When Robert Scheer and John Kiriakou Talked Government Double Standards (Audio)
Editor’s note: FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday recommended that no charges be filed against Hillary Clinton for her email use as secretary of state. The decision raises the issue of whether the government holds a double standard on matters of classification for official leaks and critics of the official line. Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer examined who gets punished and who doesn’t with former CIA officer John Kiriakou on an episode of “Scheer Intelligence” from December 2015.
Read the transcript of the full interview below.
On “Scheer Intelligence,” KCRW’s new podcast with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, John Kiriakou, author of “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror,” details his 15 years as a CIA analyst and counterterrorism operations officer specializing in the Middle East.
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Kiriakou served two years in prison for exposing President Bush’s “lie” about the U.S. torture program. He tells Scheer how the CIA — an organization created to recruit spies to steal secrets — evolved into a “paramilitary force,” how the U.S. drone program “creates terrorists” by killing innocent civilians, and how the Obama administration uses the Espionage Act as a political tool to threaten whistleblowers.
Additionally, Kiriakou challenges the government’s claim that Americans have to surrender their civil liberties to fight terrorist groups around the world. “That’s unnecessary, it’s anti-constitutional,” he says. “And I think […] all Americans, should stand up and oppose it.”
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” the podcast I’ve been doing for KCRW. And I have a wonderful guest tonight, John Kiriakou. He was an intelligence operative for the CIA for 14 years, from 1990 to 2004. After the World Trade Center attack, he was involved in Pakistan in the capture of the third-highest-ranking leader of al-Qaida. And he blew the whistle on torture in 2007, in an interview with ABC; and after that, while he was working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he ran into some trouble because of an interview he gave to a reporter for The New York Times in which he was said to have revealed the name of another agent to that reporter. It’s ironic, because that’s the sort of thing that Gen. Petraeus, who was head of the CIA, did 10 times in books that he turned over to his mistress, who was writing a book about him. And he got no such penalty. My guest today, John Kiriakou, served over two years in prison. The reason I particularly wanted to interview you today is because we’re speaking a matter of days after the Paris bombing.
John Kiriakou: Right.
RS: And what I want to ask you about, because you know a lot about the so-called war on terrorism; and you know about what works and what doesn’t work. And one of the first things that came up here is that a number of high-ranking officials, the head of the FBI, the head of the CIA and the former head of national security, all jumped up before the TV cameras and say, “See? This is why Apple and Google are wrong to have encryption, this is why we can’t have a restraint, this is why Edward Snowden is weakening us with his revelations,” and so forth. What was your immediate response to that?
JK: Oh, it was first a feeling of disgust. And second I wanted to shout, to the nearest person in proximity to me, what nonsense this was. This is exactly what our senior government officials do every time they’re embarrassed by a revelation, is that they try to pass the blame on to somebody else. Ed Snowden is a very easy scapegoat; Google and Apple aren’t going to defend themselves publicly. The truth of the matter is, we can certainly fight against terrorism and fight terrorist groups around the world without having to give up our own civil liberties. They’re not mutually exclusive. And the government, whether it’s a Republican president or a Democratic one, makes no difference—they both want us to give up our civil liberties. That’s unnecessary, it’s anti-constitutional, and I think Americans, all Americans, should stand up and oppose it.
RS: Yeah, the irony, of course, is because it could be Barack Obama, it could be George W. Bush; they all claim they don’t really want us to give up our civil liberties, they say it’s a necessity. And one of the things that happened right away, and within a matter of hours of the Paris tragedy, it was revealed that in fact the terrorists in this case had used unencrypted messaging.
JK: Exactly right.
RS: That they were known to the authorities, that there was no mystery to it. They had telegraphed what they were going to do. Now, you had worked as a key—why don’t you give some of your background, but you had worked as a key—can you take us to that, showing that you, too, have expertise? Because it’s always the experts that get up and say, “No, Snowden is making us weak,” and so forth. Well, you’ve been there on the front line of this war on terrorism.
JK: I have. Yeah, I served multiple tours overseas for the CIA in Bahrain, in Athens, in Pakistan, throughout the Persian Gulf; I have a degree in Middle Eastern studies, I speak Arabic; I spent virtually my entire adult life living in or working on the Middle East. Even after I left the CIA I joined the senior staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; I was the senior investigator for the committee, and I was the intelligence adviser to its then-chairman, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who of course is now the secretary of state. So I like to think that I know what I’m talking about as well. I was assigned at the CIA to the Counterterrorism Center, working specifically on terrorism issues and more specifically on al-Qaida and Sunni extremist groups. So, again, I like to think I know what I’m talking about. One of the things that really drives me crazy when I hear some of the things that our senior officials say—the president, the vice president even, the director of the CIA, the director of the FBI—is that an attack against us is imminent; we have to give up our own liberties or freedoms or rights in order to either forestall or disrupt this attack—that’s nonsense. It’s not up to Google, it’s not up to Apple to turn over our personal communications in order to save the country. It’s up to the CIA and it’s up to the FBI to recruit foreign—I mean to recruit human sources, rather, to penetrate these groups. The CIA was created in 1947 very specifically to recruit spies to steal secrets and then to analyze those secrets and send the analysis to policymakers.
RS: And to do it abroad.
JK: And to do it abroad.
RS: Not to spy on the American public—
JK: Certainly not.
RS: —it was restricted by legislation.
JK: It was restricted by legislation, and it’s a part of the charters of both the CIA and NSA, that they are not permitted to spy on Americans. That’s gone by the wayside since Sept. 11. But the CIA has transformed from an organization created to recruit spies to steal secrets, into a paramilitary organization, a paramilitary force. It’s not supposed to be a paramilitary force. It’s not good at it. It needs to return to its roots. And if the CIA is going to disrupt future terrorist attacks, it needs to recruit spies to infiltrate those groups in order to disrupt the terrorist attacks. Not to rely on what you and I are putting in chat messages on Google or Apple.
RS: In each case we could have found these people; some of them had been arrested, as in the case of the Boston marathon [bombing]. The fellows now in the Paris bombing had announced on the Internet publicly in unencrypted messages what they were about, and so forth. You were one of the people out there in those U.S. embassies, out there in the field trying to recruit spies. And in fact, that’s how you were instrumental in the capture of the third-most-important member of al-Qaida. Can you take us through that story? What were you doing and how did you do it?
JK: Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan in any capacity that the CIA wanted me. Four months passed before I was able to go overseas, just because my skill set was not one that was important in those really early days after the attacks. So finally, in January of 2002, I was sent to Pakistan as the chief of counterterrorism operations there. I had been in country for just a couple of weeks when we received word that Abu Zubaydah was somewhere in the country. Now, we believed at the time that Abu Zubaydah was the No. 3 in al-Qaida; I think that’s probably not true, in retrospect. But Abu Zubaydah was a very important facilitator and logistician for al-Qaida. So if you’re an al-Qaida fighter, and you need a false passport, a credit card, a disguise, a safe house, a ticket home—Abu Zubaydah’s the person that you would go to for that. We were able to track Abu Zubaydah over the course of about six weeks, and we were able to narrow down his location to one of 14 separate sites around Faisalabad, Pakistan, and a couple of sites around Lahore, Pakistan, although it was less likely that he was in Lahore. We finally conducted simultaneous raids on all 14 of these sites at 2 o’clock in the morning on March 22, 2002. And sure enough, we found Abu Zubaydah and more than four dozen other al-Qaida fighters in these sites. So Abu Zubaydah was severely wounded in the capture, during the capture; he was shot by a Pakistani policeman in the thigh, the groin and the stomach with an AK-47. We were able to patch him up, or have him patched up; and I sat with him for the next 56 hours before we put him on a plane and sent him off to what it turned out was a secret prison in a third country.
RS: You’re doing what you said the CIA’s function is to do, and you’ve written a book about it, called “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.” And actually, I was amazed that this book, which does discuss this escapade, was actually approved for publication by the CIA.
JK: That was a fight, I should tell you. It took me nine months to write this book and 22 months to get it cleared. And the CIA ended up taking 90 pages out of it. So it was quite a battle.
RS: And you’re not at liberty to really tell us what’s in—
RS: —in the 90 pages.
JK: I wish I was.
RS: I don’t want to get you in any more trouble than you’ve been in. But it’s interesting, because there’s a foreword by Bruce Riedel, and he was a really top guy in the CIA.
JK: Yeah. Yeah, Bruce was my first boss at the CIA. His career was on a rocket ship straight up. He had a series of senior positions in the CIA; he went on to become an assistant secretary of defense; he became the national intelligence officer for the Near East; and then he finished his career as the senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council. He was President Clinton’s top aide for the Middle East, participated in the Middle East peace talks; he really was at the president’s side any time anything in the Middle East was going on. He’s been a very good and very dear friend to me.
RS: When you say he’s—and he wrote a very nice introduction to your book—but that’s before you got in trouble, right?
JK: Ah, yeah. And interestingly enough, not only has Bruce stuck by my side from the minute of my arrest onward, but he has actually, um, met with senior officials at the White House to ask the president to pardon me. And he’s sort of leading a group of former intelligence officers in a coordinated letter to ask for that pardon.
RS: And he has said that you were a very valuable CIA agent.
JK: He has.
RS: Let me ask you a question, because this is part of a series I’m doing with the subtitle that is “American Originals.” And the idea is that this crazy-quilt of a culture of ours—immigration, slavery, everything that’s happened; the American Revolution, everything that’s happened and produced this country—for its ups and downs, its black side and its good side, on the other hand it’s also produced an amazing cast of characters. And I would put you in that category; I’ve interviewed you before, I’ve followed your story. And the only way I can pronounce your name properly is I remember John Kerry, who you worked for; so then my wife keeps telling me, “It’s Kerry-akou!” Right, is that right? Kerry-akou—
JK: [Laughs] Right, that’s right.
RS: What kind of name is that?
JK: It’s a Greek name. Yep, my family’s from the island of Rhodes.
RS: Oh, so that’s why you also know Greek.
RS: So I was going to ask you, where did you come from? What led you to be a CIA agent, and what led you, now, to be a whistleblower?
JK: Well, it’s actually kind of a funny sort of romantic story, in that it can’t happen today. I was in graduate school at George Washington University, and I was taking a class called “The Psychology of Leadership,”fantastic class. And so my professor tasked us with writing a psychological profile of our bosses. So I was working at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union at the time, and I worked for a man who I was actually physically afraid of. I saw these outbursts of temper, even violence that frightened me. So I wrote a paper about him in which I concluded, with supporting evidence, that he was a sociopath, and that he had psychopathic tendencies. And I backed this up with evidence. So I handed in the paper, and a week later I got the paper back, and the professor had given me an A. And he wrote in the margin, “I’ve never done this before, but I urge you to quit this job.” In fact, I had quit the week earlier. And then he wrote, “Please see me after class.” So I went to see him after class, and he closed the door of his office, and he said, “Look. I’m actually undercover as a professor here. I’m a senior CIA officer, acting as a spotter, looking for grad students who I think would fit into the CIA’s culture. Would you be interested in working for the CIA?”
RS: [Laughter] This is a scene out of a movie. This really happened?
JK: It really happened. And to tell you the truth, I had never really given any thought to working for the CIA, but graduation was upon me; I was getting married just a week or two after graduation; I had no job, no prospects for a job, really—
RS: This was graduation from—
JK: From graduate school, yeah. And so I said sure, I’d be interested in working for the CIA. So—
RS: So that’s how it’s done. There’s a spotter—
JK: Well, now we have equal employment opportunity laws in this country, so you can’t do that anymore. It’s much less romantic in that you have to go to www.cia.gov and click “Apply Now.” So, yeah, for me it was much more clandestine.
RS: Oh, I see. And so then they put you through the tests, and—
JK: I went through the tests. He facilitated that. And you know, the tests are very funny at the CIA in the application process. Because you take these tests and you really have no idea how you’ve done. I’ll give you an example. In my first battery of tests, there was one that had something like 2,000 questions. And you had to answer “yes” or “no” to each question. And I remember, and I recount this in the book, I remember one of the questions was—it wasn’t even a question, it was a statement—it said “I like boxing.” And to tell you the truth, I didn’t have any position on boxing. So I just kind of sat there and looked at this question. And I thought, well—you know, this was the late ’80s—I said, well, Mike Tyson’s really good, and if I’m flipping through the channels and I see Tyson, I suppose I’ll stay and watch the Tyson fight. So I think I put “yes”—I think. But then, 418 questions later, it says “I like boxing.” And I thought, well, I don’t remember what I wrote the first time. And I don’t have time to go back and look for it. I think I put “yes,” so I put “yes” again. But then, another 345 questions later, it says “I like boxing.” And I thought, oh, for heaven’s sake. So I saw what they were doing. I couldn’t remember what my first answer was; I thought it was “yes,” I tried to be consistent. And then I ended up apparently doing very well on that psychological test. So they called me and said, “We’ve scheduled a second battery of tests; we want you to go to this utterly nondescript building in Vienna, Va., and you’re going to take some tests there.” So I went out to this building, and I was met there by a secretary who took me into a small room. And there was a table, and at the table were a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and an anthropologist. And there was a seat for me on the other side of the table. So I sat down, introduced myself; hello, how are you. And the psychiatrist said to me, “Describe your relationship with your mother.” And I said, “Well, she’s a good mother; I love her; she loves me. She’s—”
RS: What did your mother do?
JK: My mother was an elementary school teacher.
RS: From what background, Greek or—
JK: Ah, Greek. All four of my grandparents are from the island of Rhodes, so we were a very Greek household. And then we went on to the next question: “Was your father the disciplinarian of the family?” And I said, “Uh, not really. I think, you know, my dad’s a big strong guy”—he was a big strong guy; I think he was probably afraid that he would hurt us, so he never really disciplined us; he’d give us a stern look over his glasses, which always frightened us as children. And then they said—and I remember this very clearly—“Have you ever betrayed a friendship?” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t think so; I hope not.” I said, “Let me think about it for a minute.” And they said, “No, no. That’s the answer we were looking for.” And they all look at each other and they nod, and nod. And they said, “OK, we’re going to need some hair, blood and urine, and you’re free to go.” So I gave them some hair, blood and urine, and I left. And I got home, and my wife said how’d you do? I said I have no idea; no idea whatsoever. Then I got a call saying, “Hey, you aced those tests; we’d like to see you at headquarters.” And at headquarters I was interviewed by several different officers, both in operations and intelligence. And in fact, I ended up getting one job offer, and it was from the office that was founded by my grad school professor. [Laughs]
JK: So I went into the Office of Leadership Analysis as an Iraq analyst in the first week of January 1990.
RS: And you were involved, actually, later, in the planning of the Iraq invasion.
JK: Yeah. Around 1997, I really got very bored with analysis; I had spent the whole—
RS: Had you learned Arabic already?
JK: I had learned Arabic; they gave me a year of full-time Arabic training, and then I—
RS: In the CIA.
JK: —in the CIA, and then I went to Bahrain for two years, I was the—
RS: By the way, I don’t want to be party to your being sent back to jail, so don’t tell me—
JK: No, this is all—[laughs]
RS: —don’t tell me anything that’s going to cause even more problems. OK.JK: Thank you, no, I won’t, believe me. This is all in the book. I went to Arabic training for a year, and then I went to Bahrain for two years on a rotation to the State Department. I was the economic officer in the American embassy there, again working on Iraq sanctions. So it was really all Iraq all the time for me. And I got very bored with that after seven and a half years.
RS: For those who don’t know the history, this is the period between the first and the second Iraq war.
RS: And we had these sanctions that were quite punitive, and—
JK: Punitive sanctions, and then every few weeks we’d launch cruise missiles against Iraqi government buildings. And it was just, it was just very counterproductive.
RS: Let me ask you a question. I have a rambling style of interviewing—
JK: That’s OK.
RS: Maybe the same as the CIA guys who vetted you. But did you have any politics at that time?
RS: Did they ever ask you, “What’d you think of the first Iraq invasion? What do you think of Saddam Hussein? What do you think of sanctions?”
JK: You know, interestingly enough, nobody ever asked about my politics. And I would have told them that, you know, my grandfather—I really got my politics from my grandfather. My grandfather and I, my father’s father, we were very close. In addition to being my grandfather, really he was my best friend until he passed away when I was 14. He had a framed photograph of Franklin Roosevelt on the television that was there all my life. I’m sure it had been there since the fifties; or even earlier, on top of his radio, maybe, in the forties. And we talked about politics a lot. I can remember only a small handful of instances in which I talked about politics with my parents. I remember my parents telling me that Daniel Ellsberg was a hero when I was six years old.
JK: I didn’t really understand it, but I knew from the age of six that this man named Daniel Ellsberg was a hero.
RS: And the other night, I should mention, we were both—you were being honored, I was only there as a guest; or I paid for my ticket—the PEN [Center USA] west conference, where you were given the First Amendment Award, right?
JK: Yes, I was very, I was thrilled—
RS: And Daniel Ellsberg was there, but he was introducing another award, and—
JK: Yeah, he was introducing the ProPublica award. But we got to sit next to each other. And—
RS: Yeah, they got a journalism award. And then Ellsberg was supposed to have—for those who don’t know, because we don’t teach all that much in all the schools about our history—Ellsberg, of course, is the person who had been in the Marines and had been a real hawk in the national security establishment in Vietnam, and then he was drafted to work on the Pentagon Papers, which was an in-house Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. And in working on it, he came to realize the justification for the war was a tissue of lies. And then he released the Pentagon Papers, first in The New York Times and then to the Washington Post.
JK: That’s right.
RS: But the other night, he was also there—again, PEN is, ironically PEN is an organization that very early in its history received CIA funding—
JK: Yes. [Laughter]
RS: —through the Congress [for] Cultural Freedom, as part of the whole fight between our country and the Soviet Union for the war of ideas. And PEN somehow survived that attempt to corrupt it, and has been probably the most important writers’, defense of writers’ rights organization in the world. I think they have 140 chapters throughout the world. And anyway, that night, Ellsberg was supposed to have a conversation with Edward Snowden somehow, but that didn’t work out. So he went off on a speech in which he discussed you in great detail.
RS: And it was interesting; so here’s a guy you heard about when you were six, and as you say your parents weren’t political at all; why did they support Ellsberg?
JK: My parents opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Civil Rights Movement. And I used to ask my mom, when I was a teenager, why weren’t you ever arrested marching? And she said, are you kidding? I had three little kids to raise, and I didn’t have time to go out and get arrested.
RS: Where was she raising them?
JK: Ah, western Pennsylvania. Newcastle, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh, about an hour.
RS: This is a rural town?
JK: Yes, it’s very heavily Amish, yeah, very rural.
RS: How did they make a living? She was a schoolteacher?
JK: She was a schoolteacher and my dad was an elementary school principal. Both public school.
RS: And were they in some kind of Orthodox church?
JK: Yup, St. George Greek Orthodox Church. My dad was a member of all the right, you know, Greek philanthropic and humanitarian organizations, including the very liberal one, GAPA, the Greek American Progressive Association. And the big one, the American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association. So you know, those things were always very important to us. My grandfather—
RS: Have you ever discussed your Greek background with Arianna Huffington?
JK: Ah, once. Arianna’s been good to me, but she’s really tough to stay in touch with.
RS: It’s interesting; I knew her mother.
RS: And her mother had very moving memories of the Greek civil war and the occupation in Greece. And her husband had been a partisan fighting—did she discuss that?
JK: That was the only real conversation we had, was about her father and what Athens was like during the war, where things were so bad more than 100,000 people starved to death and some even resorted to cannibalism.
RS: Had your family already moved here?
JK: Yeah, my dad’s parents came to the United States in 1931, and my mom’s parents in 1934.
RS: So they got out in time.
RS: So this is an interesting—the making of a whistleblower. So you arrive there at the CIA, and they teach you Arabic, and you’re learning about Iraq. And was there any question in there whether the—you know, it must have been confusing within the CIA, in that we had been allies with Saddam Hussein, right? We had supported him in the—
JK: Sure. But it was one of those secret alliances that George Washington warned us about. [Laughs]
RS: You only got that from me, right? [Laughter]
JK: No, no, no! I thought I just came up with that on my own.
RS: Oh, really? Because I am a George Washington fanatic, everybody—
JK: Oh, are you!
RS: Yeah, everybody celebrates, you know, Jefferson and Madison and so forth—
JK: Lincoln, even.
RS: But I think George Washington’s farewell address—and I actually have used this in a couple of books—his farewell address is a marvelous document. And that’s where he warns us about the pretenses of—what does he?—“the impostures of pretended patriotism.” And it’s a warning very similar to General Eisenhower, who became president and his warning about the military-industrial complex. And there’s a caution—yes, be involved with the world through commerce and so forth, but pursue gentle means always. And the idea, which I think was quite common to the Founders, was how did—you know, the question they raised, where did Rome, why did Rome disintegrate? What was happening? After all, they admired England; why was England becoming this terrible place? You know, what had happened to France and Spain? And the answer was, if you go down the path of becoming an empire, you can’t be a republic. Or you can’t even be a limited monarchy; you will lie to your people, you will destroy people in your far-flung empire, and so forth. And that was really the warning of his farewell address. But anyway, it’s nice that you mention Washington; he doesn’t get quite the credit, I think, that he deserves. But when you were there talking about these foreign entanglements, here we had been allies or supporters; and we have, there’s a famous photo of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein together—
JK: Yes, Donald Rumsfeld. That’s right, shaking hands.
RS: Yeah, and we were—“we” being the United States; I didn’t particularly vote for these guys who made the decision—but we were on the side of Saddam Hussein against Iran, right?
JK: In fact, we were providing tactical intelligence to Saddam Hussein in order to fight the Iranians. We were providing not just defense intelligence, but overhead satellite imagery to help him fight the Iranians. So it was actually a much closer intelligence and military cooperation relationship than I think most Americans realized.
RS: Right. And he had attacked Iran, not the other way around.
JK: Oh, he was the aggressor. There’s no question about that at all.
RS: So we supported Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran. You know, when you were also in the CIA was there ever discussion about the role of the CIA in the overthrow of Imam Mossadegh? Brought up just a couple days ago by Bernie Sanders in his speech at Georgetown, you know, reminding people that this mischief making around the world has consequence.
JK: It does indeed. And you know, we’ve never recovered. Our relations with Iran have never recovered from the overthrow of Mossadegh.
RS: But was that, were people inside the CIA, when you were there, did they ever discuss it?
JK: Never. Absolutely never. Some of the old-timers would like to regale, you know, the young guys with stories of seeing James Angleton walking down the hall, or Kermit Roosevelt, or other, you know, giants of those bad old days. Kermit Roosevelt, who, you know, was the son of Theodore Roosevelt, was the one in charge of the overthrow of Mossadegh.
RS: Ah, grandson, grandson or nephew—
JK: Is that what it was?
RS: Yeah, I don’t believe son. But anyway, we’ll work on it. I have to say, it’s interesting, because one of the previous podcasts is with David Talbot, who just wrote a big, very good book on Allen Dulles—
JK: Yes, on Allen Dulles—David is my editor.
RS: Oh. And James Jesus Angleton runs right through the discussion.
JK: Yes, right through. And—
RS: And just for people who don’t know, and it’s so incredible to have this connection, I was one of the targets of James Jesus Angleton; I was the editor of Ramparts magazine—
JK: [Laughs] Of course!
RS: —that did the big expose—
JK: I had forgotten that!
RS: —yeah, on CIA funding of cultural organizations. So not only was I a target of James Jesus Angleton, but the fact is that he was pushing J. Edgar Hoover to destroy Ramparts, and J. Edgar Hoover ended up at the end of the day—because I got these files through [the Freedom of Information Act]—saying that no, Bob Scheer, Robert Scheer is not an agent of a foreign government; we’re going to close the file; and James Jesus Angleton over at the CIA thought Hoover must be [laughs]—
JK: Well, Hoover must be a Communist, then.
RS: Yeah. And so it’s amazing. But also quite by accident, my wife Narda Zacchino was the, she was at that point the city editor, that weekend, of the LA Times. And I was down there pestering her to go have lunch, and she said, “Why don’t you work on a story?” I was working on the LA Times – and what story? I said well, I’d like to know about the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. This was now 1980, after the Ayatollah and so forth; I’d like to know how it all started. And she said, “Well, who do you think, who would you like to interview?” And I said, I’d like to interview this fellow Kermit Roosevelt, no one’s ever talked—she says, “Well, why don’t you do that?” And we didn’t have computers then; she took me over to a section where we had phone books from around the country, she got the Washington D.C. phone book—
JK: Oh, my goodness.
RS: —great investigative journalism, and she finds Kermit Roosevelt’s name in the book—
JK: Listed in the phone book.
RS: —listed in the white pages. And so I call and I get Kermit Roosevelt’s wife on the phone, and I have my wife sitting on the line. So I identify myself, I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m from the LA Times, we have our rules. And she, you know, said “You know, I think he would like to talk to you.” I told her what I was interested in. And she was a smart woman, because the fact is he had been working on a book about what had happened.
RS: And she said, “But the problem is he’s in the hospital, but I’ll give you his room number,” and so forth—amazing moment. And so I get him, and he’s clearly been on a kind of sleepy, some kind of a drug, but I did identify myself, and he told me the whole story.
JK: Oh, my goodness.
RS: The whole story, you know; how much money he arrived with, and he went to, you know, the bazaar, and he bought these people and created this—and so forth—and then it’s interesting, because in his own book, which came out later—you know, there’s an old expression that I have that applies to journalism: never hustle a hustler. So you know, I was trying to get a story from him, but he was also very on to this story and quite willing to talk about it. And as I say, he had a book in the works. And in that book, it’s really quite interesting, he had misgivings about this whole venture. Because they said at the time that, in fact, he concluded that Mossadegh was not an agent of the Russians, was quite independent—
JK: Right. Right, he was not. He was a Democrat.
RS: Yeah, and in fact what I didn’t know, but I only found out last year, because there was some document declassified, we finally have the smoking gun document where the CIA overthrew Mossadegh at the request of the British—
JK: The British, yes.
RS: And the British in the document say, “We know he’s not an agent of the Russians, but the Iranian, the Anglo”—
JK: It was all about the oil company.RS: Yes, “The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” —which today we know as BP—“the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company has asked us to overthrow him because he’s going to raise the price of oil, and he nationalized the Italian one.” So finally, all these years later, we get this, you know, a half century later, more than a half century, we get this key document. But the reason I’m pursuing this is because I want to get into the whole question of what is kept secret, what is classified, what do we have a right to know—which is, after all, what we began with.
RS: There’s this terrible tragedy in Paris, it’s once again being used as an excuse for tightening classification, for greater surveillance, for invading the rights of Americans. And what we lose with classification is what really happened in history, so we can’t learn the lessons. How did Iran, one of the great centers of human history and development and culture, end up being the center of madness? And the U.S. and Brits have a real role in it. So I’m taking you back now; you’re a young guy in the CIA. And to what degree, in that culture, was there any questioning, any thinking—
JK: Absolutely none! Absolutely none. Those experiences were seen as historical. And they had nothing to do with us; they had nothing to do with the present. Maybe mistakes were made, we learn from those mistakes and we move on. I remember probing some senior officers and asking questions: Well, what was it like back then? What was the decision-making process like? And people just not even being able to answer me. Because they had never asked. So I concluded on my own that we did not learn from our mistakes, because we never even discussed our mistakes.
RS: OK, but then think about how weird this is. And I mean weird. If you’re a medical doctor, and you’re not aware of the research that has been done or the plagues that have occurred, or so forth; I mean, here you were at the CIA at a time when Iran was very much on people’s minds, right?
JK: Very much.
RS: Very much, and then you had Iraq, and you had a war between the two, which we were on the wrong side, and so forth and so on. And yet there’s no—what, over lunch in the cafeteria, hanging out over a few drinks—there’s no second thought about what we do and what have we learned?
JK: No, I remember people sort of pointing out senior officers to me in the cafeteria and saying things like, “Oh, that’s the guy who lost El Salvador.” Or, I remember one old man in particular—he had had a stroke, and he was walking with a cane—and somebody pointed him out to me and said, “See that guy? That guy predicted that the Israelis would not attack in ’67, and his career never recovered.” And sure enough, he was pushing paper in the operations center, which is the last place an analyst wants to be assigned. And he just sort of lived out his career up there, reading foreign newspapers all day long. But operationally, no, I mean, nobody ever talked about these old programs or operations. And not even really because they were still classified—in many cases they weren’t, they had been out in the press and out in the open for many years, in some cases decades—but just because it wasn’t done. The CIA is very tactical, very in the moment, very in the present; and nobody really discussed those old events.
RS: So that’s a difference in the Ian Fleming view of the spycraft, of having some Scotch and ruminating about the world, and making philosophical points. Which I think, according to David Talbot’s book, Allen Dulles was very much like that.
JK: You know, and the Brits are very much like that. I was in London one time; I had worked an operation with the British, and I was invited out to celebrate our successful operation. And they took me to a private club that they had access to, one of these very old, you know, 300-year-old men’s clubs with dark wood and overstuffed chairs. And we sat down at a table, and a waiter came up and asked me what I wanted to drink. And I said, I’ll have a pint of bitter, just thinking I’m in England, I might as well have a beer. And the chief of the British service put up his finger and said, “No, he’ll have a campari on the rocks.” And then he turned to me and he said, “It’s a gentleman’s drink.” And that was the only time in my entire career that I had an experience like that. And to tell you the truth, I’ve come to love Campari and that’s sort of my drink now when I go out; I’ve loved it ever since. But that just never happened at the CIA. When Dulles left, you know, and McCone and those guys from the fifties and the early sixties, when they left, that era was over.
RS: So who was the head of the CIA when you first went there?
JK: When I first joined it was Judge Webster, who had been the FBI director and was sent to the CIA to clean it up from the mess that William Casey had left.
RS: Casey was quite a character.
JK: You know, people had very warm memories of Bill Casey, which was always fascinating to me. And all of the senior fellows that I worked for had known Casey intimately, and they all claimed that he was misunderstood.
RS: Well, he goes back to the OSS, doesn’t he?
JK: Oh, he was an OSS, a very, a highly decorated—
RS: Which was the precursor to the CIA and all the World War II derring-do, and all that stuff—
JK: Yes, the Office of Strategic Services. Right. Highly decorated OSS officer, close to General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the CIA. So he really had the credentials.
RS: Did the name General Lansdale, Ed Lansdale ever come up? He was the guy who did the Philippines against the Hukbalahap, he did Vietnam. He’s the guy that The Quiet American is really kind of about, Graham Greene’s book. Somebody else I also happened to interview walking around Washington in the early sixties. [Laughter] You know, it’s amazing to me, because you know, I actually like all these people, until I remind myself that they do horrible things, but—
JK: Well, they can really win you over.
RS: Well, that’s what they’re good at—
JK: They’re really quite good at it.
RS: Of course, they’re successful, charming people, and it’s true of more successful politicians as well. But these guys always have great stories. And I’ve seen that in other countries; I mean, I’ve talked to people who, you know, in Cuban secret service and the old Soviet Union and so forth, and they knew how to appeal to you; they knew how to be sophisticated, to spin it in a way that you might find plausible. Particularly if they’re trying to work you over and get some information. But at the end of the day, there never seemed to be any sense of consequence. And so what went wrong in your career, or what went right, depending on one’s moral perspective, is that at first you were drinking the Kool-Aid.
JK: Oh, sure. I was very proud to be a CIA officer. You know, I always maintained, and I’ve said this publicly many times, the Republican Party and the conservative movement in this country do not have a monopoly on patriotism. And so, you know, I was always a proud progressive Democrat, and at the same time proud to be a CIA officer.
RS: Well, I should say, by the way, some of the people I’ve met—well, first of all, there’s Ray McGovern and other people who are really quite terrific citizens, who’ve been in the CIA; and there’s intelligence officials against the war, and so forth. But I remember in a couple of Nation magazine cruises, there actually were some different CIA people. Publicly.
JK: [Laughs] We’re out there.
RS: No, but I mean openly using their own money to go on a cruise, because they said hey, I’m in that building all the time and now I want to chat with some people who actually share my politics, and so forth.
JK: Yes, that’s true.
RS: But the question that seemed to come up always, there seemed to be a division between people who went into the CIA to do analysis and thought and so forth, and the people out there doing the interrogating and the special ops and all that. And you are more on that other side, so you were—
JK: Yeah, I was unusual in that respect.
RS: If I were writing the script for the movie about you, I mean there you are in Pakistan, and you’re tracking the No. 3 guy in al-Qaida. And this guy gets captured, right; you basically organize the raid—right?
JK: Yes. The raid, right, we found him.
RS: And you’ve got this guy. And instead of doing what they did with bin Laden, you’re trying to keep him alive.
JK: Yes. Correct.
RS: You’re getting him a glass of water, you’re—yeah. Now, you personally did not witness torture, right?
JK: No, I did not. He was tortured— Abu Zubaydah was tortured a couple of months after his arrival at the—more than a couple, actually. We captured him in late March 2002; the torture didn’t begin until right around the first of August. And I say “right around” because the White House authorized the torture to begin on the first of August, but there’s some evidence that he was tortured before August in anticipation of the approval coming through. So the torture began right around the first of August; now, he had been in FBI custody, really, since right around the first of April, 2002. And the FBI agent that was interrogating him, Ali Soufan, was actually doing a masterful job at rapport building and engaging him in a conversation—to which he responded. For example, Ali, you know, just sitting across the table from him and carrying on a conversation, was able to get Abu Zubaydah to identify a very mysterious character whom we had been hearing about, Mukhtar, for many years. We had first heard about Mukhtar in the mid-1990s in relation to the Bojinka affair, where this group called al-Qaida that we had never heard of before was planning to hijack six Boeing 747s, leaving Manila and crashing them into the sea. So we knew that there was this bad man out there named Mukhtar; we didn’t know who that was. It was Abu Zubaydah who said that Mukhtar is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. We had never heard of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed before. And it turned out that it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Again, all we had was this nom de guerre; we knew this was a bad guy, we had no idea who he was or where to find him. And it was Ali Soufan who was able to draw that information out of Abu Zubaydah by treating him with respect and by engaging him in a conversation.
RS: You know, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has never been put on trial and is still in Guantanamo—I actually talked with the, what’s his name, the lawyer who was taken off the case, his attorney? Oh my goodness, he was an adjunct general and then he left when they took him off the case, I’ll get his name. [omission] But anyway, it’s interesting because in the 9/11 Commission Report, which is fascinating reading—there’s a narrative of how this whole thing happened, and who are these people, and you know, so forth—there’s a disclaimer in there where they say that the 9/11 Commission people, who after all had the highest level of security clearance, picked by the president of the United States, and people of vast experience, were not allowed—they said “We were not allowed to directly interview the key witnesses”—
RS: “Nor were we allowed to actually interview the people who interviewed them.”
JK: That’s also true.
RS: “We put questions to them—so we really don’t know, and our analysis is limited by that fact.” Well, the most interesting of these key witnesses was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and what I have never been able to figure out, and I’ve read, I think, everything that’s out there about him, is how did this guy go from being a student in—
JK: In North Carolina.
RS: In a Christian school first, and then some engineering school. And there was no indication that he hated Americans or Christians or—
JK: No, in fact, he lived with an American family, like as an exchange student. And they said that he was a perfectly lovely guy while he was here in college.
RS: Right. So when we try to think about what makes a terrorist, what causes these movements, and so forth, it’s very difficult to get any sense at all of what drives them. And in the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, you know, what caused this guy to go there? Was there ever any discussion about who are these people?
JK: Yeah, we tried as best we could to look into their backgrounds. We found some very interesting things, like the fact that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had gone to school in North Carolina, to a Christian college. Like Abu Zubaydah lived in Paris, sort of as a bohemian. And we even found photos of Osama bin Laden in Stockholm wearing shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, you know, on tour with his brothers and sisters, ten or twelve of his brothers and sisters. But we never really found—and maybe it’s because we didn’t look so hard—but we never really found anything that allowed us to truly understand the genesis of this transformation that they had undergone.
RS: So going to that critical question—then I have a few more, and I’ll—[omission]. So, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was represented by a really terrific adjutant general lawyer, who was taken off the case because he was actually—
JK: Making progress.
RS: —trying to do his job of being his lawyer, that had gone to Jason Wright, and I’ve interviewed him and had him speak at our class. So I asked him these same questions I’m asking you about the person, you spent some time, I mean what makes these people tick? And if they’re just off their rocker, or they just suddenly got a notion of the almighty that commands that they kill, all right, well then we can put them in a certain category. But the $64 question, really, is, is there blowback? Are there policies that give rise to this? What causes people to become terrorists? It comes up in the Paris attack—after all, this was not done by Syrian refugees; it was done by French nationalists, right? So what causes this?
JK: Oh, so much of what we do as part of our own foreign policy or national security policy creates, I believe, creates terrorists. For example, drone attacks. We kill so many innocent civilians with the use of drones that we radicalize populations that would otherwise never have had a problem with us. You know, if you launch a drone attack on a suspected terrorist—OK, fine, you’re going to kill the terrorist. But if you fire the drone while he’s sitting in a cafe, let’s say, which happens all the time, and you kill everybody at the cafe, which also happens; or you think you see somebody at a wedding, and you drone the wedding, which has happened more times than I can even count; you have successfully then radicalized all the surviving members of that family. People who otherwise would never have had a problem with the United States. And they’re going to seek vengeance.
RS: Was this true of the person that you were with when he was captured?
JK: I don’t think so. He was a—for lack of a better phrase, Abu Zubaydah was a lost soul. I found him to be extraordinarily bright, not even really a true believer, but I think he had assessed his life and he had come to a conclusion that he was going nowhere. And it’s because he was Palestinian; you know, he didn’t think he would ever see a free Palestine, and he just could think of no other way to sort of fight for the cause, other than to ally himself with al-Qaida. Now, he had never joined al-Qaida; he had never pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden. But he was certainly acting as al-Qaida’s, like I said, logistician or go-to—what’s the word? Just go-to guy for things like passports and safe houses and such. But he told me very directly that he was opposed to the September 11th attacks. He supported the idea of an attack, but he wanted to attack Israel. He said to me very plainly, “All I ever wanted to do was to kill Jews” is what he said. But he said that bin Laden had overruled him, and bin Laden had insisted that the attack be against the United States. So Abu Zubaydah, another thing that I found so intriguing about him was he had kept this diary. Now, the FBI called it a diary, and the FBI, several FBI agents came to the conclusion that Abu Zubaydah was either mentally retarded or somehow insane. I disagreed with that vehemently from the very beginning; I didn’t see this as a diary. I saw this as a very creative, very artistic combination of a doodle-book and a journal, where he would write poems, he would write letters to himself as a young man saying “you still have time, don’t make the same mistakes that I have made;” he would draw pictures; he would lament the fact that he missed his mother, he missed his sisters. I mean, it was just a very personal and very creative thing that he was doing. The CIA, of course—we confiscated this the night of the raid—the CIA immediately classified it top-secret. And it wasn’t released until 2 or 3 years ago, when Jason Leopold of VICE News filed a Freedom of Information Act request and had it released. And now, any American can find it online and make their own decision. But I found him to be very bright and very creative and very aware of the fact that here he was—he was probably 28 years old when I caught him—and he had wasted 28 years. He was looking for a cause that he could believe in, that he could make a difference for. Unfortunately, it was al-Qaida. But—
RS: Well, but let’s go back to the Jewish issue. You say—I mean, was his view that, what, all Jews were responsible?
JK: Oh, he was of the “drive them into the sea” point of view, yes.
RS: So this was not pro-Arafat or what came later—
JK: No, no, he would just as soon kill Arafat as kill you or I.
RS: So where did this come from? Just from growing up?JK: You know, he was one of something like ten children; he never mentioned his father, but he was very close to this mother; they were dirt-poor. And you know, it was one of those kind of typically Palestinian existences, I think.
RS: Was it in the West Bank, or—
JK: Yes. Yeah, West Bank. Mm-hmm. Although he was born in, to the best of my recollection he was born in Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. He was born in Saudi Arabia. And so I think much of his experience was not really his experience; it was things that his parents had told him. And then, you know, with nowhere else to go he sort of self-radicalized, which we see all the time.
RS: So let me get to the thing that caused your career to derail or take a turn. When you had him in custody, you were not engaging in torture.
JK: No. No, certainly not.
RS: And you were making the point earlier that the FBI was actually being quite effective in talking to him—
JK: Yes, and believe me, it kills me to compliment the FBI, but they were actually quite good.
RS: Well, I gather from most of the accounts it’s the FBI that objected to the torture.
JK: Yes, not only did the FBI object to the torture, but as soon as it became apparent to Director Mueller that the CIA was going to begin torturing prisoners, he ordered every single FBI agent out of the country. He said he didn’t even want his people in the same country where this was taking place.
Josh Scheer: And to interject, I believe they started having files on the interrogators to basically prosecute them for war crimes.
JK: That’s an important point. Ali Soufan reported—when he left the country and went back to FBI headquarters, he actually did engage with the inspector general and reported what he had seen as a war crime. And was told, well, you know, this has been approved at higher levels than ours.
RS: So how do we know what he was able to find? Has that been published?
JK: Yeah, he testified before the, I think it was the Senate Armed Services Committee, back in 2008. And even though the CIA forced heavy redactions on his testimony, much of it made its way into the public record.
RS: And so he was actually able to get the needed results without torture.
JK: Absolutely. In fact, he was the only one who was able to get the results, torture or no torture.
RS: Now, you’ve changed your position on that, I noticed.
JK: I have. You know, I tried, in 2007 when I went on ABC News, I tried to—
RS: First of all, put us there. You—what happened before, how did you get to ABC—
JK: Well, Brian Ross called me. Brian Ross of ABC News called me and said that he had a source who said that I had tortured Abu Zubaydah. I said that was absolutely untrue.
RS: And at this point you were working for John Kerry?
JK: No, I was working for Deloitte and Touche, a Big Four accounting firm. I said that was absolutely untrue, I had never tortured Abu Zubaydah or any other prisoner; I was the only person who was kind to Abu Zubaydah. And he said, well, you’re welcome to come on the show and defend yourself. So I said I’d think about it. In the meantime, President Bush gave a press conference in which he looked directly into the camera and said, “We do not torture.” And I knew that that was a lie. And a couple of days later, he told another reporter—
RS: Can I just interrupt? How did you know it was a lie?
JK: Because I knew we were torturing prisoners. I was in headquarters—I was the executive assistant to the deputy director for operations. I was seeing all the cable traffic coming back, not just saying we’re torturing, but saying in very, very clear detail—this is exactly what we’re doing to torture these prisoners. So a couple of days later—
RS: So all of the high command in the CIA would have known that.
JK: It was their idea. They came up with it.
RS: What were the names of—
JK: Oh, we’re talking about George Tenet, and John McLaughlin, and Jose Rodriguez; several who are still undercover. John Rizzo—I mean, the fix was in—
RS: George Tenet, who wrote a whole book sort of justifying—
JK: Certainly. This is his legacy. He’s going to spend the rest of his life trying to justify this. He’ll never come clean.
RS: OK, so you’re called to, you go on ABC.
JK: So I go on ABC, and I had decided in the days before the interview that no matter what he asked me, I was going to tell the truth. And so I said three things that night that utterly changed the course of my life. I said we were torturing prisoners; I said torture was official U.S. government policy; and I said the policy was approved by and signed by the president himself. And within 24 hours the FBI began investigating me. Now, interestingly enough, a year later at the very end of the Bush administration, the Justice Department decided that I had not committed a crime, and they closed the investigation. Three months later, the new attorney general Eric Holder ordered that the investigation be reopened. And so they reopened it, and they were able to manufacture five felony charges against me. So you know, I make a point about the Espionage Act all the time; between the time that the Espionage Act was written in 1917 until Barack Obama’s election, three people in American history were charged with espionage for passing classified information to the press. Three people in American history. During the Obama administration, ten people have been charged with espionage for passing information to the press. It’s an irrational obsession with leaks; it’s an obsession with secrecy and with classification, and it shows a very disturbing willingness to use the Espionage Act, one of the gravest crimes an American can be charged with, using it as a political weapon.
RS: So you know, I’m sitting here talking to you in Marina Del Rey, California. And you mentioned the official that really went after you was not some Dick Cheney type, right?
JK: No. It wasn’t a neocon nut.
RS: It’s a liberal.
JK: Yeah, that’s right.
RS: Guy named Eric Holder, who I actually met, believe it or not, not far from here at a dinner at Barbra Streisand’s house.
RS: And Barbra Streisand, good person. And she had a small dinner party and Eric Holder was there when Obama was first running. And he presented as an incredibly enlightened, pro-civil liberties, decent fellow.
JK: Right. Yeah, the bankers will tell you that he’s quite enlightened. [Laughter]
RS: Because he didn’t go after them, yeah.
JK: He was their best friend.
RS: But he went after you. The guy who sat next to me at this dinner and was so reasonable and agreed with me on everything [laughs], he actually destroyed your, or tried to destroy your life.
JK: Yeah, I’ve not recovered, and I’m not sure that I ever will. There’s a book called Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press. It’s a story about four whistleblowers through the course of history, and it examines their motivations. And he concludes that if there’s one overarching theme about whistleblowers, it’s that they never make a financial comeback. Never. So this is a very long-term decision.
RS: This includes in the private sector as well as government?
JK: Yes, both private sector and government. And American and foreign whistleblowers as well.
RS: Yeah, so in your case, here is Eric Holder, who is probably still regarded by most civil libertarians—maybe he was soft on the banks, maybe he blah, blah, blah—but they probably think “Wow, we voted for a Democrat; we voted for a progressive,” you know, Barack Obama and he was going to stop torture and all that. And here’s Eric Holder who went to crack down on a guy who revealed torture.
JK: Yeah. And then at the same time elected not to prosecute the torturers.
RS: So let’s dwell on that a moment. You spent how long in jail?
JK: Twenty-three months.
RS: Twenty-three months because of Eric Holder.
JK: Yes. Eric Holder personally announced my arrest at a press conference he called. Right? The arch criminal, John Kiriakou, has been arrested.
RS: Did he use those words?
JK: No, I’m exaggerating. No, but he called a press conference and announced my arrest, and said that I was being charged with three counts of espionage. It was the espionage that they were really pushing for a long time. Now, I’ll tell you exactly the basis of these three espionage charges. I worked with an analyst by the name of Deuce Martinez, who had never, ever been undercover, ever. And Deuce Martinez resigned from the CIA about a year after I did, and we were friends, and he was excited to tell me about his onward position. So we had lunch together, and he gave me his new business card, and it said Deuce Martinez, Mitchell and Jessen LLC. Now, Mitchell and Jessen were the creators, the architects of the torture program. And I said to him, are you crazy? Going to work for these monsters? And he said no, no, they’re good guys, they’re misunderstood. I said, you’ve got to be insane to resign from the agency and go to work for these guys, of all people. There wasn’t one other job that you could have taken?
RS: These are the psychologists?
JK: The two psychologists. When I went on ABC News, he stopped speaking to me, which was fine. But I happened to have his business card. So Scott Shane of The New York Times called me and said, I’m working on a story about Deuce Martinez; do you know how I can get in touch with him? And I said, gee, I haven’t talked to him in a long time; he stopped speaking to me, but you know what, I have his business card. So I scanned the business card and I emailed it to Scott Shane.
RS: This is the card of someone who was not undercover but had worked for the CIA?
JK: Correct. Never, he was never undercover in his life.
RS: But at that moment he wasn’t working for the CIA.
JK: Correct, he was a private citizen working for a private company. I was charged with espionage for that email. A reporter for ABC News, once Scott Shane’s article came out in The New York Times, a reporter for ABC News called and said, hey, do you know how I can get in touch with Deuce Martinez. I sent him the business card; I got a second espionage charge. And then, the Justice Department made a big production out of telling the judge that I had passed top-secret code-word information to the press, and that information was declassified solely for the purpose of prosecuting me. And that information was that after the September 11th attacks, the CIA was trying to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Top secret.
JK: Now, the judge threw out those three espionage charges. I hadn’t committed espionage. But this is what Holder’s Justice Department does. They heap multiple, major felony charges on you, knowing that you’re going to run out of money, that your friends and family will eventually turn against you, you’re going to exhaust yourself; and eventually you’re going to take a plea just to make the rest of it go away. Well, I ran up legal bills of well over a million dollars; I still owe my attorneys $880,000. And we didn’t even go to trial. If we were to go to trial, they told me, we’re looking at a $3 million legal bill here. What do you want to do? Because if we lose, you’re realistically going to get 12 to 18 years. The government’s offering two and a half, so what do you want to do? Well, I have five kids at home. So do I take the two and a half and the $880,000 outstanding bill? Or do I roll the dice for 12 to 18 years and a $3 million legal bill? The decision’s an easy one when you put it like that; it’s an economic decision.
RS: OK. So we’re going to have a lot of discussion, and we have every time there’s an election, about the lesser evil.
RS: And we’re going to be told by progressive Democrats, by Democrats, one has to support the candidate of the Democratic Party because they care more about civil liberties, they care more about freedom, they’ll appoint better judges.
JK: Well, Barack Obama has disabused me of that notion. And Hillary Clinton is far more conservative than Barack Obama is.
Joshua Scheer: Speaking of that, she gave a nasty speech today about ISIS, and this is her campaign person [John] Podesta, Hillary’s … defeat ISIS—defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, disrupt and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and harden our defenses. She gave a very right wing—
JK: Well, that’s George W. Bush’s position. [Laughter] [omission]
RS: The reason I want to pursue this is I’m learning something. I had actually not made this connection. And so when I finish and think about it, here was, these are supposed to be the people—I mean these are people I tend to socialize with more than Republicans. I know people who work for Holder, I know people who worked—and as I said, I even met him.
RS: At Barbra Streisand’s house at a small dinner. And yet you’re telling me that this man went out of his way to destroy you.
JK: And it wasn’t just me. Like I said, there were ten people during the Obama administration charged under the Espionage Act.
RS: By Holder.
JK: By Eric Holder.
RS: By Eric Holder.
JK: Mm-hmm. And none of these ten—none—were ever accused of passing classified information to a foreign government, to a foreign power—
RS: Which is the purpose of the Espionage—
JK: Which is the purpose of the Espionage Act. It was written to target German saboteurs during the First World War. But he used it as an iron fist to target leaks to the press.
JK: I have a friend who worked at the White House during the first four years of the Obama administration, and he was a senior person. And he said that he had never seen a president so obsessed with leaks since Nixon. But that Obama was even more willing to target those leaks than Nixon was.
RS: Do we know why?
JK: I don’t know.
RS: Is that to show you’re really tough, and—
JK: You know, Democrats are always trying to outhawk each other to prove to Republicans that they’re just as tough on national security as the Republicans are. I hate that when it happens, because then we get ourselves entangled in these foreign wars that we can’t seem to get out of.RS: Yeah, but—[omission] There’s a narrative here. So the good guy puts you in jail, destroys your family life, destroys your economic situation. And you’re in prison. And we’re not going to go into great detail, but you’re in prison; did you have regrets?
JK: Oh, no. No, no. No regrets at all. I would have done the whole thing again.
JK: Because you can’t have regrets. Otherwise you make yourself crazy. Now, the only thing I would have done differently is I would have hired an attorney before going on ABC rather than after. But you know, in retrospect, I’m on the right side of history on this issue. It’s the government that’s wrong on torture. And so no, I don’t have any regrets. You know, prison—prison sucked, to be perfectly honest with you. But it’s water under the bridge; believe it or not, I met a couple of guys that I consider to be my friends who, on the outside, I would like to be friends with. I got two fun books out of it. Yeah, it’s been hard on my family; economically, I’m ruined. But I’ll eventually claw my way out. I can’t have regrets; I can’t dwell on something like that, otherwise I’ll never recover emotionally, psychologically from this.
RS: I’m going to conclude on this note, but I interviewed you once before. And you told me a story that I still have not gotten over, and I may not even remember it accurately; but you came out of prison and you had an ankle bracelet so you—
JK: No, no, didn’t have an ankle bracelet. I had to call—they would call me constantly to make sure I was in the house, right.
RS: Oh, OK, you were at the house, yeah, I’m sorry—
JK: I was under house arrest.
RS: —you were under house arrest.
Josh Scheer: We interviewed John during his house arrest.
RS: You got out of prison, you were on Democracy Now! and then I interviewed you along with my producer here, Josh Scheer; we interviewed you. And you told me a story that wasn’t the most sensational story of hardship, but I was really taken aback by it. You said somebody wanted to come see you who you had worked with, and they were going to bicycle over, and they bicycled over and gave you a message about someone else. Can you just repeat that story.
JK: Yes. [Laughs] Right! Yes, a former colleague of mine from both the CIA and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came over to congratulate me on my release, and it was great seeing him. And he said that he was bringing a message from a former boss of mine, who really, both of us were friends with. But that boss had since assumed a very senior position in the administration. So he said, I have a—
RS: This is in the Obama administration?
JK: In the Obama administration. He said I have a message from our friend: congratulations, he’s really glad you’re home, he hopes you understand that he can never speak to you again. And I said, yeah, sure; I understand. I think he’s a coward, but I understand. And we left it at that. And I’ve of course never heard from him personally, never.
RS: So we have lectured the whole world about civil liberties, integrity, totalitarianism, and so forth. But this is really a 1984 moment.
JK: Oh, it really is.
RS: That this person in a high position would just make you basically a non-person.
JK: And that’s what’s happened; I’m a non-person. Yes. I’ve lost everything. They even took my pension, my federal pension from me after 19 and a half years of proud federal service. I’m going to have to work ‘til the day I die. And that’s really part of the Justice Department plan; you’re ruined professionally, personally, financially, and that way you know not to ever make trouble for them again.
RS: OK, so let me nail this down, ‘cause this is the end of this interview and I hope we can do some more. What do you mean it’s the Justice Department plan? What does that really mean? What is an Eric Holder—after all, here’s our president who’s a constitutional law professor, president; here’s Eric Holder, a man admired by many liberals. And you’re saying the plan is to destroy someone who dared tell the truth?
JK: The only way to frighten anyone who might consider becoming a whistleblower, or might consider disclosing something to the press, is to make an example of the person who does. They tried that with Thomas Drake at NSA, and charged him with something like nine counts of espionage for reporting waste, fraud and abuse to the House Intelligence Committee, which is exactly what he’s supposed to do. Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA officer, was convicted of seven counts of espionage and two counts of theft of government property; the government claims, for reporting waste, fraud and abuse to James Risen at The New York Times; Jeffrey Sterling swears he never passed any information to Jim Risen. I blew the whistle on torture, I was charged with multiple counts of espionage as well as other felonies. So this is what they do; they make an example of you so that if anybody else has in the back of their mind that they’re going to blow the whistle on something, on some wrongdoing, that they have second thoughts and third thoughts. The only exception to this that we’ve seen is Ed Snowden. Ed Snowden told The New York Times in 2014 that Tom Drake and I inspired him to go public with his revelations. But he saw what they did to Tom Drake, and he saw what they did to me, and he concluded rightly that if he was going to blow the whistle on the waste, fraud, abuse and illegality that he was seeing at NSA, he couldn’t possibly remain in the country. And so he left.
RS: And absolute last question: if you had not spoken—you are the only person who has really gone to jail over the torture issue.
JK: Yeah. Right.
RS: If you had not spoken, do you think the Senate Intelligence Committee would have come out with its report, and actually has it even come out with its full report?
JK: Right. No, I don’t. And one of the things that is very disappointing to me is that it’s been eight years since I went on ABC News, and not a single additional CIA officer has come out and said “I was an interrogator, this is what I saw, I was involved in the planning, I was involved in the implementation”—nobody has gone public. And that’s very disappointing to me.
RS: This is an incredible point on which to end. Because it turns it around. The question is not why is there John Kiriakou doing this, or Edward Snowden, or Thomas Drake; it’s how many people knew what you knew and have not told us?
JK: Mm-hmm. A lot.
RS: How many?
JK: I would put it in the several dozens.
JK: Knew. Participated.
RS: And have not said a word.
JK: Never said a word.
RS: And as you indicated earlier, that goes to the people at the top ranks.
JK: All the way to the top.
RS: Yeah. Well, thank you for doing this.
JK: My pleasure.
RS: You certainly are an American original, unfortunately. We don’t have too many of ‘em. But hang in there, really, hang in there.
JK: Thanks for having me. Ah, thank you, I appreciate it.
Interview transcribed by Lucy Berbeo. John Kiriakou can be reached at johnkiriakou.com.