AUDIO: Whistleblower John Kiriakou to Robert Scheer: Whistleblowers ‘Are Not Alone’The US government is out to "ruin" people who expose official wrongoing "in every conceivable way," says John Kiriakou in an interview with Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer Kiriakou is a 14-year CIA veteran who was jailed for confirming that the U government tortured prisoners via waterboarding.
Editor’s note: Transcript of the audio clip is posted following the story below.
The U.S. government is out to “ruin” people who expose official wrongoing “in every conceivable way,” says John Kiriakou in an interview with Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer. Kiriakou is a 14-year CIA veteran who was jailed for confirming that the U.S. government tortured prisoners via waterboarding.
The interview was broadcast as a KPFK Special Program produced by Josh Scheer. Kiriakou, a retired CIA analyst and case officer, senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and counterterrorism consultant for ABC News, is now a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Early in the conversation, Robert Scheer, the author of “They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy,” observes that most Americans appear to feel they can safely ignore the possibility of being targeted and pursued by the U.S. government.
Kiriakou responds, “Vince Foster was a White House official in the very early years of the Bill Clinton administration, the first term. And Vince Foster committed suicide. He may not have even been in Washington for a year, but in his suicide note he said that he had never lived in a city where people ruined each other for sport. And that’s what it comes down to sometimes. My wife said something when I came out of my sentencing hearing that has stuck with me, and it’s actually bothered me. She said, “You know, what really makes me mad about this whole situation is that somebody’s gonna get promoted for this.” And that’s really what it comes down to. Justice is not the issue. Justice is not what the government is seeking. The government is seeking scalps. And if you think that they can’t get you, you’re very sadly mistaken.
“When I was in prison I read a wonderful book by a Harvard law professor named Harvey Silverglate, and the book was called “Three Felonies a Day.” And he argues, quite convincingly, that we are so overregulated and overlegislated in our country that the average American on the average day going about his normal business commits three felonies. So if you’ve done something to come to the government’s adverse attention, and they decide that they want to get you, they’re going to get you. And they’re going to charge you with multiple felony counts to get you to shut up, or to put you away. And there’s nothing you can do to save yourself.”
Scheer adds, “And to set an example for others to engage in self—”
Kiriakou continues, “And that’s really the important part, because it does set an example for others. You know, reporters all across the country have said that in the aftermath of my case and my conviction, their sources in the intelligence community just dried up. And when we have a Congress—regardless of which party controls it—a Congress that refuses to conduct its legitimate oversight duties in the intelligence community, the only way that Americans can learn of waste, fraud, abuse and illegality in the intelligence community is through whistleblowers. But national security whistleblowers are exempt from the protections of the whistleblower protection act. So what do you do? Do you just keep your mouth shut and look the other way? Or do you risk everything in your life and go public? That’s the decision people have to make.”
Further in the interview, Kiriakou talks about the support he received by members of the public after he came forward.
“I’m a convicted felon. I’ve lost my federal pension — I had 19 years of proud federal service. I still owe my attorneys $880,000. And I’ve lost everything. Absolutely everything.”
Scheer asks, “And are you alone? Are you getting support?”
Kiriakou responds, “It’s been just wonderful. There are groups out there, like, for example, CODEPINK. CODEPINK’s a peace group that was founded in 2004 — I think it was — by Medea Benjamin and Jodi Evans and Cindy Sheehan. CODEPINK has come to my family’s rescue like nobody’s business. They raised money for us. They helped to save our house. They tried to sell my book. And the Government Accountability Project is another one. Firedoglake.com is a third one. This entire community of people just ran to my defense. It’s been wonderful. And it’s made me realize — and really this is the most important eureka moment that I had in the early days of this case — it made me realize that I was not alone. You see, the government wants you to think that you’re alone. The government wants you to feel helpless so that you just give up. You throw up your hands and you say, ‘Alright, I did it. I’ll take the deal. Please don’t hurt me anymore.’ And I knew that I wasn’t alone. Because there were these armies of people who loved the country and loved the Constitution as much as I do, who were willing to help. And that’s how I got through it.”
— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.
Below is a transcription of an audio recording produced by Joshua Scheer, courtesy of KPFK 90.7 FM. In the recording, Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer interviewed CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. Transcription by Lucy Berbeo.
Joshua Scheer: Today we have a special show. We have author Robert Scheer, author of the book “They Know Everything About You.” He’s going to be in conversation with John Kiriakou, the retired CIA officer who spent 14 years as a CIA analyst and case officer, who blew the whistle on torture and became the only official jailed in connection with it. He’s the author of “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror” [and] “Letters From Loretto.” His new book, to be released this year, is “Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.” Thank you, John, for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
JS: Oh, no problem. I’ve got Robert Scheer here. I’m going to leave it to you guys; I’ll jump in a little bit but introduce you to Bob.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, hi. Let me ask you, what’s your status? You’re still under some sort of house arrest, or what?
JK: Well, I—yeah, I finished house arrest a few weeks ago, on May 1. But I’m on a travel ban right now until July 30. Which, I didn’t know at all, that all felons in America are not allowed to travel for the first two months after they finish house arrest. So I can’t go anywhere for another couple of months, and then I’ve got three years of probation on top of that.
RS: OK. So let’s revisit this whole thing. I mean, you’ve got an ankle bracelet, you’re on a house arrest, you can’t travel. And what is your crime? Your crime is—
JK: My crime, officially, is that I confirmed the name of a former CIA colleague involved in the torture program to a journalist.
RS: Right. This journalist had mentioned the first name, and then you said, oh yeah, so-and-so, but you think he’s retired. And—
JK: That’s exactly what it was.
RS: —and did the journalist ever interview him or get him into difficulty? Did any—
JK: No. No, in fact, the journalist never published the name, never tried to contact him, never sought him out, nothing.
RS: OK. So basically, this is a setup job. And your real crime, that got the whole Justice Department down on your case, was in 2007 you confirmed the use of torture, right?
JK: Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. And I maintained this from the very beginning, as did my attorneys: People leak in Washington every single day. I mean, you open up The Washington Post any day of the week, and there’s a story based on leaked classified information. But the truth of the matter is that if you leak information that makes the government look good, or if you leak information and you’re a friend of the president, or you’re one of the White House insiders, you’re going to get a pass. But if you leak information that makes the government look bad, or that exposes government crimes, you’re going to go to prison.
RS: Yeah. And in this case, specific case of torture, we know that the problem was embarrassing the government. Because in fact, if it really had to do with classified information—and you’ve brought it up yourself, the case of Leon Panetta, when he was head, CIA director—
JK: That’s right.
RS: —had a celebration for the people who are supposed to have killed bin Laden, captured him and killed him and so forth. And that was a highly guarded secret; who were these people, who was on the team and so forth. And yet there was a celebration, and the director—well, the screenwriter, Mark Boal, of “Zero Dark Thirty,” was invited, was there. These people had nametags, they were identified. And so that, in terms of revealing operatives or revealing people whose lives could be threatened, that would seem to be the most egregious example. These people clearly, they’re the people who got bin Laden, they clearly would be targeted. And yet they were revealed to a Hollywood screenwriter who had no clearance.
JK: And you know, one of the things that was really troubling to me is, I pointed out exactly what you have just recounted to my sentencing judge. And this is before I had agreed to take a plea, and we can talk about that in a minute. But I said that Director Panetta was not prosecuted. And he, his only defense was, he didn’t realize Mark Boal was in the audience so he did it accidentally. And I said, ‘And, your honor, you have ruled that you can accidentally commit espionage, that is, accidentally reveal classified information, and you’re still liable for a charge. So why does Leon Panetta get off? Leon Panetta’s not charged with a crime. Indeed, he went on to something like a $6 million book deal. But I’m going to go to prison, and I risk dying in prison—because they were asking for 45 years when they initially charged me. Where’s the justice there? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
RS: Well, let me—I mean, it’s a difficult series of questions to ask you. But really, you’ve been up against fear; the ultimate fear, the ultimate intimidation that your government can turn on you.
RS: And find whatever it can against you, and use the Espionage Act to go after you, and destroy—basically you were the Boy Scout in this government; you were the guy who tried to do the right thing; you worked for the CIA, what, for 14 years or something?
JK: Fourteen years.
RS: And suddenly, this government can act in this monstrous way. I mean, fear is the critical thing here, right? Serving 45 years, that’s a death sentence.
JK: And this is something that, I learned the hard way, the Justice Department does all the time. Let’s say you commit a crime; or you may or may not have committed a crime, let’s say. What they do, though, to ensure a conviction, is they’ll charge you with five or 10 or 15 felonies, knowing that you can’t possibly defend yourself from all those charges. I mean, I didn’t even go to trial and I racked up legal bills of more than a million dollars; I still owe my attorneys $880,000. So they know they’re going to wear you down. And as a result, we’ve become a country that does not conduct jury trials in most cases. And ProPublica published a study recently saying that the Justice Department wins 98.2 percent of its cases, almost all of which are through plea deals.
RS: So we have a situation where, you know, we don’t live in an overtly totalitarian society; most people think it’s not going to happen to them, they’re not going to run afoul of the law, and I’m sure you felt that way—
JK: I did.
RS: —most of your life—
JK: I trusted the system.
RS: — and then suddenly the system turns out to be as vicious and out of control as any system. Maybe more so, because it’s, it can be disguised. And regular people can go about—you know, I remember going to the old Soviet Union; you knew you were living in a totalitarian society. You knew lots of good people, innocent people, were in jail. So anybody who went along with the system knew that, and they had to live with that. And that’s why the thing came apart, because there were so many people who understood it was ugly, it was vicious. Unfortunately, in our society, whether it’s Edward Snowden, it’s you, it’s anyone, the assumption is, oh, these guys are basically guilty.
RS: And I mean, just the terrifying power—you know, the whole case of the person who was supposed to have leaked, or [was] accused of leaking to James Risen of The New York Times about the Iranian thing, and you wrote—
JK: Jeffrey Sterling.RS: —Jeffrey Sterling. And you know, here’s an example. Everybody’s saying well, what is metadata? And you know, here are the U.S. senators, you know, I’ve got to come up to Sunday and decide whether the Patriot Act provision that allowed, [Section] 215 that allowed metadata, should collapse—and the government saying no, if you let that collapse we’ll not be able to get the bad guys and everything—and people saying what’s the real danger of metadata? And you point out in your column, in his case, it was just grabbing metadata, and that he had talked on the phone to Risen, according to—
JK: That’s it, he talked on the phone. And like I say in the column, for all we know they could have been talking about the weather. We don’t have any idea what they were talking about. And Jim Risen said under oath that he had dozens of sources for that book of his. So how a jury can come to the conclusion that Jeffrey Sterling was the one and only man who gave James Risen this story is just preposterous to me. There was very simply no evidence with which to convict Jeff Sterling.
RS: So you’re actually aware of a terrifying danger in our modern culture that most of us can ignore. I mean, I’ll even be, I’ll ignore it when I leave the station, right? I’ll just assume they’re really not watching, even though I’ve written a book saying “They Know Everything About You.” [Laughter] You kind of go through life assuming you’re not going to be targeted, and even when you are targeted, you think maybe they made a mistake or they overreacted or it’ll pass. And yet we know targeting, destroying people, has become a fine art.
JK: Oh, indeed it has. You know, going back all the way to, ah—oh, what was the—Vince Foster. Vince Foster was a White House official in the very early years of the Bill Clinton administration, the first term. And Vince Foster committed suicide. He may not have even been in Washington for a year, but in his suicide note he said that he had never lived in a city where people ruined each other for sport. And that’s really what it comes down to sometimes. My wife said something when I came out of my sentencing hearing that has stuck with me, and it’s actually bothered me. She said, you know, what really makes me mad about this whole situation is that somebody’s going to get promoted for this now. And that’s really what it comes down to. Justice is not the issue; justice is not what the government is seeking. The government is seeking scalps. And if you think that they can’t get you, you’re very sadly mistaken. When I was in prison I read a wonderful book by a Harvard Law professor named Harvey Silverglate. And the book was called “Three Felonies a Day.” And he argues, quite convincingly, that we are so over-regulated and over-legislated in our country that the average American on the average day, going about his normal business, commits three felonies. So if you’ve done something to come to the government’s adverse attention, and they decide that they want to get you, they’re going to get you. And they’re going to charge you with multiple felony counts to get you to shut up or to put you away. And there’s nothing you can do to save yourself.
RS: And to set an example for others to engage in—
JK: And that’s really the important part. Because it does set an example for others. You know, reporters all across the country have said that in the aftermath of my case and my conviction, their sources in the intelligence community just dried up. And when we have a Congress—regardless of which party controls it—a Congress that refuses to conduct its legitimate oversight duties in the intelligence community, the only way that Americans can learn of waste, fraud, abuse and illegality in the intelligence community is through whistleblowers. But national security whistleblowers are exempt from the protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act. So what do you do? Do you just keep your mouth shut and look the other way? Or do you risk everything in your life and go public? That’s the decision that people have to make.
RS: What do you mean, they’re exempt? Because the whole argument about Edward Snowden is, you know, why didn’t—even Hillary Clinton—no, I shouldn’t say “even”; particularly Hillary Clinton, and Dianne Feinstein, said, you know, he should have used the channels. And he was a contractor. And then some people have said, well, contractors don’t have channels, but people in the national security agencies do. Now, you were in the CIA. Were there channels?
JK: Well, the only channels that are available to a CIA whistleblower—or NSA, or FBI, or DIA or whomever—are to go to the inspector general. And if the inspector general tells you to go fly a kite—which happened, for example, in the case of Tom Drake, Kirk Wiebe and Bill Binney at NSA—the only other place you can go is to the congressional oversight committees, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But Tom Drake did exactly that. He did not go to the press, he went to the HPSCI; and he ended up with 10 felony counts, including five counts of espionage. Now, all of those counts were eventually dropped, and the case was thrown out; but not after he blew through his entire pension paying for attorneys. He lost his job, he lost his security clearance, he lost his wife; he ended up with nothing. Now, here’s a guy who was not only a member of the Senior Intelligence Service at the NSA, but he was one of the country’s leading thinkers on electronic privacy issues—he’s now working in an Apple store in Bethesda, Md. And he’s the lucky one. He didn’t go to prison.
RS: You know, I mean, for those who don’t know this case, it’s so startling. There was a program called ThinThread that before 9/11 was working on how do you go through all this vast amount of data that the NSA collects and not violate privacy and observe the Fourth Amendment. And William Binney and others in his group developed this program. And after 9/11, the government was looking around for why didn’t we have this and why didn’t we use it. And Thomas Drake was actually assigned to look at what they had. And he decided that they had overlooked a really good program, and then they distorted it; they turned ThinThread into Stellar Wind, and they destroyed privacy. And he was upset about that. So again, here’s another Boy Scout; you know, I’ve met Thomas Drake, he spoke at USC where I teach. And you know, I mean, yes, he’s the ideal, you know, Jack Armstrong. He’s the American do-gooder in government, and obviously Bill Binney is. And yet, the government just cracked down on them. And look, I just want to—it seems to me what’s happened to you is really chilling. I mean, I don’t have to tell you that. What I have to do is try to figure out a way of getting that across to anybody who might be listening to this. You know, because they’re going to go about their lives; I’m talking about my colleagues at the university and fellow journalists, and all that. And you know, and yet it is, you know, incredibly disturbing that you can just lock people up, throw away the key, drive them to suicide, destroy their lives—for doing what? What is, you know, the reason you came to the attention of the government is that you exposed the fact of torture, right?
JK: Yeah. Yeah, that’s what it was. I went on ABC News in December of 2007. And I said that—well, let me give some background. The president had said earlier in the week, his exact words were “We do not torture.” And I knew that that was a lie.
RS: Can you tell us how you knew that was a lie?
JK: Because when I got back from Pakistan, I had been chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after Sept. 11. And I knew that some of the high-value targets we were capturing were not being taken to Guantanamo, which was supposed to be a temporary way station until we decided where to try them. Instead, they were being taken to secret prisons around the world and they were being tortured. And when I got back from Pakistan, I was asked if I wanted to be trained in these so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. I said no, I have a moral problem with it; I think it’s torture; I think we shouldn’t be doing it. So I walked away from that. But I knew that the president was lying when he said that we do not torture. Because not only were we torturing, but it was the president who had approved of the program. So I went on ABC News, and Brian Ross asked me, are we torturing prisoners? And I said yes. I said we’re torturing prisoners; torture is official U.S. government policy, and that policy has been approved by the president. And the very next day the CIA filed what’s called a crimes report against me with the Justice Department. The FBI began investigating me, and they never stopped investigating until they arrested me in January of 2012.
RS: What was your status in 2007? You had left the CIA, or — ?
JK: Yeah, I had left the CIA and I had gone into the private sector. I went to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms. I just needed to do something completely unrelated to intelligence; I wanted to spend more time with my sons, who were young at the time. And I knew that if I stayed in the agency I would have to be—I would have to go back overseas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and I just didn’t have it in me anymore.
RS: And you had worked with the Senate committee for a while, and—?
JK: Yeah, after I went on ABC News and exposed the torture program, John Kerry hired me as the senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I was his intelligence adviser for two and a half years, and then I left to go into business for myself.
RS: Has he ever stepped forward to support you or offer any—?
JK: No. I hate to say it, because I really liked John Kerry and respected him and enjoyed my work with him. But as soon as I was arrested, he and everybody around him ran for the hills.
RS: I mean, that’s incredible. We applaud dissidents around the world, we support them, we want to honor them, and you dared reveal this horrible shame on American history, and even someone like John Kerry, who at one point in his life was—
JK: Was a dissident.
JK: Yeah, he was a dissident himself. I probably naively believed that he might be willing to help me. And I reached out to him directly, as a matter of fact, and said all I ask is that you please speak to the president for me and try to help me out of this. And I never received any response.
RS: So, what, is it just fear, or is it career—I mean, let’s take the fear thing. Obviously, we’re doing this for radio; uh, [laughs] this is going to be observed. Is this a continuing thing? Does anybody who talks to you now about this, and expresses thoughts like the kind I’m expressing—so am I now a target? Can I now be observed?
JK: Oh, I think so.
RS: Will all my metadata be mined to find out how to destroy me?
JK: Well, I’ll tell you what happened when I got home from prison in early February. A former CIA colleague rode his bike over to my house. And he’s always been very supportive of me. But he said that he came with a message from a member of Sen. Kerry’s staff who’s now a very senior official in the State Department. And I said OK. And he said, well, the message is, welcome home, I’m so glad you’re home, I hope you understand that I can never speak to you again, please don’t try to contact me, but I was really pulling for ya.
RS: Oh, my God.
JK: And I said, well, yeah, thanks a lot.RS: That’s like something out of Stalin’s show trials.
JK: [Laughs] Welcome to Washington.
RS: No, really, well, that, I mean, that is so—so this is a person who will be at a dinner party tonight presenting as a somewhat liberal Democrat concerned about civil liberties.
JK: Right. Right.
RS: Right? This is someone who will be horrified by any crime to silence thought or opinion anywhere in the world. And yet, could ask, have somebody go over with a message, keep me out of it.
JK: Yeah. Please don’t mention my name.
RS: Keep me out of it.
JK: Yeah. I wish you the best, but don’t ever contact me. And this was somebody, I’ll add, that I was very close to. I was very close to this man for many years. And it hurt; I won’t lie. It hurt. I was very disappointed.
RS: Well, what does it say about our culture? I mean, what is it—this country that we live in that people will, what? Is it fear, or is it careerism? Is it—I mean, look, why is there—you know, I always ask the question about the whistleblowers, not why do they do it, but why are there so few? Why are there so few Snowdens? There were, you know, hundreds of thousands of people, if not a million, that had his level of clearance.
JK: Oh, yeah.
RS: You know, why aren’t—you know, why aren’t there more people who revealed the torture that was going on, a basic violation of everything the country stands for?
JK: Yeah, I’ve struggled with that question. Because the torture had been going on for five and a half years by the time I finally said something about it publicly. And there may have been a little trickle of rumor that had come out, but why was I the first CIA officer to come out and confirm the use of torture? I just don’t understand, what happened in those five years—what about the people who were involved in torture? For example, we know from the Senate torture report now that there were people in the field who were cabling back to headquarters and saying, this is wrong; I don’t want to have a part of it. I want to come home. I don’t want to be involved. Well, why did those people never pick up the phone and call the Senate committee? Why did they never pick up the phone and call a Jim Risen? Or a whistleblower organization, like the Government Accountability Project? I just don’t understand why that never happened. I will say that one of the things that I learned in this experience is, almost no whistleblowers set out to be whistleblowers. In fact, when I was first arrested, I said to one of my attorneys, I’m not a whistleblower. And she said, you’re the definition of a whistleblower. And I said, no, no; I’m not a whistleblower. She said, there’s a legal definition of whistleblower: It’s any person who brings to light evidence of waste, fraud, abuse or illegality. She said, you’re the poster boy for whistleblowers. But she said, it’s not unusual for whistleblowers to deny that they are whistleblowers. Now, the exception—and this is actually something that I’m very proud of—the exception is Ed Snowden. Ed Snowden knew what he was doing; he had a plan, and he worked it all out with patience, and he knew exactly what information he wanted to expose. And what was it? It was evidence of waste, fraud, abuse and illegality. He told The New York Times that after watching what happened to Tom Drake and what happened to me, he decided not to just blurt it out but to come up with a plan to release it to multiple reporters to ensure that the information got out. And, again—because the American people had a right to know.
RS: You know, you say that, you asked the question, why didn’t other people in the CIA who had complained—and I gather there were people in the FBI who asked to be taken—this goes back to the Guantanamo torture—
JK: Oh, yes.
RS: —asked to be taken out, and opposed the program and so forth. I mean, you know, Leon Panetta, for God’s sake—I interviewed Panetta over the years; I knew him, you know. He’s not somebody you would think would easily sit with torture.
RS: You know, what is going on with these people? And when you say they could have—but now, after your example, no, they wouldn’t do it easily, because they would face 45 years. They’d be broken, they’d be destroyed. Isn’t there something monstrous afoot when people will not do what is obviously right, and certainly in no way hurts the country? By the standards of the founders, it strengthens the country; I mean, the whole idea of government accountability, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, the First Amendment, the Fourth, etc.—you know, clearly Snowden has made this a stronger country, you made this a stronger country. But that’s not just an observation that I would make. I would assume that any person knowledgeable about the whole history of the American experiment would make. What is going on? Is it fear or is it opportunism? Is it—
JK: Oh, no, I think it’s fear. I think it’s a very deep-seated fear in the intelligence community and in the federal law enforcement community. The goal is not just to prosecute. The goal is to ruin you financially, professionally, socially. It’s to separate you from your friends, it’s to split families. They want to ruin you in every conceivable way, so that the next person who may consider blowing the whistle on some government illegality has second thoughts, and says, well, I saw what they did to Tom Drake; I saw what they did to John Kiriakou; poor Ed Snowden can’t even come back to his own country; I think maybe I’m going to keep my mouth shut. That’s what they want to happen. Tom Drake told me that the best plea offer he got before trial was for 30 years, and they told him, Mr. Drake, we’re offering you 30 years; you have a chance to perhaps survive until the end of your prison sentence if you take this plea. If you don’t take the plea, you’re going to die in a federal penitentiary. And he told them that he would never take a plea, because he had done nothing wrong. And then just a few nights before trial was to begin, the whole case fell apart, and the charges were dropped. In my case, they started off making an offer of 10 years on the day that I was arrested. And I said no, that I had done nothing wrong and that I was going to go to trial. They came back two days later with an offer of eight years. And one of my attorneys said that this was very unusual. Usually when you turn down an offer, they come back with another offer that’s more time, not less. And I always thought it was because they had no case against me, which I still say they had no case against me. So they came back with an offer of five years; I said no. Then three years, and I said no. And then they said, fine. We’ll offer you two and a half years; if you turn it down, we’re going to trial, and at trial your guidelines are going to be 12 to 18 years and we’re going to ask for 25. Well, I have five children. And my wife and I sat one night and decided that financially, we ought to be able to survive two and a half years; we couldn’t survive as a family financially any longer than that. And so, just to cut my losses, I took the prison time. So now I’m a convicted felon; I’ve lost my federal pension; I had 19 years of proud federal service; I still owe my attorneys $880,000; and I’ve lost everything, absolutely everything.
RS: And are you alone? Are you getting support? I know there was some effort to raise funds for you, to buy your book, and so forth?
JK: Oh, it’s been just wonderful. There are groups out there, like for example, Code Pink. Code Pink’s a peace group that was founded in 2004, I think it was —
JK: —by Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans and Cindy Sheehan. Code Pink has come to my family’s rescue like nobody’s business. I mean, they raised money for us; they helped to save our house; they tried to sell my book. And the Government Accountability Project is another one. Firedoglake.com is a third one. This entire community of people just ran to my defense. It’s been wonderful, and it’s made me realize—and really, this is the most important “eureka” moment that I had in the early days of this case—it made me realize that I was not alone. And, see, the government wants you to think that you’re alone. The government wants you to feel helpless so that you just give up, you just throw up your hands and you say, all right, I did it, I’ll take the deal, you know, please don’t hurt me anymore. And I knew that I wasn’t alone, because there were these armies of people who love the country and love the Constitution as much as I do, who were willing to help. And that’s how I got through it. When I was in prison—I was only there for 23 months—I received more than 7,000 letters of support in prison. Absolutely wonderful.
RS: Are you going to publish that as a book, I read somewhere?
JK: Yeah, I wrote a series of open letters while I was in prison that I called “Letters From Loretto.” And they addressed a whole bunch of things: torture, and prison reform, and solitary, and medical care in prison, and things like that. I’m just about done with it; I think I’m going to finish it this week and send it on to my editor. And then I’ll do another one. I’d like to have it done by the end of the summer; it just needs a little bit more typing. But, yeah, I think I got two decent books out of this experience.
RS: Are you a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies?
JK: I am. And you know, that’s another wonderful organization that ran to my defense. The Institute for Policy Studies is really Washington’s preeminent progressive think tank. They’ve been around since 1963. They don’t take government funding from any government; they don’t take any corporate funding. And everybody there is just free to publish and to think and to speak about what we consider to be the great issues facing the country. For me, it’s intelligence policy, torture and prison reform; for others, it’s gender equality and global warming and, you know, peace issues. It’s just a fantastic organization.
RS: You know, it was formed, actually, by Marcus Raskin and Dick Barnet, who were veterans of the JFK, John Kennedy’s, administration.
JK: They were indeed, and Marcus Raskin still comes to the staff meetings and is treated with a deference and respect that a giant like he deserves.
RS: Yeah. And what’s—I mean, I don’t want to put too rosy a glow on this, because I think you’ve been put through hell, frankly. And I don’t know, I don’t know if I could take it; I think most people are afraid of that kind of, let alone the 30 years or the 45 years or arranging your death one way or another. But I keep getting back—who is the “they”? I mean, here the “they” is one man I voted for, and campaigned for, actually, is the president. And what are these people? I mean, I have lots of friends here in Los Angeles who have worked for various administrations, and had important positions in the Justice Department, and so forth. What are they? Are they different than they appear to me? How do people go—this is a question I used to ask in Cuba, in the Soviet Union, Hungary, any place I traveled to—you know, Egypt under the military [regime], anywhere I traveled as a journalist. I would ask people, you know—I wouldn’t put a lie detector on ’em, but I’d say, how do people go along? What is this concept of the good German that goes along? And you must know a lot of these people. What is it, they look the other way? I know we have Jodie Evans, and she’s a saint, but you know, why aren’t there more of them?JK: Well, you know, that’s a terrific question. There was a group, or there is a group here in Washington that handles some whistleblower issues. And my friends at the Government Accountability Project said, you should reach out to this other group; perhaps they can help you; perhaps they can think of something that we haven’t thought of. So I did; I sent an email to the executive director, and I said, maybe you’ve heard of me; I’m John Kiriakou, I’m the CIA torture whistleblower, I’m looking at going to trial, etc., etc. And I got an email back from her a couple of days later, and she said, yes, we’re aware of your situation; we wish you all the best; please do not contact us again. So I went back to GAP, and I said, I got this very terse email saying basically go jump in the lake. And my attorney said, you know, I heard a rumor that that other organization is doing all it can to not alienate the White House, because everybody wants to work at the White House.
RS: But that’s sick, you know? I mean, come on. That, this is not kidding around! This is—you know, I think of a guy like William Binney, who I got to spend time with lately; you know, I interviewed him a bunch of times, and he spoke at my class at USC. And you know, this guy is an incredible human being.
JK: Oh, he’s fantastic.
RS: Yeah! I mean, here’s a guy who’s spent, what, you know, 35 years serving the government, serving in the NSA, serving in the armed forces. This is a, you know, I don’t know what—
JK: Yeah, he was senior level.
RS: Yeah, and I don’t know whether he’s a Republican or a Democrat, but this is exactly, you know, what you want in a citizen. And that they should haul him out of the shower and—
JK: The shower.
RS: — with a gun on his wife, who also worked at the NSA for [years]—what is going on, is what I would really—you know, this is not just a polemical question. I mean, as I say, I know people who have been in Cabinets; I’ve interviewed, I interviewed even Richard Nixon, for God’s sake. I’ve been around these people, and when you’re around them, they don’t seem like monsters. What’s happening? And you know, who are those people in the CIA that were your buddies, your friends—
RS: —and they did torture? They did it? They participated? They looked the other way?
JK: Well, you know, there were a couple with whom I worked at headquarters who I never really liked. Because they had spent their careers in headquarters, they had never recruited an agent, they had never interviewed a source; they just did their whole careers from headquarters. And then as soon as we started this torture regime, here they are volunteering to go overseas just to watch the torture sessions. And this happened, I’m going to say, a half a dozen times that I know of, where they flew halfway across the world in some cases just so that they could say that they were in the room when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, or when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got a beating. It was a sick kind of satisfaction that they receive from watching the suffering of other human beings. And to me, that’s when their real personalities came out, that we were dealing with sick people here.
RS: But how do they get sick? I mean, it’s—
JK: There’s this groupthink at the CIA. The CIA—I mean, it’s not the CIA that I joined, I’ll tell you that. The CIA that I joined wouldn’t even allow us to recruit sources who had poor human-rights records, or any problems with human rights in their past. But Bill Clinton’s long gone, so things changed, certainly, after Clinton left the White House. And the CIA changed. It sort of morphed from an organization that was recruiting spies to steal secrets to support American policy to a paramilitary organization whose primary goal was to kill people. And that’s really what it’s become.
RS: That’s an astounding observation. You know, because people may not know it, but the CIA was formed with a certain idealism—
JK: Oh, it really was—
RS: —in mind, ah—
JK: — in fact, by progressives.
RS: Yeah. And that was the original idea; how do you win the hearts and minds, how do you go out there and—
JK: That’s right.
RS: I know this because I helped expose the CIA when I was the editor of Ramparts magazine. And a lot of the people that I dealt with, even back then, said no, what you’re objecting to is really do-gooder stuff; you know, we wanted to make the National Student [Association] stronger, we wanted to advance the cause of artistic freedom, we wanted to beat the communists in the propaganda wars. But it was, you know, Desmond FitzGerald, whose daughter Frances FitzGerald wrote one of the great books on Vietnam, “Fire in the Lake”; but her father was a deputy director of the CIA. And those people were, you know, they thought they were out of Roosevelt, out of the New Deal, out of the—and you know, and to go from that to torture is really astounding. You know, I mean, even someone like Kermit Roosevelt, who was involved in the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran—he wrote a [book], I interviewed him at one point and he wrote a book about it. And he said no, this is not a model for overthrowing everybody in the world, and you know, Allen Dulles, please listen to me, you know; [laughs] this was a unique situation. Now there are no such cautions.
JK: No, there are no such cautions. And the people who objected to some of these policies—people like Brent Scowcroft, for example—were then sort of cast out of the White House during the Bush administration. And then others in Brent Scowcroft’s circle saw what had happened and decided that they enjoyed those dinner invitations to the White House, and so they were going to keep their mouths shut. That’s exactly what happened.
RS: But you know, you’re up—I hope you do a book on this, because you have an insight now that I will—hopefully I will not have, because hopefully they will not throw me in the slammer and threaten me with 40 years. But you know, but you’ve had an insight on—and also I’ve never been in the CIA. And you have an insight that really goes to the heart of the big question of modern history, which is not how did a bunch of Muslims go wild in a fairly undeveloped region of the world and see God in weird forms. The real question of barbarism in modern history was, how did one of the most educated, if not the best educated, civilized society in Germany embrace madness? And that’s a question Hannah Arendt and others tried to grapple with; where did the lunacy come from? And you’re experiencing an edge of it within our own society. How did this country, with well-educated people, respect for law and order, in the name of fighting basically shadowy demons—we have no existential threat; we have manageable threats, manageable problems—how did it give license to lunacy?
JK: Indeed. The American Psychological Association, the APA, is conducting an investigation right now, looking into two things. No. 1, how psychologists [James] Mitchell and [John “Bruce”] Jessen ended up creating the CIA’s torture program by reverse-engineering the military’s SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] program; and two, why is it that no one in the American Psychological Association tried to stop them? Because torture, just by its very nature, is something that is opposed by the entire medical, psychological and psychiatric establishment. But instead of being stopped, they were encouraged. And the APA, for whatever reason, never objected to their ideas, even as they were implementing them. We’ve dropped the ball on torture on so many different levels over the past 13-plus years, where do we even begin to rebuild?
RS: You know, help me with the answer to that. Again, I’m thinking, all right; tonight I go to dinner, and there’s someone who’s been head of this government agency, or of that. And you know, I was at a dinner party with Eric Holder at Barbra Streisand’s house, for God’s sake; seemed like a reasonable fellow, you know; this was when Obama was first running. You know, he’s a guy who came out of a liberal tradition. How in the world — how in the world has he looked the other way? You know, what is it about these people? What is going on?
JK: The president said something to a journalist—I don’t recall who the journalist was, but I was in prison when I saw it on TV. And he said, I never said I was a liberal. And I thought, amen to that. Because you’re no liberal.
RS: Well, then, let’s not hang it on the word “liberal.” Let’s, you know, ah—I mean, because we have good people, we used to have a lot of good people on the Republican side who cared about civil liberties; that was supposed to be a conservative cause. And we do have libertarians to fight on Sunday [May 31, when the Senate reconvenes the day before Patriot Act provisions are due to expire] against the Patriot Act, will be, you know, I think Rand Paul has played a key role in grasping the significance of the Fourth Amendment and limited government. So let’s not get hung up on the word “liberal”; let’s talk about, you know, human rights. “Do unto others,” you know—some, you know, essential respect for—here you had the Senate committee report on torture. What were your old friends in the CIA thinking when they would go along with blocking that report?
JK: Right, right.
RS: What is that—you have an insight. Who are these folks? What happens to them? What drug are they on?
JK: Well, I’ll tell you what the motivation is. The motivation is that they know they can get away with it. Because there hasn’t been real congressional oversight since Frank Church was in the Senate. And they know that the members of the House and the Senate who are supposed to be overseeing CIA operations are really little more than cheerleaders for CIA operations. You know, when Dianne Feinstein makes a speech that—she’ll approve of the president’s nominee for CIA director, but only if Steve Kappes is named the deputy director of the CIA. Well, Steve Kappes was one of the creators of the torture program. So why would you demand that somebody like Steve Kappes be named deputy director of the CIA? It’s because you’re just a cheerleader for the CIA. You’re not taking your oversight responsibilities seriously. And the CIA knows that now, even, at least on the Senate side with Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican of North Carolina—Burr voted against even allowing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to conduct an investigation into the torture regime. So they know they have nothing to worry about; they know they can stonewall, they know they can spy on the Senate and there are no consequences to speak of. So they keep doing it, because there’s nobody to stop them.RS: But why doesn’t some sense of conscience, of some concern about the country—what about the whole notion of “Do unto others”? Ah, you know, the good Samaritan? What happened to values? That’s the part I don’t get, you know, ah—
JK: A CIA psychiatrist told me one time that the CIA seeks to hire people who have what he called “sociopathic tendencies.” Not sociopaths, because sociopaths have no consciences. But they’re looking for people with sociopathic tendencies, and what that means is they’re looking to hire people who are comfortable working in moral or legal gray areas. Well, that’s amplified in a situation like this. So when you’re surrounded by people with the same psychological makeup, and you’re surrounded by people who want to—you know, according to what they said right after Sept. 11, they want to avenge our fallen countrymen—you sort of buck each other up; and then you have Capitol Hill cheering from the sidelines, and you just keep pushing that envelope further and further and further out into extremism. And that’s what we’ve seen since 2002, regardless of who’s in the White House.
RS: But you’re suggesting kind of a bad-apple theory, you know; they hire people that have these defects. I’m thinking of the good people, the good Germans. I’m thinking of the people—my father was an immigrant from Germany; he came after the first World War. But I went back and interviewed his brother, who was in the German army and was wounded at Stalingrad—I dealt with that question, because my other part of my family was Jewish and got killed by these people—trying to answer, why would you go along? Well, in their case, you know, my uncle was a farmer; he didn’t have many resources, he didn’t have, you know, wasn’t well educated. So he went along; he heard a voice on the radio and so forth. I’m not excusing it; he wasn’t a Nazi, he was just a good German soldier, you know. But when I think about, not the people in the CIA, I’m thinking about a Panetta. Yes, he went into the CIA, but he was supposed to be a reasonable legislator.
JK: Oh, yeah. I, for one, was very excited when Leon Panetta was named CIA director, because I thought, well, finally the CIA is going to have some adult supervision. This is a guy that has the ear of the president; this is a guy with extensive experience, not just in the executive branch but on Capitol Hill as well. This is exactly the kind of strong, steady leadership that the CIA needed. But the CIA did to Leon Panetta what they did to every other outsider, including every president who’s elected. And that is that they recruited him. What I mean when I say that is that as soon as they begin sharing with you the black-border reports, the special operations, the deep-cover sources—they bring you into that club where you know the coolest stuff, the most interesting, top-secret information, and you’re part of the gang. And Panetta became a part of the gang. I mean, you saw the way he patted himself on the back publicly, very publicly, after the killing of Osama bin Laden. You saw the reports that he didn’t want to be secretary of defense, because he so enjoyed being at the CIA. That’s why. The CIA is very successful in bringing people like that on board, so that they don’t have to worry about reorganizations or layoffs of bad apples like they saw under Stansfield Turner, when Jimmy Carter was president. They still talk about what Stansfield Turner did, and they call it the Friday Night Massacre. Well, the Friday Night Massacre was, he took case officers who couldn’t follow the rules and couldn’t obey the laws and had been criticized by the Church Committee, and he pushed them into retirement. I wouldn’t call that a massacre; I would call that a cleanup.
JK: And since then, no CIA division chief or group chief or office chief has wanted to see a reformer come in and have a reenactment of the Friday Night Massacre.
RS: So finally, in terms of their co-option, they get the president of the United States, convince him that we can do this now without boots on the ground, without coffins coming home; we can do it as a video game. And they get him involved in the drone attacks, knowing it, and it’s going to be only bad guys killed. And that’s where the ultimate co-option of this president came from.
JK: That’s exactly right. This president killed more people with the use of drones in his first two years as president than President Bush killed in eight years as president. And I think that really says something.
RS: And so let me finally, because we’re going to—I really appreciate your taking the time, but you know—I just want to get across to anybody who might listen to this. We’ll put this on the website that I edit, Truthdig, and I’ll do everything I can to get the word out. But I want to tell you, I didn’t focus enough on your example. I wasn’t involved enough. And I just, you know, I just—and I felt the same way when I met Bill Binney, and when I met Drake. And I thought to myself, what do we have? We got about a dozen people, I believe your attorney is one of them, who stood up in the Justice Department.
JK: She did. Jesselyn Radack.
RS: Jesselyn Radack, an incredible human being. And you know, and then you look at these people, and instead of saying wow, you know, let’s look at their motives, let’s challenge them, let’s think about that—you got to look at yourself. And say, you know, would I do that? Would I be a whistleblower? Would I tell the truth? I mean, I suspect people don’t tell the truth when there’s far lower consequences a lot of times, just affecting their jobs. And yet what you’re really talking about is a situation when power is so concentrated—the power to kill people, the power to change human history, the power to lie about wars or lie into wars—if you don’t have whistleblowers, you don’t have anything of what the founders of this nation thought you needed for a representative governance.
JK: And that’s exactly what kept me going through prison. Because I know in my heart that this is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned. I know in my heart that we need to respect the Constitution. Not twist it and turn it and squeeze it so that it fits, you know, our own assassination program or our own torture program.
RS: Wow. So, ah, let me, John Kiriakou—ah, can you help me pronounce your name, because I want to pronounce it a lot.
JK: Sure—oh, thank you. It’s Kiriakou.
RS: Kiriakou. We’ve been debating about that here.
RS: And I want to just say, you know, I think it may be small comfort after spending time in jail and facing bankruptcy and everythingelse. But I would say the same thing, obviously, to an Edward Snowden; I say it to Daniel Ellsberg every time I see him, for telling us the truth about the Vietnam War when he faced 130 years in jail. I said, you know, you may not be rewarded in your own time the way you deserve; you certainly aren’t, haven’t been up to now; hopefully it’ll get a little easier. But there’s no question, looking back on this country, if we’re still a democracy 30 years from now, you’re going to be one of the greats. And so thank you for doing what you’ve done.
JK: Thank you so much. That’s extremely kind of you. I really appreciate the kind thought.
JS: : Thank you for joining us. And again, you can find more at his website, johnkiriakou.com, and the upcoming book. There’s “Letters From Loretto” and there’s also “The Reluctant Spy” and a number of other books, so check him out. Thank you, John.
JK: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JS: OK, have a good day.Wait, before you go…
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