Imprisoned Former CIA Agent John Kiriakou Speaks About Torture, Prison, and the Future

A jailhouse interview with the man whose disclosures prompted this week's damning torture report.
John Kiriakou in the documentary Silenced. Photograph courtesy AFI Docs.
John Kiriakou in the documentary Silenced. Photograph courtesy AFI Docs.

In 2007, 15-year CIA veteran John Kiriakou told an ABC News reporter that his agency had waterboarded an Al Qaeda detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whom Kiriakou was involved in capturing in 2002. His revelation confirmed to the American public the CIA’s torture program and helped spur a years-long Senate investigation and a damning, 6,000-page report, the abstract of which was released this week.

Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2012 to disclosing classified information, including the name of a fellow CIA operative, to a New York Times reporter. In early 2013, he reported to the a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, to begin serving a 30-month sentence. Kiriakou, along with supporters that include his congressman, Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, says the real point of his prosecution was to silence him and others from talking about torture. (Kiriakou case is the subject of the documentary Silenced, which screened last summer at AFI Docs.)

Kiriakou will be transferred to home confinement for the final three months of his term in February. Earlier this month, as the Senate debated releasing its report, I went to Loretto to talk to Kiriakou about his experience in prison, his feelings about the government, and his future.

Jim Moran recently asked President Obama to pardon you, calling you an “American hero.”

Moran has gone out on a limb. He’s really done right by me. He has really been there through the whole nightmare.

What do you think was misunderstood about your case?

The most important issue is my case wasn’t about leaking [the name of a CIA operative]. It was about torture. CIA never forgave me for telling the American people that torture was part of official US government policy.

Do you think the Obama’s administration’s record is better than Bush’s?

Obama’s intelligence policy is essentially an extension of the Bush administration, but bloodier. Especially the use of drones … I’m disappointed because the administration has turned its back on human rights. Obama has surrounded himself with true hawks.

You’ve just finished writing a new book, Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison. Can you give us a sneak peek?

Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations. If calm is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend. And don’t trust anyone.

How has that helped you survive prison?

I’ve “survived and thrived” here based on my wits, by forming strategic alliances, by relying on myself, by trusting nobody. They made me appear more “seasoned,” more commanding of respect.

What challenges do you face coming out?

The biggest challenge will be finding permanent work. I recognize I’m controversial. Some companies dislike controversy. I’ll have to find a place that will fit both of us.

What do you want to do?

I’d like to sit at a desk at a think tank, think the big thoughts and write provocative articles and books. I think I can do more good with writing and speaking. I hope to speak a lot about prison reform.

What kinds of changes do you envision?

Europe makes good use of house arrests [especially for non-violent crimes]. First-time, non-violent offenders get no second chances in the US. You do hard time from the first moment. Nothing’s correctional about it.

What are your living arrangements like?

We live in open cubicles—10-by-16 made for four. There are 250 people in my unit and we have ten sinks, 11 showers, six toilets, six telephones. We stand in line for everything. Everyone is sick all the time. Overcrowding leads to short tempers and increased violence. There’s no legal effort to depopulate federal prisons.

How do the other inmates treat you?

At first, they stayed away. Thought I was a hit man.

If a movie were made about you, what would it be about?

It would focus on the fact that I’m a regular guy doing decidedly irregular things, who found himself in historic situations. If it happened to me, it could happen to anybody.

How so?

Americans didn’t understand that after 9/11 the national security state would be permanent in our lives. Certainly, reasonable people can agree to disagree on the civil liberties that we should or should not give up to remain safe. But the government has imposed a regime where we’ve lost our liberties without debate, and we’re not supposed to complain about it. Indeed, you risk an Espionage Act charge if you do.

Natalia Megas is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications in the United States and abroad. Find her on Twitter at @NataliaMegas.

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