ALEXANDRIA, Va. – In the latest criminal case in the Obama administration's effort to punish leakers, an ex-CIA officer who helped track down and capture a top terror suspect was charged Monday with disclosing classified secrets about his teammates to the media.
John Kiriakou (keer-ee-AH'-koo), 47, of Arlington is charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act. A judge at a federal court hearing ordered Kiriakou to be released on a $250,000 unsecured bond.
According to authorities, Kiriakou told a New York Times reporter classified information about a fellow officer who participated in interrogating suspected al-Qaida financier Abu Zubaydah in 2002, eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and his case has been made an example by those who believe the interrogation technique should be outlawed.
According to an affidavit, FBI agents interviewed Kiriakou last week, and he denied leaking the names of covert CIA officers. When specifically asked whether he had provided the Zubaydah interrogator's name to the Times for a 2008 article, he replied "Heavens no." A New York Times spokeswoman said the newspaper declined comment.
Kiriakou's attorney, Plato Cacheris, said after his hearing that a potential defense argument could be that the charges criminalize conduct that has been common between reporters and government sources for decades. If convicted, Kiriakou could face decades in prison and a fine up to $1 million.
Prosecutors started their investigation after defense attorneys for suspected terrorists filed a classified legal brief in 2009 that included details that had never been provided by the government. Authorities concluded that Kiriakou had leaked the information to reporters, and that reporters had provided the information to the defense.
The charges state that Kiriakou, who was an intelligence officer from 1990 to 2004, leaked information about the identity of another officer who interrogated Zubaydah. In a 2007 interview with ABC News, Kiriakou said that waterboarding was used — effectively — to break down Zubaydah. But he expresses ambivalence about the use of waterboarding in general.
Kiriakou has worked as a consultant to ABC News, although he hasn't appeared on the network since early 2009. ABC had no comment on his arrest.
According to a court affidavit, the photographs of the CIA officer who participated in the Zubaydah interrogation were found in the possession of terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
The charges also accuse Kiriakou of lying about his actions in an effort to convince the CIA to let him publish a book, 2010's, "The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror."
Since leaving the agency, Kiriakou has worked as a consultant and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to his LinkedIn profile. He earned a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern studies in 1986 and a master's degree in legislative affairs in 1988, both from George Washington University in Washington.
The Justice Department's campaign to punish leakers has been unrelenting. This is the sixth criminal leak case opened under the Obama administration and the second involving a former CIA officer and The New York Times. Federal prosecutors claim Jeffrey Sterling divulged classified information to Times reporter James Risen about CIA efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Sterling is awaiting trial.
"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," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Today's charges reinforce the Justice Department's commitment to hold accountable anyone who would violate the solemn duty not to disclose such sensitive information."
In light of the indictment, CIA Director David Petraeus reminded his agency's employees of the essential need for secrecy in their work.
"When we joined this organization, we swore to safeguard classified information; those oaths stay with us for life," he said "Unauthorized disclosures of any sort — including information concerning the identities of other Agency officers — betray the public trust, our country, and our colleagues."