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Interview With CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou On His New Book About Surviving Prison

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In a special episode for the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, former CIA officer and whistleblower John Kiriakou joins the show to talk about his new book, “Doing Time Like A Spy: How The CIA Taught Me To Survive And Thrive In Prison.”

Kiriakou talks about writing prison letters, how he came up with the concept for his book, and he shares some of his stories from his incarceration. He highlights the case of Mark Lanzilotti, who was given an extremely draconian sentence for his nonviolent drug offense.

Later in the discussion, he talks about why he became the target of prosecution and what lessons he learned from his time incarcerated.

Kiriakou was the first member of the CIA to publicly acknowledge that torture was official U.S. policy under President George W. Bush’s administration. In October 2012, he pled guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) when he confirmed the name of an officer involved in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program to a reporter. He was sentenced in January 2013 and reported to prison on February 28, 2013.

For much of Kiriakou’s prison sentence, Firedoglake published his “Letters from Loretto.” (Firedoglake even published an illustration of one of his letters, which was done by graphic artist Christopher Sabatini.)

“Doing Time Like A Spy” is available at Amazon. There are also a limited number of autographed copies available from the publisher, Rare Bird Books.

To listen to the interview, click the above player or go here.


Below is a transcript of the interview with John Kiriakou. Some portions were edited for clarity.

KIRIAKOU: Before I went to prison, I’m going to say it was probably a week or ten days before I went to prison, I had dinner at Jane Hamsher’s house with Jesselyn Radack and Tom Drake, Daniel Choi –

GOSZTOLA Yeah. So you mention this in your book. You have Dan Ellsberg placed at the dinner. I believe he was actually on the phone—

KIRIAKOU: On cellphone. After I wrote it and it went to the editor, I realized he was on cellphone.

Jane said that I ought to, once I was comfortable, write something to my supporters, an open letter of sorts, just to tell them how I’m doing, tell them that I’m okay, and let them know how things are going. And I filed that in the back of my head and I didn’t do it for quite some time. I waited about ten weeks before I felt comfortable enough to do it.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t intend for it to be a series. I didn’t intend for it to be controversial. And I certainly didn’t intend to attract any attention to myself on the part of the guards or the prison administration.

I frankly was not very clear-headed at the time and so what I wrote in the first “Letter from Loretto” actually revealed a federal crime where two officers in the Special Investigative Service tried to set me up to beat, or [do] worse, [to] another prisoner and vice versa. And I talked about this female guard, who was verbally abusive to me, which I didn’t realize at the time was a violation of BOP [Bureau of Prisons] regulations. So I wrote it just thinking the only people who were going to read it were the handful people, who followed my case on Firedoglake.

Like I say in the book, once Jane published it on Firedoglake, she sent it to Arianna Huffington, who put it on the Huffington Post and then it just went viral. There was a lot of heat on me in the days after it came out. A couple guards pulled me aside if I was talking about them or who was I talking about.

At first, I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Like what do you mean my Internet article? Or what do you mean the Huffington Post? I don’t know what you’re talking about. And then I realized that it had gone viral, and so really quickly I wrote a second “Letter from Loretto” that I ended up destroying because I didn’t want to push the envelope and get myself sent to solitary confinement. I was so taken aback by the response not just by the public but by the prison administration coupled with some information that my cousin passed me that he overheard two guards talking and one of them said I had not been sent to solitary because I hadn’t used any of their names. That was such valuable intelligence for me.

I realized I could write anything I wanted in these “Letters from Loretto” and they couldn’t do anything to me so long as I didn’t mention their names. So I made it a series.

I intended in the beginning to have a “Letters from Loretto” that would incorporate serious scholarly information on prison reform and sentencing reform, one of those serious nonfiction books. And then I had a visitor one time, a friend of mine who is a professor I used to work with, and I was telling him a story. He was laughing, like belly laughing, to the point where he said you’ve got to write these stories down.

I was in the visiting room, and there was a mafia don. He was the head of the Gambino crime family on the other side of the room. I pointed him out to the professor. I said see that guy right there. He’s the boss of the Gambino crime family, and he was fascinated. I was telling him that the first time I saw him in the visiting room he was meeting with two old men. They looked to be in their seventies.

They just kind of sat there and were staring at each other and the boss says, did you talk to the guy? And one of the old men said, yeah, I talked to the guy. He said we’re not going to have a problem. Then, there’s five minutes of silence and he says to the second guy, did you take care of the thing? Yeah, I took care of the thing. Another five minutes of silence. Did you see Paolo? Paolo sends his regards.

I was with my wife at the time, and she’s like what are we witnessing here, and I said I think this is a mafia sitdown. And he thought that was funny, and he said oh you should write this up. Well, the mafia has a very long arm. I don’t want to make them mad. They were good to me. So I didn’t put that in the book, but that’s what kind of spurred me on to do the book. I wanted to make a separate book that was funny and engaging and then I wanted to do a book that was serious. In the end, I put both together and came up with “Doing Time Like A Spy.”

The Rules

GOSZTOLA: For example, the book has a number of rules and you describe them. I think it would be good to highlight a few of them. These are ones that stuck out to me as I was reading the book. Other people may have their favorites. These are ones that stuck out to me. So you had “everybody is working for somebody.”

KIRIAKOU: That was actually a very serious rule when I was at the CIA. You can’t trust anybody. You have to assume that everybody in the intelligence world is either working for another intelligence service, whether friendly or hostile, or they’re working in someone else’s interests. And so I adapted that to prison as well because either people are working for their gang or their gang leader or they’re working for the cops. So it was a constant reminder to be wary of others and of their motivations.

GOSZTOLA: Yeah, because ultimately everybody in prison wants to be able to get out of there alive.

KIRIAKOU: That’s right. And you know one of the things that’s easy to do is underestimate other people. Just because maybe they’re lifelong drug addicts or they’re IQs aren’t very high, you can’t assume that they’re stupid. You can’t assume that they don’t know what they’re doing because a lot of these guys have come of age in prison. A lot of these guys have spent the majority of their lives in prison and they know a lot more about prison than I do. So it’s easy to underestimate people and I had to constantly remind myself to not underestimate people.

GOSZTOLA: Another rule that stuck out to me was, “Admit nothing, deny everything, make counteraccusations.”

KIRIAKOU: That rule was something of a joke at the CIA, but became a serious rule for me in prison and it was the rule that I had the most fun with. Because that’s the rule that I used with the cops all the time. I was forever being called down into the Special Investigative Service, the SIS office. It’s part of the lieutenant’s office. They’re the cops, who essentially are recruiting other prisoners to rat out other prisoners. And so these guys meant me harm from the day I walked into the prison. They were generally friendly enough, but they were the enemy. It was very clear to me that they were the enemy.

They would call me down there because some rat had said that I had said something. I got kind of tired of being harassed, and so I decided to use that rule. Admit nothing, deny everything, make counteraccusations.

I was called for example to the SIS office once, and one of them said so I understand there was a fight in your housing unit last night. Want to tell us about it? And I said there was a fight in my housing unit, and I didn’t even notice it? Are you kidding me? Yeah, very funny smart guy.

So I said I don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, I think you’re making this up. I think you’re making this up so you can see what my response is going to be, and I don’t know what we’re talking about. Well, then they started to press me. Finally, I said you know what? I think you started the fight. You started the fight to see what was going to happen. They just said get out of here and go back to your unit.

I got a chuckle as I was walking out. They were so easily rattled that I thought this is fun. There’s no fallout for me so I’m going to use this all the time, and I did. Here they thought they were harassing me. Actually, I was harassing them, and I was having a better time doing it.

GOSZTOLA: And then, “if stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend.”

KIRIAKOU: Oh yeah. I say in the book with that rule it’s just plain fun to stir the pot sometimes. It’s probably not the smartest or the safest thing to do, but there are occasions where the status quo is not to your benefit. And so you’ve got to—and forgive me if this sounds so cynical—but you’ve got to manipulate people and you’ve got to stir the pot to get what you want.

I tell this story in the early chapters of the book, and it really makes me look like a bad guy and friends and family members alike, who have read the draft, have said, whoo, you should have left this out. But I insisted on putting it in.

There was a guy who was a con man. He was quite an accomplished con man. He had dated an “A” list Hollywood star so he had been in People Magazine, Variety and Us Magazine. He was very arrogant and conceited and in love with himself, but he was a pain. Not just because he never shut his flapping gums for five seconds but also because he was constantly trying to rip people off. He was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, borrowing from loan sharks. He was trying to rip off other prisoners by having their families transfer money into his accounts so he could write their appeals, even though he wasn’t an attorney. And he would cry all the time. He would cry when he was happy. He would cry when he was lonely. I just couldn’t stand the guy anymore.

Here’s what I did. There’s a form that the administration gives you the day before you leave prison. It’s called a merry go round. The idea is that you have to spend your last day in prison going from office to office to office getting a signature from each office on this merry go round. You don’t really need the signatures for anything. It’s just to keep you out of trouble on that last day. So one of my cellmates was going home, and I said to him, Jesus, can I borrow your merry go round? Oh sure, he says.

I go up to the library. I make a photocopy of it. I whiteout his name and prisoner number, and then I type in this idiot’s—I think I called him Wallace in the book—I type in Wallace’s name and prisoner number and then made another copy of that so it was clean. I waited until 5 o’clock on a Friday, and I put the new merry-go round on his bed along with a duffel bag that a friend of mine had stolen from the laundry that they give to indigent prisoners to take their possessions home. So finally around 6 o’clock strolls into the cell. Hey, guys. We said hey, Wallace. He walks over to the bed and he gasps. And I said, what happened? And he holds up the merry go round and says I’m going home. I said, you’re going home? Well, how’d that happen? And very confidently he says I won my appeal. My goodness, Wallace, I said. Nobody ever wins their appeal. That’s amazing.

One of my other cellmates said we have to have a dinner for you. We’ll have a dinner this week, a going away party for you because it said on the merry go round that he was going home Monday morning. Well, the next day he gave all of his possessions and on Sunday we had a big bash for him, a dinner and guys laughing, talking, and sitting around. It was a lot of fun. Monday morning we all walk him down to the receiving and discharge office, and the CO in our unit was relatively friendly so he is the one who told me the rest of this story.

When Wallace gets into R&D, the cop says, who are you? He says I’m Wallace, and he hands the cop his merry go round. What are you doing here the cop says? He says I’m going home, and the cop looks at the merry go round and goes Wallace, turn around. You’re under arrest. And Wallace says for what? For attempted escape. This is a forgery. So he cuffs him.

He takes him to solitary. Wallace is crying the whole way down there. They end up putting him in solitary for, I forget if it was three months or six months, and then they transferred him to another prison. There was no fallout for him. He was never charged with escape because they couldn’t prove that he had actually forged the merry-go round and he was adamant that he hadn’t. So there was no permanent damage to him, but I got him out of our hair and transferred to another prison. In that case, stability was not to my benefit so chaos was my friend.

“The Clearest Indication Of What’s Wrong With the Criminal Justice System”

GOSZTOLA: Just so people don’t think that you didn’t care about anyone that was in the prison, there were people who you met along the way that you did come to feel some level of compassion for or you empathized with what they were going through. Can you talk about Mark Lanzilotti and his story?

Just to preface this. I visited you in prison with Jane Hamsher a couple times, and then Brian Sonenstein visited with me on another occasion. I know you talked about Mark’s story. It was something you described to me.

KIRIAKOU: Mark became my best friend in prison. His case and his story was to me the clearest indication of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.

Mark is from Philadelphia. He’s in his late forties, college graduate, small business owner. His stepfather approached him one day and told him he had a methamphetamine manufacturing operation going. He wanted Mark to come in and help him cook meth. Mark had never done that before, but his stepfather taught him. So Mark helped him make meth for about six months. This was in the middle 1990s.

This was not the life for him so six months in he decided he wanted out, and he told his stepfather I don’t like this. It’s not for me. I’m out. There were nine people involved in this meth operation. Mark was the only one who voluntarily left the conspiracy. Fast forward about three years, and the DEA, ATF, and the FBI raid the house, where this meth is being manufactured. Mark’s been out of it for two or three years at this point. And they arrest the other eight guys.

They did not arrest Mark. In fact, Mark remained out on the street for another year until his co-conspirators ratted him out and so a year later he was arrested. He was charged with two counts of manufacturing methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. His stepfather was not arrested. He was the only one who was not arrested, and he hired an attorney for Mark, but he told Mark that the attorney doesn’t represent rats. And Mark’s going to have to plead not guilty. If he wants to take a plea, then he is going to have to pay for an attorney himself. Well, he didn’t have money for an attorney.

Mark just assumed that everybody else was going to trial. As it turned out, the government had offered all of the other co-conspirators five and half years in exchange for testifying against Mark because Mark refused to take the plea. What Mark did not know was that the government had offered him a ten year non-cooperation plea deal. So he wouldn’t have to testify. Just take a guilty plea and do ten years. But his attorney never told him that the government had made that offer. And so he went to trial. Of course he was found guilty because he was guilty.

With mandatory minimum sentencing laws and then enhancements like failure to take responsibility, he ended up getting—and this was for a first-time nonviolent drug offense—he ended up getting triple life without parole. He repeatedly tried to commit suicide when he was sent the U.S. penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri. He appealed and on appeal his sentence was cut to 30 years. But 30 years, again, for a first-time nonviolent drug offense, and he was the only one to voluntarily leave the conspiracy.

He had done about 14 years when I got to Loretto, and he had worked himself down from a maximum security penitentiary to a medium security prison to a low security prison. He and I hit it off immediately. This is a good man, a good human being, and I valued his friendship. I continue to value his friendship.

About a year, about 14 months into my sentence, I read an article that the Justice Department was going to start this clemency project. It’s called Clemency Project 2014. I saw it in the New York Times, and I went down to Mark’s cell and I said, hey man, you qualify for this, right? You have to have no violence, no gun involved in your case, no ties to organized crime or to organized gang activity, and if you were arrested today, you would likely get a less severe sentence. I said this is perfect for you. And if they accept your case, they assign you a pro bono attorney.

He and I sat over the course of a couple of days and we wrote an appeal, and we sent the appeal into the Justice Department. Sure enough, the Justice Department accepted his appeal, and they assigned his case to an A-list law firm called Latham & Watkins. By then, I was home, but I was in close touch with his attorneys. I told them I would help in any way that I could. I ended up sending in an affidavit.

Mark even got his prosecutor to write him a letter of support, and the prosecutor said that he had actually lost sleep over the years because of Mark’s harsh sentence. So he asked the Justice Department to let Mark go. Finally, last August I got a call from Mark’s mom saying that the president had commuted his sentence, that the final sentence would be an even 20 years, and with good behavior time, because Mark had never had a disciplinary problem in all the years he was in prison—He is going to be released on September 15.

It was a success story in the end, but it’s indicative of the draconian sentences that we have in this country.

Encountering Kenneth Schaeffer

GOSZTOLA: Another thing that I remember that you talked about that I couldn’t talk about publicly because there was actually some level of danger potentially, and you weren’t sure how you were going to handle that. There’s a lot of details in the book on this. You don’t need to get into all of them, but if you can, talk about Kenneth Schaeffer and what was going on with this story in prison that was unfolding with this character. I think it’s incredible that you had to deal with this person.

KIRIAKOU: Kenneth Schaeffer was a Harvard-educated Philadelphia attorney, who was a pedophile. He was living in Moscow, working at a law firm there. He had this love of the ballet. So he had been donating to the Bolshoi Ballet school for children, and he had taken this keen interest in this one 12 year-old boy and offered to pay for his education if the boy would move into his apartment.

The parents were leery of it, but they finally agreed because the guy is a prominent American attorney working for some Russian oligarch. He has plenty of money. He’s going to pay for everything. Within days of this little boy into his apartment, Schaeffer began raping him. The sexual assault lasted for something like five years.

The way the feds finally got him—He brought the boy to the United States to study at the Philadelphia ballet, and they had a falling out. Finally, the kid filed a civil suit against him. When the clerk of the court read the civil suit, she immediately called the FBI and reported this crime. Schaeffer was arrested. He was tried and convicted of two counts of violating the Mann Act, which is taking somebody across a border for the purpose of illegal sex. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The guy was paranoid. He was violent. He was arrogant and aggressive and dangerous, which was funny because he was little tiny guy. He was probably 5’5’’ or 5’6’’, maybe 140 pounds, but he was insane enough to at least threaten to use violence. The reason why I had a conflict with him was because he wanted to move into my room, and he lied to me about his crime. When I became aware of what exactly his crime was, I told him I didn’t want any pedophiles. And I didn’t ever want to speak to him again. I said your crime sickens me, and I don’t ever want to have contact with you.

It was like flipping a switch. This is the longest chapter, and you’re right. I go into incredible detail, detail that’s going to make your hair stand up when you read it. In the end, he was caught with two shanks in his room. Some people said he had made these shanks in order to either stab me or to plant in my room to have me sent to solitary and have a weapons charge added to my case. The cops said that they thought one of my friends planted the shanks in his room because they were under the bed and not in the locker. And again, I use that technique of admit nothing, deny everything, and make counteraccusations. I frankly had nothing to say to the cops. I told them that their theory was ridiculous. It was impossible, and I wasn’t even going to dignify it with a response.

What ended up happening was one of my cellmates was transferred to a prison in Ohio because of this. Schaeffer was transferred to a prison in New Jersey, and I never saw either one of them again. This is another ongoing theme, especially in low security prisons across America. That’s where all the pedophiles are sent. They can’t go to a camp because they’re not high enough security for pedophiles. But they can’t go to a maximum or a medium prison because they’ll be killed there.

Easily, a third of all federal prisoners at the low security level are pedophiles. These are guys for whom there is no treatment. There is no cure. They huddle together. They hang out together constantly, outside in the yard, in the TV room, in their cells, wherever. They reinforce each other. There is no therapy or anything, and then finally they’re released. They’re released to go back into society and commit their crimes again and they do.

There was a guy I worked with in the chapel, and I also mention him in the book. He was in on a child molestation charge, which is a mandatory minimum of five years. So he got out, immediately molested another child, and then got 12 years, which is when I met him. He was working at the chapel at the very end of his 12-year sentence. He gets released again, and then six months later there he is in prison again.

So I say, Cook, what happened to you? And he said, well—he was from Kentucky—he says I have a problem and I got myself into a little trouble again. I said, how much time did they give you? And this guy is like 65 years-old. He said they gave him 60 years. And I said, no offense intended. Personally, society is better off without you in it. Our children need to be protected.

GOSZTOLA: When you talk about that—because it did come up a lot—it was something you described vividly in your letters from Loretto. You feel that the prison system is enabling these people? I know there were examples where you thought corrections people could have stepped in and changed the culture or addressed it, but this was allowed to happen on their watch.

KIRIAKOU: Yeah. I really believe that. We had a policy in the chapel, where I worked, that you couldn’t talk about your case. No matter what you did, you couldn’t talk about your case. The chapel is a place for prayer and reflection and meditation and study. Instead, the chapel, like the library, was a safe haven for pedophiles. Not only would they talk about their cases, they would regale each other with their sexual conquests of children. And the cops, and the chaplin is also a cop, they would allow them to do this.

Several times, I would get out of my chair and walk out into the hall and say, hey, stop talking about your case. There was one guy in particular. I don’t mean to pepper you with anecdotes, but this was a guy. He was 6′ 8″. We called him Chomo the Giant. Chomo is prison slang for child molester. So we called him Chomo the Giant. He had been a fireman in Hagerstown, Maryland. His wife caught him having sex with their 15 year-old daughter, and not just having sex with her but he was videotaping it and then he was selling DVDs on the internet to other pedophiles.

When I yelled at him, because he was the one who would more than anyone else talk about his case—So I went out there and I yelled at him and he was indignant, and he said well she came on to me, and she said she liked it and it felt good. Who are you to judge me? I was so sickened by it. I just walked back into the office and sat down again. You can’t win a battle like that.

“My Case Was Never About A Leak”

GOSZTOLA: You’ve been out of prison for some time now. I know that when you were incarcerated there were some things about how you came to be charged with offenses, Espionage Act-related, that maybe you weren’t able to be open about events that led up to you being someone who was a target of government prosecution. But you do spend some time in the book outlining what was going on. I just wondered if you could address this.

There was a thought that you were providing photos or information that could be useful to Guantanamo cases?

KIRIAKOU: Right. That’s what the original accusation was—that I had provided photos of something like a dozen undercover CIA officers, which was a ridiculous accusation. I had never done anything of the sort. But there was another former CIA officer who did do it.

He was a disgruntled fired former CIA officer in Bethesda, Maryland, and our investigators, my attorney’s investigators, not only found his identity but found the notes that the reporter took when this guy provided the reporter with the photos. So we provided all that to the FBI and to the prosecutors, and they didn’t care one wit.

That’s what led me to the conclusion, and I am adamant that this is correct. The reason they didn’t go after him was because he didn’t blow the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. That my case was never about a leak. My case was about torture. If my case had been about a leak, this other guy would have been arrested, and he would have been convicted and he would be in jail for decades for what he did. But they didn’t care about the identities. They only cared about silencing me.

GOSZTOLA: Is there anything that you want to know about what was going on while you were in prison? Maybe there were things happening on the inside that you still have questions about. Is there anything that you feel like you have to pursue after your incarceration, like things that were happening to you in Loretto that you think are suspicious that you want to get to the bottom of?

KIRIAKOU: I did. I don’t anymore because what I ended up doing was filing a Freedom of Information Act request on myself. As part of my plea, I had to promise to never file a Freedom of Information Act request on myself. Well I chose to interpret as meaning that I can’t file a Freedom of Information Act request related to my case. So I filed it with the Bureau of Prisons, and they sent me about 255 pages, most of which was nonsense. It was my medical records, my visitors list. It was just dumb stuff that I already had.

But there were eight pages in there that were very clearly marked “FOIA exempt – do not release to inmate.” And I don’t know if the Bureau of Prisons FOIA person was either so stupid that they just included this in the package or if they felt sorry for me and they were including it for my information but it was an account for the deliberation over denying me placement in a minimum security camp. It was because I had access to the media.

It was funny. There was one paper that had these huge block letters on it and it said, caution: inmate has access to the media. And there were also papers about how I was so highly trained at the CIA that I was an escape risk, which was so ludicrous and so outrageous. I’m married with five kids. Where in the world am I going to run and knowing I’m going to spend under two years in a low security prison? Like what a stupid thing to assume that I’m going to try to escape just because I’m trained to escape.

So it was interesting to me. It wasn’t really important in the overall context of my prison time, but it was interesting enough to include in the book I thought.

GOSZTOLA: Yeah, and I know you highlighted in one of your letters. So, lastly, this is kind of a creative question on my part. But I think the answer could be interesting. You frame the book as you go to prison. The CIA has taught you some skills for survival. Post-life in prison, are there lessons you take away from being incarcerated?

KIRIAKOU: [pause] Yeah. Sure. I never gave two seconds of thought to the justice system. I never had reason to. I just figured the cops would only arrest somebody if they had committed a crime. They ought to be arrested. I’ve come to realize that simply is not true. Our system is racist. Our system is anti-poor. Our system does absolutely nothing to rehabilitate anyone in any way. I think it’s a waste of the taxpayers money. When we have five percent of the world’s population in the United States and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, that’s a problem.

When we rely on for-profit entities to run private prisons, there is a problem because the only way for those prisons to make money is to not spend money on things like food and medical care and certainly rehabilitation. So I’ve come to realize that in many ways we’re not the good guys out there, the United States. We’re the bad guys, and we have very serious problems that need to be addressed while at the same time no one in the White House or Capitol Hill has the guts to even tackle the problem.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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