C.I.A. whistleblower John Kiriakou told the Belmarsh Tribunal in Sydney, Australia on Saturday that the threat to Julian Assange is a threat to every national security reporter. (With transcript)
Progressive International Belmarsh Tribunal, Great Hall, Sydney University.
John Kiriakou truly belongs in a hall of the pantheon of the greatest whistleblowers of this century. John was a C.I.A. analyst [sic – agent] who revealed and more significantly confirmed rumors of the US torture program, in particular the waterboarding techniques, virtual drowning of interrogation subjects. It was the first insider to do that. Could you imagine crossing that threshold to reveal something like that, knowing the semi-trailer that’s coming your way?
But it was an issue. The torture itself, some sort of mad invention of Donald Rumsfeld, so I imagine, some dark fantasy that so directly corrupted all that America had stood for, most profoundly corrupted all that America stood for, hat prompted John Kiriakou to reveal that program. And, of course, there was hell to pay. He went to jail.
But beyond going to jail, he lost friendships. He lost career. He was mocked and vilified and threatened. And yet, through all of that, he’s still standing and he’s here today and he’s in Julian Assange’s corner. So John Kiriakou.
Thank you very much. And thank you very much. I don’t deserve it. First, I want to thank Progressive International and all the organizers for the opportunity to be here and to address all of you. This is a real thrill for me. It’s a thrill because we’re all here for Julian Assange. That’s how important this is. And it’s important for several different reasons.
I’m going to begin by asking for your indulgence, and I apologize if you’ve heard much of what I’m going to say before. But I think it’s important and it deserves repeating. At the C.I.A., they teach us in briefing training to give your main point up front. So I’ll do that. The American government is lying about Julian Assange. That’s the bottom line.
They’re lying and they’re going to continue to lie.
Where do we even begin to talk about this? Julian has been charged with multiple counts of espionage. Espionage is the gravest offense or at least one of the two gravest offenses with which a person can be charged in the United States. In some cases, it carries with it the death penalty. I think that the Justice Department wants us to be happy that they haven’t charged Julian with a death penalty case within the Espionage Act.
But let’s talk about the Espionage Act for a moment. So you can see how ridiculous this law is. The Espionage Act was written in 1917 to combat German saboteurs during the First World War. It has never been updated in any meaningful way. It does not even contain the term classified information because the classification system wasn’t invented until the 1950s.
It says national defense information, but then it never defines what the term national defense information means. It means whatever the prosecution wants it to mean. Many of us have argued over the years that the Espionage Act is is unconstitutionally broad and vague, but we never get far enough in the court system to actually make that case before the Supreme Court.
Dan Ellsberg, one of the greatest heroes in modern America, tried and continues to try, but we just haven’t quite made it that far. Well, the Espionage Act, even though the Congress has not taken it up to update it, it was actually updated judicially in my case. At the time that this happened. I didn’t realize how important it was, but in the very first hearing that I had before my judge in 2012, my attorneys argued that I did not have a criminal intent when I spoke to The New York Times and to ABC News. My intent was to inform the American people that the government was committing a crime.
And by law in the United States, you cannot classify a program if the program is criminal. You cannot classify it for the purpose of keeping the information from the American people. My judge said that she would not just reject that argument, but she would refuse to respect precedent that was set in the case of Thomas Drake, the NSA whistleblower.
She then looked at me and she said, Mr. Kiriakou, you either did it or you didn’t do it, and I think you did it. And that was it. So she defined espionage in the context of these cases very simply as providing national defense information to any person not entitled to receive it. National security journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and everywhere else do that every single day.
That’s one of the reasons why this case is so important. It’s because and I don’t mean to overstate this, the First Amendment of the Constitution, the freedom of speech and the freedom of press is resting on this case. If Julian Assange is successfully prosecuted, if he’s convicted of espionage, never mind the fact that he’s not even an American, but he’s a journalist and a publisher, every journalist and publisher in America will be liable to this kind of prosecution.
Everybody will be facing decades, centuries maybe, in prison. That’s how dangerous this is. Let’s also look at what exactly it was that Julian did. Julian reported on war crimes, as I said a moment ago. It is illegal to classify a crime. That’s actually a law in the federal code. It’s never been prosecuted. Right? Why is it that C.I.A. leaders were not prosecuted when they created the torture program or when they created the illegal extraordinary rendition program or when they created the the secret prison program?
It’s because they’re the good guys and you don’t prosecute the good guys when they’re trying to keep us safe at night. You remember the old saying about men being willing to do dark things to keep us safe? Have we lost our humanity? It kind of seems that way. Another problem is that the United States does not have an Official Secrets Act.
Thank God. At least we don’t have it yet. But I can tell you that at the C.I.A., they like very much what they see in the U.K. and their Official Secrets Act. And so this is a way to sort of create an official Secrets Act through the back door, that if they can successfully prosecute Julian Assange, they know that they can then prosecute anybody.
We’re just going to have to take their word for it that they don’t want to prosecute the people that they believe to be legitimate journalists.
Another issue, and I say this all the time, but I do because it’s true. The American people own the information that Julian has released. We have a right to know what our country and our government is doing in our name. I want to know if my government is murdering journalists in Iraq.
I want to know if my government is disappearing people in secret prisons around the world where nobody knows that they’re there and then they torture them in many cases to death, in which case they just cremate them and throw them away. But we have a right to know this information. It was only Julian Assange who gave it to us. For that, we should be grateful. I also want to talk about the kinds of conditions that Julian might face, would face, will face when he if he’s extradited to the United States and convicted.
I want to come back to my initial statement that the government is lying. We know about this provisional promise to not send Julian to to a SAM unit. There are other units called CMUs, Communication Management Units. There’s also solitary confinement. It is not up to the prosecutors in any case to decide who goes to what prison and who is kept in what unit.
They have literally no say on the matter. The judge has no say on the matter. The only people who get to decide that are the senseless bureaucrats in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And even if they decide not to send Julian to a restricted unit, all that has to happen for him to go there is for any random prisoner to walk up to a prison guard and say, I just heard two people talking about stabbing Julian Assange.
Then Julian will be sent to solitary confinement, indefinitely, “for his own safety”. When I first arrived at prison, I decided to file a Freedom of Information Act request about myself. And the reason I did this is because I had begun writing an open letter from prison that I called Letters from Loretto. It enraged the warden, and so I would smuggle these letters out to my attorney, and then she would send them to the media.
And they were getting millions and millions of hits. And so I was put in what was called a Modified Communications Management Unit. There was a five day delay on my incoming and outgoing emails. My phone calls were not recorded. They were listened to live by a live guard. And and both my incoming and outgoing mail was was opened and read.
So in this in this modified CMU. All of a sudden I felt my style cramped. So I wrote a letter to the Bureau of Prisons and I said, under the Freedom of Information Act I request all documents that you have on John Kiriakou. And much to my surprise, about six weeks later, I got a package, 220 pages, 200 pages of it was nonsensical.
My medical records, my visitor’s list, things that nobody cared about. But there were 20 pages that were very clearly stamped at the top and the bottom: “FOIA exempt. Do not release to inmate.” So either someone in the Bureau of Prisons FOIA office was brain dead, or they took pity on me and decided I should probably see this.
What it was was a series of memos that the warden was sending out to prison guards, preparing them for my arrival. The one that was the most fun for me was one page with very large print, large fonts, and it said, “Caution, inmate has access to the media”. Imagine Julian Assange. He won’t be in any modified CMU. He’ll be in the CMU.
Now there are two CMUs in the United States. One is in the former death row at the maximum security penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The other is at the supermax prison in Marion, Illinois. Both of these prisons are hell on earth. And I’ll tell you about that in a moment. But when these Communications Management Units were set up in the 1980s, they were meant to house the most dangerous criminals that were in the American prison system.
And I’m talking about the last surviving member of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, a terrorist who blew up an Egypt airplane that killed something like 183 people. The so-called blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was sort of the godfather of the first attack on the World Trade Center. That’s not really the case anymore. Now, the CMU houses a medical whistleblower by the name of Marty Gottesfeld.
It houses the famed drone whistleblower Daniel Hale. It houses environmental activists. This isn’t why CMUs were created, but this is what they’re going to do with Julian. Why are they going to do it with Julian? Because they don’t want him to tell anybody what he knows. And he knows a lot. He knows a lot about crimes that have been committed by the American government, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
So when they say that he’ll be treated fairly, it’s a lie. He won’t be treated fairly. I’m going to repeat something that I say a lot too, about the court in which Julian would be tried, were he to be extradited. This is the Eastern District of Virginia. This is the court that I was tried in, the court that C.I.A. whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling was tried in.
It’s the court that Ed Snowden has been charged in. There’s a judge there. Well, there are a couple of judges. The one that that did my case and Geoffrey Sterling’s and everybody else is Judge Leonie Brinkema, used to reserve all of the national security cases for herself. And no national security defendant has ever won a case there. Well, she’s not Julian’s judge.
Julian’s judge would be the chief judge. And what did he do before he was the chief judge? He was a judge on the FISA court. That is the court that is so secret that we don’t even really know what they do. That’s who’s going to try Julian. Now, in my case, my best friend’s wife had an uncle who was O.J. Simpson’s jury consultant.
Most of you, I would assume, know who O.J. Simpson was, football player, actor, most likely double murderer. And they won the case. So this jury consultant offered to help me for free. He flew up to Washington. We got him a security clearance, and he went through 15,000 pages of classified discovery. And in the end, he told me that if we were in any other district in America, he would say, let’s go for it. We’re going to win this case.
But he said, the Eastern District of Virginia, your jury is going to be made up of people from or with relatives at the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and dozens of national security and intelligence contractors. He said, my friend, you don’t have a chance. And that’s why I ended up taking a plea.
Now, I was charged with espionage, three counts, but I hadn’t committed espionage. And so they dropped those charges. They’re not offering Julian a sweetheart deal. They’ve made this as difficult as they possibly could from the very beginning of the case. There’s really no reason for us to think, well, you know, they’ve made their point and Julian’s a journalist.
Even they have to agree with that. It’s not going to be as bad. No, no, no. It’s as bad as we think it is. When the C.I.A. comes up with a plot to murder Julian in the streets of London in broad daylight, because they don’t like the journalism that he’s doing, that’s a problem. So I wanted to say again that Julian’s case is bigger than Julian Assange.
This is a case about the rule of law. It’s a case about the Constitution. It’s about the way the United States presents itself to the rest of the world. The United States professes to be a shining beacon of hope for human rights and civil rights and civil liberties and the rule of law. And that’s just simply not true.
It’s not. And that’s why we have to stand up and stand together, because the case isn’t about Julian. It’s about all of us. Thank you very much. Thank you.
The Belmarsh Tribunal was hosted by Mary Kostakidis & Mark Davis; organised by Progressive International & Wau Holland foundation and co-sponsored by the Search Foundation, Jacobin, PEN Sydney, PEN International, Declassified Australia, NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Consortium News & The Walkley Foundation.