ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A former CIA officer pleaded guilty Tuesday 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 for John Kiriakou, 48, that had been filed under the World War I-era Espionage Act. They also dropped a count of making false statements.
The law under which Kiriakou was convicted, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, had not yielded a conviction in 27 years.
Under the plea, all sides agreed to a prison term of 2½ 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.
Kiriakou, who wrote a book detailing his CIA career, initially tried to argue he was a victim of vindictive prosecution by government officials who believed he portrayed the CIA negatively, but the judge rejected those arguments.
Kiriakou 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 was waterboarded by government interrogators and eventually 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.
Accounts conflict, though, over whether the waterboarding was helpful in gleaning intelligence from Zubaydah. Kiriakou, who did not participate in the waterboarding, expressed ambivalence in news media interviews about waterboarding, but ultimately declared it was torture.
Kiriakou declined to comment after the hearing, but his lawyer, Robert Trout, told reporters that Kiriakou “is a loyal American who loves his country … and served it for many years in classified and often dangerous assignments.”
After Tuesday’s hearing, one of Kiriakou’s lawyers described him as a whistleblower. Jesselyn Radack, an expert on whistleblower issues with the Government Accountability Project, said it was an outrage that Kiriakou will serve jail time. She was glad, though, that the charges under the Espionage Act — which she characterized as vague and overbroad— were dropped.
She said Kiriakou was motivated to take the plea by the fact that he has five children and wanted to ensure he would be out of prison in time to see them grow up.
Kiriakou deserves to be considered a whistleblower, she said, because the name he revealed to a journalist was an individual involved in the CIA’s rendition program, which Radack said engaged in torture. More broadly, she said Kiriakou became a strong voice against waterboarding and other torture tactics.
Prosecutors dispute the notion that Kiriakou was any kind of whistleblower. In court papers, they said the investigation of Kiriakou began in 2009 when authorities became alarmed after discovering that detainees at Guantanamo Bay possessed photographs of CIA and FBI personnel who had interrogated them. The investigation eventually led back to Kiriakou, according to a government affidavit.
The papers indicated prosecutors believed Kiriakou leaked the name to a journalist, who subsequently disclosed it to an investigator working for the lawyer of a Guantanamo detainee.
Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said “the government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations. Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”
Radack, though, said the identity of the covert operative in question was something of an open secret among journalists covering human rights cases — she even identified him by name after the hearing in front of a bank of TV cameras. Court records refer to him only as “Covert Officer A,” whose association with the CIA had been classified for two decades.
At the CIA, Director David Petraeus sent a memo to agency employees noting Kiriakou’s conviction, saying “it marks an important victory for our agency, for our intelligence community, and for our country. Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”
Kiriakou had planned to subpoena three journalists connected to the case. Those journalists had filed motions to quash the subpoenas, but that issue is now moot.
Kiriakou will be formally sentenced in January.