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CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou, Sentenced to 30 Months in Jail, Wears Conviction as ‘Badge of Honor’

A former CIA officer, who was the first member of the agency to publicly acknowledge that torture was official US policy under the administration of President George W. Bush, has been sentenced to thirty months in jail. He was convicted in October of last year of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) when he provided the name of an officer involved in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program to a reporter.

Kiriakou granted Firedoglake an interview the day before his sentencing.

He was initially indicted for allegedly releasing classified information to journalists that included the identities of a “covert CIA officer” and details on the role of “another CIA employee in classified activities.” The Justice Department also charged him with three counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count for “allegedly lying to the Publications Review Board of the CIA” so he could include classified information in his book in addition to the charge of violating the IIPA.

The Justice Department under President Barack Obama wanted to convict him under the Espionage Act, as they have tried but thus far failed to do in the prosecution of a record number of alleged leakers or whistleblowers. In fact, Kiriakou described how the FBI tried to set him up in 2010:

In the summer of 2010, a foreign intelligence officer and offered me cash in exchange for classified information. I turned down the pitch and I immediately reported it to the FBI. So, the FBI asked me to take the guy out to lunch and to ask him what information he wanted and how much information he was willing to give me for it. They were going to put two agents at a nearby table. They ended up canceling the two agents but they asked me to go ahead with the lunch so I did. After the lunch, I wrote a long memo to the FBI — and I did this four or five times.

It turns out – and we only learned this three or four weeks ago – there never was a foreign intelligence officer. It was an FBI agent pretending to be an intelligence officer and they were trying to set me up on an Espionage Act charge but I repeatedly reported the contact so I foiled them in their effort to set me up.

He addressed the fact that government prosecutors in their sentencing filing showed they were upset that he had supporters and media calling him a “whistleblower.”

“There is a legal definition of whistleblower and I meet that legal definition,” Kiriakou declared. “I was the first person to acknowledge that the CIA was using waterboarding against al Qaeda prisoners. I said in 2007 that I regarded waterboarding as torture and I also said that it was not the result of rogue CIA officers but that it was official US government policy. So, that’s whistleblowing. That’s the definition of whistleblowing.”

The Justice Department fervently disagrees. The department contends seeking to “claim the misbegotten title of a whistleblower” should be “considered as a repudiation” of Kiriakou’s “acceptance of responsibility for the criminal conduct he committed.”

In the filing signed by US Attorney Neil MacBride, it argues Kiriakou’s “reliance” on “media statements about an interrogation technique known as waterboarding” during a December 2007 interview with ABC is “misplaced.”

…Despite describing the technique as torture, he defended the technique, describing it as “something we needed to do”; as effective, given that “[t]he threat information that [Abu Zubaydah] provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks”; and legal, i.e., “done within the rules.”…At the same time, Kiriakou explained that he came forward because he thought the CIA “had gotten a bum rap on waterboarding.” …

Kiriakou told Firedoglake his opinion had “evolved over the years.” In 2007, he said it was torture and policy, however, in the isolated case of Abu Zubaydah, he believed waterboarding had worked. That was what he had been told by officials inside the CIA. Later, he learned when the CIA inspector general’s report on counterterrorism detention and interrogation activities was released, Zubaydah had been tortured “dozens and dozens of times and that torture didn’t work.” He figured out the CIA had lied a “number of times.”

“I believe based on what I read in the inspector general’s report that the CIA was torturing Abu Zubaydah before they had the legal authorization to do so,” Kiriakou added. Then, consistent with what the Justice Department contends is true nature of Kiriakou’s statements to media, in 2007 he contended it was torture, but the CIA said it worked.  By 2009, “It was clear to all of us that it didn’t work so my opinion evolved and it caused me to take a position that I now oppose torture in any circumstances because now they’ve proven to us that it doesn’t work in addition to it being immoral and illegal.” (Note: On Citizen Radio” on Wednesday, he described how he had a moral problem with “enhanced interrogation techniques” and refused to be trained to torture any terror suspects.)

The Justice Department made a clear choice to pursue Kiriakou. His defense lawyers argued from the beginning (albeit unsucessfully) that he was the target of selective and vindictive prosecution.

“The CIA leadership was furious that I blew the whistle on torture and the Justice Department never stopped investigating me from December 2007,” Kiriakou recalled. “I’ve been audited by the IRS every single year since 2007. The agency used their Office of Security to harass my wife when I published op-eds that the agency didn’t like and they never stopped trying to build a case against me. They found their opportunity and threw in a bunch of trumped up charges they knew they could bargain away and finally found something with which to prosecute me.”

The Justice Department made Kiriakou a victim of a “secret double standard.” As Ted Gup stated in an op-ed for the New York Times, in Kiriakou’s case, the CIA was invoking secrecy to serve its own interests. Gup recounted from experience:

Over the years, I have interviewed many active and retired C.I.A. personnel who were not authorized to speak with me; they included heads of the agency’s clandestine service, analysts and well over 100 case officers, including station chiefs. Five former directors of central intelligence have spoken to me, mostly “on background.” Not one of these interviewees, to my knowledge, was taken to the woodshed, though our discussions invariably touched on classified territory.

Those with great power to target and prosecute individuals decided Kiriakou could not enjoy the privilege granted to other CIA agents to communicate with journalists. Kiriakou said he consulted constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, who has become a key supporter, and he told him this was a First Amendment case. His First Amendment rights had been targeted by the Justice Department.

Such an argument is bolstered by the section of the prosecution’s sentencing filing that condemns Kiriakou for engaging “in a concerted campaign to raise his media profile, principally to advance his private pecuniary interests through, among other things, consulting engagements, publication of editorials, more remunerative and secure employment, and sales of his forthcoming book.”

Do they have this issue with the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, who wrote a book and has been defending torture? Do they have this issue with any other former CIA officials who are providing their expertise to media or writing their own books on what it was like within the agency?

Kiriakou does not think he was able to properly defend himself in court. “The judge repeatedly denied our requests for declassification of discovery,” he says.  “She repeatedly ruled what we wanted to include as evidence was irrelevant. We made something like 75 evidentiary requests and she denied all 75. So, no, we were not able to mount the kind of defense we would have wanted.”

Despite how difficult it has been for him, he has received broad-based support from progressive activists. On the right, Jerry Falwell’s university, Liberty University, has offered him work after he was arrested “because torture is not Christian.” They have stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him. And, the Greek-American community has made him proud to be a Greek-American. The Greek Orthodox Church, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, which is the pre-eminent Greek Lobby organization in the country, and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (of which Kiriakou is a long-time officer) have shown support.

He may have lost some of his friends in the intelligence community, but he has made many more friends through the course of his prosecution. This has been critical because, as Kiriakou says, “One of the things that the Justice Department tries to do when they charge you with espionage is to isolate you from your natural supporters and your natural constituency and there’s no deeper feeling of dread than of being alone and being accused essentially of treason because that’s what espionage is —  it’s treason.”

Lanny Breuer, the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department, and MacBride both had a role in going after Kiriakou. They currently pride themselves on the work they’ve done going after people like Kiriakou. The government has already invoked Kiriakou’s conviction in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. What they accomplished with his case gives them the potential to restrain the ability of future targets of government prosecution to mount a defense.

To this, Kiriakou reacted:

I don’t think I am overstating this when I say I feel like we’re entering a second McCarthy era where the Justice Department uses the law as a fist or as a hammer not just to try and convict people but to ruin them personally and professionally because they don’t like where they stand on different issues.

I know Lanny Breuer. Lanny Breuer’s my former attorney from the Scooter Libby case but I think that Lanny Breuer became a zealot when he went to the Justice Department and he drank the Justice Department’s anti-whistleblower kool-aid. And I think we see the same thing with Neil McBride in the way he’s targeting WikiLeaks with a grand jury when in fact he should be targeting the bankers who have ruined our country and the crooked politicians who shirk their responsibilities to oversee the intelligence community.

Though he is going to jail, Kiriakou stated, “I am wearing my conviction as a badge of honor.”

I am proud that I stood up to our government. I stood up for what I believed was right conviction or no conviction. I mean they can convict anybody of anything if they put their minds to it, but I wear this as a badge of honor. I am not a criminal. I am a whistleblower. The thing that I blew the whistle on is now the law of the land. Torture is illegal and it’s officially abandoned in our country and I’m proud to have had a role in that.

The only CIA officer to go to jail for torture is now officially an officer who never tortured anybody. As has become more clear with Obama as president, the Justice Department is willing to zealously go after leakers who did no harm to national security. They are willing to zealously pursue Internet activists like Aaron Swartz. They will keep coming back with more and more charges to scare activists into informing on others or taking a plea deal. They may even join in the prosecution of some fallen sports icon for their posterity.

However, individuals involved in committing the felony of warrantless wiretapping or authorizing torture or senior-level bankers on Wall Street, who committed fraud and fueled the 2008 economic meltdown may move forward with their lives and never worry about going to jail. They are criminals the Justice Department lacks the courage to prosecute, or people the department does not think committed any crimes. And, as a result, those inside the department cannot be bothered to put in the kind of rabid effort they devote to prosecuting whistleblowers or activists, who in comparison to bankers or torturers have done nothing to hurt anybody.


Here’s an Al Jazeera English news segment on John Kiriakou that features an interview with him and footage of one of his five children:

Firedoglake is supporting John Kiriakou and calling for President Barack Obama to pardon him or commute his sentence. A petition can be signed here.


From Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who has been one of Kiriakou’s lawyers:

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."