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U.S. Charges CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou under 1917 Espionage Act for Leaks about Detainee Torture

The Obama administration has failed to prosecute any U.S. officials or operatives who approved and carried out torture of imprisoned terrorism suspects. But one former CIA officer who blew the whistle on agency operatives who tortured those suspects has been arrested and charged under a previously rarely used espionage law dating back to World War I.

The Huffington Post reports that 47-year-old John Kiriakou, formerly the CIA’s head of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, was arraigned in a Virginia federal court on Monday, charged with espionage, lying to investigators and disclosing the identity of a covert operative. He was released on bond and plans to plead not guilty to the charges against him. If found guilty, he could face up to 30 years behind bars.

Kiriakou, a 14-year agency veteran, allegedly leaked the identity of a covert CIA operative to defense attorneys representing a terrorism detainee imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp. That operative oversaw the interrogation of al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 86 times in one month in 2002. Waterboarding is torture. President Obama has said so himself, as have Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), as well as even many top officials who served in the Bush administration. Many describe it as “simulated drowning,” but in reality, it is actual drowning that, if “done properly,” is interrupted before the victim dies. Über-conservative columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer called it “a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique.” The U.S. has prosecuted others, and even its own soldiers, who have waterboarded in the past. The practice is also a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions and other international and domestic laws. 

Kiriakou was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, which was used only three times before Obama moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Since then, it has been used against half a dozen government officials, part of a worrying administration crackdown on those who reveal war crimes and other illegal activity (see: Bradley Manning).

“This is being done to send a chilling message to whistleblowers, journalists and defense lawyers to keep quiet,” Jasselyn Radack, an attorney with the whistleblower defense group Government Accountability Project, told the Huffington Post.

By its actions in this and other whistleblower cases, the Obama administration has taken the immoral stance that revealing war crimes is a crime. Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, revealing a long history of government lies and deception about the Vietnam War, slammed Kiriakou’s prosecution. He said it was hypocritical to go after the former CIA agent when the government officials and operatives who approved and conducted waterboarding enjoy immunity from prosecution.

“You’re criminalizing the revelation of illegality and you’re decriminalizing the illegality — the torture,” Ellsberg told the Huffington Post.

Ellsberg pointed to the ex-chief of the CIA’s clandestine service, who confessed to destroying 92 tapes showing the torture of al-Qaeda suspects in Thailand.

“Is that person prosecuted?” Ellsberg asked. “Absolutely not.”

But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argues that Kiriakou’s leaks are a threat to national security. “Safeguarding classified information, including the identities of CIA officers involved in sensitive operations, is critical to keeping our intelligence officers safe and protecting our national security,” he said in a statement.

Heather Kiriakou, John’s wife, has quit her post as a high-ranking CIA analyst over her husband’s prosecution. A source familiar with the situation said that she was under “intense pressure” to step down in the wake of John’s arrest.

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One Comment

  1. Thomas FitzpatrickJanuary 27, 2012 at 8:07 amReply

    Right on! Kiriakou is a national hero. He deserves our gratitude, not this. The Justice Department is being used by a cabal of neo-cons in the intelligence world to persecute Kiriakou.
    The truth is that he broke no law. The FBI have been surveiling his since 2008. Having found nothing they went bact in time and trumped up these charges. There are two applicable legal doctrines here.
    First, a criminal statute becomes void if it is routinely ignored. That is expecially true where, as here, its enforcement is politically motivated.
    Second,a mere technical violation of a statute, with no criminal intent and no injury is de minimis and should not be prosecuted.
    Finally, How can the U.S. criticize the Putin regime’s prosecution of Khordokovsky, when we let this happen to someone like John Kiriakou. I quess hypocricy has no shame.

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