John Kiriakou has recently written The Reluctant Spy. The book recounts his fifteen years as a covert agent and his life in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an operative and analyst. It details his take down of the infamous terrorist Abu Zubaydah as well as a day in the life as a CIA agent. NewsReal Blog interviewed him about his CIA career and issues he explored in his book.
NewsReal Blog: You describe in your book your personal reaction to 9/11. Can you recount it for our readers?
John Kiriakou: I remember driving down Washington Parkway after Headquarters closed, watching the Pentagon burn in the distance. I said out loud to myself how could this have happened? My fiancé, a CIA employee, and I went out looking to volunteer some place. After a short time, we looked at each other and said we have to get back to work. We went back even though the employees were told to stay clear because of the possible unknown danger. The crazy thing was when we finally got there everybody had gone back to work to find some answers.
NRB: In the book you said the employees did not want to leave, is that correct?
Kiriakou: When the original directive came out we said we were not going anywhere but were forced out for our own safety. The big bosses never left.
NRB: In your opinion who is responsible for allowing 9/11 to happen?
Kiriakou: I believe September 11th was an American failure. It as a CIA failure; we should have had better knowledge. It was an FBI failure; they should have had better surveillance here in the US. It was a State Department failure; every one of those hijackers was in the country legally on a visa. It was an airport security failure; these guys were able to bring weapons on those planes that were not detected. It was a congressional failure; since the early 1990’s the CIA had asked for but was denied more money to train operational people and analysts.
NRB: Speaking of the 1990’s, is it true that President Clinton did not have daily intelligence meetings?
Kiriakou: He was only briefed directly twice, one of which was his first day in office. He would read short directives. Unlike the Bush Presidents who were briefed every single morning in the White House by the CIA bosses, with the Vice-President and Secretary of Defense regularly in attendance. It was like a great big huddle.
NRB: It did not seem like Clinton was personally involved, that he only got the nuances?
Kiriakou: You need personal involvement to have a give and take to get a clearer interpretation. However, Gore was more like the Bushes’: He wanted to be briefed personally and he asked good questions.
NRB: Let’s talk a bit about Abu Zubaydah. We cannot do justice to how you captured him so I will let people read it in your book except for the technology-care to describe?
Kiriakou: After his capture we wanted to confirm if it was really him. If we took a picture of his iris we could get a confirmation with a retinal scan. I could not get him to open his eyes which were rolled back in his head. I was told to take a picture of his ear with my cell phone. No two people on earth have the same ear. It’s like fingerprints. After sending the picture we had a positive ID.
NRB: Let’s put this controversy to rest; did the CIA get actionable intelligence from water boarding?
Kiriakou: I said in September, 2007 that Zubaydah produced actionable intelligence. I believe that to be true. I don’t know if he started to talk after the first time he was water boarded or after the last time. If you are asking me did Abu Zubaydah provide intelligence that saved American lives the answer is YES.
NRB: Abu Zubaydah and his lawyers try to make him out as a sympathetic figure with little importance. Is that a fair description?
Kiriakou: That is revisionist history, absolutely untrue. It was reported that he was mentally and emotionally ill. That is so far from the truth that it is almost laughable.
NRB: What were his duties in Al Qaeda?
Kiriakou: He was a master at logistics. He was the commander of one of Al Qaeda’s most important training camps in Afghanistan. Abu Zubaydah was famous in the organization for knowing absolutely everybody and he had a mind for detail. He was smart and a great organizer and was the one who gave up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
NRB: Former FBI agent Ali Soufan made the claim that he was getting actionable intelligence without the harsh interrogation techniques. Do you agree?
Kiriakou: He is just plain wrong on this issue. The reason the President took away FBI responsibility for the interrogations and gave it to the CIA is simply because the FBI was not getting anywhere with him.
NRB: Do you want to elaborate?
Kiriakou: It makes no sense at all that if the FBI was getting all this intelligence they would have the whole interrogation yanked out from under them by the President. The reason the President took away the FBI’s responsibility was because they were failing on getting actionable intelligence.
NRB: If you were on a jury would you find him guilty?
Kiriakou: Yes, and honestly that’s exactly what he expects to happen. He talked about being a prisoner now and that his life was over.
NRB: So he viewed himself as an enemy combatant?
Kiriakou: I don’t know if the terrorists have a sense or nuance of US law. They definitely believe they are in a war with the US and that it is a war to the death. No one will ever be able to convince them otherwise.