I called up John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who spent 23 months in federal prison thinking this stuff over, to see if he could help. Kiriakou is one of the nine government leakers or whistleblowers that the Obama White House and/or the Justice Department has sought to prosecute under the Espionage Act, a law passed under Woodrow Wilson during World War I that was meant to target double agents working for foreign governments. (Among the other eight actual or prospective defendants are Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.) Under all previous presidents, incurious George included, the Espionage Act was used for that purpose exactly three times. If you’re keeping score, that’s nine attempted prosecutions in seven years, versus three in 91 years.
Kiriakou had a whole lot to say, especially about former Attorney General Eric Holder and current CIA director John Brennan, whom he sees as the prime movers behind the administration’s secrets-and-lies agenda — and also as the guys who railroaded him over what he describes as a minor indiscretion. Kiriakou spent 15 years in the CIA, first as an analyst and then as a covert operative. He was involved in the capture of Abu Zubaydah, and apparently knew that the alleged senior al-Qaida operative was waterboarded by CIA interrogators, although he was not directly involved.
Kiriakou’s decision to talk about CIA torture in a 2007 interview ultimately landed him in prison. But it’s an arcane and suggestive tale and, at least officially, his crime had nothing to do with what he said about Zubaydah and waterboarding. Kiriakou revealed the last name of a covert agent — inadvertently and in passing, he says — to an ABC News journalist named Matthew Cole, who said he was planning to write a book but was actually gathering information for defense lawyers working with detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Later, Kiriakou believes, Cole became a government informant. The whole thing would puzzle John le Carré and Immanuel Kant put together.
Even though Kiriakou’s purported offense occurred when George W. Bush was in the White House, it was Obama’s Justice Department that decided to investigate and prosecute him, a three-year process that left him bankrupt, unemployed and more than a million dollars in debt. In the end, he would up spending nearly two years in prison because he mentioned one person’s last name in one email. When it comes to why the Obama administration has repeatedly taken that approach, Kiriakou sounds just about as puzzled as the rest of us.