Note: This is the full PLN interview with John Kiriakou; a shorter version was published as our April 2017 cover story, here.
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.
Paul Wright: At the time of the 9/11 attacks, what were your duties in 2001?
John Kiriakou: I was working on Greek Communist terrorism on September 11th. And that was an important day for me because I was supposed to go to the White House with the Director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center, Ambassador Cofer Black. We had an appointment with Condaleeza Rice and we wanted to talk to her about delaying or, better yet, preventing the publication of a declassified set of State Department cables because it had inadvertently exposed several CIA sources who were still alive in Greece.
I walked over to his office to tell him that our car had arrived to pick us up and I saw his secretary had her TV on, and one of the World Trade Center towers was burning. And I said, “What happened to the World Trade Center?” And she said, “Oh, a plane flew into it.” Not putting two and two together, I said, “Oh, that happened once before in the1930s. A plane flew into the Empire State Building, but it was really foggy then. It’s so clear today. How can you not see that you’re flying into the World Trade Center?” And as soon as I said that, the second plane hit Tower One. And then a few seconds passed, and she turned to me and said, “Did you see that? Or did I imagine it?” And I ran back to my office, and I said, “Guys, I think we’re under attack. Two planes just flew into the World Trade Center.” And then the day just went downhill, believe it or not, from there.
PW: The Pentagon was attacked that day here in Washington.
JK: Yeah. About 45 minutes later the Pentagon was attacked. There were rumors that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department that proved to be unfounded. And, finally, the CIA’s internal police force called the Special Protective Officers, [which] began going from office to office telling everybody to evacuate. Well, nobody was going to evacuate voluntarily. Nobody moved. And then finally ... we were all gathered. There were about 300 of us all gathered around these TVs that were hanging from the ceiling outside Ambassador Black’s office. And finally somebody behind me shouted, “Will somebody please lead?” And it was as if somebody had shocked Cofer. And he said, “Right,” and he started barking orders. “You. Go to the Director’s Office.” “You. Go to Security.” “You. Call whomever.”
And then the cops came back and said that if you don’t leave, we’re going to place you under arrest. Inside the CIA headquarters. Finally, Cofer said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Before you leave, we’re at war. This is what we’ve been afraid of. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” We didn’t realize it was going to happen here. We thought it would be at an embassy someplace overseas. He said, “We’re at war. If you don’t want to fight this war, no one will think less of you. You can leave now. But the rest of us are going to go overseas, and we’re gonna fight. And not all of us are gonna make it home.” And nobody moved.
And he said, “Now evacuate.” So everybody ran to our cars. It took me hours to get out of the parking lot because you have thousands and thousands of people trying to get out at the same time. I made it about halfway home.
PW: It’s funny, but listening to it, it seems like you’d want to do the opposite. You want to have everyone at their duty posts to be able to come up with an action plan.
JK: But there was still a plane in the air, and everybody just assumed it was coming for us. So I had to abandon my car halfway home. Traffic was such chaos I couldn’t get close enough to my house. So I just abandoned it and I walked home. My wife, who at the time was my girlfriend, also a CIA officer, met me at my apartment. We went to the roof and watched the Pentagon burn for an hour, and then I said, “This is ridiculous. We have to get back to work.” We walked back to my car and drove back to headquarters. Everybody did. And then I didn’t leave for four or five years. You know? Just slept under the desk. We actually got some bolt cutters and we cut the chain on the cafeteria doors and fired up the grills and cooked all the food and just laid it out on folding tables in the hallway. And we ended up writing Marriott a check for like $15,000 for stealing all the food. We really did. But people had to work, you know. There was a lot of work to do, and all those days sort of blended together after a while.
PW: At that point the focus was no longer on Greek guerilla activity. Instead the focus shifted to Al Qaeda.
JK: Right. On September 11th, by the afternoon of September 11th, everybody was working on Al Qaeda. Everybody in the building, in one way or another, was working on Al Qaeda.
PW: You were based in D.C. at that time?
JK: Yeah. I had just returned from an overseas tour in Athens. And so I had only been back in the office 11 months, and I had just started this job on Greece the month before. I was training Middle Eastern intelligence services in counter-terrorism operations, how to carry out operations, and Greece was just so much more interesting for me. I begged to go back because I had just come back from Greece.
PW: You’re of Greek descent?
JK: Yes. And I speak Greek. I wanted to go back into Greek issues, and I had only been doing it for a month or so.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: The irony is they’ve killed dozens of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that we know of.
JK: I’m the only one to be prosecuted. And I never laid a hand on anybody. I told the public about it.
PW: 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 even charged with a crime. Most of them have not been publicly identified.
PW: 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.
JK: 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. More than all previous presidents combined through American history.... By a president who professes to be the most transparent president in history.
PW: Yes. Well, I’m not one of those who believes that.
JK: Nor am I.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Everything from kidnapping people off the streets of Rome or Germany to actual battlefield captures.
PW: To actually ....
JK: To physicians and psychologists and analysts and transcribers and paramilitary officers. And you name it.
PW: Basically, it’s a big bureaucracy of kidnapping and torture.
JK: A big bureaucracy. Yes.
PW: To your knowledge, did anyone refuse to participate?
JK: 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.
PW: 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.
No one could say, “If I didn’t shoot the unarmed civilian, they were going to shoot me.” Instead it’s like, “Okay, you have a problem shooting unarmed people. These ten guys don’t, so just fall back and let them do the dirty work.” And that seems to be the same thing. Like you say, the worst thing that would happen if you objected to torturing people [is] your career might end, but no one was being objectively coerced, and losing a career in the CIA isn’t necessarily the end of your life.
JK: 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.
PW: Right. And the United States is also signatory to the Convention Against Torture.
JK: 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.
PW: And there is also the Command and Control Doctrine for which General Yamashita was executed under because the theory of law was that the generals were the commanders even if they didn’t personally know about the war crimes that were being committed in their area of command. Because they were the ultimate commander....
JK: The buck has to stop someplace.
PW: ... and they were responsible for the war crimes committed by their soldiers. I think General Yamashita’s defense was, “Hey, it was a war situation. I had lost communication with my troops. I couldn’t even command them on where to move or where to fight, much less tell them to stop or do anything.”
JK: It wasn’t a defense.
PW: And they hung him. I think in 1946.
JK: Yes. And here we have senior CIA officers, former senior CIA officers who are absolutely unrepentant, and instead of being turned over to the Justice Department for prosecution, they sign multi-million-dollar book deals and brag about their crimes, their war crimes and crimes against humanity on segments of “60 Minutes.”
PW: 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....
JK: That’s it.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.”
PW: But going on live TV isn’t really leaking because they know who you are?
JK: 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.
PW: And, in fact, around this time, Dana Priest at the Washington Post and Tim Golden at The 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.
PW: In Iraq. About the rendition program where people were being kidnapped, flown to secret CIA sites, tortured. In some cases they died, in some cases they didn’t. This isn’t exactly some big revelation.
JK: 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.
PW: The investigation of you.
JK: Of me.
PW: Not of the torturers.
JK: 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. There were a couple of weird things that happened in the interim that should have tipped me off. But I really believed I was in the clear. And they continued to investigate me for three more years until January of 2012.
PW: 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.
JK: 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.
PW: That hardly ever happens.
JK: 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.
PW: 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.
JK: 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.
PW: Some of the background is the law that you were accused of violating was the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
JK: Yeah. It was passed in 1981 in the aftermath of a kerfuffle that the CIA had. The CIA had a secretary in their station in Ghana in West Africa. She was having an affair with a Ghanaian intelligence officer, and in the course of pillow talk she revealed to him the names of every CIA officer in the station, and the agents that those officers had recruited in the government of Ghana. So those Ghanaians were executed and the Americans were expelled. Well, she was polygraphed. She failed the polygraph. She finally admitted to what she had done and for five counts of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, she served 18 months in a women’s camp.
PW: This is also in the context that this law was passed in the 1970s as a result of a former CIA agent, Philip Agee.
PW: Who wrote a book, Inside the Company,and exposed hundreds of names of CIA agents, and there was also a publication here in Washington, D.C., Covert Action Information Bulletin, where they would go through public records, identify CIA agents and disclose their identities.
JK: I was only the second person ever charged under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
PW: And, of course, Vice President Dick Cheney, he revealed – he outed – Ms. Plame as a CIA agent.
JK: No, actually it was the Deputy Secretary of State, Rich Armitage, who gave Valerie Plame’s name to Robert Novak at Cheney’s urging.
PW: And outed her as a CIA agent, which is a violation of this law, and he was never charged.
JK: Correct. He was never charged, and Rich Armitage was never charged. Now Scooter Libby ended up being convicted of a handful of felonies, but those felonies were perjury and making a false statement. He was never charged under the IIPA and his sentence was later commuted by President Bush....
PW: You have a unique distinction then of being one of two people ever charged with violating this statute.
PW: As a journalist I read that law and as the non-lawyer I say, that seems so blatantly unconstitutional, yet no one has ever challenged it in court.
JK: It’s funny that you say that, Paul, because I found an op-ed from The Christian Science Monitor in 1982, written by one Joseph Biden, saying that he voted against this law because it was blatantly unconstitutional and should never have been passed. Unfortunately, in this post-Agee hysteria, there were only five “no” votes in the Senate.
PW: I’m surprised it got that many. Do you know why no one’s ever challenged the statute?
JK: Well, no one’s ever challenged the statute because they’ve never had standing.
PW: But it seems under the First Amendment a publication or a publisher or a reporter would have standing.
JK: I think that’s probably true. I think that there’s only a small handful of publications that would have the guts to do something like that. The New York Times. The Washington Post. Maybe The Journal. But why poke the hornet’s nest?
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.
PW: One of the things is, especially in the federal prosecution system, 98%, 99% of all defendants wind up pleading guilty.
JK: Ninety-eight point two according to ProPublica.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Now this was in the context that you’re married. You have children?
JK: 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.
JK: 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.”
I got an email from one of my attorneys. I sent that email at something like five a.m. I got an email from one of my attorneys, and he said, “We’re on our way to the house. Put on a pot of coffee.”
So they came over to the house, and they said, “You’re making a terrible mistake. You’re going to get 18 to 24 years.” I said, “Well, we’ll appeal.” And he said, “But you can only appeal post-conviction from prison. And the appeal is going to take years, and then you’ll lose that. And then it will have to go to the Supreme Court, and it will take years to get there.”
PW: Assuming you get there.
JK: Assuming I get there. And then finally, one of the other attorneys looked at me, and he said, “If you were my brother, I would beg you to take this deal. Just take the deal.”
PW: And where were you charged? You were charged in the Eastern District of Virginia or D.C.?
JK: 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.
PW: She is also famous for trying the case of Moussaoui.
JK: Zacarias Moussaoui.
PW: The so-called....
JK: Twentieth hijacker. She tried Jeffrey Sterling. She has already reserved the Ed Snowden case for herself. You know, we had one particularly bad day in her court. We went through discovery and discovery was about 10,000 pages of classified documents. Classified at the highest levels that the American government has. And we identified 72 documents that were necessary for me to mount a defense. So we made 72 motions to declassify these documents so that I could defend myself. And my attorneys told me, “We’re going to win some. We’re going to lose some. She’ll probably land somewhere in the middle. We’re just going to have to make do with what we end up getting.”
PW: Let me guess. She denied all 72 motions.
JK: She denied all 72 motions. And as we were walking out of the courtroom, one of my attorneys said, “We have no defense.” And I said, “What do we do now?” And he said, “Now we talk about a plea.” And I just felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.
PW: So some of the things that I’d never heard about before, until you’re mentioning this just now, is one judge reserving all the cases for themselves because, typically, I think for those of us that do a fair amount of litigation in federal courts, supposedly there’s a....
JK: It’s random.
PW: Right. There’s the mysterious wheel, or that it gets randomly assigned. And then, of course, we’ve had cases where you know I’ve asked my lawyers, “How did we end up with this judge?” And they’re like, “You really don’t think this was random, do you?”
JK: No. It never is.
PW: And so the fact that one judge is getting all the espionage cases, and it’s not an accident. It’s deliberate?
JK: It’s not an accident. And, you know, a couple of well-meaning attorneys not involved in my case said, “Oh, listen. You could do a lot worse than Judge Brinkema. She’s a Clinton appointee.” There’s nothing liberal or progressive about Leonie Brinkema.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Of course, no one bothered telling you that the BOP isn’t bound by the judge’s recommendation.
JK: 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.
PW: How old were you when you went to prison?
PW: Forty-eight. And I’m assuming, given your job and everything else, you had never been arrested before.
JK: No, never.
PW: And no one in your family has been to prison?
JK: Never. Not even my extended family.
PW: I’m assuming like most Americans you’ve never really given a lot of thought to prisons or the criminal justice system.
JK: Not five seconds of thought in my life.
PW: So you get to prison. What’s your first reaction when you get there?
JK: 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. And as I was being processed, the only thing that the CO said to me was, “If someone enters your cell uninvited, it’s an act of aggression.” And I thought, well, that’s an odd thing to say.... And then he said, “I’ll walk you to your cube.” And I remember he pointed out, the cafeteria is that way. And I said, “Okay.” And he took me to the cube, and I took a nap. I mean, I didn’t know what else to do, so I sort of curled up on the bunk and took a nap.
I woke up an hour later and then another hour after that, sure enough, two Aryans just sort of walk right into my room. One had an enormous swastika across the front of his neck and the other one had “Fuck You” tattooed on his eyelids.
So I jump up off my bunk and I put up my fists, and I said, “What do you want?” And he says, “Take it easy.” He puts his hands up. “Take it easy. Are you the new guy?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Are you a fag?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Are you a rat?” I said, “No,” I didn’t have anybody else in my case. “Are you a chimo?” And I didn’t know what a chimo was. I said, “I don’t know what that means.” He said, “Chimo. Child molester.” I said, “No. I’m not a child molester.” And he says, “Okay. You can sit at the good table,” is what he called it, in the cafeteria. So it was just a bunch of hillbillies on drug charges.
PW: That’s being generous.
JK: Yeah. I called them self-important hillbillies in a blog post, and many of them objected to that, let me tell you.
JK: 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....
PW: 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?
JK: 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 agency [CIA].
PW: And the Bureau of Prisons is, of course, one of the largest federal government agencies.
JK: Yep. Absolutely.
PW: And I think that probably one branch of the federal government doesn’t necessarily think about the other branches.
JK: And I thought, actually, very naively, that I would at least be given a little bit of consideration by some of the COs. And then my first day, I walk into the cafeteria.
PW: You thought that because you were a former federal employee....
JK: Oh, yeah. CIA. Served my country. You know? I’m highly decorated.
PW: You risked your life?
JK: Risked my life. I walk in the cafeteria, and I walk past a CO and he mutters, “Scum.” And I kind of turned and looked at him like he couldn’t possibly be talking to me. And then I thought, “Now that was odd,” and I kept on walking. And then after dinner I went out to the yard, and as I was walking past one of the administrators he whispered, “Traitor.” And I thought, “Shhh. So this is what I’m going to be up against. Okay.” And then I thought, and I don’t mean to make too much of this, but I thought, you know, I have gone nose to nose with Al Qaeda, with Hezbollah, with the Iranians, and I’m supposed to be afraid of these retards? Not in a million years. Not in a million years. I’m way tougher than they think I am. And so I decided on that very first day I wasn’t going to bend to anybody.
PW: You come in with a government background. You’re not from a so-called criminal milieu. You know? You’re not coming from a background with militarized schools where you’re seeing barbed wire since the first grade and you’re being jacked up against the hood of a police car.
PW: So when you wind up in prison, was it better run? Worse run? Did it meet your expectations?
JK: Oh, far, far worse run than anything I had imagined.
PW: 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.
JK: 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.
PW: And hopefully no one dies.
JK: And hopefully no one dies. And if they do die, I’ll make an excuse, and I’ll get away with it. And that’s how it was. I mean, decisions were made that made no sense, just as they affected day-to-day life of prisoners. And, notice, I always use the word “prisoner,” not “inmate.”
PW: We do, too.
JK: Yeah. I do, because I was a prisoner. And it’s not an institution, it’s a prison.
PW: We made the conscious decision a long time ago to only use the word “prisoner.” We call them prisons because at the end of the day people are being kept there against their will.
JK: Absolutely. Being forced to work. Slave labor at slave labor wages. So what else are you? You can be a slave if they don’t want to call you prisoner.
PW: Exactly. Inmate, also, comes back to a mental hospital analogy, and I think the implication is that if you’re an inmate, that someone is trying to help you. We don’t see that there’s too much of that going on.
JK: Nothing of the sort is going on.
PW: You were in a low-security facility. So you mentioned the part of the slave labor. Was this a UNICOR facility? [Ed. note: UNICOR is the federal prison industry program].
JK: It was a UNICOR facility. They made cable for the U.S. Navy. And I heard that this was some sort of communications cable that was used in the Navy jets, but the quality of this cable was just so poor that fully 50% of it was rejected. And, in fact, twice while I was in prison, UNICOR shut down because the Navy just couldn’t take delivery of this substandard cable anymore. And I remember thinking, you’ve got people working for almost nothing. You’re forcing them to work. You’re trying hard to convince them that you’re doing them a favor by giving them this job in UNICOR, enslaving them, and then you can’t understand why the quality of the work is poor. Now UNICOR doesn’t even compete with anybody on the outside because nobody can compete on price when they have to pay little or no wages to somebody to make the stuff.
PW: They have quite the bloated administrative staff.
JK: And that’s what did them in. It was a very bloated administrative staff. I didn’t realize that there were BOP professionals who just worked UNICOR.
PW: Right. And there’s a lot of them.
JK: And there are a lot of them.
PW: The prisoners may be making 14, 15 cents an hour, but the BOP supervisors, to say nothing of the guards providing security, they’re all very well paid and make a lot of money.
JK: That is exactly right, and that’s exactly what the problem is.
PW: Did you work in UNICOR at all?
JK: 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.
PW: 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.
JK: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly what it was. And he cheated on his time and attendance reports, I might add, which is a federal crime. When your work hours are six to two-thirty, and you show up at seven-thirty and leave at one, every single day for the two years I was there, that’s time and attendance fraud. That’s a federal felony.
PW: Or some would call that a darn good hustle.
JK: 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. I didn’t like the way they spoke to people.
I once asked if I could leave my gym bag in the library over the lunch break. I was working in the morning, and I had to come back in the evening. And the head of the library said to me, “Does this look like a fucking gym to you?” And so I said, “I don’t have to take this shit from anybody.” So I went down to the chapel and I asked the chaplain for a job. I said, “I have a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies with a concentration in Islamic theology,” which was exactly true. He didn’t have any Muslims in the chapel. I’m not a Muslim but I know Islam. And he hired me. And so I quit from the library. So I decided again, I’m not taking any of this garbage from any of these people.
PW: You’ve talked about some of the human rights violations you witnessed.
PW: You talked about mentally ill prisoners not getting treatment.
JK: That was particularly egregious.
PW: Right. And I got the impression that that really disturbed you. Seeing stuff like that.
JK: 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.
PW: 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.
JK: 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.
PW: Did you expect to see things like that in prison?
JK: 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.
PW: From having been in prison and seeing stuff like this as well, you don’t need a PhD in psychiatry to know that these guys are mentally ill and they need treatment.
PW: Presumably the staff know it as well. And somewhere on the staff there actually is someone who’s got a PhD in psychiatry. And then they refuse to provide the treatment.
JK: That’s exactly right. I actually went to the prison psychologist one day, and I said, “They’re denying this guy medication, and he told us in advance he’s going to go nuts. I’m worried about his safety.” Because you know how these guards are. And I thought, “Okay, this guy’s an outside psychologist. He’s there part-time. He’s going to understand reason.”
PW: In theory, he has an ethical duty.
JK: He has an ethical duty to address the situation.
PW: And a professional responsibility.
JK: You’re absolutely right. And he said, “Okay. I’ll look into it. Would you do me a favor?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “I’m writing a book on my experiences here. Would you take a look at it and give me an editorial opinion?” I thought, well, that’s an odd request, but I said, “Sure, okay.” So he gave me this book that he intended to self-publish. My cellmate got no medication, no treatment, no nothing, went nuts. Went to the SHU where he was beaten and put in the freezing cold.
And finally I went back to the psychologist. I said, “You didn’t do anything.” He said, “Well, I told medical that they should give him that medication. What did you think of my book?” I said, “I think you should spend the money on an editor,” and I handed it back to him.
PW: How widespread do you think the poor treatment of prisoners is?
JK: Honestly? I think it’s universal.
PW: In this country?
JK: 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. So even though the Bureau of Prisons’ budget has been increased, you know, six-fold since Ronald Reagan was president, there really haven’t been any improvements that anyone can point to.
PW: It’s just gotten bigger.
JK: It’s gotten bigger. I would go so far as to say that in education they’ve backslid since the ‘70s.
PW: Well, I think they’ve backslid on a lot of things, you know, especially like contact with family.
JK: Oh, it’s much worse now. Video visits. These are outrages that we all need to protest. The phone prices. It’s never-ending.
PW: 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].
JK: I struggled mightily to stay under 300 minutes, and rarely succeeded.
PW: 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.
PW: 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].
JK: You’re right. And they claim that they promote in every way possible the reunification of families. I will add, though, that if you were a rat and you were reporting to SIS [Special Investigative Services] that you did get 400 minutes or 500 minutes, or an unlimited number of minutes.
PW: So using that as an informal reward system for informants.
JK: Exactly. This is how they rewarded their rats in SIS at Loretto. They had a garbage pail filled to overflowing with books of stamps that they had confiscated from bookies. So if you were a rat, you could reach in and help yourself to a handful of books of stamps, and you could use that to buy, you know, anything you wanted. Food. Shoes. You could use it to gamble. Do whatever you wanted. Or you could opt for the extra minutes to stay in touch with your family.
PW: Which your family is paying for, so it’s not really costing the government anything.
JK: That’s right.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: What was it like visiting with your family in prison?
JK: 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.
PW: Right. Why wouldn’t they not want that?
JK: 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.”
PW: How old was your son at that time?
JK: 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.
My daughter was too young, and then I have a son who doesn’t even remember me ever being gone, so it ended up working out.
PW: And so how long were visits in the prison?
JK: Well, visits, technically, were supposed to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8:15 to 2:15. My wife would leave at, you know, 4:45 a.m. to be sure to be there right at eight o’clock so she was first in the door at 8:15, and we could have the maximum time allowable.
PW: Which, and I can say, traveling that distance at that time with three small children is quite the ordeal.
JK: It’s very, very difficult. But we never got to start our visit at 8:15. Sometimes they would be turned away for no good reason. Sometimes there would be a jam-up and the consistently rude COs in charge of processing people in for visiting just wouldn’t process anybody. I mean, sometimes they got in at 8:30. Sometimes they got in at 10:30 and they had been sitting outside since eight o’clock. Or sometimes they would be allowed in and nobody bothered to call me to summon me to the visiting room.
PW: The irony is, he’s in prison but we can’t find him, as if you’re hiding somewhere.
PW: And usually you knew you were getting a visit.
JK: I always knew in advance about every visit, and so I would be sitting in my uniform with my boots on because you had to wear boots to the visit. I would be sitting there in a chair just waiting to hear my name called.
PW: Were you surprised at how little rehabilitation exists in American prisons?
JK: 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....
PW: Someone was taking care of this.
JK: 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.
PW: The back-up plan if things don’t go well when you get out.
JK: Exactly. And there’s no such thing as a plumbing program or small engine repair. I mean, maybe there was in the ‘70s.
PW: There was in Washington in the ‘80s, but by the mid-90’s they’d eliminated it.
JK: 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.
PW: And supervise the prisoner.
JK: Yeah. That’s all, I mean. And they could barely string five words together to form a coherent sentence, and they’re the ones teaching the class.
PW: Right. At a very good salary.
JK: At a good salary. Federal employees. Pension and everything, benefits. Yeah.
PW: Let’s see. When did you first learn about Prison Legal News?
JK: Oh, you introduced me to Prison Legal News. I had not heard of Prison Legal News, and I was in prison for, I don’t know, a week maybe and I got a copy in the mail. And there was a note attached to it, or in the envelope. It was in an envelope. And it was a note from you saying, “This is Prison Legal News” and that you were sending me a two-year subscription. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I read every single article in that issue, and I thought, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know this existed. This is fantastic.”
PW: I was going to say, you read it and then you said, “I’m really screwed.”
JK: No, I said, “My God, there is somebody out there who is actually getting the word out about what kind of places these are.” And so I became an immediate devotee of Prison Legal News to the point where I bought a four-year subscription when I got home.
PW: One of the things is after you got to prison, not too long after you got there, you started writing. And one of the things I have to ask you is had you ever written before? Had you ever written before going to prison?
JK: Oh, yeah. I had written. A lot, actually. I started in the CIA, I was in the Directorate of Intelligence which is the analytic directorate, so I wrote for a living. It’s a very specific kind of writing style.
PW: With a very limited audience.
JK: With a very, very limited audience of the president, the vice-president, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the National Security Advisor. And that’s pretty much it. But I was used to writing. I was comfortable writing. And then when I left, when I left government, well, actually when I left the private sector after having left the CIA, I started writing for larger publications. I wrote a handful of op-eds for the Los Angeles Times. I was published in The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Salon, outlets like that. And then I started writing a book about my CIA experience in 2007. I finished it relatively quickly; it took about nine months to write. It took 22 months to get it cleared by the CIA. And then finally it was cleared, and it came out in 2010.
And then I got a job in 2009 on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the Senior Investigator, but that also entailed a great deal of writing. Finally, I left government again in 2011 and started writing for The Huffington Post, and I did that until my arrest.
PW: Segueing into writing your blog, Letters from Loretto, wasn’t exactly a huge leap then?
JK: It wasn’t a leap, but 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. So I said, “Okay.”
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. And I actually waited. I went to prison on the 28th of February 2013. I waited until the first week of May before I actually wrote something. And I waited until I was comfortable, and I waited until I had something to write about that I thought would be interesting to people. Not even realizing that I’m exposing a federal crime in this first blog that I called Letters from Loretto.
So I sent it and she read it and sent it to an attorney friend of hers, and he said, “This is a federal crime he’s accusing these people of.” 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 had been entrapped by the FBI. I didn’t think there was anything remotely terrorist about him.
PW: Which is probably the case in a large number of....
JK: 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 Services. 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.”
PW: Presumably not really commando material.
JK: 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.
PW: They didn’t give you your rice and food back. Right?
JK: No. So it ended up being something. And I realized, “Oh, my God, I have an audience.” And that list-serv or whatever it was of 600 people, you know, turned into 20,000 people.
PW: I was one of them. I read all your posts.
JK: Thank you. So I realized, I’ve got an audience. I’m going to make something out of this. And this is what really protected me through this entire process. It just so happened that the weekend after the first Letters from Loretto was published my cousin came to visit me from Pittsburgh. And he was delayed in the lobby, and he overheard two guards talking. One of them said, “Who is he here to see?” The other one said, “He’s here to see Kiriakou.” “Is that the CIA guy?” “Yeah. That’s the CIA guy.” “How come he’s not in the SHU?” Because I had just written this thing. And the other cop says, “I asked the warden about that. The warden said he can’t send him to the SHU because he didn’t use anybody’s real name.” So my cousin conveyed this to me, and I said, “Kit, do you realize what great intelligence this is? I can say anything that I want and so long as I don’t use their names, they can’t touch me.” And so that’s exactly what I did.
PW: So how many Letters from Loretto did you publish? Around twenty?
JK: Yeah. It was something like 18 or 19, I think.
PW: When were you released from prison?
JK: February 3rd, 2015. Because I wrote these Letters from Loretto, I was denied any halfway house time. I got nothing at all. I did the entire stretch.
PW: Some day you’d like to live in a country that respects the free press?
JK: Exactly. Exactly.
PW: You’ve written a book about your experiences in prison.
PW: Is it based on the Letters from Loretto? Or did you use a different narrative?
JK: 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.
PW: Where can our readers get it?
JK: 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].
PW: 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.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Nothing and no one.
JK: 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.
PW: What areas of the Bureau of Prisons, specifically, do you think are most urgently in need of reform?
JK: 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.
PW: Right. We ran that as a cover story reprint in our November  issue.
JK: I remember. You have people serving years, and in some cases decades, with no human contact.
PW: Or their entire life.
JK: 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.”
PW: Right. That’s a standard ploy.
JK: 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.
PW: Another issue, as I think we mentioned earlier, were things like the 300-minute limit on ... on telephone contact, and family visitation.
JK: Family visitation and expensive phone calls and video visits. And let’s talk about another thing, too. And this may seem minor to people outside the prison system, but it’s very important when you’re incarcerated. What about the commissary?
PW: That’s a huge issue.
JK: You know it’s a huge issue. They rob you blind. And commissary is supposed to finance recreation, right? The taxpayers aren’t going to pay for sports equipment.
PW: And the thing is, you can only buy so many basketballs for the amounts of money they pull in.
JK: And we all know where the money’s going. It’s going to the new CO lounge that’s off of the medical hall with the new 60-inch flat screen TVs and the weight pile and the rowing machine and, you know, where the heck did that money come from? If we’re under sequestration and you have a mandated 10% across-the-board budget cut, how in the heck are you buying a flat screen 60-inch TV for the CO lounge? That money came out of recreation. And, actually, I’m going to file a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the documentation because I know that’s the case. You can go to Walmart and spend $12 on the cheapest basic MP3 player, but it’s $37 in the commissary. You can go to Walmart and spend $6.95 on ear buds but then they’re $17 in the commissary. What if you don’t have money for food at the commissary? That’s one issue.
Another issue is, and I guarantee every prisoner has seen this with his own eyes, but how many times did I see COs walking out with a case of Pop-Tarts. A case of batteries. A case of Doritos. You know? And then when they do an inventory twice a year, they realize half the stuff in the commissary is missing and they fire all the guys that are working in the commissary despite the fact that they’re frisked coming in and out every day when they go to work. And it’s the cops walking out with everything. That sounds very petty, and I’m sorry that it sounds petty, but it’s something that’s always bothered me. Because they’re thieves.
PW: I have the view that lawlessness by people who are employed in prisons basically doesn’t breed respect for the law or the people who are supposed to be enforcing it. It just creates and reinforces a world view that there are crooks and then there are bigger crooks, and if you’re a big crook you have impunity and you can do whatever you want.
JK: That’s right.
PW: What are your views on the death penalty?
JK: 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.
PW: I think we’re going to see the end of death penalty probably in the next 15 years.
JK: I think you’re right.
PW: I think it’s on its death bed, so to speak.
JK: I think you’re right.
PW: And what are your views about drone killings?
JK: I’m on record, actually, on this issue. I have always been opposed to the drone program. You know, any intelligence officer worth his salt will tell you that the last thing that you want to do is kill your target. You want to capture your target. Now, if your target has committed a crime, well, by God, charge them with a crime, give him his day in court, let him face his accusers in a court of law.
PW: In front of Judge Brinkema.
JK: Yeah. In front of Judge Brinkema, and then you can all live happily ever after. But killing your target negates any hope that you might have of collecting actionable intelligence.
PW: I think some of the critiques I have read are that, basically, what it’s come down to is the United States is killing people with drones because it can kill them, not that these are people who, say, 15 or 20 years ago, before the drone technology existed, they would have sent a commando team in to try to capture them.
JK: Correct. They’re second-tier targets and third-tier targets.
PW: Right. And, of course, when we talk about the death penalty – and that’s part of the reason I’m asking this in conjunction with my question about the death penalty – at least with the death penalty it has a tremendous record of abuse in this country as well as wrongful convictions and everything else. With the drone program, we’ve got thousands of people we know at this point who have been killed, and....
JK: And the vast majority are innocent of anything.
PW: They’re just bystanders.
JK: They’re bystanders.
PW: They happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
PW: And one of the things, though, is the notion of due process, and the White House has actually argued that the process that people get is being put on the hit list, and it’s like, well, you got due process because we put you on our assassination list.
JK: But see that’s ... you’re right ... that’s the government’s position. But that’s just simply not true. Because nobody, and I’m including the Congressional oversight committees, nobody knows the criteria for being placed on the kill list. It’s never been revealed, not even to the oversight committees.
PW: I think we’ve had a number of cases where we know that U.S. citizens have been killed by drones. And I think while we’re talking about concepts of freedom of the press and such, I believe at least one editor of Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire, was deliberately targeted for assassination and murdered by a drone which, to me, that seems like the ultimate violation of freedom of the press because the only crime that he was accused of was publishing a magazine. No one ever said, to my knowledge, that he had committed a crime. He never did anything other than sit at his computer and crank out stories and propaganda and try to incite people.
JK: That’s all it took.
PW: Right. And he’s dead now. 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Do you know who Mario Benedetti is by any chance?
JK: I know the name.
PW: He was the Uruguayan writer. And he wrote a lot about Uruguay as one of the national security states. The U.S. trained their death squads in torturing, kidnapping and everything else, and one of the comments he made is that torture also takes a toll on the torturers.
JK: It does.
PW: And he made the comment that the Uruguayan military, they weren’t as bloodthirsty as their counterparts. They kidnapped and tortured a lot of people but they didn’t kill them.
PW: And one of the things he noted was that a lot of the torturers he saw, a lot of them lapsed into alcoholism, mental illness and such on their own, and he makes the argument that, basically, torture is something that degrades a nation at its most fundamental level, on both levels, both for the tortured and for the torturers as well. When you were at the CIA you knew the people who were engaging in torture and stuff like that. What effect does it have on the people doing it as well?
JK: There is one CIA officer who was the head of the interrogation program at the CIA. He’s out there publicly, but I’ll leave his name out of this.
PW: So you don’t get prosecuted again.
JK: Yeah. I don’t want to get prosecuted again. He wrote a book in which he said he had made a terrible mistake, and if you read this book – which didn’t sell because in the end it criticized the agency and the agency made sure that nobody bought it – he basically came to the same conclusion. It does degrade a nation. And everybody suffers. Both the person being tortured and the torturer. The torturer doesn’t realize it at the time, but his punishment comes later. And he said he had made a terrible mistake and how much he regretted it, that he gathered no new information, no information that helped the country, and at the same time he degraded himself as a human being.
That’s not the message that the CIA wants out there. The CIA wants the message to be that it is willing to do anything to protect Americans and serve the country, when, in fact, over the long term, what the CIA did was make the country less safe.
PW: And I’m assuming that you’re familiar with the Middle East, and I don’t think I’m the only person who noticed this, but when ISIS executes prisoners in the orange jumpsuits, I think we all know who introduced orange jumpsuits.
JK: Yeah. That’s direct symbolism to the United States and to Guantanamo, specifically.
PW: And I think a message that everyone in the Middle East, every Arab speaker from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.
JK: And they love it.
PW: Yeah, they get the point, make the connection, and this is a direct swipe at the Americans.
JK: That’s right.
PW: Let’s see. At this point are you still on parole? Or supervised release, as they call it these days?
JK: I am. Yeah. They can call it whatever they want. It’s an extension of my sentence. I mean, it’s an extension of the sentence for all of us. You know, this is another problem with so-called sentencing reform. There was no reform. They just made sentences longer.
PW: Right. And then they called it, instead of “parole,” they call it....
JK: Federal probation.
PW: Right. Yeah.
JK: It’s all the same thing. It’s just an extension of my sentence. So, technically, I’m under federal probation until, let me think, May 1st, 2018. I understand there is a mechanism by which you can petition to have the last year lifted.
PW: I’ve spoken to a lot of prisoners. Obviously, I’ve known a lot of people who’ve gotten out. They’re on parole. And I’ve gotten comments like, “You know, your parole officer really hates it when you’re making more money than they are.” Or, “They really hate it if you’ve got a halfway decent job.”
JK: And I rub it in her face, too. I do.
PW: Some people try to justify a parole system but I’m assuming your experience was like most. Your parole officer hasn’t helped you get a job or....
JK: No, no.
PW: Or they haven’t helped you with anything.
JK: No. No. Not at all. She’s a perfectly friendly person. But she has not helped me do anything. Literally. She has not helped me do anything at all. She comes to my house four times a year and roots through my drawers and goes through the closets. And I always give her a hard time. I said, “Listen, I don’t want to keep you because I’m sure you have to go through [General] Petraeus’ drawers and closets next. Oh, that’s right. He has unsupervised probation.” My wife always hollers at me for doing that. But, yeah, I’m not your average 25-year-old drug dealer. I don’t know what she thinks she’s going to find in my underwear drawer. But I don’t get any special treatment.
PW: And do you have any restrictions on your contact with media?
JK: No. They tried the media restrictions at first, when I first got home, and I said, “I’m not respecting that, and if you want to fight it out in court, I’ll fight it out in court because I’m talking to every reporter who calls.” And that’s exactly what I do.
PW: The last couple of months you were on home release?
PW: And I’m trying to remember from your Letters from Loretto, you had, was it ABC-News? Somebody did a TV interview, and then the BOP said, “What are you doing? Giving interviews?”
JK: Yes. The media came to my house. I sat with Jake Tapper.
PW: And your response was, “Nothing says I can’t do TV interviews in my living room.”
JK: That’s exactly my point. And they said that I had to get BOP approval. I said, “Show me where it says I have to get BOP approval.” “Well, that’s implied because you, technically, even though you’re on house arrest you technically belong to the halfway house.” I said, “I went on the halfway house website and it doesn’t say anything at all about getting anybody’s permission to talk to the press. So I’m just not.”
PW: It’s not like they’re paying your rent or anything.
JK: No. I must have given a hundred interviews the first three months I was home. I didn’t turn anybody down. Chris Hayes from MSNBC came to my house and we did a segment that was so long that they ran it three consecutive nights. I did BBC. I did CNN. I did Democracy Now, twice. I told everybody, “They’re welcome in my home. I’m happy to talk.” And, finally, the BOP backed off.
PW: In light of all that you’ve been through at this point, would you do it again?
JK: 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.
PW: And one of the things that you mentioned one time was the fact that after 20 years in government service, you had a pension.
JK: Yeah. They took my pension.
PW: 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.
JK: 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.
PW: Continuing on, what are your thoughts on, for example, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden?
JK: Oh, Snowden’s the easy one. I think Snowden is a national hero. I think he’s done a great national service. We would have no idea that our country, our government, was spying on us had Ed Snowden not told us, so those revelations were a public service.
PW: I’m not sure I’ll disagree with you on that, but what I’ll say is, I think that the people who follow this stuff, we all knew it was happening. All he did was confirm it and the extent of it.
JK: Yes. But that confirmation led to Congressional action, to actually prohibit it for the first time since the passage of the Patriot Act. So, for that, I think we should thank him.
Chelsea Manning ... Chelsea Manning released millions and millions of documents to Wikileaks. Included in those documents were evidence of war crimes committed by American soldiers.
PW: None of whom were ever charged....
JK: None of whom were ever charged with a crime. That was a public service. There was a lot that she released that was not a public service, including my Social Security number. Right? From a travel cable. I wouldn’t have done it like Chelsea Manning did. I wouldn’t have released these millions of documents just wantonly exposing the names, the identities of hundreds if not thousands of people who cooperate with American embassies around the world. Evidence of war crimes has to be out there, and that was a public service.
PW: 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.
JK: Without a doubt.
PW: 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....
JK: Spied for the Israelis.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
PW: Or torture.
JK: Or torture. And it is torture. I believe it’s torture. But I wouldn’t compare my case to any of those people.
PW: In light of what you’ve been through, and I get what you’re saying is the distinction between being an agent or an employee of a foreign country, spying clandestinely for a foreign intelligence service, versus revealing information to the media of one’s country, what would your advice be to Edward Snowden?
JK: I’ve actually given advice to Edward Snowden, and I’ve told him, “Don’t come home. You won’t get a fair trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.”
PW: Or anywhere else, probably.
JK: Or anywhere else. But he’s been charged in ED VA. I told him that the judge will do you no favors. And if you elect to go to trial, your jury is going to be made up of people from the CIA, the FBI, the DoD, the Department of Homeland Security and a myriad of intelligence community contractors. You can’t possibly get a fair trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.
PW: One can say that is a jury of his peers.
JK: I suppose.
PW: Okay. So I was going to ask you what you’re doing now but I think we covered that with the writing. Anything else?
JK: Well, I’ve sold two shows in Hollywood now. The first one actually looks like it’s moving to series. I should know by the time this is published whether or not it goes to series. So I feel like my future is in writing, whether it’s books and articles or scripts. I’ve been able to actually patch together a living doing it.
PW: Oh, good.
JK: I think things are really turning around.
PW: And I think one of the things is, you made the comment that historically all whistleblowers or all national security whistleblowers have died in poverty, or have lived in poverty afterwards. And I guess I hadn’t realized that. Which, if true, that seems like a really sad commentary on our society. And do you have any idea why that is?
JK: Yeah. I do have an idea. We have this notion, this preconception of whistleblowers as less than honest. And I’ll give you an example. I’ve been working with the government of Greece to draft a new whistleblower protection law.
PW: For the Greek government?
JK: For the Greek government. There is no Greek word for whistleblower. The Greek word that they use for whistleblower is the word for “snitch” or “rat.” But a whistleblower is not a snitch or a rat. And so we actually had to create a term in Greek, and it translates to “beacon for the public good.” And that’s the word that we’ve used in this legislation.
It’s the same here. The average person really doesn’t understand the function of a whistleblower and certainly doesn’t understand that a person becomes a whistleblower under function of law when he or she exposes waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to the public health or public safety. There is actually a legal definition of it.
JK: And so I think that people just simply don’t understand that these, what’s the word, revelations are all for the public good. There’s a difference. To make my point, there’s a difference between leaking and whistleblowing.
PW: Right. Exactly. The difference being the leaker remains anonymous and I have to say as a journalist, you know, we’ve worked with whistleblowers over the years. We’ve worked with leakers. Everything from we have anonymous stuff that shows up in our mail box and stuff like that, and, as a journalist, the thing I always want to know is what’s the motivation of the person who’s leaking this? And I also think that from an audience perspective it behooves the audience to know who’s the source.
Because if you know who the source is, you know what their agenda is, any biases or whatever. It’s when you don’t know, where is this coming from? Why is this being leaked now? Why is this being disclosed now? And, usually, I think once you run it down, you can usually figure it out.
JK: Without a doubt.
PW: 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.
JK: Sure. That’s exactly right.
PW: 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?
JK: 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.
JK: Because, really, I think 99% of prisoners don’t know their rights.
PW: I think it’s 99% of Americans.
JK: 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?”
PW: 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.”
PW: What kind of psychological toll does prison take on prisoners?
JK: I had not anticipated even having to deal with the psychological toll, and, in fact, it takes a very heavy toll. I’m not exaggerating when I say 80% of the prisoners with whom I served were on some form of anti-depressant. And I thought that when my sentence was up and I went home I could just step back into my life again. And nothing could have been further from the truth. I was depressed.
PW: This is in the context. You didn’t serve....
JK: Oh, yeah. I was only in for 23 months.
PW: Right. You didn’t serve a lengthy sentence.
JK: Right. I had trouble sleeping. Terrible trouble sleeping. I had gotten so used to the jingling of keys three times a night and the spotlight in your face to wake you up, I just got so used to it that I actually couldn’t sleep without it when I first got back home. I had the same dream over and over and over again that I had somehow found myself outside of prison and I realized it was almost midnight, and count time, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get back inside in time for count. And I was afraid of going to solitary.
So I didn’t anticipate any of this stuff. I thought about going to see a psychologist and then, I don’t know why, I just decided that a psychologist wouldn’t understand. I’d have to explain my whole background and the case and see the documentary, and I just didn’t want to get into it. And, to tell you the truth, things started going well for me. I had this great support from my wife, and [my depression] kind of wore off. Now I would not recommend that as a way to deal with depression post-release. I think that any prisoner facing release ought to get his ducks in order and consider talking to a professional to try to ease his way through the depression that inevitably comes with going home and realizing that you can’t just re-start your life again.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length; a shorter version was published in the April 2017 issue of Prison Legal News. 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 in May 2017.
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