The perplexing overuse of the word is a testament to the vitriol with which Americans now conduct political discussions.

President Donald Trump and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Nov. 28, 2019. (DOD/ U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been in the news this week. The Washington Post reported that in the final months of the Trump Administration, Milley on two occasions phoned his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the U.S. military leadership would not allow President Donald Trump to launch a war with China.

The U.S. Intelligence Community had concluded that the Chinese feared that Trump would ignite a war in the South China Sea, and the Chinese began making defensive moves. Milley called Chinese General Li Zuecheng to assure him that “democracy was sloppy sometimes,” but that there would be no war with China. Milley also expressed his grave concerns about Trump’s mental state with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Within hours of the Post’s report, Trump accused Milley of “treason.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that Milley’s behavior was “treasonous.” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) called Milley “treasonist” (sic). And a lineup of Fox News hosts echoed the sentiment. The casualness with which people are throwing around an accusation that, if prosecuted, can carry the death penalty, reminds me of Donald Trump three years ago.

Trump in 2018 accused an FBI agent who, during the 2016 campaign, had sent anti-Trump texts to his girlfriend, also an FBI agent, of “treason.” He told he The Wall Street Journal, “A man is tweeting [sic] to his lover that if Hillary loses, we’ll essentially do the insurance policy. This is the FBI we’re talking about – that is treason.”

Treason is arguably the gravest crime with which an American can be charged. And it’s being bandied about as punishment for a general making a phone call to his Chinese counterpart and for an FBI agent sending a text that the president didn’t like. 

What the Constitution Says

Treason is one of only two crimes that are actually defined in the Constitution. Article III, Section 3 states clearly:

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

Treason can only technically be committed during wartime as only a Congressional declaration of war creates an “enemy.”

Milley obviously didn’t commit treason. But this isn’t just Republicans being their normal bombastic selves. “Treason” is a term that is used far too loosely these days. And it’s dangerous.

A couple of years ago I appeared in an obscure Spike TV documentary about whistleblowers. The reporters interviewed friends, supporters, and journalists. They each offered their views on the motivation of whistleblowers, what I had revealed about the CIA’s torture program, and the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act to curb national security whistleblowing.

The responses were what you might expect – whistleblowing is good, the public has a need to know, etc. But one of the people interviewed, Ronald Kessler, a has-been reporter for the hard right-wing newspaper The Washington Times, said pointedly that the discussion shouldn’t be about the concept of whistleblowing. It should be about my “treason” against the United States. The interviewer pressed him and he repeated, “Kiriakou is a traitor.”

I allowed myself a few days to cool off and, in the end, I just let it go. Nobody saw that documentary anyway, and Kessler was so unhinged that the handful of people who did see it didn’t take him seriously.

Few Cases in History 

George Washington is believed to have slept at the Brandywine Mansion in Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania on his return from putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. (Smallbones/Wikimedia Commons)

But that word “treason” has entered the American political vernacular. We see it all the time now, as if it’s somehow normal that traitors are allowed to commit their treason and continue to walk the streets and work in high-ranking positions in the government. In just the past two years there have been myriad examples.

Former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, himself a convicted criminal, said after a speech on the floor of the Senate by then-Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake that Flake’s criticism of Trump was “a treason-type situation.”

Former White House counselor Steve Bannon told author Michael Wolff for his book Fire and Fury that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney during the campaign was “treasonous.” Should Trump Jr. get the death penalty for taking the meeting? You don’t have to like the Trumps to think not.

When whistleblower Chelsea Manning announced her short-lived candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland in 2018, the conservative Washington Examiner called her an “entitled traitor” and breathlessly said, “Chelsea Manning, former soldier, nearly convicted of treason, announced over the weekend he [sic] is running for U.S. Senate from the state of Maryland.” Wow. Never mind that Manning was never charged with treason.

So who has committed treason in U.S. history? Not many people. There have been only 15 across the centuries. The first were Philip Vigol and John Mitchell, both sentenced to hang for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion. They were pardoned by George Washington. Another was the great abolitionist John Brown, who was executed in 1859 for his attempt to organize armed resistance to slavery.

The most recent were five individuals who took up arms against the U.S. or who worked as propagandists against the U.S. during World War II. They included Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose.

This perplexing use of the word “treason” is a testament to the vitriol with which Americans now conduct political discussions. But talk of treason has to stop right now. The only logical next step is that somebody in a position of authority, a particularly authoritarian president (like Trump) or an attorney general, for example, takes it to a prosecution. And at that point the Constitution is dead.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

24 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Treason!

  1. Zhu
    September 17, 2021 at 22:10

    Very true, Realist! The four years of Russiagate “Trump stole the election!!!!” nonsense is pretty much the same as Trump’s “Biden stole the election!!!!” nonsense. Both paries are identical twins, in practice.

  2. Michael Droy
    September 17, 2021 at 15:48

    Surely there is a big thick line between whistleblowing about true things that are wrong, and creating a set of lies in order to prevent a genuine candidte for President from getting elected.

    One is heroic, the other really IS Treason. It is a fair call for the FBI guy and his girlfriend – actually it is a fair call for most of the media that failed to report on him. Shame there were no whistleblowers in the FBI.

  3. September 17, 2021 at 15:46

    Treason is a strong word, but not too strong to characterize the situation in which the Senate is the eager, resourceful, and indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be.

    David Graham Phillips 1906

  4. Jean Maria Arrigo, PhD
    September 17, 2021 at 13:26

    We owe deep gratitude to John Kiriakou for his historical research, operational expertise, and moral commitment in shining the light on false interpretations and false applications of the crime of “treason.”

    We can also commemorate his own fidelity to the higher principles of his oath of office by standing up as a whistleblower against U.S. torture, which cost grave damages to him and his family.

    • David Otness
      September 17, 2021 at 16:52

      Hear-Hear! Jean Maria. I think John squirms at at the appellation of ‘Hero’ but to me it is the most fitting term reserved for his initial principled stand of courage as well as his continuing and most politic ongoing confrontations with those enemies of the United States’ Constitution. Those who not only besmirched him but imprisoned him as well.
      And, of course, that includes his fellow dissenting brethren veterans of the U.S. Intel Community, exemplars from Thomas Drake, Jeffrey Sterling, and Bill Binney, to “damn the consequences, the truth MUST be heard,” whose members include Coleen Rowley and our most endearing and avuncular Ray McGovern. None of whom ever sought fame’s limelight, they just remained committed to being the most standup citizens and patriots for what they know and cannot avoid whenever looking in their mirrors—their never questioning nor doubting their own personal and incorruptible integrity.

      H/T – H/T – H/T!

  5. Realist
    September 17, 2021 at 12:30

    Doubt your take will get much traction with the public as the very first thing Hillary and her collaborators did upon losing the election in 2016 (nay, even well before that, actually around the time of the conventions) was to quite publicly and very often declare Trump and his associates to be colluders and puppets of a purportedly adversarial Russian state whose object was to cause the collapse of the American government. Ever hear of the term “Russiagate,” John? I daresay that General Milley is still a staunch advocate of that preposterous theory. What goes around comes around, no more, no less, even though much, if not most, of the verbiage is naught but demonizing lies. Lies are America’s coin of the realm these days. Both their guys and your guys do it all the time, John.

  6. Wortmanberg
    September 17, 2021 at 12:22

    Respect, Mr. Kiriakou. I’m a big fan of yours. It’s always good to see your stuff, and to know that you’re still out there continuing your courageous work.

    I’ve always believed that permitting treason itself as a legitimate criminal charge is not compatible with a free society. I do not believe that this is just a matter of reining in loose and self-righteous use of the term (although screw Ronald Kessler). The founders put a leash on treason in the Constitution, in the first place, precisely to enshrine the principle that, in a free society, the criminal law may not be used as a weapon against political opponents; and, secondly, to restrain self-appointed guardians of the Republic, like John Brennan, who flung the term around a few years ago, from succeeding in that sordid pursuit.

    In my view, the founders did not go far enough. They should have nixed treason altogether instead of backhandedly validating it even in the limited way they did. There should not be any criminal offenses allowed whose names are political abstractions, e.g. treason, sedition, terrorism, etc., and do not involve traditional, uncontroversial criminal acts, e.g., murder, assault, robbery, arson, etc. The latter are already plenty capable of protecting the community (as much as law can do that), if they are prosecuted honestly, and they do not need to be supplemented by vague and highly charged political concepts that inescapably will result in granting a license to governments and prosecutors to define official enemies. The subversion of civil liberties that this effects is obvious.

  7. Alex Cox
    September 17, 2021 at 11:26

    The democrats attempting to impeach Trump all called Russia ‘our enemy’ or ‘our foe’. How was that possible without a declaration of war?

  8. ks
    September 17, 2021 at 10:47

    Even the woman singled out to personify “Tokyo Rose” more a victim of circumstance, prejudice, and unscrupulous journalists than a traitor. She was pardoned by Gerald Ford after it became known that the FBI and US officials in Japan coerced witnesses into giving false testimony.

    • David Otness
      September 17, 2021 at 16:58

      Methinks the same cannot and will not (and should not) be said about Rachel Maddow and ilk. (If ever such a delightful opportunity arose.)

      • Theresa Barzee
        September 18, 2021 at 16:45

        Delightful indeed! As a true rebuke wirh pithy humour, I hail it!

  9. Fred Hosea III
    September 17, 2021 at 10:06

    Such rhetorical extremes are symptoms of a kind of societal auto-immune disorder resulting from the growing existential hollowness and gradual disintegration of The American Dream that is occurring due to the corporatization of the nation-state. The Dream was already doomed to fail because of its toxic roots in slavery, genocide, racism, self-delusion and envirocidal economics, and only government interventions provided the life-support to keep it from imploding. Corporatized politics and media have steadily removed the systemic feedback regulatory controls and truth functions that are needed to maintain societal stability.

    E Pluribus Unum has become inverted into its opposite, where diversity, instead of fusing into noble unity, provokes further divisions and toxic factionalism as a desperate and furious source of ignoble identity, unrelated to truth or virtue. As the middle class has been betrayed by corporate and 1% capitalism, language and values of the middle ground have been replaced by inflammatory language of the extremes to attack social enemies the same way that AIDS and cytokine storms attack the body itself in autoimmune disorders, irrespective of the deadly consequences. It’s the contemporary version of McCarthyism, where right-wing ideologues, unmoored from reason and social conscience, rush to rhetorical extremes as last-ditch efforts to claim virtue and power and kill off domestic enemies in a toxic spiral akin to the inflammatory over-reactions of autoimmune disorders. Societal auto-cannibalism.

    • maxine chiu
      September 17, 2021 at 14:51

      Just a reminder: “Right-Wing ideologues” include Democrats and Republicans.

  10. forceOfHabit
    September 17, 2021 at 09:52

    Debating the question of what constitutes treason misses the point. The point is the deep state/ military industrial complex / behind the scenes oligarchs and plutocrats of both parties are in charge. American democracy is a sham.

  11. migueljose
    September 17, 2021 at 09:50

    When you got a bunch of 10 year olds fighting about who gets to drive the school bus you can be pretty sure something bad will happen. No heroes here. Just collapsing empire run by spoiled rich kids who sometimes trot out the Constitution as a sacred oracle to puff up their positions. Reminds me of arguments when I was 10— “You’re lying!” “No I’m not! My dad told me it’s true!”

  12. September 17, 2021 at 09:16

    Thank you.

  13. TomG
    September 17, 2021 at 06:32

    It may be a lonely calling, but it is a high calling–advocating for the important cause that words matter. In our media blitzed age, it is easy to be drug along in the misuse and hijacking of fundamental concepts by pundits, press and politicians who intentionally banter about sloppy use of language to propagandize their agenda. It is almost impossible to find anyone on the “right” or “left” not wholly complicit.

    Press on, Mr. Kiriakou and CN team. You keep it real.

  14. Aaron
    September 17, 2021 at 06:08

    And that’s the problem with Bush’s so-called “war on terror” and his crap about “you’re either with us or you’re against us”, because with a vague, ambiguous definition of “war” like that, they could literally call anybody that even disagrees with them on the subject a traitor, ridiculous as that sounds. And the Jan. 6 weirdos that were hunting and chanting “Hang Mike Pence” most likely in their walnut-sized brains believed he was guilty of “treason” for not halting the Biden certification. To Trump and the ignoramuses that follow him, pretty much everybody is guilty of treason if he says so.

  15. michael888
    September 17, 2021 at 01:44

    This is rich coming from a Spook! I believe I heard the word “treason” quite a few times from Brennan, Hayden, Clapper and other Intelligence Figureheads over the last five years.

    Most Americans now use “treason” and “sedition” interchangeably, much as they confuse “libel” and “slander” (“defamation” covers both, maybe we need a broader word for “Putin’s puppet/ Xi Jinping’s puppet”)?

    As Glenn Greenwald lamented, it is impossible for journalists to defame anyone anymore; they are free to punch down (but never up): hxxps://

    • September 17, 2021 at 10:41

      There really is nothing new under the sun.
      Most People know what is implied by the expression ‘the Writing’s on the Wall’ but may not know where it comes from.

      Some 2600 years ago the king of Babylon, now known as Iraq, put on a feast for 1000 of the elite of the kingdom, and they praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone.
      From then to now, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ and the elites of those Times, are the elites of our Times.

      The 2nd part of the Writing on the Wall record in Daniel 5 is Political. It tells of the demise of Babylon/Iraq and the rise of Persia/Iran, just like we see repeating itself in Today’s World these thousands of years later.

      Around that Time, another Prophet wrote about the dangerous Path he could see the people were on, and expressed it this way, “Woe to those who say of the evil that it is good and of the good that it is evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who present bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and in their own estimation, of profound understanding.”

      Americans, tearing each other and their Country apart, is showing the World the UN-United States of America system is no good example for the World to follow.

      It’s the Republican/Trump Cult of Personality, blindly following Trump’s lead, using and accusing others of Treason so loosely for not worshipping Trump as they do in their delusion. The American Carnage Trump introduced in his 1st Presidential speech is coming to the Streets of America all leading indicators are telling us.

      In my 77 years experience and knowledge of the word, the last real occasion of US Treason was when the US supported Saddam to invade Iran and start the brutal 8 year War to nip the 1979 Iranian Revolution in the bud.

      Americans went to the Iranians holding the American Hostages and offered them weapons to fight the Iraqis IF they HELD ON to the American Hostages, and don’t make a deal with the Carter Administration for their release until after the 1980 Election.
      That was Treason!

      The same Spirit that inspired Daniel to write chapter 5, moved me to leave my family and friends in Montreal, CanaDa in my Spiritual wake as I entered the US September 1,1975, backpack on my back, hitch hiking throughout the US to discover the Spirit of ’76.

      I ended up at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City and for an unknown, reached a high level of Visibility that resulted in me being deported as an Alien.

      These are excerpts from The Kansas City Times, September 13, 1976, over 2 Generations ago. I’m glad I’m still alive to point to the Historical Record.
      “He came to town for the Republican National Convention and will stay until the election in November TO DO GOD’S BIDDING: To tell the World, from Kansas City, this country has been found wanting and its days are numbered […] He gestured toward a gleaming church dome. “The gold dome is the symbol of BABYLON,” he said.” […] He wanted to bring to the Public’s attention an “idea being put out subtly and deceptively” by the government that we have to get prepared for a War with Russia.”

      That 1976 FUTURE is NOW with the Revelation of the details GENERALLY unfolding in the spirit of the letter.
      The World is waking up to see Trump may hasten “its days are numbered” part of the 1976 Vision, and waits with bated breath.

      The Kansas City Times did a follow up on ALL SOULS DAY, November 2, 1976

    • John Kiriakou
      September 17, 2021 at 14:40

      I’m not sure I understand. Are you one of those “once a spook, always a spook” people? And if so, what’s your point? Is it that I shouldn’t have an opinion? Is it that Democrats are just as guilty as Republicans in misusing the term “torture”? (I would agree, by the way.) Or is it just to take a shot at me?

      • michael888
        September 19, 2021 at 08:48

        Sorry if it came across as a personal shot. I admire what you have done and suffered, and your principled stance against torture that landed you in jail. I also admire what Chelsea Manning did. Whistleblowers are heroes. You are definitely deserving of your opinions, as is everyone else. Including me.

        There is that “once a spook, always a spook” feeling. I had several friends in college who had grown up with parents and uncles in The Company and held that view.

        It is also tiring to see people pushing a fake Democrat Republican divide that seemed real 70 years ago (probably wasn’t). Remember Donald Trump was a Democrat until fairly recently. Since (Bill) Clinton, I see no substantial differences in our Elite Leeches and Parasites, their pursuit of power and their lack of principles.

  16. JB
    September 16, 2021 at 23:36

    Well said!

  17. Zhu
    September 16, 2021 at 19:51

    Very good, very logical. But we Americans like hyperbolic rhetoric and “treason” is shorter that “unamerican.” Look at example of the misuses of “fascist”, “Communist”, “Marxist”, and (of course) the routine obscenities.

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