It all started with John Kiriakou getting punched in the face — sort of.
It was the late ’80s. Kiriakou (pronounced kir-ee-ah-koo) was 23 and working at the headquarters of a labor union in Washington, D.C., while he finished his master’s degree in legislative affairs at George Washington University. He’d found himself in a class called “psychology of leadership.” The class studied how personal psychological issues are exposed in international affairs. For example, how Stalin used Roosevelt’s illness against him at Yalta.
“So we had an assignment where we had to shadow our bosses and write a psychological evaluation,” Kiriakou says. “I worked for a lunatic. I knew it. I wrote in my paper that I thought he was a sociopath and had psychopathic tendencies, and I provided examples. The professor gave me an A on the paper and wrote in the margin, ‘I’ve never done this before, but [I urge you] to quit the job and I agree with your assessment.’”
The professor didn’t know Kiriakou had already left the job. The lunatic boss had punched him.
In a private meeting, the professor asked Kiriakou if he had a job lined up after graduation.
“I said, ‘Listen, not only do I not have a job, I have no prospects for a job, and I’m getting married after graduation. I don’t know what I’m gonna do,’” Kiriakou remembers.
And that’s when the professor told Kiriakou he was actually an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer whose job was to seek young people who would fit in with the agency’s culture. He wondered if Kiriakou might be interested in working with the CIA.
Kiriakou had a hard time believing it at first, too.
“It was completely unexpected,” he says. “The CIA had never even entered my mind. … I thought, ‘Maybe I will take the Foreign Service exam or go to law school’… I should have gone to film school, in retrospect.”
But Kiriakou couldn’t have known what would happen. He couldn’t have known that an award-winning career with the CIA, spanning nearly two decades, would result in his arrest and almost two years of imprisonment.
But that’s what happened. In 2013, John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing CIA undercover identities to journalists, but Kiriakou believes those charges were a ruse for his real “crime” — whistleblowing. In 2007, he was the first U.S. government official to confirm, on national television, that torture was official government policy, approved by President Bush, when interrogating al-Qaeda prisoners post-9/11. From 2014 to 2015, he served 23 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and three months of house arrest in Arlington, Virginia.
Kiriakou says he nearly lost everything, including his faith in the U.S. government, but he maintains he’d do it all over again.
And maybe it didn’t all start with that punch to the face, but it feels like foreshadowing at the very least.
• • • •
As a high schooler in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Kiriakou was fascinated by the Iran hostage crisis, staying up late to watch Ted Koppel give updates on Nightline. He thought he was destined for a career in the U.S. Foreign Service, so in the mid-80s, Kiriakou got his bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies.
But like most 20-somethings, Kiriakou found himself wanting to set off down a number of career paths, and he ended up on Capitol Hill working on “high-end” campaigns and making relationships with people like Tom Daschle and Tom Harkin when they were junior senators.
That’s when he decided to get a degree in legislative affairs, and, subsequently, got punched in the face and offered a job with the CIA.
Once Kiriakou accepted a position at the CIA, he spent his first eight years putting his bachelor’s degree to use as a Middle East analyst specializing in Iraq. He learned Arabic and served as an economic officer in Manama, Bahrain, from ’94-’96. He moved around within the agency, returning to D.C. for a time before heading to Greece to work as a counter-terrorism operations officer. In 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kiriakou was named chief of counterterrorist operations in Pakistan.
In his 2012 memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror, Kiriakou writes that he co-led a series of military raids on al-Qaeda safe houses, and that he headed the 2002 raid that resulted in the capture of Abu Zubaydah, who was at the time thought to be al-Qaeda’s third highest official.
He notes that his career with the CIA was marked with awards — several Exceptional Performance Awards, a Sustained Superior Performance Award, the Counterterrorism Service Medal and the State Department’s Meritorious Honor Award — but in 2004, Kiriakou left the CIA to spend more time with his children. He’d spent 14 years traveling, mostly to the Middle East, and he knew that was never going to change.
The day after he resigned from the CIA, Kiriakou went to work as an intelligence consultant for an accounting firm in D.C. He was at his desk at Deloitte and Touche three years later when he got a call from journalist Brian Ross, a correspondent for ABC News.
“He said he had a source that told him I’d tortured Abu Zubaydah,” Kiriakou says. “I said I had never laid a hand on him or anyone else. I was opposed to the torture program since its inception. He said — and I later learned this is an old reporter’s trick — ‘You’re welcome to come on the show and defend yourself,’ and I said I’d think about it.”
(And maybe not all of that is 100 percent true, as you’ll see soon.)
But Kiriakou had to think fast.
“A few days later [President Bush] says [at a press conference], ‘If there is torture, it’s the result of a rouge CIA officer,’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re gonna pin this on me.’”
He called Ross and agreed to an interview.
• • • •
On December 10, 2007, John Kiriakou sat down for an interview with Brian Ross on World News with Charles Gobson.
He told Ross what he knew to be true at that time: soon after his capture in 2002, Abu Zubaydah divulged actionable information — tips that can lead to action, such as thwarted attacks or to the location of a high-ranking official — after a single instance of waterboarding that latest no longer than 35 seconds.
To be clear: Kiriakou’s statement was not the first time the public became aware of the U.S. government’s use of torture. The week prior to Kiriakou’s interview with Ross, the CIA admitted to destroying videotape of an interrogation of one of the waterboarded detainees in 2005.
In his interview on ABC, Kiriakou said he had no idea that Zubaydah’s interrogation was being recorded or that the tapes had been destroyed.
While Kiriakou never participated in or was present for torture against any suspect, he, at least back then, stood behind the agency’s decision (see Kiriakou’s first statement to Ross), claiming other techniques would have cost too much time, and maintaining that as a result, Zubaydah revealed information that “disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.”
A 2009 government report later proved the CIA had waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who admitted to planning the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 147 times. The report stated that no actionable intelligence was gained from using “enhanced interrogation” tactics on Zubaydah.
Kiriakou maintained that the information he gave ABC was second hand, and that it conveyed exactly what he knew about torture practices and their effectiveness at that time.
When the interview was over, Kiriakou went back to business as usual — but unbeknownst to him, the CIA had filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, claiming Kiriakou’s statements during his ABC interview violated federal secrecy laws. As Kiriakou gave more interviews, the agency continued to file reports without his knowledge.
When Kiriakou became aware that he was being investigated, he hired a criminal defense attorney, but reviews of Kiriakou’s interviews turned up no red flags. However, the CIA’s investigation continued through the end of the Bush Administration.
And then they dropped it.
“At end of the Bush Administration, in December 2008, the Bush Justice Department made the decision — and it was kept from me — to not prosecute me,” Kiriakou says. “They said I had not committed a crime and they dropped the investigation. I learned later that two months into the Obama Administration the CIA asked the justice department to reopen the investigation, and so they did. This was completely counterintuitive to anything I would have expected. But that’s the way it worked out.”
Kiriakou says he believed “in the whole hope and change thing” that Obama’s first campaign promised. He volunteered for the campaign. He went to the inauguration.
He reflects on Obama’s presidency and sees nothing to be proud of.
“I saw a statistic recently: in 2002, George W. Bush killed two people with drones. In August , Barak Obama killed 425 people with drones. Is that really the country we want to be? Is that the party the Democrats want to be?”
• • • •
In conducting interviews during the later part of 2007 and through 2008, Kiriakou was contacted by Scott Shane, a reporter with the New York Times who was working on a story about the interrogation of Abu Zabaydah. Shane’s main interest was Deuce Martinez, a former CIA officer who had worked directly with interrogators who had waterboarded detainees. Kiriakou had worked with Martinez after 9/11, and gave Shane a business card with contact information for Martinez.
Shane wrote a detailed piece focusing on Martinez’s role in questioning Zubaydah. Martinez had declined an interview, but his role in the use of torture was confirmed by a number of “colleagues” who asked to remain anonymous.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had come to find it was Kiriakou who provided Shane with Martinez’s name by subpoenaing emails, not only between Shane and Kiriakou, but also between Kiriakou and other journalists, including Matthew Cole, who was working on a book about a CIA operation involving an al-Qaeda suspect in Milan, Italy.
Emails showed that Kiriakou had provided Cole with the name of an undercover CIA agent.
And that’s when things really went pear-shaped.
It wasn’t until 2012 that any charges were formally brought against Kiriakou, but they came — five felony counts. One for his role as a source for Shane, another from misleading statements he allegedly made to the CIA’s Publications Review Board while seeking clearance to publish his memoir. The other three charges arose from Kiriakou’s emails with Cole.
He was tried in the Eastern District Court of Virginia (EDVA), which is often referred to as the “espionage court” or the “rocket docket.” Both Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling were charged in EDVA, where Kiriakou says, “the deck is really stacked.”
On the day of Kiriakou’s arrest he got a call from Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing secret U.S. military documents related to the Vietnam War in 1971.
“[Ellsberg] said he had read all the news accounts of my arrest and he wanted to offer up a legal suggestion,” Kiriakou says. “He said, ‘Is it a crime to reveal the name of someone who is committing a crime? The answer is no, it’s not a crime.’”
Ellsberg has said since that whistleblowers like Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling were aggressively punished, while former CIA director David Petraeus — who leaked classified military information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell, in 2012 — was given a virtual “hand slap” with two years probation and no jail time.
Ellsberg wasn’t the only person in Kiriakou’s corner — Jesselyn Radack, who disclosed what she believed to be an ethics violation in the FBI’s interrogation of John Walker Lindh, took on Kiriakou’s case pro bono. Thomas Drake, the former senior executive director of the National Security Agency who openly challenged how the NSA collects information on U.S. citizens, also openly supported Kiriakou.
Kiriakou makes a point to note that John Cusack called his wife regularly to check on her, and that Roseanne Barr gave him $5,000 for legal fees.
But despite the support, there was no getting out of jail for Kiriakou — at least not in the EDVA.
“There’s a saying that a jury in the EDVA would convict a bologna sandwich,” Kiriakou says.
He was advised to take a plea bargain, a compromise that left Kiriakou feeling defeated, but he had little choice.
“I’ve got five kids at home, I have a million dollar legal bill. I still owe them $880,000, which I’ll never be able to afford to pay,” he says. “But I lost my house, I lost my pension. My wife lost her job; she was a CIA officer and she was fired the day of my arrest just because she was married to me. This is something the Justice Department counts on. They know you can’t pay these legal bills.”
So he took the plea bargain and served his time. (Kiriakou says, for the record, that no one who actually tortured a detainee was charged, nor was the CIA executive who destroyed videotapes of torture.)
He gave interviews from prison, but says he found “very little support from the mainstream media.” Instead of calling him a whistleblower, Kiriakou says he was often referred to as a “leaker,” a term that “infuriates” him.
But it took time for Kiriakou to see himself as a whistleblower. When Jesselyn Radack, who specializes in whistleblower cases, accepted his case pro bono, Kiriakou told her he saw himself as “just an idiot.”
“‘There’s a legal definition of whistleblowing,’” Kiriakou says Radack assured him. “It’s bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threat to the public health or public safety. And she said, ‘That’s exactly what you did.’”
• • • •
Today Kiriakou works as an associate fellow at the Washington-based think tank institute for Policy Studies. He adds his experiences to analysis on ethics and international affairs, intelligence and current events in the Middle East, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
He also travels as a speaker, presenting his perspective on whistleblowing, torture policy (he now says there’s no place for it in American intelligence techniques) and prison reform (there’s more to it than mandatory minimum sentencing).
But one of his main messages is more broadly aimed at getting Americans to stand up and fight for their rights.
“It’s up to us to make sure our government acts ethically, morally and legally and we’re not doing that,” he says. “If elected officials won’t do it, then we need to do it and we need to do it by being litigious. We need to sue at every opportunity and we need to clog the courts up with these issues. We’ve given away so many of our rights incrementally and we need to get them back. God knows government’s not gonna give ’em back to us.”
On the agenda: Spies or Patriots: John Kiriakou speaks in Boulder. 6 p.m. Feb. 13, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder, 303-442-3770. Tickets: $10, johnkiriakouboulder.brownpapertickets.com, $15 at door.