by Jeff Schechtman, Who What Why:
The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and President Donald Trump’s decision to replace him with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, was the big news in Washington on Tuesday. But what is even more stunning is that the president has nominated Deputy Director Gina Haspel to become the next CIA director.
Haspel is not a household name but she certainly should be. Among some within the CIA, she was known as “Bloody Gina” for her role in the agency’s torture program.
Last year, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman interviewed John Kiriakou, the whistleblower who first exposed the agency’s complicity in torture — and served 23 months in federal prison for it.
In this podcast, Kiriakou describes the “merciless” torture of Abu Zubaydah at a secret CIA prison run by Haspel. He also notes that nobody was ever held to account for this dark chapter in US history.
Now, instead of being punished for her role in the torture program, which included destroying evidence of its existence, Haspel is about to be rewarded with the CIA’s top job — unless the Senate stops her confirmation.
Check out our podcast with Kiriakou below and keep in mind that “Bloody Gina” was deeply involved in every aspect of the torture of Abu Zubaydah and others.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
I think it’s safe to say that every institution of government today is in chaos. Departments are understaffed, the State Department is hollowed out, cabinet secretaries are either apologizing for themselves or the president, or they’re travelling the world trying to reassure allies and adversaries. But few government institutions are in the kind of direct conflict, almost open hostility with the administration as the intelligence community and the CIA. From his botched initial visit to Langley to 6 AM tweets, not since Kennedy have we had a president in open warfare with the intelligence community.
Here to talk about all of this and a lot more, I’m joined by my guest John Kiriakou. John Kiriakou was a 15-year CIA veteran. He rose through the ranks to the very highest levels of the agency. He became the first in the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture and, as a result, he became one of the very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He was considered a whistleblower and served 23 months in federal prison. He’s the author of three books; his latest out later this year is Doing Time Like a Spy. It is my pleasure to welcome John Kiriakou to the program. John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Thank you so much for having me. The pleasure is all mine.
Schechtman: Tell our listeners a little bit about your history, your background and in doing that, talk a little bit about the way the CIA changed and evolved during your 15 years there.
Kiriakou: Sure. I spent the first half of my career as an analyst at the CIA working on the Middle East, specifically on Iraq. I did that for about seven and a half years and then I made a very unusual switch to counterterrorism operations. I spoke Arabic and I spoke Greek and wanted to serve overseas, so I changed to counterterrorism in 1997. I finally felt like I knew what I was doing around the time that 9/11 took place and went to Pakistan as the Chief of Counterterrorism Operations for the CIA there. The big change in those years though, and it’s something that I naively believed would be temporary, was a transition that we saw beginning on 9/11; away from a traditional spy agency where CIA officers recruit spies to steal secrets to what really has become a paramilitary agency and even a cyber-military agency. The CIA is nothing like what it was when I joined in early 1990 and I fear that it’s changed forever.
Schechtman: How did those changes come about? Was it like the frog in the boiling water? Talk a little bit about that.
Kiriakou: It was. It was indeed like the frog in the boiling water. On September 11, I was working in the CIA’s counterterrorism center and the counterterrorism center had a certain budget, right. Let’s just say the budget was X. Three days later, Congress voted an appropriation, a special appropriation to augment the counterterrorism center’s budget. That was an addition of 160% of the CTC budget. So all of a sudden, there was more money in counterterrorism than anybody could possibly spend. Well, the CIA by it’s very nature pushes the boundaries of what it’s allowed to do and it just keeps pushing until the Congressional Oversight Committees tell it to stop. Well, now flush with cash, that’s exactly what they did and nobody told them to stop. Congress had passed the Patriot Act, there were covert action programs taking place and all anybody had to say was 9/11 and the CIA got what it wanted. So here we are now, 16 years later, almost 16 years after September 11 and still nobody has said “Stop!” to the CIA. That’s how we’ve found ourselves in this predicament.
Schechtman: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the CIA was very involved in the actions in Afghanistan that was in and of itself a kind of paramilitary operation. Talk about the training that went into that and obviously that kind of activity and the planning for it begun even before 9/11.
Kiriakou: Well see, that’s really the issue, at least from those early days. There was almost no training. On September 11, like everybody else in the building, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, to do what, I didn’t even really think it through. I figured my Arabic was fluent, I could at the very least serve as a translator, maybe work to recruit some sources inside al Qaeda and I was denied. I was denied a second time and a third time. Finally, I ran into a colleague in the hall whom I hadn’t seen in several months since the 9/11 attacks and I said “Hey Billy, where you been?” He kind of whispers and says: “I’ve been in Afghanistan.” And I said: “What are you doing in Afghanistan?” and he looked at me like I was crazy and he said “I’ve been killing people. What do you think I’ve been doing?” And I thought, well that’s why they haven’t sent me to Afghanistan. They don’t need translators, they don’t need recruiters, they’re just killing people. I realized then, this was in October of 2001, I realized then that the entire mission was changing. If the original mission was to destroy al Qaeda, we certainly succeeded in doing that by the middle to the end of 2002 but the mission became muddled and that was really on the White House. The mission became something akin to nation building and then all of a sudden, we realized that we have a problem with the Taliban or we had a problem with Hekmatyar or we didn’t like somebody else in the area and here we are now, as I said, 16 years later and we’re still in Afghanistan.