Former CIA Counterterrorism Chief Jose Rodriguez Speaks at UF Law

by John Cervera

Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., veteran CIA operative and counterterrorism director, was hosted by Dean Laura Rosenbury for a “Fireside Chat” this Monday in the Chesterfield Ceremonial Classroom.

Rodriguez authored the best-selling memoir Hard Measures and conversed with the dean and students about his decades-spanning intelligence career, his controversial final days in the agency, and the CIA’s future.

Dean Rosenbury holds up Rodriguez’s best-selling book for the audience to see. Photo by Maggie Powers.

As a Puerto Rican and due to his father’s job, Rodriguez was raised overseas, stating that the only time he has every actually lived in the U.S. was during his years at the University of Florida. This background, he told students, along with his knowledge of two languages besides English pulled him towards intelligence work, and he entered law school with that career in mind.

“I knew that law school would help me get there, to where I wanted to go,” he told Dean Rosenbury. On the usefulness of law school to a legal career, Rodriguez felt that the “legality of what I would be doing” would be central to clandestine work. He cited constitutional law and international business law as some of his favorite classes.

While Rodriguez did not specifically delve into the details of his training, he referred to CIA’s training school – “The Farm” – where students face testing and hone their skills as future operatives waiting the span of up to three years for graduates to receive their first assignments.

His career was made in the Latin American division, which he eventually led after being station chief of four different stations across the region, a career he nostalgically recalled as enjoyable and fulfilling. A cautious Dean Rosenbury then broached the subject of the events of September 11, 2001, and their ramifications on his career and the CIA.

“My career can be described in two parts,” Rodriguez declared, implying that his career changed wholly post-9/11. Immediately before the attacks, Rodriguez considered retirement but the events of 9/11 prompted a quick return to CIA headquarters at Langley. Using contacts from the CIA’s infiltration of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, Rodriguez explained how the agency was “the tip of the spear” with about 90 operatives leading the charge before the U.S. invasion. Shortly thereafter, the agency moved from a paramilitary approach to a great focus on intelligence gathering.

The summer of 2002 proved a fateful one for Rodriguez. After uncovering what he described as an al-Qaeda orchestrated, incoming “second wave of attacks”, he and his team felt an urgent call to action. A lack of global support and the fear of new attacks proved to Rodriguez the need for CIA-led interrogations. That same summer the Justice Department’s “Torture Memo” was drafted for the CIA, legally authorizing the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) and convincing him that he had the backing he needed. EITs were “extremely successful,” per Rodriguez, and led directly to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But by 2004, legal support began to erode for the program while he, as well as the CIA, subsequently “had to endure investigations.”

Photo by Maggie Powers.

“[Khaled Sheik Mohammed] told us ‘One day your government will betray you’… and eventually, that’s what happened,” Rodriguez told students. Rodriguez retired in 2007, under intense political pressure, and in 2008, the CIA’s EIT program and black sites were eliminated.

Following the advent of EITs, Rodriguez and the CIA were embroiled in controversy. In 2005, Rodriguez destroyed videotapes reportedly showing EITs, which he defended as legally sanctioned and necessary to protect the agents’ identities. After consulting with agency attorneys, Rodriguez considered his options but ultimately, he felt a duty to act. Gravely but confidently, he told students that, “If no one was going to make these decisions, I had to.”

When asked about his experiences as a person of color in the agency, Rodriguez quickly replied that it “never crossed his mind.” However, Mr. Rodriguez noted that diversity is key in the intelligence field and the CIA’s unsuccessful outreach to minorities is the result of poor training.

Regarding the CIA’s future as an institution, Rodriguez stated that the agency’s clandestine nature in an open society will always be a fountain of controversy.

“The CIA is always getting media attention, you can’t help it… the CIA will always be controversial.” As for the future security threats, Mr. Rodriguez remarked that “the next war will be a cyber war” and social media has made using clandestine tactics more difficult.

Meghan Kircher, 1L, asked Rodriguez for his take on President Obama’s approach to counterterrorism, namely reducing the use of EITs and increasing the use of targeted drone strikes.

“[The drone program] is an incredible tool, but the problem is… that it’s a tool.”

With a strong background in human intelligence (that is, intelligence gathering conducted through engaging in covert and overt relationships), Rodriguez explained that drone strikes diminish the CIA’s capacity to gather crucial information, pithily remarking, “Dead terrorists can’t talk.”

Remarkably, Rodriguez never once returned to UF for nearly 40 years as an alumnus. Dean Rosenbury said it was high time to invite this significant figure from Levin’s long list of notable alumni.

“I think that out of all of our alumni, [Rodriguez] has probably had the most impact on people’s lives,” the dean explained. Dean Rosenbury expressed her hope that Rodriguez’s visit will add to the ongoing debate concerning government action in the wake of 9/11.

Jose Rodriguez graduated from the University of Florida, is now retired, and lives in St. Augustine with his wife. He continues to work in the private sector as a consultant.