ARLINGTON, Va. – John Kiriakou claims to have achieved an exceedingly rare double-distinction for a federal inmate upon his incarceration: being greeting warmly by black nationalists from the Nation of Islam, and invited to dinner by white supremacists.
He was never a normal inmate.
Kiriakou arrived in prison with countless state secrets, had participated in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, led post-9-11 counterterrorism arrests in Pakistan, and had learned Arabic for his old job.
His old job was being a spy.
He was jailed for telling journalists a bit too much about his former employer: the CIA. He insists he was punished for blowing the whistle on the use of torture in 2007, not because he tipped off journalists to the identity of a couple of former spy colleagues, which is why he was charged.
“I’m 100 per cent positive,” Kiriakou says in an interview at home, where he’s completing his sentence under house arrest after two years in jail.
He’s adamant that he’s being singled out. Lots of names leak out of the agency without consequences, he says. Also, he accuses the FBI of trying to entrap him several times and failing.
To avoid a return trip to prison, there are limits to what he’ll say in interviews.
He will describe how former CIA colleagues protested the arrest, transfer, and torture in Syria of Canadian Maher Arar — but he absolutely won’t reveal the name of a woman in CIA middle-management who he says insisted on Arar’s arrest.
He’ll gladly discuss his latest book. He’d already published one about his CIA career. This forthcoming one was written by hand, in prison.
It’s titled, “Doing Time Like A Spy — How the CIA Taught Me To Survive And Thrive In Prison.” It offers 20 life-lessons learned in the CIA, and used in the slammer.
He describes tricking two particularly repellent inmates. One had raped numerous prostitutes. Another ordered a hit on his business partner, then ratted out the hitman.
Kiriakou told one that the other had called him a rat, one of the worst prison insults. A fight ensued. One was moved to another prison, the other to solitary: “I thought, this is a way to get rid of both of them,” Kiriakou said.
Fights were actually rare. Most were about TV. A near-scuffle also broke out at the Mafia Christmas dinner — a guy from one Mob family didn’t save a seat for a guy from a rival clan.
“Words were exchanged… It was more of a shoving match.”
He spent plenty of time with the Italians, eating with them during his second year in jail. He’d dined with white supremacists in Year One.
The cafeteria sections were segregated, mostly by race: African-American, Latino, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mafia, and the least coveted tables were reserved for the those on the lowest rung of the prison hierarchy — child molesters and informants.
In the ecosystem of the minimum-security prison cafeteria there was, alas, no obvious spot for the former CIA head of Pakistan counterterrorism operations.
So he first wound up with white supremacists.
He says burly Aryans wandered into his bunk area asking if he was a homosexual, a child molester, or a rat. He answered, “No,” to all three — and was invited to join their table. He says he was greeted warmly by Black Muslims because their leader, Louis Farrakhan, had said nice things about him.
He made a cafeteria switch a year later. He says a captain in the Bonanno Mafia family came up to him and said: “Why are you sitting with those hillbilly retards? You sit with us.’
“I said, ‘OK, thanks.’ So I sat with the Italians the rest of the time… I was much, much more comfortable with the Italians.”
In fact, he made friends — including drug dealers from Philadelphia and Detroit. He describes men who’d made mistakes — in some cases fleeting ones — that ruined their lives.
He says people with mental illness went to prison, and wound up worse.
He expresses much less sympathy for prison guards. He describes the prison system as a make-work program for the unemployable, and plans to incorporate justice reform into his future work.
“I’ll tell you what motivated me: The sick bastards who run the place.”
Kiriakou describes how guards made fun of inmates’ names; instigated fights; and punished with cruelty. He says the only required qualification seemed to be a high-school diploma. He recalls them struggling to read simple names, like “Jones,” when distributing mail.
“Now all of a sudden they can control people — and more than that, they can control people who can’t talk back.”
Prisoners obeyed, to avoid solitary confinement. Kiriakou never got solitary. He says it helped that journalists and actor John Cusack were tweeting about his case.
“What are you (guards) going to do — put me in solitary? It’s gonna be a lot harder on you than it is on me, because you’re gonna have to deal with CNN in the parking lot.”
To his detractors, Kiriakou’s a self-promoting storyteller who imperilled former colleagues by blabbing to the media. They note that some of his stories have shifted, over time.
To supporters, he’s a whistle-blowing martyr for a noble cause. In their view, he’s the only person ever punished for torture within the CIA — just for speaking out. He lost a lucrative post-CIA consulting career, his agency pension, and is now renting a smaller, more affordable house with his family while renting out their own.
He hopes for a presidential pardon.
It would help him retrieve the $800,000 CIA pension he says he lost. He expects a long pardon list in President Barack Obama’s last months in office: “I really hope I’m on it.”
© The Canadian Press, 2015