On the eve of Halloween, I had a visit from a former spook.
John Kiriakou is a former CIA counter-terrorism operations officer in Pakistan who drew the agency’s ire by telling the truth.
In December 2007, three years after resigning from the CIA, he confirmed during an ABC News interview that torture had been used during interrogations of al-Qaida prisoners. For his continuing candor with reporters, Kiriakou was charged with disclosing classified information and the name of a covert CIA officer (though the agent’s name was never reported). He pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and was sentenced to 30 months in a low-security federal prison. He was released in February.
Now Kiriakou, 51, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, is held in high regard by advocates for civil liberties and of openness in government. He was in North Carolina for a five-city speaking tour, including Raleigh and Chapel Hill, in which he described the cover-up of torture and his experiences in prison for talking about the subject.
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A handsome, gregarious man who speaks Greek and Arabic, Kiriakou is a charming and provocative speaker. He said some of the captured al-Qaida fighters he met were hardly fearsome. They were boys uprooted from their home countries after accepting a few hundred dollars to “make jihad.” In captivity, some cried for their mothers. He also abhors the randomness of drone attacks so fully embraced by President Obama. He said drones had hit numerous weddings and funerals in and near Pakistan where no al-Qaida members were involved, but where, among the survivors, future terrorists might have been created.
I was struck not only by the details of his stories, but also by their theme. He acknowledges that the United States faces threats, but meeting the threat must be balanced against the cost to the nation’s freedoms and its moral standing. In fighting terrorism, we are defeating our values.
The expanded powers of government mass surveillance and the curtailment of civil liberties under the Patriot Act were supposed to be temporary in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Some of the law’s provisions finally expired this year, but the new USA Freedom Act still allows for sweeping and invasive programs to collect records without a warrant.
“I would be willing to risk another attack in exchange for getting my civil liberties back,” Kiriakou said.
But he doubts those liberties will be restored because there is now too much money and power invested in keeping America afraid and engaged in endless wars.
“Our economy is a wartime economy,” he said. “If we are not spending money preparing for the next war, the economy slows down and that’s bad for politics.”
In those comments, Kiriakou gets to the heart of the real threat to America. It is, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his fellow Americans in a time when the nation was far more vulnerable, “fear itself.”
One of the sorriest aspects of policy based on fear is that there’s little chance of it changing. President Obama has no interest in exposing the civil liberties abuses of the recent past. Hillary Clinton is to the right of Obama on national security. Leading GOP candidates are eager to crank up the war machine and loath to wind down the state of high security.
The novelist and Christian thinker Marilynne Robinson recently published an essay called “Fear.” In it she wonders how so many Americans can simultaneously declare themselves Christians and abandon themselves to fear, surrendering their civil liberties, stockpiling guns and regarding fellow Americans and immigrants with suspicion. After all, she says, it was Christ who said, “Be not afraid.”
Robinson writes, “Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.”
Kiriakou is one willing to say an unkind word about fear and the cost of it. Now that he’s out of prison for doing so, perhaps more Americans will hear and do likewise.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com