White House, CIA, Whistleblower
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from adil113 / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) , and CIA / Wikimedia.

CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou weighs in on the Ukraine scandal.

According to John Kiriakou, a 15-year CIA operative who served 23 months in federal prison for exposing the CIA’s torture program during the Iraq war, the decision to become a whistleblower is a once-in-a-lifetime event from which one never really recovers.

Kiriakou joins Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. He talks about the term “whistleblower,” why some in the mainstream media will not use it, and why the word is especially anathema to those in the intelligence community. He examines the gauntlet that the current whistleblower seems to have gone through and details why so many aspects of his story are a bit out of the ordinary. 

He reminds us of the overriding mistake — one he accuses the New York Times of repeatedly making — of focusing on the whistleblower and not simply on the information. Kiriakou argues that, if the information is credible and verifiable, it alone — by law and fact — has to be the focus. What the whistleblower does, for whom they work, who they are, or even their own personal agenda should not ever be part of the discussion. It’s only about the information that is brought forth.

Talking about his own experience as a whistleblower, and why he went public instead of going through a similar process to the current whistleblower, he shares the story of the death threats he received and just how serious they were. He believes that the current whistleblower, especially given the comments by President Donald Trump, may be in grave danger.

Examining the totality of the story of the Ukraine call, and the elegantly crafted complaint, Kiriakou thinks that the whistleblower may be a front person for a group of people that wanted to get the facts out.  

He also comments that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, may (like so many others within the agency) have been indoctrinated to think that it’s OK to lie, cheat, and steal — and that maybe he doesn’t even know the difference anymore.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Every country, every organization needs its whistleblowers. They’re crucial to the functioning of a healthy society. They’re the people who have the independence of judgment and the personal courage to challenge malpractice and illegality.

Jeff Schechtman: In so doing, they’re really kind of public heroes, particularly in this era where the distrust of government and big monolithic institutions is rampant. The whistleblower should, in fact, see his or her status elevated.

Jeff Schechtman: However, this has not always been true. The cases among others of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Joe Wilson, Mark Whitacre, and my guest, 15-year CIA veteran, John Kiriakou, show that this is not always the case.

Jeff Schechtman: The events of the past week bring all of this into bold relief. To help us better understand the role of a whistleblower, the significance of the current whistleblowers, potential connection to the CIA and the downside of being a whistleblower, I’m pleased to be joined by John Kiriakou.

Jeff Schechtman: John was a 15-year CIA veteran where he rose through the ranks to the very highest levels of the agency. He was the first one in the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture. As a result, he was prosecuted and served 23 months in federal prison. He’s the author of three books, including Doing Time Like A Spy, and it is my pleasure to welcome John Kiriakou back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. John, thanks so much for joining us.

John Kiriakou: Thanks for the invitation. I’m happy to do it.

Jeff Schechtman: First of all, talk a little bit about your reaction as you’ve watched the events over the past 10, 15 days unfold and seeing whistleblowers, once again, front and center in our public discourse.

John Kiriakou: Yeah, I have a couple of thoughts. The first is I’m thrilled that the mainstream media is calling whoever this CIA officer is, a whistleblower. It took my attorneys one full year to get MSNBC and CNN to stop calling me CIA leaker, John Kiriakou, and to start calling me CIA whistleblower, John Kiriakou.

John Kiriakou: There’s been some backsliding at MSNBC, which is no friend to whistleblowers, but CNN and Fox still call me a whistleblower, so that’s good. And the events in the past week have sort of mainstreamed that. That’s a giant leap in the right direction.

Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think that there’s resistance to use that phrase? I mean, at MSNBC for example, or anywhere else in the mainstream media?

John Kiriakou: I don’t know. That’s a mystery to me, but I think part of it may be … And I don’t mean to sound press, but there are 14 retired senior, very senior CIA and FBI officials who are now paid talking heads for CNN and MSNBC, including John Brennan and James Clapper and Philip Mudd.

John Kiriakou: And these guys are through and through CIA and FBI, and whistleblowers are at the bottom of the list of the people that they like and respect. And I think that they took that over to those networks with them. Even as recently as yesterday I was on the Ari Melber show on MSNBC and he introduced me as former CIA officer and convicted felon, John Kiriakou. Never used the word whistleblower.

John Kiriakou: Rachel Maddow, I stopped doing her show because she always refers to me as John Kiriakou who styles himself a whistleblower. Why go on these shows to be abused? It’s MSNBC and CNN and Fox as well that just sort of support and buck up the status quo. They’re on different political issues of the current whistleblower, but I’ve had enough.

Jeff Schechtman: What are some of the other things that have struck you in particular about the way these events have unfolded this week?

John Kiriakou: Yeah, there are a couple of other things that have struck me. First of all, it’s extraordinarily difficult to be a CIA officer and to become a whistleblower. I’m assuming this guy meant well. I’m assuming that he believes that he witnessed waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety, which is the definition of whistle-blowing and that he felt compelled because of his own conscience to report it. I hope that’s the case.

John Kiriakou: With that said, he’ll probably never work in national security ever again just because of the ingrained antipathy toward whistleblowers. It’s funny, this information may play a role in bringing down the president of the United States, and if he deserves to be brought down, he ought to be brought down.

John Kiriakou: But inside the CIA, I guarantee you that people are saying, “Well, if he’s willing to rat out the president, he’s probably willing to rat out us.” And so no one is ever going to trust this guy again. He’ll never work in his field again, even though he’s done nothing wrong. And in fact, he was compelled by the law besides by his own conscience to go public with the information.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does the fact that there’s been this contentious relationship between the intelligence community in general and the CIA in particular and this president? To what extent do you think that enters into the equation?

John Kiriakou: I think that’s huge, frankly. Do you remember right after Donald Trump became president? Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader went on MSNBC and said that he warned Donald Trump against taking on the intelligence community because they had nine ways from Sunday to get back at him.

John Kiriakou: Well, they do have nine ways from Sunday to get back at you. I went on CNN right after Schumer made that statement and they asked me what Schumer meant by it. And I said, “Well, let’s not go too crazy here. What he didn’t mean was November 22nd, 1963. What he did mean was that the CIA leadership has been in place, like in any major federal bureaucracy, for 20, 25, 30, maybe even 35 years.”

John Kiriakou: And these guys have seen presidents come and go, and they know this one is going to go and they’re still going to be there. So, they can slow roll this president, they can disrupt this president, they can refuse his orders, they can refuse to take on controversial or difficult operations just until he leaves, and then they can just deal with the next guy.

John Kiriakou: Well, I think that’s proven to be true. And I think also that they got a little short tempered with him. That he was more of a problem than they even anticipated. And this may be one way that they’re using to try to get rid of him.

Jeff Schechtman: The fact that this whistleblower, whoever he or she might be, first went through channels at the CIA and really gotten no response at all and later took it to the DNI and to the inspector general. Talk a little bit about what you make of that.

John Kiriakou: Yeah. I’ve given a lot of thought to that, because the way it’s supposed to work. I’ll give you a firsthand example. In 1996, I was serving overseas and I became aware of an illegal foreign campaign contribution to a major presidential campaign. My ambassador didn’t want to report it because he didn’t want to make waves, and so I reported it through CIA channels.

John Kiriakou: What happened was it went directly to the inspector general. The inspector general investigated it and found that it was credible, and he went to the Federal Election Commission and made a report to Congress. It’s that easy. That’s how the process and the system are supposed to work.

John Kiriakou: That’s not what we saw in this case. What we saw in this case is this guy had the information. The information may have come from several coworkers, which is fine. It doesn’t have to be first person. It can be second person.

John Kiriakou: But instead of going to the inspector general and then to the Congress, which is the way it’s supposed to go, it went through his chain of command. It went through the attorneys. It went to the general counsel. It went to the CIA leadership. It went to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, first to the inspector general there, then to the DNI himself, then to the Justice Department.

John Kiriakou: And the Justice Department said, “No, we’re going to kill it right here.” And it was only because the Justice Department decided to kill it that the guy decided, “No, I have to go to Congress on my own.” That’s what the oversight committees are for after all.

John Kiriakou: So, it seems to me like the brakes were put on this thing from the very beginning at the CIA. You read this whistleblower complaint and it doesn’t look like an analyst just sat down and wrote it out. It looks like 20 levels of coordination and editing and a half a dozen lawyers involved, and that really frightens me.

Jeff Schechtman: Why does it frighten you? What do you make of that?

John Kiriakou: The system is supposed to get the information to the oversight committees as quickly as possible. And here we’ve got the Attorney General of the United States literally standing in the way of that system.

John Kiriakou: And this isn’t just a system that’s made up out of a whole cloth to make people feel better. This is the law. There’s a Whistleblower Protection Act. And even though national security whistleblowers weren’t included in the first iteration of that act, they were in the second. And so you have to follow the law. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a law?

Jeff Schechtman: Does it matter if the whistleblower came to this information that he or she heard or witnessed in the abstract or is a direct function of their CIA responsibilities at the White House?

John Kiriakou: Well, it doesn’t really matter. There are two things to report here that don’t matter in terms of the law. First, it doesn’t matter how the whistleblower came by the information. It could be first person, it could be second person, he could have heard something in the cafeteria.

John Kiriakou: So long as the inspector general deems it to be credible, he has to move it forward. And second, motivation, at least according to the law, is irrelevant. Maybe the guy is a jerk and hates Donald Trump. Irrelevant. Maybe it’s just a patriotic American who thought that he had information on the violation of the law and he wanted to get it to the right people. Irrelevant. All that matters is that he did it.

Jeff Schechtman: The fact that there is this seeming connection between the whistleblower, the CIA, the State Department, what does that add to the mix in your view?

John Kiriakou: Yeah, boy. And this changes by the day, doesn’t it? We’ve got reports now of Secretary Pompeo and the Attorney General Barr either in Italy or in discussions with Italian leaders. There were reports today on Wednesday that Attorney General Barr was in Italy to meet with Italian Intelligence Service officials to listen to a tape they had made of an interview with Joseph Mifsud, this shadowy, Maltese academic who is somehow involved in this whole thing.

John Kiriakou: So, the thing is expanding exponentially it seems. We also had reports today that Secretary Pompeo warned State Department employees not to cooperate with the investigation and to ignore subpoenas from the oversight committee.

John Kiriakou: Well, that’s obstruction of justice. That’s a felony. You can’t do that. So, yeah, it’s become so political so quickly that I fear either we’re not going to get to the bottom of it, or it’s going to take us so long to get to the bottom of it that we’re going to end up at election time and the whole thing has got to be moved.

Jeff Schechtman: The fact that Pompeo came to the State Department from a tenure at the CIA, what do you make of that?

John Kiriakou: Well, do you remember when he first became secretary of state, he was bragging about how everyone was trained to lie, cheat, and steal. And it was something that they all enjoyed very much.

John Kiriakou: Well, I’m afraid that after a tenure as CIA director and before that, a tenure in the House Intelligence Committee, he, like a lot of my former colleagues in the director of operations don’t know when to turn off the lying, the cheating, and the stealing. This is a problem for American policy, if you just simply can’t trust your governmental officials to follow the law.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the protection of whistleblowers and whether or not we’re any more advanced today, given the legislation that’s come forth which you alluded to a little while ago than, for example, when you had to deal with this.

John Kiriakou: There’s almost no legal protection for whistleblowers. This is a major, once in a lifetime decision that a person has to make, whether to blow the whistle or just to remain silent.

John Kiriakou: In my own case, I didn’t go through my chain of command. I didn’t go through channels to the oversight committee, because my chain of command created the CIA’s torture program. And the oversight committees approved and financed the torture program.

John Kiriakou: And so, I elected to go public and I went to the media. So, I exposed myself to a lot. I had a lot of death threats, three of which the FBI deemed to be credible. And so, that’s something that you have to just toughen up and deal with.

John Kiriakou: Now, the president with this current whistleblower, has repeatedly demanded to know the whistleblower’s identity. That’s against the law. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said that he will do literally anything to keep the whistleblower’s identity anonymous.

John Kiriakou: Now, I can tell you from firsthand experience that if the whistle blower’s identity is compromised with the president having used words like treason and death penalty, I think that was a blow where he’s going to be in grave danger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody tries to take a shot at him.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you assume that the whistleblower’s identity will become public at some point?

John Kiriakou: Oh, wow. I hope not. My knee jerk reaction when this started was yes. Because Washington is incapable of keeping a secret. Everything always comes out eventually. And then on the other hand, it would be so awful if it, if he were to be compromised. There’s no reason for us to know his identity. At the very least, we should protect the man for doing what he believes to be the moral, legal, and ethical right thing.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to come back to a point that you referred to earlier, which has come up several times in the discussion during the past week. Really, the sophistication, the quality of the report that the whistleblower submitted and whether or not other people were involved, whether or not he was the front person for others. How that might have played out?

John Kiriakou: I think, actually, he is the front person for others. He came by the information secondhand, which is not unusual. So, there had to be people who had the information firsthand. Whether they were on the call or were transcribing the call or whatever.

John Kiriakou: I think that it’s been several people to… came by the information. They probably had a conversation as to what to do with it, and this whistleblower decided to be the front man for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a CIA manager. Somebody at the GS-15 or SIS 1 or 2 level who decided to take the brunt of it for his people.

Jeff Schechtman: The fact that the media has already … The New York Times really came out first with the idea that he was a CIA analyst or a CIA employee. Talk a little bit about your reaction to that, and them doing that without knowing his identity and without really knowing all the facts.

John Kiriakou: This is something that The New York Times does. They pride themselves on outing people, and they think that it’s journalism. They think that it somehow adds to the debate. It didn’t add to the debate. Anybody who has any understanding of the CIA’s Ukrainian analysis group can figure out in five seconds who this person is.

John Kiriakou: When I blew the whistle too, The New York Times published a photograph of my children playing in the backyard just so some nut could identify my children. Was that really necessary for the debate? Just like this article last week, was it really necessary that we know as many details about this person as they can possibly dig up?

John Kiriakou: It’s the information that should be important. Not the personal information about the whistleblower. They did this with Ed Snowden too. I remember The New York Times publishing an article about the brand of eyeglasses that he wore. He had kind of distinctive eyeglasses.

John Kiriakou: Well, is that really necessary to the debate? Should we be analyzing information rather than trying to figure out where to buy identical eyeglass frames?

Jeff Schechtman: Is this different in some way if, in fact, the whistleblower is working for the CIA?

John Kiriakou: I don’t think so. To me, that sort of confirmed that he had access to the information, so I guess that’s good. If I were The New York Times, I would have said, “The New York Times has confirmed that the whistleblower is a CIA officer,” and I would have left it at that.

John Kiriakou: They wanted to go into detail about exactly who this person was and thought they were being cute by not actually giving his name. But no, I don’t think it really added much to the debate.

Jeff Schechtman: And what is your sense finally of how you think this is all going to play out at this point with respect to the whistleblower?

John Kiriakou: Well, I think we underestimate Donald Trump’s viciousness at our own peril. I think that he is serious when he says he wants the identity of the whistle blower. Like I say, he’s already called for treason charges against the whistleblower. And again, this is a death penalty charge.

John Kiriakou: I think that he throws highly charged, politically charged words around like they’re nothing without any thought to possible fallout. And I think it’s very, very dangerous. Like I said, a few minutes ago, Adam Schiff said that he will protect this whistleblower’s identity at all costs, and I hope he’s successful.

Jeff Schechtman: John Kiriakou, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

John Kiriakou: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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