JOHN KIRIAKOU: The Godfather of Whistleblowers

When the author blew the whistle on the C.I.A.’s torture program in 2007, Daniel Ellsberg called to congratulate him and say he had friends at his side. Years later, at a red-carpet event in Hollywood, the “most dangerous man in America” showed what he meant. 

Daniel Ellsberg in 2008. (Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Like so many Americans, I was heartbroken last week to learn of the death of my friend, mentor and personal hero, Daniel Ellsberg.

Dan was a giant of modern American history.  He was the godfather of national security whistleblowers.  And he was a patriot who wanted nothing more than to ensure transparency, truth and the rule of law within government. 

Much will be made of Dan’s contribution to these ideals.  He selflessly told the American people that the government was lying to them about the Vietnam War despite knowing that he could have spent the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary for his truth telling.

He embraced Henry Kissinger’s hateful admonition that he was “the most dangerous man in America.”  He worked hard to oppose the notorious Espionage Act as unconstitutionally broad and vague.  And he supported other national security whistleblowers with everything he had.

I would like to talk about the Dan Ellsberg I knew, the one who was my friend.

When I was a child growing up in western Pennsylvania, my family always had dinner together.  My parents were both elementary school teachers, current events were important to them and they would talk about the news of the day every evening over dinner.

I was 7 years old in 1971 when Dan released the Pentagon Papers, and I distinctly remember my father saying, “Daniel Ellsberg is a hero in this house.”

In Mrs. Levine’s second- grade class, we were asked one day who, other than our parents, we admired most.  Most of the kids said President Richard Nixon.  A couple said George McGovern.  I said Daniel Ellsberg.

When I blew the whistle on the C.I.A.’s torture program in December 2007, Dan was one of the first people to call to congratulate me.

It was the first time we had ever met; over the phone. I had no idea that he even knew who I was.  His call could not have come at a better time.

The C.I.A. had reported me to the F.B.I. for revealing classified information to the media, just as had happened to Dan, and I had been receiving death threats from crazy people from coast to coast.

I still remember the thrill of speaking with somebody who had been a lifelong hero.  Dan advised that some days would be dark, but that I shouldn’t forget that I had friends and that they would stand with me.  I lived by those words over the next several years.

Ellsberg in 2013, at the San Francisco Pride Parade. (Moizsyed, Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0)

In early 2012 I was finally arrested and charged with five felonies, including three counts of espionage, for conversations that I had had with The New York Times and ABC News about the C.I.A.’s torture program. 

As I was facing 45 years in prison, Dan was again among the first to call.  He stayed in close touch for the 13 months between my arrest and the day that I left to begin what turned out to be a sentence of 23 months in prison.

While I was imprisoned he was a regular correspondent, sending books about protest, truth telling and the Vietnam War, and signing each letter “Love, Dan.”  In every single letter, he asked me how my children were doing.

PEN Awards Gala 

In 2016, I was honored with the PEN USA First Amendment Award for my second book.  The award ceremony was held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, and in attendance were 600 of the most important entertainment attorneys, writers, producers and directors in Hollywood. 

[Related: CIA Whistleblower Kiriakou Honored]

Kate McKinnon in 2018. (ColliderVideo – Vimeo, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

The PEN First Amendment Award is one of the Big Four literary awards, along with the PEN Faulkner, the Pulitzer and the Edgar Allan Poe, so it was a very big deal for me.

I called Dan immediately to tell him the good news, and much to my surprise, he said that he would also attend the ceremony to accept an honorary award on Ed Snowden’s behalf.  We made plans to sit at the same table.

The evening could not have been more exciting.  There was a red carpet where photographers from the Associated Press, Getty Images, People Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times took pictures of awardees.

Dan and I posed for one together for the first time.  We also took pictures with the night’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Francis Ford Coppola, the famed Oscar-winning director of the Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and other masterpieces.

My brother and several of my best friends sat at our table, which was immediately in front of the stage and next to Coppola’s.

The event was on a tight schedule.  Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon was the master of ceremonies (she was hilarious), and the PEN people gave out a dozen awards for things like Best Children’s Book, Best Translation and Best Poetry Compilation before getting to the three of us.

Two hours into the ceremony, it was our turn.  The PEN folks had asked us to keep our speeches to a tight seven minutes.  I almost never rehearse for these things, but I did for this.

I wrote my speech, went over it a hundred times, and got it to a perfect seven minutes.  Dan got up on Snowden’s behalf and gave the most eloquent 30-minute speech I’ve ever heard.  He was on fire!  At the end, he was treated to rousing, thunderous applause.

I was next, and the excitement from Dan’s speech took me from beginning to end before I even realized it was over.  I hit the seven-minute mark perfectly, and I was proud of my indictment of the C.I.A.’s torture program.

Finally, it was Coppola’s turn.  He walked onto the stage to great applause, took his folded speech out of his jacket pocket, and said into the microphone, “Where’s the C.I.A. guy?”  I raised my hand and said, “Right here.”

He continued, “You’re probably a nice guy.  But I’m sick and tired of people criticizing my president (Obama)!  He’s working as hard as he can!”

Many in the audience began to snicker and clap, thinking that Coppola was launching into a joke.  But he wasn’t.  He turned to Dan.  “You shouldn’t criticize.  It only helps the Republicans!”

Dan was hard of hearing for at least the last decade of his life and he wore hearing aids in both ears.  The echo in the ballroom made it impossible for him to understand what Coppola was saying.

Dan and I looked at each other and Dan asked, “What is he saying?”  I answered, “He’s criticizing us, Dan.”  “He’s what?”  “He’s criticizing us.”

I didn’t think until that moment that I could be any prouder of Dan Ellsberg, or any prouder to be his friend.  He stood up in front of those 600 Hollywood movers and shakers, put both middle fingers in the air and shouted as loudly as he could “Fuck you, Coppola!”

Coppola went silent, looked directly at Dan, and said into the microphone, “That’s it.  I’ve said everything I want to say.  I don’t want to say any more.”  And he walked off the stage.  The room was as silent as a church.

Francis Ford Coppola in 2011. (Gerald Geronimo, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kate McKinnon gingerly walked back out onto the stage and said into the microphone, “Well, on that note, drive safely, everybody!”

The PEN people turned the ballroom lights on and made a bee-line for Dan and me. 

Meanwhile, the crowd finally realized that this was not a joke.  Dozens of them walked up to the table to shake Dan’s hand.  The president of PEN USA apologized profusely, saying that they had had no idea that Coppola would react the way he did.  I said it wasn’t a problem.

“I’ve been criticized by men far more important than Francis Ford Coppola,” I told them.  Dan was fired up.  “I don’t have to take that shit from anybody!  Even Francis Ford Coppola!”

There was nothing about the incident in the LA Times the next day.  My brother opined that Coppola probably had an entire staff of PR people managing his messaging, and two days later, Los Angeles Magazine ran an article saying that “Francis Ford Coppola ditched his remarks following a poignant speech by First Amendment Award recipient John Kiriakou.” 

That was it.  I didn’t need Los Angeles Magazine or the LA Times or anybody else to explain to me what I had seen, though.

I had seen a giant in action.  I had seen a man of the highest integrity unafraid of anybody.  I had seen a man who helped to bring down a president of the United States armed with nothing more than the truth.

Over the next several years, Dan and I stayed in touch and even ran into each other at a few dinner parties.  He always asked me about my children.

The last time we spoke was a couple of weeks before his passing.  He was in a little pain, but he said something that my mom had said in her final few days: “I’m not ready to die.  There are still so many things I want to eat.”

He then went into a soliloquy about the most delicious chicken fried rice he had ever had.  He was saving the second half of it for after our conversation.  And he closed with “love you.”

As I said, I’m heartbroken that the great Daniel Ellsberg is no longer with us.  Besides my father and grandfather, only Dan and Pete Seeger had such a positive impact on my life.

Without Dan, national security whistleblowing would have been impossible.  There would have been no Ed Snowden, Tom Drake, Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling, Daniel Hale, or John Kiriakou without him.

The entire nation owes him a debt of gratitude.  And for me personally, I can say that my life was better with Dan a part of it.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. 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.

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17 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: The Godfather of Whistleblowers

  1. June 23, 2023 at 15:41

    John, good for you that your father saw that Daniel Ellsberg was a hero. How fortunate you are. That was most definitely NOT the case with my father, who considered Ellsberg to be a traitor.

    I was 20 years old and in college in 1971 when Ellsberg released the Pentagon papers, though I was not what one would think of as being a “hippie” or a “radical”. My father was very quintessentially pro-“Establishment”, and had served in the Navy during World War II and was very proud of his service. He regarded Ellsberg’s release of previously secret information as treason, and as something that could be of help to an enemy. And he very much liked the burgling of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to dig up any dirt on him, anything to discredit a traitor who was being regarded as a hero. And my dad was very much against George McGovern in 1972.

    My dad was a very dominating person and was very easily offended, and I was not able when I was young to have any of my own thoughts which went against anything my dad thought or felt.

    My dad was very narcissistic, and I would later work through the many issues I had with him. And I have since come to regard Daniel Ellsberg as being a hero.

    And good for Daniel Ellsberg for saying what he said to Francis Ford Coppola, who had the attitude of “How DARE you criticize the PRESIDENT! And how dare you criticize MY president!!! Any criticism of the president will only help the big bad Republicans.”

  2. robert e williamson jr
    June 23, 2023 at 14:00

    You have made my day John. Never let them make you sweat, if they can’t take a ‘fuck you”, Joke’m!

    Never, every , under any circumstances, give up!

    Thanks CN

  3. Richard A. Pelto
    June 23, 2023 at 11:57

    Amen to all the expression of appreciation here.
    Isn’t this interesting in a time when our president declares that now he is engaged in a battle between his “democracy” and the “other” “autocracy” when stringent punishment is being propelled against those disclosing unnamed “secrets”–like planning an invasion of Iran—and making sure to apply ultimate possible punishments of “whistleblowers” and those who may reveal what we are actually doing, making the orchestrated messaging of the mass media less–as Biden puts it–“affirmative.”
    Is it possible to think today of comparisons and contrasts of what is going on information wise in this country with what went on in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? That there is a money and power agenda in full swing, and more and more a lemming-like populace?

  4. Ann Batiza
    June 22, 2023 at 23:31

    It is an honor to know you, John, and to volunteer within an organization, Assange Defense, that was co-chaired by Dan until his death. You both have my undying gratitude.

  5. LeoSun
    June 22, 2023 at 12:47

    Without a doubt, “The entire nation owes him [Dan Ellsberg, the “most dangerous man in America”] a debt of gratitude.”

    “What is he saying?” I answered, “He’s criticizing us, Dan.” “He’s what?” “He’s criticizing us.”

    —— “Hollywood telling me how to be me. That bull$hit’s got to go!!!” Live. Love. Stand Up. Say it Loud. Say it Clear, “Wait a minute. You’re NOT gonna speed past what you just said,”

    “I didn’t think until that moment that I could be any prouder of Dan Ellsberg, or any prouder to be his friend.” JOHN KIRIAKOU. NO doubt, “likewise!!!” John Kiriakou, the feeling was mutual; and the Universe, seconds all the emotions! imo, the DNA, of whistleblowers, defenders of the right to information, using Kiriakou’s words, ARE “GIANTS in action. MEN & WOMAN of the highest integrity unafraid of anybody. [Daniel Ellsberg] a man who helped to bring down a president of the United States armed with nothing more than the truth,”

    2024 is rising, “Repeat the Line,” in the present, 2023, “bring down [REMOVE] the POTUS, Biden-Harris, et al., “armed with nothing more than the truth,” and/or do it like Dan Ellsberg, “He stood up in front of those 600 Hollywood movers and shakers, put both middle fingers in the air and shouted as loudly as he could “F**K you, Coppola!”

    Imo, this is what straight-up, on f/point, “diplomacy” looks & sounds like. NO doubt, understood, all around the world!

    Well, said! TY, John Kiriakou, Live. Love. Keep It Lit!

  6. jonathan p nelms
    June 22, 2023 at 12:38

    please don’t try to redefine the meaning of patriotism. the most patriotic thing we can do is to fight for our country no matter how unjust the cause. patriotism is a license to kill.

    • Randal Marlin
      June 22, 2023 at 18:37

      The best sense I can make of this is that you see “patriotism” as a negative term. After all, “freedom” (good) has often been contrasted with “license” (not so good, often bad). As I see it, “patriotism” is treated as an honorific term. In that case, one is not re-defining the term when applying it to one who, at risk to his or her life, refuses to countenance evil-doing and unconstitutional behavior, by one’s government.

  7. mary-lou
    June 22, 2023 at 10:28

    next step: Free Julian Assange!

    • CaseyG
      June 22, 2023 at 15:58

      Dear mary-lou:


  8. michael888
    June 22, 2023 at 10:28

    Daniel Ellsberg was a Great Man and National Hero.

    But sadly if he came along today and did much the same thing, he would have been whisked away so fast that no one would remember him. The US was a different and in many ways a better place in the ’70s than it is today. More tolerant, more open to truth.

  9. Kato Rivera
    June 22, 2023 at 10:22

    Thank you, John.

    In an age when these are scarce on the ground, you are a man to admire.

  10. Robert Emmett
    June 22, 2023 at 09:00

    That story about the PEN awards made me laugh. Dan E. flippin’ the double bird while shouting down a Hollywood overstuffed shirt.

    I guess Coppola felt it was the proper occasion for him to send a bloody message, sort of like a horse’s head in the bed? Though all he could manage was to embody the other end of the animal.

    I’d bet the silence that rang in the room at that moment spoke volumes more than weeks’ worth of media blather.

    Sorry for your personal loss & for all of ours.

  11. Dissident51
    June 21, 2023 at 18:37

    This is a wonderful essay about one hero, by another.

    Thank you, John Kiriakou.

  12. JonT
    June 21, 2023 at 16:26

    This is a great piece. Great memories and a fascinating anecdote about the awards.

    I am 63 years old now, so was very young when The Pentagon Papers were published, but I do have memories of reading about Mr. Ellsberg at the time. For me his name will always be associated with the words ‘Pentagon’ and ‘Papers’! This has inspired me to read more of him: ‘Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers’, should be a good place to start, I would think.

  13. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 21, 2023 at 14:44

    Fuck Francis Ford Coppola! That’s what I wanted to say and I’ve said it.

    • JonT
      June 21, 2023 at 16:28

      Well said! I wish now that I had included that in my comment!

    • June 22, 2023 at 10:00

      My sentiments exactly!

Comments are closed.