To date, only one person has been jailed in connection to the US torture program. One man has been put behind bars for the part that the United States has played in torturing prisoners of war around the globe. On January 25th, 2013, John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He reported to a Federal correction facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania in late February, 2013. Kiriakou was the only person jailed in connection to the US torture program, but ironically, John has never tortured anyone. His crime: he revealed classified information to a reporter confirming the use of torture as an official US government policy, specifically, the CIA use of waterboarding in interrogations.
In 2007, John, a former CIA analyst, was being interviewed on ABC news when he disclosed the use of waterboarding and torture as official US government policy. John had also been in contact with a New York Times reporter who was working on a story about rendition when he gave the reporter a business card of a former CIA colleague who had never been undercover. He later gave the same card to a reporter for ABC News. For this, John was investigated for years and later charged with three counts of espionage, one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and one count of making false statements in his ABC interview regarding his comments on torture.
John’s espionage charge would make him only the tenth person in US history to be charged with espionage. Of those ten, seven were under Barack Obama – including John’s. The espionage charges were later dropped and John agreed to plead guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for revealing classified information to the media regarding CIA agents.
This is the state of our foreign policy and our government’s policy toward whistleblowers and truth-tellers. Torture, which is illegal, is not prosecuted. However, exposing torture and war crimes is a high offense and prosecuted eagerly with vigor. A whistleblower is any person who exposes and brings to light evidence of waste, fraud and abuse – any type of illegal activity. What Kiriakou exposed was illegal activity on the part of the CIA – and not just illegal activity, but officially sanctioned legal activity. Whistleblowers represent the perfect scapegoat for the war-hungry administration. When a whistleblower exposes an embarrassing or scandalous action or policy on the part of the US government, the easiest and most effective response is to silence them, and one of the most effective ways to silence a person is to turn the people against them. We’ve seen it over and over with each of the espionage and whistleblower cases during the Obama administration. During the trial of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), she was tried (among a number of other charges) for aiding the enemy, a charge for which she was later found not guilty (though she still received 35 years for a number of other charges, including espionage). In the Edward Snowden case, another whistleblower who revealed documents regarding the NSA’s massive surveillance program, many high officials, including Former Vice President Dick Cheney, have called him, a traitor. Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff for then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, said that Snowden may have “aided the enemy” when he released the documents, calling him “very dangerous” and even “delusional.” President Obama, when questioned on Snowden, said, “No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” and even tried to dismiss him as a “29-year-old hacker” in order to try and make his actions look less like the heroic truth-teller he is and more like some pimply kid in his parent’s basement.
But this is all a very well-orchestrated part of the plan. First, government officials either dismiss the leaks and their importance in exposing illegal activities or over-hype the effect they may have on national security. Once that has been done, the next step is to discount the heroic efforts of the leakers and turn them into 1) crazed homosexuals who are not in control of their emotions because they are confused about their sexuality (Chelsea Manning), 2) a hacker without a cause (Edward Snowden), or 3) a tool for the enemy (every government whistleblower). The last is most effective of all because it taps into the fears of the average citizen. If torture and surveillance keep us safe, then many citizens will happily ignore evidence of these illegal actions and war crimes on the part of the US government in exchange for peace of mind. And if, when these things are exposed, the government asserts that these have aided our enemies and put us in peril, then many people will fall in line and cry traitor. Perhaps even worse, many others will ignore the leaks entirely, happy to remain ignorant and blissful.
William Saletan writes about this in Slate, highlighting that Manning, David Miranda (the domestic partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald who helped publish the Snowden leaks), and Snowden were all accused – formerly or informally – of somehow aiding the enemy or putting the country in danger.
“In Manning’s case, the indictment hinged on the sheer fact that the global public “included” our enemies. In Miranda’s case, the British government argued that disclosure of surveillance programs would help terrorists evade them and thereby “endanger people’s lives.” In Snowden’s case, the suggestion is that because his leaks exposed U.S. hypocrisy about espionage, they served China’s nefarious interests deliberately or—wink, wink—in a remarkable coincidence.”
What Saletan is highlighting is that the US government will go to extreme lengths to scare us into keeping quiet. If you talk, it aids the enemy, and if you expose crimes of the US government, we will not only prosecute you harshly (as they did when Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison) but will also ruin your life financially, professionally, and personally. In a piece published by The Guardian, Kiriakou wrote that the effects that the charge of the espionage act have far-reaching consequences by design:
“The effect of the charge on a person’s life – being viewed as a traitor, being shunned by family and friends, incurring massive legal bills – is all a part of the plan to force the whistleblower into personal ruin, to weaken him to the point where he will plead guilty to just about anything to make the case go away.”
In a letter published by Firedoglake, Kiriakou expanded on this:
“In addition to having to spend 30 months in prison, I will have to meet a probation officer monthly for three years after my release. I also lost my pension after 19 years of proud federal service. My legal bills totaled nearly $1 million, and I sold most of my personal possessions to pay at least some of that million dollars.”
What’s more, his family is being punished as if they are guilty of some crime. Kiriakou explained that his wife received a letter from their insurance company, USAA, where they have had their homeowners and auto insurance for decades, saying that they do not insure felons and they were canceling their plan immediately. When she called to have the plan switched to her name, they responded that they do not insure “felonious families.”
Take note, all ye who believe in truth and justice. If you try to expose Big Brother, expect to be imprisoned, expect to be vilified, expect to lose your friends, family, connections, country, expect to lose your job, your pension, your savings, expect to see your family drug through the mud. Expect, in short, to be broken.
Kiriakou exposed that the official policy of the US government under the Bush administration includes torture – namely waterboarding. “Many of us believed that the torture policy was solely a Bush-era perversion. But many of these perversions, or at least efforts to cover them up or justify them, have continued under President Obama.” When Kiriakou exposed this “business of torture” on ABC News in 2007, he referred to the capture and subsequent water boarding of al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah. In The Torture Report, an initiative of the ACLU’s National Security Project which seeks to bring together a comprehensive review of Bush-era torture program, a transcript from an interview that the Red Cross had with Zubaydah in late 2006, four and a half years after he was taken into a secret CIA prison, he describes his treatment while detained by the US. He chained down to a bed or chair for weeks straight, deprived of solid food, deprived of sleep for two or three weeks (“If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.”), and kept naked. Music or the sound of cracking and hissing played endlessly. He was repeatedly beaten and at times stuffed in one of two boxes for hours straight – one slightly taller than him but narrow, and one box so short he had to crouch down while seated. “After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.” It was then that the waterboarding began:
“I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.”
Kiriakou exposed waterboarding, and for that, he will spend 30 months in jail while his wife and five children try to make a living without his salary or his pension, and while their life savings is poured into legal fees. Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence advisor to Obama, has sent a letter to the President signed by himself and eighteen other CIA veterans asking that Kiriakou’s sentence be commuted. The commutation of his sentence, a full refund of his legal fees and losses incurred, and an apology from the President would be a true start to rectifying this situation. However, given that Obama has been waging a war on whistleblowers from the moment he took office, this is unlikely. At the very least, we can thank Kiriakou for exposing these crimes. As he said himself, “At the CIA, employees are trained to believe that nearly every moral issue is a shade of grey. But this is simply not true. Some issues are black-and-white – and torture is one of them.”
Alyssa Rohricht maintains Crash Culture and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.