John Kiriakou is a former CIA officer, former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former counterterrorism consultant.
He left the CIA in March 2004, later serving as a senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and senior intelligence advisor to Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry. Kiriakou also authored a bestselling book, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.
In 2007 he appeared on ABC News, during which he became the first CIA officer to confirm that the agency had waterboarded detainees, which he described as “torture.” His interview revealed that waterboarding was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Federal officials began investigating Kiriakou immediately after his public comments, and five years later he was charged with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act – a law designed to punish spies.
Eventually, to avoid a trial and potential 45 years in prison, Kiriakou opted to plead guilty to a single reduced charge in exchange for a 30-month sentence.
He reported to a federal facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania on February 28, 2013, where he continued to speak out in an online blog called Letters from Loretto.
PLN editor Paul Wright interviewed John Kiriakou in Washington, DC on October 20, 2016.
Q = Paul Wright, A = John Kiriakou
Q: It’s been fairly well documented that not too long after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA moved into high gear. It obviously had targets that it already knew about and was lining up more. At what point after the first Al Qaeda, either real or suspected, members started being captured was the decision made to torture them for information?
A: That was me. I had captured the first high value detainee, or high value target is what we were calling them at the time. That was Abu Zubaydah in March of 2002.... It wasn’t until I got back around the first of June 2002, I was actually in the cafeteria, and a senior CTC [Counter-Terrorism Center] officer came up to me.
He came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m glad I ran into you. I wanted to ask if you want to be trained in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.” I had never heard the term before, and I said, “What’s that mean?” And he got very excited, and he said, “We’re gonna start getting rough with these guys.” I said, “What’s that mean?” And so he very calmly then listed these ten torture techniques. And I said, “Jeez, man, that sounds like a torture program to me.” And I said, “But you know what? Give me an hour. Let me think about it.”
I went up to the seventh floor which is the executive floor of the CIA. There was a very, very senior CIA officer for whom I had worked in the Middle East about a decade earlier. I knocked on his door, and I said, “I need some advice.” I said, “Somebody just approached me about being trained in these enhanced interrogation techniques. What do you think of this?”
And he said, “Well, first, let’s call it what it is. It’s a torture program. And torture is a slippery slope. And you know how these guys are. Somebody is going to go overboard, and they’re going to kill a prisoner. And when that happens, there is going to be a Congressional investigation, and then there’s going to be a Justice Department investigation. And somebody’s going to go to prison. Do you want to go to prison?” I said, “No. I don’t want to go to prison.”
And, as, you know, I’m the only person who went to prison.
Q: The irony is they’ve killed dozens of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that we know of.
A: I’m the only one to be prosecuted. And I never laid a hand on anybody. I told the public about it.
Q: One of the ironies is that none of the torturers or people that have committed war crimes during this war on terror, none of them have been charged with a crime. Most of them have not been publicly identified.
Q: But the whistleblowers, such as yourself, Chelsea Manning, the people who have exposed these crimes, are ones who have been fairly ruthlessly pursued and prosecuted and convicted and imprisoned by the Bush and Obama administrations alike.
A: Yeah. And really in an unprecedented way. I speak a lot publicly about the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act was written in 1917 to combat German saboteurs during World War I. It has never been updated. Between 1917 and 2009, three Americans were charged under the Espionage Act for speaking to the press. Since Barack Obama was inaugurated, he has charged eight Americans....
Q: Going back to the torture program, I haven’t really seen any numbers in terms of how many CIA officers have participated in torture. Is that publicly known?
A: I don’t think that it’s been publicly revealed, but it has been publicly alluded to. We know from the Senate Torture Report, as well as from the CIA Inspector General’s report that was released in 2009, that there were at least many dozens of CIA officers who were involved in a number of ways.
Q: To your knowledge, did anyone refuse to participate?
A: I didn’t know if anyone had refused to participate until I read the Senate Torture Report. And now we know that, yes, there were people at the secret prison who were witnessing the early days of this torture who objected and in some cases curtailed their assignment, which is a career-ending decision, and returned to headquarters. One of the things that made me very sad, though, is even after all these years – the Torture Report was released in 2014, so we’re talking about 12 years after the fact – nobody ever went public.
Q: One of the analogies that I draw is that after World War II, a lot of Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes, and one of the defenses many of them unsuccessfully raised was, “We were just following orders.” Apparently, one of the reasons that that defense failed was the Germans were fairly meticulous about keeping records, and no one could ever show that any soldier who refused to commit war crimes was ever penalized or ever punished in any way.
A: No. No. Not at all. That’s right. This was a conscious decision that each individual had to make. May I add something to that too? We have a law in this country called the Federal Torture Act.
Q: Right. And the United States is also a signatory to the Convention Against Torture.
A: We were the primary drafters of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. In 1946, the United States government executed Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded American prisoners of war. Well, the law has not changed.
Q: My observation has been that the only time anyone is ever charged with a war crime is if they lose a major war. Other than that, it seems....
A: That’s it.
Q: Everyone else, as you know, they get promoted. They sign book deals. Their lives tend to go very well. Things didn’t go well for you, so what led to your prosecution?
A: I left the CIA in 2004, mid-2004, and went into the private sector. And I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t say anything about the torture program, but it was eating at me the whole time. And in 2005, Human Rights Watch came out with a report saying that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. The CIA denied it. Then in 2006, Amnesty International came out with a report saying the same thing. And, finally, in 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the same thing: “The CIA is torturing its prisoners.”
In December of 2007, Brian Ross of ABC News called me and said he had a source who said that I had tortured Abu Zubaydah. I said that was absolutely untrue. I was the only person who was kind to Abu Zubaydah.... I said I never laid a hand on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner. I said, “Your source is either mistaken or he’s a liar.” And he said, “Well, you’re welcome to come on the show and defend yourself,” which I didn’t know at the time is an old reporter’s trick. I said I’d think about it.
That same week, President George W. Bush gave a press conference in which he looked directly into the camera and said, “We do not torture.” Well, I knew that that was a lie. He was just lying to the American people. And then a few days later in response to a reporter’s question, he said, “We do not torture but if there is torture, it’s the result of a rogue CIA officer.” And I thought, “Oh, my God. Brian Ross’ source is at the White House. And they’re going to try to pin this on me.”
So I called Brian Ross and said, “I’ll do your show.” And I just decided in the days leading up to that interview that I would tell the truth no matter what he asked me. And so I went on the show ... and I said three things that have changed the course of the rest of my life. I said the CIA was torturing its prisoners. I was the first CIA officer to ever confirm the use of torture.... I said that torture was official U.S. government policy. It was not the result of a rogue CIA officer. And I said that the policy had been personally approved by the President himself.
Within 24 hours the CIA had filed what’s called a Crimes Report against me with the Justice Department, with the FBI and the FBI began to investigate me. And I knew that because somebody in the FBI leaked it to CNN. So the next day I’m reading CNN and it’s, “FBI begins investigation of CIA leaker.”
Q: But going on live TV isn’t really leaking because they know who you are?
A: Yeah. Did he say it? Yeah. He said it. Is it a crime? Well, they investigated me for a year. From December 2007 to December 2008, and they determined that nothing that I had said was classified. And they closed the case. Done.
Q: And, in fact, around this time, Dana Priest at the Washington Post and Tim Golden atthe New York Times were publishing, in fact, they got Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage about the hundreds of prisoners who died while being tortured. We reported it in PLN at the time.
A: This was the worst kept secret in Washington. Everybody knew that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. What I did not know was that three weeks later, when President Obama was inaugurated, in January of 2009, the CIA secretly asked him to reopen the investigation.
Q: The investigation of you.
A: Of me.
Q: Not of the torturers.
A: No, no. Not of the torturers at all. That’s all impunity and immunity. So as far as I knew, my long nightmare was over. And I was offered a job, which I accepted, by John Kerry, who was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I became the Senior Investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I had no idea that the FBI was actively investigating me.... And they continued to investigate me for three more years until January of 2012.
Q: I think when people read this, they’ll ask what was there to investigate for four years? You said this was what happened, which, as you noted, wasn’t like it was a big secret.
A: It was kind of funny. They went to a judge and they asked permission to go into my emails and my Facebook. And the judge denied them.
Q: That hardly ever happens.
A: Hardly ever happens. So they went to a different judge. They went to an 83-year-old judge who didn’t know anything about Facebook. And they told him that I was connected on Facebook to some very dangerous political activists. Well, I’m friends with 3,000 people on Facebook, 90% of whom I have never met, and I have no idea who they are. And he said, “Oh, possible terrorism. And conspiracy.” And he gave them the warrant. So it was really for conspiring on Facebook. It was really a fishing expedition....
And I did make one mistake. In August of 2008 a reporter called me, or emailed me, and said he was writing a book about the CIA’s rendition program and could I introduce him to any of the following dozen people.
Q: And for our readers that don’t know, the rendition program is where the CIA would kidnap people from one country, transport them to a third country like Egypt or Jordan or Syria to be tortured by the intelligence services of those countries and in some cases killed afterward.
A: Correct. So I looked at these names. I said, “I don’t have any idea who these people are.” I said kidnapping was not my thing. I wasn’t involved. I didn’t know any of those guys. Then he sent me a second email, and he said, “Well, do you know any of these people that you can introduce me to who might agree to sit for an interview?” And I didn’t know any of those people. And I said, “Listen. You obviously know this issue so much better than I do. I just can’t help you.” And he said, “Well, what about the guy in your book that you ran into on the tarmac in Pakistan? I think his name was...” and I’ll say John. And I said, “Oh. You’re talking about John Doe.” I said, “I don’t know whatever happened to him. He’s probably retired and living in Virginia somewhere.” That was a felony because I confirmed the name of a former CIA officer.
Q: Some of the background is the law that you were accused of violating was the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
A: Yeah. It was passed in 1981 in the aftermath of a kerfuffle that the CIA had.
Q: You have a unique distinction then of being one of two people ever charged with violating this statute.
Q: Do you know why no one’s ever challenged the statute?
A: Well, no one’s ever challenged the statute because they’ve never had standing.... Now one of the things that the prosecution did in my case was that I had to specifically give up my right to challenge the constitutionality of the law in order to get the plea deal.
Q: One of the things is, especially in the federal prosecution system, 98%, 99% of all defendants wind up pleading guilty.
A: Ninety-eight point two according to ProPublica.
Q: Okay. I’m surprised it’s that low. The reason everyone gives, especially when we talk to a lot of criminal defense attorneys ... is that the sentences are so high and the exposure if you’re convicted is so high. If you had elected to go to trial with what you were charged with, and then convicted, what was your sentencing exposure?
A: Well, I was facing 45 years. And my attorneys told me that, realistically, I was looking at 18 to 24 years. And the government offered me 30 months, and I knew I’d be out in under two years. And still, I decided to not accept the plea. My wife and I stayed up all night doing last-minute research.
Q: Now this was in the context that you’re married. You have children?
A: I have five children. My wife is also a former CIA officer. She was fired from the CIA on the day of my arrest just because she was married to me. And the government does that, too. They try to ruin you financially.
A: So that they force you into a plea. So we decided no. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and we’re going to challenge this. There is no case law because I’m only the second person charged with it. But there was plenty of great information from law school journals. Harvard. Yale. Dartmouth. Penn. I mean, serious attorneys writing that this is an unconstitutional law. And we said, “Well, we’re going to fight it. And I know I’ll be convicted, but I’ll challenge it.” ... And then finally, one of [my] attorneys looked at me, and he said, “If you were my brother, I would beg you to take this deal. Just take the deal.”
Q: And where were you charged?
A: I was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia which is known as the espionage court, and what I didn’t realize at the time, even though it had been ten months since my case was filed, I didn’t realize that no national security defendant has ever won a case in the Eastern District of Virginia. And, moreover, Judge Leonie Brinkema reserves all national security cases for herself, and she’s a hanging judge. I never stood a chance from the very beginning.
Q: On criminal justice issues and probably national security issues as well, there’s a real bipartisan consensus. There isn’t any real difference between the two. My analogy is it’s the difference between being beaten to death with a 2x4 or a Louisville slugger. What were you sentenced to?
A: I was sentenced to 30 months, and my attorneys asked at sentencing that I be sent to a minimum security camp, and we asked for the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, because it was close to my family. It’s about three-and-a-half hours’ drive away. The prosecution did not object to a camp designation, and the judge agreed camp.
Q: Of course, no one bothered telling you that the BOP isn’t bound by the judge’s recommendation.
A: And to tell you the truth, I’m a big boy. I could have taken the bad news, and then I would have asked to be sent to Petersburg Low because it’s an hour and 40 minutes, and it would have been much, much easier for my family to get there. Instead, we requested Loretto, and I got to Loretto and I turned myself in, and the cop puts me through the metal detector and then starts taking me around to the back of the prison.
I said, “No, no. I’m supposed to be at the camp across the street.” And he kind of chuckles, or chortles, and says, “Not according to my paperwork, you’re not.” So it was five days before I finally got access to a phone. And I called my attorney, and I said, “Hey, they put me in the actual prison.” And he said, “Wow. Well, we could file a motion but it will take two years before we get a hearing and you’re going to be home by then.” He said, “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to tough it out.” And so I made myself as comfortable as possible.
Q: I’m assuming like most Americans you’ve never really given a lot of thought to prisons or the criminal justice system.
A: Not five seconds of thought in my life.
Q: So you get to prison. What’s your first reaction when you get there?
A: I think when anybody goes to prison for the first time they’re in a state of shock. And so I remember being very, very calm. And I think in retrospect it was because I was in shock....
Q: What did you expect? This is in the context that you’ve been a federal government employee for, how long? Fifteen years of your life?
A: Longer than that. It was just a few months short of 20 because I had gone to the Senate and I had been with the Office of Personnel Management before the [CIA].
Q: So when you wind up in prison, was it better run? Worse run? Did it meet your expectations?
A: Oh, far, far worse run than anything I had imagined.
Q: It’s funny because I did time in a state prison, and you’d hear guys saying, “Oh, I wish we were in the BOP.” And for state prisoners, the BOP is supposed to be a big panacea – which I imagine if you’re in, say, the Florida or the Alabama DOC, it is.
A: Right. I expected the administration of the prison to be semi-literate at least. Or to have half of a brain. And I found the opposite to be true. I took a lot of heat on a blog for referring to the warden’s hundred-dollar suit. But that was sort of the mentality. The mentality was, I’m on the track to be warden, or assistant wardens. Get me through this day so I can get my next promotion and move on to the next place.
Q: Did you work in UNICOR [federal prison industries] at all?
A: No. I made a conscious decision, even before I got to prison, that I would not help them in any way run their prison. I would help other prisoners. But I was not going to do anything that would benefit the administration in any way. And so for my first six weeks, well, I volunteered to be a GED tutor. And I said to my “counselor” ... I use the word in quotation marks because he never counseled anything.
Q: I was just going to say, at least in Washington where I was imprisoned, the counselors were usually guards that didn’t like shift work.
A :Right. So I said to him in our very first encounter, “I have a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. I have a master’s degree in legislative affairs. And I did my PhD course work in international affairs at the University of Virginia. If you’d like me to teach a GED class, I’m happy to help.” And his exact words in response were, “If I want you to teach a fucking class, I’ll ask you to teach a fucking class.” And so I got a job as a janitor in the library. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t like the attitude of the prison staff in the library. I didn’t like the way they treated people.
Q: You’ve talked about some of the human rights violations you witnessed.
Q: You talked about mentally ill prisoners not getting treatment.
A: That was particularly egregious.
Q: Right. And I got the impression that that really disturbed you. Seeing stuff like that.
A: It did. When people are obviously in crisis, and you are compelled by law to provide them with the appropriate treatment, then, by God, provide them with the appropriate treatment. Don’t treat mental illness as a disciplinary problem. It’s not. It’s a medical problem.
Q: And I think some of the cases were prisoners denied their medication. They start to decompensate. They act out. And then they wind up being beaten, Tasered. I think the prisoner, the example you used, he was left outside in the cold and rain.
A: In sub-freezing weather. Yeah. And he warned us in advance.... This is one of my roommates in our room of six. He said, “Guys, I’m severely mentally ill. I’m okay when I’m on medicine, but they’re denying my medicine.” He said, “I’m apologizing in advance. In the next five or six days I’m going to be certifiably nuts.” And he was.
Q: Did you expect to see things like that in prison?
A: No. That never even occurred to me. I just assumed, again, coming back to a point that you made, I just assumed that because this is the federal system and it’s supposed to be so much better than the state systems ... that there’s plenty of medication for everybody. Especially someone who you know is going to become violently mentally ill.
Q: How widespread do you think the poor treatment of prisoners is?
A: Honestly? I think it’s universal.
Q: In this country?
A: In this country. I wasn’t sure, even by the time I got out of prison, because Loretto was my only experience. And, of course, you make friends with people in prison. You hear about their experiences in various places around the country. But, like you, I travel around the country as much as possible, and I speak about these issues at a wide variety of places – colleges, universities, peace groups, whomever – and you can’t believe the number of people who come up to me and say, “I’ve been in prison.” Or, “My brother’s been in prison.” Or, “My uncle’s been in prison.” And they tell exactly the same stories. And I don’t mean just from the contemporary system. I mean going back three or four decades, they’re telling the same stories.
Q: You had a wife. You had five children. And I guess that’s one of the things we can segue into right now, when we talk about how bad the BOP is now compared to where it was, say, 30 years ago. But even compared to other state prison systems, one of the things that’s come to our attention as part of our Phone Justice campaign has been the limit of 300 minutes a month [for phone time for BOP prisoners].
A: I struggled mightily to stay under 300 minutes, and rarely succeeded.
Q: That’s one of the points we’re trying to raise with the BOP to get them to change that, because to our knowledge the BOP is the only prison system that imposes this limit.
Q: Especially if you have small children, it’s not really realistic to expect to have any type of really meaningful family contact in under 300 minutes [a month].
A: You’re right. And they claim that they promote in every way possible the reunification of families.
Q: I think that was one of those things that, you’ve got the limitation on the phone calls and you mentioned the video visitation. So how did that work for the BOP? And, of course, the big thing is how much did it cost?
A: We had in-person visitation, but I followed the video visitation – I’m going to call it a scandal – very closely. Again, the BOP is constantly telling people how much they care about you reuniting with your family and being a good father and being a productive member of society. They send you halfway across the country. They don’t allow visits. When they do allow visits, in many cases they are video visits, which are prohibitively expensive, and it hits the poor hardest.
Q: What was it like visiting with your family in prison?
A: Oh, at first it was just awful. Just the worst experience I have ever had in my life. Three of my kids were very young when I went to prison, and so I told them that I had lost. I said, “You know I’ve been in a fight with the FBI? Well, unfortunately I lost, and so I’m going to have to go to Pennsylvania and teach bad guys how to get their high school diplomas.” Because I just assumed, again, that I would be a GED tutor.
Q: Right. Why wouldn’t they not want that?
A: Right. My family came to visit once a month. The first four or five months, no problem. And then, finally, my son saw a guy come into the visiting room through a door that said “Inmates Only.”
Q: How old was your son at that time?
A: At the time he was eight. He said, “What does ‘inmate’ mean?” And without thinking, I said, it means “prisoner.” And he said, “So, Dad, do you work here or are you a prisoner here?” And I thought, “Oh, Jeez. The cat’s out of the bag.” So I said, “Well, buddy, I’m a prisoner here. But I’m not going to be here for very much longer, and I’m going to come home and we’re going to be a family again, and everything is going to be normal.” And he accepted that. No problem.
Q: Were you surprised at how little rehabilitation exists in American prisons?
A: Oh, yes. I was shocked to tell you the truth about how little rehabilitation there was. You know, I just, like most Americans, I think, I just always assumed that....
Q: Someone was taking care of this.
A: Right. And I even Googled it before I went to prison, and I joked with my wife that I can learn plumbing. Or small engine repair.
Q: The back-up plan if things don’t go well when you get out.
A: And not only was there no training, but there was no real education either. You know, they trumpet this GED program. In fact, it’s the prisoners teaching the GED course. The only thing that the so-called teachers in the so-called education department do is just proctor the final exam.
Q: Segueing into writing your blog, Letters from Loretto....
A: I never intended for it to be a blog. I have a friend who owned a website called firedoglake.com. It’s no longer in existence. And she had a little dinner party one night just a couple of weeks before I went to prison.... And she said, “Why don’t you write a letter to your supporters once you get comfortable and let us know how you’re doing in prison?” And I said, “Okay.” And there were like 600 or so people who had written in saying that they wanted to stay in touch and know how I was doing.
And I just assumed that I would write this thing down longhand. I would mail it to her. She would scan it and just send it to these 600 people. Not even realizing that I’m exposing a federal crime in this first blog that I called Letters from Loretto. And the crime was that, well, there was a Muslim prisoner at Loretto while I was there. He was in on a terrorism conspiracy charge. I read his casework. I thought he was, he had been entrapped by the FBI. I didn’t think there was anything remotely terrorist about him.
Q: Which is probably the case in a large number of....
A: I think most national security prosecutions. Yes, I agree. And so I got called into the lieutenant’s office one day. I had been there about a week, and then the lieutenant sent me to SIS, the Special Investigative Service. And they asked me, they had this guy’s picture up on their computer screen. They said, “Do you know this guy?” I said, “Yeah, I met him last night.” “What did you say to him?” I said, in Arabic, “Hi. Nice to meet you.” And they said, “Well, what did he say to you?” He said, “Hi. Nice to meet you too.” “Well, and then what?” I said, “Then I walked away.” They said, “Well, after you introduced yourself, he called a number in Pakistan and they told him to kill you. And I said, “I could kill this guy with my thumb.” He was like five foot four, 120 pounds. They said, “No, no. Don’t do that.”
Q: Presumably not really commando material.
A: Not commando material. They said, “Don’t do that. We’ve been looking for a reason to ship him out.” And I said, “Okay.” They said, “Just stay away from him.” I said, “Alright. Thanks for the heads-up, guys.” Because, remember, I’m career intelligence. I figure we’re pretty much on the same side. Right? Because I’m still stupid. I’d just arrived in prison.
Well, every time I pass this guy in the hall, he’d give me the stink eye. And I’d give him the stink eye. But the more I thought about this, the less sense this made. First of all, he’s an Iraqi Kurd, and we spoke to each other in Arabic. But they don’t speak Arabic in Pakistan. So why would he call a number in Pakistan? And these cops told me that he was the uncle of the Times Square bomber. But that’s not possible. Because the Times Square bomber was also Pakistani, and this guy was Iraqi. So it just didn’t make any sense.
I saw him out in the yard one day, and I stopped him. I put my hands up. I said, “I don’t mean any harm to you, but did SIS say anything to you about me?” And he looked at me kind of funny, and he said, “Yeah. They called me in, and they said that after we met, you called a number in Washington, and they told you to kill me.” And I said, “Well, they told me that you called a number in Pakistan, and they told you to kill me.”
Well, you know what? I’m not stupid. I know how to use a law library computer. And I looked it up. And it’s a felony. And it’s called conspiracy to promote violence in a federal facility. It’s a Class D felony.
So I wrote this. And it also just so happened that that day, the day that I was writing, was the day of my first shake-down. It was mail call, and there was a particularly nasty female CO who would butcher my name, on purpose, all the time. Teriyaki. Koo-koo-koo. You know? A bunch of different ways. I was on my way to the chow hall, and she stopped me and she said, her exact words: “Are you the motherfucker whose name I can’t pronounce?” And I said, “KIR-I-A-KOU.” And she said, “How about if I call you fuck face?” And I walked away. And as I walked away, I said to the guy who I was walking with, “What a piece of white trash.”
Well, she heard me.
So when I got back, she and another cop tossed my cell, poured food all over the floor out of boxes, rice all over the floor. Threw pictures of my kids on the ground. My first shake-down. So I wrote about it. Well, I didn’t know that the publisher, Jane Hampshire, wasn’t just going to send it to these 600 people. She sent it to her dear friend Arianna Huffington. And Arianna put a banner headline on theHuffington Post that the CIA whistleblower is being abused by guards in prison. That led to The New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Playboy, the Atlantic Monthly. CNN called the warden for a comment. Next thing you know, there’s an investigation of the guard. They pulled her out. They put her on duty outside.
Q: So how many Letters from Loretto did you publish? Around twenty?
A: Yeah. It was something like 18 or 19, I think.
Q: When were you released from prison?
A: February 3rd, 2015. Because I wrote these Letters from Loretto, I was denied any halfway house time.... I did the entire stretch.
Q: You’ve written a book about your experiences in prison.
A: I believed that Letters from Loretto was a stand-alone book, and so I sort of packaged it as a book. I wrote commentary on each letter, why I decided to write each letter, and then sort of hard-core non-fiction political science about what it all means in criminal justice. And that was really very, very boring. But then I wrote this other book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison. And that was a lot of fun.
So I sent it around to publishers, and they said, “Really, it’s one book. You should just incorporate Letters from Loretto into the other one, even if you just do it as an annex.” So I took out all the poli-sci mumbo jumbo. I just had the Letters from Loretto stand by themselves, made that an annex to Doing Time Like a Spy. And then it seemed to be well received.
Q: Where can our readers get it?
A: It will be published in May by Rare Bird Books. [Ed. note: The website for the publisher is included at the end of this interview].
Q: Okay. So at this point you’ve spent some time in prison. You’ve had kind of some experience with it.... You were 48 years old when you went to prison.
Q: You get out. You’re already kind of experienced in these things. And at this point, what are your overall views on the criminal justice system?
A: Oh, I think it’s absolutely broken to the point of just not being functional. Again, we like to think, we convince ourselves as a nation, that we are this shining beacon of hope and truth and respect for human rights and the dignity of human beings and civil rights and civil liberties, and it’s just simply not true. We know that the United Nations has problems with the way we use solitary confinement. Yet we do nothing about it.
Prisoners die in American prisons every day because of neglect and abuse, and a refusal of institutions to provide appropriate and adequate medical care. And yet we do nothing about it. When we can. We can certainly afford to. But we’ve made a conscious decision not to do anything. The entire system is broken. Nobody’s educated. Nobody’s trained. Nobody is rehabilitated. You know, this is supposed to be a correctional institution. Nothing is corrected.
Q: Nothing and no one.
A: So you know my view is we need to scrap the whole system and take a cue from the Germans and the Danes and the Norwegians and the Swedes and countries that really do it right, where people commit a crime, they’re incarcerated in a place where their human dignity is respected. They’re taught a trade, or they’re given an education. And when they are released after having served their time, they are productive members of society. That’s what we should be focusing on.
Q: What areas of the Bureau of Prisons, specifically, do you think are most urgently in need of reform?
A: There was an article, and it so impacted me, I can tell you exactly what it was. It was May 14th, 2015, in The New York Times Magazine, about conditions inside solitary confinement in [the federal ADX] supermax.
Q: Right. We ran that as a cover story reprint in our November  issue.
A: I remember. You have people serving years, and in some cases decades, with no human contact.
Q: Or their entire life.
A: Or their entire life. With no human contact. To the point where they’re so crazy that in one case that was cited in the article, the prisoner ate glass just so he could get himself some medical treatment. And even after eating glass, it was deemed that, “Oh, no. He’s not insane. He just did that for attention.”
Q: Right. That’s a standard ploy.
A: When he was clearly insane. So we need to start with the maximum-security prisons and solitary confinement and medical care as it relates to the mentally ill. I think those are our biggest problems.
Q: What are your views on the death penalty?
A: I have, over the years, gone from being sort of apathetic about the whole issue to being strongly and solidly opposed to the death penalty. In addition to just being unfairly levied, where people of color are far more likely to receive the death penalty as punishment than white people, I think that morally and ethically it’s just wrong. You know, if we’re supposed to respect human life, which we are ... that means all life. And so it shouldn’t be up to the state to murder people. I mean, coupled with the fact that so many people have been exonerated. I just can’t see how anybody with any brains at all can still support the death penalty. And I think that the American public is coming around to that point of view.
Q: You went to prison because of the torture program. I think you’re on record about this, but what are your views on torture? Do you think there is ever any circumstances where it’s justified?
A: I don’t. I don’t think that torture is appropriate in any circumstances. It may make us feel better in the short term to think that we’ve gotten rough or we’ve gotten tough with our enemies, but nothing good comes of it, and certainly no American lives were ever saved because of torture.
Q: In light of all that you’ve been through at this point, would you do it again?
A: Yes. Absolutely. I know that might sound crazy to people, but absolutely. Yes. I would do it again. First of all, I’m blessed with an incredibly strong marriage and a very tightly knit family. So family is not an issue. Secondly, financially, I realized that money is not as important to me as it was. With that said, I’m making a comeback. That’s going to work out too.
Q: And one of the things that you mentioned one time was the fact that after 20 years in government service, you had a pension.
A: Yeah. They took my pension.
Q: I pointed out, for example, in Prison Legal News, we reported cases of Bureau of Prisons guards who are convicted of raping prisoners. They go to prison for raping the prisoners in their charge. And they keep their pensions.
A: Yeah. They keep their pensions. And let me say one last thing. Ethically, one of the things that’s bothered me is even with the release of the torture report, not one single CIA officer has come forward to talk about torture. So I’m glad I did it. Word had to get out. The American people had a right to know, and so I would do it all again.
Q: This is kind of looping back to your comments you were making about the ADX. You know, I don’t know if you knew this, but Prison Legal News has been banned at the ADX. We’re currently suing the ADX. And, you know, one of the things that kind of really annoys me is the fact that sometimes our attorneys write to our subscribers there, and some of our subscribers there are convicted spies.
Walter Myers. He was a State Department analyst who I think was spying for Cuba. Robert Hanssen. He was a mole in the FBI. And, frankly, the only reason that these people are being singled out basically to die in solitary confinement, these horrendous conditions, is basically they’ve made the U.S. government look stupid, they embarrassed the government, and they are in the ADX for, you know, probably the rest of their lives.
A: Without a doubt.
Q: And, then I think when you look at the comparison of the treatment, you know, you were convicted under an espionage-related act, and then you got kind of a shorter sentence, and then you look at the sentences that they got. And then Jonathan Pollard, who was recently released. He was the Navy analyst who....
A: Spied for the Israelis.
Q: He served a 30-year sentence. He was recently released after serving every day of the 30-year sentence. And so you see this very wide disparity of sentencing being meted out to people. And Edward Snowden is a political refugee in Russia. Do you have any thoughts on the disparity of treatment to people accused of espionage offenses?
A: Yeah. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an Espionage Act. I think that people who spy for other countries and put American lives at risk ought to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act or under an espionage act.
My problem with the Justice Department is that the Espionage Act is used as a political weapon to silence people who disagree with the administration or people who try to expose waste, fraud, abuse and illegality. To tell you the truth, I don’t shed a tear for the likes of Bob Hanssen. Or Aldrich Ames. Or some of these other guys. [But] I don’t believe in solitary confinement as a form of punishment.
Q: Or torture.
A: Or torture. And it is torture. I believe it’s torture. But I wouldn’t compare my case to any of those people.
Q: The reality is that being a whistleblower carries a very heavy toll. As you mentioned, the economic toll. There’s a toll on your family life. Careers pretty much end. And I think a lot of people are like, well, I can accomplish the same thing by leaking it anonymously, in some cases, and I think a lot of leakers are just pursuing another agenda.
A: Sure. That’s exactly right.
Q: If you had one piece of advice to give to prisoners in general and one piece of advice to give to BOP prisoners in particular, what would it be?
A: Know your rights and defend your rights. Educate yourself as to what your rights are. And don’t let anybody in the administration push you around.
A: Because, really, I think 99% of prisoners don’t know their rights.
Q: I think it’s 99% of Americans.
A: I think that’s probably right. I actually heard a guy say, he was talking about me, and he said, “I would never write like that guy does.” And another prisoner said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because when you’re convicted of a crime, you lose your constitutional rights.” I wanted to scream, “What country do you live in?”
Q: I think that’s one of the things that got me interested in prisoner rights was when I was first in jail. I heard guards saying, “Oh, you don’t have any rights,” and I hadn’t even been convicted of a crime yet. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this doesn’t sound right, but okay, I’ve got to figure out this criminal trial thing first.”
But then there’s actually the mentality, I think, both by the staff that work in these facilities as well as among a lot of the prisoners, they go along with that, and I remember talking to a prisoner who had been in the BOP and he told me the first time he was in the BOP, he was going through the law library and the lieutenant tells him, “Don’t even waste your time in there. Prisoners never win.” And he got his conviction reversed and his sentence reduced by half, and he said that this lieutenant told every prisoner he saw going into the law library, “Don’t even waste your time going there. You never win.” And that’s one of the things that motivated me to file a FOIA request to see how much money the BOP pays out in litigation.
Fourteen years later, we’re still fighting. But the genesis of that FOIA request was this prisoner telling me that in the BOP there is some lieutenant telling guys, “Prisoners never win.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length; a longer version is posted on PLN’s website. John Kiriakou’s latest book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, is scheduled to be released by Rare Bird Books (www.rarebirdbooks.com) in May 2017.
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