Our returning guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, John Kiriakou, was a 15-year CIA veteran. Then he blew the whistle on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration. As a result, he became one of the very few Americans ever charged with violating the Espionage Act. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty under another statute: to disclosing the name of a fellow CIA officer to a reporter. The reporter never revealed the identity of the operative. Nonetheless, Kiriakou served 23 months in federal prison.

Many officials — including Joe Biden when he was vice president — felt that use of the 1917 Espionage Act to initially prosecute Kiriakou was inappropriate. For years Kiriakou has sought a pardon, both to clear his name and to get back the government pension he earned for his more than 20 years of government service. 

His principal accusers at the time of his arrest were then-CIA Director John Brennan and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and it was FBI agent Peter Strzok, later a Trump antagonist, who physically arrested Kiriakou. Given that collection of enemies, he thought a pardon from Donald Trump would be a slam dunk.

Little did he know of the pay-to-play rules governing the Trump pardon process. Not the traditional legal process, but one in which $50,000 was chump change and a couple million for a pardon was just business as usual.

In this week’s podcast, Kiriakou takes us deep inside the ugly process. He reveals his meetings with Rudy Giuliani, Jared Kushner, and assorted lawyers and lobbyists. He details how Fox News and Tucker Carlson played a role in his pardon process and how broken the whole procedure was under Trump. Clearly, the framers of our Constitution, which gives the president virtually unlimited pardoning power, never envisioned multimillion-dollar shakedowns. 

Kiriakou, a longtime national security veteran, also shares his thoughts on Biden’s appointments of William Burns at the CIA and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, and what they might mean for the future of both agencies. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It seems like years ago, but it was just a few weeks ago that we were focused on presidential pardons, who would get them, how outside the norms they were granted, and was the former president getting cash for pardons. There was a lot of reporting on it at the time, but so much was lost in the cacophony of postelection lies, the problems of the transition, and the capital insurrection and impeachment. My guest, John Kiriakou, experienced the pardon world up close and personal. What he learned tells us a lot about the process, the former president, and how it reflects some very real aspects of justice or lack thereof.

Jeff Schechtman: John Kiriakou has been a guest on this program before. He 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. And as a result, he became one of very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He was considered a whistleblower and served 23 months in federal prison. He is the author of three books, his most recent Doing Time Like A Spy. It is my pleasure to welcome John Kiriakou back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. John, thanks so much for joining us.

John Kiriakou: Thanks very much for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s great to have you here. And I want to talk about the intelligence community and the new administration, but first I want to talk about pardons and a process that you wound up in the center of, including mentioned in a story about pardons in the New York Times. Talk first about how you got into this process this time around as the Trump presidency was winding down.

John Kiriakou: Well, I applied for a pardon during the Obama administration and I went through the normal channels and was rejected. And then a group of Greek American businessmen approached then-Vice President Biden for me. Biden actually intervened with President Obama and was denied, and I just went on my merry way. I really didn’t believe I had any chance of a pardon under Donald Trump when he became president. But then it turned out that the same people who had gone after me were going after him. It was John Brennan, for example, who asked the Justice Department to prosecute me. It was Robert Mueller who set up the John Kiriakou Task Force at the FBI. It was Peter Strzok who put the cuffs on me. It was the same group of people. And so, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I actually have a shot.’ So, I started soliciting support. Alan Dershowitz, Rand Paul, Tucker Carlson, but it wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t get any traction.

John Kiriakou: And so, I read an article in Politico that said that there were people who were hiring lobbyists to get them in front of Donald Trump to present their cases for pardons. And so, my attorney found a lobbyist who had run Trump’s 2016 campaign in Florida. We met with her in my attorney’s office and I agreed to pay her $50,000 upfront with a promise of another $50,000 if I got the pardon, and she would represent me to the White House. So, that turned out to be nonsense. She took my money and ran. But I continued to write, I continued to go on Fox News. I was on the Tucker Carlson show six or seven times. I did the other Fox shows that I knew Trump was watching. He actually quoted me on Twitter at one point. But in the end, he took care of his friends and his cronies, and ignored everybody else.

Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think early on, even before you gave the $50,000 to the lobbyist, why was it so difficult to get traction at that point, to get attention?

John Kiriakou: Yeah, that’s really the $64,000 question. And I can’t blame Donald Trump as much as I might like to. The problem is with the system that we have for pardons. It’s just broken, and it’s been broken for many, many years. Here’s how it’s set up. There’s an office called the Office of the US Pardon Attorney. And when you want a pardon, you go online to the pardon attorney’s website. You fill out a form. That form is referred to the FBI for a background investigation. They investigate to see if you have been a good citizen and you’ve shown remorse and you’ve cleaned up your life, and then they’ll make a recommendation. They won’t make a recommendation. They’ll send the file back to the pardon attorney’s office, and then the pardon attorney will make a recommendation to the White House as to whether or not someone should have a pardon. The problem is they only say yes to about 5 percent of the people who apply. So, the chances are slim to none that you’re going to actually get a pardon.

John Kiriakou: Now, there are stories about Abraham Lincoln staying up late into the night pardoning people, pardoning thousands of people, mostly deserters, because he believed that everybody deserved a second chance. But going back to President Johnson, presidents just don’t pardon many people. Now, what was different about Trump was he didn’t pay any attention at all to the Office of the US Pardon Attorney. He only pardoned people who had an in, people who could get to Jared Kushner, for example, or people who were friendly with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. So the system completely broke down under Trump.

Jeff Schechtman: How much of the system under Trump, as you came to understand it, how much of it was money-based? How much of it was based on what people gave either to him or to the campaign or the inaugural committee?

John Kiriakou: It was my belief, my experience, that it was almost entirely money-based. I was told, ‘Look, you can give this woman $50,000 and roll the dice, but if you really want a pardon, you’ve got to talk to Corey Lewandowski,’ who was the Trump campaign manager. ‘For a million, he can guarantee the pardon. Or you can talk to one of the attorneys, Pat Cipollone, for example. That’s going to be a million, but you’re guaranteed the pardon.’ And then you read about the son of Conrad Black and all of these movers and shakers. Jared Kushner’s father, who was convicted of a multitude of felonies. It was all about the money, and it was all about contact with the White House. Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer, he spent a million on his pardon, and what it was, and I spoke with the person close to him when I was planning for my own pardon application, he just simply wrote a check. He just wrote a check for $1 million, and then he got a pardon. Simple as that. So it was really all about the money.

Jeff Schechtman: Where did the money go?

John Kiriakou: Well, the New York Times, when they interviewed me, really, really wanted me to say that the money went to Donald Trump. And I never saw any evidence that the money had gone to Trump. I think that because of the crooked, broken down system that we have, the money went into the pockets of these lobbyists and lawyers. There was a terrific piece about six months ago in the New York Times about Rudy Giuliani’s fourth divorce. In the course of discovery, the Times found that Giuliani is a member of 16 country clubs. And he told the court that he needs $7 million a year to maintain his current lifestyle. So, Giuliani asked me for $2 million, and I think that that’s just what people like Giuliani do. They stuff their pockets as best they can because they know that their time at the top of the pyramid is finite and they should just gouge people as much as they can now, because a year from now, they’re not going to make anything.

Jeff Schechtman: Go back a second here and talk about that situation with Giuliani in which he asked you for $2 million.

John Kiriakou: Sure. Back at the start of the COVID pandemic, a good friend of mine, who’s quite wealthy, commissioned the manufacturer of 500 million KN95 masks. And he asked me if I was interested in making some money and helping him sell these masks. He would give me 10 cents per mask. This is a lot of money we’re talking about. So we approached the Pentagon and they said they would be interested in buying 150 million masks. But for whatever reason, the contract was jammed up in the procurement process. So, my friend called me and said, ‘We need somebody big. We need a mover, a shaker to get this thing loose in the Pentagon so we can get our money. Do you know Rudy Giuliani?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know Rudy Giuliani, but I know how to get to Giuliani.’ I said, ‘I know Bernie Kerik who used to be the New York police commissioner and went to prison on corruption charges.’ So, I called Bernie and I told him I needed to get in touch with Giuliani.

John Kiriakou: Kerik said that he wanted a cut. I said, ‘No problem. There’s plenty of money to go around for everybody.’ He put me in touch with Giuliani’s people. So, I talked to a partner, a business partner of Giuliani’s, and I told him what we needed. And he said, ‘Well, Giuliani, will do the meeting at the Pentagon for a million.’ I said, ‘Fine. We have the million. We’ll give it to him.’ And the guy says, ‘Well, we’re going to be in Washington on July 1. Let’s all get together in Washington and we can do it then.’ I said, ‘Great.’ So, we meet at the Trump Hotel on the afternoon of July 1. Giuliani did a lot of drinking, which I have come to learn is the norm for him. And during a brief lull in the conversation, I said, ‘Well, since we’re sitting here and it looks like we’ve exhausted the topic of the masks, I’d like to bring up the issue of a presidential pardon.’

John Kiriakou: As soon as I said that Giuliani stood up and said, ‘I got to hit the head,’ and he walked to the men’s room. His business partner said to me, ‘Rudy, doesn’t talk about pardons. If you want to talk about a pardon, you talk to me. But Rudy’s going to want 2 million.’ And I laughed, and I said, ‘2 million.’ I said, ‘First of all, I don’t have $2 million. Secondly, why would I spend $2 million to recover a $700,000 pension? Forget it.’ And then that was the end of it. Now, a couple of days later, my business partner went to the Pentagon with Rudy and his business partner. As they were walking up the steps to the Pentagon, Giuliani stopped and said, ‘I don’t want a million. I want 2 million.’ And my friend said, ‘Wait a minute, we have an agreement. You said you’d do this meeting for a million.’ He said, ‘I changed my mind. I want 2 million.’ And my friend told him, ‘Forget it.’ And Giuliani went back and sat in the car and we never sold the masks.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about why the pardon was important to you.

John Kiriakou: Well, for three reasons. Number one, it’s the principle of the thing. I really in my heart do not believe that I did anything wrong. I believe that I was targeted because I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. The man who wrote the law that I was convicted of violating wrote a letter to President Obama saying that I should never have been charged with a crime in the first place. Vice President Biden, at the time, when he was still a senator wrote an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor saying that the law that I was convicted of violating was unconstitutional on its face and should never have been passed into law. So, number one, as I said, it’s the principle of the thing.

John Kiriakou: Number two, when I was convicted, my pension was confiscated. I had a total of 20 years of proud government service between the CIA and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I had $700,000 in that pension. And if I don’t get it back, I’m going to have to work until the day I die. And number three, I would really like to have my gun rights reinstated. Not that I’m a gun nut. I’m not. I only owned a gun for about 10 years. But I would take it to the range. And I was good enough to be a competitive shooter. And I miss doing that. I’d like to have my gun back. So those are the three reasons why I want that pardon.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the woman that you gave the $50,000 to, and that there was no recourse that you had to get it back.

John Kiriakou: Ah, but there is a recourse. So this was, as I said earlier, the woman who had run the Florida campaign for Trump in 2016. They won every county in Florida but one. So, I thought, ‘Well, she’s a big deal. She’s well placed.’ It turns out that she and a partner have a little two-person lobbying firm based in Palm Beach, FL. She ran Laura Loomer’s campaign for Congress. Laura Loomer, the completely wackadoo, troublemaker bomb-thrower from the Republican far right. And she claimed in our meeting that she had ready access to the White House. She pulled out her cell phone and showed me Donald Trump’s cell phone number, said that Trump called her in the middle of the night for advice or to chat or whatever. She claimed a close personal relationship with Kellyanne Conway and with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She said that she had a good professional relationship with Kushner and that she could do this.

John Kiriakou: It turned out that she did not have ready access to the president. She had no relationship with Kushner. Kellyanne Conway resigned from the White House. Sarah Huckabee Sanders resigned from the White House. And every time I would call this lobbyist and ask for an update, she would say that she had just spoken to the White House political director and he was aware of my case. And finally, I said to her, ‘If you tell me one more time that you talk to the White House political director, so help me God, I’m going to flip out because I don’t even know who the White House political director is, and whoever he is, it’s not up to him to decide who gets pardoned.’ I said, ‘You need to go to the president. You told me you knew the president, and I want you to go to him.’

John Kiriakou: Well, I think that I can recoup at least some of this money, because when the New York Times interviewed her for the story, she specifically said that she did not lobby on my behalf, and these were her exact words that she, ‘tried to connect the dots for the people at the White House to understand my case.’ Well, that’s not what I hired her to do. I hired her to lobby. And so, I spoke with my attorney about it and he said that her quote in the New York Times was an admission that she didn’t do what she was paid to do. And so, I’m going to file a nice little civil suit.

Jeff Schechtman: Are you surprised that all the appearances on Fox, on Tucker Carlson’s show, et cetera, didn’t have the desired effect?

John Kiriakou: Yes, I am. Frankly, Fox is enemy territory for me. I don’t watch Fox. I generally don’t like the anchors on Fox. I will say that on my issue, Tucker Carlson was absolutely fantastic. The guy is great on Julian Assange. He’s great on Ed Snowden. He’s great on Chelsea Manning. He became a friend to me, where he would call me just to check in and see how things were going and ask if there was anything that he could do. So I never said no to Tucker Carlson. I knew that every time I go on that show, he would give me a fair shake. And I also knew that the president watched it. And I knew that for two reasons. As I said, a few minutes ago, I went on once where the president quoted me on Twitter by name. And then I went on and talked about my case. And this is why I thought I was actually going to get the pardon.

John Kiriakou: I talked about my case, and then a day later I got a call from my attorney. And my attorney said that the president had been watching, that he called Kushner and said, ‘There’s this guy on Fox News right now and you need to talk to him.’ So, Kushner watched my clip. He called his attorney, Abbe Lowell, Abbe Lowell called my attorney, and four days later, I was meeting with Jared Kushner in Abbe Lowell’s office. And Kushner said, ‘What exactly do you want?’ I said, ‘I want a presidential pardon.’ And I laid it on thick. I said, ‘Barack Obama ruined my life and the only person who can give it back to me is your father-in-law.’ So, he told me to write him a one-page memo; three-quarters of the page he wanted me to tell my story, and the bottom one-quarter of the page he wanted me to say how a pardon helps Donald Trump gets reelected. So, my attorney wrote this one-pager. We sent it to Kushner and I never heard from him again.

Jeff Schechtman: What do you think went wrong with that? What short-circuited that?

John Kiriakou: I’m a third generation Democrat. I’ve written more than 400 op-eds over the course of my lifetime, most of which criticized the Republican Party. And I think it caught up with me.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what else might have, besides your own case, were you surprised by any of the pardons or lack of pardons for people like Snowden, Assange, et cetera?

John Kiriakou: What Tucker Carlson told me was in that final day of the Trump administration, Mitch McConnell called the president and said, ‘If you pardon these national security people,’ and really what he meant was Julian Assange and Ed Snowden, he said, ‘I can’t guarantee your safety in a Senate impeachment trial.’ And Tucker said that’s what did it, that’s what scared Trump away, that he thought that the Republicans in the Senate would turn on him.

Jeff Schechtman: What do you think would have happened?

John Kiriakou: I think that Republicans in the Senate, I think that longtime professionals in the intelligence community would have been really, really angry for a week and then they would’ve moved on. I don’t think it would have been any big deal. Oh, look, the head of NSA came out and said that everything Ed Snowden said was true and that there was no damage to the national security. Julian Assange already has won his extradition case, at least at the basic level. It’s an appeal now in the UK. He may not make it here anyway, and besides even if he does, does the Justice Department really want to take on journalism in the federal courts? So, I think that this would have been a short-lived kerfuffle if he had pardoned Julian Assange and Ed Snowden, or even just, for Julian, just commute his sentence to time served in the UK. You don’t even have to pardon him. Just commute him. So, I think that the Republicans really seriously overreacted to this, and it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you expect your situation to continue into maybe the end of the Biden presidency and whatever pardons he may issue at the time?

John Kiriakou: I do. I do. And I’m patient. I’m willing to wait for the end of the Biden presidency. I’ll tell you what I have, and what I have makes me optimistic. As I said, I have a letter from Morton Halprin, former assistant secretary of state, former president of the ACLU. He wrote the law that I was convicted of violating, and this letter says I should never have been charged in the first place. I have the Biden op-ed saying that the law was unconstitutional. I have a floor statement from my congressman saying that I should be pardoned. I have a letter signed by 70 former CIA, FBI, and NSA officers asking that I be pardoned. And then, most importantly, for me, I have crazy strong support from the Greek American community, and not just from the Greek American community, but from wealthy Greek Americans who have been major donors to Joe Biden ever since his 1972 Senate race. And so, I’m confident that even if I go through the formal process, I can get in front of him and I have a fighting chance.

Jeff Schechtman: Which really leads us to the national intelligence picture now in the Biden administration, and your thoughts about some of these recent appointments. Bill Burns at the CIA and Avril Haines as the new director of national intelligence.

John Kiriakou: I’m thrilled about Bill Burns. I’ve known Bill Burns for more than 30 years and the guy is, I mean, he’s a human rights champion. He’s a reformer. He is utterly apolitical. You can trust him. He’s as honest as the day is long. And if Biden is serious about reforming the CIA, Bill Burns is the guy to do it. On the other hand, Avril Haines I think was a disastrous choice. Avril Haines is a protege of John Brennan. She was responsible for giving legal cover for Brennan’s kill list when he was the deputy national security advisor, and they would meet every Tuesday morning to come up with a list of people to be killed that week with drones. She was the deputy director of the CIA when Brennan ordered CIA officers to hack into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computer system. So, I mean, is that really who we want directing all of national intelligence, someone who doesn’t respect either international law or even US law, and then approves of an operation on US soil against Americans? I think that Avril Haines was a very poor choice.

Jeff Schechtman: How do you reconcile those two choices in the same administration?

John Kiriakou: I think that Biden was seeking to placate the left with the appointment of Burns, thinking that people on the left would say, ‘Oh, okay, finally, an outsider. He’s not John Brennan. He’s not bloody Gina Haskell. He’s somebody we can trust.’ But then, when it comes down to it, Joe Biden is a neoliberal hawk, just like every other Democrat in the last two generations. And so people like Avril Haines and Tony Blinken would be the logical choices by a hawk for these senior positions.

Jeff Schechtman: What impact do you think they’re going to have on morale within the agencies?

John Kiriakou: Well, with Bill Burns, I think Burns is going to be good for morale. I really do, because inside the agency, there are an awful lot of people who want to shed that stink of a torture program and a secret prison system, and illegal international kidnappings, called renditions. They want to get away from that, a lot of people do. And most of the CIA officials who were responsible for those horrible illegal programs have retired. They’re just about all gone. So now is the time for reform. I think that’s going to be a very positive thing. With Avril Haines, I really don’t think she’s going to impact morale, because she’s in a position that’s so high up, so senior, and not housed in the building — she’s in Washington, the CIA’s in McLean, VA — her decisions really don’t filter down to the average working person at the CIA.

John Kiriakou: So, I really don’t think she’s going to impact people on a day-to-day basis. The danger with Avril is that she’s going to set policy and we don’t yet know really what that policy is going to look like. Is that policy going to be different from George W. Bush’s intelligence policy, for example? Because there really wasn’t much of a difference between Bush and Obama.

Jeff Schechtman: What are you going to be watching for in this administration in terms of the intelligence community? Where should we keep focused?

John Kiriakou: Frankly, I think our focus should be twofold. One, we should stay out of these unnecessary foreign military entanglements. Now, the CIA doesn’t call those shots. It provides support once the shot has been called. So, I was troubled when Biden on his very first day as president announced a further deployment to Syria. That was a mistake. So I would watch for that. And the other thing I would watch for is whether or not the FBI is going to switch its focus from domestic terrorism back to international terrorism, because I don’t think that Islamist terrorism is the real threat to the country, and I haven’t believed that for a long time. I think that the threat to the country is internal. It’s domestic, it’s these right-wing extremists and militias, and they’ve been able to literally get away with murder for many years. That’s what we need to be focusing on.

Jeff Schechtman: And do you think that the recent events at the Capitol on January 6 are going to impact that?

John Kiriakou: I do. I do, because I think a lot of people didn’t believe that it was a problem until January 6, and people died, and we’ve got threats against sitting governors. We have threats against state houses. We have members of Congress talking about Jews controlling laser beams from space to start forest fires. We’ve gone crazy as a country. So, we need to nip this in the bud.

Jeff Schechtman: John Kiriakou, I thank you so much for sharing some time with us. I really appreciate it.

John Kiriakou: My pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

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. If you liked 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 whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Rob Baird / Flickr – (CC BY-NC 2.0), Nathan Gibbs / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), and 401(K) 2012 / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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