ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Few people played a larger role in the public debate over waterboarding than former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who went public in a big way in 2007 with his descriptions of the waterboarding of a top al-Qaida leader in 2002. Much of what he said turned out to be wrong, he has since acknowledged.
Kiriakou is back in the headlines, this time after he was arrested and charged Monday with leaking classified details about terror operations, including the names of covert CIA operatives, to at least three journalists in recent years.
Kiriakou came to public attention in December 2007 when he was interviewed by ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross. He confirmed that the CIA had used waterboarding in its interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, who was captured March 2002 in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad and was believed to hold the No. 3 spot in Al-Qaida's hierarchy at the time.
As the CIA's director of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Kiriakou had played a key role in Zubaydah's capture, Kiriakou wrote in his 2009 memoir, "The Reluctant Spy." According to the charges, the book was published only after Kiriakou persuaded the CIA that he fictionalized portions of it.
In the ABC interview, Kiriakou provided an explosive revelation about the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, which at the time was still shrouded in secrecy: He confirmed that Zubaydah had been waterboarded. And he said the waterboarding had been effective — that after just 30 to 35 seconds of it, Zubaydah gave up critical intelligence that saved lives.
Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.
Kiriakou said he personally declined to participate in the waterboarding and expressed ambivalence about its use. But at the time, in the months after 9/11, Kiriakou said he believed the techniques were justified. Supporters of waterboarding used Kiriakou's comments to bolster the argument that it was an effective, necessary way to gain intelligence from terrorists.
But Kiriakou eventually was forced to admit that much of what he told ABC turned out to be wrong. The government later admitted that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded not just once, but 83 times. And in May 2009, an FBI interrogator testified to the Senate that claims by the CIA and the Bush administration that Zubaydah's waterboarding yielded important intelligence were false.
Some of the best information obtained from Zubaydah — which resulted in the arrest of "dirty bomb" plotter Jose Padilla and exposed Khalid Sheikh Mohamed as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 — was obtained under normal interrogation methods before the CIA even authorized waterboarding Zubaydah, the FBI interrogator testified.
In his book, Kiriakou said he hadn't expected Ross to ask him about Zubaydah. He said he thought the interview would include generic questions about the CIA's admission that it had destroyed some interrogation tapes.
In his book, Kiriakou says he wasn't present for the Zubaydah interrogations and relied "on what I'd heard and read inside the agency at the time. ... In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the art of deception even among its own."
Despite the furor caused by Kiriakou's interview with Ross, nothing in the criminal complaint alleges any wrongdoing connected to it.
Instead, it alleges that he divulged to three journalists — including a New York Times reporter — the name of one CIA colleague who interrogated Zubaydah. In another instance, prosecutors say Zubaydah gave the name of another covert officer to an unidentified journalist. That journalist then passed the name on to defense lawyers representing a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, and those lawyers wrote a classified legal brief that mentioned the officer by name. When CIA officials saw the name in the defense papers, they became suspicious and a criminal investigation was launched.
Kiriakou's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said his client will plead not guilty.
In a court affidavit, FBI agent Joseph Capitano says the investigation determined that the defense lawyers committed no crimes. Nevertheless, after the charges were announced, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, urged the Justice Department to reveal the names of the journalists and lawyers who received information from Kiriakou's alleged leak.
"Beyond criminal legal liability, there is the question of moral culpability for these journalists and lawyers," King said. "The American people deserve to know exactly who has willingly endangered the lives of American intelligence officers."
The final allegation is that Kiriakou lied to the CIA to get his book published. The CIA has a Publication Review Board that vets all CIA employees' proposals to write books or other publications to ensure that classified information is not disclosed. The affidavit raises questions whether parts of the book are fictionalized. It cites an email Kiriakou wrote to his co-author, saying he would get the CIA to allow parts of the book to be published by saying they were fictionalized and therefore couldn't possibly be classified. Kiriakou tells the co-author that the accounts are not really fictional, even though he's telling the CIA they are.
The book includes compelling accounts of Zubaydah's capture, describing how they identified a badly wounded Zubaydah by taking a picture of his ear that analysts compared to known photographs of him, much as they would a fingerprint.
Kiriakou describes how he sat by Zubaydah's side for two days in the hospital, when it was not clear whether Zubaydah would survive. He says Zubaydah begged Kiriakou to kill him.
"Please, brother kill me. Take the pillow, put it over my face and kill me," he quotes Zubaydah as saying.
Kiriakou replies, "No, my friend, nobody's going to kill you. We want you to live. You're very important to us. We worked hard to find you. And we have a lot of questions we want to ask you."
The lawyer who now represents Abu Zubaydah, Brent 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.
In his book, Kiriakou says he was essentially forced to leave the agency by an overbearing boss. When that boss accuses him of an emotional outburst, Kiriakou says he responded, "I didn't have an emotional outburst. When I have an emotional outburst, people are going to read about it on the front page of The New York Times."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.