News & Politics

John Kiriakou, CIA Officer Turned Whistleblower, Shares His Story

Now out of prison, Kiriakou is trying to return to a normal life.

John Kiriakou, CIA Officer Turned Whistleblower, Shares His Story
Kiriakou at his Arlington home. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

From a window in his rental home in Arlington, John Kiriakou can glimpse his old life: the peaked roof of the dream house he and his wife, Heather, built a decade ago in happier times. Not that Kiriakou shows signs of unhappiness now. His toddler son leads me past a wall hung with welcome home signs to another window overlooking a tree-lined back yard where Kiriakou has spent hours recently watching his kids play on a trampoline.

What the decorated CIA officer turned convicted felon doesn’t add is that for months his yard was as far he could go without permission from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In our previous meeting at Loretto, the Pennsylvania facility where Kiriakou served 23 months for confirming the name of a CIA operative to a reporter, and in the neat, error-free letters written from his cell, Kiriakou maintained a steady calm—a contrast from the chatty but tough veteran he projects in his 2009 memoir, The Reluctant Spy. Even when he speaks passionately or with sometimes shocking candor—“Everyone with authority [in prison] is lying,” he once told me within earshot of the prison’s public-information officer—his baby face turns tense, but his polite reserve stays intact.

In Arlington, Kiriakou, dressed in an at-home dad uniform of white T-shirt and jeans, paints a picture of a man at peace. He has made decaf coffee for me and lays out homemade Greek cookies. “I’m so much more patient than I’ve ever been,” he says.

Kiriakou has found a need for that patience. Full of plans before his release—he looked forward to writing and speaking about prison reform and torture, and he still hopes to teach a course he’s developed about ethics in intelligence operations—he’s been faced with the practical necessity of finding paid work.

The Bureau of Prisons first refused his request to work remotely with a medical-technology company, agreeing only after he appealed. He was later hired to work on penal-system issues at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive Washington think tank, after he posted on Facebook about needing employment. But the bureau, he says, deemed it “inappropriate” to talk about prison reform while he was still officially incarcerated, thus delaying his start date at the institute until May, when his sentence ended. (The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Kiriakou’s case.)

Kiriakou is a man straddling conflicting narratives. Oliver Stone, John Cusack, and other Hollywood idealists have spoken up for him as a victim of the security state whose 2012 prosecution for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was payback for his admission to ABC News, five years earlier, that the United States had waterboarded an al-Qaeda prisoner. Academy Award-nominated documentarian James Spione told Kiriakou’s story in last year’s Silenced. Former Virginia congressman Jim Moran has called him an “American hero.”

To federal prosecutors and some lifelong colleagues in Langley, he’s a dangerous leaker.

Kiriakou, needless to say, is in the first camp. “The most important issue is my case wasn’t about leaking; it was about torture,” he says. But he seems aware that he occupies a peculiar stratum of Washington political life—a punished intelligence operative, the kind of tarnished figure you might find in a John le Carré novel. Recently, he says, a stranger approached him on the Metro as he traveled to Southeast DC to his twice-weekly check-in at a prison halfway house. The man asked, “Are you John Kiriakou?”

Kiriakou responded jokingly, “It depends. Are you here to kill me?”

Kiriakou in 1985, visiting his grandfather’s family on the Greek island of Rhodes. Photograph courtesy of John Kiriakou.

Yet he’s an increasingly common type on the political scene, one who occupies a broad gray area between whistleblower and traitor. He has been supported by left-leaning groups that have adopted the causes of Edward Snowden, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and Thomas Drake, who exposed NSA’s Trailblazer program. Kiriakou is both an object of media fascination, with a Los Angeles literary agent and his third memoir in the works, and a forgotten man. He has been stripped of retirement benefits. For a time after Heather Kiriakou, who also worked for the CIA, resigned and Kiriakou was headed to jail, the family went on welfare. The mortgage on their Arlington home was paid by CodePink, a peace-protest group in California. Another price of telling the truth, Kiriakou says, is the extra 15 pounds he gained in prison.

Sitting in his Arlington rental, he tells another story, about a homeless man who stopped to ask him for money. “We ended up talking about prison,” Kiriakou says before deciding not to go on. “I’m going to skip it. It’s just too depressing.”

• • •

The facts of his case are not contested. In 2002, Kiriakou, then head of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, directed the capture of Abu Zubaydah, believed to be an al-Qaeda operative and one of the first detainees to undergo the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs. Kiriakou left the Agency in 2004 to join the global consultancy firm Deloitte.

In late 2007, amid a growing media frenzy over waterboarding, ABC’s Brian Ross asked Kiriakou whether EITs had been effective in interrogating detainees. Kiriakou defended their use in the panicked days after 9/11 but volunteered that “we’re Americans and we’re better than this and we shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing.” He was the first CIA insider to confirm that waterboarding had ever been official policy.

At the time, the CIA filed crime reports with the Department of Justice, which didn’t take further action, according to Jesselyn Radack, a former federal lawyer who has helped defend Kiriakou and is a whistleblower herself—in 2002, Radack called out the FBI for ethics violations in the John Walker Lindh case.

Months after the ABC interview, a reporter working on a book about the CIA’s rendition practices asked Kiriakou to confirm the name of a covert officer. The book was never published, but the reporter passed the name to an investigator who worked for lawyers defending Guantánamo detainees. Radack maintains that the operative’s name was already an open secret among journalists and human-rights advocates.

In early 2012, Kiriakou was charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, two counts of violating the Espionage Act, and one count of making false statements to CIA Publications Review Board officials about The Reluctant Spy.

The CIA declined to comment for this story. John. A. Rizzo, a former lawyer at the Agency, says: “My sense is [Kiriakou] is not a bad man. But he did a bad thing and a stupid thing. The bad thing is that he disclosed the name of at least one covert CIA operative to a reporter via e-mail. The stupid thing is that he lied to the FBI about having done so. These are not trivial criminal offenses.”

Other intelligence professionals say the application of espionage laws to Kiriakou’s case points up the need for reform regarding who gets prosecuted and how. “The penalty and the crime were out of step with each other,” says Bruce Riedel, one of Kiriakou’s supervisors at the CIA and a former candidate for Agency director who has been critical of US antiterrorism efforts.

Kiriakou regrets his mistake, calling it “a momentary lapse of judgment,” but insists his prosecution can be tracked to his embarrassing revelations about waterboarding. The CIA’s director at the time of Abu Zubaydah’s capture, George Tenet, was “deeply involved,” Kiriakou notes, and congressional oversight committees approved of the practice. “So what else do you do?” he says. “In my case—torture—I went to the press.”

In October 2012, Kiriakou pleaded guilty to the single charge of violating the IIPA, reducing his sentence from a possible 45 years to 2½. “This could be a blip in my life or the defining moment,” he says. “I took the blip.”

• • •

At Loretto, Kiriakou was just a two-hour drive from Newcastle, the small Pennsylvania town where he grew up and to which, he recalls, “I said I was never returning.”

Kiriakou was absorbed with politics from an early age. When he was nine, his parents, both children of Greek immigrants, bought him a shortwave radio and Kiriakou built himself a 45-foot tower behind the house. “It was through that radio that the world was opened to me,” he says.

As a teen, he wrote opinionated letters to world leaders, once telling the deposed shah of Iran that the Carter administration should never have withdrawn its support in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Kiriakou earned a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a master’s in legislative affairs at George Washington University, where he says a graduate-school professor recruited him to work for the CIA.

At the Agency, Kiriakou showed remarkable composure and precocious judgment, says Riedel: “Even as a very junior officer, John stood out.” But after eight years as an analyst, Kiriakou says, “I got bored.” Not long before al-Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Africa in 1998, Kiriakou, fluent in Arabic, made the usual leap to operative.

He says his intelligence training stood him in good stead at Loretto. When I ask what advice he included in his still unpublished prison memoir, Doing Time Like a Spy, he answers, “Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.”

At first his fellow prisoners “thought I was a hit man,” he told me when I visited last year. In time, however, he was accepted by the Aryans (“because I wasn’t a rat or a pedophile”) and the Nation of Islam (because “[Nation leader Louis] Farrakhan called me a hero”).

Kiriakou speaking at a welcome-home party at lefty restaurant/bookstore Busboys and Poets. Photograph by Miguel Juarez Lugo/Alamy.

Kiriakou made the most of his time, responding to thousands of letters from supporters, reading more than 120 books, and completing a second memoir. “Prison was by far easier, compared to the period between my arrest and my plea,” he says. He got busier when, two months before he left Loretto, the Senate released a summary of its report on the Bush administration’s torture practices. A few mainstream news outlets tracked Kiriakou down, and CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed him live by phone.

The public attention didn’t last long. “It shocks me, frankly, that we’re not having this national conversation,” Kiriakou says. He has done his part, tweeting regularly on torture allegations and other whistleblowers’ cases.

In March, he criticized the deal that Iraq war hero and former CIA director David Petraeus had struck—two years’ probation—after leaking classified information to his biographer, who was also his mistress.

“I wish I would have gotten the deal Petraeus got,” says Kiriakou, who nevertheless says Petraeus doesn’t deserve prosecution: He “had no criminal intent, and there was no harm to the national security, just like me.”

• • •

On a sunny weekday in May, CodePink and the Institute for Policy Studies hosted a reception for Kiriakou at the Mount Vernon Square outpost of Busboys and Poets, the lefty restaurant/bookstore chain. Kiriakou, in an open-necked white shirt and ill-fitting suit, took the small stage.

Speaking without notes, he quickly silenced a hooting crowd of pink-clad conspiracy theorists and plain old concerned citizens by sharing prison stories and speaking out against torture. He came across as charismatic and witty, and afterward he patiently took questions, accommodating one woman’s pestering until someone from CodePink politely told her they had to move on. She asked him why, with its terrible history, he had joined the CIA.

“I thought that history was over,” he said. “In retrospect, I think it was over until September 11.”

This garrulous version of Kiriakou was one I hadn’t seen before—and one he’s only now getting used to himself: “For the first time in my life, I don’t have to self-censor because I work for somebody who wants to stay away from controversy. It’s liberating.

“It was my case that made me a pessimist,” he says. “Life is one thing. Life with the entire weight of the US government coming down on your head is entirely another.”

Natalia Megas is a journalist in Fairfax.

This article appears in our July 2015 issue of Washingtonian.