In December 2007, John Kiriakou, a former senior CIA operative, made a series of public comments about the agency’s use of Bush-era torture techniques. In one interview, he described in detail how waterboarding was authorized. As he noted, the CIA agents wrote up a proposal, higher-ups in the agency cleared it, then the proposal was vetted by the Justice Department, and finally it went to the National Security Council in the White House, where it was approved again. His account validated speculation that the Justice Department was squarely in the middle of the process, giving its blessing to criminal acts, and that the White House gave the ultimate sanction. But then Kiriakou went on, in an appearance with ABC’s Brian Ross, to claim that waterboarding worked wonderfully. He claimed that terrorist Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the technique. The statement was immediately heralded by torture advocates, such as Rush Limbaugh, as evidence that waterboarding had worked.
Except that, according to others at the agency, Kiriakou wasn’t involved in the process and didn’t know what he was talking about. The more detailed account that emerged with the declassification of Justice Department memoranda showed that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times, with doubtful results.
Now Kiriakou recants. Jeff Stein reports in a must-read in Foreign Policy:
On the next-to-last page of a new memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror (written with Michael Ruby), Kiriakou now rather off handedly admits that he basically made it all up. “What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he writes. “I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence.” But never mind, he says now.
“I wasn’t there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.”
In other words, Kiriakou was spreading baseless agency rumors. He goes on to state that he subsequently learned, through press accounts, that his claims to ABC just weren’t true. But he takes it one step further. He concludes that he and fellow agents were actually being deceived by torture-apologists.
“In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own.”
As Stein notes, Kiriakou’s false statements about the efficiency of waterboarding instantly swept America’s mainstream media—in addition to ABC, they appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and numerous other media. How many of these sources will now acknowledge that the reports they propagated were false? Don’t hold your breath.