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August 27, 2013

John Kiriakou’s Story: Whistleblower reflects on spy case

NEW CASTLE — John Kiriakou was born in a small town and grew up in New Castle before moving to Washington, D.C., to major in Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University.

After spending his postgraduate years as a CIA operative, Kiriakou eventually returned to Pennsylvania — but as a federal prisoner on the wrong side of the nation’s espionage laws.

He reported to the federal corrections institution in Loretto in February after being sentenced in January for violating the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Kiriakou was one of the first intelligence officers to speak out against the official U.S. torture policy and outed the identity of a covert operative to an ABC News journalist.

During his imprisonment, he’s written “Letters from Loretto.”

One was an open letter commending former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who publicly revealed the massive scope of the agency’s surveillance program, which has been collecting large amounts of data on American citizens for years.

Kiriakou spoke with The Tribune-Democrat via phone, reflecting on the erosion of domestic civil liberties that led to the wide-reaching PRISM program and the vilification of “leakers” such as Snowden.

“I’ve learned since this whole thing started that no one intends to be a whistleblower.”

He said for him, the situation evolved quickly. Kiriakou got a call from ABC News’ Brian Ross, who told him a source had accused Kiriakou of “waterboarding” al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, a claim he denied. He was offered to go on-air with Ross to defend himself.

“I decided between the phone call and the interview the only way to protect myself was to tell the truth,” he said.

“And the truth was not only were we torturing people, but it was an official U.S. policy.

“(I thought), if I have to do this, it has to be the whole way; there can be no half-measure.”

For former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden, divulging the nature of the NSA’s domestic spying activity meant never returning home — at least not as a free man. The country is still sifting through the implications of what he exposed.

“Most Americans just assumed the CIA or FBI had the ability to monitor our phone calls or emails,” Kiriakou said. “I think people were surprised they were actually (doing it regularly).”

The official statements from NSA officials and the White House assure that the only communication details collected are the “metadata” — dates, times, senders, receivers, etc. But recent reports are calling those claims into question.

According to an internal May 2012 NSA audit performed — provided to the Washington Post by Snowden — the agency has broken surveillance laws thousands of times since Congress expanded its powers in 2008 with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Although many violations were unintentional — typographical errors when querying the NSA database or a software bug that confused the D.C. 202 area code for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt — they went largely unreported. NSA overseers don’t view them as “violations.”

Given the sheer number of the agency’s regular queries, these violations account for a minute percentage of NSA activity. But the incidents have caused a considerable amount of data on Americans to be “inadvertently” collected.

Kiriakou asserts the government is looking at more than just metadata. Communications are analyzed for keywords that may imply illegal or terrorist activity — when a keyword is found, it’s stored and reviewed.

Recently, it came to light that a special division of the Drug Enforcement Agency was receiving NSA data in order to build probable cause against drug violators.

“That’s supposed to be unconstitutional,” Kiriakou said.

When he was with the CIA, he noted, agents were strictly barred from collecting data on American citizens, but all that changed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Now, anyone is fair game,” he said. “What makes it more dangerous is the NSA now illegally collects information and passes it to other government agencies to build a case against you.”

He said he read “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” He said the book describes how the average person, on an average day, commits three felonies unknowingly. But Kiriakou said the government will know, and it’s that kind of overregulation and overlegislation that constitutes a police state.

“You can’t do anything now without the government knowing about it.”

Pfc. Bradley Manning gained national notoriety when he released video from a 2007 Baghdad drone strike that killed a journalist and two Reuters cameramen through the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Kiriakou said he feels Manning and Snowden are examples of a new governmental policy to “crush truth-tellers.”

Snowden, who was recently granted temporary asylum in Russia, was urged by Kiriakou to reach out and “cultivate” relationships with domestic lawmakers and legal entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union to affect his public perception.

ACLU has since been in touch with Snowden and is helping coordinate his legal defense.

“If the government is involved in illegal activity, oftentimes they will classify a program so it doesn’t leak, but it’s illegal to classify something that’s illegal,” Kiriakou said. “It’s not illegal to expose an illegality, whether it’s classified or not.

“That is something that a lot of Americans don’t understand about the Snowden case. It was an illegal activity by the NSA — the director of national intelligence lied to Congress about (the NSA’s data collection) ... Was he charged for perjury? No.”

Given the opportunity, Kiriakou said, he would do it all over again — the prison sentence, the alienation from friends — and he thinks Snowden feels the same.

“My case was much bigger than John Kiriakou,” he said. “It was a civil liberties issue. Somebody’s got to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough.’ Somebody’s got to stand up and say, ‘our government is committing crimes.’ Now that I’m in that situation, I embrace it.

“I wear my conviction as a badge of honor.”

(Email: jdennis@tribdem.com)

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