ALEXANDRIA, Va. – An ex-CIA officer who helped track down and capture a top al-Qaida figure was charged Monday with disclosing classified secrets, including the role of one of his associates on that covert mission, in the latest of a series of prosecutions by the Obama administration against suspected leakers.
John Kiriakou, 47, of Arlington, is charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act. A federal judge ordered Kiriakou to be released on a $250,000 unsecured bond. Kiriakou declined to comment as he left the courthouse Monday.
According to authorities, Kiriakou divulged to three journalists, including a New York Times reporter, the role of "Officer B," who worked with Kiriakou on the capture of suspected al-Qaida financier Abu Zubaydah in the months after the Sept. 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. And Kiriakou's public discussions of Zubaydah's waterboarding were a key part of the debate.
In a separate accusation, Kiriakou is alleged to have disclosed the identity of a covert operator to an unidentified journalist. Authorities say that journalist then gave the officer's name to a team of defense lawyers representing a suspect the U.S. held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. When the lawyers included information about the officer in a sealed legal brief in 2009, the CIA became suspicious and the government began to investigate.
The affidavit states that the defense lawyers were found to have done nothing wrong.
According to the affidavit, FBI agents interviewed Kiriakou last week, and he denied leaking the information. 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 declined to comment.
Kiriakou's attorney, Plato Cacheris, told reporters after the hearing that his client will plead not guilty. He also said 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 up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
The case was secretly investigated by a top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois. Fitzgerald is best known for his successful prosecutions of Scooter Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, for perjury and of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for corruption.
Kiriakou has worked as a consultant to ABC News, although he hasn't appeared on the network since early 2009. ABC declined to comment on his arrest. In a 2007 interview with the network, Kiriakou said that waterboarding was used — effectively — to break down Zubaydah. But he expressed ambivalence about pouring water into a suspect's breathing passages to simulate drowning to try to get them to talk.
"(W)e were really trying to do anything that we could to stop another major attack from happening," Kiriakou said, describing the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I don't think we're in that mindset right now. ... And, as a result, waterboarding, at least right now, is unnecessary."
The attorney who represents Zubaydah in the prisoner's civil petition for release said he is not involved in the Kiriakou prosecution and has never met him. However, Brent Mickum said he had wanted to interview Kiriakou for information that might help the case, but the ex-CIA man refused, by email, to speak with him.
"He was basically out there talking to the whole world about our client and his involvement . I would have loved to hear what he had to say, but he refused to talk to me," Mickum said.
Mickum said he has come to believe Kiriakou has overstated his knowledge and involvement in the case against Zubaydah, who has been held without charges at Guantanamo since 2006.
Mickum said he and other attorneys who work at Guantanamo take security restrictions seriously and know not to reveal classified information such as the names of covert investigators. But he also said the government abuses the classification system, selectively leaking information and keeping secret anything that could embarrass U.S. officials.
The charges also accuse Kiriakou of lying about his actions in an effort to convince the CIA to let him publish a book, "The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror," in 2010. The book explores "the inner workings of the U.S. intelligence apparatus," according to its description on Amazon.com, and "chillingly describes what it was like inside the CIA headquarters on the morning of 9/11."
Since leaving the agency, Kiriakou has also 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 prosecute leakers has been particularly aggressive under Obama. This is the sixth criminal leak case opened under the administration and the second involving a former CIA officer and the Times. Federal prosecutors in Alexandria claim Jeffrey Sterling divulged classified information to Times reporter James Risen about CIA efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Sterling's trial has been delayed while prosecutors appeal several pre-trial rulings, including the judge's decision to effectively quash a government subpoena demanding that Risen testify. His attorneys argued that unless his testimony is absolutely critical to a government's case then prosecutors should not be able to subpoena a reporter and require him to testify about anonymous sources.
The Sterling case is not the only leak prosecution to run into trouble. In a case against former National Security Agency executive Thomas Drake, a judge sentenced him only to probation and scolded prosecutors for how they pursued the case.
Prosecutions under the Espionage Act have been particularly contentious. Opponents say the law can be used to unfairly target those who expose government misdeeds. The law was used, for instance, to charge Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case, and a grand jury has been investigating whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be prosecuted for the mass of disclosures by WikiLeaks that were allegedly fostered by leaks from Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.
"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."
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Brett Zongker in Washington contributed to this story.