Government whistle-blowers to Edward Snowden: Don't come home

What happens to whistle-blowers after the whistle is blown

John Kiriakou in 2012
Cliff 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.”

Thomas Drake
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Thomas Drake, a former crypto-linguist and senior executive at the National Security Agency, was indicted under the Espionage Act several years ago for sharing classified information with a reporter about a secret surveillance program. The Justice Department eventually dropped the felony charges, and he pleaded guilty to exceeding authorized use of a computer, and had to do some community service.

By day he works at the Genius Bar at an Apple store in Maryland. By night he’s getting his Ph.D. He also gives speeches and has become one of the most vocal opponents of the government’s surveillance programs and its prosecution of people who share classified information with the press.

“The blanket of national security has become the state religion; you do not question it,” he told Al Jazeera America in an interview. “It’s obviously extremely dangerous, especially under the Obama administration, to say anything about government conduct, particularly that which violates the law. They come after you with everything they’ve got.”

Drake was informing on the agency to Congress. He’d become a source for congressional committees investigating waste and intelligence failures. His testimony was suppressed, but he felt pressure to switch to a different position that didn’t deal with sensitive classified material. In 2007, FBI agents raided his car, his office and his house.

He said he knew when reporters started publishing stories about surveillance programs that he would get caught up in the dragnet. Having spent years working in government intelligence, including time on communist East Germany, he said he recognized that “the Stasi way of keeping track of its own people would be the primary template of the (U.S.) government” and believed the Justice Department wanted to make an example of him by charging him under the Espionage Act.

“I knew they wanted to set an extremely dangerous precedent,” Drake said. “I knew I was behind several eight balls. At the point I was indicted I had run out of money; I was declared indigent before the federal district court. I had to cast my lot with the public defenders because no one else would come to my defense. No one.”

Like Kiriakou, Drake has five children. Living with the indictment hanging over his head was “a nightmare,” he said. He is reserving many details about how it is affecting his personal life for a documentary coming out next year. But he said that part of the burden of living with that indictment at the time was the knowledge within his family of “the fears and uncertainty” that he might be going to jail, and “you’re the one that brought this all upon us, it’s your fault. There is that dynamic.”

“It’s splashed all over the front pages of newspapers; I’m dealing with family members who questioned me, saying, ‘They charged you with espionage, you must have done something,’” Drake recalled. “There were few people who would have contact with me. You’re isolated from your natural allies. I was literally standing alone.”

He called it “the white-hot spotlight.” People said he was a traitor. “There were people … in Congress looking forward to seeing me in an orange jumpsuit.”

He traveled to San Antonio several times to see his father, who was “having great difficulty understanding why they’d gone after his son,” Drake said. “Everything is gone. I’ve lost it all. He was trying to get his arms around why.”

Today he estimates his loss of income and legal fees for his defense at close to $1 million. “I put every ounce of energy into keeping my freedoms,” he said.

Should Snowden return to the United States? Drake raised his voice as he answered emphatically: “No.”

“Why would he? He had to escape the United States to keep some semblance of freedom and to disclose what he needed to disclose. He saw what happened to me. He saw what happened to Kiriakou. He saw what happened to (Stephen) Kim and (Jeffrey) Sterling and (Chelsea, formerly known as Bradley) Manning.”

Drake believes Snowden would face even worse circumstances than Manning, who was convicted this year of multiple violations of the Espionage Act and is now serving 35 years in jail with the possibility of parole in eight years.

The Obama administration, said Drake, is “apoplectic” about everything Snowden has revealed, and “want(s) to get (its) hands on him in the worst possible way.”

“They would have yanked him off the street,” Drake said, adding that he believes any attorneys assigned to Snowden’s case would have had great difficulty getting access to him.

In a statement to ProPublica in July, the Justice Department said it does not target whistle-blowers. “However, we cannot sanction or condone federal employees who knowingly and willfully disclose classified information to the media or others not entitled to such information.” The leaker or whistle-blower is not the owner of such information, the Justice Department argued, and therefore cannot unilaterally release it.

We are standing at the precipice and we can’t afford to relinquish our rights.

John Kiriakou

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.”

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