Before I begin, I’m going to take a moment to give myself a gold star for venturing outside my comfort zone and into the world of non-fiction, my experience of which is largely limited to Bill Bryson books and stuffy tomes of literary criticism. You, however, should take my self-congratulation as a warning: I’m well out of my depth for this review, though I’ll do my best.
I originally bought Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA (Scribe, 2014) as a birthday present for my husband. I had no idea if it was any good, but Controversy! Crisis! CIA! The introduction? ‘The Tale of the “Torture” Tapes’. Surely it would be just like Homeland, but with more genuine intrigue and less shark jumping. I was right. Sort of.
John Rizzo was a CIA lawyer for 34 years (1975-2009), and the acting head legal council for seven of those years. Among other things, he penned the first Presidential Findings, documents “signed by the president of the United States authorising the CIA to conduct a covert action program,” and, post 9/11, had the fun task of legalising the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), including waterboarding. Company Man is his story.
What I enjoyed most about Company Man was Rizzo’s voice—warm, charismatic and often witty—which is highly impressive given much of the subject matter is quite dry and all the really juicy bits are classified. In a way, he plays the magician, distracting the reader with smoke and mirrors (he makes drafting legislation and negotiating with senators and congress read like espionage) without revealing a whole lot that’s not already publicly available. For me what gave the game away was note of false modesty. He’s clearly an incredibly intelligent and skilled lawyer, but he too often affects the persona of a man blinking with surprise at his own good fortune. Even his entry into the CIA sounds a bit twee: he was bored with his low level government job, he’d read Ian Flemming, he thought why not? A brief query letter, background check and polygraph test later, he was in. But surely, one does not simply walk into Langley? (Or does one? *Quietly submits resume*)
When he’s not affecting to have stumbled by accident into America’s most glamorous secret society and enjoyed a largely illustrious career there, Rizzo crafts a riveting tale. Like a true lawyer, he is meticulous. While much of his experience within the CIA remains classified, what he can reveal, he reveals in great detail and paints a vivid picture of the ever-changing and cloistered world of Langley.
As someone whose knowledge of how the American government and CIA operate has largely been informed by The West Wing, Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland, (mis)remembered facts from Mrs Farrell’s year 11 history class and half-read Huffington Post features, Company Man was an education and an intriguing first hand account of life (particularly in the post 9/11 years) inside the agency. If it’s any recommendation, I really want to work for the CIA now. Even though I’m not an American citizen. Or particularly stealthy. CIA: if you’re reading this, I am secretly totally stealthy and spy-like.