John Kiriakou spent 15 years working his way up the chain of command at the CIA. He speaks multiple languages, including Greek and Arabic, and was an analyst, case officer and, after 9/11, the director of counter-terrorism in Pakistan. He left the CIA in 2004.
Several years later, in an interview with ABC News, he was the first to fully expose the CIA’s complicity in torture, such as waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation.”
Kiriakou was ultimately charged with disclosing classified information to journalists, and served 23 months in federal prison.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy interview, Kiriakou talks about a CIA that has grown ever larger following 9/11. Unchecked by oversight or budgetary constraints, it has, in his experience, metastasized from an analytical organization to a global paramilitary force with its own policy agenda.
He thinks that President Donald Trump makes a big mistake in underestimating the power and reach of the agency. He believes it was responsible for getting rid of Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and that there is more to come about the so-called “Trump dossier” of incriminating material compiled by the Russians.
John Kiriakou is the author of the upcoming Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison (Rare Bird Books, May 16, 2017); The Convenient Terrorist: Abu Zubaydah and the Weird Wonderland of America’s Secret Wars (with Joseph Hickman) (Hot Books, April 25, 2017); and The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror (with Michael Ruby) (Skyhorse Publishing, February 27, 2010).
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
I think it’s safe to say that every institution of government today is in chaos. Departments are understaffed, the State Department is hollowed out, cabinet secretaries are either apologizing for themselves or the president, or they’re travelling the world trying to reassure allies and adversaries. But few government institutions are in the kind of direct conflict, almost open hostility with the administration as the intelligence community and the CIA. From his botched initial visit to Langley to 6 AM tweets, not since Kennedy have we had a president in open warfare with the intelligence community.
Here to talk about all of this and a lot more, I’m joined by my guest John Kiriakou. John Kiriakou was a 15-year CIA veteran. He rose through the ranks to the very highest levels of the agency. He became the first in the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture and, as a result, he became one of the very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He was considered a whistleblower and served 23 months in federal prison. He’s the author of three books; his latest out later this year is Doing Time Like a Spy. It is my pleasure to welcome John Kiriakou to the program. John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Thank you so much for having me. The pleasure is all mine.
Schechtman: Tell our listeners a little bit about your history, your background and in doing that, talk a little bit about the way the CIA changed and evolved during your 15 years there.
Kiriakou: Sure. I spent the first half of my career as an analyst at the CIA working on the Middle East, specifically on Iraq. I did that for about seven and a half years and then I made a very unusual switch to counterterrorism operations. I spoke Arabic and I spoke Greek and wanted to serve overseas, so I changed to counterterrorism in 1997. I finally felt like I knew what I was doing around the time that 9/11 took place and went to Pakistan as the Chief of Counterterrorism Operations for the CIA there. The big change in those years though, and it’s something that I naively believed would be temporary, was a transition that we saw beginning on 9/11; away from a traditional spy agency where CIA officers recruit spies to steal secrets to what really has become a paramilitary agency and even a cyber-military agency. The CIA is nothing like what it was when I joined in early 1990 and I fear that it’s changed forever.
Schechtman: How did those changes come about? Was it like the frog in the boiling water? Talk a little bit about that.
Kiriakou: It was. It was indeed like the frog in the boiling water. On September 11, I was working in the CIA’s counterterrorism center and the counterterrorism center had a certain budget, right. Let’s just say the budget was X. Three days later, Congress voted an appropriation, a special appropriation to augment the counterterrorism center’s budget. That was an addition of 160% of the CTC budget. So all of a sudden, there was more money in counterterrorism than anybody could possibly spend. Well, the CIA by it’s very nature pushes the boundaries of what it’s allowed to do and it just keeps pushing until the Congressional Oversight Committees tell it to stop. Well, now flush with cash, that’s exactly what they did and nobody told them to stop. Congress had passed the Patriot Act, there were covert action programs taking place and all anybody had to say was 9/11 and the CIA got what it wanted. So here we are now, 16 years later, almost 16 years after September 11 and still nobody has said “Stop!” to the CIA. That’s how we’ve found ourselves in this predicament.
Schechtman: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the CIA was very involved in the actions in Afghanistan that was in and of itself a kind of paramilitary operation. Talk about the training that went into that and obviously that kind of activity and the planning for it begun even before 9/11.
Kiriakou: Well see, that’s really the issue, at least from those early days. There was almost no training. On September 11, like everybody else in the building, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, to do what, I didn’t even really think it through. I figured my Arabic was fluent, I could at the very least serve as a translator, maybe work to recruit some sources inside al Qaeda and I was denied. I was denied a second time and a third time. Finally, I ran into a colleague in the hall whom I hadn’t seen in several months since the 9/11 attacks and I said “Hey Billy, where you been?” He kind of whispers and says: “I’ve been in Afghanistan.” And I said: “What are you doing in Afghanistan?” and he looked at me like I was crazy and he said “I’ve been killing people. What do you think I’ve been doing?” And I thought, well that’s why they haven’t sent me to Afghanistan. They don’t need translators, they don’t need recruiters, they’re just killing people. I realized then, this was in October of 2001, I realized then that the entire mission was changing. If the original mission was to destroy al Qaeda, we certainly succeeded in doing that by the middle to the end of 2002 but the mission became muddled and that was really on the White House. The mission became something akin to nation building and then all of a sudden, we realized that we have a problem with the Taliban or we had a problem with Hekmatyar or we didn’t like somebody else in the area and here we are now, as I said, 16 years later and we’re still in Afghanistan.
Schechtman: One of the interesting things about that is that whether it was from a public relations perspective or whether or not it was actual fact, the perception of what the CIA accomplished in Afghanistan was very positive and yet if one looks at the history of CIA operations, there certainly is not a great record of success.
Kiriakou: There really is not a great record of success. You can go all the way back to the creation, the foundation of the CIA in 1947, with the passage of the National Security Act and look at covert action programs that have been declassified since 1947. I’m hard pressed to find a success.
Schechtman: Talk a little bit about it in the context of really the original mission of the CIA, which was really pretty much analytical and intelligence gathering.
Kiriakou: That’s right. I say this all the time. It’s actually quite simple what the CIA is supposed to do. The CIA is supposed to recruit spies, to steal secrets, and then analyze those secrets to pass the analysis to policymakers so they can make the best informed policy. And now that’s actually very little of what the CIA does. Now there are these paramilitary units that are parachuting or helicoptering into remote locations to kill people or to kidnap people. We know just recently from WikiLeaks that there’s now this huge cyber espionage directorate or division, whatever it is that’s targeting the iPhone and the Android phone and the Samsung Smart TV and even the computers in our cars. That’s not the CIA that I joined and I don’t think that’s the CIA that Congress had in mind when it created the organization.
Schechtman: How much was this, and all of this activity, the creation of the CIA itself and how much was molded by whatever administration was in power?
Kiriakou: Well, I think that the CIA really wasn’t necessarily molded administration to administration, except for a couple of exceptions. The CIA went a lot over the top during the Johnson Administration, let’s say. But in more modern times, I have to be careful how I say this because I don’t want to point too many fingers and get myself in trouble again. I’ll say it this way. In my lifetime, in my career, the CIA was really not a political or politicized organization. I had no idea the political affiliation or inclinations of the people sitting next to me or the people I worked for. Politics never came up; it was never discussed. I remember one time in 1996, a woman in my office got in trouble because she had a Bob Dole bumper sticker on her desk. She was ordered to remove it. Politics just never played a role in day to day life at the CIA until September 11, and then it became very political and very politicized. It was actually worse under the Obama Administration than it was under the George W. Bush Administration. I think that’s really the genesis of this fight that we’re now seeing between the CIA and the Trump White House.
Schechtman: How did it become more politicized, specifically during the Obama years?
Kiriakou: Obama was very good at cultivating people inside the CIA. One of the things that’s funny to me is the CIA prides itself on its ability to “recruit” new presidents. What they do is, especially when a president has little or no national security background or experience like Barack Obama. They start briefing him as soon as he’s elected president and I can tell you as soon as that new president sees his first blue border report or black border report, something that’s so highly classified it has to have a blank cover page, it’s classified as several levels above top secret, that’s heavy stuff. Then they do the briefing and they say, Mr. President Elect, we want to tell you about all the cool things we’re doing around the world. Well, once they’ve let that President in on all the secrets, they’ve recruited him and he’s one of the guys. He’s a part of the club. They did that with Barack Obama but Obama was smart too and Obama began sending people to the CIA that he knew were political loyalists. John Brennon was one. John Brennon was supposed to be the first CIA director under Obama but Progressives objected. Don’t forget that John Brennon was number three at the CIA under George W. Bush and was up to his neck in the torture program, even though he denied it later. There was nothing progressive about John Brennon. So, Obama knew he could wait out the liberals and that’s exactly what he did. As soon as he won reelection, he named John Brennon CIA director and nobody objected by then. At the same time, Brennon brought his own people in and they too were Obama loyalists, they had owed their careers to Obama. The next thing you know, you have this politicized leadership at the CIA when the CIA is supposed to be nonpartisan, apolitical. Frankly, I don’t think we saw that kind of politicization of the agency since the Reagan Administration, when Casey brought in businessmen, Wall Street friends of his to be the deputy director for operations.
Schechtman: To what extent is the CIA shaped by and each administration differently shaped by the impact of the president and the director that he appoints?
Kiriakou: It normally shouldn’t be, but it is now. The president will appoint a director and a deputy director. The deputy director is almost always either a career officer or a military officer. Again, especially since September 11, there are these military programs and military and paramilitary offices. So, it’s probably wise to have somebody with military experience to advise you and it’s my experience that it’s the military guys, it’s the generals who are the least likely to use military force because they know how terrible war can be. But that’s changed. Now you have presidents like Obama appointing the director, the deputy director and then appointing the divisional deputy directors: the deputy director for operations, for intelligence, which is analysis, for science and technology, and it becomes more political at a lower level. That is going to eventually trickle down and the end result, unfortunately, is the politicization of analysis, which is a very bad thing. Let me add one more thing about the politicization of intelligence. One of the golden rules at the CIA, when I was an analyst, was that you could never ever make a policy recommendation. We were not a policy making organization, we were an intelligence gathering and analysis organization and so your job was to give the president the news, put it into context so he could make a policy decision. George W. Bush changed that and mandated that every article that ran in the president’s daily brief had to also have a policy recommendation paragraph. That was a very dangerous development and it insinuated the CIA into the policymaking process, which should have been the domain of just the White House and the State Department.
Schechtman: Did those recommendations continue during the Obama years?
Kiriakou: They did in the beginning, through Obama’s first term and it’s my understanding that they’ve finally gone by the wayside but in the meantime, you have all these Obama loyalists that are there so the effect I think is the same.
Schechtman: Which brings us to the present situation and what the impact is today.
Kiriakou: One of the things that’s been kind of amusing to me about this whole fight between Trump and the CIA is, I think most Americans have consistently underestimated Donald Trump. We think he’s a buffoon, we think he’s insane, we think he’s short tempered and in fact, he probably has had a longer term view and he fooled a lot of us. Well, I think that Donald Trump has underestimated the CIA. The CIA has worked for presidents who didn’t like it in the past. Bill Clinton was no fan of the CIA. Jimmy Carter certainly was no fan of the CIA and John Kennedy was legendary. John Kennedy wanted to break up the CIA into a million pieces. It’s a shame he didn’t have the opportunity to do it. I think Donald Trump thought that he could just snap his fingers and point and people would fall into line. That’s just not the way the CIA works. At the working level, most CIA officers, once you get up to a position of let’s say GS15 or higher, you get into the senior intelligence service, you’ve been there for 20, 25, 30 years. You know you can wait out this president. You know this guy’s only going to be around for four years or eight years and you’ve waited out other presidents in the past and I think that’s exactly what the CIA is doing now. They know that Trump’s not going to be around forever and they will be around forever and they’re just going to wait him out.
Schechtman: Some of it though, goes beyond waiting out. Some of it is really pushing back.
Kiriakou: A lot of it is pushing back. There are several things besides just waiting that the CIA can do. The CIA can elect to, for example not carry out covert action programs ordered by the president. They can just say that it’s not possible or that it’s too dangerous or they just don’t have the manpower for it. If the president wants to enact a certain policy, the CIA can essentially just say no, they’re not going to that. I’ve seen that happen in the past. The CIA can also elect to not target the top spy prospects and it can do that to try to embarrass the president. Let’s say you need a source inside XYZ terrorist group. Why take the risk? It’s just going to make the president look good and so you don’t do that. When there’s another attack, god forbid, it’s on this president’s watch and the buck has to stop there.
Schechtman: You predicted that the CIA was going to have some influence and play some kind of a role behind the scenes in getting rid of Michael Flynn. Talk about that.
Kiriakou: I did. I’m actually impressed that you know that. Michael Flynn was one of the most wildly unpopular people that I’ve ever encountered in the intelligence community. He didn’t like the CIA, the CIA didn’t like him, they didn’t trust him. He was the director of the defense intelligence agency, which is sort of seen as the poor second cousin of the CIA. There used to be a mean spirited joke that the only people who worked at DIA were people who couldn’t make it through the CIA hiring process. There was always this animosity between Flynn and the agency and then all of sudden, with the stroke of a pen after Donald Trump is elected president, Flynn is named national security advisor, which gives him primacy over the CIA. The CIA was not going to allow that to happen and I can’t help but to think that so many of these leaks that we’re hearing about you know, coordination with the Russians or whatever the leaks are, I can’t help but to think that they aren’t coming out of the CIA.
Schechtman: To what extent do you think the CIA was involved in this whole dossier that Clapper presented to the president and all the things surrounding that?
Kiriakou: Yeah, that had CIA written all over it. The British officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, is an MI6 officer. MI6 is the sister organization, the liaison organization of the CIA. It’s MI6 that CIA normally deals with, just like FBI deals with MI5 in UK and Scotland Yard. So, no MI6 officer, past or present would initiate such a dossier, such an investigation without the direct input of the CIA. I think that the CIA’s fingerprints were all over that whole operation.
Schechtman: Christopher Steele, who you knew, talk a little bit about him, what his involvement might have been.
Kiriakou: I actually worked with Christopher Steele nearly 20 years ago on Greek terrorism after the assassination of the British defense attaché in Athens. I found him to be an absolutely outstanding officer; smart, suave, analytic, accomplished, truly good at his job. Whoever hired him to do this investigation and to compile this dossier knew exactly the kind of person that they needed to carry this out and they knew to go to the best. Well, who would know such a thing, other than the CIA because they had worked with him for many, many years.
Schechtman: What do you make of these WikiLeaks documents that came out yesterday about the CIA’s hacking efforts?
Kiriakou: I spent most of the day going through these documents and although they were written certainly many years after I left the agency, they appear to me to be legitimate CIA documents. I’m worried most about the CIA spying on American citizens. It made me just sick to my stomach to see that the CIA had cracked the iPhone, they had cracked the Google Android, they had cracked the Samsung Smart TV and apparently have even cracked the computers that are in our cars now that should sometime in the near future allow us to have automated driving. I want a robust intelligence service in this country to protect American citizens. I want an intelligence service that we can trust and that we can have confidence in. I don’t want to have to worry about my intelligence service spying on me or on other American citizens. That’s unconstitutional, it’s illegal and it’s not something Americans should have to worry about. Unfortunately, because there is literally no congressional oversight of the CIA, that’s exactly what we have to worry about. We have to worry about the CIA spying on us.
Schechtman: What do we know about Mike Pompeo and what we might expect from him?
Kiriakou: Well, I have a very close friend who has briefed Mike Pompeo more than a dozen times and this is before Pompeo became the CIA director and he said to me: “Pompeo’s domestic politics aside, this is actually a very bright guy. This is a guy with no real political ties to Donald Trump. It’s a guy who’s a patriot and who wants to do the right thing with the agency. That made me happy until he named Gina Haspel as the CIA deputy director. I don’t like Mike Pompeo’s domestic politics but again, his position on abortion for example, has nothing to do with his ability to lead the CIA. I’m perfectly happy to put that aside. It’s my understanding that he’s an excellent manager and that he’s a good leader, but I think that he just doesn’t understand, for example, that something like torture is patently illegal in this country and it’s not something that we should be pursuing. So I think the jury’s still out for the long term.
Schechtman: Which brings us around to your situation and for our listeners that don’t know, talk a little bit about what you went through.
Kiriakou: Well, when I returned from Pakistan in 2002, I should add in Pakistan I led a series of raids that resulted in the capture of Abu Zubaydah and many dozens of al Qaeda fighters, I’m not allowed to say the exact number. We believed at the time that Abu Zubaydah was the number 3 in al Qaeda, that turned out to be not true. Although he was a bad guy, he had never actually joined al Qaeda. So I got back to headquarters in the middle of 2002 and was asked by a senior officer in the counterterrorism center if I wanted to be what he called certified in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. I had never heard that term before and I asked him what he meant and he described to me these ten techniques. I said that sounds like a torture program, I don’t think I want to be a part of that. I said give me an hour, let me think about it. In that hour, I went up to the CIA’s seventh floor, the executive floor and consulted with a very senior CIA officer for whom I had worked in the Middle East a decade earlier and I said: “What do you think about this?” He said: “First let’s call it what it is, it’s a torture program. They can use whatever euphemism they want, but this is a torture program. Second, torture is a slippery slope and you know how these guys are, my colleagues. Somebody’s going to go overboard and they’re going to kill a prisoner and then there’s going to be a congressional investigation and then there’s going to be justice department investigation and somebody’s going to go to prison. Do you want to go to prison?” I said: “No, I don’t want to go to prison,” and ironically I’m the only one who went to prison, but I said no. I went back downstairs and I told the CTC officer: “This is a torture program and I don’t want any part of it.” Well, that was in May 2002.
On August 1, 2002, the CIA began to torture Abu Zubaydah and this torture was merciless. We made a lot about waterboarding and what a terrible torture technique waterboarding is but there were things that were worse than waterboarding in my view; things like sleep deprivation. People begin to lose their minds around day 7 of sleep deprivation and they begin to die at day 9, but the CIA was authorized to keep people awake as long as 12 days. Indeed, there’s one Guantanamo defendant who’s unable to participate in his own defense because he lost his mind through the use of sleep deprivation. Another technique was called the cold cell, where a prisoner is stripped naked and he’s chained to an eyebolt in the ceiling so he can’t kneel or sit. He can’t get into any comfortable position. The cell is chilled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and then every hour, someone goes in and throws a bucket of ice water on him. We killed people using that technique, but the torturers were never prosecuted, the people who went overboard and who killed the prisoners were never prosecuted, the CIA officer who destroyed taped evidence of the torture was never prosecuted, the lawyers who used specious legal arguments to justify it, the psychologist who invented it, nobody was ever prosecuted! In fact, we have very specific laws in this country. We have the 1946 Torture Act, which specifically outlawed the techniques that we used against prisoners post 9/11 and the United States is not just a signatory, but was the drafter of the International Convention Against Torture which has primacy over US law. Both of those laws outlawed torture, and I’ll add one more thing. In 1946, the US government executed Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded American prisoners of war. That was an executable offense in 1946. In January of 1968, the Washington Post ran a front page photograph of an American soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. That soldier, that American, was prosecuted, he was convicted of torture and he was sentenced to 20 years in a military prison. Well, the law never changed between 1946 and now, so all I conclude is that we changed and we decided that this was the kind of people that we wanted to be, to allow this kind of abomination as part of our policy. I decided in 2007, after keeping my mouth shut for a long time, that I would go public and that’s what I did in an interview with ABC News.
Schechtman: Were you the only one? Were there others that felt as you did that didn’t come forward or were there others that just went along?
Kiriakou: To tell you the truth, in 2002, I was the only one. 14 of us were asked if we wanted to be trained in these torture techniques and I was the only one who said no. There was this feeling of vengeance, we were still so traumatized by 9/11 that people wanted revenge on al Qaeda. But we know now from the Senate Torture Report primarily that there were people who were objecting internally. A couple of them even curtailed their assignments at the secret prison where Abu Zubaydah was being tortured and they went back to headquarters, which is a career-ending decision, but nobody ever went public, even after the Senate Torture Report was released, nobody went public.
Schechtman: John Kiriakou, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Kiriakou: Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure.
Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump (CSPAN).