If you want to avoid press coverage, you could do worse than releasing information at 4:59 PM on a Thursday just before a holiday weekend. That’s precisely what the White House did last week in announcing a prosecution against John C. Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst, senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the country’s most prominent whistleblower against waterboarding.
He has been charged with five criminal counts of espionage by a White House with a growing track record of going after whistleblowers: whereas other presidents before Obama have cited the Espionage Act in prosecutions no more than three times, this will be the sixth such prosecution brought by the Obama administration.
His indictment, filed last Tuesday, also carries another disturbing distinction: except for Kiriakou, no one in the Bush administration has been held criminally liable in relation to torture or waterboarding. But for blowing the whistle on a program that, according to a recently declassified memo, was considered illegal by the State Dept., Kiriakou faces a potential 20 years behind bars.
Kiriakou’s name might sound familiar. According to the indictment, he has allegedly violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for disclosing the identity of a covert officer, allegedly violated the Espionage Act for leaking national defense information, and lied to a CIA review board. In addition to authoring an illuminating book on his time with the CIA in 2010 called The Reluctant Spy, Kiriakou, 47, was the first official within the government to confirm what many expected: that information was being gleaned from prisoners who had been waterboarded. In 2007 Kiriakou told ABC that, although he supported the enhanced techniques while he was aware of the fact they were being used, he had come to change his position, “because we’re Americans and we’re better than that.”
In that very same interview, Kiriakou cited the case of Abu Zubaydah, accused of being an aide to Osama bin Laden, as something of a backhanded justification for the policies he was beginning to identify as morally problematic. However, based on what he had heard from the CIA, Kiriakou was under the impression that Zubaydah had been waterboarded one time. In 2009, after the “Torture Memos” were released, we learned that, in fact, he had been tortured at least 83 times and that these methods did not lead to the procurement of any relevant information.
On the captivity of Abu Zubaydah, from “The Beginning of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,’” Frontline. 2011
“Today’s charges reinforce the Justice Department’s commitment to hold accountable anyone who would violate the solemn duty not to disclose such sensitive information,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder’s comments on the pending case were delivered on the same day a six-year old memo from the Bush administration written by former State Department counselor Philip Zelikow, which concluded waterboarding was torture and was, therefore illegal. The Bush administration tried to destroy every copy of the memo.
Kiriakou is also alleged to have told a journalist – the New York Times’ Scott Shane – that Zubaydah was apprehended with assistance from a “magic box”, a device that can track one’s cell phone location, and then lied about the detail when he handed in the manuscript of his book to the CIA review board. He also may have revealed the name of a CIA employee who had been involved with the Zubaydah operation to Shane, for his 2008 article about the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others. Shane relied on 23 other sources (including former CIA Executive Director Buzzy Krongard), but only Kiriakou is being charged.
As Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, told CNN, “This is yet another pathetic attempt by the Obama Administration to try prosecuting non-spies under the Espionage Act.” Kiriakou was initially charged in a criminal complaint in January but remains free on bond and is scheduled to be arraigned on April 13. A website dedicated to his defense has received over 4000 hits since it launched sometime this year.
Whistleblowers in the intelligence world have been popping up left and right, including a number of people affiliated with the NSA who’ve decried the agency’s unwarranted spying on Americans. One such person, Thomas Drake (who won the 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling) beat government charges last year. But even that defeat has done little to stem the tide of the Obama administration’s penchant for going after the very people bringing the government’s worst behavior to light.