The Price to Pay as a Whistleblower

By Morgan Petronelli and Rachel Gobep

Terrorists, waterboarding, lies, the CIA and a whistleblower — all of these things intersect at a man named John Kiriakou.

As a former CIA operative, Kiriakou travelled to over 65 countries and met countless kings, presidents and prime ministers in his 15-year career.

During this time, he said that he noticed a drastic change in the agency.

Pre 9/11 and post Church Committee, he stated that the agency served the greater good by prioritizing human rights under the Clinton administration, even going as far as to combing through recruited sources and letting go of anyone with a single human rights problem in their background. This is otherwise known as a cull.

“Everything just went out the window on September 11,” said Kiriakou. “The CIA went overboard in its reaction to the attack and I feel like they lost their way and made no excuses for it either. The CIA got to the point where it was readily and willfully violating the law.”

Thus began a time of high alert security and the war on terrorism. As the war progressed, terrorists began to be captured and taken in for questioning by U.S federal agencies like the FBI and CIA.

Kiriakou noticed something wasn’t right — unethical methods were being used to extract information about the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda.

One specific method included waterboarding, which is the act of placing a cloth over a person’s face and pouring water over it which imitates the sensation of drowning.

“The idea shouldn’t be ‘Does it work?’ the idea should be ‘Is it ethical, is it moral and is it legal?’,” Kiriakou said. “And the answer is no. We know definitely from the senate torture report, the CIA inspector general’s report and from associated reports by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association that torture does not work, period.”

Kiriakou went on to say that the FBI says the only way to gather intelligence “that’s going to save American lives and disrupt future attacks” is to establish a rapport with the prisoner. This method has been proven to work countless times throughout history including during WW2, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11.

The problem, he said, is that the CIA possesses no interrogation training. The FBI is primarily in charge of interrogation and if the CIA can’t extract information from the prisoner, then they are turned over to the FBI to “work their magic.”

The mistake that occurred is that the CIA didn’t leave the interrogation to the FBI post 9/11. Instead, they took it upon themselves to question prisoners which resulted in unethical methods being utilized to extract information and resulted in a cover-up.

When Kiriakou learned that waterboarding was being used on prisoners, he was instantly uneasy knowing that it was occurring and the American people had no clue about it.

“This is the best country in the world, but we have to be an example for other countries,” said Kiriakou. “A secret torture program is not making an example for other countries — it’s just plain wrong.”

In 2007, Brian Ross, an investigative reporter for ABC News, contacted Kiriakou and claimed he had a source who said that he had tortured Abu Zubaydah, who was an alleged aide to Osama Bin Laden. Kiriakou did not perform waterboarding on Abu Zubaydah, but rather he was told by other CIA officers that the prisoner was being tortured using the method.

Kiriakou claims he was going to dismiss the accusations and decline the interview to defend himself when, that week, former President George W. Bush went on national television and stated “we do not torture” and then said if torturing occurred, that it was from a rogue agent.

In order to avoid the torture accusations being pinned on him, Kiriakou agreed to an interview with Ross. During the interview he disclosed that Abu Zubaydah had been water boarded, but was only aware of one instance of it. It was later reported in 2009 that Zubaydah was tortured over 83 times despite giving little to no extra information than after his first encounter with waterboarding.

In 2012 Kiriakou was charged with giving classified information to the media and disclosing the name of an undercover CIA officer. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2013 and was later released in 2015. During that time, he received over 7,000 letters and responded to every one of them.

“The CIA decided to make an example out of me … I was prosecuted as a warning to other would-be whistleblowers that if you’re going to say something positive then you can leak all you want,” he said. “But if you’re going to criticize, then you’re going to give up everything.”

Despite spending jail time for blowing the whistle on unethical torture utilized by the CIA, Kiriakou has made it his mission to encourage others to become whistleblowers, especially the younger generations. He claims that it is up to young people who are beginning to work in federal agencies to call out violations of ethics.

Since being released from prison, the former CIA officer has started a group called the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, regularly visits schools and universities speaking about ethics and being a whistleblower and has written three books about his time in the CIA and his life afterwards.

Kiriakou said that in the end, people need to remember one thing when it comes to ethics.

“Protect yourself by knowing the law and if you find yourself in a position where you feel compelled to report on waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to the public health or public safety, do it, but with legal advice.”

He has authored “The Reluctant Spy:  My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror” and is expected to release his second book “Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison” on May 3.