John Kiriakou: CIA whistle-blower?

Hmmm. The last time we made note of retired CIA agent John Kiriakou six years ago, he had just confirmed the use of waterboarding during the interrogation of al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah—and by all appearances seemed to be justifying it. Kiriakou said that the tactic’s efficacy in helping to disrupt “a number of attacks, maybe dozens” outweighed its harshness. Now he’s just been sentenced to 30 months in prison for blowing the cover on a fellow CIA agent. Having copped a plea in the case, he nonetheless portrays himself as a “whistleblower” on CIA torture. The judge didn’t buy it. “This is not a case of a whistleblower,” US District Judge Leonie Brinkema told Kiriakou at his sentencing hearing. “This is a case of a man who betrayed a solemn trust.” (Government Security News, Jan. 28) 

The Defend John Kiriakou website states:

The prosecutors have not claimed that John talked to any foreign government, passed any government documents or accepted funds from anyone hostile to the United States. Instead, according to the facts asserted in the indictment, he committed the “crime” of responding honestly to a query from the New York Times related to the agency’s interrogation program under the Bush Administration, which included waterboarding.

According to the New York Times on Jan. 5:

On Jan. 25, Mr. Kiriakou is scheduled to be sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a plea deal in which he admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by e-mailing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it. The law was passed in 1982, aimed at radical publications that deliberately sought to out undercover agents, exposing their secret work and endangering their lives.

In more than six decades of fraught interaction between the agency and the news media, John Kiriakou is the first current or former CIA officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information to a reporter.

Kiriakou does seem to be the first ex-CIA agent to have spoken publicly about waterboarding, but whether he did this to blow the whistle is quesitonable. He portrays it that way now, telling Al Jazeera Jan. 31:

“Ever since I first heard the CIA had begun torturing prisoners I had a problem with it. I had a moral problem, an ethical problem with it. It’s not something we were ever trained in. It’s not something we were ever asked to do before September 11, indeed before we started capturing prisoners in 2002. I didn’t think it was necessary.”

Democracy Now seemingly accepts this version of his motives, flat-out calling him a “whistle-blower,” without quotation marks. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is a little more skeptical, resurrecting this quote from the New York Times of April 27, 2009:

Some critics say that the now-discredited information shared by Mr. Kiriakou and other sources heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique. “I think it was sanitized by the way it was described” in press accounts, said John Sifton, a former lawyer for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

FAIR’s own Peter Hart comments:

Claiming that torture was necessary and that it worked—but then having second thoughts about it—is not why Kiriakou is likely headed to prison. As the recent [Jan. 5] Times piece explained, Kirikaou was in touch with a freelance reporter who was looking for the name of a CIA officer who had carried out some administrative aspects of the rendition program. Kiriakou recalled that person’s name, and passed it along to the reporter–in part, he says, because he believed this officer had retired. As he told the Times, “If I’d known the guy was still under cover… I would never have mentioned him.”

The government seems especially outraged that a CIA torturer’s name made it to human right lawyers defending Guantanamo prisoners–that would seem to be the reason Kiriakou’s case was pursued, and why he’s likely going to prison.

Those facts alone should outrage people who think that the public should know more about the government’s torture programs; and the fact that the person facing the most severe punishment for the CIA’s torture program is someone who spoke about it is absurd. But it’s important to recall that Kiriakou’s role in the media debate over torture was, in effect, to endorse the practice—albeit with some caveats. 

Even if Kiriakou is trying to tidy up his role in the waterboarding, Hart notes that the “only person to do time for the CIA’s torture policies appears to be a guy who spoke publicly about them, not any of the people who did the actual torturing.” However you slice it, that’s certainly a perverse irony.