John Kiriakou’s first book, Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror, written with Michael Ruby, was published in 2012. A first-person account of the covert agent’s two-decade career in the CIA, the book describes his role in the capture of senior Al-Qaida terrorists and offers insight into the debate about interrogation techniques used in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
Kiriakou, whose family is from Rhodes, spent the first eight years of his career in the CIA as a Middle East analyst specializing on Iraq. He maintained a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance. He learned Arabic and was assigned to the American Embassy in Bahrain. He eventually became CIA’s Directorate of Operations and was a counter-terrorism operations officer and worked on Eurocommunist terrorism.
Kiriakou was named Chief of Counterterrorist Operations in Pakistan. In that position, he led a series of military raids on al-Qaeda safehouses, capturing dozens of al-Qaeda fighters. Kiriakou claims to have led a raid that captured Abu Zubaydah, then thought to be al-Qaeda’s third-ranking official. After all of this John Kiriakou was sent to prison, serving a thirty-month sentence for exposing the CIA’s use of torture on Al Qaeda prisoners.
Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison is Kiriakou’s memoir of his time in prison and is at once a critical journal of daily prison life and a commentary on the federal prison system. Kiriakou is a columnist with Reader Supported News. He was a CIA analyst and case officer, senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and counterterrorism consultant for ABC News. He spoke with The National Herald about the book, the desperate need for prison reform in the United States, his life and family, and how the support of the Greek community has helped him through tough times.
Kiriakou said, “I can’t tell you how many people, other prisoners told me ‘You have an audience, you have to get our story out there because people don’t know what it’s like in prison.’ I was struck by a couple of things. I found the prison system to be racist, xenophobic, and most disturbingly, they treat mental illness as a disciplinary problem rather than a medical problem. I had one cell mate who was a homeless man living in a cardboard box under a bridge in Pittsburgh and he violated the terms of his Federal probation on purpose so he could spend the winter indoors. So he got to my cell on the first day and there were six of us in the cell and he said, ‘Guys I’ve got to warn you, I have severe mental illness. When I’m on my medication I’m fine when I go off my medication I am absolutely insane and they’re not giving me my medication’ and sure enough a week later he was a raving lunatic and they took him to solitary confinement. Then, because he was a raving lunatic, they stripped him naked and put him outside in single degree temperatures. For the first hour, he cursed them and screamed and shouted, then he cried, and then curled up in a ball and passed out. That’s not legal, that’s not a legal punishment, that’s not rehabilitation, it’s not treatment, it’s just wrong… [and] it’s the rule and not the exception.”
He continued, “It’s worse with private prisons because private prisons are for profit entities and where they save money for the shareholders is on food and medical care and so you get food that is in many cases not fit for human consumption just like the food was in our prison and you get no medical care. In our prison, speaking of food, my very first day there I went to the cafeteria and saw these boxes of fish and they were marked on each box not for human consumption, feed use only, and that’s what they were feeding us for lunch and it was funny because my first full day was a Friday and somebody said FishFriday and I said ‘Oh, good, I like fish,’ and one of the guys said, ‘You’re not going to like this fish, we call it sewer trout. Don’t eat the fish.’ That’s when I saw it was animal feed.”
Kiriakou was determined to get his book written and published. He said, “One of the administrators made fun of me and he said ‘So I heard you’re writing a book’ and I said ‘Yeah, I am.’ He laughed and said every prisoner says he’s writing a book and I said well how many of your prisoners’ first books made #5 on the Washington Post bestseller list? This book is going to be published and it’s going to be my revenge against you guys. So there it is.”
Of the support of the Greek American community, he said, “There are a couple of important people Nikos Mouyiaris and Dennis Mehiel who have been great… my AHEPA chapter just has been wonderful and Niko and Dennis, Alexi Giannoulias they have been so truly great, they’ve been anticipating it [the book’s release] just as much as I have, I think.”
He added, “The whole Greek-American community was very good to me, not even Greek-American community, the Greek community… I made three trips to Greece in 2015 to work on a new whistleblower protection law. Everybody’s been great and then here especially between Nikos and Dennis and Alexi, and the Manatoses in Washington, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
“Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh has been one of my great champions, he has been generous and selfless, he visited me in prison, he talked about my case, he circulated articles that were written about me. He’s been a real friend to me and it’s not just him, the diocese of Pittsburgh… there are so many people from Pittsburgh, well from Western Pennsylvania which is where I’m from originally. Fr. Michael Kallaur came to see me a half a dozen times. The support of the community was really incredible.”
Of his family, Kiriakou said, “They’re very well, thank God. It’s been a long road for all of us. We moved back into our house in July last year and my wife’s doing well, the kids are great. I have a lot to be thankful for.”
“I will say I could not possibly have gotten through it without the support of my wife… I don’t think I could have coped without her,” he noted.
“[The book] orders are solid and a second printing has been ordered. My first book sold the first week 647 copies which was good for #5 on the Washington Post bestsellers list. I’ve already sold out an edition of 2,000 and the book didn’t come out until today. So, I’m optimistic. Things are going well.”
“On the day of my arrest my wife said you have to embrace this, you can’t hide from this, you’ve done nothing wrong you’re a whistleblower and you have to fight them and she was right. Another thing she told me was that I have to keep talking about it because eventually they’re going to move on to the next victim which was Edward Snowden. And she said if you keep talking about it your side of the story is going to be the side of record and she was right. It was good advice.”
When asked about the questions the book raises, he noted that, “our civil liberties are so important to me I would rather face a terrorist attack than give up our constitutional rights. I really would. I just got back from Germany last night and I addressed the German parliament there and had lunch the next day with the national security advisor and the Germans and other Europeans are so far advanced, so much farther advanced than we are on these issues of whistleblowing and civil liberties and human rights.”
When asked about the backlash after TNH interviewed him in prison, he said, “It was awful, they shook me down, threw all my clothes on the floor, dumped out my food on the floor, they threw my pictures of my kids on the floor and walked on them, because they were so angry I had done that interview.”
About the writing of the book, Kiriakou said, “The book was handwritten because in prison there are no computers or typewriters. So this started off as 550 legal pages and I would send them home every time I write ten pages or so. I’d send a copy home and a copy to my attorney because the cops when they would shake me down they would take them and destroy them and then I’d have to reconstruct those ten pages, so every time I got to ten I would send them out, just to protect them and then once I got home I gave the 550 pages to a college student and I said just put it all in a Word document and so she did and sent it to me and I did the editing and boiled it down to this [indicating book].”
He noted that while in prison, “I did buy a radio, we were allowed these little AM/FM radios, clear plastic, and as soon as the sun would go down I could get this Greek station in Toronto and so at least I could listen to Greek music every night. It was all classic stuff, Theodorakis, and Bithikotsis, and Dalaras and all those guys.”
A celebration for multiculturalism during his prison term gave Kiriakou the opportunity to speak about his Greek heritage. “I gave this speech, they didn’t want to let me do it because I refused to write the speech in advance and give it to them for clearance. I said, ‘Listen I’m not going to disrupt your library, I’m not going to disrupt your little event, I’m not going to clear my words with you. I’m going to say what I want to say.’ So, I did it in the context of the history of AHEPA and that as Greeks we stood together with African-Americans to fight the clan, to ensure human rights and civil liberties, beginning in the heart of it all Atlanta, GA, in the early 1920s. And I said, we lived as slaves of the Turks for more 400 years, so we knew what African-Americans were going through and we knew that it was wrong and so we stood with them and that’s why Archbishop Iakovos stood with Martin Luther King at Selma Bridge and I said that’s what Greeks are. We created democracy and philosophy and medicine, mathematics and human rights. That’s what we stand for.”
On the controversial meeting of President Donald Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he observed that, “No American media were allowed in the Oval Office, only Russian media, only the Russian photographer was allowed in, so all of the photos focus on Lavrov rather than on Trump and then he shared with them classified information without having it cleared by the CIA, apparently jeopardizing a liaison relationship. If Obama were president, Trump would be charged with espionage for what he did. I certainly was and I did less than that.”
When asked about the security situation now, Kiriakou said, “You know you hear these alarmist predictions from the director of National Intelligence and I’m just not buying it. We were so ill-prepared for 9/11 it’s like we were asleep and now we have utterly destroyed Al-Qaida, ISIS is not a threat to us domestically, and we’re relentless in our attacks on ISIS, the nationalist and communist groups essentially don’t exist anymore so I think we’re better off now, I really do. But with that said, we’ve lost so many of our rights, that you have to ask yourself is the trade-off really worth it? In some cases it is. In others, no not at all. You know I don’t mind taking my shoes off at the airport, but I will be damned if I turn over my laptop and phone at the border and give the cops my password. I’m not doing it and they can’t stop me from coming back into my own country.”
About his upcoming projects, Kiriakou said, “The truth is I’m never going to work in Washington again, it’s just not in the cards for me. But I think I found a second life in Los Angeles and so since I’ve been home I’ve sold two TV series to different networks, one to the History channel and one to AMC with some pretty heavy hitters. The History channel with Oliver Stone and AMC with Alec Baldwin, and I’m going back out to pitch a third series and then my manager is very confident that we’re going to sell this book as a television series.”
About Greece, he said, “We’re going to go back this summer. I love it there so much. And even Athens for all of its problems, unemployment, garbage, graffiti, pollution, overcrowding, it’s one of the most glorious places on earth to me. You know, every time, I even lived there for a couple of years, and I still never get tired of looking at the Parthenon, it makes me teary-eyed. Coming into Rhodes on the boat, and just seeing the mountains in the distance, oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful.”
An event at the Strand Bookstore for Kiriakou’s book took place on May 16 following our interview. The author read excerpts from his book and then had a conversation with Brian Ross of ABC News. Kiriakou and Ross are good friends, and Ross noted that he felt a bit responsible for Kiriakou’s situation following their interview on the use of torture. He asked what the next battleground will be and Kiriakou said the use of drones is the next battleground issue that has to be addressed. He also noted that the Republicans and Far Right do not have a monopoly on patriotism. As a third generation Democrat, he loves this country, and noted that civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights are of the utmost importance. After the lively conversation, Kiriakou signed copies of his book for those in attendance.
He mentioned to TNH about upcoming book events in Washington, DC, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles. Kiriakou also mentioned that his next book is due out in June.
Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison by John Kiriakou is available online and in bookstores now.