John Kiriakou: Haspel Is the Wrong Woman for the CIA
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the full transcript of the conversation below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
–Posted by Emily Wells
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. It’s actually my alternative to the Central Intelligence Agency, and by coincidence our guest today is John Kiriakou, who was sort of a hero at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked for almost 15 years. And he overlapped the events of 9/11, and it was John Kiriakou who was in charge of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, and is an Arab speaker, Arabic speaker, and very knowledgeable in the region, who was involved in the capture of the most important, at that time most important Al-Qaeda operative, who was supposed to have been the No. 3 one, Abu Zubaydah. And the interesting question here is the effectiveness of torture, and the nominee from President Trump to be the new head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, has been referred to [by] some, including John Kiriakou, as “Bloody Gina.” Because during that period she was a deputy director of counterterrorism activities, and she was involved in not only conducting these torture experiments and practices in Thailand and elsewhere, but she is also accused of having destroyed 92 tapes that were supposed to be released about the torture program, which don’t exist now. So why don’t you bring us up to date? We’re doing this interview while she’s still a nominee. And what is your view of that nomination, and where do you think it’s going to end up?
John Kiriakou: First of all, thanks for having me, Bob. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. I enjoy these conversations a great deal. And I think this is a very, very important issue. I’ve been writing about this and speaking about this extensively; I did an op-ed in The Washington Post last week; I feel very, very strongly about this nominee. And my feeling is that it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that the president wants to name a woman as the director of the CIA. But that woman ought not to be Gina Haspel. There are probably 50 women across government, across the intelligence community, who would be well qualified, highly qualified, and would probably be terrific directors of the CIA. But Gina Haspel should be disqualified for her past at the very top of the CIA’s illegal torture program.
RS: Well, why don’t you bring us up to date on that? Because you know, yeah, some people are even saying you should support her because she is a woman, and you know, there are other people saying she just was following orders, and what have you. And you’ve written quite critically of that practice of exonerating torture. So what’s going on here? Are we, have we come to see torture as American-as-apple-pie? I know a group of defense intellectuals who oppose torture have cited polls saying that a majority of Americans now think it’s an efficient tool to make us more secure. We seem to be the major force in the world justifying torture these days. What’s happened here?
JK: Yeah, that’s a shame, too. Because the torture issue has become very partisan. A huge majority of republicans supports the torture program, and a huge majority of democrats opposes the torture program. So let’s get a couple of our historical facts out on the table at first. In 1946, Bob, we executed Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded American prisoners of war during the Second World War. It wasn’t called waterboarding then, it was called “water torture,” or “the water treatment”; but it was waterboarding, plain and simple. And that was deemed to be a death penalty offense. In January of 1968, The Washington Post ran a front-page photograph of an American soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. On the day that that photo was published, the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered an investigation, the soldier was arrested, he was charged with torture, he was convicted, and he was sentenced to 20 years in Leavenworth. Well, between 1946 and now, the law never changed. Waterboarding and other forms of torture were illegal in 1946, they were illegal in 1968. And John Yoo and Jay Bybee’s memo from the Justice Department in 2002 notwithstanding, waterboarding was still illegal in 2002. So you know, to me, we are conceding our leadership position on international human rights. And we have decided as a matter of policy that whatever is expedient is OK, because we’re the good guys, and so we can do whatever we want. And that’s just simply wrong.
RS: I mean, clearly, we’re hardly the good guys in wars like Iraq that you–
JK: That’s right.
RS: –know about, which we’ve done without any justification, on fake data, which by the way was supposed to have been collected in part by torture, and it was false data. But the argument that–and it’s interesting, in the defense of torture, the public has changed on this, and partially that’s due because of Hollywood and mass media, and a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, where the CIA took Hollywood Director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriters and others into their confidence, actually betrayed national security by giving them the names of Navy Seals who were later involved in the capture of bin Laden, and somehow got Hollywood to endorse, or that part of Hollywood to endorse the idea of torture as efficient. But you know from your own experience that it’s been exactly the opposite; it created bad information. So why don’t you tell us about the example of your own capture of Abu Zubaydah and what you learned about the whole process.
JK: Sure. We captured Abu Zubaydah in March, late March of 2002. He had been shot and severely wounded, shot by a Pakistani policeman with an AK-47 in the thigh, the groin, and the stomach. He was very gravely injured. And we held him in Pakistan for about four days, three and a half days after he was captured. And I spent 54 consecutive hours with him, just the two of us, in his hospital room. I had tied him to his bed, because I was afraid that I would fall asleep and he would somehow escape. When he finally came out of this coma after he was shot, we began conversing. And we talked about a lot of things. We talked about the September 11th attacks, we talked about his family; he had been writing poetry, he wanted to recite poetry. We talked about Christianity and Islam, we talked about a lot of different things. Well, I told him that–and I said it very plainly–I said listen, I’m the nicest guy that you’re going to encounter in this experience. My colleagues are not as nice as I am. So if I can give you one piece of advice, it’s this: it’s that you have to cooperate. Because your life is over. So the rest of it can be terrible, or it can be OK. It’s up to you. I urge you to cooperate. And he said to me, you seem like a nice man, but you’re the enemy, and I’ll never cooperate. Well, I said, suit yourself. In the meantime, a CIA jet came in in the middle of the night, three FBI agents and I picked him up on a gurney, and we carried him out to the plane, we took him to the back of the plane and strapped him down to the luggage rack. And I said to him, remember, you have to cooperate. And he squeezed my hand. I never saw him again. But what happened subsequently is really what lays the foundation of this entire debate. And that is, when he arrived at his secret prison site that’s been discussed extensively in the press, he was too severely wounded to be interrogated. So the CIA gave him about six weeks to recover from his wounds. At the end of that six-week period, an FBI agent by the name of Ali Soufan began to interrogate him. And Ali Soufan used a tried and true FBI technique, and that technique is just simply to establish a rapport with your subject, to establish a relationship to the point where your prisoner feels comfortable enough that he inevitably will open up to you and will begin talking. Well, that’s exactly what happened. Ali Soufan engaged Abu Zubaydah in conversation; he offered him some dates; he offered him a cigarette or an orange, or whatever it was. And over the period of several weeks, Abu Zubaydah began to open up, and he gave Ali Soufan what Ali later described as “actionable intelligence” that was used to disrupt future attacks and to save American lives. Well, the CIA, for whatever reason, decided that this was taking too long. The CIA had convinced itself that there was another attack that was imminent, and the only way to get the information on that attack was to torture Abu Zubaydah. And so in July of 2002, George Tenet, who was the director of the CIA at the time, went to President Bush and asked President Bush to move authority over Abu Zubaydah from the FBI to the CIA. Now usually, overseas, the CIA has primacy, and domestically the FBI has primacy. But because the September 11th attacks were still considered to be an open criminal investigation, the FBI had primacy in this case. Now, for whatever reason, and he’s never explained this, President Bush decided to do just that. And to transfer primacy from the FBI to the CIA–that happened on August the first, 2002–within two hours of that transfer of primacy, the CIA began to torture Abu Zubaydah. And he immediately clammed up. Now, when I say torture, there were ten separate techniques that were supposed to be used on Abu Zubaydah. And the CIA officers implementing this program were supposed to start with the mildest technique. And that was grabbing him by the lapels, giving him a shake, and yelling at him to answer their questions. But they didn’t do that. They started with some of the roughest techniques. The first one was called “walling,” where a prisoner is supposed to have a towel wrapped around his neck and he’s slammed into a wall, a wooden wall, in order to frighten him. It makes a loud sound, your head slams against the wall, it’s shocking. The problem is, is that Abu Zubaydah was never given a towel around his neck, and he was slammed into a concrete wall. We know from other prisoners who were subjected to walling that they even have suffered permanent brain damage from this technique. Later that very same day, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded for the first time. For the first of 83 times. So he became so enraged that he just stopped talking altogether. And the more the CIA tortured him, the angrier he became, but he refused to cooperate. Finally, the torturers, who were two contract psychologists named Mitchell and Jessen, decided that they needed to bring Ali Soufan back into the country. So Ali Soufan and an FBI contingent flew back to this secret location. It took Ali another two or three weeks to reestablish that rapport. And again, Abu Zubaydah began to talk. Now, we know from the Senate torture report that the information that he gave, Ali Soufan, was this: it was not about impending attacks, and it wasn’t because Abu Zubaydah didn’t know anything about any impending attacks. The information that the CIA had, that Abu Zubaydah was the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, was just simply false. He wasn’t the No. 3 in Al Qaeda. In fact, he had never actually joined Al Qaeda. He wanted to, and he ran Al Qaeda’s safe house, and he established Al Qaeda’s two training camps in southern Afghanistan; he was a bad man. But he was not the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, and he was not privy to the kind of information that the No. 3 would have.
RS: As you pointed out before, the FBI actually took a strong position against being involved in the torture, and they were far more effective in getting information. But what I want to get at in the current situation with CIA deputy director Gina Haspel, who’s been nominated to take over this agency, she was there when he was–I mean, she was on top of this area; she was the chief of staff of the counterterrorism center run by Rodriguez, who was the guy who was sort of the author of the whole torture program. So she knew this was going on then. And–
JK: Oh, absolutely.
RS: That’s the big issue the U.S. Congress has to face. Do they want to put in charge, a person in charge of the CIA who had full knowledge–and I’m assuming you’re saying that–she had full knowledge of the torture program, so she knew about all of it, the waterboarding, the slamming, the stress positions, the coffins, the whole thing. And she goes back, what, to 1985 in the CIA; she’s been there, what, 35 years or 34 years. And so, and she was in charge of this program.
JK: Yeah, she was in charge of this program. Now, there’s some dispute, the CIA’s disputing that she was actually there at the secret site on the day that Abu Zubaydah was tortured, but that’s not even the issue. We know that she was there on the day that Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri was tortured, and she oversaw his torture. But you’re right, Bob, she was the chief of staff in the CIA’s counterterrorism center as the deputy to the notorious Jose Rodriguez, who was the creator of the CIA’s torture program. And I’ll tell you another thing. You know, I spent two and a half years on Capitol Hill as the senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I have several friends who are still in place at the Foreign Relations Committee and the Intelligence Committee. And one of them told me just today that Gina Haspel has been meeting with all the senators who are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and she has been promising them that if they approve of her nomination, if she’s confirmed, she’s promising that she will not break the law. Well, if you have to go out on a limb and promise that you’re not going to break the law, because in previous years that’s exactly what you’ve done, you’ve broken the law, then I think we need somebody else as CIA director who’s not going to have this baggage hanging over her head.
RS: [omission for station break] We’re back with John Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the CIA who went to prison for telling the American public that there was indeed a waterboarding torture program. Well, let’s talk about breaking the law, because this is the, people don’t realize that we signed off on international conventions and we also, under Ronald Reagan, actually passed a law, right, banning torture.
JK: We’ve got the Federal Torture Act, which goes back to 1946, and specifically bans exactly those techniques that the CIA used. And then, you’re right, in 1988 under the Reagan administration we were the primary drafters and original signatories of the United Nations convention against torture. That treaty was ratified in 1994, and as such, has the force of domestic law. And so we’ve got two concurrent laws, then, that specifically ban exactly those techniques that the CIA was using. Now, don’t forget that just because the Bush Justice Department said that these techniques were legal, that they were legal. Because they had never been presented to a court of law. This was a classified, a highly classified, top-secret legal opinion that allowed the CIA, they thought, to go ahead with this torture program. If they had gone to court, it would have clearly and quickly been invalidated as illegal.
RS: Yeah, and it should be pointed out, as you have pointed out in some of your writing, there’s the Nuremberg Principle, where the defense that the Germans were following orders–
RS: –was not accepted, and they were executed for following orders that, you know, violated the fundamental rights of human beings. And ah, I do want to stress here that these conversations that Gina Haspel has been having with members of, you know, the House and Senate intelligence committees, going around getting approval–they must have known. I mean, people like Dianne Feinstein and the democrats we’re talking about now on the Senate Committee, Adam Schiff on the House Intelligence Committee, they must have known for a long time about the torture. After all, the Senate report was five years in the making, and we still haven’t gotten to read the report on torture. What we have is the executive summary, and that’s enough to make an indictment of it. But this whole idea that somehow you can be involved in such a nefarious program, and then you’re appointed to be head of the agency, you point out in your writing, this sends a hell of a signal of what’s acceptable on the highest level.
JK: It sends a signal that it’s OK to break the law. Not only is it OK, but you can get promoted after breaking the law. And indeed, you can be named director of the CIA.
RS: Well I just want to say, in terms of breaking the law, people should understand specifically, there had been a directive that the 92 hours, videos of this torture program, which were very specific, should be preserved as necessary evidence to what had happened. And that according to your writing, Gina Haspel was instrumental in the destruction of that evidence. Evidence of serious felony.
JK: Yeah. She personally wrote and transmitted the cable from CIA headquarters to the secret site, ordering the chief of base to destroy those tapes, to destroy evidence of the torture. Jose Rodriguez later said in his memoir–for which he received a $4 million advance, I might add–that he had ordered her to order the destruction of the tapes, not because he was obstructing justice, of course; not because he was trying to cover up a crime, of course; but because he knew that eventually these tapes would leak out, and people would judge them out of context and come to a false conclusion about the CIA. And that’s ludicrous.
RS: That’s interesting, because he received a $4 million advance, and you received two years in federal prison after, what, 15 years of honorable service; you were highly awarded, you were involved in what was then the capture of the highest known Al Qaeda operative who was captured. And you in 2007 made a statement acknowledging the waterboarding program; this was after you were out of the agency. And in fact the republican at that time, George W. Bush, their Justice Department didn’t bring charges against you. You were investigated, and they would decide you had operated within the law. It was only under Barack Obama, when he did his kind of crusade against whistleblowers, that you were singled out. And you ended up, because you gave the name of a, not an undercover, but a known CIA person to a New York Times reporter, that you had to serve two years in federal prison.
JK: Yeah, ironically, I was convicted of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1981. I confirmed the last name of a former colleague who was retired to a journalist. The journalist never made the name public. And so I was charged with a myriad of felonies, five felonies, at the time. Later on, the director of the CIA, David Petraeus, exposed the names of 10 undercover CIA officers to his girlfriend, who was writing his biography, and he was charged with a misdemeanor and was given 18 months of probation and a $100,000 fine. You mentioned that the Bush administration had concluded that I had not committed a crime; that’s true. And so the Bush administration in December of 2008 closed the case and said I had not committed a crime. They went so far as to send what’s called a declination letter to my attorneys, where they declined to prosecute me. But what I did not know was that a month later, in January of 2009, when President Obama was inaugurated, that the CIA asked him to secretly reopen the case against me. And he did. And so I had no idea that for the next three years my phones were tapped, my emails were being intercepted, I had three different teams of FBI agents surveilling me and following me. And then finally in January of 2012, I was charged with these five felonies and facing 45 years in prison, which is essentially a death penalty. I agreed to take a plea to this lesser charge to make this thing go away.
RS: You’re the one person that suffers time in jail for having revealed the existence of a torture program, and now Gina Haspel is on the verge of being rewarded with being made the director of the leading intelligence agency in the world, the most powerful. And we’re being asked as a public to ignore her involvement in this torture program. And I was wondering, you worked in the senate with John Kerry’s committee, he hired you; you know, your master’s thesis was on the legislative process. And you work with a whole bunch of defense intellectuals and former intelligence officials who have condemned this torture, and Senator John McCain, who himself was held as a prisoner in North Vietnam, has condemned this behavior. What response are you getting? Are they telling you that we should look the other way because Gina Haspel is sorry for what she did, or she’s a woman, or it doesn’t matter? What are you hearing?
JK: I’m sad to tell you that yes, for the most part, most of the people that I’m engaging with are saying we need to move on from this. And I’ll tell you where I’ve been the most disappointed, too. Number one, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, announced last week that he would not whip votes for this confirmation hearing. And what that means is that he is not instructing democratic senators to vote against Gina Haspel. He’s telling them that they can vote their conscience. Well, when you have five democrats running for reelection in states that Donald Trump won by at least 10 percentage points, that means go ahead and vote yes on Gina Haspel. So right off the top, the vote is probably lost. The only hope I think that we have are people like Rand Paul, who not only announced that he would vote no, but also announced that he would filibuster Gina Haspel’s nomination, that’s a–
RS: Rand Paul, the republican and libertarian, a consistent libertarian senator from Kentucky–
RS: Who has opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning anyway, and many of these foreign adventures. But let me ask you about your grasp on reality here. Isn’t it something incredibly shocking, you are somebody who was punished, as I said, for revealing torture; we’ve signed these international agreements even under a sort of hawkish president like Ronald Reagan against torture. And yet we’re about to anoint this woman to be head of our most secret program, who is, well, you call her Bloody Gina, but she certainly has bloody hands in this respect. And in terms of again these senators and so forth, I mean, they might want to get reelected, but what’s going on here? How did torture–you cite in some of your articles the, that there’s a popular support for torture. How did this come to be?
JK: I remember in 2007 seeing a poll that said that a majority of Americans opposed torturing prisoners, but a majority of American supported killing them. And I remember being appalled by that. We’re supposed to be a nation of laws, we’re supposed to be a nation of law and order and respect for the Constitution. And when you capture people and you torture them, and you hold them incommunicado for decades at a secret prison where even the Red Cross doesn’t have access, that’s not respect for the rule of law. And you know, how do we go to our allies and friends around the world with a straight face every year, when we write the State Department’s congressionally mandated human rights report, and we tell them you have to respect international human rights. And then they say to us, but you don’t respect human rights. So you know, I talked to a foreign diplomat just recently, and he said that he had an almost surreal experience where he had a State Department officer come in to his office, and essentially scold him and say, you have to respect international human rights. And when that State Department officer left his office, a CIA officer walked into the office and said, listen, we want to send a prisoner over to your place, we want you to, you know, manhandle him and let us know what he says.
RS: And the person who ran those programs of rendition, sending those prisoners to be tortured in Egypt and Thailand and all sorts of places, that is the woman that was nominated by our president to be the new director of the CIA, Gina Haspel. And you make a pretty serious charge. You actually say this woman was not some bystander, or a lower-level official, but she was the No. 2 person running the torture program.
JK: That’s right. That’s right, she was. She was the No. 2. And again, the message to the CIA workforce is that you don’t have to respect the law. The message is that you don’t have to respect the oversight committees, because the oversight committees are largely cheerleaders or lemmings, and they’ll do as they’re told to do. And we see this proven time and time again. One of my attorneys spoke recently with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon to ask him if he was going to join in the filibuster with Rand Paul against the Gina Haspel nomination. And Wyden responded, look, I’d like to, but it takes all my energy just to not lose my security clearance. And so to me, that’s not leadership, that’s not oversight; that’s allowing the CIA to set the agenda, and then the overseers are commanded to fall into line. And time and time again, they do.
RS: We should be clear about, Ron Wyden’s a guy that, you know, I’ve certainly long respected; he’s been one of the few individuals on the Senate Intelligence Committee who’s actually brought up the issue of torture. And you have people, Dianne Feinstein is given credit because she was the chair of the committee, although for five years she knew about the torture and didn’t tell us about it. But nonetheless, she printed a heavily redacted form of it; we’ve never actually seen the report. You have people, again, on the House Intelligence Committee like Adam Schiff who are very concerned about foreign governments, you know, killing people, and their secret agencies, former agent in England on the part of Putin’s Russia and so forth, and yet you’re basically saying these intelligence agencies that are supposed to be monitoring the CIA and holding it accountable are in fact puppets of it.
JK: Oh, they are puppets. You know, I remember at the height of the torture program, I was working, still working in the CIA’s counterterrorism center. And I remember Jane Harman coming to the building for briefings. And these were very high-level, very, you know, several compartments above top-secret briefings on this program. And then when it was finally exposed in 2007, she denied any knowledge of it. Well, I knew that that was a bald-faced lie. Just like when Nancy Pelosi denied that she had any knowledge of it. That was also a lie.
RS: Why was it a lie from Nancy Pelosi, who we, many of us think of as a great liberal?
JK: Because Nancy Pelosi–right, well Nancy Pelosi at the time was the House, what was it, minority leader I suppose, or majority leader, one or the other. And she had been personally briefed on the CIA’s torture program. Personally briefed. The people who were briefed were the speaker of the House, the majority leader, the minority leader, the minority whip, and the chairman and vice chairman of the two committees. So she was personally briefed. Now, her defense when this was finally made public was, she may have been invited to the briefing, but she probably left before the really bloody information was conveyed, and the assistant who had stayed behind to take notes apparently didn’t brief her. Well, that’s just nonsense, because staff members were not privy to this information. There was no staff member there taking notes. She was briefed, she walked out, she didn’t do anything to stop the torture program, and then she denied any knowledge of it.
RS: And is this true of Dianne Feinstein as well, another–
JK: Absolutely, yes.
RS: –democratic, somewhat liberal leader?
JK: Well-known cheerleader for the CIA, Dianne Feinstein. I’ll tell you another thing about Dianne Feinstein. When Barack Obama was flailing around looking for a CIA director–you remember there were three or four people who were proposed and who ended up never being able to make it through confirmation. Dianne Feinstein said that she would vote yes for whomever President Obama wanted to name, so long as Steve Kappes was named deputy director. So Steve Kappes had been the acting director; he had been the deputy director for operations; highly, highly respected, very professional officer. But he was also instrumental in the torture program. He was the deputy director for operations when the torture program was being carried out. So why in the world would Dianne Feinstein, if she was opposed to torture, demand, insist that one of the highest-ranking officers involved in the torture program be named the CIA’s deputy director? It just doesn’t make any sense at all.
RS: So what is finally your opinion of what we learn from the torture report, and how does it relate to Gina Haspel? Tell us about the torture report, because what we have is the executive summary, again, heavily redacted–
JK: Yeah, that’s right, we’ve got a heavily redacted, 500-page executive summary of a report that is supposed to be five to 7,000 pages long. Now, I’ve said this before, I’m going to say it again because it’s very important. If you look at the executive summary that’s been released and published–and it’s available free now online, thanks to the Haspel nomination–pay very close and special attention to the footnotes. Because that’s where the real story is. If you read the footnotes you’ll be able to figure out the entire story. And the story is that Gina Haspel was involved in this program up to her neck. And one of the objections that I have to this nomination is that she had multiple opportunities, over the course of several years, to say no. To say, this is wrong. It’s illegal, it’s unconstitutional, it’s unethical and immoral. And she never said any of that. She said “yes, sir” when told to destroy the tapes; “yes, sir” when told to fly to the secret site to be chief of the torture program there. She could have said no, and she didn’t.
RS: I want to thank you, John Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the CIA who was rewarded for his patriotic service and telling the American people the truth by being sent to federal prison, and commenting on a woman who ran the program and may now be rewarded with being head of the CIA. So thanks for coming.
JK: Thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure speaking with you.
RS: Our producers for the show at KCRW are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. See you next week for another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
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