• Torture and the Myth of Never Again: The Persecution of John Kiriakou

    October 24, 2012

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    Originally published September 11, 2012 on TomDispatch.com

    John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, pleaded guilty October 23, 2012 to leaking the identity of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter and will be sentenced to more than two years in prison. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that had been filed under the World War I-era Espionage Act. They also dropped a count of making false statements.

    Under the plea, all sides agreed to a prison term of 2 1/2 years. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema noted the term was identical to that imposed on Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted in a case where he was accused of leaking information that compromised the covert identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, though Libby’s sentence was commuted by then-President George W. Bush.

    Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

    In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

    A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?

    At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.

    It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.

    Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.

    John Kiriakou Alone

    The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.

    And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.

    The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.

    The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”

    The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.

    Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.

    If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is 48. He is staring down a long tunnel at a potential sentence of up to 45 years in prison because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.

    Welcome to the Jungle

    John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.

    He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.

    Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.

    One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”

    One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” lays out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”

    If only it was really that easy.

    Never Again

    For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.

    Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.

    Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.

    America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.

    What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?

    The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Joe Carson said...


      Bottom line, he broke the law. Because he is a profit-center to Jess Radack, she refuses to detail how the Office of Special Counsel, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Director of the CIA broke the law against him (and every other CIA employee) in not ensuring: 1) he knew he could make classified disclosures, confidentially, to Office of Special Counsel, 2) Office of Special Counsel was able to receive and process them according to law, and 3) he would be adequately protected from reprisal for making such a disclosure.

      Radack, in my opinion, betrays her oath as an attorney – to both her client and everyone else. I state this, publicly, as a licensed professional engineer, because her actions hinder the ability of engineers employed by federal gov’t to do their duty to protect public health, safety and welfare (see recent Y-12 security breach, a result of engineering failures, in part).

      I publicly challenge her to file a professional misconduct complaint against me with Tennessee Board of Engineering if she think my public statement is not truthful or objective. I wish to be held accountable for my “whistleblowing” on her betrayal of her duty.

      Joe Carson, PE
      Knoxville, TN

      10/24/12 12:32 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Yes, yes, it’s a terrible thing to break “the law” of our “civilized” society.

      Glenn Greenwald drones on:

      “Leaving aside the authoritarian willingness to trust certain leaders with unchecked power, this is not how the US government works. Once a power is legitimized and institutionalized, then it is vested in all presidents, current and future, Democratic and Republican. That is why Thomas Jefferson warned: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Those who cheer for the unchecked power to assassinate in secret because it’s Obama who currently wields that power will be the ones fully responsible when some leader they don’t trust exercises it – abuses it – in the future.”

      This drone is for you.

      10/24/12 1:01 PM | Comment Link

    • mspbwatch said...


      10/24/12 1:53 PM | Comment Link

    • jo6pac said...


      Arthur Silber

      It will come home someday just like dead uncle milton friedmans austerity program is.

      10/24/12 2:07 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Our “system” of justice is not dead. It’s just resting.

      10/24/12 2:41 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      “There, if you want to know, is the real horror.”

      Peter…the REAL horror has already happened.

      Greenwald just posted the final touch.

      It’s called the Dispositional Matrix.


      Insane. Fucking INSANE!! Our so called “government” has now become the epitome of everything despicably evil. I need to puke and I need to scream. I need to spit in the face of every depraved US politician, military, State, DOJ, DHS FBI, ATF, and every other stinking government personnel as they are complicit in the usurpation of the United States Constitution and the takeover of our Republic. Ladies and gentleman…welcome to the Psychopath’s Ball.

      Folks…we’ve finally arrived. We’ve got nothing left. Zilch. Zero. We’re finally at the bottom of the tyrannical cesspool. No more pretense. No more hope. No more lies. It’s all out in the open now. We’re now at the steps of hell and it’s blindingly clear what is ahead.

      Ya know..if someone had told me 10 years ago that this was our future…I’d laughed in his face.
      I ain’t laughing. I’m just permanently sick to my stomach now. This is an epiphany for me. The final straw. The awakening. The truth. America has become an obscenity..a degenerate, spineless worm deserving nothing but the profoundest contempt…a curdled staggering mutant..an insensate stench..run by puke drooling giggling beasts..whose mothers killed themselves in recognition of what they had sired. They are an ogre…a malformity. A monument to revulsion. A
      protohominid chromosomally aberrant caricature of a coprophagic cloacal parasitic pond scum.

      Now excuse me while I vomit.

      10/24/12 5:26 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      WAPO: “CIA Director David H Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones”, which “reflects the agency’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-September 11 focus on gathering intelligence.”

      Since that “intellingence gathering” focus wasn’t working (9-11, Benghazi blunder etc.) that’s understandable.

      10/24/12 7:37 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      @ Joe Carson,

      That entire breach predates Ms. Radack’s presence and the lapses in security were longstanding — so that is really unfair to blame her. The complex was lucky it was just an 82 year old nun and two older peace-niks who figured out the vulnerabilities in the premises. This wasnt the first effort. Y-12 has had other efforts to breach it, such as Lulz cyber attacks.

      You guys were lucky to have a Congressional hearing that sifted through some of what happened — that’s WAYYYYY more than the rest of us who sacrificed our careers to protect people from harm and abuse of power, or whatever else falls under whistleblowing, got — and believe me I DID ask for an ombudsman nor did I even had a hearing while I was IN my job. I would have given anything to have had an official hearing.

      What is not understood is what was the evidence based on that Mr Kirakou disclosed the identity of the two agents to a reporter since in the NY Times article linked above — the NY Times itself states “A Times spokeswoman said that neither the newspaper nor Mr. Shane had been contacted by investigators or provided any information to them.”

      Shouldnt all involved by interviewed or is this another case where the powers that be make up a claim and good luck to you, dear government worker, to get anyone to pay attention to evidence. All the other claims were dismissed by Judge Brinkema

      10/24/12 8:14 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      @ Joe Carson,

      If you lost your job, no disrespect is meant. Too often, the high ups push the lower ranks onto their swords to cover for them and agencies are pretty bad

      10/24/12 8:56 PM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      @pitchfork, etc.
      I’m with you,
      today is pleasant, nice, peaceful, and happy to be alive in America. We are treated decently and kind. John has been given a very light sentence. Peter had an even easier go of it.

      In the months and years to come we will look back at today and say, “We did have freedom back then.”

      It’s our choice what to do. I’ve made my decision, but I stand alone as far as I know. However, I do not advocate violence, or illegality.

      Does anyone see elections stopping the federal/national/centralized train? Elections would work, but too many can’t understand what’s been going on for 67 years, minimum. 95 years in John’s case.

      10/25/12 6:09 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Kiriakou was just following “president”:

      It’s not just Obama. The last Republican administration defied the rule of law—by presidential declarations that the president is not bound by statute, by appointments to the judiciary of subscribers to that preposterous claim, by wiretapping citizens without warrants, and by torturing prisoners. While the terrorists thought that on September 11, 2001 they had destroyed buildings, the impetuous reaction shook our legal institutions. Bruce Fein, associate deputy attorney general under Reagan, testified before Congress that the last Republican administration “vandalized the constitution every bit as much as the barbarians sacked Rome in 410 A.D.” The Iraq war was commenced on the basis of misrepresentations and in the absence of any actual or imminent attack by Iraq on any state, thus ostensibly violating international law as established in the Charter of the United Nations. The U.N., a bedrock of the international order that took two world wars to establish, has been scoffed at by pseudoconservatives, who have even blocked payment of U.S. dues. Antigovernment vitriol taken to extremes has even resulted in domestic violence (e.g., the bombing in Oklahoma City). It is at least a mercy that the radical claim that the president is not bound by the law is now dead for lack of a proponent—unless, that is, a pseudoconservative were elected president.

      10/25/12 10:05 AM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      Yes, I’ve followed events from the 1960s, somewhat, and more so since 9/11.

      Congress still keeps handing the executive authority which it does not possess, and does not want to restrict the executive grabbing more. Meanwhile the Supreme Court sucks their thumbs.

      This leaves elections as the only way to curb our federal government. Public opinion is a poor substitute. There is the bureaucracy, the fourth branch, but they are disbursed, and fragmented, and unconcerned as is the public.

      If anyone has read the notes from the Convention of 1787, you’ll see this progression to dictatorship was a great concern of theirs.

      Acceptance of the progression to today does not make it legal or constitutional. It’s acceleration during the 20th Century, notwithstanding, makes neither right or proper what is.

      And, I realize few Americans will bother being concerned until they are directly impacted.

      10/25/12 6:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...


      This is such a fine piece, Peter; we put it on RangerAgainstWar, fyi.

      10/26/12 6:48 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Eric Hodgdon said…

      quote: @pitchfork, etc.
      I’m with you,
      today is pleasant, nice, peaceful, and happy to be alive in America

      Maybe in your Parallel Universe.

      10/27/12 3:24 PM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      @ Peter – Yes, Good piece.

      @ pitchfork

      Did you read the next paragraph?
      Do you understand sarcasm?

      And what’s wrong with parallel universes?
      They work for the Federal Government.

      10/28/12 6:05 AM | Comment Link

    • May 9 — Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, If the Government Does It, It’s “Legal” « bearspawprint said...


      […] Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their […]

      05/9/13 2:27 PM | Comment Link

    • Peter Van Buren> Homeland Insecurity> Seven Years, Untold Dollars to Silence One Man | WAMMToday said...


      […] Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers,crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by […]

      05/9/13 4:35 PM | Comment Link

    • Obama’s War on Whistleblowers who are trying to out Government Waste, Fraud (Van Buren) | Blog Post Directory said...


      […] Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) […]

      05/10/13 4:45 AM | Comment Link

    • Homeland Insecurity | Perspectives, What Matters Today | BillMoyers.com said...


      […] […]

      05/11/13 3:57 PM | Comment Link

    Leave A Comment

    Mail (will not be published) (required)