The Justice Department on Monday charged a former CIA officer with repeatedly leaking classified information, including the identities of agency operatives involved in the capture and interrogation of alleged terrorists.
The case against John Kiriakou, who also served as a senior Senate aide, extends the Obama administration’s crackdown on disclosures of national security secrets. Kiriakou, 47, is the sixth target of a leaks-related prosecution since President Obama took office, exceeding the total number of comparable prosecutions under all previous administrations combined, legal experts said.
Kiriakou, who was among the first to go public with details about the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation measures, was charged with disclosing classified information to reporters and lying to the agency about the origin of other sensitive material he published in a book. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
In its criminal filing, the Justice Department obscured many of the details of Kiriakou’s alleged disclosures. But the document suggests that Kiriakou was a source for stories by the New York Times and other news organizations in 2008 and 2009 about some of the agency’s most sensitive operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. These include the capture of alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida and the interrogation of the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
The Justice Department said that the information Kiriakou supplied to journalists also contributed to a subsequent security breach at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, enabling defense attorneys there to obtain photographs of CIA operatives suspected of being involved in harsh interrogations. Some of the pictures were subsequently discovered in the cells of high-
Kiriakou, who worked for the CIA from 1990 to 2004, was charged with four counts, including disclosing the identity of an undercover officer and providing classified information to individuals not authorized to receive it.
In an appearance in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Monday afternoon, Magistrate Judge John F. Anderson set bond at $250,000 for Kiriakou, who was also forced to surrender his passport and restrict his travel to the Washington area.
Kiriakou did not comment on the charges in court. He wore a blue dress shirt and black dress slacks but no tie. Plato Cacheris, Kiriakou’s attorney, said his client would plead not guilty and expected to be released on bond.
The surge in such prosecutions is seen as a measure of the Obama administration’s determination to root out leaks, but it may also reflect the government’s expanded ability to mine suspects’ e-mail accounts and other digital devices for incriminating evidence.
The complaint filed Monday includes numerous passages apparently taken from Kiriakou’s e-mail exchanges with reporters as well as former CIA colleagues.
Critics warn that the crackdown will erode the ability of news organizations to expose government abuses. Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy issues at the Federation of American Scientists, noted that Kiriakou is accused of being a source on stories about CIA interrogation measures that Obama described as torture.
“The Justice Department has initiated no prosecutions concerning extreme interrogation methods,” Aftergood said. “But it is now prosecuting an individual who helped bring such events to public light. Is that what we want?”
Senior officials inside the U.S. intelligence community, however, have applauded the administration’s aggressive approach.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus issued a statement to the agency’s workforce on Monday in which he said that he could not comment on the details of the case against Kiriakou but warned that “the illegal passage of secrets is an abuse of trust that may put lives in jeopardy.”
Others targeted in leaks-related cases include Bradley Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst accused of providing thousands of classified files to the WikiLeaks Web site, and Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA analyst suspected of disclosing secrets about CIA operations against Iran.
Another case unraveled last year when the government’s most serious charges were dropped in favor of a plea agreement with Thomas Drake, a former executive at the National Security Agency accused of leaking information about failed computer systems and government waste.
Kiriakou made a media splash in 2007 when he appeared on ABC News describing the use of waterboarding against al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaida, also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein.
After just one session of simulated drowning, Abu Zubaida cracked, Kiriakou claimed, saying “the threat information he provided disrupted . . . maybe dozens of attacks.”
But Kiriakou’s credibility was damaged when it emerged that Abu Zubaida had actually been waterboarded at least 83 times. Kiriakou subsequently acknowledged that he had no firsthand knowledge and that he had “relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.”
The Justice Department alleges that after the ABC News interview Kiriakou continued to serve as a source for other stories, including a lengthy 2008 piece in the New York Times that revealed the name of the CIA’s interrogator of Mohammed.
Kiriakou “disclosed or confirmed” the identity of the interrogator to New York Times reporter Scott Shane as well as other journalists, according to the Justice Department filing. Shane declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the New York Times.
The Washington Post quoted Kiriaku several times between 2007 and 2009 but Monday’s charges make no reference to Post articles.
The Kiriakou investigation appears to have been triggered by a CIA referral to the Justice Department as well as a separate probe into how photographs of CIA operatives ended up in the possession of high-value detainees at Guantanamo Bay in 2009.
Investigators believe that defense attorneys obtained the photos after learning the identities of CIA operatives from a journalist who had been in contact with Kiriakou. The photographs, which included shots taken surreptitiously outside CIA employees’ homes, were shown to the detainees as part of an effort by defense attorneys to identify participants in CIA interrogations and potentially call them as witnesses in terrorism trials.
In an interview with FBI officials last week, Kiriakou denied disclosing the names of covert officers and expressed dismay that defense attorneys, let alone detainees, had learned CIA officers’ names, according to the Justice Department complaint.
The document also cites an e-mail that Kiriakou allegedly sent to the CIA interrogator after the New York Times story was published, denying that he had talked except to warn the reporter that naming the interrogator “might not be illegal” but “would certainly be immoral.”
Despite the denials, the Justice Department said, Kiriakou had talked to the reporter extensively and even provided the CIA interrogator’s phone number and personal e-mail address.
The Guantanamo defense teams, which included attorneys from the ACLU, have been cleared of any wrongdoing in obtaining or sharing the photos, according to the Justice Department complaint.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou worked as an investigator on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a year before leaving in 2010.
Staff writers Julie Tate and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.