John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA analyst and whistleblower who exposed the Bush-era torture program and served 23 months in federal prison joins me for the interview on the podcast. The author of The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror tells me:
“I have been wrong on this issue for the past six months or so where I have gone on a myriad of news outlets and said that I’m just not seeing any evidence of Russian hacking, and if there had been Russian hacking, what exactly is it that we’re accusing the Russians of doing?
John Kiriakou spent almost 15 years in the CIA: the first half of that career as an analyst, the second half as a counterterrorism operations officer. He was the chief of CIA counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after 9/11. In that capacity, he led a series of raids in March in 2002 that resulted in the capture of Abu Zubaydah who was believed at the time to be the number three in Al Qaeda.
Abu Zubaydah was famously tortured. He was the first CIA prisoner post 9/11 to be tortured.
In 2007 John went to the press in the form of ABC News, and said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners. Furthermore, he said that torture was official US government policy, and that the policy had been personally approved by the president himself. He became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act, a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison because of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.
The following interview has been edited for length (the full interview is in the audio podcast above)
Dennis Trainor Jr: I’ve been watching the ongoing drama between Trump and Russia questioning whether those connections are business connections or whether there’s a conspiracy between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s campaign to affect the 2016 election campaign. Plenty of smoke. Is there a fire?
John Kiriakou: I’m sure yet, Dennis, that the American people fully appreciate how important this is and what a big deal this is. A former CIA colleague of mine said yesterday that he had not seen anything like this since Iran-Contra or maybe even since the beginning of the Watergate scandal.
This is a very big deal.
I have been wrong on this issue for the past six months or so where I have gone on a myriad of news outlets and said that I’m just not seeing any evidence of Russian hacking, and if there had been Russian hacking, what exactly is it that we’re accusing the Russians of doing? Director Comey made that far more clear Monday that this was actually a concerted covert action effort by the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. That’s interesting, and it causes me to shake my head.
The really important thing, though, is that the FBI is investigating the idea of collusion between senior Trump campaign officials and advisors and the Russian government. I would strongly suggest to Paul Manafort and to General Mike Flynn that they hire the best criminal defense attorneys money can buy because this thing’s not going away.
Director Comey couched his language Monday and was very careful in the things that he said and, indeed, declined to comment on a number of things, but the underlying message was clear. The FBI thinks a crime has been committed, perhaps multiple crimes. I think somebody’s going to go down for this.
DTjr: And that’s not going to be Trump?
JK: You know …
DTjr: Let me frame that another way. One narrative that’s been unfolding is the idea that the intelligence community doesn’t really like Donald Trump. Particularly the CIA side doesn’t really like Trump.
DTjr: And the CIA and greater Intelligence Community has been building a case for impeachment against Donald Trump. There’s a lot of smoke connecting the campaign to Russia but that if there was going to be a fire, as Glenn Greenwald wrote recently, that fire would have been leaked already.
JK: Yeah, it would have been.
DTjr: Okay. If we’re going on the supposition that there is no fire — and by fire I define that as the collusion aspect of the twofold answer you just gave, the collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in a quid pro quo to help Trump win the election — let’s talk about Russian interference in our elections. Even the declassified Intelligence Community Assessment has said has been going on for decades.
JK: Oh, sure. This is something that governments do to one another. It’s kind of a dirty little secret of intelligence. I’m not just saying between the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians. I’m saying everybody does this kind of thing. Everybody wants a leg up.
The CIA declassified a program many years ago. It was the CIA’s first covert action program. It was in 1947 in Italy where the CIA helped to throw the election to the conservatives. It’s not like this is something new or something that’s shocking. It’s something that happens.
The difference this time is that it’s been largely public, and we’ve got Americans, indeed campaign insiders, who appear to be implicated in it.
I think that Sean Spicer’s press conference Monday was very telling in that he made this absolutely ridiculous claim that Paul Manafort did not have a major role in the campaign. Paul Manafort, of course, is being accused of this kind of collusion. Well, my god, Paul Manafort was the chairman of the campaign. So when Spicer gave this ridiculous answer and the press room erupted in laughter, he had to try to catch himself and say, “Well, yeah. He was the campaign chairman but only for a very short period of time.”
That tells me that they’re circling the wagons. Those wagons are being circled around Trump, and the likes of Manafort and Flynn and perhaps Roger Stone are going to be on their own.
DTjr:. I think many people can rightfully trace the current crisis in the Middle East back to the 1953 coup d’état in Iran. The CIA has admitted their role in this. Behind that missing context from both Fox News and MSNBC and the CNNs is, I think, what’s buttressing the narrative of American exceptionalism, that, “Well, we may do same crazy shit, too, but it’s okay because we’re a force for good in the world. Russia, clearly, is not a force for good in the world. Therefore, they can’t do what we do.”
JK: I think that’s exactly right. There was a senator yesterday, Tillis of North Carolina, who actually raised the idea, believe it or not, and this guy’s a Republican, but he raised the idea that the US has intervened in something like six dozen elections between 1947 and the present. Again, it’s not new. It’s not right, but it’s not new, and it’s certainly not unique to the Russians. Trey Gowdy, this Republican congressman from South Carolina…
DTjr: …Scary man.
JK: … I think made a fool of himself Monday in the hearing where he repeatedly tried to bait Comey into saying that the real crime that’s been committed is that somebody leaked classified information to the press about Manafort and Flynn.
Well, my god, that’s the legal definition of whistle blowing. Whistle blowing is bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety. Somebody inside the Trump campaign did that. That person is the whistleblower. That’s the person who should be protected by the system and respected by the public.
DTjr: How do you know that the leak came from within inside the Trump administration and not from the intelligence community?
JK: We don’t. It could very well have come from the FBI. I think it’s less likely that it would have come from the CIA because that’s really not CIA information. I would say either FBI or NSA because presumably NSA had been intercepting those calls in the first place. Now, if they intercepted the call, they listened to a prominent American in the person of Manafort or Flynn carrying out whatever it was, this conversation, it would have been NSA who would have informed FBI. Sure, it could have come from the law enforcement or the intelligence community as easily as it could have come from the Trump campaign.
DTjr: I hate to be put in the position of defending Donald Trump …
JK: I know, right?
DTjr: but don’t we need to see the transcript of those phone calls to determine collusion? Because if Flynn is talking to a Russian ambassador, it may be slightly illegal or improper during the transition period. You could also make the case, he’s just getting out in front of his job. Until we see the transcript of that phone call, why should I believe the intelligence community? They’ve lied to us over and over and over again. And Trump has too. Everyone’s lying, John. What’s the truth?
JK: Yeah, I’d like to see the transcript of that phone call. Comey won’t let us. Comey and NSA will argue successfully that it’s a very highly classified document. It could reveal sources and methods, and we’re not going to see it. But the FBI has seen it. When push comes to shove, the FBI’s the organization that needs to see it in order to possibly build a case.
But you’re exactly right. A crime may have been committed.
Look, we have a law in this country that everybody likes to ignore. It’s called the Logan Act. It was passed in 1799, and it criminalizes any effort by a private American to conduct the foreign policy of the United States. Nobody has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act. With that said, it’s still on the books, and it’s a felony. Now, I think Flynn would argue that he was getting a jump on the new presidency and on the inauguration. He was trying to get his ducks in order because he was going to assume the position of national security advisor. Still, it is illegal for a private citizen, which he was, to conduct foreign policy. I’d like to know from that transcript was he conducting foreign policy?
DTjr: Do you believe in the concept of American exceptionalism? Or to put in another way, was your 15 years in the CIA work in pursuit of a greater good?
JK: Listen, I’ve always been a progressive Democrat. I’m a third-generation Democrat, but I was also a true believer while I was at the CIA. I really believed we were the good guys, and we knew better than everybody else did. I have, of course, since come to realize that that’s a ridiculous belief, and I honestly feel embarrassed for it.
So, no, I do not believe in American exceptionalism, not at all. I think that this country has so much to learn from others, and it’s unwilling to learn.
I’m going to use just one small example. This is really what got me turned around on this issue. When we invaded Iraq, an illegal invasion, a violation of international law, and we overthrew Saddam Hussein, we installed an occupation governor, Ambassador Bremer. One of the very, very first things that he did as occupational governor of Iraq was to prohibit any former members of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party from participating in the military, the police, or the intelligence services. What that ended up doing was effectively banning Sunnis from anything having to do with national security. With the stroke of a pen, he turned Iraq into a Shia country. I can understand some of the logic behind it but I would have hoped, and certainly many of us at the CIA objected at the time, that he would have seen the longer-term prospects, that you can’t just simply alienate an entire sect of a country.
What ended up happening, to make matters worse, he allowed all the Sunnis to keep their weapons. It was those Sunnis who eventually allied themselves with the Sunni militias, with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and eventually with ISIS. Now here we are, what, 15 years later, 14 years later, and we still haven’t been able to figure out this powder keg. But it’s a powder keg of our own making.
That was one of the things that got me started on that path that American exceptionalism is actually a dangerous force.
DTjr: Yeah, that Iraq thing, in trying to describe that in the past, I’ve resorted to a phrase that I like. It’s a little hyperbolic, but it encapsulates American exceptionalism in our foreign policy. I’ve said that US foreign policy is a blow-back-inducing-homicidal bowl in a cultural, religious, and geopolitical China shop. It’s buoyed by this idea of American exceptionalism that led to Manifest Destiny and that we’re now dealing with a petulant Manifest Destiny’s child.
Earlier, you mentioned Iran-Contra and Watergate. Judging by that metric, this is a 50/50 toss up in terms of Trump surviving. Where are you betting?
JK: I feel like Trump can’t help himself. He’s not skilled in the ways of Washington. He is a bull in the proverbial China shop, but at least a bull has an end goal of getting out of the China shop. I don’t even think that Trump has the instincts to get out. I think he’s going to go down with the ship. It’s like he can’t help hurting himself. He surrounds himself with the wrong people. He ignores advice from members of his own party. Then he doubles down every time somebody calls him out on his lies and his nonsense. I think that people just are going to get the point where they’ve had enough, and somebody’s going to make a move against him.
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