How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars

It’s been one year since former CIA analyst and counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou was sentenced to prison for 30 months, the first American official to do time for the government’s torture policies during the Global War on Terror.

This is what whistleblower advocates like to point out – and Kiriakou, 49, strongly believes himself – that he is not in jail for doing the torture or even promoting it, but being the first counterterrorism official to acknowledge the use of waterboarding, and then speak publicly against it.

"The Obama Administration is further criminalizing the exposure of the US’s own state sponsored and supported criminal behavior and activity – namely torture and in my case warrantless surveillance – while protecting and hiding from accountability those who authorized, approved, conducted and implemented the criminal behavior and activity under the cover and guile and guise of secrecy," said Tom Drake, who was punished by the government after blowing the whistle on NSA surveillance programs in 2010. He spoke to in January 2012.

John Kiriakou before going to jail last year
John Kiriakou before going to jail last year

At that time, Kiriakou was facing charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, for disclosing to two reporters the names of two agency officers who had been involved in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program, which was widely criticized in 2009 by the new Obama administration after charges it engaged in extrajudicial torture of suspects in secret prisons all over the world (though President Obama did not end the program entirely). Kiriakou was also charged with attempting with to pass off classified information as fictionalized in his 2010 memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the C.I.A.’s War on Terror.

In the end, Kiriakou pled guilty to one count of violating the identity protection act (he told The New York Times last year he didn’t know the officer in question was still "under cover," or else he wouldn’t have disclosed his name), and the rest of the charges were dropped. He was sentenced to 30 months in January 2013.

The whistleblower community believes none of this would have happened if Kiriakou had not gone on ABC News in 2007 and said that while he believed waterboarding terror suspects worked, the US government should no longer use it because "we’re Americans and we’re better than this." He ultimately declared the practice torture, and after 2007 became a source for journalists on terrorism and interrogation issues (one note: it turned out that contrary to Kiriakou’s original interview where he said Abu Zubaydah, whom he had helped capture in 2002, had "broke" after 30 seconds of waterboarding and had told interrogators everything he knew, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, and remains at Guantanamo Bay to this day, uncharged).

Packing off for prison in February last year, Kiriakou was forced to say good-bye to his son Max, then 8, his daughter Kate, 6, and 14-month-old Charlie, as well as his wife, who lost her own job as an analyst for the CIA in all of the turmoil. Kiriakou has two older children from a previous marriage.

But he found out the hard way, according to letters he has sent periodically to the staff at, that the official backlash against him did not end when he started doing his time on February 28, 2013.

First, he said good-bye to the prospects of entering into a minimum security "work camp" outside the federal corrections facility in Loretto, Pa., which both the judge and prosecutor in his case recommended. He is, after all, a former civil servant who helped "hunt down" al-Qaeda suspects after 9/11. But according to Kiriakou’s first letter in May, the Bureau of Prisons deemed him a "threat to public safety," and put him in the main prison with six guys to a cell made for four guys, and all of his cellmates representing "a myriad of Latin drug gangs."

Nonetheless, Kiriakou actually seems to get along with everyone – white, black, Hispanic, Muslim – except for the pedophiles and child rapists, which, according to Kiriakou’s July letter, account for "40% of the now 1,325 prisoners at Loretto." Early on, he reported working for $5.25 a month as a janitor in the prison Chapel.

The only problems he has had so far, appear to be with the corrections officers, who, according to Kiriakou, are verbally abusive and manipulative, even at one point trying to gin up a fight between him and a former Muslim imam, according to his letters. It didn’t work; they became fast friends instead (Kiriakou is a trained Arabic speaker). Also in July, he sent a letter to his attorney Jesselyn Radack, telling her it took 18 days for the medical unit there to correctly address a finger he had broken in the gym.

…I walked to the office and was told that I was going for an outside medical consultation. First I was escorted to the medical unit, where I was strip-searched … I was then handcuffed and shackled around my ankles. A chain was placed around my waist, which connected to my handcuffs and my leg irons. Then a black steel box about the size of a computer hard drive was locked over the handcuffs so the lock could not be picked…

Writing about the letter for Firedoglake, reporter Kevin Gosztola wrote:

"Shackled, Kiriakou was told to sign a form of "rules," one of them being if he escaped he would be shot. Another rule was that he address everybody as "Sir" during the trip. He refused to sign….

The CO refused to take him to the doctor. Kiriakou said fine. The two stared at each other. The CO then said, "OK. Forget it." He took "shackled baby steps to a waiting van with two COs in it," and he was driven to a doctor’s office that was near the prison."

About the same time, Kiriakou penned a letter of support to Edward Snowden, which was published widely across the mainstream news. Kiriakou said he wanted to offer the 29-year-old " the benefit of my own whistleblowing experience and aftermath so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I made." For his part, Snowden has referred to Kiriakou as another example "of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures."

Who knows what kind of effect Kiriakou’s public support for the intelligence community’s "public enemy number one" has had on his own treatment in the jail, but after several months of silence, Kiriakou once again wrote to Firedoglake to say the CO (corrections officer) swindled him out of a chance to spend the last nine months of his sentence in a halfway house with fellow prisoners, a preferable option to remaining at Loretto.

According to a December letter published in January, Kiriakou had promised prison officials he would withdraw two formal complaints against the staff, turn down press interviews, and stop writing letters that would be published publicly, in return for the nine months at the halfway house. Instead he was "put in" for six months instead, and was "warned" that the six months could be reduced to three, or nothing at all.

"Rather than twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best, I started writing again," he said. "God bless the Constitution and its First Amendment."

Kiriakou is scheduled to get out July 2015. He said he is bolstered by hundreds of letters of support, though he knows his letters coming into and out of the jail are being torn open, read, and then taped shut again. His pen-pals have reported the tampering, and he’s seen it too.

Most recently, in a January letter, Kiriakou says the prison told him that everything he writes has to be cleared through the CIA publishing review board. He believes he’s been the subject of "central inmate monitoring" since he sent the first "Letter from Loretto" to Firedoglake. "This designation put me under a microscope that, in the end, was only petty harassment," he wrote, before listing a number of prisoner rights he believed were being violated – including the tampering of his legal mail – in order to keep him from writing more letters to be published online.

"They’re afraid of the public disclosure that they don’t bother to follow their own rules," he writes. "They’re afraid that you’ll learn that they can violate the law with impunity. They’re afraid of ‘Letters from Loretto.’"

When reached by and asked about Kiriakou’s various allegations against the prison, a US Bureau of Prisons spokesman said he could not comment on specific inmates or their complaints relating to their confinement. The prisoners, he stressed, have administrative channels through which to bring their grievances.

Kevin Gosztola, who has been following the case from the start, says that Kiriakou is "fighting" and hasn’t given up his effort to get to the half way house and then to some house arrest situation, which would allow him access to his family. From there, he must think about building a life from the rubble of his reputation, the mounting debt and the record of an ex-con.

"Obviously John was in prison over the holidays, and like many American families, they wanted to celebrate Christmas together," Gosztola told "But their father wasn’t home for the holidays and they are not financially well-off. They’ve taken quite a hit … (Kiriakou) continues to ask for support daily (a previous letter told how the Kiriakou’s financial institutions have dropped them, and they are no doubt facing the debt of attorneys/court fees and fines).

"John would have no problem returning (to society)," Gosztola added, "but he is worried about what he is going to do, where he is going to find employment, where he can eke out a career after being a convict and serving time as a felon."

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.