John Kiriakou is the only CIA employee to go to prison in connection with the agency’s torture program. Not because he tortured anyone, but because he revealed information on torture to a reporter.
Kiriakou is the Central Intelligence Agency officer who told ABC News in 2007 that the CIA waterboarded suspected al-Qaeda prisoners after the September 11 attacks, namely Abu Zubaydah, thought to be a key al Qaeda official. Although he felt at the time that waterboarding probably saved lives, Kiriakou nevertheless came to view the practice as torture and later claimed he unwittingly understated how many times Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding.
In January 2012, Kiriakou was charged by the Justice Department for allegedly and repeatedly disclosing classified information to journalists. The Justice Department accused Kiriakou of disclosing the identity of a CIA officer involved in Zubaydah’s capture to a freelance reporter. The reporter did not publicly reveal the official’s name, but his name did appear on a website in October 2012. Kiriakou also allegedly provided New York Times reporter Scott Shane information on CIA employee Deuce Martinez, who was involved in Zubaydah’s capture and interrogation.
After agreeing to a plea deal in October 2012, Kiriakou was sentenced in January 2013 to 30 months in prison. That sentence made him the second CIA employee ever to be locked up under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which bars the release of the name of a covert agent; the first was Sharon Scranage, who in 1985 pled guilty to disclosing the identities of intelligence agents in Ghana after giving classified information to a Ghanaian, reportedly her lover.
Kiriakou is not without support from former colleagues. His friend and former boss, Bruce Riedel, sent a letter to President Obama, signed by other CIA officers, urging him to commute Kiriakou’s prison sentence. That did not happen.
A father of five children, Kiriakou says the CIA asked his wife to resign from her job at the agency immediately following his arrest, and he is in major debt from his legal fees.
Kiriakou is is scheduled for early transfer out of federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania on February 3. In a wide-ranging phone interview with The Intercept, Kiriakou, 50, shared his thoughts on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation techniques, on his incarceration, and on his future after prison.
You don’t have access to the internet in prison, so have you been able to see just one page of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report?
Well, my cousin ended up printing the entire thing and sent it to me. Yeah, he sent it to me in five different envelopes.
So was there anything in the report that surprised you? Did you feel even more despair at being the only CIA officer jailed since the program came into existence?
One thing that I think most everybody has missed is, we knew about the waterboarding, we knew about the cold cells, we knew about the loud music and the sleep deprivation. We knew about all the things that have been ‘approved’ by the Justice Department. But what we didn’t know was what individual CIA officers were doing on their own without any authorization. And I would like to know why those officers aren’t being prosecuted when clearly they’ve committed crimes and those crimes were well documented by both the CIA and the Senate Committee of Intelligence.
One thing that certainly was an eye opener, even to close observers of this program, was the brutal treatment of these prisoners. The tragic death of Gul Rahman, an Afghan, comes to mind.
Gul Rahman is probably the best example. The man was murdered in cold blood, so where’s the prosecution? You come home, you murder somebody in cold blood, you get a promotion and a $2,500 bonus. That is not the message we ought to be sending.
There have been some who have tried to exempt George W. Bush from any blame from the program. They claim that he knew about the specifics in 2006, as the report mentions. Do you agree with that assessment from those defending him?
That’s just simply not true. They knew about it all the way up to the top. I remember sitting at a meeting with one of the top three officials at the CIA when the program was approved. And throughout the conversation, he kept on saying, “I can’t believe the president signed off on that program. I can’t believe it.” He kept saying it. Because it was so radical and violent that even internally we didn’t think there would be permission forthcoming. And there was. And it got out of hand, and it was a slippery slope and the ball kept rolling down the hill. And the next thing you know, we’re killing people.
As a CIA agent for 18 years, what is your summary of this program from both an operating perspective and a moral one?
When I was in the counter terrorism center, an official came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be certified in the enhanced interrogation techniques. And I said, “Look, I have a moral problem with this. I think there’s a slippery slope, I think somebody is going to get killed. There’s going to be an investigation. And a bunch of people are going to go to prison, and I don’t want any part of it.” And ironically, I was the only one who went to prison.
After almost two decades of service, can you talk about the most stressful situation you have been in?
I came within a quarter of a mile of being killed. Twice, twice, I have survived assassination attempts. Once in the Middle East, I wrote about it in my book. And then in Greece. And in Greece, instead of killing me, they killed [British military attaché] Stephen Saunders because he was a quarter of a mile ahead of me [in June 2000]. And they said in their communiqué that they saw me in my car but they knew it was armored and that I was armed. And Stephen Saunders was just in his vehicle he shipped from London and he didn’t have a gun on him. And they killed him instead.
I’ve devoted my whole entire, adult life to the national security. And I’ll go to my grave knowing that I did the right thing.
Now that you have seen the report, did the “rectal hydration” shock you as another detail you didn’t know?
Sickening. I can’t imagine under any circumstances a justification for something like that. There are ways to hydrate prisoners, there are ways to provide nourishment for prisoners who are on hunger strikes. It’s not by shoving hummus up their asses. That’s not how you provide nutrition for somebody that’s in your custody. That was shocking to me.
Another startling detail was the $81 million dollars given to a company set up by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Did you know anything about these two figures?
I remember those guys very well. They had two little offices in the back. The counter terrorism center is a very, very enormous office. It’s a cubicle farm. Everyone else is in a cubicle. But there are private offices around the edges, along the walls. And those guys just sort of showed up one day and got private offices. And yeah, we were like, who were these guys? They’re not even blue badgers, they’re not even staff employees. They’re green badgers, they’re contractors. And we were told, don’t ask questions about those guys.
Did the gruesome conditions at the Salt Pit and other torture sites surprise you?
I had no idea. That was a revelation. I actually took a tour of the new Bagram prison when I was with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Man, that was a nice place. It was great. In many ways, it’s better than what we have here [in Loretto]. But the fact of the matter is that we weren’t housing prisoners in that prison. We were housing them in a dungeon on the other side of the base that has been called a ‘salt pit.’ There were atrocities taking place at the ‘salt pit.’
That fancy prison that we spent millions and millions of tax payer dollars on is completely empty.
Editor’s note: The Bagram detention center was closed in December 2014. It remains unclear what the balance of prisoners was between that facility and the so-called “Salt Pit,” a CIA black site, when both were operational.
Jose Rodriguez, the former director of the CIA’S National Clandestine Service, apparently went against the wishes of his own agency’s lawyers over adequately screening potential interrogators. When they expressed concern over his selection process, he replied, ‘It is simply not your job.’ What are your thoughts on this?
He’s the worst of the worst. With Jose Rodriguez especially, here you have a guy who made the decision to make the tapes… He’s the one who ordered the tapes be made of CIA officers torturing first Abu Zubaydah and others after him. And then he gets promoted to deputy director for operations and he makes the decision to destroy the tapes after being specifically told by (then Senior Deputy General Counsel) John Rizzo don’t destroy the tapes. And he did it anyway. There’s no fallout or punishment. There’s no nothing.
Editor’s note: It’s been reported that the decision to tape the CIA interrogations “was made in the field.” The tapings began taking place roughly around the time Rodriguez became director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Rodriguez said in a 60 Minutes interview, “The reason why we taped Abu Zubaydah was because….we wanted to show the world that we actually had nothing to do with his death.” It’s not clear if he personally decided to make the tapes.
After the House Intelligence Committee heard closed testimony from Rizzo, the committee’s senior Republican member, Peter Hoekstra, stated of Rodriguez, “it appears that he got direction to make sure the tapes were not destroyed.” At the time, Rodriguez’s lawyer disputed that account, saying that “nobody, to our knowledge, ever instructed him not to destroy the tapes.”
Advocates of the detention and interrogation program, like Dick Cheney, continue to publicly defend the CIA programs, and have labeled the torture report as a partisan witch hunt. He has also said they would still implement the program if they had to do everything all over again.
The reason why these guys are on TV all the time, aside from the fact that the corporate media allows them to be, is that torture is their legacy. When their obituaries are written, their obituaries are going to be about torture and their role in it. And they’re desperately trying to spin the story to make it seem like they were patriots and not criminals. It’s utterly nonpartisan. The Senate Committee on Intelligence used primary source information. They used the original CIA cables to come up with this report. Those cables are not partisan, those cables don’t tell one side of the story. The cables are the actual information written as it was happening. So to call it partisan is just simply untrue. It’s not partisan. What’s partisan is that a certain group of political leaders doesn’t want the organization, the agency, to take responsibility for their actions.
You told the RT network in 2013 that you would lose a lot of friends inside the CIA for your actions. Has that still been the case?
I was wrong in what I said to [RT host] Abby Martin. It turned out that the number of CIA friends who walked away from me, I can count on one hand. I’m going to say three dozen CIA officers have written to me here and almost all of them are regular correspondents. My former colleagues at the CIA have rallied for me. It’s been wonderful. Now a lot of them can’t use their names. Some of them are undercover, some of them just don’t want the heat. But they’ve been wonderful. I just have no complaints at all. And some of them are senior CIA officials.
How are your children doing? Do they have the main idea about the decisions you’ve made and what has happened to you as their father?
My two older boys are in college. One’s finishing his senior year at Ohio State and the other is at Cleveland State as a freshman. So they saw all of this, the whole process, and they understood what was happening. But even my little kids (as well). I have a ten-year-old boy, and eight year old girl and a three year old boy. The ten year old and eight year old have very hard felt opinions on things like the FBI and torture. They saw the FBI completely surrounding our house 24 hours a day just like I did. They aren’t blind. They saw the FBI come into the house and take all of our electronics. Had the FBI following us to Target, Applebees and to church.
So what does a former CIA agent do after getting out of prison and no longer being able to work for the agency?
As part of this conviction, I lost my pension. I had $770,000 saved in that pension. And it’s just gone. So, I’ve got to start rebuilding. And I still owe my lawyers almost a million dollars.
I have a temporary job when I get out, doing some business development work for a medical group. But it’s just a temporary position. What I’d like to do is go to a think tank. I like to write and speak and teach, and I think that’s the best fit for me. I got to take things slowly, get back on my feet again. But it’s been hard.
Photo: Cliff Owen/AP