This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on May 4, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself, Former CIA official John Kiriakou described his time as head of counter-terrorism in Pakistan and the lie about the torture of Abu Zubaydah.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our series of interviews with John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who spent 23 months in jail and, as we record the interview, has got about 36, 37 days left [incompr.] house arrest, because–well, really because he went on television and said that torture was official U.S. policy. He was charged with giving a reporter the name of a CIA officer, who the reporter actually never published, and, as far as I understand it, the name was out there anyway, but they wanted to get them. And we’ll get into that story more in detail further into this series. But now we’re going to carry on. We have in the last episode talked a lot about the Iraq War. About a year before the Iraq War, more or less, John is posted to Pakistan. And thanks for joining us.
JOHN C. KIRIAKOU, FMR. CIA OFFICER: Good to be here.
JAY: Now, anyone that knows the situation in Afghanistan knows that–and I don’t think anybody disputes that the Pakistan army intelligence, the ISI, to a large extent with some Saudi cooperation and money, helped nurture and create the Taliban.
KIRIAKOU: Yes. Pakistani intelligence services created the Taliban with Saudi money.
JAY: With Saudi money.
JAY: And start to spread Wahhabism, which is not the religious cultural traditions of Afghanistan. The Taliban and all the links with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, clearly the Pakistani intelligence are not only fully aware that the Taliban works in collaboration with the Pakistani ISI. So the Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan is done in some ways under the auspices of the Pakistani intelligence service.
KIRIAKOU: I always believed that.
JAY: And I was told that in Kandahar, and there seemed to be no disputing it. So you go to Pakistan in 2002. You’re the counterterrorism chief CIA official in Pakistan. So what do you make of this relationship with Pakistan? The Pakistani military intelligence is involved in creating the Taliban. They’ve got to know about the connections with al-Qaeda and bin Laden. We give them, what, I can’t remember the number, but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars in military support. And it’s much–it’s somewhat like the Saudi relationship. But you have, clearly, a dual game going with [crosstalk]
KIRIAKOU: Absolutely. Absolutely a dual game. The Pakistanis–that great champion of democracy and human rights Benazir Bhutto created the Taliban. And the original reason for creating the Taliban was to protect Pakistani truck traffic as it drove across Afghanistan to deliver goods in Iran.
JAY: ‘Cause the country was in chaos.
KIRIAKOU: The country was in utter chaos.
JAY: As a result of President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Ronald Reagan’s policy of sucking Russia into a new Vietnam [crosstalk]
JAY: –destroyed the place.
KIRIAKOU: That’s right. It was literally destroyed. So the Taliban began by protecting the trucks. Then they began setting up posts in villages along the truck routes. Then they took over the villages. Then they took over the regions. Then they took over the states. And the next thing you know, they took over the whole country.
JAY: And from what I know–and I was there and made a film there and spoke to a lot of Afghans–in the early days, it was quite popular,–
KIRIAKOU: It was.
JAY: –even amongst secular, modern Afghans in Kabul, because the place was going to shit.
KIRIAKOU: Yes, that’s right. And at least in those early days of the Taliban, people weren’t being killed in shootouts in the street or having your relatives kidnapped and lynched because of a property dispute. They really did bring law and order in those early days and they did protect Pakistan’s truck traffic. But then everything spun out of control. And the next thing we know, there’s a militant theocracy in Afghanistan. I believe that even after things went bad in Afghanistan with the Taliban, that the Pakistani government continued to support them, continued to fund them, and continued to give them safe haven when they needed it, which led to no end of problems, including, probably, the September 11 attacks.
JAY: So you’re now head of counterterrorism for the CIA in Pakistan. You’re working with Pakistani authorities. And how does this work within Pakistani authorities? Some of them were off here playing footsie with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the other ones are working with you.
KIRIAKOU: That’s a great question, and the answer is kind of complicated. The Pakistani authorities who were assigned to work with us: almost entirely Army officers. All had been educated in the U.K., trained in the U.K. or the U.S., solidly pro-American. And I can honestly tell you with a completely straight face that I never asked them for anything that they didn’t give me. Anything I needed, it was done, and I mean from the lowliest private all the way up to the brigadier general who was in charge of the program.
JAY: Well, not everything. You must have asked them where bin Laden was. They didn’t [crosstalk]
KIRIAKOU: They didn’t–they said they didn’t know. Now, with that said, there were certainly other very powerful elements of the Pakistani government, and specifically the Pakistani military, that were solidly pro-Taliban, in many cases pro-al-Qaeda, and did not just nothing to help us, but actively tried to stop us from making inroads against al-Qaeda. Even in the Abu Zubaydah operation, we never told the Pakistanis who we were going after. We called him Mr. Fish, because we had told him that he was a big fish. So the night that we hit–.
JAY: Okay, give us some context. We haven’t told that story yet.
KIRIAKOU: Sure. Just after my arrival in Pakistan, we got word from headquarters that Abu Zubaydah was somewhere in the country. And at the time, we thought Abu Zubaydah was the number-three in al-Qaeda. That turned out to not be true. Not only was he not the number-three (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the number-three), but Abu Zubaydah had never actually joined al-Qaeda. He created and ran al-Qaeda’s two training camps, but he never pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden. He was an independent operator. So we were afraid that the people that we were dealing with on a daily basis would tell somebody in their organization who the target was and that word would get out and Abu Zubaydah would be tipped off. So we never told them, until we actually had him in custody, who it was we had been looking for.
JAY: Where’d the intelligence come from that he was number three?
KIRIAKOU: Oh, you get bits and pieces from various human sources. You get liaison sources reporting to our liaison officers overseas. You might get some intercepts, press reporting. You put everything together, and you try to come up with this structure for al-Qaeda. And the best information we had in 2002 was that he was number three. Don’t forget, in February 2002, we didn’t know who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. We had no idea not only that he was a major player in al-Qaeda, but that he had masterminded the 9/11 attacks. That’s how bad the intelligence was back then.
JAY: Okay. So you grab this guy. Now, you’re in on organizing the mission to grab this guy. How does that work?
KIRIAKOU: We had never hit more than two sites simultaneously before in Pakistan. We would–my first day on the job, I went into the senior CIA officer’s office and I said, what exactly do you want me to do here? And he said, I want you to come up with a modus operandi for taking down a terrorist safe house; we’ve not done that yet. I said, okay. So I remember sitting at my desk with a legal pad and a pen and thinking, well, if I was going to take down a terrorist safe house, how would I start? Well, I would do it at 2 a.m., because they would most likely be asleep by 2 a.m. So I wrote 0200 at the top of the paper. And then I just tried to come up with this step-by-step plan of how I wanted to do it. So, finally I went to him and I said, I think I’ve come up with a plan; I’m ready to give it a try. And he said, well, we’ve got this little bit of information that there’s this house. Here’s the address. And there might be an al-Qaeda guy in it. I said, alright, I’ll get a group of guys together, and we’re going to hit it tonight at two, and wish me luck.
JAY: And you’d never done this before.
KIRIAKOU: I had never done this before in my life.
JAY: I don’t understand this. I would have imagined the CIA had these specialist–take down houses specialists, and they fly in, Jack Bauer shows up.
KIRIAKOU: Yeah, that all came later, because of September 11. But before, I mean, it was sad sacks like me.
JAY: But CIA’s been doing ops for–since they founded [crosstalk]
KIRIAKOU: Yeah. But not like this, though. This was different. So I came up with a plan. I got a couple of the guys together. We called our Pakistani counterparts. And I said, listen, why don’t we meet up at 12? I’m going to brief you on this operation that I want us to do tonight. So we did. And I planned it so that we were about a block away from the house at 1:55 a.m., and then at 1:57 we were going to get out of the car, and then we were going to walk to the house. And then, right at 0200–and we synchronized our watches–we were going to use a battering ram to break down the door of the house. The Pakistanis always go in first–it’s their country. We’re going to grab the guy and take him into custody. So that’s what we did. Oh-two-hundred, we broke down the door with a battering ram, and we caught this 19-year-old Tunisian kid who had just escaped across the border from Afghanistan and found refuge in this house. So I said, hey, success. Well, let’s try it again in a couple of nights. And the second time we did it, we caught in Egyptian who had been a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was actually wanted in Egypt, had been charged with crimes there, and had escaped to Afghanistan. And I thought, okay, well, this is pretty good. Once or twice we did two in a night. We would set up two separate teams and do it. And almost every time we did this, we would catch somebody, and they were almost exclusively low-level nobodies, usually teenagers. They would just start to cry. They wouldn’t resist in any way.
JAY: What would happen to them?
KIRIAKOU: We would send them, usually, back to Afghanistan, or in some cases to Guantanamo. Remember, the whole purpose of Guantanamo in those early days was just to have some place to put them until we could figure out where to put them on trial, if they should be tried in the U.S. or flown back to their home countries to be tried there. Guantanamo was never, ever supposed to be a permanent place.
JAY: Some of the people you’ve picked up and sent to Guantanamo, you didn’t know they’d actually done anything, other than they were in this house.
KIRIAKOU: Correct. Correct. But my position back then was, if you’re an Arab in Pakistan with no money, no job, no passport, and no plausible explanation for what you’re doing there and how you got there, you’re al-Qaeda and you’re going to go to Guantanamo until we can figure out what we are going to do with you. There were so many people we had to go after, there was just no time to really go into things with them, to decide, yes, this is really who they are, this is why they’re here. And another thing is many of them, most of them had been briefed in advance on what to do and what to say if you’re captured. So everybody told us the same exact story. And the story was that they had gone to Pakistan to learn Arabic, they were going to take Arabic classes, which is odd because nobody speaks Arabic in Pakistan. They speak Urdu.
JAY: These were mostly Afghans?
KIRIAKOU: They were all Arabs.
JAY: Well, how could they go learn Arabic?
KIRIAKOU: Precisely. So they flew to Karachi. And they were so happy to have arrived safely in Karachi that they decided to take a taxi to the grand mosque to thank God for their safe delivery. Well, there is no grand mosque in Karachi. The grand mosque is in Islamabad. And they accidentally, doggone it, left their passports in the taxi, and that’s why they have no passport. And so they didn’t know where to stay, where to live. So they went to the local Arab coffee shop (there is no Arab coffee shop in any of these places), and they met some Arabs there from their own country, and the Arabs said, oh, not to worry, I’ll put you in this house, and you wait there until I can get the embassy to replace your passport. Okay? So no matter what country they came from, they all told exactly the same story.
JAY: So these were just, you think, young, naive recruits that didn’t [crosstalk]
KIRIAKOU: Yeah. They were nobodies. Kids.
JAY: So then you go in and you go after what you think is the number-three.
KIRIAKOU: It was more complicated than that. We got this message from headquarters saying that Abu Zubaydah was in Pakistan and we had to catch him. But Pakistan’s the size of Texas, and it has the population of California. So to say, just go catch him, it meant nothing to me. So we flew an analyst in from headquarters, what was then called a targeting analyst, somebody who isn’t thinking the big thoughts to write an article in the president’s daily brief about, you know, a country’s next election, but somebody who’s focused on poring through raw data to try to locate someone who we have as a target. And it took him about–I’m going to say two or three weeks. And finally he came to me and said, I’ve narrowed it down, but only to 14 possible locations. Well, we had never hit more than two spots before in a single night, so the prospect of hitting 14 simultaneously was daunting. I cabled headquarters and I said, I’m going to need help.
JAY: So you go after the guy who’s number three and you get the guy, and this begins a chain of events which actually winds you up in jail, really, and you can date that chain from probably around here, because some of your colleagues go off to question this guy. And what happens?
KIRIAKOU: Abu Zubaydah was very severely wounded when we captured him. A Pakistani policeman shot him three times with an AK-47 and he nearly died. In fact, the doctor at the emergency room where we took him that night told me that he had never seen wounds so severe where the patient lived. So we flew Abu Zubaydah to a nearby military base. And I sat with him for almost 48 hours. Actually, it was more than 48 hours. I thought it was 48 hours, and then in discovery in my case I learned it was 56 hours. So I just sat at the foot of his bed.
JAY: Just quickly, when John says, “my case”, he means when the CIA charged him and they were going through all the back-and-forth of discoveries that eventually led to his conviction, and go back to earlier and you’ll find out he was in jail for 23 months and he’s now under house arrest, and we’re going to tell this whole story in the next segment or two.
KIRIAKOU: Okay. So I sat with him for 56 hours. He was in a coma for most of that. He drifted out of it a couple of times. At one point, he asked me to smother him with a pillow. He asked me for a glass of red wine, which I thought was just a delusion. But then, later on, the next day, he was a little more aware of what had happened. And we talked about the 9/11 attacks briefly. We talked about Christianity and Islam. He told me that he enjoyed writing poetry. He cried. He said he would never know the touch of a woman, he would never know the joy of fatherhood. And I urged him repeatedly to cooperate. And he said no, that he wasn’t going to cooperate. He told me at one point, you seem like a nice guy, but you’re the enemy, and I’ll never cooperate with the enemy.
JAY: Did he say why you’re the enemy?
KIRIAKOU: Well, I was an American. It was as simple as that. He did say that he didn’t want to attack the United States on September 11, that that was bin Laden’s decision. He wanted to attack Israel. But bin Laden overruled him and said no, that they were attacking the United States.
JAY: But he never–there was no ambiguity or qualification from him that 9/11 [incompr.]
KIRIAKOU: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. Nine/Eleven was bin Laden, most definitely. So his wounds, like I say, were so severe he really needed to be treated, formally treated, not just patched up. So the CIA sent a private jet with a trauma surgeon from Johns Hopkins University medical center. They flew to the military base. And three FBI agents and I loaded him onto a gurney and carried him up onto the plane, we laid him across the luggage rack at the back, and he took off. He went to a so-called secret location, and I never saw him again.
JAY: Now, you heard about the interrogation. What did you hear?
KIRIAKOU: Yes. I heard–when I got back to headquarters, I heard that he had been uncooperative, that he had been subjected to waterboarding one time, and that he had cracked. And after he cracked, he gave us actionable intelligence that saved American lives. That turned out to be a complete lie. He had not been waterboarded one time; he had been waterboarded 83 times. In fact, he was cooperative when he was being interviewed by the FBI. We know from the FBI agent who was interviewing him that he was cooperative. And this FBI agent, Ali Soufan, had made real inroads in this relationship with Abu Zubaydah. What happened then was the president ordered the FBI out, the CIA in, and the CIA began torturing him using several different methods and culminating in waterboarding.
JAY: How do you know it was the president that ordered it?
KIRIAKOU: Well, that’s what came out over the course of the investigation later on, that these tactics had all been approved by the president and that the White House was unhappy with the pace of the interrogations. They wanted information more quickly. See, bin Laden said right after September 11 that he was planning another attack that would dwarf what happened on September 11. So, many CIA officers were convinced that Abu Zubaydah had that information, and they were determined to get it out of him. That’s why they got rough so quickly.
JAY: There’s a lot of discussion in media, and there was in the political circles and so on, about torture and the waterboarding and the Pakistani connection with the Taliban and all the rest.
JAY: But what do you think of the bigger picture, the overall policy of allying with essentially what more or less is a military–close to–has been a military dictatorship in Pakistan, and when it’s not a straightforward dictatorship, it’s behind-the-scenes military rule just beneath the sort of political structures, allying with warlords in Afghanistan, allying with a dictatorial monarchy in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, go on and on and on, that in order to maintain America as the hegemon in the region, we have to–what I said earlier, you know, do bad things, supposedly for good reasons, allied with the worst kind of forces you could possibly dredge up?
KIRIAKOU: Yes. I think as a country we’re going to have to make a decision at some point, and that decision’s going to have to be whether we are going to be this beacon of human rights that we’d like to think we are, this shining city on a hill that everybody looks up to, where everybody wants to move, or are we going to be the biggest, toughest bully on the block, because we can’t be both at the same time. You know, I happened to be on the State Department’s website the other day, and I clicked on the link for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And right at the top of their website, they have a link to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And Article 5 of that declaration says that no person shall be subjected to torture or to humiliating treatment. Okay? This is a joke. Congress mandates the State Department every single year with producing a human rights report on every single country with which we have diplomatic relations. I was the embassy human rights officer for two years in Bahrain when I was living there, and I can tell you that when you go in to a host government’s foreign ministry and you dress them down for disrespecting human rights, but then you have a CIA officer going to see his counterpart in the afternoon and telling him, telling the foreign intelligence counterpart, we want you to take this prisoner and we want you to really lean on him, but just be sure to give us a transcript of what he says, you completely undercut your entire policy. So, while we have these laws that are supposed to protect human rights and supposed to mandate the protection of human rights overseas, it’s really little more than a bad joke, because we don’t respect human rights. I mean, we had, under George W. Bush, our own Justice Department doing back flips to try to figure out how to legally justify torture. And they contorted themselves in such a way that they did endorse torture. And we go through life saying, okay, well, then, if the Justice Department said it’s right, then it must be right, so we can go ahead and torture. It makes no sense.
JAY: It’s been nonstop since World War II.
KIRIAKOU: It’s been nonstop since World War II. You know, I’ll tell you another thing. In the course of my research since I’ve left the agency, I’ve found a picture that ran on the front page of The Washington Post in 1968, and it was a picture of an American soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. When that picture was published, the Pentagon began an investigation, they court-martialed the soldier, they charged him with torture, they convicted him, and they jailed him. So why was torture wrong in 1968, but then it’s right in 2002 and it’s right in 2015 and nobody’s prosecuted for committing torture? It’s the ultimate in hypocrisy to me.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us.
KIRIAKOU: Thanks for having me.
JAY: We’re going to continue our series of interviews with John Kiriakou on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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“John Chris Kiriakou (born August 9, 1964) is an American author, journalist and former intelligence officer. Kiriakou is a columnist with Reader Supported News and co-host of Political Misfits on Sputnik Radio.
He was formerly an analyst and case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, counterterrorism and a consultant for ABC News. He was the first U.S. government official to confirm in December 2007 that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, which he described as torture.
In 2012, Kiriakou became the first CIA officer to be convicted of passing classified information to a reporter. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.”