CIA officer John Kiriakou, the first U.S. official to confirm that waterboarding was used to torture “war on terror” detainees, then faced a retaliatory prosecution and 30 months in prison. Recognizing his sacrifice, the literary group PEN gave Kiriakou its First Amendment Award, observed ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
By Ray McGovern
Editor’s Note: On Nov. 16, PEN Center USA, the West Coast branch of PEN International, gave former CIA officer John Kiriakou its First Amendment Award for his role in exposing waterboarding as torture used during President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” Kiriakou then faced retaliation which led to a 30-month prison term for revealing classified information.
PEN International, a human rights and literary arts organization that promotes the written word and freedom of expression, asked former CIA analyst Ray McGovern to write an essay describing Kiriakou’s contribution and sacrifice. McGovern wrote:
John Kiriakou was just a name in the news until early 2012 when I got a call from Jesselyn Radack, mutual friend, whistleblower and intrepid attorney, who suggested I have lunch with him. John had been arrested in January and charged with unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Over lunch I learned how John had transitioned from highly decorated CIA officer to target of a government vendetta.
John, you see, had refused to be trained in how to torture. Even worse, he had the temerity to confirm publicly that our government was implementing a White House-approved program of torture techniques that turned out to be virtually identical to those listed in the Gestapo Handbuch.
Those of you who have seen the documentary Silenced already know of the key role Jesselyn Radack has been playing in defending whistleblowers like John Kiriakou. What? This is the first you have heard of Silenced? Well, there’s a subject for another discussion. Suffice it to note here that the powers-that-be in the distribution business simply chickened out, as they so often do.
Silenced chronicles behavior by faux lawyers at the Department of Justice that is anything but just or lawful. But, hey, who, in this day and age, wants to take on a notoriously vindictive DOJ? And so, with supreme irony, Silenced has been silenced.
The documentary shows in a poignant way how, after Jesselyn Radack’s own ordeal at the hands of DOJ where she had been an adviser on legal ethics, she decided to devote the rest of her professional life to defending other whistle blowers. John Kiriakou and NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake are also featured all three playing their own roles.
The film presents an extraordinary example of how personal involvement with innocent suffering with injustice suffered first hand or by others can move the heart and the will so deeply that experience becomes catalyst for solidarity and action.
And healing. This came second nature to the community that immediately enfolded the Kiriakou family and helped John’s wife Heather and their three young children 2, 7, and 9 at the time survive the ordeal of two years with dad stuck in prison. There were lots of us many no strangers to jail or prison for whistleblowing or nonviolent resistance and Code Pink, as usual, stepped up to share leadership.
Making an Example of John
At CIA’s urging, DOJ was coming after John Kiriakou big time. And Heather, herself a widely respected CIA analyst, was let go. In effect, government retaliation created a situation of “two-less” replacing the “twofer” that had been serving with such distinction and integrity at CIA.
When John went to prison, I could identify albeit in a very small way with what it means to be away from wife and children for what seems like forever. Decades ago I had spent three months alone in the Soviet Union, away from my wife and three small children. I ached; I missed the hugs so much that I dreamed of finding a way to send my arms home in the diplomatic pouch.
It’s harder still, of course, for wives. It always is. It was challenging enough for my wife to cope with our three children all of them under ten for three months. The mind boggles at what it must have been like for Heather with three still younger children.
And in the midst of all this, with zero warning, Heather’s mother had a fatal heart attack. She had been an anchor against the wind for Heather and also a large part of her grandchildren’s lives. With our own three daughters, I have witnessed first-hand the sanctity of the unique bond between mother and daughter. Maybe only a woman can fully understand the depth of the challenge Heather faced with the sudden death of her treasured soul mate and with no husband nearby to lean on.
The “Dark Side”
John Kiriakou had become CIA’s Enemy No. 1 because he was the first insider to disclose that his former colleagues had been suborned into implementing a program of torture. Alarm bells had sounded at CIA: What if some of John’s former colleagues retrieved their consciences and followed his example? This could not be allowed to happen. Swift retribution was indicated.
The broader question, of course, is why had it been so easy to get CIA operatives to walk on Dick Cheney’s “Dark Side.” The context, of course, is 9/11. We keep hearing: “AFTER 9/11 EVERYTHING CHANGED.” Really? Everything? Did torture somehow slip out of the moral category it had long inhabited together with rape and slavery the category ethicists call “intrinsic evil?”
No way, said John Kiriakou. And thus began a cruel duel between two unequal adversaries: an exceedingly ruthless, vindictive government and a CIA professional determined not to violate his conscience.
What happened not only to many of John’s colleagues but also to Americans at large parallels what happened to Germans after their “9/11,” the burning of the Parliament building in Berlin on Feb. 27, 1933. Be afraid, they were told, be very afraid. It worked. With what a young German lawyer (later a writer with the pen-name Sebastian Haffner) living in Berlin at the time called “sheepish submissiveness,” Germans acquiesced in the most draconian, one might say “Patriot Act”-type, violations of their own Constitution. Haffner wrote:
“The sequence of events … is wholly within the normal range of psychology, and it helps to explain the inexplicable. The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.’ This, a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial.”
Missing? Missing in many; anchored in Greek marble in John Kiriakou.
In exposing torture, John found himself in the company of other officials with integrity and guts like Gen. John Kimmons, head of U.S. Army Intelligence. On the very day (Sept. 6, 2006) that President George W. Bush publicly disclosed and bragged about the supposed effectiveness of what he called “an alternative set of procedures” for interrogation (then given the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”), Kimmons arranged his own press conference at the Pentagon and said:
“I am absolutely convinced [that] no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”
Actually, Kimmons could have gone back 70 years not just five. It turns out that “enhanced interrogation techniques” is a literal translation of the Gestapo Handbuch’s “Verschaerfte Vernehmung.” And most of those Nazi “techniques” are the same ones blessed by the Bush-Cheney administration (with just a few further enhancements).
The award from PEN seems all the more appropriate inasmuch as John is now a writer and speaker of truth a well as a consultant on films and TV shows. And as many of us know only too well, he has his work cut out for him, whether writing about intelligence, torture, or how our prisons must be humanized.
Polling shows that most Americans continue to support brutal methods of interrogation, even in the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report made public last December that, using CIA’s own cables, disproved claims that torture “worked.” Trouble is, Americans don’t read Senate reports; they watch TV and movies. That’s how they “know” torture works. Think Fox TV’s series “24.” Think Columbia Pictures’ “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Jack Bauer, the hero of “24,” breaks captives’ fingers to elicit information that “keeps us safe.” And Americans applaud. Worse still, interrogators are misled and corrupted. Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, a military lawyer at Guantanamo, told British author Philippe Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas. We saw ‘24’ on cable … It was hugely popular.”
Sands wrote, “She [Beaver] believed the series contributed to an environment in which those in Guantanamo were encouraged to see themselves as being on the frontline and to go further than they otherwise might.” Sands added that “24” also made it more difficult for those who objected to the abuse to stop it.
In fact, “24” was making torture appear so effective and even glamorous that U.S. military officials appealed to the creators of the show to tone down the torture scenes and give less play to the fiction that torture is “effective.”
Some psychological research has shown that fiction is as effective as non-fiction at deeply moving people even when they know that what they are being moved by is a fictional account. People tend to be “transported” by a good story providing “truths” that appear just as powerful (or even more so) as those we encounter in the real world.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Which brings us to “Zero Dark Thirty.” And this, I believe, would be of particular interest to PEN. How in the world will John Kiriakou be able to open minds to the reality that the issue of morality aside torture does not “work,” when so many have actually seen it “work” watching “Zero Dark Thirty,” as well as “24?”
True, John Kiriakou has an abundance of experience and credibility. But what are these, stacked up against seeing torture work “with your own eyes?” John can cite the following facts until he is blue in the face, but the odds remain high against him.
On Dec. 21, 2012, two days after “Zero Dark Thirty” premiered, CIA’s acting director took the unusual step of formally addressing agency employees with these words:
“[T]he film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate. … [It] creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false. … I want you to remember that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not a documentary.”
Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a POW in North Vietnam, said the film left him sick “because it’s wrong.”
Historian Karen J. Greenberg, Director of Fordham University Law School’s Center for National Security, wrote this about the film’s director: “Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists.” Greenberg called the film “the perfect piece of propaganda, with all the appeal that naked brutality, fear, and revenge can bring.”
And Peter Maass of The Atlantic wrote that the film “represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking.” And Maass, too, is right.
I’m not sure John Kiriakou would qualify for PEN Center USA’s specific program for “Emerging Voices,” but I am sure that, just the same, this year’s First Amendment Awardee is a very important emerging voice both as writer and as a consultant on films and TV shows. Of this we can also be sure; nothing John gets involved in will glorify torture or otherwise bend to prevailing winds of dishonesty.
With the support of Heather and many others, he has already bucked a powerful system arrayed against him. John Kiriakou will give no quarter in his passion for spreading truth around, no matter how many additional systemic hurdles he may be required to surmount.
Besides, he has “backing.” If you don’t believe me, download Silenced.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which welcomed John Kiriakou into membership from federal prison.
When Gandhi was asked what he thought of the Western Civilization, he smiled and said “THAT would be a good idea”. The West has proven again and again that Gandhi was RIGHT. People like Assange, Manning, Snowden, and Kiriakou prove that there are Civilized Individuals in the West but it still remains largely uncivilized………
The government of a civilized nation would celebrate as heroes the likes of Assange, Manning, Snowden and Kiriakou. Ours goes out of its way to demonize them as traitors because they expose wrongdoing rather than go along with the program and cover it up. Shameful!
â€” Up Against the Big Machine (How Does it Feel, To be on Your Own?*) â€”
Excellent piece Ray.
As you are aware, I have just published two articles on my blog that in part relate to the experiences of folks like John Kiriakou. In one of these pieces I recount my own first hand experiences of being a whistleblower along with some deep ‘n meaningful musings on that experience. Here is the relevant extract:
“…..From the outset I can say the following. I know how the whistleblower feels, albeit on a less exalted, but no less personally significant level. More than simply sharing the same values, beliefs and ideals of those who seek to hold people in powerful positions to an acceptable level of transparency and accountability, by acting on such beliefs and heart-felt ideals I have first hand experience of the attendant dilemmas, fears, challenges, anxieties and the myriad costs that come with the territory when one chooses to speak truth to power in our broad contemporary political and economic environment.
Having been directly impacted by them, I am moreover well aware of the potential and actual economic, social and legal consequences that canâ€”and doâ€”manifest themselves by taking such a position. Iâ€™ve had to deal with the impact the experience has had on my own physical, financial and mental health, on the well-being and welfare of my family, and on my relationships with those same family members as well as friends. Along with the aforementioned, I have â€˜paid a priceâ€™, one that inevitably accompanies these difficult decisions.
Overall, I believe then I have a good handle on the risks, perils and costs that accompany the decision to stand up for something you believe in, to challenge what one perceives to be unfair or [is] wrong, and to defend oneself against unwarranted attacks on your personal character and professional integrity. To use the CIA vernacular of choice in such matters, Iâ€™m well acquainted with the blowback!
Let me be emphatic here: Iâ€™m no Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, William Binney, Julian Assange, and certainly no Sibel Edmonds or Colleen Rowley to be sure (the latter two especially for what should be obvious reasons).
My experience of speaking truth to power is/was never going to make headlines, largely because it occurred in a milieu and under circumstances that did not at the timeâ€”nor are they likely to anytime soonâ€”lend themselves to attracting that kind of attention. But there is no doubt that at my own unassuming level, I ran the same gauntlet that many whistleblowers and leakers do, even if the stakes werenâ€™t near as high. I endured as it were â€˜the slings and arrows of outrageousâ€™ power-mongers.
For these reasons alone then my empathyâ€”experientially derivedâ€”is unquestionably authentic. Iâ€™ve had skin in the whistleblowing game! Or to put in that uniquely American vernacular, I had â€˜a dog in that fightâ€™. That my dog lost is something we will now explore, and not just for posterity!
To underscore this assertion, when I first chose to go up against the Big Machine, the â€˜operatorsâ€™ ignored me. When that failed to discourage me, they adopted a â€˜best from of defence is attackâ€™ strategy and tried to trash my character and impugn my professional integrity. When that didnâ€™t work to their satisfaction, they tried to shut me up.
After that also failed, they eventually devised a pretext to shut me down and shut me out. From that point onwards, no correspondence was entered into, and the judgesâ€™ decision was final. This is standard operating procedure for any Big Machine!
The Big Machine has its praetorian guard-dogs, and it is their job to protect the workings of the Machine at all costs. No-one but no-one will be permitted to throw a spanner into the works of the Machine. And if you do the Machine will chew you up and spit you out, and not even give you a second thought.
In that sense then, as I have since come to reflect on it, the Big Machine in my case was no less ruthlessly protective of its power prerogatives than the admittedly much â€˜biggerâ€™ Machine encountered by stateside whistleblowers such as those already mentioned.
Although for my part I considered legal action, it was an option that soon became unattractive because of the costs associated with taking it, along with the lack of guarantees that any â€˜successâ€™â€”however it may have been measuredâ€”might have justified this â€˜investmentâ€™.
As well, in seeking some other remedial action, although I was initially successful in bringing my story to the attention of the local media, my former employers mobilised their formidable media relations resources, their internal control mechanisms, and their political connections in portraying me as â€˜just another disgruntled employeeâ€™. And that was the end of that.
Ask any whistleblowerâ€”I expect most will identify much in the above narrative as central their own experience.
Along with my reluctance to burden readers with it, space, time and some old-fashioned â€˜need-to-knowâ€™ considerations preclude a â€˜blow-by-blowâ€™ herein of what was a six-year plus ordeal.
In the service though of a suitable introduction to the main themes and issues hereinâ€”and in order to infuse a deeper measure of legitimacy to any observations I might make regarding these â€œthemes and issuesâ€â€”it is sufficient to know that when they did â€˜shut me down and outâ€™, it was not enough to simply destroy my then career, albeit one which was pretty much already on life support because of my reputation for speaking out.
The â€˜powers that beâ€™ to whom I was speaking truthâ€”a very large state based education bureaucracy here in Western Australia, along with their political mastersâ€”then devised their own methods to arbitrarily deny me my ability and my right to earn my livelihood in my chosen profession, a situation that to this day three years later Iâ€™ve not been able to turn around in any substantive way.
If for a period I was (to paraphrase an expression long attributed to LBJ), â€˜the skunk on the inside of the tent pissing outâ€™, the PTBs in question decided they could live with me being the skunk on the outside.
And as if to drive home the message, as a result of allegations needlessly and vindictively contrived, and then formally lodged by my former employers with the state police, at one point I faced serious legal consequences of the criminal kind.
In this respect readers can be assured I did nothing wrong, a reality underscored by the later refusal, belated as it was, of police investigators to pursue the matter to the fullest extent Iâ€™ve little doubt my former employers encouragedâ€”and would have been happy forâ€”them to do so.
I was nonetheless still forced to deal at the time with what was a very serious matter, a potential conviction on child abuse charges, with the prospect of a criminal conviction, if not actual time in the can, very real.
And if I might make one more key point to round out this anecdoteâ€”again, one with which I feel sure most whistleblowers will identifyâ€”it would be this. Out of the tens of thousands of front-line staffers working in this particular bureaucracyâ€”itself jurisdictionally one of the largest of its kind in the country, if not indeed the worldâ€”I was one of only a small handful of people who deigned to go up against this Big Machine. I was someone who, to use the vernacular, was prepped to â€˜stick their ass in the meat grinderâ€™ as it were.
Now I say this for one reason alone, and itâ€™s decidedly not driven by any self-serving, egocentric desire to extol virtues I may or may not possess. It is amongst other things a cogent pointer to the ever-present quandaryâ€”with its attendant moral, ethical, legal, economic, personal and professional dimensionsâ€”faced by folks who perceive some wrong and are inclined to do something about it, yet for any number of reasons agonise about whether to actually do so.
And I did not at the time think of what I was doing as â€œsticking my ass in the meat grinderâ€.
For those of us genuinely trying to make a living and support our families, as for bringing home the economic costs alone of speaking out, the following metric should do so in spades. In lost earnings alone over the duration of my campaign for accountability, transparency, change, and then justice, it amounted somewhere between $250-300K.
This amount does not include the almost three-year period â€˜outside of the tentâ€™, during which I have not been able to work at my chosen profession, one in which the annual salary for someone with my experience and background amountedâ€”by accepted professional benchmarksâ€”to around $95K per annum. Readers, do the math!
Hardly â€˜chicken feedâ€™ then? You donâ€™t say!
Many questions come to mind herein then in contemplating the dilemma of the whistleblower, but the following considerations should suffice to underscore the above: If the perceived wrong is so egregious, so glaring, so costly, so obviously destructive, and so lacking in justice and fairness (and not necessarily just for you), why isnâ€™t the queue of folks genuinely chomping at the bit to act on, draw attention to, and campaign to rectify, this perceived wrong, much longer than it should be â€˜in a perfect worldâ€™?
And if we do act on it, can we count on, come hell and high water (both of which in these situations usually travel in pairs and whose invariably inevitable arrival is concurrent), the unequivocal, ongoing support of our family, friends and colleaguesâ€”whose respective and collective degrees of commitment to seeing the wrong righted will vary, and whose presence may not always be detectable in the ‘support’ queueâ€”to ensure that somehow, at some point, a measure of justice (or reasonable facsimile thereof) will prevail, and that some vindication for our principled stand will reveal itself?
And last but by no means least, have we fully considered the consequences (again as predictable as they are as inevitable), of speaking truth to power, and are we preppedâ€”worst case scenario likeâ€”to pay that price?
Are we also prepared to do so in the full knowledge that in almost all cases our â€œprincipled standâ€ will be akin to, as they say, peeing oneself in a dark suit in a public place, to wit: It might give you a nice warm feeling all over (at least from the waist down), but is anyone â€˜within your orbitâ€™ really going to notice?
This irrespective of whether our â€œprincipled standâ€ has achievedâ€”for ourselves or anyone elseâ€”anything remotely resembling the goals and objectives we identified as the justification for adopting it from the off.”
Consortium readers wishing to explore the broader themes and issues can do so here.
(In the Shrouded Empire) â€” Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subterfuge
Inside the Inner Sanctuary (Of the Secret Mind)
Editor / Publisher
(*Apols. to Bob Dylan)
“Silenced” is available on Netflix.
About a week ago, John Hanrahan submitted a fine article regarding the “double standards” applied to whistleblowers who were surreptitiously acting on behalf of the administration as opposed to those who were acting in keeping with their moral compunctions and their duty to Constitutional imperatives. I noted that no one commented, and that the “truth” often gets short shrift. So, I penned an obviously satirical little ditty expressing how, regrettably, the majority of Americans probably regard “24”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and other pure propaganda of that ilk. For several days, nobody else commented. Then, finally, an irate reader berated my contribution apparently dismissing any notion that it could be satirical and suggesting that I must be “brainwashed”. That his comment seemed intelligently constructed, yet he was at a loss to immediately recognize obvious satire, suggests to me that the point of my satire hit an absolute “bullseye”. If Americans cannot discern frank spoofery from cold, hard reality, they are completely defenseless against propaganda. Sadly, you better believe they think “Zero Dark Thirty” is absolutely true. Scary, isn’t it?
Manning and Snowden and Kiriakouâ€¨
Told tales about heroes who fight for our rights.â€¨
Hollywood movies embellished those tales,â€¨
But basically everything in them was true.
â€¨Leon Panetta was proud of those Knightsâ€¨
Who engaged evil-doers, he told the details-
Leaving out only issues like rectal hydration,â€¨
Which might be condemned by the less patriotic
â€¨Who hate all the freedoms that made us so great.
â€¨For these were the acts that protected our nationâ€¨
Extracting confessions with techniques methodic,â€¨
Are heroic deeds that should need no debate!
Cowardly protests and moral objectionsâ€¨
Are quite un-American and they defame usâ€¨,
Alfreda Bikowsky was doing her duty.â€¨
She visited black sites to witness injections,â€¨
Of hummus and lentils infused up an anus -â€¨
Just to see Zacarias eat lunch with his booty!
That was a treatment, and medically needed.â€¨
It wasnâ€™t a transgression homoerotic,â€¨
It aided the cause of Geneva Conventions-â€¨
Upholding the standards our forefathers heeded!â€¨
Such laudable motives are none but quixotic
â€¨In keeping with justice and lawful intentions!
James Clapper showed courage by lying to Congress,â€¨
Denying that pillow-talk might foster blackmail.â€¨
His agents were hungry to gather all tidbits-â€¨
No Bill of Rights nonsense should hamper that progress-â€¨
The deep state must search through the minutest detail,
â€¨So those who object are most certainly nitwits!
Jose Rodriguez got rid of those tapes,â€¨
His â€œbig boy pantsâ€ strategy kept us secure!â€¨
Our nation was safe and they fit him just right,
â€¨He wore them while inserting various shapes,â€¨
Into detainees unwilling to talk anymore-â€¨
Such heroic deeds must be kept out of sight!
Manning and Snowden and Kiriakouâ€¨
Canâ€™t claim any noble or heroic deeds-â€¨
Petraeus and Clinton, it must be remembered,â€¨
Were composing memoirs and profiting too!
â€¨Their motives were driven by lucrative proceeds.â€¨
American values should not be encumbered-â€¨
Not even if things critics say are all true!
I’m often the last one to get the joke, but in your case, I always get a laugh out of your sarcasm. I like reading either your prose, or your straight on writing, which is always a pleasure to read. Sometimes, I wish that you would author an article here on this site, that’s how much I look forward to reading your thoughts. I’m also sure you know by now, how I am a fan of yours F.G., so keep on writing whatever it is you wish to write about, or to how you decide to write it. It’s all good!
Thanks, Joe. I can’t help but think back to when kids played ‘war’. Nobody really wanted to be the “Japs” or the “Krauts”. Now, American kids will have to play ‘detain and interrogate’ to mimic our ‘heroes’. The hard right “Family Values” types don’t seem to have thought this through. There was always some cranky old fart in the neighborhood who would spoil the fun. Today, kids may hope he comes along in time to stop the “butt ruckus”. I wonder what Vic Morrow would think about all this? Well, if nothing else, the future generation will be well prepared to assume Congressional responsibilities…
With the fall of the Soviet Union, came the rise of the American Neocon. These militarist warmongers had loss their main Russian enemy, and this was no good for their multi profitable arms businesses, they lorded over. As, Russia struggled through the nineties, the authors of the Project for a New American century, saw their goal. That goal was to take over the world’s populace, and along with that, capture all of the world’s natural resources. In their way of looking at it, they had a undetermined window of opportunity, in order to do this world hegemony project, because without a strong enemy (such as the Soviet Union was) the PNACers had very little time to accomplish their dastardly deeds. So, create chaos, instill fear, and the public will support you, was their motivation that would gather the flock to their fold. When the polls find how Americans support torture, this is only, because the public is afraid of the terrorist, who they believe loom amongst them. The MSM does such a poor job of informing people to what is really going on behind the so called curtain, that the average person hasn’t a clue to who is what, or what is who. Case in point, just ask your next door neighbor if they ever heard of John Kiriakou. The American public, and let’s include the European’s with them, need a better news feed, and I just don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Americans and others around the world who aspire to a universal social order where expressions such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights will define the standards we will live by are indebted to John Kiriakou and his family and those who supported them for keeping the candle of hope lit.
what greater gift can be given to the civilised world than of a person who jeopardizes his own wellbeing in order to enlighten and improve the quality of life for his fellow human beings?
john kiriakou is the bearer of this gift.
thank you and god bless you.