The first CIA officer to be imprisoned for leaking classified information to a reporter has been released after nearly two years in federal prison. He insists it wasn’t the leak that got him into trouble, but his talking publicly about the CIA’s use of torture.
John Kiriakou, the first CIA officer to be imprisoned for leaking classified information to a reporter, has been released to home confinement after serving nearly two years in federal prison in Pennsylvania.
Under the conditions of his release Feb. 3, Kiriakou, 50, is required to stay for the next three months at his house in Arlington, Va., where he lives with his wife and the youngest three of his five children. He is permitted to leave home for church services, doctor visits, job interviews and required classes at a halfway house on such subjects as “life skills” and résumé writing, he said in an interview Monday.
Sounding upbeat, Kiriakou said he was overjoyed to be home but had learned a great deal from his incarceration. “Going to prison opened up a whole world I’d never thought of before,” he said, saying that he would like to get involved in prison reform.
Kiriakou, who first came to public attention in 2007 when he spoke publicly about waterboarding, is one of eight current or former government employees prosecuted by the Obama administration for disclosing secrets to reporters; only three such cases were prosecuted under all previous presidents.
The crackdown has been in response to pressure from intelligence agencies and members of Congress to get tougher with unauthorized disclosures, but press advocates and journalists have complained that it has discouraged officials from talking about security matters.
Kiriakou worked from 1990 to 2004 as a CIA analyst and a counterterrorism officer, including in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He helped lead the operation that captured Abu Zubaydah, who helped run a training camp for al-Qaida fighters and other militants, and whose detention after a shootout in Pakistan was hailed as the agency’s first big success after Sept. 11. Kiriakou described the episode in a 2012 memoir, “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.”
He was charged in 2012 with disclosing classified information to journalists, including this reporter. Later that year, in a plea deal, he admitted to one of the leaks, saying he had disclosed the name of an undercover CIA officer to a freelance journalist, Matthew Cole, though Cole did not publish the name.
Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison and sent to a low-security prison in Loretto, Penn. Judge Leonie Brinkema of U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., who presided over the case, said at the time that she would honor the plea agreement but thought that the sentence was “way too light.”
In 2007, in an interview with ABC News, Kiriakou became the first former CIA official to publicly discuss the agency’s use of waterboarding, a suffocation technique with a prominent place in the history of torture.
He later said that he intended to defend colleagues who had used extreme measures in the anxious aftermath of Sept. 11, and he inaccurately claimed that Abu Zubaydah had opened up after mere seconds of waterboarding; documents later showed he had been subjected to the treatment 83 times. But Kiriakou told ABC that he had come to believe that waterboarding was wrong.
The leak case against him did not mention his ABC interview, and prosecutors insisted that it played no role in their decision to charge him. But like several others charged with leaking since 2009, Kiriakou has been embraced as a whistle-blower by civil-liberty advocates and government critics who say he was punished for speaking out about CIA torture.
He endorsed that view of his case on Monday. “I have maintained from the day of my arrest that my case was never about leaking,” he said. “My case was about torture. The CIA never forgave me for talking about torture.”
He said that although he regretted being separated from his family while he was in prison, he was proud to have played a role in exposing torture.