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Formerly Jailed CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou: Jeff Sessions Is Extending Obama’s War on Leaks

John Kiriakou discusses the FBI’s newly formed team for handling leaks.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that the FBI has formed a new team focused on investigating potential leaks to the press. During a press conference on Friday, Sessions said that leak investigations have tripled since President Donald Trump took office. Civil liberties groups criticized Sessions’s remarks. Ben Wizner of the ACLU said, “A crackdown on leaks is a crackdown on the free press and on democracy as a whole.” We speak with John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst who exposed the Bush-era torture program and became the only official jailed in connection with it.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced an administration-wide crackdown on leaks, announcing the FBI has formed a new team specifically focused on investigating potential leaks to the press. During a press conference on Friday, Sessions announced leak investigations have tripled since President Trump took office.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: So, today, I have this message for our friends in the intelligence community: The Department of Justice is open for business. And I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it. … I have listened to our career investigators, FBI agents and others, and our prosecutors, about how to most successfully investigate and prosecute these matters. At their suggestion, one of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Twitter, President Trump praised Sessions’ speech, writing, quote, “After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. taking action! For National Security, the tougher the better!” unquote. Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, also warned staff over the weekend about the leaks to the press — although his warning itself was promptly leaked.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil liberties and press freedom groups criticized Sessions’ remarks. Ben Wizner of the ACLU said, quote, “A crackdown on leaks is a crackdown on the free press and on democracy as a whole.”

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by John Kiriakou, who spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer. Kiriakou exposed the Bush-era torture program and became the only official jailed in connection with it. His memoir is titled Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

John Kiriakou, welcome back to Democracy Now!

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke to you when you were under house arrest, after you got out of jail, and now speaking to you now. Can you respond to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yeah. I think this is really not about leaks as much as it is about controlling the press. It’s the press that the president has a problem with. And another thing, too, that I think is very important in this whole scenario: The intelligence community, the intelligence agencies, the Department of Defense can refer as many leaks as they want to the FBI. It is the FBI that’s going to decide if they’re even worth investigating. And even if they are worth investigating, they’re still going to have to try to figure out whether or not it’s worth filing charges. So it doesn’t really matter how many new leaks are referred to the Justice Department for investigation. I think we’re going to see very few actual cases, if any at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Kiriakou, aside from the trend toward constant tweeting, is there any basic or fundamental difference between the way the Trump administration has been handling leaks and the Obama administration?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Frankly, not much. This really isn’t so much of a new policy as it is an extension of the Obama administration’s policy. It was Attorney General Eric Holder that really declared war on leaks back in 2009. And it was the Obama administration that prosecuted nearly three times as many leak cases as all previous administrations combined. So I think that the Obama — I’m sorry, that the Trump administration is perhaps a little bit more vocal about its intentions, but it’s really not much of a difference in policy.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the Department of Justice is not targeting journalists. This is what he said on Fox News Sunday.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: The attorney general has been very clear that we’re after the leakers, not the journalists. We’re after people who are committing crimes. And so, we’re going to devote the resources we need to identify who is responsible for those leaks and who has violated the law, and hold them accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to that? Do you believe what attorney — the deputy attorney general is saying?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: No, I don’t. And frankly, somebody should tell the attorney general that his deputy is saying that this is not going to be focused on the press, when the attorney general himself has said that it will be focused on the press. You know, I think the Justice Department learned a lesson with James Risen of The New York Times in the Jeffrey Sterling case, where they tried to compel Risen to testify in that case. Risen refused. He went to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost there, went then to the Supreme Court and lost there, and still refused to testify. Finally, the Justice Department backed off. I think that the Trump Justice Department isn’t going to want the government to back off. I think they’re going to want to make an example of somebody in the press, and, preferably, make an example of someone who’s as highly respected as James Risen is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You have been one of several former intelligence officials who have talked about the problem of overclassification of material in the U.S. government. Could you elaborate on that?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yes. There are something like 3 billion classified documents in U.S. government databases. It’s actually — and most Americans don’t even realize this. It’s actually illegal to overclassify something. Now, in the CIA, we saw this kind of thing all the time. And I’ll give you an example. My wife and I were in the CIA at the same time. If I wanted to have lunch with her, I would send her a message and say, “Hey, do you want to have lunch?” And I would classify that document secret. Now, why is that secret? It’s actually not secret. But everybody classified everything at the secret level. It was just policy. It’s just the way things were. She would respond to me, “Sure, I’ll meet you at 12:00.” And she would classify that secret. It’s actually illegal to do that.

And I think that in what we’re seeing now with the case that I think is the impetus of this new Justice Department announcement, the leak of the transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with the prime minister of Australia and with the president of Mexico, that the information in those transcripts really wasn’t very sensitive. It was embarrassing to the president, certainly, but it wasn’t — it had no impact on national security. So, for the administration to say that that was classified or that that was somehow national security information is an overclassification. This is an issue that no one in government has yet addressed. And I think that the only way it will be addressed is if someone is arrested for leaking this information and then they fight it by saying that it was improperly classified. I think that’s the only way we’re going to see action on this.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were asking your wife to meet in the evening, would that be top-secret?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Exactly. I mean, we throw around these classifications like they mean nothing. In fact, they mean very important things. Now, what should be used are things called controls, rather than classifications. You can call something sensitive but unclassified, SBU, or you can call it for official use only. So, that means that they’re not intended for public dissemination, but they’re not necessarily classified. There’s a lot of information in government that should — that should have those controls but should not be classified.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you discuss also the distinction between just leaking and whistleblowing, for the folks who don’t understand the distinction?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I think this is a very important distinction, actually. There’s a legal definition of whistleblowing, and that is bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to the public health or public safety. Leaking is just leaking. And there are lots of motivations for leakers. Some people like the thrill of speaking with a journalist, for example. Some people like to feel important, that they’re on the inside. They have this information, and they just have to share it with somebody. Some people do it for revenge, just because they’re angry at a boss, angry at the president, perhaps, angry at a supervisor. But leaking is not whistleblowing. They are mutually exclusive.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And politicians and even the White House leak all the time, don’t they?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Well, you know, that’s the dirty little secret of Washington, isn’t it? The most prolific leaker in Washington is the president of the United States, not even just that it’s Donald Trump. It was Barack Obama before him. Certainly, many leaks — I might even say most leaks — come out of the White House, out of the National Security Council and out of the Defense Department. Now, those are usually what we call official leaks, where they’re meant as trial balloons, or they’re meant to influence public opinion or public policy. Those leaks are never prosecuted.

AMY GOODMAN: John, your memoir, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, can you remind us, and for people who don’t know the story of John Kiriakou, how you ended up serving two years in prison, what exactly you did?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. In December of 2007, I gave an interview to Brian Ross of ABC News, in which I said three things. I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. I said that torture was official U.S. government policy — it was not the result of a rogue CIA officer, as President Bush had suggested. And I said that the torture policy had been personally approved by the president himself. So, within 24 hours, the CIA filed a crimes report against me, and the FBI began investigating me. They investigated me for a full year, until December of 2008, and then determined that I had not committed a crime, and they closed the case.

What I didn’t know was that a month later, after President Obama had been inaugurated and Eric Holder had been named attorney general, that the CIA asked Holder to secretly reopen the case against me. And so, the FBI investigated me for another three years, until January of 2012. Now, in that three-year period, the FBI dug deep into my life. They tapped my phones. They intercepted my emails. I was under surveillance. I had no idea any of that was taking place. And they found an email that I had sent in which a reporter asked me if I would introduce him to someone who might agree to sit for an interview for a book he was writing. In my response, I confirmed the last name of a former CIA colleague, who I believed was retired. That was a crime. That was a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

But I wasn’t just charged with that. I was also charged with three counts of espionage, coming out of my original ABC News interview, and one count of making a false statement, which my attorneys and I never really fully understood. I didn’t really know what the false statement was. But in any event, I always believed, and my attorneys believed, that my case was not about leaking or about revealing the name. The name was never made public, in any event. It was about whistleblowing. And it was because I aired the CIA’s dirty laundry and I said the CIA was torturing its prisoners. And so, I went to prison for 23 months for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. I’m only the second American ever to be charged with that crime, and I’m the only CIA officer ever to go to prison for speaking to the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you do it again?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Oh, in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. See, this is — this is the thing. The American people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name. And it is illegal to classify a crime. I believed at the time — I still believe today — that torture is illegal. And so, to classify that torture program as some kind of a top-secret, compartmented program is illegal. I stand by that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to get your response to this latest news. A federal judge has cleared the way for a trial against military two psychologists who helped devise the Bush administration’s interrogation program, which included using torture, as waterboarding. The psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, reaped more than $80 million for designing torture techniques used by the agency. The lawsuit was brought by Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ben Soud, two survivors of the torture program, along with the family of Gul Rahman, who froze to death at a CIA black site in Afghanistan. I’m wondering your reaction.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I’m thrilled about this lawsuit. And frankly, I can’t believe that both the Obama administration’s CIA leadership and the Trump administration’s CIAleadership have allowed this case to go forward.

One of the things that’s truly sickening about this case is that the psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, just in the last two weeks used the example of scientists in Nazi Germany, who developed Zyklon B gas that was used to gas Jews in concentration camps, as part of their defense. They said that at Nuremberg, the inventors of Zyklon B weren’t prosecuted, so they shouldn’t be prosecuted, because they only taught the CIA how to torture. That’s just simply not true. The scientists that invented the Zyklon B were not prosecuted, but Mitchell and Jessen not just created this torture program, they went overseas to the secret site, to the secret prison, and they were the ones who actually carried out the torture.

I think, frankly, that Mitchell and Jessen are very, very fortunate in that this is not a criminal trial, because this is a violation — their actions are a violation of the federal Torture Act of 1946 and a violation of the United Nations Conventions Against Torture. So, they’re lucky, I think, that this is only a civil suit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Kiriakou, we want to thank you very much for being with us. John spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer. He exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it. His memoir is Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Minneapolis, where a mosque was bombed this weekend. President Trump has been tweeting up a storm on his vacation. Not a word about this act of what the Minnesota governor is calling terrorism. Stay with us.


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