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Podcast: CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou on How US Government Treats Whistleblowers in Prison

Screen shot of John Kiriakou from appearance on “Democracy Now!”

CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou is more than three weeks into an 86-day term on house arrest. He was released from a federal “correctional” institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, in early February.

Kiriakou pled guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), but it was not until he spoke up about waterboarding being torture in an interview in 2007 that he became a target for prosecution. He maintains, while what he did was wrong, he was the subject of a selective and vindictive prosecution.

While in prison, he wrote at least 15 “Letters from Loretto,” which Firedoglake published. (The letters can all be found here.)

Kiriakou joined “Unauthorized Disclosure” this week to talk about how the Bureau of Prisons designated him a “dangerous” prisoner because of his crime and how that opened him up to even more punishment. He recalls what he witnessed in terms of medical emergencies and unhealthy food in the facility. He shares what it meant for him to be able to write letters from prison that were guaranteed to reach a wide audience because they were being published at Firedoglake.

In the second part of the interview, Kiriakou comments on the IIPA and whether press should never name an undercover agent involved in torture or other crimes. He then helps outline some of the various ways the CIA attempts to control information, whether it be through prepublication review boards or secrecy contracts. Later, he discusses other whistleblower cases, like the cases of Jeffrey Sterling and Stephen Kim, who have had their lives similarly destroyed for talking with a reporter.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a link (and also to download the episode), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

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*Below is a partial transcript of the hour interview. 

GOSZTOLA: You’re on house arrest right now and, as we’re doing this interview, you’re about ten, fifteen days into an 86-day house arrest?

KIRIAKOU: Yeah, it’ll be three weeks tomorrow.

GOSZTOLA: This interview, I want to talk about how your treatment in prison shows what whistleblowers might experience from the US government if they’re imprisoned and also get in to some of how the government currently tries to control information by punishing and destroying the lives of people like you. And, the first thing I wanted to talk about was something that you highlighted in one of your letters—but there are little bits that are related to this that came out in many of the letters that you wrote—It’s about how you were marked as a dangerous prisoner by the Bureau of Prisons after you pled guilty to a crime that they interpreted as an “espionage-related offense.”

KIRIAKOU: Correct, actually, my crime had absolutely nothing to do with espionage, and I pointed out in my internal appeal to the Bureau of Prisons that not only did my crime have nothing to do with espionage it was not even in the same of the US Code as the Espionage Act. But they just decided anything having to do with national security, no matter how serious or how innocent, was to be treated as espionage. So, instead of going to a federal work camp, which is where both the judge and the prosecutor recommended I go, I went instead to the actual prison.

And, beyond just going to the prison, because I had access to the press, meaning I was know to the press and I had given interviews in the past, I was put in what was called a CMU. It’s an administrative designation that imposes several layers—Oh, what’s the word—several layers of oversight that other prisoners wouldn’t have.  For example, instead of being able to send and receive emails within an hour of their being written, I had a four day delay on all of my incoming/outgoing emails, and it’s because the prison’s Special Investigative Service had to read emails, make copies and I assume send those copies to the FBI.

In addition, not only was all my incoming mail read—and I received nearly 8,000 pieces of mail in the 23 months I was in prison—But even my outgoing mail was read and that’s not typical of a low security prison. I actually reviewed the regulations to see if prison administrators were within their rights to read and copy my outgoing mail and they were not. But they did it anyway and, when I complained, they said, well, you can file a written complaint. It will take a year to work its way through the process and then, by the time it’s decided, your home any way. So, go ahead and complain.

GOSZTOLA: And one of the key things that I noticed is, it seems like one of the things you suffered from is not whole lot of people go to jail for misuse of classified information. So, you get categorized as someone who committed espionage when really what you pled guilty to was improperly using information, which doesn’t seem like something that should get you in jail with pedophiles and murderers.

KIRIAKOU: Yeah, and it did. It did. I pled guilty to one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 in which I confirmed the name of a former CIA colleague to a reporter, who never published the name. Not to make light of what I did. What I did was wrong. I am sorry I did it, for the record. But that happens in Washington every single day, and we know that because that information appears on the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times. That’s how Washington operates. It happens every single day

My attorneys argued and I believed very strongly that I was the subject of a selective and vindictive prosecution. I have maintained that was still the case. It was selective and it was vindictive. If the Obama administration was serious about prosecuting leaks, it would go after people at the top, who leak every single day, including right there in the White House. And they don’t, which tells me that they’re not serious about it.

GOSZTOLA: Yeah, and I want to get into that some more later in the interview. But I want to talk about the final letter that you wrote from Loretto. You mercilessly went after just about everything and anything that bothered or upset you while you were at Loretto and brought a lot of attention to some key issues that are going on in prisons, not just that facility but all prisons in the United States I would presume. And, specifically, I wanted to have you talk about some of the things you saw related to the way people go about getting treatment for medical emergencies and as well as when people are eating, the kind of things people are eating in prison.

KIRIAKOU: Let’s do food first because that’s a little more straightforward. My first day in prison, my first meal in prison I went down to the chow hall and stood in line with everybody else. And then when the slop was slopped on to my tray, I remember actually chuckling and thinking you’ve got to be kidding me. Human beings can’t eat this kind of food. And of course human beings do eat that kind of food.

I actually lost 15 pounds right after my arrival in prison until my body got used to forcing down the gruel that they were feeding us. And it’s not just that the food tastes bad. I mean, you can complain about the taste of food no matter where you go. But this food was different. There were boxes stacked, for example, once when I was in the cafeteria that were marked, “Not For Human Consumption, Feed Use Only.” And that was what was being fed to us for lunch.

I saw other boxes marked, “For Sale Only in China.” Our Christmas packages were marked, “For Sale Only in Mexico,” and then under that they were marked, “Pedro’s Ten Peso Store Tijuana.” They were rejects from this Mexican dollar store, things that just couldn’t be sold in Mexico.

There was one famous case. It didn’t happen in Loretto, but it was reported in the press as having happened at a federal prison in Texas, where prisoners were accidentally fed dog food that had been mismarked as beef tips. The meat packing company paid a fine of $90,000, none of which went toward better food I might add. It went to the pockets of the Bureau of Prisons.

The sad part is not necessarily that dog food was fed to prisoners, Kevin. It was that nobody realized they were eating dog food because it was of the same quality as the slop that they eat every single day. And so, it has a deleterious effect on one’s health. It’s very much all carbs all the time because carbs are very cheap, and it’s just not the way people should be treated. I don’t care if they’re in prison or not. No one should be treated that way.

Now, medical was a bigger problem. I made a point in one of my “Letters from Loretto” of saying that there are a lot of bad people in prison with me, but none of them have been sentenced to death. Yet, a lot of those prisoners are going to die in prison and it’s because, in my view, there is no such thing adequate medical care. Any time you go to sick call, which is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 6 to 6:15 am, no matter what you have, they’re going to prescribe to you 800mg tablets of Tylenol. It’s a cure-all for the Bureau of Prisons.

I knew one prisoner, actually pretty well, who was having back problems, and he went to the sick call and they gave me Tylenol. And, as the weeks passed, his back hurt more and more. I saw him the next time and he’s walking with a cane. I said what happened to you. He said my back is killing me. I’ve had back problems in the past but he said never like this. This is just crazy. I saw him a couple weeks later and he’s with a walker saying that he keeps going back to medical and they keep giving him Tylenol and he’s moved from just being hunched over to walking through a cane to walking with a walker. And then, finally, a chaplain mentioned to me that he wanted to stop by this prisoner’s cell and visit him because he had heard he wasn’t doing well and he had been confined to a wheelchair.

So, I said, chaplain, you’ve got to intervene here. There’s something wrong here. He shouldn’t be in so much pain and he’s really gone downhill very quickly in the last four or five weeks. The chaplain did intervene, and the prison finally agreed to take this poor guy to a local hospital for a test.

Well, they took him to a hospital and he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the spine, which they had ignored since he first complained of back pain. And he died three weeks later in his bed, in his cell. There was no compassionate release for him, and he was in on a tax fraud case. It’s not like he was particularly dangerous or a threat to society in any way. He was just a broken down old man suffering from terminal cancer and they still wouldn’t let him die in his own bed with his family around him. He died in his bed in prison surrounded by prisoners. That was very typical of the medical care there.

And another case, if you don’t mind me going on, my bunkmate was the former Cuyahoga County Ohio auditor general. He was in on a political corruption case. Sixty-five years-old, raging diabetes and a history of heart trouble. So, he told me one time that he felt like he was short of breath and he felt like his chest was very tight. I said Frank, my god, I’m afraid you’re having a heart attack. We’ve got to go talk to the CO.

We went to the CO. He said tough luck. Wait until tomorrow morning. Sick call is from 6 to 6:15 am. So, Frank went down to sick call and they gave him Tylenol, and they told him that they’ll ask for permission from the regional headquarters to take him out to do an EKG, but that could take weeks, even months.

So, the poor guy just kept going about his daily business. He would complain about all the textbook complaints about a heart attack – pain running down his left arm, his leg was going numb, he felt like someone was sitting on his chest, he had shortness of breath. Finally, he went down to medical just to stand in the insulin line one morning and had a heart attack in the insulin line, dropped to the floor unconscious. The prison had to call 911 because they were afraid they couldn’t save him on their own. And he ended up spending two weeks in the hospital. He had multiple surgeries – bypass, angioplasty, two stints put in – and then they transferred him to a hospital in Massachusetts.

Well, this guy still has 19 years left to go in his sentence, and with this kind of medical care he’s never going to make it out of prison alive. That’s a very typical case. Heart attacks among middle-aged and older men in prison are very, very common. And, if you’re otherwise strong enough to survive it, you will. If you have any other medical problems, many of which probably are not being treated, you’re going to die in prison. And there’s nothing you can do to help yourself.

GOSZTOLA: And your experiences are actually confirmed. The Bureau of Justice Statistics just put out a report that shows that in 2011 and 2012 that in fact incarcerated people are more likely to suffer from these kinds of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases than people who are not in prison. So, in fact, you’re probably pretty lucky to have not contracted some kind of serious disease while you were at Loretto.

KIRIAKOU: I was very, very fortunate. It was something that I was afraid of. There was a guy three cells up from me. He was African, from southeastern Africa. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, and, instead of taking him out and isolating him after his positive test, they took him out for a day. He spent the night in the medical unit, and then the next day the doctor decided, oh, it was probably a false positive. Just go on back to your cell.

Well, he came back to his cell. Directly across the hall from him was a doctor, who was serving 12 years on Medicare fraud case, and he told this guy, listen, don’t just accept what they’re telling you down at medical. You have tuberculosis. You’re spitting up blood. You cough constantly. You’re racked with pain. This is tuberculosis, and you’re going to infect all of us. You have to go back to medical and tell them it’s not acceptable to come back to your cell. You want to be sent out to a hospital.

Instead, what happened is they came up to our housing unit, and they threatened the doctor with a charge for practicing medicine without a license and told him if he ever gave medical advice again to another prisoner that he would be locked up in solitary. In the meantime, this African guy was coughing all over us for the next six months.

GOSZTOLA: These are kind of stories or episodes you experienced throughout much of your imprisonment at Loretto, and I wanted to transition here to talking about something that was sort of unusual about the way that I and Firedoglake decided to handle and support you with your case—and not put you in a position where you would shower us with more gratitude.  That’s not what I am trying to get out of you here, but just to actually address in a more objective way the fact that a lot of media organizations are not willing to cover whistleblower cases in the sympathetic manner that we chose to do while we were following and continuing to pay attention to what was happening to you and your family during your imprisonment.

What are your thoughts about the media handle? Because I think it was very good for you to be able to have a place that you could post prison letters while you were there.

KIRIAKOU: Oh, boy, it sure was. I’ll tell you what. It had a really dramatic effect on me.

I’m sort of an average typical creature of Washington. I have spent my entire adult life in Washington. I came here when I was 18-years-old and I never left except for a couple of overseas tours but always came back to Washington. And, as such, I was just sort of a believer in the mainstream media. I watched the news on TV. I read the Washington Post, the New York Times—Until this happened to me.

I came to understand that, for example, the New York Times is not all the news that’s fit to print. It’s all the news that they decide they want people to read. And, the major broadcast networks are even worse. They’ll pack whatever they want into a 30-minute broadcast with the last five minutes being a fluffy feel good story.

And so here you have what I considered to be very important issues raised by whistleblowers; I mean, whistleblowers other than myself. I’m talking about Tom Drake and Jesselyn Radack and even Jeffrey Sterling. People who had important things to say, things that impacted millions and millions of Americans and there was just no venue for them to speak out until I met the folks at Firedoglake.

I have gotten to a point where all my news comes from alternative sources and from Twitter. I just can’t watch the mainstream media anymore. I don’t feel like they’re honest. I don’t feel like I’m getting the real story, especially when it comes to whistleblowers.

Now, in my case in particular, alternative news sites, like Firedoglake and a handful of others, really did a great job of covering the issues and really getting deep down into the issues. The major news networks ignored me, and then there were a couple networks that were actively hostile. That surprised me as well.

GOSZTOLA: And then, just quickly, while you were in prison, there was a changing of the guard at the New York Times. In fact, one of the things I pointed out is Dean Baquet was taking over and he had defended actually doing something that I think was a violation to you. You had an interview with Scott Shane. There was a story that Scott Shane was going to run and they jumped the gun because they wanted to beat out The New Yorker, and it had a negative effect, as I understand it, on your sentencing. Or, could have had even a more damaging effect on your sentencing if you had not had an agreement already.

KIRIAKOU: Yeah, if I had not had what was called an 11C13 plea, which means that the judge could not change the sentence that was agreed to between the prosecution and the defense, I may have gotten as much as ten years in prison. The judge in my case was absolutely furious with this New York Times piece that came out just before sentencing and told me in a courtroom full of reporters that if she had the authority she would have given me ten years.

GOSZTOLA: Wow.

KIRIAKOU: Yeah, and the funny thing too is three months earlier in the hearing before the same judge in the same courtroom, where I agreed to take a plea and serve 30 months, she called that sentence fair and appropriate. Those were the words she used, fair and appropriate. And she compared my case to that of Scooter Libby, who ironically did not leak Valerie Plame’s name and had been found guilty at trial of five felonies versus my one felony.

GOSZTOLA: I wanted to move to having you share your perspective and then also get into some of the things that have been going on while you were in prison and still continue to have serious ramifications, as you are now on house arrest. And I thought I’d begin—

The Intelligence Identities Protection Act—the law ideally is supposed to protect the identities of agents and operatives who are involved in missions ideally we would want to continue so our national security or national defense could be protected. But the other thing is that it seems, as I have read about the history of this, this law was conceived to help the CIA control information.

KIRIAKOU: Well, in part. The author of that law was a gentleman by the name of Morton Halperin, and Mort Halperin was a National Security Council official during the Johnson and Nixon administrations and a very close and dear friend of Daniel Ellsberg, the godfather and mentor really to all national security whistleblowers. So, Mort Halperin wrote this law at the behest of the intelligence community to protect the intelligence community against another Philip Agee. That is, another rogue former CIA officer, who decides to publish books or publish magazine articles just naming lists and lists of undercover operatives. Now, that I think is a great idea if that’s how the law is being used.

I’m the second person to be convicted of an IIPA violation. The first person was a woman named Sharon Scranage, who was a secretary in a CIA office in Ghana. She was having an affair with a member of that country’s intelligence service, and through pillow talk she gave this intelligence officer the names of every undercover CIA officer in the station as well as the identities of the Ghanaian nationals, who had been recruited by the CIA.

Now that resulted in an incredible loss of intelligence. It could have resulted in the deaths of some of those agents. Certainly, the CIA officers who were exposed had to be pulled back and replaced by others. So, she knew that what she was doing was wrong. She was passing this information to a foreign intelligence officer. That’s espionage. That’s a legitimate IIPA violation.

The law says nothing though—and this is where I ran into trouble—The law says nothing about criminal intent. If a person didn’t have the intent to violate the law, should he be prosecuted? Mort Halperin thought not and Mort Halperin very generously volunteered to serve as an expert witness for my defense had my case gone to trial. He called my attorneys and volunteered to do so saying that this is not why this law was written. That in my case the law was being used for political purposes.

GOSZTOLA: As things stand now, there is this issue, where you have this Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture get wide attention last year in December. There are some operatives or agents, who are known to people in the press as being involved in torture, but you have this widespread hesitation by media to name those individuals because maybe there is this act. There is also this covert intimidation of press by agency public affairs people asking them not to publicly mention these names. So, I guess what are your thoughts on that, as far as whether people who are involved with this should be named.

KIRIAKOU: Well, that’s really a great question. Right after my arrest, Daniel Ellsberg called me, and we went over the basic facts of my case. And he offered me some ideas for my defense. But he asked a very important question: Is it a crime to out an undercover officer, who is involved in committing a crime? And that’s something that’s never been decided before.

Now, that’s a very aggressive defense, and frankly it’s something that would probably have to be decided by the Supreme Court. But I think that’s really what it all comes down to.

Is it illegal for a member of the press to write about the true name of a person involved in the crime of torture? From my own personal perspective, I would say no. I would say that’s probably a national service, if the government won’t do anything to stop this person from committing his crime. But, as it stands now, not only can the person who provided the reporter with the name be prosecuted under both IIPA and the Espionage Act but in many cases the reporter can be prosecuted thus those threats from the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs.

GOSZTOLA: Right, if we’re looking more broadly, and we’ll take a prime example like James Risen. You track and put that person under dragnet surveillance and make it wholly impossible for them to do journalism.

KIRIAKOU: Exactly, and that is not what the Constitution intended.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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

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