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Truthdigger of the Week: Whistleblower John Kiriakou

Posted on May 30, 2015

By Natasha Hakimi

    John Kiriakou spent 23 months in federal prison after he spoke out about torture. Meanwhile, no one involved in the CIA torture program has been brought to justice. (AP / Cliff Owen)

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Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

John Kiriakou, like others who have become known by the term, did not set out to be a whistleblower. For the first few years after he revealed the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency, he didn’t even consider himself to be one. In his eyes, he had simply confirmed a truth that many Americans suspected. However, as his attorney, Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower herself, would tell him, his actions could fall under no other name.

He spent the first half of his 14-year CIA career as an analyst for the spy agency and the second as one of its counterterrorism operations officers. He said in an interview with Vice News that he was incensed by the 9/11 attacks and eager to join the effort to bring those responsible to justice. He did his part as chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, a role in which he helped arrest Abu Zubaydah, whom the CIA considered a high-ranking official in al-Qaida.

Kiriakou said that during his encounters with Zubaydah, he and the captive talked about Zubaydah’s life, about Islam and even about poetry. When Kiriakou left the CIA in 2004 to work in the private sector, little did he know that the course of his life would be changed forever by his meetings with Zubaydah.

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In 2007, Kiriakou was contacted by a journalist who said he had a source who linked Kiriakou to torture inflicted on Zubaydah. At that point, no one in the U.S. intelligence community had admitted that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques had been used after the 9/11 attacks. Kiriakou was outraged by the claim that he had tortured Zubaydah, saying that instead he had been kind to the prisoner. In an interview with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Kiriakou said that while he was with the CIA he had been offered training in torture techniques but had declined to receive it because of his moral opposition to torture. 

The allegation that he had been a torturer was the breaking point for Kiriakou. As he explained in a recent interview with Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, he was deploring torture at a time when some of his colleagues were traveling to distant parts of the world just to be able to say they had been in the room when a detainee was tortured.

In reacting to the odious label being applied to him, the former CIA operative could have moved in several different directions. The decision he would make turned out to be the most valiant, and most excruciating, of his life.

The same year he received that fateful telephone call from the journalist (never officially identified by the government), Kiriakou went on ABC News and declared, for all to hear, loud and clear, that CIA agents used waterboarding to extract information from detainees, and that this was official government policy that led all the way to high levels of the Bush administration.

Zubaydah, Kiriakou said, had been waterboarded only once, for only about half a minute. The ex-CIA agent thought this was true, but it turned out that Zubaydah—who was not the high-ranking al-Qaida official the CIA considered him to be—had been waterboarded 87 times. None of the information the torture yielded was useful to counterterrorism analysts.

In the wake of the ABC News interview, the Department of Justice made life extremely difficult for the whistleblower. After the DOJ investigated him for years—a period in which Kiriakou wrote op-ed articles and gave interviews and speeches—the inquiry culminated in his arrest in 2012. Following 10 months of fighting the charges against him, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and struggling under the threat of 45 years in prison—essentially a “death sentence,” as Scheer exclaimed in the interview—Kiriakou accepted a plea bargain that called for 30 months in a low-security work camp.

Much to his dismay, however, he was held in a federal prison, serving 23 months there before winning early release for good behavior. But the nearly two years ripped from his life aren’t the only things he lost. Kiriakou lost his federal pension and, as a felon, lost the right to vote. His debt to his attorneys stands at $880,000.

As Kiriakou told Scheer, the DOJ stacks the cards in its favor by filing as many charges as it can against a defendant, burying the victim in legal fees and, even more important, in fear. And win it does. According to a ProPublica piece that Kiriakou references in the Truthdig interview, the Department of Justice is victorious in 98.2 percent of its cases.

In the end, Kiriakou was convicted for giving a journalist the business card of someone involved in the CIA torture program. The conviction came despite the fact that the name was never published and the journalist, according to his own statement, also obtained that information from several other sources.

As Kiriakou and many others familiar with his case have pointed out, the irony is that the former intelligence agent is the only person to have gone to jail for the CIA torture program—even though he never performed any torture. In addition, Kiriakou points out that leaks in Washington are commonplace and that the last three CIA chiefs revealed sensitive information, including Leon Panetta, who disclosed to a Hollywood director the names of operatives involved in the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Despite the hardships Kiriakou has faced because of his 2007 interview, he has stated on numerous occasions since he was released from prison in February 2015 that he would do it all again. He seems changed but unbroken by his experience in the penitentiary system, which he’s now working to reform. During his time in prison, he wrote a first draft of a book, and he wrote letters that have been compiled into another book, “Letters From Loretto,” among them one addressed to Edward Snowden in which he advises him not to cooperate with the FBI. The penal system made it difficult for the paroled Kiriakou to find work, by adding specifications that limited his employment options, but he is now a fellow at a progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies.

Kiriakou’s case seems like something out of a crime novel, or at the very least something from another place, another time. But the sad truth is that treating the bravest souls in our society like common criminals is becoming commonplace. Just a glance at the lives of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and William Binney will show you that Kiriakou is far from being the only whistleblower who stood up for what he or she believed in, who struggled to defend the Constitution and the American people. Since the Senate Committee’s Report on the CIA’s Use of Torture was released, we know a lot more than we did about the atrocious acts committed during the Bush administration, but there undoubtedly are things still being done in our name that we can barely begin to imagine. And worst of all, we have no say about it.

It is thanks to the courageous acts of people such as Kiriakou that we have been able to have information that, as he and other whistleblowers point out time and again, we deserve to know. But as the federal government continues to crack down on leakers, making examples of dissenters like Kiriakou and Manning, important information becomes buried, concealed in the hearts of those who witness crimes against humanity but who do not want to suffer the terrible fates of the whistleblowers.

We are repulsed by the thought of living in a country that condemns its true heroes, yet, as Kiriakou’s case makes clear, we do.

In an age when it seems horror stories continuously emerge from government buildings, it can be difficult to know how to react to this new, dreadful American legacy. Kiriakou has come forth as a clear illustration of how in this day of surveillance and corporate greed—this era of control in which, as Scheer says, a new American fascism is on the rise—no one is safe from scrutiny. A caring husband, a father, a commended, dedicated worker; these are characteristics that many of us can identify with. Make no mistake: Kiriakou was, in many ways, just an average, law-abiding American citizen. But in a country in which all citizens are treated as felons waiting to be prosecuted, in which authorities lurk at every corner, behind every screen, collecting ammunition to silence any form of dissent, it seems that a government intent on entrapment has purposely made it difficult to recognize where the lines between right and wrong lie.

There was a time not that long ago, even in the CIA when Kiriakou first worked there, when the definition of “inhumane” was clearer than the DOJ made it appear in Kiriakou’s case. Kiriakou, lest we forget, did not commit any atrocities against his fellow humans. He is guilty only of holding himself and the rest of us to a moral standard of which we could be proud. Meanwhile, torturers live among us, thriving in a society that has chosen to look the other way as prisoners are abused and even killed.

Thus it is outrage as well as fear we should feel as we hear how Kiriakou’s life was torn apart. His story should light a fire in our bellies as we move to rebuild our standards of humanity, to create an era in which the likes of Kiriakou, Snowden and Manning are held up as examples of courage, not taken down to set an example and instill fear. And while most of us are indeed as ordinary as Kiriakou, let it be his extraordinary qualities that we seek to emulate, even in the face of growing oppression. 

If voices such as his continue to be heard, and we show him and other whistleblowers the support they deserve (Kiriakou received thousands of letters of support while he was in prison), we have a chance. For his continued commitment in the face of immense personal and professional sacrifice, John Kiriakou is our Truthdigger of the Week.


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