Is John Kiriakou a Whistleblower?

abc_John3_071210_sshIt must be said from the very start: The only person to do time for the CIA’s torture policies appears to be a guy who spoke publicly about them, not any of the people who did the actual torturing.

That is arguably the most important fact about John Kiriakou. He is a former CIA officer who, as Scott Shane reported in the New York Times (1/6/13),

is scheduled to be sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a plea deal in which he admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by e-mailing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it.

The Obama administration has pursued an unprecedented campaign to prosecute whistleblowers. The fact that Kirikaou is facing such punishment reinforces the sense that he should be viewed as such a whistleblower, someone who was trying to expose the CIA’s torture practices.

But was that really his motivation?

Kiriakou came into the public debate over torture and waterboarding on ABC World News in 2007, where correspondent Brian Ross (12/10/07) used him to advance the argument that waterboarding had an almost instantaneous effect on getting the truth from captured Al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah. FAIR noted at the time that his comments should have been treated with more skepticism; the immediate implication viewers were to draw was that there was debate over torture’s legality and/or effectiveness, and Kiriakou was telling us that it worked:

ROSS: So in your view, the waterboarding broke him?

KIRIAKOU: I think it did, yes.

ROSS:  And did it make a difference in terms of…

KIRIAKOU: It did. The threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.

ROSS: And bottom line, as you sit here now, do you think that was worth it?


But as the Times‘ Shane put it (and has been known for several years), this was not correct:

While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

That was grossly inaccurate–the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other CIA officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Uncovering the truth about the CIA’s torture program didn’t seem to come from what Kiriakou revealed publicly at that time; if anything, it diverted attention away from facts about waterboarding torture that were eventually revealed. As the Times‘ Brian Stelter (4/27/09) reported:

Some critics say that the now-discredited information shared by Mr. Kiriakou and other sources heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique. “I think it was sanitized by the way it was described” in press accounts, said John Sifton, a former lawyer for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

Stelter also reported:

His ABC interview came at an especially delicate juncture in the debate over the use of torture. Weeks earlier, the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general was nearly derailed by his refusal to comment on the legality of waterboarding, and one day later, the CIA director testified about the destruction of interrogation videotapes. Mr. Kiriakou told MSNBC that he was willing to talk in part because he thought the CIA had “gotten a bum rap on waterboarding.”

Claiming that torture was necessary and that it worked–but then having second thoughts about it–is not why Kiriakou is likely headed to prison. As the recent Times piece explained, Kirikaou was in touch with a freelance reporter who was looking for the name of a CIA officer who had carried out some administrative aspects of the rendition program. Kiriakou recalled that person’s name, and passed it along to the reporter–in part, he says, because he believed this officer had retired. As he told the Times, “If I’d known the guy was still under cover… I would never have mentioned him.”

The government seems especially outraged that a CIA torturer’s name made it to human right lawyers defending Guantanamo prisoners–that would seem to be the reason Kiriakou’s case was pursued, and why he’s likely going to prison.

Those facts alone should outrage people who think that the public should know more about the government’s torture programs; and the fact that the person facing the most severe punishment for the CIA’s torture program is someone who spoke about it is absurd. But it’s important to recall that Kiriakou’s role in the media debate over torture was, in effect, to endorse the practice–albeit with some caveats. 


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.