In a wide-ranging video interview with Truthout, former CIA counterterrorism official John Kiriakou reveals new information about the capture and torture of “high-value” detainee Abu Zubaydah and discloses, for the first time, his role in the events that led to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.
On March 28, 2002, at exactly 2 AM, CIA, FBI and Pakistani intelligence agents raided 14 houses in Faisalabad, Pakistan and captured 52 alleged terrorists, including one who the Bush administration had wrongly claimed was the No. 3 person in al-Qaeda and one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks: Abu Zubaydah.
The CIA official who led the team that resulted in Zubaydah’s capture was, at the time, a 12-year agency veteran named John Kiriakou, who was sent to Pakistan just two months earlier to take charge of counterterrorism operations there.
Kiriakou made headlines in December 2007, when, during an interview with Brian Ross of ABC News, he became the first CIA official to publicly confirm that agency interrogators had waterboarded Zubaydah and that Zubaydah broke after 30 to 35 seconds, revealing actionable intelligence about a terrorist attack that “probably” saved American lives. Kiriakou said he believes waterboarding is torture.
Kiriakou was interviewed just a few days after The New York Times broke the story that the CIA had destroyed videotapes made between April and August 2002 that showed Zubaydah and another “high-value” detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, being interrogated and tortured.
The details Kiriakou disclosed during his interview with Ross, which he said he obtained from a classified CIA cable he read, was picked up by dozens of other news organizations around the world and reignited the debate over the efficacy of torture, leading many right-wing pundits, Republican lawmakers and Bush administration officials to declare that “enhanced interrogation” methods worked.
But Kiriakou, who at one point was being pursued by federal prosecutors for revealing classified information to ABC News, was wrong.
Government documents declassified in the years since Kiriakou was interviewed by ABC News showed that Zubaydah, in addition to being subjected to other brutal torture techniques, was waterboarded at least 83 times in a single month. And, as Truthout first reported, newly declassified Justice Department documents stated that the government does not contend, as the basis for his continued detention, that Zubaydah “had any direct role” in or “advance knowledge” of 9/11 or was aware of any impending terrorist attacks as numerous Bush administration officials had maintained.
Last week, during a wide-ranging interview with Truthout, Kiriakou, who recently published a book, “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror,” was confronted with these facts and he acknowledged that the intelligence that asserted Zubaydah was involved in the planning of 9/11 and a was a major figure in al-Qaeda was “obviously flawed.”
The Invasion of Iraq
In addition to new details he disclosed about Zubaydah and torture in general, Kiriakou said after he returned to Langley in late spring 2002 following his capture of Zubaydah and dozens of other alleged terrorists, he was “absolutely convinced” he would receive a promotion. But he was passed over by Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Rodriguez is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation over the destruction of torture tapes, which he ordered purged.
Kiriakou said he was instead given a “field promotion” and by August 1, 2002 – the month in which the CIA maintains Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times – he was working on top-secret issues related to the administration’s Iraq invasion plans. So secret was his new job, Kiriakou wrote in his book, that he had to sign six separate “secrecy agreements.”
After he and his boss, Robert Grenier, the CIA’s associate deputy director of operations for policy support who was later promoted to Iraq mission manager, signed the secrecy agreements they were briefed on their new assignment.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” the CIA’s unnamed director of Iraq operations told Kiriakou and Grenier. “We’re going to invade Iraq next spring. We’re going to overthrow Saddam Hussein. We’re going to establish the largest Air Force base in the world and we’re going to transfer everybody from Saudi Arabia to Iraq. That way, al-Qaeda won’t have that hanging over us, that we’re polluting the land of the two holy cities.”
Kiriakou wrote that he and Grenier were stunned.
“We’re going to invade Iraq?” Grenier asked the unnamed director of Iraq operations, Kiriakou wrote. Kiriakou added that Grenier had later told him that one of his bosses had briefed him “on the executive branch’s thinking a couple of months earlier,” meaning the war had been in the planning stages for some time, which supports similar claims made by other former Bush administration officials.
“It’s a done deal, Bob,” the director said. “The decision’s already been made … . the planning’s completed, everything’s in place.”
Adding to similar claims made by former Bush administration officials, Kiriakou wrote that the “pressure” to go to war with Iraq came from the offices of the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense.
“In other words, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their subordinates,” Kiriakou wrote. “As best we could tell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their two-and-three-star subordinates were less than enthusiastic about an Iraq invasion. The generals and admirals could make their best case for caution, but they were in a position of weakness.
Kiriakou wrote that the Iraq director explained to him and Grenier that the ruse the Bush administration cooked up was “ratchet up the pressure on weapons of mass destruction … go to the United Nations toward the end of the year to make it look as if we wanted to ask the UN Secretary Council to authorize force. We expected Russian, Chinese and French opposition … and we were prepared to go it alone.”
Kiriakou said he was told the public and Congressional debates surrounding the invasion of Iraq had no bearing on the administration’s plans.
“We were going to war regardless of what the legislative branch or what the federal government chose to do,” he wrote. The CIA’s role would be one of “support … not a rerun of Afghanistan where [the agency] was running the show.”
Kiriakou wrote that Grenier was ultimately named Iraq Mission Manager, which meant that Grenier “would be the agency’s face to the rest of the Washinton community on everything having to do with Iraq.”
The Plame Leak
During his interview with Truthout, Kiriakou also for the first time revealed details about his role in the events that lead to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, an episode he did not write about in his book.
He said that in June 2003, a month before columnist Robert Novak had disclosed Plame’s name and undercover status in a column he wrote attacking her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who called into question the veracity of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger for use in building an atomic bomb, Kiriakou was present at a “Deputies Committee” meeting where officials from the departments of State, Defense (DoD) and the CIA were in attendance.
For the office of the vice president “it was Libby. For CIA it was Grenier [who was standing in for Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin]. For DoD it was [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz. For State, to the best of my recollection, it was the guy who was Undersecretary for Political Affairs [Marc Grossman]” because Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was out of town.
Kiriakou said he was the “note taker” at this meeting, which took place on June 10, 2003, when I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, “entered the room furious, putting on a big show, arms flailing around, swearing and demanding to know why nobody at the CIA told him that Valerie Plame was married to Joe Wilson.”
Kiriakou said it was clear to him that when Libby “entered the room” on June 10, 2003, he had already known that Plame was an undercover operative. However, Libby claimed that he first learned about Plame’s status and the fact that she was married to Ambassador Wilson after Kiriakou sent his email.
After Libby’s outburst, Kiriakou said he “went back to headquarters and I wrote an email to all of the executive assistants of all the top leaders in the agency saying, this meeting took place, Libby is furious, we believe that he was conveying a message from the vice president. I wanted to know when did we know that Valerie was married to Joe Wilson, sent it around, nobody ever responded to my email.”
“I later learned because [CIA] General Counsel [John Rizzo] said we’re going to handle it at our level not at the executive assistant level,” Kiriakou said.
Kiriakou said he believes Rizzo took over because Rizzo and “others realized from the get-go that this was going to be way over our pay grade.”
“I remember my boss at the time, Grenier [head of the CIA’s Iraq Issues Group], telling me I don’t think you realize what a big deal this is. And frankly I didn’t.”
Kiriakou said the “big deal” in question was the fact that “the agency dropped the ball.”
“It was an agency officer, specifically Bob Grenier, who told administration officials that Valerie was an undercover CIA case officer. We thought it was just someone leaked something to Bob Novak. It was probably, who knows, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, [Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage, we didn’t know. We didn’t know that it had come from the CIA. Now I think Grenier accidentally did that. And I think he probably didn’t believe the administration was going to do anything with it. But he knew early on that the agency was involved even if accidentally.”
Kiriakou said he could not recall if Grenier told Libby or Armitage that Plame was “undercover,” but his “guess is that the scenario was that Grenier told Armitage, who told Libby, who told Grenier.”
Kiriakou appears to have muddled the details of his story on this important point. It’s clear that it was Libby who first told Grenier about Plame’s covert status.
Attempts to reach Armitage and Grenier for comment were unsuccessful.
Grenier never testified during Libby’s trial that he spoke to Armitage about Plame. To the contrary, Grenier, who had originally stated during his grand jury testimony that he did not recall having a conversation with Libby about Plame, testified during his second appearance in January 2007 that, on June 11, 2003, a day after Kiriakou sent out the email, he recalled that he told Libby that Plame worked at the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division.
“It wasn’t as though I suddenly, you know, had this flashing revelation that, ‘Oh my God, I did say it,’ ” Grenier said. “But again, as I thought about it over time and as I remembered specifically, again, those sort of mental gymnastics that I went through immediately after the conversation, I developed a growing conviction that, in fact, I had said it. I mean, at a certain point, I said, ‘You know, wake up and smell the coffee – you must have told him.’ “
Kiriakou said after Libby was indicted and his trial began he “was called as a witness for the defense … something that was deeply upsetting to me.”
“So I hired an attorney, Lanny Breuer,” who is presently assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s criminal division. “And I told Lanny I really don’t know why I am being subpoenaed. We speculated it was to impeach Bob Grenier’s testimony. I had no idea [Grenier] told the Special Prosecutor that he had inadvertently leaked Valerie’s status. So Lanny Breuer told Special Prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] and Libby’s attorneys that there is nothing I am going to say that is going to help Scooter Libby in this trial. So I went on the final day [to Libby’s trial]. I sat with other CIA officers called to testify and they didn’t call any of us to testify on the stand.”
In 2007, Libby was convicted of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 30 months in jail. George W. Bush later commuted the sentence to spare Libby any jail time.
The foggy memories and apparent lies revolving around who told what to whom and when in early June 2003 and why it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle was explained in detail by Marcy Wheeler, who wrote a book about the Plame leak, “Anatomy of Deceit,” and covered Libby’s criminal trial.
In a June 6, 2007, blog post, Wheeler said that on June 11, according to Libby’s calendar, he “called Robert Grenier in the presence of Cheney and [Cheney’s press secretary Cathie] Martin, looking for information he likely already knew from [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc] Grossman and almost certainly from Cheney. That suggests Cheney, Martin and Libby discussed how to respond to [Washington Post reporter Walter] Pincus [who queried Libby about Ambassador Wilson’s claims about bogus intelligence related to Niger] and that (presumably not telling Martin of the details they were after) they called Grenier for the missing piece: An on-the-record statement saying that State and DoD had been interested in the intelligence as well.
“Libby didn’t get Grenier immediately. Instead, Grenier called back … learned what Libby was looking for, did some research and prepared an answer: Valerie sent Joe, Plame worked in [the Counterproliferation Division] and [the Department of Defense] and State were also interested in the intelligence,” Wheeler wrote. “Will CIA be willing to say the last bit publicly? Libby asked. I don’t see why not, Grenier said, have your press person speak to my press person. This leads to a conversation between [CIA spokesman Bill] Harlow and Martin. Perhaps Harlow agrees to make a statement – but if he does, it comes too late for the Pincus article [published July 12, 2003]. Also, such a statement doesn’t make it into Martin’s talking points on Wilson that she was still using almost a month later.
“There seem to be two explanations for this: either the Cheney note is actually a note from Libby’s conversation with Grenier (remember, he wrote ‘VP’ sometime after he wrote the note itself). Or, [the Office of the Vice President] already had the talking points set up – and they had just called Grenier to try to solicit this information out of him. Perhaps, even, they were trying to make sure Cathie Martin learned of the information Cheney already knew, but via a third party source that couldn’t be traced back to the Vice President.
“I lean toward the latter – it seems highly unlikely that Libby would have made up the conversation with Cheney and stuck to that story over four years and a trial. Which means the Libby-Cheney conversation happened sometime before the [June 11, 2003] Grenier conversation (and therefore further suggests that, as has been assumed all along, Cheney was indeed Libby’s first source for Plame’s identity),” Wheeler continued. “And the Grenier conversation was simply an attempt to set somebody up to tell Libby, Martin and the press the same information via a different source.”
Although Kiriakou is fuzzy on the details surrounding the events in early June leading up to the leak of Plame’s identity to a handful of reporters, the information he did provide supports arguments Wheeler and others had made over the years that Libby knew Plame was married to Wilson and was a covert operative before he spoke to Grenier and Grossman about it. This revelation also calls into question the truthfulness of Grenier’s testimony, suggesting that he ignored Libby’s outburst when he entered the meeting on June 10, 2003, when Kiriakou was present and instead focused simply on the phone call he received from Libby inquiring about Plame after the fact.
While Kiriakou could not recall the exact details of the June 10, 2003 episode meeting, one thing seems crystal clear: there was an important meeting that took place that day, a meeting where Libby made it abundantly clear that he had already learned that Plame was married to Ambassador Wilson and that she was an undercover operative.