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Ex-CIA Agent, Whistleblower John Kiriakou Sentenced to Prison While Torturers He Exposed Walk Free

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Former CIA agent John Kiriakou speaks out just days after he was sentenced to 30 months in prison, becoming the first CIA official to face jail time for any reason relating to the U.S. torture program. Under a plea deal, Kiriakou admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it. Supporters say Kiriakou is being unfairly targeted for having been the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding. Kiriakou joins us to discuss his story from Washington, D.C., along with his attorney, Jesselyn Radack, director of National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project. “This … was not a case about leaking; this was a case about torture. And I believe I’m going to prison because I blew the whistle on torture,” Kiriakou says. “My oath was to the Constitution. … And to me, torture is unconstitutional.” [inlcudes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A retired CIA agent who blew the whistle on the agency’s Bush-era torture program has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. John Kiriakou becomes the first CIA official to be jailed for any reason relating to the torture program. Under a plea deal, Kiriakou admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it. Under the plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges brought under the Espionage Act.

In 2007, Kiriakou became the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding when he spoke to ABC’s Brian Ross.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. And as time has passed and as September 11th has—you know, has moved farther and farther back into history, I think I’ve changed my mind, and I think that waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.

BRIAN ROSS: Why do you say that now?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Because we’re Americans, and we’re better than that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Kiriakou’s supporters say he has been unfairly targeted in the Obama administration’s crackdown on government whistleblowers. In a statement urging President Obama to commute Kiriakou’s sentence, a group of signatories including attorneys and former CIA officers said, quote, “[Kiriakou] is an anti-torture whistleblower who spoke out against torture because he believed it violated his oath to the Constitution. … Please, Mr. President, do not allow your legacy to be one where only the whistleblower goes to prison.”

Prosecutor Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, defended the government’s handling of the case.

NEIL MacBRIDE: As the judge just said in court, today’s sentence should be a reminder to every individual who works for the government, who comes into the possession of closely held sensitive information regarding the national defense or the identity of a covert agent, that it is critical that that information remain secure and not spill out into the public domain or be shared with others who don’t have authorized access to it.

AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou joins us now from Washington, D.C. He spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and a case officer. In 2002, he led the team that found Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda. He’s father of five. In 2010, he published a memoir entitled The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.

And we’re joined by one of John Kirakou’s attorneys, Jesselyn Radack. She’s the director of National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, a former ethics adviser to the United States Department of Justice.

We reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia, but they declined our request for an interview.

John Kiriakou, why are you going to jail? Explain the plea deal you made with the government.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Well, thanks, first of all, for having me and giving me the opportunity to explain.

I’m going to prison, ostensibly, for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. I believe, and my supporters believe, that this, however, was not a case about leaking; this was a case about torture. And I believe I’m going to prison because I blew the whistle on torture. I’ve been a thorn in the CIA’s side since that interview in 2007, in which I said that waterboarding was torture and that it was official U.S. government policy. And I think, finally, the Justice Department caught up with me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jesselyn Radack, let me just bring you into the conversation to explain what the Intelligence Identities Protection Act is. Your client, John Kiriakou—it’s been invoked in his case for the first time in 27 years?

JESSELYN RADACK: That’s correct. In fact, there have only been two convictions under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which was enacted to prevent cases like Philip Agee, not things like John Kiriakou. It was to prevent the revealing of covert identities for profit or to aid the enemy. In this case, John confirmed the name of a torturer to a journalist, which makes Neil MacBride’s statement all the more hypocritical, because the biggest leaker of classified information, including sources and methods and undercover identities, has been the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, explain what it is that you were trying to expose. Explain what you were involved with. Talk about Abu Zubaydah, your involvement in the finding of him, and then the course you took, where your conscience took you.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. In 2002, I was the chief of counterterrorism operations for the CIA in Pakistan, and my job was to try to locate al-Qaeda fighters or al-Qaeda leaders and capture them, to turn them over to the Justice Department and have them face trial. That was the original—the original idea, not to have them sit in Cuba for the next decade.

But we caught Abu Zubaydah. He was shot three times by Pakistani police as he was trying to escape from his safe house. And I was the first person to have custody of him, to sit with him. We spoke to each other extensively, I mean, talked about everything from September 11th to poetry that he had been writing, to his family. And then he was moved on to a secret prison after that. Once I got back to headquarters, I heard that he had been subject to harsh techniques, then euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and I was asked by one of the leaders in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center if I wanted to be trained in the use of these techniques. I told him that I had a moral problem with them, and I did not want to be involved.

So, fast-forward to 2007. By then, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had reported that al-Qaeda prisoners had been tortured, and ABC News called and said that they had information that I had tortured Abu Zubaydah. I said that was absolutely untrue. I was the only person who was kind to Abu Zubaydah, and I had never tortured anybody. So, they asked me to go on their show and defend myself. I did that. And in the course of the interview, I said that not only was the CIA torturing prisoners, but that it was official U.S. government policy. This was not the result of some rogue CIA officer just beating up a prisoner every once in a while; this was official policy that went all the way up to the president of the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, what happened after that, in 2007, once you gave this interview? Can you explain what happened to you and to your family?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. Within 24 hours, the CIA filed what’s called a crimes report against me with the Justice Department, saying that I had revealed classified information, which was the torture program, and asking for an investigation with an eye toward prosecuting me. The Justice Department decided at the time that I had not revealed classified information, that the information was already in the public domain. But immediately, within weeks, I was audited by the IRS. I’ve been audited by the IRS every single year since giving that interview in 2007.

But a more important bit of fallout from that interview was that every time I would write an op-ed, every time I would give a television interview or give a speech at a university, the CIA would file a crimes report against me, accusing me of leaking additional classified information. Each time, the Justice Department determined that I did not leak any classified information. In fact, I would get those op-eds and those speeches cleared by the CIA’s Publications Review Board in advance.

Then the CIA started harassing my wife, who at the time was a senior CIA officer, particularly over an op-ed I had written. They accused her of leaking classified information to me for the purpose of writing the op-ed. Well, I said I had gotten the information in the op-ed from two UPI reports and from a South American Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. And they would back off.

But this sort of became our life. We would be under FBI surveillance. She would be called into the CIA’s Office of Security. I would have trouble getting a security clearance when I went to Capitol Hill. It just became this pattern of harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, John, why didn’t you stop?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Because I think that—that torture is something that needs to be discussed. I said this in 2007. This is something that we should—about which we should be having a national debate. And frankly, I have a First Amendment right to free speech. And, you know, writing an op-ed is not against the law. Giving a speech about the Arab Spring or about torture is not against the law. And I felt that—that I didn’t want to be cowed. I didn’t want to be frightened into silence by the CIA.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, John Kiriakou, you said that in these instances that you’ve named, you were actually charged with espionage, is that right? Can you talk about the significance—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —of the Espionage Act?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yes, the government initially charged me with three counts of espionage. I’m—it sounds silly maybe, but I’m still personally offended by these espionage charges, which were dropped, of course. The espionage charge is used as a hammer by the administration to force people into silence. My espionage charge is related to a conversation that I had with a New York Times reporter. A New York Times reporter approached me and said that he was writing a story about a colleague of mine, and would I grant him an interview. I gave him the interview. I said this colleague was a great guy, the unsung hero of the Abu Zubaydah operation, terrific officer. And the reporter said, “Do you know how I can get in touch with him?” And I said, “No, I’ve been out of touch with him for a while, but I think I might have his business card.” So I gave the reporter the business card. Now, mind you, this is a CIA officer who had never, ever been undercover. His business card showed that he was involved as a CIA contractor, and it had his personal email on it and his cellphone number. I gave the reporter the business card and was charged with two counts of espionage. I later gave the same business card to another journalist who was doing an article and was charged with a third count of espionage.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it that you allege the CIA was doing for all of these years? Explain the torture program that you were trying to expose.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. There were—there were something like 10 different techniques that were used in the CIA’s torture program. They went from the benign, you know, where an officer would grab a prisoner by the lapels and give him a shake, all the way up to the really rough things that we’ve heard about, like waterboarding or, what I think is worse, sleep deprivation or the cold cell, where they’ll put a prisoner naked in a cell chilled to 50 or 55 degrees, and then every hour or two throw ice water on him. I actually think those last two are worse than waterboarding.

But, again, these are techniques that we have condemned other countries for throughout history. The Japanese did this during the Second World War. The Belgians did it in Africa earlier in the century. The Chinese and the Vietnamese did it. This is—these are techniques that we have always said were crimes against humanity. And then it was the—it was though after September 11th everything changed, and we somehow had license to do the same things we had been condemning. I thought that was wrong. You know, Director Petraeus—former Director Petraeus made a statement in October when I agreed to take a plea to make these other charges go away, and he said that my conviction shows that we have to take our oaths seriously. Well, I took my oath seriously. My oath was to the Constitution. On my first day in the CIA, I put my right hand up, and I swore to uphold the Constitution. And to me, torture is unconstitutional, and it’s something that we should not be in the business of doing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Kiriakou, I want to play for you comments President Obama made four years ago, shortly before he took office, about whether CIA officials involved in torture should be prosecuted. He appeared on the ABC News’ This Week.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that—for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So no 9/11 Commission with independent subpoena power?

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: You know, we have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that, moving forward, we are doing the right thing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was President Obama speaking four years ago to ABC. John Kiriakou, your response to what the presient said?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I supported the president’s response. I remember that interview, and I thought, “OK, he’s right. There are wonderful, talented, hard-working men and women at the CIA who need to be protected.” But at the same time, it’s one thing to look forward; it’s another thing to look forward just for the torturers. It’s just not fair. It’s not fair to the American people. If we’re going to—if we’re going to make prosecutions or initiate prosecutions, those prosecutions can’t just be against the people who blew the whistle on the torture or who opposed the torture. You know, we haven’t—we haven’t even investigated the torturers, as Jesselyn said. We haven’t initiated any actions against the people who conceived of the torture and implemented the policy, or against the man who destroyed evidence of the torture, or against the attorneys who used specious legal arguments to justify the torture. If we’re going to move forward, let’s move forward, but you can’t target one person or two people who blew the whistle.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Kiriakou, you’ve also spoken about witnessing new Foreign Service officers being confirmed, Foreign Service officers who were previously with the CIA and participated in acts of torture. Could you explain what happened and explain its significance?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yes. When I was a senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I was approached by a journalist who said that he had evidence that the CIA was misusing its cover agreement with the State Department to place people involved in the torture program under State Department cover so that their names could not be exposed in the press. And if those names were exposed in the press, the people giving the names would be subject to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. So, again, this was a violation of the CIA-State Department cover agreement. I sent a letter under Senator John Kerry—then-Senator John Kerry’s signature, asking the CIA for clarification. I got a response about six weeks later that was classified top-secret, so I was not permitted to see the response. I did not have a top-secret clearance at the time. And a colleague of mine told me that the letter essentially said, in very strongly worded language, to mind my own business.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we want to ask you about President Obama’s nominee to become the next head of the CIA, John Brennan, because as you talk about the administration, we’re talking actually about administrations, from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. Our guest is about to go to jail. His name is John Kiriakou. He’s about to serve two-and-a-half years in jail. This will be one of his last interviews before he goes to prison. We’re joined also by Jesselyn Radack, who is one of his attorneys. Stay with us.

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