For 14 years, John Kiriakou worked as an analyst and case officer for the CIA, leading the team that captured senior al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002. Then, in a television interview in 2007, three years after he had resigned from the US intelligence agency, he became the first current or former member of it to publicly acknowledge that the CIA used torture, and that its use was official policy under the administration of President George W Bush.
In 2012, the Barack Obama administration filed espionage charges against him.
Those charges were eventually dropped in October of that year, but Kiriakou did plead guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by confirming the name of an officer involved in the then-secret CIA rendition programme that transferred CIA detainees to secret prison facilities around the world.
He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and released in 2015 after serving almost two years.
Kiriakou, who has written the soon-to-be-released book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, talks to Al Jazeera about the US’s use of torture and his time in prison.
You were a CIA officer charged with protecting the US and its interests from global threats. How did you end up being imprisoned by the US government?
I decided to blow the whistle on the CIA’s torture programme, which I believed was immoral, unethical and illegal. I gave a nationally televised interview in December 2007 in which I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners, that torture was official US government policy and that the policy had been personally approved by the president [George W Bush].
It seems that classified information is regularly leaked by government officials, so what was different about your case?
Classified information is leaked every single day in Washington. The White House, the Pentagon and the CIA leak constantly. But I was prosecuted because I made the CIA look bad. I was prosecuted because I aired the CIA’s dirty laundry.
There appears to have been an avalanche of leaks from the current White House but we haven’t seen any legal action over them. How is the administration of Donald Trump different from that of his predecessor Barack Obama?
President Obama was obsessed with leaks more than any other president in history except, maybe, Richard Nixon. The CIA knew they had a friend in Obama. In the past, the CIA would either ignore leaks or work behind the scenes to plug them. But they wanted to make an example of me because I called them criminals.
In this book, you say that torture does not work and describe it as “un-American”. Can you elaborate on your views on the use of torture?
I believe that torture is morally, ethically and legally wrong. We have laws in this country that specifically ban the kind of torture techniques that the CIA used against al-Qaeda prisoners. We just pretended that they were legal. At the same time, the CIA actually killed prisoners in custody using these techniques. Where is the justice for those people? I have come to the personal conclusion that we are supposed to be a country of laws. We are supposed to be a country governed by a constitution. We must follow all the laws, not just the ones that fit our own personal ideologies.
The Republicans who were the Senate minority in 2014 claimed that torture worked and had led to actionable intelligence, particularly from captured al-Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. How do you respond to this?
This is, simply, a lie. Yes, Abu Zubaydah provided that information. But he provided it to FBI agent Ali Soufan before the CIA started torturing him. None of that information was collected through the use of torture. Also, CIA leaders feel that they must justify their support for torture. It is their legacy.
Can you tell us about some of your own experiences of using torture and how these shaped your views on it? Did your opinions change over time?
The only personal experience that I had was in training when we took turns waterboarding each other. It was most definitely torture and it has no place in US policy. My personal opinion on torture has not changed. I tried to draw a distinction in that first interview [the 2007 TV interview]. I said there were two questions: Was torture moral, ethical and legal? Did torture work? The CIA has said for years that it worked. That was a lie. It was never moral, ethical or legal.
Do you think the American public is supportive of the use of torture and do you think they are fully informed about the ways in which it has been used?
I think, frankly, that most Americans are not well-informed. They believe whatever the government tells them. As a result, a majority of Americans support torture. But almost no Americans understand what torture is.
Trump has said that he supports the use of torture as an interrogation method, while spy chief Mike Pompeo is open to the idea of bringing back waterboarding. How do you feel about this?
This is a sickening position. It’s a terrible thing that people as important as Trump and Pompeo would publicly advocate committing a crime. The positive thing is that with the passage of the McCain-Feinstein Amendment, the techniques that the CIA used are clearly illegal. They won’t happen again.
[Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein introduced a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. The amendment was designed to prohibit the use of torture and restricts interrogation techniques to those authorised in the Army Field Manual. It also required access for the International Committee of the Red Cross to detainees in US government custody, which is current US policy.]
Given that the Feinstein-McCain Act prohibits the use of torture, do you think the administration could potentially outsource torture to some of its allies as it has done in the past, particularly in the Middle East?
I would not be surprised if the White House ordered the CIA to send prisoners or terrorist suspects to third countries to undergo torture. As a policy, the CIA asks its foreign partners specifically to not torture suspects. But torture allegedly takes place with a wink and a nod. I would not be at all surprised if the Trump administration asks the CIA to do exactly that.
Can you tell us about some of the people you encountered in prison, what you learned from that experience and how it has helped shape you?
I met some truly good people in prison. Our government likes to put people into categories – Aryans, Italians, gang members, Muslims, etc. I made friends among all of them.
What did your time in prison teach you about the American prison system?
My experience led me to the conclusion that the American prison system is broken. It is racist and it is anti-poor. It must be torn down and rebuilt. The US is home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We are over-criminalised, over-legislated and over-regulated. This only weakens us as a country.
One of the most interesting things you mention in your book is that many of the prisoners at Loretto Federal prison chose to convert to Judaism. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes. Jews get much better food than anybody else because it has to be kosher. The average meal for regular prisoners costs something like 95 cents. But the kosher meal costs something like $2.35. The food is better, it’s cleaner, and there’s more of it. Also, Jews are allowed to buy extra treats around the Jewish holy days, like chocolate, soups, and other foods. Nobody else is allowed to have these foods. I once asked a Muslim friend why he didn’t get halal meals. He said there were none. I said, “We have pork two or three times a week. What do you eat?” He said he throws the pork away and eats whatever is left. The Muslims did not get the same kind of treatment as the Jews.
Did your CIA training help you while in prison and, if so, how?
That’s the whole point of the book. The CIA taught me 20 life rules that I used in prison. These rules kept me safe and healthy and kept me at the top of the social heap.
Follow Ali Younes on twitter @ ali_reports
Source: Al Jazeera News
Vanessa Berhe is the president of One Day Seyoum, a human rights group, and studies law at SOAS University of London.
I learned the true power of words when I was six years old. I had just started my first year of school in Sweden when my mother explained that my uncle was imprisoned in Eritrea, simply for speaking his mind.
The next day, I told my friends what I had learned and when our parents came to pick us up, they found us collecting money in plastic cups on the schoolyard. When one of the parents asked what we were doing, my friend explained my uncle’s situation and said that we were telling people his story and collecting money to buy his release and a plane ticket.
My uncle’s story had taught me that, if words alone were powerful enough to bring fear to the most powerful institution in a country, then they must be used actively, loudly, and fearlessly in order to bring about positive change in the world.
|Any government which wants to unjustifiably and cruelly control their citizens is right to fear a free media.|
Our right to express ourselves freely is quite understandably considered one of the most sacred principles of democracy.
When combined with an independent and responsible media platform, this freedom of expression is an essential part of a system of checks and balances that scrutinises people in power and holds them accountable.
It informs the public, changes perceptions and initiates dialogues. It safeguards democracy and prevents tyranny. Any government which wants to unjustifiably and cruelly control their citizens is right to fear a free media.
The consequences of impunity are deadly. Not only are innocent people being killed for performing their civic duty and doing their job, but the stories that journalists are trying to tell are not being heard.
My uncle Seyoum Tsehaye was imprisoned is a journalist in 2001. Over 15 years later, he has still not been released. His imprisonment was a part of a wider campaign by the government to increase control in the country.
In the span of a week, the private media was shut down and all critical members of the government and outspoken journalists were imprisoned. I see the consequences of impunity in Eritrea every day, in the mass exodus from the country and the severe human rights violations they are fleeing.
Impunity is not restricted to Eritrea, which according to Reporters Without Borders is last on the global press freedom index, below China, Syria and North Korea.
Instead, it tends to exist in countries without democratic institutions to hold the government accountable for their unlawful actions.
Consequences of impunity
Governments all around the world silence people whose words they fear can challenge their power. Last year, UNESCO reported that on average, a journalist was killed every four days.
With critics out of the way, governments can use media platforms, with their carefully chosen words, as a means to control the people and set the narrative.
Just as easily as our words have the power to make positive change, they also have the power to corrupt.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote in a 2014 report: “Targeted attacks on the media have kept the world from understanding the full dimension of the violence taking place in Syria. Unchecked impunity has suppressed critical reporting on drug trafficking in Mexico, militant violence in Pakistan, and corruption in Russia.”
The targeted attacks and unchecked impunity play a key role to why all of the problems mentioned above still persist, three years after the report was written. The consequences of impunity are, indeed, dangerous and deadly.
But to argue that freedom of expression only is being under attack in authoritarian states would be a misstatement.
Media cannot simply exist on its own, it also needs to be independent and responsible. If not, it can easily be used as a tool to deceive, manipulate and control, and affect innocent people’s lives.
The ‘lying’ American president
Our current political climate has shown just how vulnerable media is to becoming corrupt, regardless of where in the world it is.
In the United States, a country that prides itself in their democracy, the current president has declared a war on media. But it is not a war on the entire media, only the ones he does not agree with. The ones he does agree with, he uses as sources for his speeches, sometimes without checking the accuracy.
|Seyoum Tsehaye was imprisoned in 2001 [Vanessa Berhe/Al Jazeera]|
My social media feeds instantly filled up with sources refuting such an attack and it was quickly confirmed that no attack of any kind had happened in Sweden. The president had based his statement on a segment he had seen on Fox News, a right-wing news channel often criticised for its bias.
The danger here is not only that the US has a president who actively and unapologetically lies about marginalised groups and pressing issues, but that there is a large group of people whose perception of reality is largely based on speeches from their leader and segments of biased and irresponsible news channels.
As far as they were concerned, a terrorist attack had been committed by refugees and anything stating the contrary could easily be brushed off as “fake news”, just as the current US president labels news reports he simply does not agree with.
A former US ambassador to the United Nations once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Today, those words are more important than ever. The media decides which stories they tell and how they do so.
|When they attack, we need to shout even louder … with our words alone we can do wonders. Let us not let that power go to waste.|
Demonising a group of people while camouflaging bigotry as fact can have dangerous implications – we do not need to look far back in history to find proof of that.
How do we then ensure that the validity of truth is not jeopardised, impunity is ended and freedom of expression can flourish?
We can only do that by protecting this democratic principle – actively, loudly, and fearlessly.
We need to constantly stay critical and challenge the narrative we have been presented, regardless of whether it’s propaganda from a dictatorship, a news report from a supposedly independent source, or a speech from a democratically elected president. The failure to do so will undoubtedly lead to terrible injustice.
We need to hold governments who silence journalists and citizens accountable and speak up for those who cannot themselves. Governments might be able to silence their own citizens, but they cannot possibly silence the outside world.
It is only when impunity itself is challenged by those beyond the reach of the attacking government that it can be ended.
Foreign governments, international institutions, corporations, activists, journalists and world citizens all play a role in holding abusive governments accountable. Even the most isolated dictatorships are not immune from external pressure.
|Seyoum Tsehaye’s family lives in Sweden [Vanessa Berhe/Al Jazeera]|
We need to be persistent.
A very long time has passed since I found out my uncle was imprisoned and I am still campaigning for his release. They wanted to silence him, so I decided to become his voice. They wanted him to be forgotten, so I decided to tell the whole world his story.
Challenging governments is not easy and it will take time.
When they try to block us, we need to find new routes. When they attack, we need to shout even louder. My then six-year-old friends understood it quickly; with our words alone we can do wonders. Let us not allow that power go to waste.
Vanessa Berhe is the president of One Day Seyoum, a human rights organisation working for the release of unjustly imprisoned people in Eritrea. She is studying law at SOAS University of London.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera
• Alison Weir’s speech lifts the veil off America’s ‘greatest ally.’
By Mark Anderson —
DEARBORN, Mich.—Author and researcher Alison Weir’s latest book, Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel, outlines the hard financial, political and moral realities of United States foreign aid to Israel.
To highlight the important information in the book, she spoke on July 1 in Dearborn, Michigan to a crowd of some 200 attendees. She spoke the prior evening in Ann Arbor, Michigan at a public library.
In this video taken at a park in busy downtown Dearborn, which captured most of her speech, Ms. Weir covers the essential disturbing facts that far too many Americans don’t know about the U.S. relationship with Israel.
This is why Ms. Weir named her research organization “If Americans Knew.” Under the umbrella of that outfit, she wrote the above-noted book and has published numerous studies that provide shocking financial data—which mainstream media refuse to report.
Notably, If Americans Knew describes itself as “a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, independent research and information-dissemination institute, with particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. foreign policy regarding the Middle East, and media coverage of this issue. Specifically, the organization’s objective is to provide information that is to a large degree missing from American press coverage of this critical region.”
Softcover, 260 pages
Ms. Weir was well-received in Dearborn, a heavily Muslim community just outside of Detroit where many people of Palestinian origin reside. AMERICAN FREE PRESS was the only media of any kind to attend.
No matter what your “take” is on this subject, watch the video and decide for yourself if U.S. foreign aid to Israel is justified. Her message applies to those already “in the know” about this matter as well as to those who aren’t informed about it.