How The Government Made Me A Dissident

I sometimes say the government turned me into a dissident — after I spent 14 years at the CIA and two more at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I only say it half-jokingly. While I’m proud of winning this year’s PEN Center’s First Amendment award, I never intended to make a career out of being at odds with the government.

Sometimes, though — like when I spent two years in prison for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program — it’s felt like the government’s gone out of its way to be at odds with me.

And it’s clear that our government demonizes people who disagree with the official line. Things got bad for anyone who disagrees with the official line right after 9/11.

We slid down the rabbit hole with the passage of the so-called PATRIOT Act. Enacted six weeks after the terrorist attacks, the law legalized actions against American citizens — including widespread Internet surveillance and phone taps — that had previously been unthinkable.

When the government hired me in 1988, it was widely understood that if the National Security Agency intercepted the communications of an American citizen — even accidentally — heads would roll. Congress had to be informed, an investigation would be launched, and the intercept had to be purged from the system.

Today, the NSA has an enormous facility in Utah big enough to save copies of every email, text message, and phone conversation made by every American for the next 500 years. You can bet they intend to.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my government trampling my civil liberties like this.

Still, people sometimes ask me why they should care if the authorities read their email or listen to their phone calls. “I have nothing to hide,” they say, “so why should I worry about it?”

This question sends chills up my spine.

As anybody who’s worked in the intelligence community will tell you, the government can learn a lot more about you than you realize.

Metadata — the raw information about who you talk to on the phone, or what websites you visit — is incredibly revealing. Analysts don’t need the actual content of your calls or emails to know what you’re up to.

Are you calling an abortion provider? A divorce lawyer? A secret girlfriend or boyfriend? A substance abuse counselor? The feds can find out, even though it’s none of their business.

What kind of porn do you like? What websites do you visit? What church, club, or political group do you belong to? They can figure that out, too.

Most of us don’t want anyone poking around our lives, even if we’re perfectly innocent. (Though with a little manipulation, anybody can be made to look like a troublemaker.)

Believe it or not, our founders saw this coming.

James Madison, the Constitution’s primary author, wrote the First Amendment to protect everyone — especially people who disagree with the government’s policies. We all have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition.

The Bill of Rights is the only thing standing between us and fascism. Monitoring the things we say is the first step toward prosecuting them.

So am I a dissident? I don’t know. I don’t care.

The important thing is that I’ve become passionate in my defense of our constitutional rights. I have an inalienable right to freedom of speech, and I’ll continue to exercise it — even at the risk of getting locked up again.

As more of us tough it out in prison, the government will lose its power to take our rights away. As more of us write and speak about government overreach, our chances of preserving our freedoms will grow.

It’s worth the risk.

John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA First Amendment award. 

This article was originally posted at

The CIA Is An Ethics-Free Zone

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at

I joined the CIA in January 1990.

The CIA was vastly different back then from the agency that emerged in the days after the 9/11 attacks. And it was a far cry from the flawed and confused organization it is today.

One reason for those flaws — and for the convulsions the agency has experienced over the past decade and a half — is its utter lack of ethics in intelligence operations.

It’s no secret that the CIA has gone through periods where violating U.S. law and basic ethics were standard operating procedure. During the Cold War, the agency assassinated foreign leaders, toppled governments, spied on American citizens, and conducted operations with no legal authority to do so. That’s an historical fact.

I liked to think that things had changed by the time I worked there. CIA officers, I believed, were taught about legal limits to their operations — they learned what was and wasn’t permitted by law.

I was wrong.

After 9/11, the CIA seemed to believe the rules of engagement had fundamentally changed. But when it came to prohibitions against torture, assassination, and other rights violations, they hadn’t. We had to fight al-Qaeda, but we should have done it within the law.

All CIA officers should have been trained in carrying out intelligence operations ethically. That never happened — and today we can see the results.

Let’s say you’re a CIA officer and you’ve recruited an amazing source. Your source has direct access to the leadership of the Islamic State, and everything he’s reported to you so far has checked out. You’ve vetted him, so you know he’s telling you the truth about the details of his access.

One day you’re meeting with him. He tells you that he’s done everything you’ve asked and he feels that you “owe” him. He says that he wants a prostitute, and if you don’t get him one, he’s going to stop cooperating.

Would you?

Frankly, just about every case officer I’ve ever known would. But what if he asks you to get him a child prostitute? Would you do it?

The answer, clearly, ought to be no. But some case officers would. There’s no training to say that they shouldn’t. Instead, CIA officers are trained to violate the law. They’re in a foreign country, after all, and they likely have diplomatic immunity. They don’t care about local laws.

Want a real-life example?

Last December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued its report on the CIA torture program, which detailed gruesome and systemic human rights violations by agency employees. The CIA hadn’t only tried to cover up its actions — it actually spied on the Senate’s investigators, too.

The report concluded that these brutal tactics weren’t even useful for gathering intelligence. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that something about the CIA’s culture, its collective mindset, allowed it to make a crime against humanity into policy. It’s become an ethics-free zone.

Officers of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other U.S. intelligence agencies are told to penetrate terrorist cells and prevent attacks against Americans. They’re pressured to “go do it” or suffer the consequences. But no one’s able or willing to tell them the rules.

That’s what’s wrong with the CIA today. And that’s where the moral and ethical rebuilding of the organization should begin.

OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

WATCH: Fox News Host EXPLODES On Ex-CIA Guest For Making 1 Comment That Stuns Him – ‘Excuse Me?’

US airstrikes hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and killed more than 30 staff members and patients on October 3rd of this year.

Doctors Without Borders, an international medical organization, released its initial review of the attack on Thursday, and stated that: “Patients were burned in their beds, medical staff were decapitated and lost limbs, and others were shot by the circling AC-130 gunship while fleeing the burning building.”

The Pentagon has called the bombing a “mistake.”

Barack Obama issued an apology to the organization several days after the attack.

On Thursday, Fox News host Shepard Smith invited an ex-CIA covert officer, Joshua Katz, on to his program to discuss the deadly airstrikes.

It didn’t take long for the clash between Smith and Katz to start.

Katz stated: “We have Doctors Without Borders who in all cases are actually providing material support to terrorists. They have knowingly and willingly admitted.”

Smith was startled by the comment, and quickly said: “Excuse me?”

Katz then said: “Doctors Without Borders here, Shep, has said that they have provided support to the Taliban.”

Smith began to argue back: “Oh hang on. What doctors do is treat the wounded in war zones since time began. Are you suggesting here that they should not have treated members of the–the ‘terrorists’ as you call them, when they were bleeding and at their doorstep. They should have said ‘No go away’?”

Smith then said he found Katz’s comment “disgusting.”

The two continued to argue throughout the segment.

What do you think of Katz telling Shepard Smith, in reference to the airstrikes, that Doctors Without Borders was “providing material support to terrorists?”

What Clinton Got Wrong About Snowden

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared at

Hillary Clinton is wrong about Edward Snowden. Again.

The presidential candidate and former secretary of state insisted during the recent Democratic debate that Snowden should have remained in the United States to voice his concerns about government spying on U.S. citizens. Instead, she claimed, he “endangered U.S. secrets by fleeing to Russia.”

After accusing Snowden of stealing “very important information that has fallen into the wrong hands,” she added: “He should not be brought home without facing the music.”

Clinton should stop rooting for Snowden’s incarceration and get her facts straight.

First, Snowden is a whistleblower, not a leaker. Whistleblowing is the act of bringing to light evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, law-breaking, or dangers to public health or safety. Snowden did exactly that when he divulged proof that the National Security Agency was illegally snooping on all of us.

Second, Snowden knew it was impossible to report this wrongdoing through his chain of command at the NSA, where he was working as a contractor employed by the consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton.

I’ve written previously about whistleblower Tom Drake, who went through his own chain of command to report an earlier illegal wiretapping scheme by the NSA. Drake went to his bosses, his office’s general counsel, the NSA’s inspector general, the Pentagon’s inspector general, and congressional oversight committees — only to be charged with 10 felonies, including five counts of espionage.

CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, who reported wrongdoing in a CIA operation related to the Iranian nuclear program through his chain of command, was similarly charged with multiple counts of espionage. Now, he’s serving 42 months in prison.

The sad fact is that many national security chains of command are overtly hostile to people who report wrongdoing. I learned this firsthand when I spent nearly two years behind bars for denouncing the CIA’s use of torture years after I left the agency. And I didn’t go to any country club. I went to a real prison.

Indeed, one of my former supervisors at the CIA called whistleblowing “institutionalized insubordination.” In other words, employees should just “follow orders,” even if those orders are illegal.

Didn’t Nazi war criminals say that they were just following orders, too? To me, their compliance was criminal.

Third, Clinton claimed that Snowden would have enjoyed protection from the Whistleblower Protection Act if he’d remained in the United States to make his revelations.

I’m disappointed, frankly, that somebody running for president of the United States doesn’t know that the Whistleblower Protection Act exempts national security whistleblowers. There are no protections for you if you work for the CIA, NSA, or other federal intelligence agencies — or serve them as a contractor. You take a grave personal risk if you decide to report wrongdoing, and there’s nobody who can protect you.

Even the federal body that’s supposed to protect whistleblowers, the Merit Systems Protection Board, got itself in trouble in October for suspending and retaliating against its own whistleblower, who revealed that the agency had a huge backlog of cases and was taking far too long to adjudicate them. That certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

Finally, let’s get this straight: Snowden didn’t “flee to Russia.” Snowden stopped in Moscow on his way from Hong Kong to South America when Secretary of State John Kerry revoked his U.S. passport. Snowden never intended to move to Moscow. Kerry made that decision for him.

Of all people, Hillary Clinton — Kerry’s predecessor at State — should know that.

I get that Clinton doesn’t like Snowden. I doubt he’s too upset about that. But Clinton should get her facts straight if she’s going to take a stand against those federal employees and contractors who take their oaths to uphold the Constitution seriously enough to report crimes against it.

She should be celebrating whistleblowers, not vilifying them and suggesting they waltz into the nearest penitentiary.

OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

The Sad Fate Of America’s Whistleblowers

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared at

What is it about whistleblowers that the powers that be can’t stand?

When I blew the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program, I was derided in many quarters as a traitor. My detractors in the government attacked me for violating my secrecy agreement, even as they ignored the oath we’d all taken to protect and defend the Constitution.

All of this happened despite the fact that the torture I helped expose is illegal in the United States. Torture also violates a number of international laws and treaties to which our country is signatory — some of which the United States itself was the driving force in drafting.

I was charged with three counts of espionage, all of which were eventually dropped when I took a plea to a lesser count. I had to choose between spending up to 30 months in prison and rolling the dice to risk a 45-year sentence. With five kids, and three of them under the age of 10, I took the plea.

Tom Drake — the NSA whistleblower who went through the agency’s chain of command to report its illegal program to spy on American citizens — was thanked for his honesty and hard work by being charged with 10 felonies, including five counts of espionage. The government eventually dropped the charges, but not before Drake had suffered terrible financial, professional, and personal distress.

This is an ongoing theme, especially in government.

Chelsea Manning is serving 35 years in prison for her disclosure of State Department and military cable traffic showing American military crimes in Iraq and beyond. And Edward Snowden, who told Americans about the extent to which our government is spying on us, faces life in prison if he ever returns to the country.

The list goes on and on.

Baltimore Police Department whistleblower Joe Crystal knew what he was getting into when he reported an incident of police brutality to his superiors after witnessing two colleagues brutally beat a suspect. Crystal immediately became known as a “rat cop” and a “snitch.”

He finally resigned from the department after receiving credible death threats.

It’s not just government employees either. Whistleblowers first brought attention to wrongdoing at Enron, Lehman Brothers, Stanford International Bank, and elsewhere.

And what’s their reward? Across the board, whistleblowers are investigated, harassed, fired, and in some cases prosecuted.

That’s the conclusion of author Eyal Press, whose book Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times documents the struggles of whistleblowers throughout history. Press’s whistleblowers never recover financially or professionally from their actions. History seems to smile on them; but during their lifetimes, they remain outcasts.

This is a tragedy. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing should be the norm, not the exception.

I recently visited Greece to help the government there draft a whistleblower protection law. The Greek word for “whistleblower” translates as “guardian of the public trust.” I wish our own government’s treatment of whistleblowers could reflect that understanding.

Yet even legal guarantees of protection from prosecution and persecution aren’t enough — especially if, as in the case of existing law, national security employees are exempt from these safeguards.

Instead, society must start seeing things differently. Like the Greeks, all of us need to start treating whistleblowers as guardians, not traitors. And if we value what freedoms we have left, we should demand that our government do the same.

OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by