John Kiriakou was born in a small town outside of Sharon. He 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 missives titled “Letters from Loretto.”
One such was an open letter commending former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who publicly revealed the massive scope of the agency’s PRISM 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.
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 come 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. It was signed off on by the president.
“(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 and times, senders and receivers, etc. But recent reports are calling those claims into question.
According to an internal NSA audit performed in May 2012 – 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, however, these 2,776 violations only 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 that 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 said 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 a 2009 book called “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” It 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,” he said.
And there very well could be someone – or something – looking over your shoulder at all times. The issue of government-sanctioned domestic drones has been stirring lawmakers on Capitol Hill, although President Barack Obama has denied any such plans.
Even so, many local police forces around the country are fitting flying drones into their operating budgets, something Kiriakou sees as a crackdown.
“I understand drug interdiction on the border,” he said. “But why does my local police department fly over my house to see what I’m doing? To me, that’s a violation of civil liberties.”
The military has made good use of drones overseas, except those drones actually kill people – people like Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni imam and Islamic militant reportedly working with al-Qaida, but also his 16-year-old son, Abd al-Rahman, who was deemed an unintentional “collateral” kill in the 2011 drone strike.
“If it was a mistake, his family’s never received an apology,” Kiriakou said. “Just because they’re overseas or may or may not have something to do with a terrorist group doesn’t give our government the right to kill citizens without due process.
“A democracy doesn’t do that.”
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 could face up to 90 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.
“We believe that the information Mr. Snowden has disclosed about the nature, scope and putative legal authorization of the NSA’s surveillance operations has generated a remarkable and long-overdue public debate about the legality and propriety of the government’s surveillance activities,” an official ACLU statement read.
On Tribune-Democrat.com, public perception is decidedly torn, as 42 percent of online poll participants believed Snowden is a hero for revealing questionable government practices and 48 percent felt he should be prosecuted for leaking classified information. But Kiriakou said he feels certain details might be overlooked.
“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,” he 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.”
Under the Obama administration, seven alleged leakers have been charged under the Espionage Act – more than all other presidents combined. Kiriakou said he feels this is a surprisingly “iron fist” tactic from a president who promised transparency and accountability.
“All we’ve had is a continuation of the George W. Bush intelligence policy,” he said. “Obfuscation, not clarity.”
But, 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.”
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.