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Former CIA counter-terrorism officer explains how he ignited a controversy over waterboarding

Guest Blogger

John Kiriakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, created a storm in 2007 when he confirmed the use of waterboarding – on terrorist detainee Abu Zubaydah. Kiriakou claimed that Zubaydah was waterboarded once for only 30 to 35 seconds before he broke down and divulged crucial secrets. Kiriakou found himself in the middle of another storm when his claim proved to be wrong. In fact, Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times. The discrepancy thrust Kiriakou into the hot center of the debate over the effectiveness -- and ethics -- of torture. Now Kiriakou has published a book about his 15 years as a covert agent called “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.” The book recounts his exploits around the world, including his role in the capture of Zubaydah, who was a top-level al-Qaeda leader. The waterboarding controversy is relegated to a brief epilogue in his memoir. Here he describes how the issue exploded and altered his life.

By John Kiriakou

All of us can identify the critical moments of transition in our lives. For me, 11 minutes in December 2007 changed my life. Nothing has been the same since.

The events that led to that defining moment started more than six years earlier. I was a counter-terrorism officer at the Central Intelligence Agency and, the day after September 11, I volunteered for duty in Afghanistan. Like many of my fellow officers, I was determined as a patriot to respond to the terrorist attacks. Because I didn’t have paramilitary training, I wound up in Pakistan instead.

From January until June 2002, I served as chief of counter-terrorist operations there. My colleagues and I worked day and night under difficult and dangerous conditions to track down the terrorists seeking sanctuary in Pakistan.

On the night of March 28, I led a raid that captured a high-ranking Al Qaeda target named Abu Zubaydah. He was first senior Al Qaeda member captured since 9/11. Abu Zubaydah was critically wounded in a shootout during the raid and he was taken to a military hospital.

For 48 hours, I sat at his bedside and talked to him whenever he was conscious. I urged him to cooperate. He talked in various stages of coherence but gave up no secrets. I never touched him. I never saw him subjected to any harsh interrogation. After two days, he was flown out and I never saw him again.

Three months later, I returned to CIA headquarters. I learned that Abu Zubaydah had provided information about Al Qaeda plots and identified Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the key planner of 9/11. I was told he had spilled his secrets after being subjected to waterboarding for 30 or 35 seconds: one time, less than a minute.

About the same time, I was asked whether I wanted to be trained in what was euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I still feared attacks on our country by Al Qaeda, but I found taking this step hugely troubling and feared it would get out of hand, and I said no.

In early December 2007, more than three years after leaving the Agency for the private sector, I received a telephone call from ABC News. The journalist at ABC said he had been told that I had been involved in waterboarding Abu Zubaydah. I said I had never laid a hand on him or any other prisoner. I agreed to go on camera to discuss my experiences with Abu Zubaydah.

When asked, I was clear in that 11-minute ABC interview that I was not involved in the waterboarding and that I had received information about a single instance of its use and apparent success. I was candid in saying that waterboarding was something that we needed to do given the uncertainty and unknowns of those perilous times immediately after 9/11, but that with the benefit of time, calm, and improved intelligence focus and lessons learned, I did regard it as torture -- an unacceptable breach of American values and principles. As President Obama has said, the cost to our national image is not worth the potential gain.

The story mushroomed beyond my wildest imagination. I had no idea I was the first CIA veteran to confirm the rumored use of waterboarding, and I responded to dozens of press inquiries in the days that followed. I made clear each time that I did not participate in water boarding and that I did regard it as torture. I repeated what I was told and believed was true: Abu Zubaydah had been subjected to it one time, for no more than 35 seconds. And I stood firm in defending the CIA as an agency doing heroic work with little appreciation or thanks, its people sacrificing safety and family and a thousand comforts to protect the country as best they possibly could.

Only last year, when the Justice Department released memos outlining torture procedures did I learn that Zubaydah had been waterboarded at least 83 times. Separately, the CIA’s inspector general has confirmed allegations in a report he released last year that the CIA began waterboarding Abu Zubaydah before it had written permission to do so. I believe now that the CIA did not report these sessions even internally, which means that my colleagues and I had been misled.

My shock deepened when some in the press portrayed me as a dupe and possibly some sort of CIA plant who was supposed to deflect criticism from the Agency. The very idea was just plain laughable. And I am mystified by how some on the right have called me a patriot for proving waterboarding works and at the same time some on the left have saluted me as a whistleblower shining a light on CIA misconduct; this just shows me the issue was far more complicated than sound bites can convey and maybe that my answers were too nuanced for such a tinderbox issue.

I spoke out to shine a light on a practice that I found troubling and that undermined America’s standing in the world – and to point the finger much higher up the chain of command than CIA headquarters while standing behind the rank-and-file officers doing the hardest, toughest, and most dangerous work. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a controversy.

Being a participant in the national debate over torture was both a privilege and, in some respects, a difficult personal experience. This is a debate worth having if we come out of it with a greater appreciation for what sets us apart -- a reaffirmation, in rejecting torture, of American exceptionalism. I didn’t like that my reputation probably took a hit, and conceded being naïve in the face of a media whirlwind, but that’s a small price to pay for getting at the truth.

My wife and children and the Agency I still believe in deserve no less from me.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 18, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: debate over waterboarding; cia agent claim of waterboarding  
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What crap. This guy is just as guilty as the others, and ALL must be remanded over to the International Criminal Court for trials for War Crimes!

Posted by: gkam | March 18, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Oh, I see. Your responses were TOO NUANCED! You straight-faced lied the world and your excuse is that you were too nuanced. You're a trained liar, a charlatan, and a fraud. Go peddle your revisionist ego trip in Hades.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | March 18, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Water boarding is routinely used in military exercises to train US soldiers how to evade and survive and what to do if captured. It is not a good way to get information, in my opinion and I would not use it. But it is one of fear and rarely does permanent damage.

Most of the "horror" is partisan posturing.

The irony is that good interrogation is one of gaining confidence and letting people plan their futures.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | March 18, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

How many people were "water-boarded"? Well, only three. That is 3.

Somehow this is made out by the critics to be a major scandal. Not.

Want to know what real torture is? Drills to the head and plastic recycling machines, baking children in front of parents, beheading, stoning - what our enemies do to others with glee.

And, no, the US style of 'waterboading' is nothing like that used by the japanese. One major difference is that pain and physical harm is not intended, wherein the actual torture by our enemies intends and celebrates pain and injury.

Applying harsh techniques to ordinary detainees? Just stupid and counterproductive. Applying harsh interrogation to three (3) ticking time-bomb high-value terrorists with information on pending major attacks? Well, that is what the politicians said they would do and the public supported this limited scenario.

Wrong to unfairly blame the CIA like critics mistakenly are doing. The technique worked, the prisoners were not harmed (even if scared) and they stopped Americans from being slaughtered. Seems like a good trade-off to me...would you have preferred the alternative of having them hide the attack like happened with 9/11?

Posted by: Sashland | March 18, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

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