Government whistle-blowers to Edward Snowden: Don't come home
What happens to whistle-blowers after the whistle is blown
John Kiriakou in 2012Cliff Owen/AP
Every day at 5:45 a.m., John Kiriakou wakes up. He pulls on green pants and a green button-down shirt with his name and number on the front. Breakfast is at 6. He watches the news from 6:30 to 7:30, then goes back to sleep. He wakes up again at 11 a.m. for lunch, after which he exercises until around 2:30 in the afternoon. Mail call is at 3:30. Dinner is at 5 p.m.
Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, is serving 30 months in prison. He emailed a freelance reporter the name of a covert CIA officer, violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. The name was never published, but Kiriakou became one of eight people charged by the Department of Justice since 2008 for leaking classified information under the Espionage Act.
“Boredom is the toughest thing about prison,” Kiriakou wrote Al Jazeera America in letters sent from the federal low-security penitentiary in western Pennsylvania where he is incarcerated. “I have never read so many books in my life.”
The Obama administration has charged twice as many people as all the previous administrations combined under the almost 100-year-old Espionage Act. The latest among them is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the existence of U.S. government surveillance programs.
DOCUMENT: Read Kiriakou's letters
Snowden is in Russia, having sought asylum there as the U.S. attempts to extradite him to face a possible sentence of 30 years in jail — more if other charges are brought.
In interviews with others prosecuted under the Espionage Act, the message to Snowden is clear: Don’t come home. Once the media attention has faded, those who have been investigated for leaking classified information speak of lives irreparably altered, finances depleted and lifelong career ambitions permanently scorched.
Kiriakou’s career with the CIA reached its zenith when he was part of the team that captured Abu Zubaydah, the militant and suspected Al-Qaeda operative, in 2002. When he left the agency, Kiriakou became a consultant for the global firm Deloitte and worked with Hollywood filmmakers.
He was widely sought after as a national security and terrorism expert, attention that intensified after he shared with ABC News, in 2007, more details about waterboarding Abu Zubaydah than had previously been released by a CIA officer. But his information was wrong. Kiriakou told ABC that by the 30-second mark of being doused with water in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation technique,” Abu Zubaydah began to talk. In fact, the Guantanamo Bay detainee had been waterboarded about 83 times before he was brought to Cuba.
Kiriakou hadn’t been present during the interrogation sessions. Later, he said he’d gotten that information from colleagues at the CIA. However, news outlets continued to court him. He joined the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by then-Sen. John Kerry. In 2010 he released a memoir, “The Reluctant Spy.”
Then, in 2012, things began to fall apart.
“In early January 2012, I received a call from an FBI agent asking if I could ‘help on a case’ — it was an hour and 20 minutes into the interview that I realized that the case was against ME,” Kiriakou wrote in his letter from prison.
“When I said that I wanted to speak to my attorney, the FBI agents said that as we were speaking, they were executing a search warrant on my house. An hour later, my attorney told me that the FBI intended to arrest me the following Monday and would charge me with multiple counts of espionage. I knew then that my life would never be the same.”
Kiriakou was charged under the Espionage Act but was later sentenced under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for revealing the name of an undercover CIA agent to a reporter. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act is a separate law enacted in 1982 to prevent people from identifying or exposing intelligence officers, agents, or informants and sources. Kiriakou told The New York Times this January that he “was simply trying to help a writer find a potential source and had no intention or expectation that the name would ever become public.” The paper added that the name of the agent did not actually emerge publicly until after Kiriakou was charged.
He was sentenced in January of this year to 30 months in prison under a plea deal. He may be allowed to leave for a halfway house soon; otherwise he said he won’t be released until November 2014.
For now, his roommates are “a drug dealer from Lansing, a pedophile from Indiana, a pedophile from Wisconsin, a drug dealer from Puerto Rico, and a guy who committed fraud from Virginia,” Kiriakou wrote.
He works as a janitor in the prison chapel. “It’s quiet in there because there are no public address speakers,” he wrote. “There’s no mail on the weekend so there’s more time to read.”
Kiriakou said he’s currently partial to biographies, including those of Mao Zedong, Abraham Lincoln and Edward R. Murrow, and fiction by Cormac McCarthy, Jeffrey Eugenides and John Kennedy Toole.
“The books that have had the most impact on me have dealt with civil liberties, an issue I paid little attention to before my arrest,” he wrote. “The most profound have been ‘Three Felonies a Day,’ by Harvey Silvergate, and ‘One Nation Under Arrest,’ edited by Paul Rosenzweig and Brian Walsh.”
Kiriakou’s wife, Heather, and their three young children drive three and a half hours every month to visit him. “We’re able to touch each other and embrace, and the children are allowed to sit on my lap. The visits last from 8.30am to 2.15pm,” he noted. “I am also able to email my (two) older sons (from his first marriage) and speak with them on the phone monthly.”
Kiriakou wrote Snowden when the former contractor first grabbed attention for his leaks to the newspaper The Guardian about the NSA surveillance program. “I told him that, based on my own experience, I did not believe he would get a fair trial, at least not in the Eastern District of Virginia,” which, Kiriakou said, “they don’t call the ‘espionage court’ for nothing.” The jury pool, he wrote Al Jazeera America, “would be made up of current, former or retired CIA, NSA, FBI, military and intelligence contractors. That doesn’t sound like a fair trial to me. He should stay where he is.”
One of the most outspoken critics of the government’s prosecution of whistle-blowers is one of the most famous: Daniel Ellsberg. The former military analyst who released the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 recalls going through similar isolation and ostracism within his intelligence community and among colleagues at the RAND Corp., where he worked before the papers were published.
“I was Typhoid Mary. I was a leper, with a bell around my neck,” Ellsberg said in a documentary about him called “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” “I’ve come to realize that the fear of being cut out from the group of people you respect and whose respect you want, and normally expect, that keeps people participating.”
He too invoked the case of Manning when defending Snowden’s decision to leave the country, claiming that the circumstances that allowed Ellsberg himself to remain in the U.S. after releasing the Pentagon Papers are completely different from today’s.
“There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead he would be in a prison cell like Manning, incommunicado,” Ellsberg wrote in a column for The Washington Post in July. He declined interview requests for this article.
“I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy,” Ellsberg wrote, “but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here.”
Drake believes he is part of that new movement, and Kiriakou, once he leaves prison, hopes to be as well.
“I will be out of prison in a year,” Kiriakou wrote. He said he will embrace the opportunity to speak out against the government. “We are standing at the precipice and we can’t afford to relinquish our rights — the rights our forefathers and soldiers fought and died for — so that professional politicians can keep us living in fear of a terrorist attack that will never come. This will be my new life and I will embrace it.”