CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou: Exclusive Interview – Part 1
AFL: John, can we start with a quick background sketch? I gather you’re of immigrant Greek heritage, and grew up in southwest Pennsylvania. From there you made your way into a CIA in 1990 which was long widely regarded as almost iconically WASP and old-family. Was that era over by the time you got there?
John Kiriakou: Hello, Chuck! Great questions. I’m very happy to answer them. I’m in Athens right now, working with the Greek government to craft a new whistleblower protection law. I have a nice block of time open this morning, so I thought I’d start writing. Here goes:
Although my parents were born in the United States, their families were very recent immigrants. My dad’s parents arrived at Ellis Island in February 1931. My mom’s in February 1934. We attended the Greek Orthodox Church, socialized with Greeks, went to Greek school in the evenings, attended all the Greek social functions, baptisms, weddings, dances, etc. So being “Greek” was a very big part of my upbringing. When I arrived at the CIA, it was still very WASPy, very eastern elite. People like Gust Avrakotos were beginning to change that, but I was still an outsider, and I was the target more than once of anti-Greek cracks, as though I was somehow less of an American than my colleagues.
AFL: You started in the agency as an analyst, studying stuff & writing reports for the White House and other bigwigs. Then you switched to the “Operations” side, the “real” spying part of the CIA. Of course that was a lengthy and complex process; but after reading about it in your book, The Reluctant Spy, one thing I’ve got to know: Did you really catch & skin & eat a rabbit in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was supposed to be part of survival training??
John Kiriakou: I actually did NOT kill the rabbit. I caught it, released it, and starved through the remainder of the exercise. That wasn’t my “thing.”
AFL: One of your first operational postings was to Athens. I was frankly amazed to read that it is apparently one of the key crossroads for terrorists and plotters of all sorts and nationalities. Was that unsettling to you as an American who is clearly proud of your Greek heritage? What about the level of danger there for you personally and your young family?
John Kiriakou: I was very disturbed when I started reading the Greek files at the CIA. I had always had quite a romantic view of Greece growing up. It never occurred to me that Greeks wished to do any of us harm. wasn’t fully cognizant of Greek communism and what we called “the extrajudicial left.” I was aware of the presence of terrorist groups there, of course, but not aware of the degree of hatred that so many Greeks had toward the United States.
When I first arrived in Athens, I underestimated the level of danger for myself. I took surveillance detection very seriously, but when [British intelligence officer] Stephen Saunders was killed, it pushed me to the brink. I didn’t even realize that I was suffering from PTSD until I returned to the U.S.
AFL: You were very intensely involved in the anti-Al Queda work after 9-11. The book tells of much derring-do & “operations” in Pakistan. Which of those was scariest? How does that all look from this point 13 years later?
John Kiriakou: It’s funny to me in retrospect that I never felt in any personal danger in Pakistan, at least not until I was supposed to go to Karachi near the end of my tour there. I just had a “feeling” about Karachi. I never liked the place, and I found something to do in Islamabad, rather than to head south. On the day I was supposed to arrive there, the Consulate was bombed and 11 people were killed. I should have been there that morning. I’m glad I wasn’t.
That was the only time that I actually felt fear. I remember thinking, “Wow. If these guys really want to kill us, they’ll kill us. They just needed a slightly bigger bomb.” Thirteen years later, I still have fond memories of the country, which my wife thinks is crazy. I enjoyed Pakistan, I like the Pakistani people. I love their food. The country is beautiful. But the place is a basket case. The economy is in collapse. And, frankly, (and this may be controversial), I believe that religion holds Pakistanis back economically.
AFL: Also in the book, you describe being invited (recruited?) to take the interrogation training for what turned out to be the torture program. And you then turned to an older Agency wise person/mentor (one of many colleagues you don’t name) for advice about what to do. That mentor evidently advised you to steer clear of it.
I wonder if you can give some idea of why this mentor said it was better to keep away from the program? Were the considerations professional, legal, moral? And did you accept this advice right away, or did you have to ponder it awhile?
John Kiriakou: The senior officer I approached about the torture program has repeatedly denied that our conversation ever took place. I’m not sure of his motivation, other than that publicly, he has taken a pro-torture stand and has stuck with it. I guess he’s trying to be consistent, at least in public.
Anyway, I think, in retrospect, that his objections were personal and professional, not moral or legal. He repeatedly said that “torture is a slippery slope” and that somebody was going to go to prison. After our conversation, I went DIRECTLY back to the Counterterrorism Center and said “I’m not interested.” The whole event took a total of a couple of hours. I didn’t need to ponder it.
AFL: Let me take a brief left-field detour here: the New Yorker piece about you said you’ve done consulting for some movies about the CIA. So let me ask about 3 spy movies and their main stars, and get your combo technical & moviegoer thumbnail reviews:
Syriana, Starring George Clooney
The Good Shepherd, Starring Matt Damon
Zero Dark Thirty, Starring Jessica Chastain
John Kiriakou: Syriana was based on my friend Bob Baer’s book See No Evil. It was a bestseller in the late 1990s. Bob was a terrific officer, but, like me, he made a lot of enemies. The book was fantastic, but the movie was confusing and complicated. I would recommend the book highly.
The Good Shepherd was a fantastic account of the CIA’s early days, explaining especially well how the Agency came out of the OSS. I liked it a lot.
Zero Dark Thirty was an abomination. I can’t feel any more strongly about it. It should be recalled and withdrawn. It does the country such a great disservice by perpetuating the great lie that torture worked.
FYI, check out The Recruit, which is the BEST account of CIA training, and Charlie Wilson’s War, which, I think, is just about the best CIA movie ever made.
In Part Two, Coming Tomorrow:
— How Kiriakou learned about plans to invade Iraq, A full year ahead of the public.
— Whether he thinks the CIA and other secret units are complying with Obama’s “no-torture” order.
— How did he cope with being in prison for 22 months?
NC Schedule for Kiriakou visit October 27-29:
Tues., Oct. 27, 2015
• Noon: The State of Things, WUNC Radio
• 2:00 pm talk, Great Hall, North Carolina Central University Law School, Turner Law Bldg, 640 Nelson Street, Durham. Free and open to the public; more info at 919-599-1963.
• 7:15 pm talk- “Keeping Government Honest: Whistleblowers, Torture, and America’s War on Terror.” Freedom Forum Room, 2nd floor of Carroll Hall, School of Media & Journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Wed., Oct. 28, 2015
• 11:00 AM- Guilford College, Greensboro. Luncheon (buy your own) with informal discussion, gather at 11:00 a.m. in the Atrium of Founders Hall; followed at
• 1:30 pm by a talk in the Moon Room of Dana Auditorium. Free and open to the public. Sponsor: Guilford College Friends Center.
• 7:00 pm talk, “Blowing the Whistle on CIA Torture,” at Quaker House, 223 Hillside Ave., Fayetteville. Sponsor: Quaker House.
Thurs., Oct. 29, 2015
• 1:10-2:10 pm talk- NCSU Peace & Justice Forum, Talley Student Union, Room 3285, NCSU. Sponsor: Presbyterian Campus Ministry of Raleigh. All welcome.
• 7:00 pm talk, “The American Legacy of Torture,” NCSU, Park Shops 210 (2310 Stinson Drive, Raleigh).