CIA Whistleblower John C. Kiriakou: the Gonzo Today Interview

By Kyle K. Mann

One doesn’t approach an interview with John Kiriakou lightly. Even a fairly low-intensity questioning of a CIA whistleblower, by email, has numerous implications. One of the biggest ones, for starters, is the question: will there be negative consequences for doing this?I thought this over for weeks before contacting Kiriakou, whose place in whistleblowing history is simply stellar: a high-ranking CIA operative who was the first knowledgeable person to expose the waterboarding, aka torture, of terrorism suspects.  Kiriakou subsequently served two years in prison for his disclosures, as well as losing his job and financial security. A price inconceivable for most American citizens, one should note.

Q1: John, thanks for the interview, and for your courage in exposing torture. It’s now been a number of weeks since your release from federal prison in Pennsylvania. You are still serving a term of “house arrest.” How are your spirits, and how are you feeling regarding your detractors, and supporters, as the debate over whistleblowing in America continues?

Thanks very much for having me.  I’ve been under house arrest for almost two months now.  I have a month to do.  Every time I start to feel sorry for myself or angry that I can’t do something I want to do, I remind myself that house arrest is so much better than prison.  My house arrest ends on May 1 and then I start three years of “supervised release,” which Ronald Reagan refused to call “parole.”

My spirits are generally good.  I’m frustrated that I have to waste my time with halfway house oversight and a parole officer, but that’s life.  One thing that has really kept me going, though, has been the very broad support I’ve received from people across the country.  It’s been terrific.  The important thing is that this debate about whistleblowing continues.

Q2: Do you feel you are being surveilled at this time? If so, how? For example, is this email exchange likely to be under active review by intelligence personnel, taking into consideration that the CIA has had the gall to have broken into the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee’s computers?

I always assume that I’m under surveillance.  I was a surveillance instructor at the CIA, so I know the tricks of the trade.  Physical surveillance is easy to confirm.  As for electronic, we’re probably all under surveillance.  God knows, Congress and the courts aren’t going to stop the government from spying on Americans.

Q3: I have to ask this with admitted trepidation: what are the chances of consequences for either of us for speaking out on any topic, right here, right now, and in the future?

I found when I was in prison that the bigger the noise you make, the safer you are.  Our government likes to work in the darkness.  When there’s light, they generally stay away.  We should be ok.

Q4: While on the topic: the Stratfor email hack exposed intelligence contractor Stratfor’s surveillance of various persons worldwide.  Your reaction to this and the jailing of Barrett Brown? Where are we going with this as a society, given Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures?

I followed the Jeremy Hammond and Barrett Brown cases closely.  First and foremost, Barrett Brown didn’t commit a crime.  Period.  What we saw in his case was the government heaping on charges–like they did in mine–knowing that the pressure would force me to take a plea to make the rest of the charges go away.  That’s what they did with Barrett Brown.  It’s a disgraceful way to operate the “justice” system.  Second, I would call Jeremy Hammond a whistleblower.  I don’t think he deserved the harsh sentence that he got.  What he did was to expose the ugly underbelly of the private, for-profit intelligence community.  So they had to silence him.

Q5: Let’s discuss the plea deal accepted earlier this March 2015 by former CIA Director and current White House consultant Gen. Petraeus, having gotten what is arguably a slap on the wrist for breaching security to his mistress, and who according to according to a U.S. News and World report dated March 5, 2015  may have used the material in her Petraeus biography. How outrageous is all this? I personally am incredulous at the blatant hypocrisy, compared to your case and others, including Edward Snowden.

First let me say that I don’t think Petraeus should have been prosecuted in the first place.  Just as in my case, he had no criminal intent and there was no harm to the national security.  With that said, what he did was stupid.  And if there’s going to be any fairness in our judicial system, he should have gotten jail time, like I did.  The real hypocrisy to me is Petraeus’ statement upon my sentencing, when he said that my conviction was “a great day” for the intelligence community and that “oaths do matter.”  Three days later, in his office at the CIA, Petraeus lied to FBI agents about doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING that I had done.  Also, my oath was to protect the Constitution of the United States, not to protect that CIA’s lawbreaking.

Q6: Please talk about the current CIA Director, John Brennan. You called him a bad choice for the job. Could you elaborate on that?

John Brennan never explained to the American public his role in the CIA’s torture program.  He was the CIA’s deputy Executive Director  at the time, so he had to have known about it.  Why wasn’t this part of the public record from his nomination hearings?  He owes it to the American people to come clean.

Q7: You have expressed surprise that Brennan was accepted for the job after being rejected after Obama’s first nomination early in his administration. What happened in four years to make Brennan palatable enough for Senate confirmation; was this a case of effective “perception management?”

The progressive community seems to have dropped the ball on the Brennan nomination.  And there was ZERO Congressional leadership in opposition to the nomination.

Q8: Let’s go to your years in the CIA. After 9-11, you were named Chief of Counter Terrorist Operation in Pakistan. Most Americans can’t imagine having a job like that. What did it entail? Give us a rough sense of your duties there, and some of the more memorable moments, including the capture of high-ranking al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah.

My job in Pakistan, very simply, was to work with Pakistani authorities to capture al-Qaeda fighters who had taken refuge in Pakistan.  Certainly the highlight of my time in Pakistan was the capture of Abu Zubaydah in March 2002.  We caught 51 other al-Qaeda fighters that night, including the leader of al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan and one of the group’s bomb makers.

Q9: At what point did you decide to disclose the waterboarding; what was it that made you decide to blow the whistle, and where did you find the courage to do so?

Oh, there was no courage involved at all.  I went about blowing the whistle the wrong way.  I did it incrementally, really.  And I should have hired an attorney before I said anything, not after.  What made me come out publicly was that President Bush had repeatedly said that the CIA did not torture.  I knew that was a lie.  And then when he said that there may have been torture, but it was a rogue CIA operation, I decided to go public.

Q10: Should George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, among others, face trial for torture and other war crimes, and does the recent article in Mother Jones correctly implicate the CIA in the phony claims that the U.S. needed to invade Iraq?

I have always believed that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others in the Administration should have faced charges of war crimes.

This article is correct that the case for war against Iraq was shaky, at best.  There was a real debate about it inside the CIA.  I can tell you from firsthand experience, that this was not a war that the CIA wanted to be involved in.  We were obsessed at the time with finding bin Laden.  There was a great divide in the community at the time over Iraq.  The Office of the Vice President, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council were all pushing for war.  The CIA, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were against going to war with Iraq.  But we all know that Dick Cheney ran the country, so we went to war.

Q11: Pakistan is a nuclear bomb-armed state, that has protested, though perhaps just for form, that the U.S. is drone-bombing its citizens wrongfully. The CIA is a key player in this drone bombing, correct? What are the implications of this program? Is it legal?

I’m sorry that I’m not able to comment on this.

Q12: You have said Obama killed more people with drones than George W. Bush did. So we don’t torture, we just kill suspects? Does this make Obama a war criminal?

I would call our drone attacks criminal, yes.  There is nothing in international law that allows us to preemptively kill people.  I’m even more concerned that the Administration believes that it can kill American citizens who have never been charged with a crime or allowed their Constitutional right to due process.

Q13: How much evidence is there that Obama has not ended torture, but merely outsourced it?

I’ve been out of the CIA for 11 years now, so my opinions are based solely on press reports.

Q14: What’s an American citizen to do, if we believe our leaders are torturers and war criminals?

We need to ride our Congressional representatives hard on this issue.  The only way to effect any real change is through Congress.  But so far very, very few members of Congress have had the balls to stand up and say that torture is wrong.  It’s time for some new Congressmen.

Q15: Let’s step back and consider the formation of the CIA in 1947 under the signature of President Harry Truman. In late 1963,  a month after the assassination of JFK, an op-ed from Truman appeared in the Washington Post that called for the scaling back of the CIA as an operational force. Do you agree, in retrospect, with Truman? Are these people, many of whom you know personally, operating with no supervision and no accountability?

I agree with Truman, and I agree with former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who believed that the CIA probably should be broken up.  Certainly, analysis can be done by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, while human collection can be done by the Pentagon.  Special ops already are done by the Pentagon’s special operations groups.  There’s no need to have the CIA running around the world mucking things up.

Q16: President Kennedy fired CIA Director Richard Helms and his deputy, and was said to be considering a drastic breakup or reshuffling of the CIA. It has to be asked, do you believe there was CIA involvement in the assassination of JFK? What was the prevailing view of this, when the lights are low and the microphones off, when you were in the agency 40 years later?

This is certainly one of history’s enduring mysteries.  In the CIA people used to laugh about it and say how absurd it was to think that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination.  But with the likes to James Jesus Angleton, Cord Meyer, and others in power in the CIA at the time, I think anything was possible.

Q17: The Vietnam War era produced various intelligence outrages. Afterwards in 1975, the Senate’s Church Committee looked into some of the abuses, including early CIA spying on American citizens’ mail. Still later, committee members were labeled traitors. Did the Church Committee go too far, or not far enough?

The Church Committee certainly did NOT go too far.  I think Frank Church and Otis Pike were positively heroic for what they did with those hearings in the 1970s.  That is exactly what we need now–members of Congress who have the guys to say, “Wait a minute.  We are going to do real oversight of the intelligence community.  And if we find that laws are being violated, we want to see prosecutions.”  Heads should roll, especially on torture.

Q18: Skipping forward to the elephant in the room for this generation, 9-11: was it really 19 men armed with box cutters, or is there evidence of involvement on a much larger scale? What do you think we don’t generally know about 9-11, the excuse for almost every war and draconian policy implemented since, including Obama’s signature on the 2012 NDAA “indefinite detention” authorization?

I was in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center during 9/11.  I really believe that it was 19 men with box cutters.  At the same time, the thing that has never been investigated adequately is the alleged roll of wealthy Arabs, especially Saudis, in funding al-Qaeda.

Q19: Your take on U.S. actions from the Ukraine, to Venezuela and Ecuador, where the president has accused the CIA of fomenting a coup against him?

I wish I could offer you an informed response here, but my focus has been on the Middle East throughout my entire adult life, and I’m really not qualified to talk about other parts of the world.  I just don’t know enough.

Q20: What questions do I not know enough to even ask you? By extension, what does the American public need to know, and where do we get that information?

The alternative media is the only places where these important issues are even being discussed.  I now get all of my news from Twitter, from alternative news sites, and from Al jazeera and RT.

Q21: You have said “Americans are better than that” regarding torture. Many of us want to be convinced that you are right. Please expand on your statement, and can we return to the good guy reputation we had back in, say, World War Two?

The only way to regain our reputation is to show a complete and total respect for human rights.  Right now the world sees us as the hypocrites that we are.  We are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 5 of that declaration says, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”  That’s a bad joke.  We violate that article all the time.  In addition, Congress mandates an annual human rights report for every country with which we have diplomatic relations.  We criticize them for not respecting human rights, and then at the same time, we send prisoners there knowing that they will be tortured.  We have no credibility on human rights at all.

Q:21 Before we go, please discuss your meeting the “patron saint” of this website, Hunter S. Thompson, whose death was now ten years ago. Bonus question: Do you see anyone able to fill his shoes in these troubled times? Who do you see doing heroic work in the journalism field?

I had the chance to meet Hunter Thompson in Beverly Hills a few weeks before his death.  I just happened to be at the Beverly Hills Hotel meeting a friend of mine when I saw HST standing outside the entrance having a cigarette.  I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me.  Are you Hunter Thompson?”  He said, “I know, I know.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas changed your life, right?”  I said, “Actually, it was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.  I found Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to be a little boring.”  He laughed out loud and shook my hand.  I still think about it.  His death soon afterward really stripped the country of a courageous voice of truth.

Q22: To use HST’s lingo: Are we Doomed? Or is there hope that The Great Magnet will somehow save us?

I have to admit that I’m not very optimistic about the path our country is taking.  Frankly, there is almost no difference between the two parties, with each subsequent administration just tinkering around the edges of policy.  The only hope for change is if the American people demand it in the streets.