John Kiriakou is not well known to every American, but he should be. I regret that I had only a vague idea of who he was until I saw James Spione's extraordinary documentary Silenced, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014 -- at which point Kiriakou was in jail. He was released last month, having served almost two years in a Federal prison. After seeing the film, I'll never forget him or his story.
Silenced examines the tremendous difficulties -- personal, professional, financial, legal -- faced by three government whistleblowers in the post-9/11 era: Kiriakou, an ex-CIA analyst and counterterrorism officer; Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive; and Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and former ethics adviser to the United States Department of Justice. They are treated as criminals and, in Kiriakou's case, jailed as one. But what if their "wrongs" are based in a defense of the Constitution? What if remaining silent in the face of what they saw would be the real crime?
Kiriakou resigned from the CIA in 2004, after nearly 15 years of service. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was named Chief of Counterterrorist Operations in Pakistan. In December of 2007, in an interview with ABC News, he revealed that the practice of waterboarding had been used in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an accused aid to Osama Bin Laden in whose capture Kiriakou had been strongly involved. Speaking against the practice, which he described as torture, Kiriakou said simply, "We're Americans, and we're better than that." He was the first government official to confirm that waterboarding had been used in official, sanctioned al-Qaeda interrogations.
Kiriakou initially understood that Zubaydah had been waterboarded one time, only to learn later that the prisoner had received this treatment over 80 times. At the time of Zubaydah's arrest, Kiriakou told news show Democracy Now last month, "I believed what the C.I.A. was telling us...that we were gathering important, actionable intelligence that was saving American lives. It wasn't until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn't true. [Zubaydah] wasn't producing any information, and these techniques were horrific. President Bush said at the time, categorically, 'We do not torture prisoners. We are not water-boarding.' And I knew that was a lie. And he made it seem as though this was a rogue C.I.A. official who decided to pour water on people's faces. And that simply wasn't true. Torture -- the entire torture program was approved by the President himself, and it was a very carefully planned-out program."
Kiriakou's 2007 interview did not endear him to the powers that be, who he claims then set their sights on him as he continued to speak out against torture techniques. He was charged in 2012 with disclosing classified information to journalists. As Spione described the case on Democracy Now, "It was...from what I understand a routine sort of inquiry, like, 'Hey, is this guy someone I can talk to about this?' -- the kind of thing that goes on all the time behind the scenes in Washington."
But Kiriakou was indicted under the Espionage Act -- intended to punish spies, not whistleblowers. In a plea deal, he admitted to one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the name of a covert officer involved in the torture program to a journalist, who did not publish the name. His presence in Silenced is all the more poignant for the footage of Kiriakou at home before his imprisonment. His wife's salary alone, he explains, could not preserve the family's home if he were to receive a long sentence; this necessitates the agreement to the plea deal. He and his wife do their best to prepare their three young children for his departure, but ultimately this is impossible, and the children cry and scream for their father in the days before he is taken away.
Kiriakou was released from prison in February of 2015 but will be under home confinement until May of this year. "I have maintained from the day of my arrest that my case was never about leaking," he stated after his release. "My case was about torture. The C.I.A. never forgave me for talking about torture." This was not for lack of commendations while he worked within the agency: Kiriakou earned 10 Exceptional Performance Awards, a Sustained Superior Performance Award, the Counterterrorism Service Medal, and the State Department's Meritorious Honor Award during his C.I.A. career. While in jail, he says, he received sympathetic letters from about three dozen current and former C.I.A. officers and visits from four of them.
His regrets at being separated from his family during his imprisonment do not, he says, outweigh his feelings about the need to speak out against torture. "I would do it all over again," he told the press last month.
Kiriakou plans to seek a pardon from President Obama, and there is a good amount of support for the granting of it. Silenced continues to travel the film-festival circuit and deserves the widest release possible. It raises, with nuance and sensitivity, issues that anyone who cares about the United States -- or about informed democracy -- must consider. - Pamela Grossman