International Affairs — 20 July 2011
John Rizzo – CIA Consigliere

In light of a piece I wrote previously detailing how openly admitted extra-judicial killing by predator drone seems to have become the modus operandi of the Obama administration, it is with interest that I read that a group of Human Rights lawyers in the UK and Pakistan are seeking an arrest warrant for John Rizzo, one of the lawyers involved in signing them off during the Bush administration.

To get a picture of Rizzo, an interview in February to Newsweek makes for uncomfortable reading. After CIA lists of targets that were sought to be “neutralized” (a bland word for assassinated), Rizzo was one of those who would sign off on the mission. If it sounds similar to the kind of activity you would expect from organized criminal gangs, Rizzo himself described it as “basically a hit list”.

Just as any small-time organized crime network has a few paid lawyers to help defend the indefensible, the American administration is acting like an international mafia outfit complete with requisite legal team. But being the most militarized government in the World by far, they have access to Predator Drones, rather than being compelled to use a paid contract killer. Like Rizzo himself stated “The Predator is the weapon of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head.”

It is on the back of such admissions and Rizzo’s proud claim when he asked “How many law professors have signed off on a death warrant?” that has led to the lawyers in the UK and Pakistan to attempt to get a warrant for his arrest. The fact that the Americans until now are largely oblivious, or simply lack any sense of care or responsibility, to the illegal nature of their activities highlights the most vile kind of exceptionalism – that which claims exception from the rule of law to act criminally. That they cynically use “lawyers” to dress up what is effectively murder as having due process, only lends to the Mafioso image.

It is partly this that has driven the action to seek Rizzo’s arrest, with British Human Rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith stating that one of the purposes is to highlight the illegality of the action since “there is no sense in the United States of how catastrophic this whole process is.”

Given that this is more an exercise in symbolism than anything else:  after all, Rizzo is, for all intents and purposes, just a small fish in a much larger food-chain as the ex-lawyer for the international mafia known as the CIA, and so he is an easier target than the mafia bosses themselves. Put in the context that Obama has dramatically increased the use of drones since he took the presidency and feels at such ease with his decision that he he is able to joke about it, the natural question raised is when will those who actually bear the most responsibility be brought to court?

Given the track record of holding Western politician accounts for their war-crimes (think Iraq-Blair), the victims in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia can be forgiven if they lack confidence in anything substantial happening any time soon.


Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at

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