CIA agent, counter terrorism adviser, torture whistleblower: b. 1964
- 2012: Recipient of the Joe A. Callaway award for Civic Justice.
When Bruce Riedel, who turned down the chance to head the C.I.A. in 2009, was asked by The New York Times about former CIA officer, John Kiriakou and his sentencing under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in early 2013, he said, “’To me, the irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that [Kiriakou’s] going to be the only C.I.A. officer to go to jail over torture,’ even though he publicly denounced torture. ‘It´s deeply ironic under the Democratic President who ended torture.’”
In his 2010 book, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror, Kiriakou comes across as anything but reluctant. From his fascination with politics in high school and college to a decorated career in the CIA, Kiriakou lived at full throttle, especially as a CIA officer recruiting foreign agents, dodging assassination attempts, and bucking what he portrays as a sometimes-hesitant, CIA bureaucracy all in the interest of keeping the United States safe.
By the early ‘80s, John knew that in college he wanted to study the Middle East. He applied to George Washington University, was accepted, and told his parents that he planned to enroll in the college’s Middle Eastern studies program. His parents sat him down to say that they just couldn’t afford the college in Washington, D.C.; he would have to attend nearby University of Pittsburgh, which did not have a Middle Eastern studies program.
John wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, cobbling together the scholarships and financial aid that would enable him to chase his dream. As he finished graduate school, also at GWU, a professor recruited him for the CIA. The son of first generation Greek-Americans, Kiriakou writes: “You cannot have grown up as I did, in a household that revered the United States and what it stands for, and not believe in American exceptionalism. Our country salutes…our written Constitution and our belief in standards of behavior that set an example for people and cultures everywhere on Earth.”
In 1990, fourteen months after his first interview with the CIA, Kiriakou was hired into the company of “bright, capable, patriotic people who understand the contribution they can and should be making to the nation’s security.” Kiriakou’s foreign tours would include Bahrain, Greece and, eventually, Pakistan.
After 9/11, Kiriakou was named the Chief of Counterterrorist Operations in Pakistan. There he organized raids that led to the capture of numerous Al Queda members, including one high level official of the terrorist organization named Abu Zubaydah.
By the time of Zubaydah’s capture, the Bush administration had approved a set of “enhanced interrogation” techniques. When asked if he would like to be trained in the ten techniques, Kiriakou says in his book that he consulted a mentor at the agency who suggested that “these methods might well cross a dangerous moral and legal line.” Kiriakou declined the training.
Two years later, Kiriakou resigned from the CIA and went to work in the private sector. However, his relationship with the agency was not over.
In 2007, he agreed to be interviewed by ABC reporter, Brian Ross. During the interview, in the context of discussing the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, Ross asked Kiriakou if he thought that waterboarding was torture. Kiriakou responded, “You know, at the time, no...I think I have changed my mind….waterboarding probably is something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing…Because we are Americans and we are better than that.” Later in the interview, Kiriakou said that the authorization to use the enhanced techniques came directly from the White House.
He was the first US government official to say that waterboarding was official policy and had been used on Al Queda prisoners. As he did so, he encouraged public debate, saying, “I think it's good that we're having a national debate about this. We should be debating this. And Congress should be talking about it. Because I think as a country we have to decide if this is something that we wanna do as a matter of policy.”
The US government had no interest in encouraging public debate on the issue – torture – that it wanted to keep secret. One could argue that what turned Kiriakou – who as late as 2010 described his view of the use of waterboarding as “nuanced” and not “black-and-white” – into a whistleblower might have been less the intention of what he said in the ABC interview than the government’s reaction to it. Within 24 hours of the 2007 interview, the CIA filed a crimes report against Kiriakou with Department of Justice, saying that Kiriakou had revealed classified information. The DOJ rejected this and five other similar crimes reports. But Kiriakou had become a marked man. He lost his consulting job and has been audited by the IRS every year since 2007. Kiriakou claims that his wife, also a CIA employee, was forced out of the agency.
Kiriakou was eventually charged with revealing the name of an undercover CIA officer to a journalist, though the journalist never publicly disclosed the name of the officer. (One might compare this to the Valerie Plame case. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was pardoned by President Bush for giving Plame´s name to journalists who did disclose the CIA officer’s identity, effectively ending her career and placing her and her foreign agents in potential danger.)
Kiriakou agreed to a plea deal rather than contest the charges under the Espionage Act, which could have landed him in prison for 35 years. He began serving a 30 month sentence in February of 2013. It was one of two convictions in the history of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. “I should never have provided the name,” says Kiriakou. “I made mistakes in my case. First, go through the chain of command, which I didn’t do. I should have done that.”
What he and others, including the former CIA employee Bruce Riedel, believe is that the government was really punishing Kiriakou for talking about government sanctioned torture.
In a January 30, 2013 interview on Democracy Now!, Kiriakou said that it is, “time for the CIA to move beyond the ugliness of the September 11 regime.”
His advice to whistleblowers: “Do not remain silent.”