( February 26, 2016, Hong Kong SAR, Sri Lanka Guardian) John Kiriakou, a retired CIA ( the Central Intelligence Agency) agent who has been in prison for nearly two years after blowing the whistle on the George W. Bush administration’s torture program. He sat with Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian for an exclusive interview to discuss his life experiences as a former CIA analyst and case officer, yesterday, February 25th, 2016.
Here are some excerpts of the interview:
Nilantha Ilangamuwa ( NI): I assume this is very the first interview that you have decided to give to the Asian press so I’m glad that you have agreed to talk with the Sri Lanka Guardian about the situation you have gone through and share your views on certain issues of domestic and foreign policies of the United States of America with us.
Was it a childhood dream to become a spy?
John Kiriakou (JK): Actually, yes. I was fascinated by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981 and I decided that I wanted either to be a spy or to join the State Department’s Foreign Service. I was fascinated by international affairs.
NI: When was first-time you heard about the CIA and what was your first impression?
JK: The first time I had ever heard of the CIA was in 1975. My parents took my brother, sister, and me to visit my grandparents. When we got to the house, my grandfather asked, “Did you see that terrorists killed the top CIA man in Athens?” That was Revolutionary Organization 17 November’s first assassination. It was of CIA station chief Richard Welch, a crime that remained unsolved until 2002 and to which I devoted a good portion of my career.
NI: Reports say that your professor, who was himself a CIA official, motivated you to join the agency. Tell me more about this interesting part of the story?
JK: Yes, my professor was looking for graduate students whom he thought would be a good fit in the CIA. He pulled me aside and asked if I was interested. I said that I was, and he scheduled a long series of tests for me – medical, psychological, political. The background investigation took about nine months, but I made it through the process and started working for the CIA on January 7, 1990.
NI: As a trainee spy were there certain protocols you followed? How did you find the learning process?
JK: I knew a lot about international affairs, of course, but nothing about intelligence. So they start teaching you from the very beginning. You learn the CIA writing style, the briefing style, and internal politics. Then later, when I joined operations, I learned the art of recruiting spies to steal secrets.
NI: As an agent what do you consider to be the most important contributions of the CIA to global politics?
JK: To tell you the truth, I think the CIA does more harm than good in global politics. Our country’s relations with Iran have not recovered from the botched operations in that country in the mid-1950s. Our relations with many Latin American countries still suffer from our mistakes of the 1950s-1980s. The CIA’s strength is to analyze foreign political and economic trends and to provide that analysis to the policymakers.
NI: And what do you consider to be the most important mistakes?
JK: The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in the 1950s is probably the most critical mistake the CIA ever made. More recently, I have had a serious and public problems with the torture program and the creation of a secret prison system.
NI: Records reveal that the CIA made more than 50 attempts to assassinate political party leaders according to William Blum in “Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II”. All such killings and plots are illegal. What is your take on this issue?
JK: I don’t know the truth of that number, but I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head. All such killings and plots are illegal.
NI: Your book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, has raised many critical issues of the system. How has the system failed when it comes to your issue?
JK: Torture is illegal. There are no exceptions to that. There is a law in the United States that specifically bans torture. In addition, the US is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. George W. Bush’s gymnastics which made torture “legal” are a low point in American history. We have lost the goodwill of many countries of the world because we stopped being a beacon of hope on human rights and we became torturers.
NI: You have openly deemed the justice department as hypocritical. Why is this?
JK: I feel this way because the only people who are prosecuted are the people who expose waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality in national security. If you are a friend of the president, or if you are a popular general, you will not be prosecuted. Only the whistleblowers face prison time.
NI: You are an outspoken person against the practice of torture which the CIA has often employed. However, in an interview you stated that using a method such as waterboarding is a very effective. How can you talk against the practice of torture, while claiming it is an effective method? Have you heard of the ticking bomb argument?
JK: I was mistaken when I gave that original interview in 2007. I was trying to say that there are two issues here: Is torture moral and legal? Does torture work? The CIA was telling its employees that it worked. Although in that first interview I said that it was immoral and illegal and we shouldn’t be doing it. The ticking time bomb scenario holds no water. It’s not real life. There never is such a scenario.
NI: As a specialist you aim to educate the public on the use of torture. How can we have effective and efficient interrogation or investigation without physically or mentally harming the suspects?
JK: The FBI for many decades has carried out effective and efficient interrogations by establishing a rapport with suspects. It works. It has always worked. But it takes time. The CIA did not want to invest the time.
NI: The CIA maintained a number of black sites around the Globe, some of them are still operative with an extensive support from the hosting state. The Government of United States refused the request made by delegates of the United Nations to observe those black sites. What is your take on this issue?
JK: It’s my understanding that those sites no longer exist. At least, that’s what President Obama says. Certainly, the United Nations should have been given immediate access to all the sites. The Red Cross, Amnesty International, and others also should have been given access to those sites.
NI: Do you think the CIA strategies and US Foreign policies on the Middle East are successful?
JK: No. In general, I think they have been a disaster. Syria and Libya are in chaos. Democratization in the Gulf has gone backwards. Egypt is a military dictatorship. ISIS controls vast swaths of Syria and Iraq. And there is no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I would call that a policy failure.
NI: In a recent piece you argued while quoting a Washington Post article, that the CIA even deceives its own employees with “eyewash”. How is this harmful for the agency and the general public? What measures do you are suggest to take prevent such actions?
JK: Eyewash cables should be illegal. They subvert the truth and they cause lies to become a part of the official record, even the Congressional record. This is dangerous for democracy and is actually a crime in the US.
NI: You were a founding member of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. Tell us the background story of the foundation?
JK: Yes. We are a group of former CIA officers, FBI agents, and senior military officers who oppose the US policy of continual war. We support openness in policy and intelligence decisions.
NI: Is your life under threat?
JK: I don’t think so. I hope not.
NI: One last question John, some reports indicated that the Government of Sri Lanka covertly supported the CIA extraordinary rendition operations. At that time you were the Agency’s Chief of Counter terrorist Operations in Pakistan. I wonder if you can let us know more about those days and the relationship between Asian counties and the CIA? Was there complicity? How does the CIA determine which countries are suitable to work with and trust?
JK: I don’t know anything at all about the relationship between the CIA and Sri Lanka. It wasn’t my area of involvement or expertise. I probably shouldn’t comment otherwise.
NI: To what extent do you consider the “war on terror” to have been used to justify extra judiciary powers and police activity in Asia? Has the USA been complicit in condoning such behaviour? Can we create a link between the prolific use of police violence, torture and its associated impunity with the US war on terror?
JK: I think we can draw such a link. Again, when the State Department meets with host countries to try to get them to respect human rights, but then a CIA officer meets with those same countries and tries to get them to host a secret prison or to participate in a rendition operation, it defeats the purpose of the human rights report, doesn’t it? I think the CIA’s post 9/11 torture program has done much, all over the world, to show countries that human rights and civil liberties are not important. We will look back on this in the future as a terrible mistake.
NI: A long interview, though there are many other issues could not touch upon. I hope we will have a chance to talk again in the future.
JK: Thanks for your questions! All the best.
NI: Pleasure to have you! Thank you.