President Obama adopted most of President Bush’s counter-terrorism policies, argues John Kiriakou – the former CIA official who blew the whistle on the agency’s torture practices and is now set to go behind bars for it.
After 9/11 Kiriakou served as the chief of counter-terrorist operations in Pakistan. Now he is heading to prison, having been sentenced to two-and-a-half years.
Despite that, he says he is proud to have played a role in outlawing torture. Voting for Obama, Kiriakou believed that it would bring positive change – but it never came, he told RT. “I never believed I would be going to prison under a President Obama. Never.”
RT: You were convicted of revealing the identity of an agent to a freelance reporter who, by the way, never even published it. You said you regretted sharing the name of the agent, of the officer, that you apologized for it. But you also said it was not the reason the government went after you. Why do you think the government went after you?
John Kiriakou: I’ve never believed that my case was about a leak. I’ve always believed my case is about torture. When I went on ABC News in December 2007 and I said that not only was the CIA torturing prisoners, but that the torture policy was an official US Government policy that was approved at the very top, by the President of the United States himself, the CIA filed what’s called “a crimes report” against me the next day with the Justice Department. The Justice Department never stopped investigating me from December of 2007 until I was finally arrested in January 2012. So to say that this case is a result of a name that was found in attorney’s brief at Guantanamo is just simply not true.
RT:So they were looking for something?
JK: They were looking for something to pin on me.
RT: What I find most outrageous about your case is that had you been actually accused of torture, of human right violations, you wouldn’t have gone to jail.
‘Most people don’t realize this but President Obama has surrounded himself with the same Intelligence advisors who advised President Bush.’
RT: They would dismiss any accusation because US Government has classified everything related to its torture practices. But yet you go to prison because you talked about it. Why do you think this administration, President Obama, who signed an executive order to stop torture at the very beginning of his first term, why do you think he is protecting folks from the previous administration?
JK: Most people don’t realize this but President Obama has surrounded himself with the same Intelligence advisors who advised President Bush. Through most of the first term, the CIA had the same deputy director that Bush had, the same director of operations that Bush had. John Brennan, who is President Obama’s new designee to be the CIA director and until a week ago or so, was the deputy national security adviser, was under President Bush the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and up to his eyeballs in torture policy. So even if we changed presidents, there was no real change of Intelligence advisors, at least not on counter-terrorism.
RT: John Brennan. You mentioned John Brennan and I want to ask you about him – the future head of the CIA. What kind of the CIA Chief he is going to be in your opinion?
JK: I think he’s going to be somebody who is extremely aggressive. And who will probably be walking on the edge of the law.
RT: You worked with him.
JK: I did, I worked with John Brennan for many years. I know him pretty well.
RT: Mr. Kiriakou, you yourself supported torture before you were against it. What happened? What changed your position?
JK: Well, let me correct you on that. There is something that most Americans missed in my regional NBC interview. I was trying to draw distinction between whether torture was right or wrong, or whether it worked. I believed it was wrong and I called it torture and I said that torture was official policy – that’s on the one side. On the other side, the CIA had told us internally at the time that it was working.
RT: When was that?
JK: That was in 2002–2003. They were telling us it was working. We now know from the Inspector General’s report that was released in the spring 2009 that that was a lie. That the CIA was lying even to those of us inside the CIA. And I think it was just to protect themselves and to protect the policy. But it never worked.
RT: Did you have a personal experience related to torture? Were you personally involved in torture?
JK: No, thank God, I was never personally involved in torture. When I returned from Pakistan in the early summer of 2002 where I had been chief of Counter-Terrorism Operations, I was asked by a senior officer in the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center if I wanted to be trained in the use of these torture techniques and I said “no”, I had a moral problem with it and I didn’t want to be associated with it. There were 14 of us at the time who were made the offer. Two of us said “no” and then one of us, not me, the other guy, changed his mind. So I was the only one who was made the offer who declined.
RT: Because at that time you already believed that it wouldn’t work?
JK: I didn’t know if it would work. They were telling us it would. But I just believed it was wrong. You know at the CIA, part of the CIA’s culture is to couch all issues in shades of gray. You have to be very comfortable working in morally nebulous situations or legally nebulous situations. But there are some things that really are black and white. And I believed that was a black-and-white issue.
RT: There is something that I think you will find interesting and something I would like you to comment on. Polls by the American Red Cross show that the majority of Americans find torture acceptable. 60 per cent of young people agree. Whereas four years ago torture was largely condemned in the US. How did this become the new norm? What happened in those four years?
JK: I think that many people who told pollsters in the early or middle part of the last decade were reacting to President Bush. Little by little President Obama adopted most of President Bush’s counter-terrorism policies. And just because he happens to be Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama, most Americans who haven’t paid much attention have just bought in. I think it’s a question of education, here domestically. People need to be informed.
RT: Did Hollywood have a role to play?
JK: I think Hollywood had a role to play. I think that Zero Dark Thirty, for example, did a great disservice to counter-terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty perpetuates this grand lie that torture led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It’s just simply not true.
RT: Myths often become history. One comedian here said, it was about Zero Dark Thirty by the way: “Movies – it’s serious. Movies is where Americans learn their history”.
JK: It’s true.
‘The first Al-Qaeda I’ve ever caught was a 19-year-old boy from Tunisia. And the only reason he went to Afghanistan was he had nothing else to do.’
RT: What myths, what other myths do you see being perpetuated now related to the war on terror?
JK: I think one of the great myths, and I chuckle to myself because it always seems so ridiculous to me, was President Bush’s statement that they hate us because we love freedom. I know Al-Qaeda. I’ve captured Al-Qaeda fighters. I’ve had conversations, sitting across the table like I’m with you with Al-Qaeda leaders. And I can tell you from first-hand personal experience that the reason people take up arms against us is because of a lack of education.
RT: Yes, that I understand, but the United States can’t educate the whole world.
JK: No, we can’t. But we can help other countries develop an infrastructure so that they can educate themselves.
RT: Tell me more about those encounters with those. What other impressions did you have?
JK: The first Al-Qaeda I’ve ever caught was a 19-year-old boy from Tunisia. And the only reason he went to Afghanistan was he had nothing else to do. He had no skills and no way of making a living and he wanted to get married. So the local imam said: “if you want to make some money, you know what you should do? You should go to Afghanistan and make Jihad against the Americans. If you do that, I know somebody who will pay your family $500 and you can use that for a dowry. And you can get a wife.” So this kid had nothing against the United States, he had never really thought about the United States.
RT: So from your experience you saw no ideology?
JK: I saw very little. You see ideology in some of the older fighters, some of the leaders – the camp commanders, for example. Sure, there is ideology there. But in my short time in Pakistan I captured 52 Al-Qaeda fighters and I can count on one hand the number of people who were real ideologues, who really were there for jihad, who were really there to kill Americans. Three out of 52.
‘We find ourselves murdering people and in many cases children with no evidence whatsoever that they are involved in any criminal or terrorist activity.’
RT: The perception of Guantanamo too has gone a long way since 2008 when it was a burning and highly controversial issue. Most recently, you know, the State Department has shut down the office that was working to shut down the Guantanamo prison. Is that this administration way of saying “forget about Guantanamo, let’s move on?”
JK: I think it is. I think it is. Again, where is the outrage? The American people really don’t care if Guantanamo is open or closed.
RT:This administration, it appears, decided not to bother about interrogations, Guantanamo and prisoners and all that and just to bomb whoever seems suspicious with drones. What do you think about this administration’s “no prisoners” policy?
JK: We find ourselves murdering people and in many cases children with no evidence whatsoever that they are involved in any criminal or terrorist activity. And what this does is that it encourages other people to take up arms against us.
RT: John Brennan, the architect of the drone program basically, and it was last year, I think, when he claimed that US drone strikes caused no civilian deaths in Pakistan over the prior year which was an outright lie by so many accounts. Do you think we are going to see more transparency with regards to drones with John Brennan at the helm of the CIA?
JK: No, I don’t. With John Brennan “secrecy” is the key word. Unless of course, you know, he chooses to leak for the benefit of the administration.
RT: What did you expect when you decided to go public, to come clean on torture at the CIA. I mean your wife worked at the CIA and she was fired because of you. You are a father of five and you are going to prison. What future did you envision for yourself five years ago?
JK: I didn’t envision prison in my future five years ago. I expected there to be a national debate on whether or not we wanted to use torture as an official US policy. Now I’m very happy, proud actually, that I played a role in that debate and now the law of the land is that torture is illegal – I’m very proud of that. I didn’t expect that the government would go after me so relentlessly. I stood in the snow for two hours to vote for President Obama. I really believed that this was positive change. I believed that he deserved that Nobel Peace prize only because I expected things to change so dramatically at the beginning of his first term. So no, I never believed I would be going to prison under a President Obama. Never. That’s been I think my biggest disappointment.
RT: But you haven’t seen a dramatic change?
JK: I haven’t seen any change.
RT: But he stopped torture.
JK: He stopped torture, sure, but in terms of counter-terrorism policy I think the Obama Administration is largely an extension of the Bush Administration.