[John Kiriakou was the CIA’s Chief Counter-terrorism Operations officer in Pakistan. He led numerous military raids on al-Qaeda safehouses, captured dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, and narrowly escaped with his life after being targeted for assassination by al-Qaeda terrorists. When he discovered the agency’s secret torture program, Kiriakou became a whistleblower.
In this 2014 interview above, Kiriakou recounts his role in capturing Abu Zubaydah, his hours with him, the secret prisons around the world and the CIA’s official torture program, which he ultimately refused to participate in. (Source: silencedfilm.com)
Responding to public uproar, Congress demanded to see the CIA’s video record of the Agency’s torture sessions. In response, Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel illegally destroyed the videos despite a court order to preserve them. Not only was Haspel not prosecuted for her role in the torture program and destroying the tapes, she was later promoted to CIA Director by President Trump. Kiriakou, meanwhile, was arrested and sentenced to 30 months in prison for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
As of this date, the only one ever punished for these crimes is the person who exposed them.—Editors]
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments from attorneys for Abu Zubaydah, a Guantánamo prisoner once thought to be the third-ranking leader in al-Qaeda, about whether their client would be allowed to depose two CIA contract psychologists who devised and carried out the Agency’s torture program and who personally participated in Zubaydah’s torture.
Abu Zubaydah wants information from James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen about his time in a secret CIA prison, as well as information about the torture to which Mitchell and Jessen subjected him to. A federal appeals court had earlier ruled in Abu Zubaydah’s favor, but the CIA appealed to the Supreme Court, saying that “national security” would be jeopardized if details of Abu Zubaydah’s torment were to be made public. That’s what they always say.
For the record, I led the raid that resulted in Abu Zubaydah’s capture on the night of March 22, 2002. I was serving as the CIA’s chief of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, and those of us in the field were told that Abu Zubaydah had to be taken alive.
Zubaydah was supposed to have been a senior al-Qaeda operative, was “probably” involved in the 9/11 attacks, and was a “clear and present danger” to the United States. In the end, none of that turned out to be true.
We caught him, though, and I sat with him for the first 56 hours of his captivity. He was severely wounded during the capture; a Pakistani policeman shot him in the thigh, the groin, and the stomach with an AK-47.
A CIA plane finally arrived to take him to a secret prison, one of several to which he and at least a dozen other al-Qaeda suspects were taken to and in which they were tortured before eventually being sent to Guantánamo, where they have remained for more than 15 years.
We know, thanks to the Senate Torture Report (or at least the heavily-redacted Executive Summary of the Senate Torture Report), that Abu Zubaydah underwent unspeakable torture. He was waterboarded 83 times, causing him to drown. He had to be revived when his heart stopped.
He was kept in a coffin-like box for 11 days where, after his torturers learned that he had an irrational fear of insects, he had a box of cockroaches dumped in with him. He was subjected to sleep deprivation, freezing temperature, solitary confinement, beatings, and was even threatened with having the bit of an electric drill forced into his brain.
One of the things that I noticed immediately upon Abu Zubaydah’s capture was that one of his eyes was a very pale blue, while the other was a dark chestnut. It was clear that he was blind in the blue eye and that it had been injured traumatically.
We learned later that shrapnel had damaged Abu’s eye during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when he was fighting as one of the “mujahedin.” The blind eye never bothered him. He certainly never complained about it.
But one day, Zubaydah was given a sedative and taken into surgery without him knowing what was even happening. A few hours later he awoke and discovered that his eye had been removed without his knowledge or consent. There’s a legal definition for such an action. It’s called a “crime against humanity.”
March 22, 2022 will mark 20 years since Abu Zubaydah was taken into CIA custody. He has yet to be charged with a crime—any crime.
He hasn’t even been able to question the people who tortured him. This is in what many like to think is the greatest country in the world, a shining beacon of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
I’m a strong believer in constitutional governance. I’m a believer in the rule of law. You don’t have to like Abu Zubaydah or his politics to acknowledge that the has a constitutional right to face his accusers in a court of law.
He has a right to be judged by a jury of his peers. If he’s the bad guy that the CIA wants us to believe that he is, then why not charge him with a crime? Is it because the CIA tortured him mercilessly and has blown any chance that he can be justly prosecuted? Of course it is.
Maybe that’s why, according to the Senate Torture Report, the CIA always intended to leave Abu Zubaydah in Guantánamo until his death, incinerate his body, and throw his ashes into the ocean. That’s not justice. And it’s not the American way.
Meanwhile, now is indeed the time to do something with Abu Zubaydah. It’s time to release him. Even if he was the terrorist the CIA wanted us to believe he was, he has long since paid for his crimes.
Twenty years of torture, 20 years of solitary confinement, 20 years of looking forward to nothing more than death to liberate him—and never having even been charged with a crime—is enough. It’s time to right this wrong.
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.