By Jordy Yager - 03/16/10 10:00 AM EDT
John Kiriakou thought his toughest days were behind him.
In the nearly 15 years he worked for the CIA, he traveled to 55 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he helped capture al Qaeda’s third-highest-ranking official.
But Kiriakou, 45, now a Senate staffer, says all of that pales in comparison to what it took to get CIA approval for the publication of his new book, which comes out Tuesday.
The Reluctant Spy, which he co-authored with Michael Ruby, began as Kiriakou’s memoir — that of a career CIA agent who was raised in a small western Pennsylvania city.
As a kid, Kiriakou was fascinated with politics and international affairs, he says in his tome. In his teenage years, Kiriakou wrote letters to, and got responses from, heads of state including England Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
And as a college student at George Washington University, Kiriakou would trek to Capitol Hill with a copy of The Almanac of American Politics, hunting down autographs of lawmakers like Sens. Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole and Al Gore. He also scored a paid internship with then-Rep. Joe Kolter (D-Pa.).
But as graduation neared, Kiriakou’s best job prospect was working in the Office of Personnel Management — an agency he couldn’t get excited about. So when a professor of his asked if he would be interested in applying to the CIA, he thought, “What do I have to lose?”
Nearly 20 years later, Kiriakou is back on Capitol Hill. This time he’s working for a Senate committee. But due to Senate ethics rules, he can’t use the name of the committee while talking about his book, which he is making money on.
But there almost wasn’t a book, Kiriakou said.
The CIA’s Publications Review Board (PBR) has to clear every word that any former employee wants to publish. If a former CIA employee publishes something without the board’s approval, the agency takes him or her to court. And in those court cases, the CIA wins every time, Kiriakou said.
The approval process can be painstakingly arduous, he noted.
In early 2007, Kiriakou sent the CIA review board a 60-page book proposal that included one full chapter and an outline of more than a dozen chapters to follow.
“They redacted every single word,” Kiriakou recalled during an interview in the Dirksen cafeteria. “They said, ‘You can’t say any of this stuff, it’s all classified.’ ”
Kiriakou appealed the redaction, arguing that much of the information in his book wasn’t classified. But this was just the start of nearly three years of back-and-forth between the CIA board vetoing much of what Kiriakou sent for approval, and his subsequent appeals.
“When they mail it back to you, if you’ve got a thick envelope, you know you’re screwed because it’s all of the redacted material, page after page, blacked-out sentences,” he said. “I have a stack probably two feet tall of just blacked-out pages.”
But Kiriakou’s situation, after nearly a year of battling with the CIA review board, was complicated by events outside of the appeals process.
In late 2007, Kiriakou went on ABC News as the first former CIA official to acknowledge the agency had used the highly controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding on at least two detainees to coerce information about future terrorist plots.
In the interview, he verified that the CIA had waterboarded Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants, whom Kiriakou had helped capture.
Kiriakou said Zubaydah cracked after 30 to 35 seconds of being waterboarded — which he was not present for — and that Zubaydah revealed useful information to agency officials as a result.
Then last year, the Obama administration ordered the Justice Department to release a memo that said the CIA had waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times during interrogations.
The memo resulted in much speculation that Kiriakou had misled the press in his interview two years before by saying that he was aware of one instance when Zubaydah was waterboarded, which had “worked” because it resulted in actionable intelligence for the CIA.
Kiriakou is hoping that his book — which briefly touches on the press surrounding his interview on waterboarding — will help clear up any misunderstandings.
“I really feel like I need to set the record straight on that waterboarding interview, because people chose to ignore the facts of what I said,” Kiriakou said.
“I never said that I witnessed Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding,” he said. “I never said I witnessed his interrogation. I was specific on several points — that I had the information second-hand and that I never observed it myself and was relying on what I had been told by colleagues and read in CIA cable traffic. I was clear about that. I was also clear that I regarded waterboarding as torture. Whether it worked is a different issue.”
The media weren’t the only ones fired up about Kiriakou’s interview. Several top CIA officials were unhappy he had spoken so openly about the secretive and controversial waterboarding practice, Kiriakou said.
Meanwhile, Kiriakou continued his fight with the CIA review board over the contents of his book, which at that time did not include any details surrounding the agency’s use of waterboarding. In October 2008 — more than one year after he sent the agency his initial book outline — the board called him in for a face-to-face meeting.
The board suggested several changes, such as obscuring locations and people’s names, and Kiriakou agreed.
But on his way out of the meeting, a CIA board member walked Kiriakou to his car and told him that even if he made the proposed changes, the board was still going to reject the book.
“He said, ‘You still have a lot of very powerful enemies here,’ ” Kiriakou said.
In search of advice, Kiriakou called an “extremely senior officer” in the CIA who had been supportive of him and his recent interviews concerning waterboarding. It was October 2008, weeks before the presidential elections, and Kiriakou’s friend was on then-Sen. Barack Obama’s intelligence advisory team.
“He said, ‘Make [the CIA’s] change, but don’t resubmit it until I tell you to,’ ” he said.
“So I made the change and I held it. A couple weeks later, Obama won the election. And then we had this period of about six weeks where there was some uncertainty in the agency,” he said. “And [then] it was clear there was going to be a housecleaning.”
In January 2009, after Obama had nominated Leon Panetta to replace Michael Hayden as the head of the CIA, Kiriakou’s friend in the CIA called him and told him to resubmit the version of his book the CIA had redacted.
“A week later my wife calls me at work and tells me that I had gotten in the mail a very thin envelope from [the board],” he said. “It was all the same material. So I went home and opened it up and it said, ‘Cleared in its entirety.’
“So at the risk of sounding dramatic, this really is the book that the CIA doesn’t want you to read,” he said with a smile.