The Changing Face of Espionage


| 10/17/2012 12:47:20 PM


Tags: John Kiriakou, Espionage Act of 1917, CIA whistleblower,

IWW demonstration 

In January of this year, former CIA agent John Kiriakou was arrested and charged with illegally revealing classified information to journalists about the interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Much of the government’s case against Kiriakou leans on alleged violations of the Espionage Act, a law passed during World War I to stem antiwar dissent and control the use of official information. At that time, the law’s targets were mostly activists, union organizers, and radical writers and speakers. Many of those prosecuted made up the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union that fought for free expression as much as it did workers’ rights. But since then, the law has shifted focus toward government leakers and, potentially, to journalists. Kiriakou’s case is only the latest under Obama to threaten whistleblowers’ ability to reveal wrongdoing, and the press’ ability to report on it.

In the final years of the Bush administration, as cases of CIA waterboarding began to surface, many observers still saw them as isolated incidents. But Kiriakou begged to differ. In a now-infamous interview with ABC in late 2007, he revealed that torture—waterboarding, in particular—was CIA policy in the years after September 11. What’s more, he said, it was effective. Waterboarding provided critical intelligence from detainees that probably saved American lives. But, Kiriakou insisted, the effectiveness of waterboarding doesn’t excuse it—an argument he expanded on in a book three years later.

Kiriakou’s testimony had a complex effect on the national debate over torture, says Brian Stelter in the New York Times. Because he described how valuable and efficient waterboarding can be—one detainee’s resistance was broken in less than 35 seconds, he said—conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg saw Kiriakou as lending legitimacy to the right-wing side of the torture debate. At the same time, Stelter points out, it also revealed that CIA leaders had authorized harsh and controversial interrogation techniques, sparking a national outcry. Brian Ross, who conducted the original ABC interview, later said it was critical to “shine some light on what was happening.” Kiriakou agreed. “We should be debating this,” he told Ross in 2007. “It shouldn't be secret. It should be out there as part of the national debate.”    

The debate that did happen led to an uproar against torture and to President Obama’s formal ban on waterboarding in early 2009. While Kiriakou’s 2007 revelation was one of many in a series of scandals and conversations since September 11 regarding the use of torture, his disclosure was significant. Not only did he point to CIA leaders for directing harsh interrogation, he was one of the first in the CIA to come out against waterboarding, and to label it as torture.

But now, despite Obama’s actions against waterboarding, Kiriakou has become a Department of Justice target for leaking classified information to journalists related to torture in the months after the ABC interview. What’s more, as Government Accountability Project attorney Jesselyn Radack points out in Salon, because Obama has declined to investigate war crimes under Bush 43, Kiriakou remains the only person to be charged in connection with torture at Guantanamo Bay—for any reason. In total, Obama has charged six people under Espionage for leaking government secrets, including Kiriakou, though Julian Assange could make seven if he is indicted as well.  

david kendall
10/23/2012 8:44:33 AM

Still voting for Obama, because I think Romney would be like Obama on steroids when it comes to propagating 'for profit' wars, and laughing off civil rights, but you get a big 'AGREE' from me Steven.Remember we come from very sinister recent history, when habeus corpus was suspended, extraordinary rendition was ramped up, and private citizens came under electronic surviellance. I remember how that felt in 2007. Obama inherited the messiest desk, along with the worst job in the world. But 'AGREE', he's got to shake off his corporate owners, and grow a pair.


steven cox
10/22/2012 1:09:57 PM

The uncomfortable fact is we don’t know the motivations behind the administration’s war on whistleblowers,.....By now the fact that Obama has turned out to be one of the most secretive presidents in decades is well known (the confused debate about leaks notwithstanding). This also makes his use of Espionage less surprising. In classifying unprecedented numbers of documents, using and abusing the state secrets privilege, and attacking those who bring uncomfortable truths to light—such as John Kiriakou—Obama has, like President Wilson, undermined the democratic ideals he supposedly sought to protect. President Obama has unashamedly been a big government proponent since his first day in office. I'm not certain why the author of this piece seems surprised. Big government proponents are not about sharing power with the people. They want it for themselves. Of course whistleblowers have been badly treated. Why would you think differently?