when they get these briefings. It’s not just a one-on-one with a candidate, they want to bring two or three people in with them so that’ll be interesting about who they select.
In Mr. Trump’s case I have no idea who he’s going to select. In Mrs. Clinton’s case, if she selects someone like Mr. Sullivan, or Ms. Mills, or Ms. Abedin, and with the State Department having announced they are doing an administrative inquiry into whether Mrs. Clinton’s staff at the State Department should retain their top secret clearances, which could be interesting.
TheDCNF: Do you ultimately agree with FBI Director James Comey’s recommendation and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s decision to not prosecute former Secretary Clinton?
JR: You know, I’ve thought about that a lot. I’ve known James Comey for 20 years; I mean, he is a straight shooter. I understand his decision. Leak cases, many genres I’ve learned over the years, I mean it’s a Rorschach Test. You have to weigh how serious a breach was, how many other people had access to the information that was compromised on the Clinton email computers, it’s not a cut and dried case.
I must tell you, I was surprised, like millions of other Americans, I was watching his [Comey’s] news conference, the first 15 to 20 minutes, I turned and said to my wife, “my God, he’s going to recommend prosecution.” So, when he didn’t, I mean, I’m a lawyer in national security issues, I’ve been baked into it for three plus decades, when he termed her actions and those of her staff as “extremely careless,” honestly, I can’t immediately discern the difference between extremely careless and gross negligence, which would have crossed the criminal standard.
I want to emphasize that I don’t think it was affected by politics, I mean after all, Comey’s going to be the FBI director for the next eight years regardless of who is the president. I think he made a hard-headed judgement as a former prosecutor that this would be a hard case to make a conviction on.
Rizzo is currently Senior Counsel at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington D.C. and is the author of the 2014 memoir, “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.”
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