McLEAN, Va. — When former CIA officer John Kiriakou is sentenced Friday in federal court for leaking the name of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter, his ultimate fate will not be in doubt. The plea calls for a 2 1/2 -year prison term.
Still, the fight over the 48-year-old Kiriakou’s reputation remains fierce.
Kiriakou and his supporters portray him as an anti-torture whistleblower paying the price for doing the right thing by exposing what they consider the worst aspects of the government’s so-called enhanced interrogation program.
To federal prosecutors, though, Kiriakou’s claims of altruism and martyrdom are galling. In court papers filed on Jan. 18, they say Kiriakou was motivated by fame and money and “was engaged in a concerted campaign to raise his media profile, principally to advance his private pecuniary interests through, among other things, consulting engagements, publication of editorials, more remunerative and secure employment, and sales of his forthcoming book.”
The claim to be an anti-torture whistleblower makes no sense, the government says, given that he essentially defended the CIA’s interrogation techniques in his initial interviews, which were among the first given by a CIA insider after news broke about the government’s admission that it engaged in waterboarding.
Kiriakou told one interviewer that he came forward “because he thought the CIA ‘had gotten a bum rap on waterboarding,’” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.
Even more, while Kiriakou now portrays the leak of one covert officer’s name as an attempt to expose those who orchestrated the torture program, Kiriakou at the time described that officer, identified in court papers only as Covert Officer A, as “a very good guy” to journalists.
Defense lawyers maintained Kiriakou was a victim of a vindictive prosecution, alleging that the government only went after him because they didn’t like what he was saying about the CIA in his book, “The Reluctant Spy,” and in public interviews.
But prosecutors say the case against Kiriakou developed when authorities discovered a potentially dangerous security breach: prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were discovered possessing photographs of one of their interrogators. It was that investigation that ultimately led to the discovery of Kiriakou’s leaks.
Indeed, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected the claims of vindictive prosecution early on in the case.
Nevertheless, Kiriakou and his supporters insist he fits the mold of an honorable whistleblower persecuted for exposing wrongdoing. On Wednesday, Kiriakou’s portrait was unveiled at the popular Washington restaurant Busboys and Poets, where it will be part of a traveling exhibition and hang alongside portraits of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi.
More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition asking President Barack Obama to commute Kiriakou’s sentence. The petition calls Kiriakou “an American hero.” It credits him with exposing CIA torture and says he is the only person going to jail in connection with the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.
Jesselyn Radack, one of Kiriakou’s lawyers, acknowledged that Kiriakou’s initial statements to the public about waterboarding and torture were ambivalent. But she said he became more and more adamantly opposed to torture as years went on, and that the CIA became more and more irritated with him.
She said the government’s explanation that it prosecuted Kiriakou only because of what was found at Guantanamo is belied by the fact that Guantanamo detainees were found in possession of multiple photographs of covert officers, and leaks that were traced back to others were never prosecuted. She said leaks that carry the government’s tacit blessing, like those that informed filmmakers’ research for the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which documents the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, were never pursued.
Most aggravating, she said, is that of all the people who were implicated and exposed in the scandal surrounding the government’s use of torture in the war on terror, Kiriakou is the only one going to jail, and he never tortured anyone. In fact, he explicitly turned down offers from his CIA superiors to be trained in so-called enhanced interrogation.
“If John had tortured anyone, I’m confident he never would have been prosecuted,” Radack said.
Kiriakou, of Arlington, was a CIA veteran who played a role in the agency’s capture of al-Qaida terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002. Abu Zubaydah revealed information that led to the arrest of “dirty bomb” plotter Jose Padilla and exposed Khalid Sheikh Mohamed as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Abu Zubaydah was subjected to both traditional interrogations and waterboarding. FBI agents who conducted the traditional interrogations say the waterboarding and other aggressive tactics were ineffective.
Kiriakou did not participate in Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding.
Under the deal with prosecutors, Kiriakou pleaded guilty last October to leaking the identity of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter. Prosecutors dropped charges brought under the World War I-era Espionage Act. They also dropped a count of making false statements.