He became the target of a massive, secret investigation that began at the behest of former CIA Director John Brennan. When the FBI couldn’t find enough evidence, Brennan demanded an indictment anyway.
Former FBI Agent Peter Strzok set up an elaborate sting in a bid to get him to implicate himself in a broader conspiracy. But he was so squeaky clean, Strzok finally had to give up.
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller targeted him with around-the-clock surveillance and wiretapping. But prosecutors, unable to find new evidence, instead had to flash back to a 2007 interview with ABC News to find a charge that would stick.
So who was the subject of so much unwanted attention from Messrs. Brennan, Strzok, and Mueller? Not President Trump, Paul Manafort, or Carter Page.
Instead, it was CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. His 2012 prosecution at the hands of the same Obama-era officials now driving the Mueller investigation against Trump has cued a growing chorus of supporters urging President Trump to grant Kiriakou a pardon.
“Barack Obama took my life away from me,” Kiriakou tells Newsmax. “And only Donald Trump can give it back.”
He adds: “Only Donald Trump can fix the injustice that was perpetrated against me by Barack Obama, et al.”
If what happened to Kiriakou sounds eerily similar to tenor of the FBI’s probe and the Mueller investigation, it could be because many of the principals are the same. Based on his own run-ins with Mueller’s team, Kiriakou has some heartfelt advice for the current Commander-in-Chief.
“If I could speak directly with the president,” Kiriakou tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview, “I would tell him, ‘Don’t talk to Mueller. It’s a set up. They did the same thing to me.’”
He added: “What they did to me is exactly what they intend to do to the president. And it’s exactly what they’ve already done to Mike Flynn and Richard Gates and all these other people. This is what they do.”
The story of Kiriakou’s very close encounter with the deep state began after 9/11, when he was assigned to chase down members of al-Qaida hiding in Pakistan. Kiriakou had a certain charm that enabled him to recruit people to work for, or provide information to, the CIA.
One of the terrorists he helped track down was Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants.
Not long after Kiriakou helped capture Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002, he was transferred back to the United States. He retired from the agency in 2004 and wrote a popular memoir about his CIA exploits, “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.”
For a while it looked like he would be able to blend back in to the workaday Washington world: He got a job for the Deloitte accounting and consulting firm, and moonlighted by coaching Hollywood filmmakers on how to make their spy movies more realistic.
He was told when he left Pakistan that Zubaydah had been waterboarded only once, and was freely providing information. He later learned the man had been waterboarded 83 times, and was subjected to a panoply of other extreme interrogation techniques, as he was shuttled among an archipelago of secret CIA “black site” prisons.
When Brian Ross of ABC News contacted Kiriakou in December 2007, he decided to come clean.
“I decided in the days leading up to that interview that I was going to tell the truth… because I believed at the time, and I still believe, that the American people have a right to know what their government is doing in their name,” Kiriakou says.
During his ABC appearance, he credited the brutal interrogations with disrupting “maybe dozens of attacks,” and said it clearly saved U.S. lives.
Within hours of that interview, however, Kiriakou began hearing that he’d become persona non grata at the agency. His former colleagues felt that by speaking out about a CIA program he believed to be illegal, he’d violated a sacred trust.
Within 24 hours, the CIA’s directorate of operations filed a crimes report asking the FBI to investigate whether he’d disclosed U.S. secrets. The FBI launched an extensive investigation and concluded Kiriakou had committed no crime. Talk of CIA renditions and waterboarding was so widespread at that point, they were perhaps the worst kept secrets in Washington.
In 2008 they sent Kiriakou’s attorney a letter announcing that because Amnesty International and other international organizations had already exposed the CIA program, they would not prosecute Kiriakou. At that point, the case was closed and it looked like John Kiriakou had his life back. In fact from 2009 to mid-2011 he worked as senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — not the sort of job that people of questionable character tend to land.
“I thought ‘Well, it’s done,’” he tells Newsmax. “I actually took my wife out to dinner that night. It’s done, all over.”
But just as former Trump NSA chief Michael Flynn was initially cleared of lying about his contacts with Russian operatives, only to later be crushed by the prosecutorial zeal of the Mueller investigative team, Kiriakou’s troubles were only just beginning. Subsequent legal discovery would indicate that shortly after Barack Obama took office in January 2008, his National Security Adviser John Brennan approached him with a request to reopen the Kiriakou case. To Brennan and others in the U.S. national-security establishment, Kiriakou’s transgressions could not be allowed to go unpunished.
President Obama, ironically one of the most strident voices decrying waterboarding as torture, agreed to let Brennan reopen an investigation that had already been closed. The official Brennan would recruit to execute the prosecution was none other than Robert Mueller, at that point the director of the FBI.
Mueller soon launched a 12-member “Kiriakou task force” to take him down. They tapped his phones, conducted 24-hour rotating surveillance, and even tried to trick him into an elaborate sting to demonstrate that he was corrupt. But Kiriakou, who was blissfully unaware of the fact that his legal troubles were growing with each passing day, didn’t take the bait and kept his nose so clean that at one point when Brennan demanded an indictment, the FBI replied back that he had not committed espionage.
“What we found in discovery was a memo from John Brennan to the Justice Department saying ‘Charge him with espionage.’ And Justice wrote back and said, ‘He hasn’t committed espionage.’ And then Brennan wrote back and said, ‘Charge him with espionage anyway and make him defend himself.’
Kiriakou would spend untold thousands of dollars defending himself from espionage charges that were eventually dropped “I had never committed espionage,” he explains. “But this is what John Brennan and Robert Mueller and Peter Strzok did to me.”
The hammer finally fell in January 2012. FBI agents, including Peter Strzok, asked him to come in for an interview about a prior, unrelated case. About 80 minutes into the interview he realized what was going on.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you guys investigating me?’ I was shocked at the thought. Then one of them said, ‘We’re raiding your house as we speak and we’re confiscating all of your electronics.’”
“I talked to them because I knew in my heart that I didn’t do anything wrong,” he explains. “And because I’m a patriotic American. I said, and these were my exact words, ‘Anything for the FBI.’”
Kiriakou was charged with five felonies, including three counts of espionage — all related to the original 2007 interview. Facing a growing avalanche of legal expenses, limitless DOJ resources stacked against him, and the threat of bankruptcy, Kiriakou eventually pleaded guilty to one count of revealing the identity of another CIA agent. The law he was accused of violating, the 1982 Intelligenct Identities Protection Act, had rarely been enforced.
It turned out that after a reporter suggested one of Kiriakou’s colleagues had been involved in the enhanced interrogation program, Kiriakou used the agent’s name in indicating he was not involved. Even though that reporter never used the agent’s name in a story, the FBI technically had enough for a conviction.
Today, as Kiriakou watches the parade of horribles being rolled out to attack Trump, he can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. He’s often asked if he thinks the FBI operation against the Trump campaign in 2016 constituted spying.
“Of course it constituted spying, and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “In any other situation if the FBI suspected that a foreign power had targeted a political campaign or had been successful in placing an agent inside a political campaign, what they would do it approach the candidate or the campaign chairman and tell them, ‘Look, you guys have a problem. We think the Russians have infiltrated your campaign.
“But they never did that. They never said anything to Trump, to [Paul] Manafort, or to [Trump campaign manager Corey] Lewandowski. They never said a word that they suspected Carter Page of being a Russian agent — whether he knew he was or not is irrelevant.
“They had never told the campaign that they had requested FISA warrants, and they had renewed those warrants three times. So of course that’s spying. Because what they then elected to do is they had placed a person in the campaign to report back to them, and that’s just not the way it is done. So yes, to me that is a clear example of the overreach of the deep state.”
Kirakou served 23 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pa. due to the single conviction. One bitter consequence of his conviction: He lost his federal pension, which was confiscated.
“I had 20 proud years of federal service,” he notes. “I had $770,000 saved in that pension. Now as it stands I’m going to have to work until the day I die.”
He emerged from the experience more determined than ever to speak out against deep state overreach in the post-9/11 era. He’s published two other books about his experience and has launched a successful media career. He campaigned with libertarian Gary Johnson in 12 states in 2016, and he champions the Bill of Rights and the Constitution every chance he gets. A frequent guest on cable news, he warns anyone who will listen that Congress has been using the 9/11 attacks to chip away at his fellow Americans’ inalienable rights.
“Professionally,” he confides, “I’ve had a 10-year setback. Two of my kids have finished college. I still have three to worry about, and to tell you the ugly truth, it finally became too much for my wife and she took off. So I’m in this alone now. I’ve got to move on to a better job and make some money and take care of my kids — that’s really what it comes down to.”
Kiriakou’s pardon bid has a lot of high-profile support. GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and GOP Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina are among those urging the administration to consider clearing his name.
When Rep. Jerry Moran, D-Va., was about to retire, he took to the House floor in November 2014 to credit Kiriakou for beginning “an intense and overdue debate over whether torture violated international law, tarnished our higher American principles, and undermined the critical need for reliable, actionable information.”
Moran added: “John Kiriakou deserves a presidential pardon so his record can be cleared, just as this country is trying to heal from a dark chapter in its history.”
President Obama had the opportunity to pardon Kiriakou in the waning days of his administration, after he received correspondence from 70 top CIA, FBI, NSA, State Department, and senior military officers. Curiously, the president who had so vocally opposed waterboarding himself rejected Kirakou’s plea. Instead, Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning, once known as Bradley Manning before she transgendered, who leaked over 750,000 classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. Some 270 other convicted felons were also pardoned, but not Kiriakou.
His hope of receiving a pardon from the president may not be far-fetched. Unlike most presidents who wait until they’re on their way out of town to issue pardons that could prove controversial, Trump has rebalanced the scales of justice whenever he has deemed it appropriate.
Among those he’s selected for presidential leniency: Dwight and Steven Hammond, Oregon cattle ranchers who’d had run-ins with the government over public land; Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who was sentenced to life in prison over a non-violent drug offense; author Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty tried to evade campaign finance laws in 2012 in support of a GOP Senate candidate in New York; and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was convicted of taking his white girlfriend across state lines in 1913. He died in 1946.
Now, Kiriakou prays Trump will one day add him to list of those whose debt to society has been paid in full. His dream is that one day he will receive a call from his attorney telling him he’s received a presidential pardon.
“I have to admit to you that I fantasize about that every single day,” he says. “It would literally mean to me the beginning of a new life. I’m not overstating that: It would be a new life.
“You know, I had to give up my gun, I lost the right to vote, I lost my pension, my friends ran away from me, relatives — family members — walked away from me.
“To have a president of the United States acknowledge that this was an injustice would be so important. It would be life-altering.”
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