Ex-CIA officer turned whistleblower, John Kiriakou, possesses little subtlety on the topics of torture and the right to dissent — which I discussed with him in Part 1 of this interview — nor does he when examining the disturbing erasure of press freedom and the need to protect whistleblowers.
In fact, the posturing of American Exceptionalism abroad tightly parallels the disappearance of what arguably once made this nation exceptional — protections against infringement on liberties and a handy list of rights intended never to be trodden upon by an unwieldy government.
Freedom of the Press might sound inapplicable to the ordinary U.S. citizen, but the fact an interminable list of presidents peg the press as an enemy entity in actuality endangers us all. Imagine a State writ large, its press impotent in obtaining what is currently public information — whether through excessive classification, censorship, or dissuading likely whistleblowers from stepping forward for fear of draconian punishment — no expectation to hold pols accountable would be reasonable.
Kiriakou practically screams for us all to pay attention to the myriad trimmings of freedom falling away before our eyes — and to prepare for inevitable backlash should we remain fools, unwilling to do anything but complain.
Decimating the available avenues for leakers and whistleblowers to opportune — particularly through the diversionary tactic of severe charges levied under penalty of the anachronistic Espionage Act, as Kiriakou was — has been a weapon of every administration in the post-9/11 era.
“This is not partisan,” the whistleblower emphasized. “Barack Obama was one of the country’s greatest enemies of transparency; and the Trump policy, at least as it relates to Reality Winner, is very simply a continuation of the Obama, Eric Holder policy — snuff out any kind of dissent.”
No matter how vitriolic the posturing from the Trump administration becomes, Kiriakou insists that, on the topic of transparency in government, Obama holds the nefarious crown — facilitating the use by any administration in Washington those McCarthyist strictures and tools.
On accountability, government cannot be trusted to hold itself to task, and — although the press has traditionally been the watchdog of the State — lack of access by media jeopardizes press freedom and indicates still darker times ahead.
It might be convenient to skewer the current president for cracking down on the media at an albeit furious rate — but Kiriakou called to mind a likely forgotten incident, in which Washington wielded the Espionage Act against a reporter under frighteningly flimsy circumstances:
“When you’ve got the Attorney General [Eric Holder] of the United States describing a FOX News reporter [James Rosen] as an unindicted co-conspirator, because he wrote an article that contained allegedly-classified information, that has such a chilling effect on freedom of the press as to be unprecedented in modern times. And that was under Obama — not under Trump.”
Not that the CIA whistleblower harbors a soft spot for Trump, but the White House could not trim away press freedom as efficaciously had Obama not passed along the shears on a silver platter — which he did just prior to the Christmas holiday with the signing of the 2017 NDAA.
Meant to “counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States,” the provisions effectively — if redundantly — legalized the CIA’s old Operation Mockingbird, a program notorious for having enjoined and paid journalists at major news organizations to instill pro-American, anti-Soviet sentiment, but also severely censored and edited the facts to do so.
Countering propaganda, by its nature, relies on whose definition of propaganda would be employed — fomenting the nastiest of slippery slopes. Asked for his opinion on the topic, Kiriakou noted the not-so auspicious possibilities, thanks to Obama’s signature at the midnight hour:
“It plays perfectly into Trump’s hands, doesn’t it — because Trump gets what he probably wanted in the first place; and, if things go bad, he can just blame it on Obama. There was this wonderful book that came out in 2013 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann called Double Down … about the 2012 elections. And Obama said two things in that book that were just chilling to me.
“First, he said, very matter-of-factly, ‘I never said I was a liberal’ — he just came out with it, as fact.
“Well, that’s not a progressive. That’s not someone who we should emulate. That’s someone who’s taking the country back to the bad old days. What makes that policy any different than George W. Bush’s policy? It’s not — except, perhaps, it was bloodier. Obama killed thousands more people with drones than Bush ever did.
“And, so, it’s that policy, that has allowed us to transition into a bloody, probably illegal, Trump policy.”
We’re now under the leadership of a third president in the feckless War on Terror, but the headlong rush to militarize all foreign policy — particularly amid continued entanglement in multiple Middle East theaters — continues to provoke the reaction of frustration: frustrated anger and helplessness leading to organization and the backlash known as blowback.
“This is the result of literally having no policy — we’ve had no policy since September 11th. For a very brief period post-September 11th, we did — the policy was to crush Al Qaeda — which we did in six months. So, why didn’t we come up with a long-term strategy after six months?
“Six months after the attacks, there were fewer than 50 al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan; so, why in the world are we still in Afghanistan? And then Afghanistan leads to Iraq, and Iraq leads to Libya, and Libya leads to Syria — and, next thing you know, we’re bogged down and mired down in all these hot spots around the world, with no clearly defined goal and no exit strategy.”
In short, declaring in broad strokes a War on Terror provides the impetus to wage endless war — across nearly every platform — in veritably any location on the planet. Without communication or transparency, that lack of defined policy permits killing and interference unhindered — most often, under a muddy and fictitious humanitarian façade.
What began as widely-criticized, ambiguous Bush foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, Kiriakou noted, exponentially worsened under Obama, and has since amplified under Trump — all of this to the ultimate detriment of the United States, in integrity, consistency, and, most of all, in repercussions in terrorism we unironically sought to quash from the beginning.
“One of the things people don’t necessarily consider, too, is the inordinate cost of these multiple wars. We just simply can’t afford this for very much longer. It’s just too expensive. We’re so deeply in debt — we’re spending billions of dollars a day, and for what? We have nothing to show for it.
“Ironically, that was some of [Osama] bin Laden’s goal in the beginning: it was to bankrupt us, financially. And it kinda looks like, in the end, he may succeed — because this situation is untenable; we just can’t keep doing this indefinitely. We can’t afford it.”
Addressing these points as potential indicators of world, or even nuclear, war on the horizon, the ex-CIA officer believes full scale conflict only an outside possibility. However,
“I think it’s going to result in a decline in American authority, and in American strength, and in the power of American diplomacy, because our actions do not match our rhetoric.
“We like to tell other countries that we are a shining beacon of respect for human rights, and civil liberties, and civil rights — and that’s just nonsense. And, I think, people are wise to that now.”
Press freedom — and that the U.S. fell in ranking, according to the World Press Freedom Index, to land in the 43rd spot — illustrate how declarations of the nation as a bastion of freedom are little more than wishful thinking.
Kiriakou agreed it would not be a stretch to posit the War on Terror and broad strokes Middle East and foreign policy now appears better enacted to erode rights than to combat any enemy — the war on whistleblowers, a shining example of its efficaciousness in that regard.
However, “amending the Espionage Act to include a ‘public good’ defense” could indeed eliminate the acrid backlash by the government and public against whistleblowing, in part, because, despite its theoretical presence, federal whistleblower protections don’t currently extend to national security.
Waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality being the cornerstone topics in determining whether a leak or disclosure quantifies whistleblowing, and — particularly in cases where public knowledge is imperative — can determine whether that whistle was blown in the interest of the collective good.
As the State clamps down on leakers and whistleblowers, anyone daring or discovered to have come forward faces ruthless smear tactics and relentless prosecution — from John Kiriakou, himself, to Edward Snowden and, most recently, Reality Winner.
Winner’s case has been unique in that the information disclosed seemed haphazard, or at least not as central to the fight for transparency as others; but that she did, indeed, step forward with information thought to be of critical import in terms of public knowledge — data pertaining to the Russia investigation — the young NSA employee should receive the same protections.
After all, The Intercept, which exclusively reported documents later alleged to have been obtained and passed off by Winner, appeared derelict of duty in ignoring safeguards to protect its source. Indeed, Matthew Cole — whose negligence partially landed Kiriakou behind bars for nearly three years — either irresponsibly or otherwise betrayed Winner as his source in failing to strip documents of traceable, identifying information, leading authorities right to her door.
Kiriakou’s legal run-in with Cole provides him a qualified background for a blistering elucidation of what may have taken place for Winner to find herself in a similar predicament with the journalist he describes as “I think … one of the least responsible ‘journalists’ I have ever encountered in all the years of my life. Matthew Cole likes to tout himself as a national security journalist. He is not. … He gives no thought to protecting his sources.”
Mark Zaid, an attorney claiming to represent the interests of whistleblowers on matters of national security and the like, represented Kiriakou briefly in his legal case, but misgivings soon gained a foothold — particularly after Zaid then represented Cole in the matter, presenting a blatant conflict of interest.
Zaid — still representing Cole — penned an op-ed in the CIA-darling Washington Post earlier this month castigating Reality Winner as ‘not a whistleblower,’ nor even a ‘victim of Trump’s war on leaks.’ Again, Zaid now represents Cole, the journalist responsible for haphazardly divulging the young NSA employee’s identity to authorities — in the seeming interest of getting the story, no matter the cost for others — and Zaid then conveniently deems Winner’s actions not on par with whistleblowing.
“Here’s Mark Zaid, writing in the Washington Post that Reality Winner is not a whistleblower, while representing Matthew Cole — who outted Reality Winner as she was trying to be a whistleblower.
“It’s this crazy conflict of interest, where Mark Zaid is trying to play both sides of the fence; Matthew Cole is trying to play both sides of the fence — and the bottom line is that neither one of these guys can, or should, be trusted.”
“Just the fact the Intercept hired Matthew Cole,” Kiriakou added, recalling a tweet from the time Winner’s story first erupted, “just the fact that they hired Matthew Cole with the history they already knew he had in my case, calls into question the ethics of the Intercept. I would shout from the rooftops that all whistleblowers stay as far away from the Intercept as they can.”
Where the Intercept fails the litmus test for assistance and protection of whistleblowers, Kiriakou recommends individuals with information needing to be freed, approach Wikileaks.
A simple, legal definition of what constitutes a whistleblower encompasses the exposure in the public interest of waste, fraud, abuse and illegality; but, given Reality Winner’s non-traditional role in Cole’s capricious report for the Intercept, Kiriakou embellished, saying,
“What [Winner] revealed to the Intercept … I think people could argue did not constitute waste, fraud, abuse, or illegality, in terms of the public health and safety. But, with that said, what she released certainly was in the public interest, in that the American people have the right to know what their government is doing.
“What she released was a piece of analysis: It did not reveal sources and methods; it did not reveal the identities of agents; and it did not harm the national security. So, why in the world is she being held without bond?”
Instead of exposing the naked inner workings of clandestine agencies or other compromising national security subjects, the data obtained by Cole from Winner likely should never have been classified in the first place. With potentially ‘billions’ of documents judiciously deemed classified by the State, it’s necessary to remember overclassification — the assignment of a range of classified categories to documents unnecessarily — is actually illegal in the U.S.
“In my view, what Reality Winner revealed, should not have been classified. I don’t think a crime was committed.”
This article is the second of two derived from an interview with John Kiriakou by Claire Bernish is published under Creative Commons license 4.0, and may be republished in part or in full with attribution to the author and links to the original at ClaireBernish.com. Image: Public Domain.