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John Kiriakou on Blowing the Whistle on CIA Torture & Why Trump’s Presidency Worries Him

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The report on President Trump urging FBI Director James Comey to end the agency’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, came just a day after The Washington Post revealed President Trump had disclosed highly classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House. We talk to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou about his own case and the significance of Trump divulging classified secrets to Russia.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaking yesterday.

H.R. McMASTER: He shares information in a way that is wholly appropriate. And I should just make—I should just make maybe the statement here that—that the president wasn’t even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who had to come out yesterday, after speaking the day before, saying that none of The New York Times report—The Washington Post report was true, that—and yet, you have President Trump himself contradicting this.


AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the release of this classified information, which you point out the president can do, and compare it to your own case, where you released unclassified information. John, would you give us just a thumbnail history of what happened to you, after you spent—what?—14 years at the CIA as an analyst and a case officer?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program in December of 2007. The FBI investigated me for a full year and then determined that I had not committed a crime, and they closed the case against me. But when President Obama was inaugurated, the CIA asked him to secretly reopen the case against me, and I was investigated for another three years. I had no idea I was under investigation. Finally, I was charged with five felonies, including three counts of espionage. And those espionage charges resulted from the passage of an unclassified business card to a journalist from The New York Times and one from ABC News, and the fact that I had told a reporter that a CIA—former CIA colleague of mine, who had never been undercover, had worked in the Osama bin Laden unit, which I hadn’t done in the first place. The New York Times came to me with that information. But that was good enough for three counts of espionage. And, mind you, those names were never made public, the names of the people I was accused of outing. But still I faced 45 years in prison and ended up doing 23 months.

AMY GOODMAN: So, compare what’s happened with President Trump right now.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Right. This is—this is really a serious issue. The fact that he’s president aside and that he’s allowed to declassify information, there’s a process that you go through to declassify that information. You can’t just blurt it out to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. What happens is, the information goes back to the CIA, to the originating office. The CIA will pull the relevant information out of the report, put it on a new blank sheet of paper and then type at the top, “Secret releasable to Russia.” That way, nobody gets in trouble, no sources and methods are revealed, everybody’s happy, and we can establish something of a liaison relationship to the Russians. That’s not what the president did.

Now, General McMaster said something very important yesterday. He said that the president was not aware of the source. Well, if that’s true, then shame on General McMaster, because that’s his job to make sure that the president is informed. Now, if he briefed the president on this information and didn’t tell him the source or didn’t convey to the president the clandestinity of this source, then maybe we should be talking today about General McMaster resigning.

AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, The New York Times has a remarkable paragraph. They write, “In private, three administration officials conceded [that] they could not publicly articulate their most compelling—and honest—defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.” Can you respond to that? Again, a quote from The New York Times.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yeah. I’ve never heard—I’ve never heard a White House staff say that the president was too stupid or too ill-informed to have broken the law. And that’s really what it comes down to. The truth is, he leaked highly classified information that he shouldn’t have leaked. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, I’m the president. Nobody can punish me for that.” It’s another thing entirely to just deny that he did it. We know that he did it. And he really ought to own up to it.

Where I’m disappointed is in the reaction of Republicans on Capitol Hill. I understand party loyalty. This is Washington, after all. But, my god, you have to think about what’s good for the country. And this is certainly bad for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Trump reportedly urging then-FBI Director Comey to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I say this in all candor. I think the president, very simply, has never read a copy of the Constitution. I think that that’s true. He’s just never bothered to read the Constitution, and he just has no understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech.

With that said, there was a very dangerous precedent that was set during the Obama administration, when James Risen refused to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, another CIA whistleblower. And—

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen, The New York Times reporter.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: James Risen, The New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner. He refused to testify. The prosecution in the Eastern District of Virginia appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the 4th Circuit held that Risen did have to testify. That case then went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said the same thing, that Risen had to testify. He didn’t testify in the end, and Attorney General Holder didn’t prosecute him for not testifying. But still the precedent was set. And so, I think that—that the problem here is a bigger one than Jim Risen not testifying or than Donald Trump saying that we should jail reporters. The bigger issue is this incremental whittling away of our constitutional rights, our most important constitutional rights, including freedom of speech. This is something that we really have to put our foot down on, and we have to fight it at every step of the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what your colleagues at the CIA, another intelligence agency, are saying about what’s happening right now, are saying about President Trump and the Trump administration?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I have a friend in the CIA who called me recently from overseas, and he asked if I had been following the news. And I said, “Oh, of course I have. I’ve been following every detail.” And he said, “Do the American people realize how bad this is?” And I said, “I think they do.” I think Congress is pretending that it’s not bad, but I think the American people realize that this president, so early in his term, is just simply out of control. He doesn’t understand intelligence. He doesn’t understand the purpose or use of intelligence. He doesn’t like or trust the CIA.

And the CIA, for a little while, wasn’t sure how to respond to this. I think, in the end, the CIA is going to slow roll this president. And what I mean is, they know they can wait him out. Most senior officers in the CIA have been in the organization for 20, 25, even 30 years. They’ve waited out other presidents. And I think that they believe they can wait out this one, that he won’t be around for long.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you predict what you think will happen? I mean, there is noise on Capitol Hill among Democrats and some talk among Republicans of the possibility of impeachment. Do you think that’s possible, John?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I think it’s possible. I don’t yet think that it’s probable. I think what we need, in the absence of a special prosecutor law, which lapsed, I believe, in 1999 or 1997, we need a special counsel. We need a prosecutor who is able to really do an in-depth investigation and just see where the evidence leads us. I think that the evidence will lead us to several different crimes that have been committed by people around President Trump. And who knows? Perhaps there are crimes having been committed by President Trump. So, I think we ought to really look at the Republicans on Capitol Hill and gauge their support for this president. They reluctantly went along with him when he finally came out of the Republican primaries. There’s not a whole lot of loyalty there. And I think that if even the Republicans on Capitol Hill smell blood in the water, they’ll begin to turn. The first time a Republican member of Congress starts talking about impeachment, I think it’s a slippery slope from there.

AMY GOODMAN: John, you spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst an a case officer. You exposed Bush-era torture. And I was wondering if you can talk about that, the information that you talked to a reporter about, though the reporter didn’t reveal any name of any agent in your—from your conversation with him. You ultimately were jailed. Talk about the substance of the information you were trying to get out.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I said three things in the initial interview that I did with ABC News in December of 2007. I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. I said that torture was official U.S. government policy; it was not the result of a rogue CIA officer, as President Bush had intimated. And I said that the torture program had been personally approved by the president himself.

But that’s not specifically why I was jailed. Remember, the FBI determined that what I had said was not a crime. And so, they began digging and digging and digging, until they finally were able to put something together. And what it was, was a reporter for ABC News had written to me asking for help in writing a book on the CIA’s rendition program. I told him I didn’t know anything about rendition and I didn’t know anyone involved. He sent me a list of a dozen names. I didn’t know anybody. He sent me a second list of a dozen names. And I told him, “You obviously know this issue so much better than I do. I really can’t help you.” And he finally said, “Well, in your first book, what about a guy that you met in Pakistan on the tarmac of an airport?” And I said, “Oh, you’re talking about John Doe. I don’t know whatever happened to him. He’s probably retired and living in Virginia somewhere.” That was a felony, because I had confirmed the name of John Doe.

Now, that happens in Washington every single day. If you pick up a copy of The New York Times or The Washington Post, you’re going to see classified information. And indeed, former CIA Director David Petraeus gave the names of 10 covert officers to his adulterous girlfriend and was not prosecuted. In my case, there was another CIA officer, a disgruntled former CIA officer, who provided this reporter with the names of seven covert officers. He was not prosecuted, because he didn’t blow the whistle on the torture program.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Kiriakou, thank you so much for joining us. I want to spend more time with you at another point to really go into your book. John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer, exposing the Bush-era torture program, becoming the only official jailed in connection with it. His memoir has just been published; it’s called Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from San Diego. Stay with us.

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