Exclusive Interview With CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou — Part Two
AFL: In your book you describe how you learned that the decision to invade Iraq had been made a year ahead of time, when it was still super-top secret, and the public was being told otherwise. Did that plan sound strange or even crazy to you then? What’s your take on that now? Does it seem as bizarre (& yet predictable) as it does to my cynical layman’s ear?
John Kiriakou: The Iraq War was another abomination. The battle lines were very clearly drawn at the time. Those opposed to the war were CIA, State, and Joint Chiefs. The driving force was the Office of the Vice President, with the strongest support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council. We all thought the idea of war with Iraq was insane. We hadn’t yet caught bin Laden, and the Iraqis were no direct threat to us. I felt strongly at the time–and I still do–that the war was payback for the 1993 Iraqi attempt to assassinate George H. W. Bush.
AFL: One more from the book: in it you seemed to accept the initial round of what turned out to be torture as perhaps regrettable but understandable, given the panic & fear that followed 9-11. And you wrote approvingly of Obama’s pledge not to prosecute anybody for it, and to “look ahead” instead of “back” toward any investigation or accountability.
First, is that impression of the book correct? And if so, can you say something about when & how your view on this began to change?
John Kiriakou: My views on the CIA torture program have clearly evolved. I believed it was torture from the beginning, of course, but I thought I could draw a line between two questions: Was it right? And did it work? As it turned out, the entire system was built on a lie. It never worked. Ever. The CIA lied to us from the beginning. But the more important issue is that officers went above and beyond what had been authorized by the Justice Department. Atrocities were committed. How can officers commit cold-blooded murder and get away with it?
What about sexual assault? I can understand a policy decision to not prosecute officers who were told they were acting within the law. But murder and sexual assault were not within the confines of the law. Where is the prosecution? My views on the program began to change dramatically in 2009 when the CIA Inspector General’s report was released, and we learned that everything we thought we knew was a lie.
AFL: And while we’re on Obama, from what you’ve heard & studied, how effective do you think Obama’s ban on torture has really been? You were an outsider when it was issued, but do you think the CIA and the other clandestine units are actually sticking to it? Given the cult of secrecy and deception in these units, how would the White House ever know if they weren’t? Do you know of anyone in the intelligence agencies or military who has been disciplined or cashiered for violating it? Are there even any rumors?
John Kiriakou: I WANT to believe that Obama’s ban on torture is real. But everything the CIA has said about torture since 2002 has been a lie. And Obama has lied consistently on the issue as well. Why should we believe them? I don’t. We know that extraordinary renditions continue. So why should we conclude that torture has ended. I don’t believe it has. Meanwhile, absolutely nobody has been punished for anything related to torture.
AFL: Also, in our work when I was at Quaker House, we dealt with many troops who returned from the “war on terror” with serious cases of PTSD and what is now being called “moral injury.” By rights there should have been cases of something liked that among CIA veterans of these assignments. What was your observation? What have you heard? Is this something the agency would want to keep under wraps?
John Kiriakou: Yes, I can tell you from first-hand experience that PTSD is a very real thing at the CIA. There are many cases of severe depression, aggression, and other manifestations of PTSD. I prefer to speak with you privately about this. Please remind me when we get together.
AFL: It appears that when you talked to reporters about the waterboarding in 2007, you didn’t seem to think it was a big step, or something personally risky– is that right? And you told ABC that you thought the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah probably had produced some good information which saved lives. When did you begin to question what you’d been told about that?
And when did you actually begin to feel as if you were in personal jeopardy because of it?
John Kiriakou: I didn’t believe that I had said anything groundbreaking in that ABC News interview. Indeed, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Red Cross had all published reports saying that the U.S. was torturing prisoners. It wasn’t until the next day, when the CIA filed a “crimes report” against me with the Justice Department, that I realized, “Uh, oh. This is going to be big.” I just didn’t have an appreciation for it at first. And then the death threats began. With that said, I believed what the CIA had said internally about torture until 2009.
AFL: I’m told that your plea deal was structured in part to avoid implicating other journalists, and putting them at risk of jail, as well as to minimize your own jail time. Is that correct? Are the dangers to reporters on this beat increasing? How do you see them fighting back?
John Kiriakou: YES! I believe strongly in the Constitution’s right to freedom of speech. I did not want to put journalists in jeopardy. That was a real consideration for me. Journalists will tell you that their sources are drying up because of the Justice Department’s crackdown on leaks. Journalists are now being referred to as “unindicted coconspirators.” This is unprecedented, and we need to take a stand against it. Re the second part of your question, the plea deal wasn’t tied to journalists testifying, although the offer came at the same time as the subpoenas would have been issued.
AFL: Once in jail, what routines or practice helped you cope with the 22 months and its stresses? And what were some of the worst things about it for you there?
John Kiriakou: My third book, after Letters from Loretto, will be Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison. I expect that it’ll come out in a year. There were 20 “life lessons” that the CIA taught me that I used to remain at the top of the heap in prison. Most importantly was that I formed “strategic alliances,” mainly with the Italians. I was also friendly with the Aryans and the black gangs. That ensured my own safety and ability to operate in prison. The worst things in prison were the monotony and the loneliness. I missed my family terrible. The rest was relatively easy. Writing (letters and books) kept me busy and helped me pass the time quickly. I received nearly 7,000 letters from more than 650 people. And that support gave me great strength.
AFL: Were you able to do much reading inside? Was it hard to get books? What kind of reading was most helpful or interesting? What about Internet access? Were you able to keep up with outside news, or was it better to shut it all out sometimes? What about staying in touch with your family?
John Kiriakou: I received a LOT of books, and I read more than 200 over the course of my 23 months there. I read fiction for the first time in my life, and I really appreciated the escapism. Biographies were also important to me, and I read a lot of government exposes, too. There was no internet access at all. I was able to call my wife and kids every other day for 15 minutes. Otherwise, I relied on the mail. Keeping up with the news was very difficult. Nobody watches the news on TV in prison, so I relied on a subscription to the New York Times, which came four days late.
AFL: Tell us something about the outside support you got while you were in prison. Was it mostly letters, or were there other things? Do you have any feedback for those readers who may be drawn to prisoner support efforts?
John Kiriakou: My support wasn’t just the letters. I was constantly amazed at the public expressions of support from people like Yoko Ono, Mia Farrow, John Cusack (who called my wife every month to ask about me), Rosie O’Donnell, Roseanne Barr, Daniel Ellsberg, and others. Jesselyn Radack at the Government Accountability Project made sure to keep me relevant in the press. I gave testimony in writing to the European Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, and “Silenced,” the documentary about my case and the cases of Jesselyn Radack and Tom Drake, was released at the Tribeca Film Festival while I was inside.
In the final installment, John talks about:
— CIA leadership, past and present
— How his views have changed about torture and the need for accountability
— The 2016 presidential candidates
NC Visit Schedule details here:
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).