The Whistleblower the CIA Couldn’t Break
Settling in with a coffee at Northside Social, a genial locus of suburban D.C. hipsters, earnest teleworkers hunched-over laptops, and moms in yoga pants and ball caps on break, John Kiriakou is talking about prison.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and a safe bet that no one else at Northside Social is talking about a recent incarceration at that very moment. Beltway culture is a bubble, and North Arlington, Va., is its own bubble-within-a-bubble. Caffeine-fueled chatter about politics and prison policy is pretty standard stuff, reliving one’s time in the pen is not.
Kiriakou, however, fits right in, looking relaxed in a comfortable green t-shirt and jeans. He addresses the baristas with a familiar wave, and they respond warmly. After all, he is a denizen of this milieu: a well-educated, professional man who lives with his family—an accomplished wife and three young children—in nearby Lyon Park, a tree-lined neighborhood filled with colorful and eclectic but expensive homes, many retrofitted in the last decade from the sturdy bones of 1920s Craftsman bungalows.
But it wasn’t always this way. After the former CIA agent was charged and convicted with leaking classified information and sent to prison in 2013, he became one of the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated by the state. It was a shock. Everything he had developed in the 40-odd years of his life—independence, dignity, strength, sense of purpose, and justice—had been challenged, as if he were suddenly a nobody, another number, or worse, a disposable man.
The entire experience changed how Kiriakou sees himself in the order of things. And it changed how he perceives the government in that order of things.
“I don’t trust the government, not a single branch of it,” he tells TAC in our interview. “I think the judicial system is broken. And I don’t think Congress has the guts or the willingness to fix it.”
His metamorphosis began in the Kafkaesque world of the federal legal system and continued through his 24 months in the Loretto Federal Correction Institution. Kiriakou, now 51, emerged from incarceration this spring not broken but “more open minded and patient,” unyielding to power, and laser-focused on changing the status quo.
“I had always just assumed that government employees, whether CIA, FBI, Justice, or whomever, mostly tried to do the right thing; that is, obey the law, serve the country, and protect Americans,” he shared.
“What I ended up seeing, though, was an ugly underbelly that included corrupt prosecutors and investigators, racism, and abuse of power. I have come to the conclusion that Ronald Reagan was right: Government is the problem, not the solution to the problem.”
In other words, he does not want to be known only for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture enhanced interrogation techniques, which began his long initiation into the government labyrinth over seven years ago. He wants to blow trumpets, high and clear, on the entire racket. And he wants to start with prisons, over-criminalization, and unfair sentencing.
“One of my great regrets is being known as the torture guy,” he said easily. “[That’s] something most everyone has already taken a position on.” He wants to push reform legislation now supported by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. He wants to talk about the lack of real drug counseling and addiction services for prisoners, when statistics say more than half were likely abusers or addicts when they were incarcerated. He wants to talk about overcrowding, and neglect in the prison health care system. He wants to talk about how mental illness is treated like a behavioral problem for which solitary confinement is the standard fix.
Stunningly, Kiriakou said inmates were the only ones in Loretto teaching “classes,” in lieu of serious academic and rehabilitation programs for prisoners. “There was no incentive,” for anyone to be a better person, period, he said.
“These guys are going to get out eventually and they are going to be untrained, and they’re going to be pissed off, and they’re go straight back to their communities and they are going to have no skills—no marketable stills,” he said. “Then we wonder why there is recidivism because the system has done nothing to curtail recidivism or improve recidivism rates,” he said. A study of 30 states by the Bureau of Prisons in 2014 found that 3 out of 4 convicts returned to jail within five years of their release.
Loretto officials have long declined to speak about Kiriakou or respond to the charges he’s made publicly since his release. Nevertheless, he’s been quite candid about his time there, often speaking fondly of the other prisoners who he socialized with and helped out periodically by writing motions and letters to their attorneys. He made friends with the inmates, antagonized the guards, and survived with his CIA know-how. Much of this will be documented in a forthcoming book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, along with Letters from Loretto, a collection of missives from prison originally published online by journalist Kevin Gosztola.
“When 98.2 percent of all federal cases end up in convictions, almost all of which are the result of plea bargains, there’s a problem. When prosecutors try to make a name for themselves so they can move onto multi-million dollar salaries in big law firms, there’s a problem. When hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are serving sentences of life or nearly life for first-time, non-violent drug offenses, there’s a problem,” he said.
“And when those men and women who conceived of the torture, who approved the torture, who carried out the torture, and who destroyed evidence of the torture continue to not only walk free, but also to justify their crimes with multi-million dollar book deals, there’s a problem.”
Kiriakou is known in the activist crowd as the only member of CIA to go to jail for torture—because he exposed it. He certainly doesn’t have champions in every corner, however. Members of the CIA rank and file, in particular, have accused him of embellishment, betrayal, and self-aggrandizement, according to Steve Coll, who wrote a lengthy profile of Kiriakou’s case for The New Yorker in 2013. Though he is ready to move on, his judgments and actions on torture bought him the unique soapbox on which he stands today, albeit at great cost to himself, and his family.
Kiriakou was involved in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after 9/11, and was part of a team that captured high-ranking al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah. After he resigned and was consulting with ABC News in 2007, Kiriakou was the first CIA official to confirm publicly that waterboarding had been used on detainees. He called it torture, but necessary nonetheless. Two years later, when it was revealed Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, Kiriakou denounced the practice altogether. He became a hero of the anti-torture/anti-war movement.
His growing fame garnered attention from the CIA and FBI. In 2012 he was charged with violating the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Act for revealing the names of two agents, one covert, to journalists. He was also charged with making misleading statements to the CIA’s Publications Review Board while seeking clearance to publish his memoir, The Reluctant Spy. He enlisted attorney Jesselyn Radack, herself a whistleblower, and she kept light on his case. He was able to plea a deal to get all but the charge of revealing the name of one agent dropped, but he was still off to prison in February 2013, on a 30-month sentence.
He left his family behind, severely weakened by the ordeal. His wife Heather, a senior CIA analyst, was forced to resign and had no job prospects. They took out a second mortgage on the house they built and moved a street away into a smaller rental. Heather and the kids eventually went on welfare. When it came time to tell his younger children, then eight, seven, and one, where daddy was going, he told them simply that he lost the argument he was having with the FBI and his “punishment” was helping bad guys get their high school diplomas. He was only half lying—he really thought he’d be teaching GED classes at Loretto.
It would be the first of many shattered expectations, but certainly not the worst. He was supposed to be going to the low-security camp outside the prison walls. On the first day he was led inside instead, to quarters with murderers and child molesters in a rotating menagerie of cellmates. It turned out that camp was just a court “recommendation,” not an order. Instead of a teacher, he became a janitor at the chapel, which he described as a hotbed of pedophiles.
So he spent his time writing “Letters from Loretto.” With an old-school pen-to-paper urgency, his letters alternated between sad vignettes of prison life, and daily attempts by guards to break him down for a penance he knew he would never make.
“My first day I thought, holy shit, I’m in prison. What have I gotten myself into? Then I said to myself, ‘take it easy, you were trained for this stuff, this can’t be harder than Pakistan or Afghanistan,’” he recalled to TAC.
“I made a conscious decision when I got there that I would not allow myself to become institutionalized,” he added, “and I would resist their authority at every opportunity, whether it was writing ‘Letters from Loretto,’ or defending myself from abusive guards.” He wouldn’t stand “at attention” when told, he questioned silly rules, and at one point told the guards to do their worst, that they would get out eventually.
It was a gamble, but it preserved his sanity and self-respect. When his children finally learned the full truth, it was during one of their visits to the prison. His seven-year-old daughter noticed that other men in khaki jumpsuits were coming in and out of a door that read, “inmates only.”
“My son said, ‘dad are you a teacher here or are you a prisoner here?’ I said, ‘I am a prisoner, but you know buddy, I’m going to get out of here and we are going to be a family again.” In time he did, and they were.
This time, the expectations were exceeded: the Kiriakou family will be moving back to the dream house in Arlington this winter, thanks in part to Code Pink, which crowd-sourced enough cash for John and Heather to pay off the second mortgage while he was in prison. Strangers from the Greek-American community made sure he fulfilled the mandated full-time employment requirement when he was released, and sent money to his wife each month he was incarcerated. His friends and family assured the children that dad is a hero. He believes they are proud, which is more than he could ask for.
Today Heather has a new job with a defense contractor, and John has a perch at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies as an associate fellow. He will continue to write, make speeches, and do plenty of media. “Prison changes people, and John came out with a passion for prison reform,” notes IPS director John Cavanagh, who met with Kiriakou before Loretto. “It felt like an excellent fit to invite him on board.”
Above all, he’ll be enjoying life as an Arlington dad. School starts Monday, and for the first time in two years he will be there to see his kids off, then perhaps make a stop for coffee at Northside Social. Because he can.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.