Meet the CIA whistleblower who exposed Bush’s torture program

John Kiriakou, CIA Whistleblower who exposed George Bush's torture program and waterboarding.

It’s no longer a secret: The CIA tortured suspects in the War on Terror. We know this, in part, because John Kiriakou, who worked in CIA counter-terrorism operations and blew the whistle on his agency and George W. Bush’s administration.

He told ABC News correspondent Brian Ross in 2007 the CIA had tortured prisoners as part of an official government policy given Bush’s stamp of approval.

Bush’s administration didn’t  press charges against Kiriakou. But, under Barack Obama’s administration, the FBI did. Kiriakou racked up $1 million in legal fees fighting multiple felony charges in court, served two years in prison, and lost his professional standing as one of the government’s top Middle East experts. He’s virtually unemployable.

But whistleblowing was worth it, he says. “I can sleep at night.”

Colorado Independent Managing Editor Kyle Harris recently spoke with him about torture, whistleblowing and the War on Terror in advance of lectures Kiriakou will be giving in Colorado.

He will speak in Denver, Friday, Feb. 12, at 6:30 pm, at the Alliance Center, 1536 Wynkoop, Suite 100, Denver; and in Boulder, Saturday, February 13, 6:00 pm, at the First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder.

Related: GOP forces Obama’s Gitmo shutdown plans into 2016 debate

Harris: What’s bringing you to Colorado?

Kiriakou: I’m going to speak to a couple of different peace groups about torture and about ethics in intelligence operations.

Harris: Your life has brought you deeply in touch with those questions.

Kiriakou: I spent almost 15 years with the CIA, the second half of my career in counter-terrorism operations. I spent a little more than two years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After I left the CIA — to make a long story short — I gave an interview to ABC News. I said three things. I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. I said torture was official U.S. government policy. And I said that policy had been approved by and signed by the President himself. And so that kind of made me something of a dissident.

The FBI began investigating me. At the very end of the Bush administration, they came to the decision that I had not violated the law by giving that interview.

Much to my surprise — and frankly everybody else’s — when the Obama administration came to office, they reopened the investigation and ended up charging me with five felonies,d including three counts of espionage and a count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and a count of making a false statement. I was looking at 45 years.

I fought them for a year. I ran up a million dollars in legal bills. That’s kind of Uncle Sam’s plan. They know you can’t keep up this level of legal challenge. And so they offered me a deal — two and a half years in exchange for dropping all the other charges, and I took the deal. So, I served 23 months in the Federal Correctional Institute at Loretto, Pennsylvania. And I’ve been out since February 3rd last year. I’ve been speaking all around the country on issues related to torture, ethics, human rights, things like that. Prison reform has been a big thing for me. And so this trip brings me to Denver.

Harris: Does the United States still practice torture?

Kiriakou: That’s really a great question. And it’s the $64,000 dollar question, because I think that we don’t really know where we are in terms of torture. We didn’t know that the CIA had secret prisons all around the world until they were actually closed. And so, are we supposed to just take the CIA’s word for it that they’re not torturing prisoners? That’s kind of the position that we’re in right now. There’s the McCain-Feinstein ammendment that was passed into law last year that has formally banned torture. But I don’t know. Do we trust the CIA to respect the law? They haven’t in the past. So why would we expect them to abide by the law now?

My own personal opinion — my gut opinion — is that torture is probably temporarily stalled. But I wouldn’t put it past our intelligence services to bring it back to life again. With that said, the United Nations has deemed the situation in our prisons across the country, specifically solitary confinement, a form of torture. That is something we’ve not even begun to address.

Harris: On any level, somehow working out the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, was torture ever legal?

Kiriakou: That’s another great question. The easy answer is no. We have a law in this country called the Federal Torture Act. It specifically defines torture and bans it. The definition is very clear. It’s really anything that causes or is meant to cause pain or lasting psychological suffering. So we’ve got not just a federal law, but we’re also signatories to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Beyond that, we were the authors of that United Nations convention which also defines torture and specifically bans it. The answer is no.

Let me give you another little bit of background. In January of 1968, The Washington Post ran a front page photograph of an American soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. On the day that photo was published, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered an investigation. The soldier was court martialed. He was tried and he was convicted of torture. He was sent to prison. So, the law hasn’t changed.

Why was torture illegal and punishable in 1968, but not in 2002 or in 2016? I don’t think that our government has ever answered that question.

Harris: When did waterboarding become government policy?

Kiriakou: The idea of waterboarding was revisited in October of 2001 in response to the September 11th attacks. It wasn’t until we caught Abu Zubaydah on March 28, 2002 that the plan kicked into high gear and a very specific plan was laid out to use waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah in order to get him to talk. The president approved the torture of Abu Zubaydah on August 1, 2002. He was waterboarded for the first of 83 times — 87 maybe — on August 4 of 2002. He was not the only one. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded more than 140 times. It really began on August 4, 2002 .

Now George Tenet (former director of the CIA) maintains waterboarding ended around 2003 and that nobody’s been waterboarded since. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what Tenet has always said.

Harris: Was waterboarding lumped into so-called enhanced interrogation techniques?

Kiriakou: Yeah. Waterboarding was supposed to be the last stop of the torture techniques. It was supposed to be the harshest, the most severe. I personally think there were a couple of techniques that were worse — like sleep deprivation. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigators found that CIA interrogators kept prisoners awake — and I mean awake awake — for as long as 11 days. You begin to lose your mind around day seven. That’s exactly what happened to prisoners. They began to lose their minds after being kept awake so long. They’re handcuffed and shackled in uncomfortable positions from an eyebolt in the ceiling. They can’t sit. They can’t lay. They can’t rest. The lights are on all the time. Hard rock music is blasted into their cells 24 hours a day. You just can’t sleep.

The other one that I actually thought was worse than waterboarding was the cold cell, where again a prisoner is chained to an eyebolt in the ceiling. He is stripped naked and the cell is chilled to 50 degrees. Every hour a CIA officer will go into the cell and throw ice water on him. People died with that interrogation technique. There were deaths. And no one was ever prosecuted for those deaths. So I think those were actually worse than waterboarding. But waterboarding was supposed to be the most final and most severe.

Harris: The people who had been waterboarded had actually gone through these other techniques?

Kiriakou: Yes. Oh yes. Everything was done to them. The face slap, the belly slap, the walling. You name it. They had everything done to them.

Harris: The theory is that these techniques help get information. Is that right?

Kiriakou: That’s the theory of the likes of George Tenet and Jose Rodriguez and the other monsters who carried out this program. But the Senate Intelligence Committee found that it didn’t result in the collection of any actionable intelligence. No intelligence was collected. No American lives were saved. No attacks were disrupted. It simply doesn’t work. What happens is the prisoner will tell you anything and everything that he thinks you want to hear just so you’ll stop torturing him. So, the truth may be in that mishmash of information, but it’s going to take an army of analysts to go through it to figure out what’s true and what’s not. At the end of the day, the information is just worthless.

Harris: Do people running these programs actually believe they’ll get information that way or is there more of a punitive thing going on there?

Kiriakou: I always thought it was punitive. Detention Site Green, as it’s referred to in the Senate torture report, repeatedly cabled back to headquarters saying Abu Zubaydah just doesn’t have the information. Headquarters would say, “Waterboard him again.” This went on for months. In the end, they concluded he didn’t have the information, and headquarters said, “Alright, you’re right, he didn’t have the information.” But then they briefed the President and said, “We believe he’s still withholding the information. The reason he didn’t give it to us after waterboarding is that just proves how tough he is.” And that was just a lie.

Harris: So then the President would order more torture?

Kiriakou: Or at least not outlaw torture. And in fact, Bush did not outlaw torture, and neither did Obama, until 2015, after being president for six-and-a-half years.

Harris: Right now in Colorado there is this big hubbub among some politicians about Guantanamo Bay and Obama’s desire to close it down and possibly send detainees to the ADX Supermax in Florence. Can you speak to that? Can you speak to how Guantanamo Bay fits into the context of torture you’re describing?

Kiriakou: I think that whole argument is a red herring. We have terrorists in our prisons. We have some of the most dangerous people in the world in our prisons. We have the Blind Sheikh. We have the Unabomber. We have Terry Nichols. We’ve got people who are mass murders, cunning mass murderers, criminals on a grand scale. And we’re supposed to be afraid of a handful of Arabs from Guantanamo? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

But there’s a broader issue here. Nobody at Guantanamo has been charged with a crime. Now, we’ve got a constitution in this country. If these people at Guantanamo — there are 93 left there as of today — if the prisoners at Guantanamo are as horrible as our government wants us to believe they are, why don’t we charge them with a crime and give them their day in court?

Now, I can tell you from first-hand experience, and I can say that because I captured many of these people myself, they’re no more dangerous than any other criminal that we have in the criminal justice system. To say that we don’t want them in our states, we don’t want them in our system — that’s just nonsense. That’s either weakness or it’s a red herring.

Harris: A red herring for what exactly?

Kiriakou: Because there are certain politicians, mostly Republicans, who want to keep Guantanamo open. They don’t want people to have constitutional rights. They don’t want people to be protected by the Geneva Convention. That’s what happened. If we had them in American prisons, they would have constitutional rights — including the right of appeal.

Harris: Are they not being charged simply so they can be held indefinitely or are they not being charged because there’s no  evidence to prosecute?

Kiriakou: There was the idea that we would charge them before a military tribunal, and indeed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was charged before a military tribunal, but his tribunal was suspended and nobody else has been charged with a crime. It’s un-American.

Harris: Do you have advice for future whistleblowers?

Kiriakou: Yes. I do have some advice. It’s important advice. Hire an attorney who is skilled in whistleblowing law before you blow the whistle — not after. I did it after. That was a mistake, because I had to be reactive to everything. If you’re thinking about going public after seeing waste, fraud, abuse or illegality, you have to make sure that you’re protected. For whatever reason, in our culture, the knee-jerk reaction when somebody blows the whistle is to attack the whistleblower. So you have to protect yourself and you have to protect your legal rights. So hire an attorney first.

We have the Whistleblower Protection Law in this country that’s actually quite robust. Unfortunately, it exempts national security whistleblowers, who have no protection. What you should do is go through your chain of command. If you get no satisfaction with the chain of command, go public — whether it’s to go to elected representatives or to the press or to an oversight body — a regulatory body. Go public with it.

Be prepared to be painted as the bad guy. But in the end it’s worth it. I got into a Twitter dispute, in 2012, with Jose Rodriguez, who was the architect of the torture program and a former boss of mine at the CIA. He was mocking me because I was getting ready to go to prison. I tweeted him back and said, “Prison’s easy. You think prison is going to be any harder than Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen?” I said, “I’m on the right side of history on this issue Jose, and you’re not. And I’ll take that any day.”

Harris: Do you regret whistleblowing?

Kiriakou: I don’t. As crazy as it might sound. It bankrupted me. I still owe my attorneys $880,000 that I’ll never be able to repay. I was away from my family for two years. We’ve lost everything. I’m essentially unemployable. But, with that said, I can sleep at night. And I know in my heart that I did the right thing. And I would do it again.




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