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New Castle Native Who Served Prison Time After Blowing Whistle On “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” Shares Story With Slippery Rock Crowd

John Kiriakou
John Kiriakou

Abu Zubaydah’s capture in 2002 marked the CIA’s first major al-Qaida capture after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said John Kiriakou, a 15-year CIA officer who blew the whistle on the intelligence agency’s torture methods, earning him nearly two years of federal prison time.

Kiriakou, a New Castle High School graduate and now a public speaker and anti-torture advocate, spoke to Slippery Rock University students and community members Wednesday evening about why he became a whistleblower in 2007.

“The CIA teaches you that everything is a shade of gray,” said Kiriakou, who served in the CIA from 1990 to 2004, “but that’s not true.”

After capturing Zubaydah, Kiriakou returned to the United States and was asked by a CIA officer if he wanted to become certified in the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

When Kiriakou asked for clarification about the techniques, the officer said, “We’re gonna start getting rough with these guys.” Kiriakou told the officer that he had a “moral and ethical problem” with torture programs and would not participate.

“I was passed over for my promotion because of this,” he said. They told him he “demonstrated a shocking lack of commitment to counterterrorism,” Kiriakou said.

The CIA asked 14 officers to participate in the “enhanced interrogation techniques” certification. Thirteen did.

“These officers were friends of mine. People I socialized with,” said Kiriakou. “My kids played with their kids. And then, like flipping a switch, these officers could become monsters. I didn’t understand how they could turn it on and off like that.”

A CIA psychiatrist once told Kiriakou that the agency actively seeks to hire people with sociopathic tendencies.

“They don’t seek to hire sociopaths,” Kiriakou clarified. “Sociopaths are impossible to control. But people with sociopathic tendencies have control, but are willing and happy to break the law. They operate in moral and legal gray areas.”

When Kiriakou captured Zubaydah, he said, “I told him, ‘I have no idea what they (the other CIA officers) are going to do to you. But you have to cooperate.’”

Kiriakou later learned that while in the CIA’s custody, Zubaydah had been tortured for years. The torturing included waterboarding, insects placed in a confined space and sleep deprivation.

“They strap you to a board with your feet slightly elevated,” said Kiriakou, describing waterboarding. “They put a cloth or burlap over your mouth, and then water is poured over your face. A little goes into the mouth and the lungs, enough to make you feel like you’re drowning. It’s a very painful technique.”

In fact, Zubaydah did drown, said Kiriakou.

“His heart stopped, and they revived him,” he said. “They only revived him so they could torture him more.”

 The CIA also went “off the books” in their torturing methods, said Kiriakou.

“They knew Zubaydah had an irrational fear of bugs,” he said. “So they put him in a coffin and poured a box of cockroaches in the coffin with him and closed it. They left him in that coffin for two weeks and would open it up long enough to give him some water and change his diaper. And then they’d close it back up again.”

Zubaydah still would not give the CIA information. He was waterboarded 83 times in a one month.

Kiriakou retired from the CIA in 2004. He never told anyone about the torture until Brian Ross, a reporter from ABC News, accused him of torturing Zubaydah.

“He told me he had a source that said I tortured Abu Zubaydah. I said that’s absolutely untrue. I was the only person who was kind to Abu Zubaydah. I never laid a hand on him. Your source is either mistaken or he’s a liar.”

Ross told Kiriakou he would have to come on ABC News and defend himself publicly.

Shortly after Ross contacted him, Kiriakou was listening to one of President George W. Bush’s press conferences.

“He looked right in the camera and said, ‘We do not torture,’” said Kiriakou. “I looked at my wife and said, he’s a bold-faced liar. He is looking at the American people in the eye, and he’s lying to us.”

Bush also said if there is any torture that goes on, it is only due to a rogue a CIA officer, said Kiriakou.

The accusations from Ross became clear. “They are going to try to pin this one on me,” Kiriakou said.

In 2007, Kiriakou decided to talk on ABC News and tell the nation the truth.

“I believe the American people (had) a right to know this information. We have a constitutional right to know what our government does,” he said.

“I told ABC three things,” said Kiriakou. “One, the CIA was torturing its prisoners. Two, torture was an official government policy; it was not a result of a rogue CIA officer. And three, the policy had been personally approved by the president himself.”

Within 24 hours, the FBI began investigating Kiriakou. Charges were dropped, but the investigation was reopened after President Barrack Obama was elected in 2008. Kiriakou was arrested in 2012 and served 23 months in federal prison. Now a highly sought-after consultant and commentator, Kiriakou is the author of three books, including “The Reluctant Spy.”