State Politics

During NC visit, CIA whistleblower laments loss of civil liberties

John Kiriakou, the first Central Intelligence Agency officer to be imprisoned for leaking classified information to a reporter, has been in North Carolina this past week, talking with college students and others about government torture programs and the country’s response to terrorism.

The 51-year-old former intelligence officer regaled audiences with anecdotes about the agency, foreign policy and his two years in a low-security prison in Pennsylvania.

Christina Cowger, a board member of the N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture, said her organization sponsored the visit in an attempt to provide the public with more information about a topic she worries might become victim to the mainstream news cycle.

“Morally, the U.S. has gone down a very ugly path,” Cowger said Friday. “This is another part of our efforts to reach out to the North Carolina public and say, ‘We don’t want this country to be a country that secretly tortures people in our name, and then pushes it under the rug.’”

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued its long-awaited report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program in December. Though the executive summary that was made public acknowledged the use of torture, Cowger and others thought too much information was withheld.

The full 6,700-page report was transmitted to agencies within the executive branch, but U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem and head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, since has pushed to have those copies confiscated and returned to the CIA.

Not only is Cowger among a group lobbying for the full release, she and others hope to persuade Gov. Pat McCrory and others in North Carolina to do an inquiry about any involvement of state agencies in the federally sponsored torture programs.

Though the report was released months ago, Kiriakou, an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and author of “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War On Terror,” has not stopped talking about waterboarding and other torture methods used by the CIA.

At UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday, he told the crowd that he no longer was optimistic that the Obama administration would overhaul the CIA and its policies.

He had similar messages at N.C. Central University, where he spoke to the law school on Tuesday, at Guilford College, where he spoke Wednesday, and at N.C. State University, where he gave a talk to a standing room-only crowd Thursday.

He stopped by The News & Observer with Cowger and talked about a wide range of topics, including foreign policy, his take on the Obama and Bush administrations, and the inner workings of the CIA during his 14 years there as an analyst and counterterrorism officer.

He described the Al Qaeda attacks as “an anomaly” and said the terrorism on 9/11 occurred after the CIA had been “asleep at the switch for a long time.”

Kiriakou, a frequent blogger for Huffington Post and other websites, said he sees a need to “call the government out for taking away our civil liberties and lying” about the prevalent use of torture in the wake of 9/11 and about measures in the Patriot Act, including the indefinite detention of immigrants and the search of email and financial, phone and business records without a court order.

“I think many people thought this would be temporary,” Kiriakou said. “I would be willing to risk another attack in exchange for getting my civil liberties back.”

Kiriakou also described what prison was like for him, including who to avoid and learning how to act when inmates come uninvited to a cell. He talked about meeting mobsters and feasting at their prison tables, as well as spending much time alone, writing in his cell.

That experience, he said, might yield another book or two.

As that project evolves, Kiriakou is talking to anybody who will listen about what he deems to be the erosion of civil liberties since 9/11 and his suggestions for bringing change at an intelligence agency.

“Torture is their legacy,” Kiriakou said. “It’s going to be crazy to the next generation that we allowed this to happen.”

Kiriakou suggested to students on some of the campuses he visited in North Carolina to apply for jobs at the CIA and try to change the agency from the inside.

“We need to demand of our elected officials that there be a change,” Kiriakou said. “But almost no one in Congress has the guts to stand up and say, ‘We want our civil liberties.’”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1