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NBC's Mitchell to CIA Lawyer Who Backed Waterboarding: 'How Can You Live With Yourself?'

Introducing her interrogation of former CIA attorney John Rizzo about his new memoir, aired on Friday's NBC Today, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell proclaimed: "...this is an insider's account of the CIA – Company Man – and the key decisions that led to waterboarding and other controversial techniques that were later outlawed. All from this veteran CIA lawyer who offers no apologies and few regrets." [Listen to the audio]

After Rizzo explained that "extraordinary measures had to be taken" to prevent another terrorist attack after 9/11, Mitchell was aghast: "Extraordinary measures? You mean what was later decided to be torture?" Rizzo pushed back: "What if there had been a second attack? Frankly, how could I live with myself if that were the case?" Mitchell ranted: "How can you live with yourself knowing that what you did and what you got approved by the Justice Department was to many people, not only morally repugnant, but illegal?" Rizzo replied: "...my conscience is clear."

Wrapping up the segment, Mitchell described Rizzo's book as "A CIA veteran's account of how the agency justified controversial operations from Iran-Contra to drones." Fill-in co-host Willie Geist added: "A guy who's been at the center of a lot of American history, for better and for worse."

Amid clips of her hostile exchange with Rizzo, Mitchell made sure to highlight controversies under Republican administrations: "There were few heroes in the CIA during Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal....Rizzo's job was to explain it afterwards to an angry Congress....he saw it all. From the hunt for CIA mole Aldridge Ames, to 9/11, the Valerie Plame case, and Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMDs."

Here is a full transcript of the January 10 segment:

7:36AM ET  

WILLIE GEIST: Now to a rare and revealing look inside the controversial history of the CIA. The agency's former top attorney, John Rizzo, is out with a new book called Company Man. NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell got the chance to sit down with him. Andrea, this is a very interesting guy.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Inside the CIA; "Company Man's" Tell-All Offers Rare Account]

ANDREA MITCHELL: It is, indeed. He is an interesting guy. Good morning, Willie. For the first time, this is an insider's account of the CIA – Company Man – and the key decisions that led to waterboarding and other controversial techniques that were later outlawed. All from this veteran CIA lawyer who offers no apologies and few regrets.

[JAMES BOND THEME PLAYING]

Even at Washington's fabled spy museum, soft-spoken John Rizzo is no James Bond. But he is the ultimate company man. A lead CIA lawyer during decades occasionally marred by scandal, intelligence failures, and post-9/11 interrogation practices later outlawed.

JOHN RIZZO: Extraordinary measures had to be taken.

MITCHELL: Extraordinary measures? You mean what was later decided to be torture?

RIZZO: No. If it had been torture, we wouldn't have done it.

MITCHELL: The CIA helped Hollywood recreate the waterboarding and black sites in Zero Dark Thirty. In real life, Rizzo approved the harsh interrogation techniques and got the Bush Justice Department to sign off on them. But the origin of the program really started at CIA?

RIZZO: Oh, absolutely.

MITCHELL: With you?

RIZZO: With me and a few others, yes.

MITCHELL: Do you have any second thoughts about that now?

RIZZO: No.

MITCHELL: Rizzo first came to the CIA in the 1970s. As Iran later held American diplomats hostage, the agency orchestrated a daring escape for six, portrayed in Argo by Ben Affleck.

BEN AFFLECK [ACTOR, ARGO]: I'm taking them through.

RIZZO: The Ben Affleck character was fairly close.

MITCHELL: But there were few heroes in the CIA during Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal.

OLIVER NORTH: It was not an exercise in good judgment.

MITCHELL: An illegal CIA and White House operation revealed by the Attorney General.

MITCHELL [TO THEN-ATTORNEY GENERAL ED MEESE]: Further resignations or show that his cabinet is functioning?  

MEESE: I know of no other resignations that are either contemplated or requested.

MITCHELL: Rizzo's job was to explain it afterwards to an angry Congress.

RIZZO: I was learning it at the same time the American people were.

MITCHELL: Rising to become the CIA's top lawyer, he saw it all. From the hunt for CIA mole Aldridge Ames, to 9/11, the Valerie Plame case, and Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMDs.

MANDY PATINKIN [ACTOR, HOMELAND]: Do all you can not to escalate this.

MITCHELL: How close to reality is something like Homeland?

RIZZO: The character that Mandy Patinkin plays in the series reminded me of several similar types I met during the course of my CIA career.

PATINKIN: They told you everything, didn't they?

MITCHELL: Does he remind you of yourself?

RIZZO: No. There are no lawyers in Homeland. It probably would've made a very duller series.

MITCHELL: Rizzo's career was cut short by the controversy over waterboarding and the secret prisons.

RIZZO: I told the truth, thank you.

MITCHELL: But he leaves with no regrets.

RIZZO: What if there had been a second attack? Frankly, how could I live with myself if that were the case?

MITCHELL: How can you live with yourself knowing that what you did and what you got approved by the Justice Department was to many people, not only morally repugnant, but illegal?

RIZZO: Looking back on the times and what I had to do, my conscience is clear.

MITCHELL: Rizzo's memoir, Company Man, often reads like a good spy novel. A CIA veteran's account of how the agency justified controversial operations from Iran-Contra to drones. Willie.

GEIST: A guy who's been at the center of a lot of American history, for better and for worse.

MITCHELL: Absolutely.

GEIST: Andrea Mitchell, great report, thanks so much.

— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.