How the Government Turned a Former CIA Officer Into a 'Dissident'

John Kiriakou is the only CIA officer to go to jail in connection with the agency's enhanced interrogation program—and now he's looking for work.

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Apr 8 2015, 1:00pm

​John Kiriakou. Image: Vice News

With his broad smile and easygoing nature, John Kiriakou looks and sounds more like a high school baseball coach than a veteran CIA officer who was on the front lines in the early days of the war on terror. He also doesn't seem like a person who's just emerged from a federal penitentiary as punishment for disclosing classified information—an experience he says has turned him into "a dissident."

Inside the prison at Loretto, Pennsylvania, where he spent nearly two years, Kiriakou says his training as a spy came in handy, helping him navigate a minefield of gang affiliations. 

"The Italians took me in first," he tells Kaj Larsen in a new video interview for ​Vice News. "I don't mean people with Italian names. I mean the Italians. All five families were represented there." As for Muslim gangs, a supportive statement from Louis Farrakhan "guaranteed no problems for me on that front." And "because I was not a rat or a child molester, I was embraced by the Aryans." 

Kiriakou counts the current Secretary of State as one of his former employers, but now that he's out of prison, he says half-jokingly, he might end up finding work at a Dunkin Donuts. 

Like many details in the heavily-redacted story of the war on terror, this was not how things were supposed to go. After retiring from the CIA in 2004, Kiriakou became the first CIA official to acknowledge, in ​a 2007 ABC News interview, that the government had used waterboarding on a high-value detainee. That disclosure was one of thousands of leaks ​estimated to be made by government officials each year, but it earned Kiriakou special scrutiny by his former CIA superiors, and eventually the Justice Dept. 

In 2012, Kiriakou would be charged with disclosing to a journalist the names of two CIA officers who had been involved in the torture program. After a plea deal to lessen his sentence, Kiriakou would be sent to prison for nearly two years, making him the first CIA agent to be imprisoned for disclosing classified information to a reporter.

The government contends that Kiriakou violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act; Kiriakou has called the government's actions against him vindictive and unjust, a selective effort not only to punish those who expose its wrongdoings but to shield its agents from criminal probes. 

"I've never believed my case was about a leak," Kiriakou ​told Motherboard's Tyler Bass after his sentencing. "I've always believed my case was about torture."

How do you prove what you don't know?

Kiriakou's saga is intertwined with that of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian citizen who was the US's first "high value" detainee in the terror wars. Kiriakou was present in Pakistan for Zubaydah's capture, in March 2002, and was later informed of his subsequent interrogations. 

Zubaydah would become a central character in the Senate's report on torture, with his name appearing over 1,000 times in 6,000 pages. (Many prominent figures in the early days of the war on terror have dismissed the report; Dick Cheney says it's "full of crap.")

Upon capture, Zubaydah's FBI interrogators believed that traditional interrogation methods would be more productive than "enhanced interrogation techniques" like stress positions and waterboarding. 

Their more traditional approach has been borne out by research, and it proved to be productive: Zubaydah revealed some useful information, including the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks and that a man later revealed to be Jose Padilla was plotting a "dirty bomb" attack.

But Zubaydah was soon wrestled away by the CIA and, against the protestations of some in the CIA and FBI, moved to a "black site" in Thailand, where he spent 47 days in isolation, despite needing medical care for his wounds. There he would be waterboarded a total of 83 times. Despite vehement concerns by his captors, top officials in Washington insisted on continuing the waterboarding because they were certain he had more secrets to spill. 

He didn't: Zubaydah wasn't as important as he was made out to be, CIA officials would acknowledge later—he allegedly helped manage a training camp for the group—and the information he provided to them was mostly provisional, and foiled no plots.

That he had no more secrets and that the CIA was convinced that he did points to an epistemological paradox that surrounds torture: You don't know what your detainee does or doesn't know, but to get closer to that theoretical unknown known, you could make them think they're drowning as a way to get them to say something—provided of course you don't completely incapacitate them. As the journalist Mark Danner said after the publication of the Senate report on torture,

How do you prove what you don't know? And from this open question comes this anxiety-ridden conviction that he must know, he must know, he must know. So even though the interrogators are saying he's compliant, he's telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him "completely non-responsive," as the report says—officials at headquarters [were] saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn't given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming... It had nothing to do with him giving more information as he was waterboarded. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety. And their anxiety was based on complete misinformation. Complete ignorance about who this man actually was.

Zubaydah's harsh treatment would last through the summer of 2002, and like a number of detainees, would severely deteriorate in US captivity. So harsh was his "enhanced interrogation" that even his captors were appalled by his suffering, according to one official who spoke to the Times in 2009. He remains at Guantanamo, still not charged with a crime, unable to submit habeas corpus claims to US courts, and missing his left eye, which he lost, according to the Senate torture report, "in CIA custody."

Oaths do matter

In this context, the mental and physical and economic anguish that Kiriakou, a father of five, has endured seem almost not worth mentioning. But the prosecution of Kiriakou for his secret-spilling might be seen as a prism for thinking about Zubaydah's secret-extraction. Scott Horton ​at ​Harper's​​ called the government's targeting of Kiriakou "for torturers and against their victims; for deceivers and against the truth."

Kiriakou and his defenders say he was unfairly targeted in a leak case because he had raised the ire of top CIA officials for discussing waterboarding. After he appeared on television for the first time in 2007, the CIA filed a crimes report with the Justice Dept. At least half a dozen more referrals were filed as Kiriakou continued to speak about waterboarding in interviews. 

In 2009, ​government​ lawyers were shocked to see the names of CIA employees who had been involved in the extraordinary rendition program appear in a sealed filing by lawyers for the detainees. The lawyers hoped to eventually call these people as witnesses at future military tribunals. Officials became more livid when they discovered that some detainees had been given dossiers ​containing photos of some CIA employees, alongside random look-alikes, line-up style, so the detainees could help identify the people who had tortured them.

An investigation into the leak began, and it led the Justice Dept. to the lawyers, and to one of the journalists they had been corresponding with. That led the government to Kiriakou. The FBI would get search warrants to obtain access to Kiriakou's personal e-mail accounts and other evidence that showed that Kiriakou was responsible for giving two names to the journalist, ​reported to be freelancer Matthew Cole. 

Like secrets not all leaks are equal. Some leaks are dangerous; others serve a larger social good; many may be somewhere in between. Kiriakou contends his secret-spilling wasn't intended to be harmful, merely a tip to a reporter whom he expected would use the names with discretion and contextualize them with more research. He had also assumed that both CIA officers were no longer under cover (one of them still was).

While Matthew Cole never published the names, he did pass them along to Sam Sifton, who was doing research for detainee lawyers. Kiriakou contends that he never would have passed Cole the names if he had thought they would be released recklessly, or used in court. (Neither Sifton nor Cole faced charges in the case.)

Leaking isn't often unilateral: It's done in cooperation with (and sometimes because of) a journalist, who practices good security and discretion in protecting the identity of his or her source and in ensuring that the information leaked is handled and perhaps published responsibly. This kind of journalist-source privilege has been at the heart of ​other recent cases in which journalists have refused to reveal their sources even under the looming threat of a subpoena. There are lessons to be drawn in Kiriakou's case about the perils and challenges of national security journalism.

But more generally, there are lessons to be drawn about the perils of speaking out. Like the Jeffrey Sterling and Thomas Drake cases before it and ​the Steven Kim case afterwards, Kiriakou's prosecution demonstrates that the pressure on government employees and reporters seeking to expose wrongdoing through leaks has never been stronger. 

This in spite of an administration that pledged transparency and reform of secret institutions, and that has declined to prosecute higher ranking officials suspected to have leaked even more sensitive information, like Generals James Cartwright and David Petreaus. (After Kiriakou's sentencing, and weeks before his own leaking came to light, Petreaus, then CIA director, said ​in a statement, "Oaths do matter. And there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.")

A plane labeled N654BA, serial number BL-54. This plane was sold to the United States Air Force in 1982, and was thought to be involved in the CIA's extraordinary renditions. Image: Trevor Paglen. Courtesy  ​Altman Siegel Gallery

"I think the Justice Dept. has been incredibly hypocritical in leak cases," Kiriakou said in the Vice News interview. "Washington operates on leaks. The truth of the matter is that, if it's a supporter of the president leaking, or your leak makes the government look good, you're good to go. If the leak is critical of the government or if the government wants to prosecute you in some way, then they prosecute you. 

"The last three directors of the CIA have leaked prolifically. Leon Panetta outed the Navy Seal that led the Bin Laden raid. But he said, 'Oh, my bad. It was an accident.'"

"The last three directors of the CIA have leaked prolifically," he continued. "Leon Panetta outed the Navy Seal that led the Bin Laden raid. But he said, 'Oh, my bad. It was an accident.' and he's free to cash his 6 million dollar book advance while I'm prosecuted and go to prison and lose my pension and everything."

After finding remote work with a medical technology company, he was informed by the Bureau of Prisons that as part of his release, he must work in an approved office, not at home. He's since found a new job: working for a Washington think tank called  ​the Institute for Policy Studies, with a new topic of interest: Prison reform.

But last week, he said that he's being bottled up again. The Bureau of Prisons, he tweeted, "says 'inappropriate for Inmate Kiriakou to work at @IPS_DC" because I'd might comment on prison reform. Never heard of First Amendment??"