By Emma Grey Ellis for WIRED.
John Kiriakou knows a lot about leaking classified information. He went to prison for it.
A former CIA agent who said too much about the Bush-era torture program, he’s also the first CIA leaker to go to jail for his trouble. Kiriakou served just under two years in federal prison, though before the Department of Justice offered a plea deal, it seemed more likely he’d serve as many as 45.
History has frowned on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” Kiriakou helped expose, but he’s still a controversial guy. Leakers usually are. They operate in gray areas. Kiriakou isn’t a cheering squad for loose-lipped aides and intelligence agents everywhere, but does see whistleblowing as essential. He’s critical of the way the CIA (and the White House, and the Department of Justice) deal with leakers, but holds national security sacrosanct. He’s got beef with President Trump, and with former President Obama as well.
So how does the intelligence community’s current predicament — from the Vault 7 dump to WikiLeaks generally to their fraught relationship with President Trump — look to a guy like Kiriakou? Basically, a mess. One that could nudge the Trump administration’s “deep state” paranoias closer to reality.
Vault 7 and Trump
No question: The most recent WikiLeaks data dump — a horde of CIA documents outlining their hacking capabilities, codenamed Vault 7 — dealt a body blow to national security. “There are three holy of holies: sources and methods, liaison relationships, and anything having to do with NSA. Never ever talk about stuff like that,” Kiriakou says. “That said, I personally would call whoever did this a whistleblower.”
Kiriakou invokes the federal government’s legal definition of whistleblower here: anybody who discloses illegality, mismanagement, waste of funds, abuse of authority, or a danger to public health and safety. And considering Vault 7 contained evidence of the CIA withholding known security vulnerabilities from tech companies and the public, that seems a fair assessment.
That doesn’t, though, mean that whomever leaked should expect any sort of free pass. “The law exempts national security whistleblowers from protection,” Kiriakou says. “If you’re from the NSA, CIA, or Department of Defense, you’re on your own, and they’re going to ruin you.”
Which is what will happen to the Vault 7 leaker if the FBI investigation President Trump requested turns up a culprit. Trump’s request is totally routine. The FBI fields hundreds of such requests from the executive branch per year — basically every time an outlet quotes an anonymous intelligence source. But the President’s laser focus on leaks may mean this one won’t fade away.
“It’s too early to tell, and so far he’s been very conventional, but reportedly Trump has the same Nixonian obsession with leaks as George W. Bush and Obama,” Kiriakou says.
Yep, Obama. Despite commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence and getting plenty of flack for it, President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder showed an unprecedented willingness to prosecute leakers. “A good friend at the White House said the only time he ever saw President Obama lose his composure was in response to a leak,” Kiriakou says. “And Eric Holder recommended the only way to stop leaks was by prosecuting.”
Which is how the Obama administration ended up invoking the Espionage Act — a law criminalizing the exposure of national security documents — a total of eight times in as many years. Government officials had called on it only three times in the previous century.
How Even Good Leaks Get Stopped Up
Still, so far President Trump hasn’t prosecuted leaks more aggressively than his predecessors. Seems like good news for transparency. But according to Kiriakou, the current state of affairs remains way too harsh on whistleblowers.
“The CIA, NSA, FBI and DoD use predictive software to determine when employees might be thinking about blowing the whistle, and the FBI and NSA encourage employees to rat each other out,” Kiriakou says. “And since the Congressional oversight committees are really just cheerleaders for the agencies, it’s become harder and harder to operate.”
Plus, even if your computer or the person sitting next to you doesn’t whistleblow your whistleblowing, there’s that pesky legal problem: The Department of Justice will come for you, hard. “In the eyes of the law, leaking is leaking is leaking. There’s no difference between Ed Snowden and the person who told the Washington Post President Trump hung up on the Australian prime minister,” Kiriakou says.
And according to Kiriakou, the Department of Justice will routinely pile on the felony charges, force you to defend yourself until you go broke, and then offer the plea deal. “Everybody takes the deal,” Kiriakou says. “I’d already spent a million dollars I’ll never pay off, and I have five kids at home. Was I going to risk 18 years in prison? Nope.”
With the examples set by Kiriakou and Thomas Drake (who went bankrupt defending himself), it’s hard to blame people for eyeing their pensions before they blab.
Even if a leaker takes the plunge anyway, it’s hard to know where to turn. “Few traditional media outlets have the budget for investigative journalism, and you can’t just take a leaker’s word for it,” Kiriakou says. “A lot of whistleblowers and would-be whistleblowers have told me they were ignored by the Washington Post or The New York Times and said, well, there’s always WikiLeaks.”
Not that Kiriakou is any fan of how WikiLeaks handles information. “WikiLeaks published my social security number in the Chelsea Manning leak,” he says. “Did they need to do that? I think not.” He admits that some of his trepidation towards WikiLeaks could be generational — Kiriakou is in his fifties, and still reads his news in print — but he ultimately thinks they can become part of the solution only when they adopt more vigorous vetting practices.
But only a small part: “We need a national security whistleblower protection law,” Kiriakou says. “There has to be somewhere to go legally in the system, not just WikiLeaks.”
The Case for Leaks
Kiriakou’s ultimate advice to leakers? Lawyer up, but trust the system.
“My chain of command created the torture program, so I went directly to the media. But that’s illegal. Don’t do that,” he says. “Going through the chain of command up to the Congressional oversight committee will make your argument for that better whistleblower protection law stronger.”
Failing the ability to shed light on unsavory government practices, things start to look a bit 1984 to Kiriakou. “We’d have to take the government at its word,” he says. “Then we really could develop a deep state — a grotesque, untouchable permanent bureaucracy.”
The Trump administration sees America on its darkest timeline. If it takes more whistleblowers to keep that a fiction, Kiriakou’s inclined to let them leak.
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