The limits put on John Kiriakou’s freedom of speech is telling of how the United States treats its political prisoners.
Since his incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institution, Loretto, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou has been publishing his “Letters from Loretto” with FireDogLake — a progressive-leaning political collective blog — to express his frustrations about his prison sentence, the state of civil liberties in the United States and concerns about abuses of power within the American political system.
In one letter, Kiriakou advises fellow CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden to “not, under any circumstances, cooperate with the FBI.”
“FBI agents will lie, trick and deceive you,” Kiriakou wrote, drawing from his personal experiences. “They will twist your words and play on your patriotism to entrap you.”
Kiriakou was convicted of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for revealing classified information concerning an undercover CIA agent to a reporter, who did not publish the information.
However, many have come to believe that Kiriakou is being punished for confirming to ABC News that Abu Zubaydah, an alleged aide to Osama bin Laden, had been waterboarded, marking the first public confirmation of the use of the torture tactic in American-run interrogations.
Kiriakou argues that his disclosure was no greater than other leaks, such as former CIA Director Leon Panetta releasing classified information to the screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty,” something Panetta admitted to last December without drawing much fuss from the White House. The administration’s selective approach of protecting itself from perceived outsiders while ignoring the actions of “insiders” — a “chilling effect” intended to discourage whistleblowing — is among the many themes Kiriakou hits on in his letters.
Kiriakou, though, is facing increasing pressure to stop writing. While he has not been explicitly threatened, the prison staff at Loretto has worked to make it difficult for Kiriakou to send out his press correspondence. The staff has attempted to remove the concrete-anchored desk from his cell and launched a campaign of intimidation, harassment and misinformation.
The way America handles whistleblowers
According to Kevin Gosztola, a writer for FireDogLake specializing in national security and civil liberties issues, Kiriakou’s case reflects the problem that exists with the way the United States deals with its perceived political enemies.
“John Kiriakou is not the only political prisoner,” said Gosztola, who has visited and spoken personally to Kiriakou and has been the primary journalist covering Kiriakou’s case, to MintPress News. “His experiences being shared in his letters from prison exemplify the sort of experiences he will have in prison, but his is more along the lines of a ‘best-case scenario,’ and he is far better off than most that are in the prison system in this country, and he will admit that.
“He would admit that he has a support system outside of the prison and one of the things that has struck him is how helpless others seem to be. He sits in the visitor’s room when his family visits him, he spend time with other prisoners, and he recognizes that there are a lot who just don’t know what to do with themselves — they were convicted of crimes and they’re not really sure how to rebuild their lives and move on with their future. He realizes he will have a much easier time with that.”
This is not to say that Kiriakou is having an easy time of things. The former counterterrorism consultant for ABC News and blogger for the Huffington Post has been prolific in his writing pertaining to civil liberties and his own personal experiences with the federal government. These writings — particularly while in prison — have been critical of the federal government and the administration, casting an ill light on the White House. Kiriakou, however, has been able to contact the media via a Bureau of Prisons’ regulation stating that “an inmate may write through ‘special mail’ to representatives of the news media specified by name or title.”
Threats and attempts to silence
The campaign against Kiriakou started simply enough, as reported by FireDogLake, with the prison arguing that Kiriakou’s forwarding of correspondent mail via his lawyer was a violation of the regulation, with mail to named journalists supposed to go in envelopes marked “special mail.” After making the change, the prison argued that Kiriakous was wrong to address his letter “special mail,” as the prison was sure the packages were going to his attorney — not the media — despite Kiriakou’s assurances and the address on the envelope.
By marking something “special mail” or “legal mail,” it exempts the marked envelope from being opened and examined in the federal prison system. As journalists have the privilege of speaking to sources without having to disclose the identity of the source or the nature of the conversation, and as lawyers have the right to attorney-client confidentiality, the reading of a marked envelope can seriously complicate any future attempts to prosecute or extend prison time. However, the warden of the prison can repeal the privilege if it can be proven that the prisoner is exploiting it.
Associates of Kiriakou’s were interrogated to see if he had a cellphone in his cell, which would warrant additional jail time for possession of contraband. A senior prison administrator threatened Kiriakou with “disciplinary action” last July if Kiriakou did not — in writing — agree to stop using the special markings on his letters.
He was denied contact with his lawyer until he signed the acknowledgement memo in August. The memo “reminded” Kiriakou that all outgoing mail must be sent to the prison’s Special Investigative Service to be forwarded to the CIA’s Publication Review Board for approval.
Kiriakou was also threatened with “diesel therapy,” an illegal and highly-controversial means of dealing with undesirable prisoners by intentionally transporting them to the wrong prison, which — in the confusion — sends the prisoner to another prison, and so on. This causes the prisoner to be in restraints for 12 hours or more on a bus and in unfamiliar prisons, where the prisoner would have no telephone, mail or Internet privileges. This would also leave the prisoner in a virtual communication blackout, and the prisoner would suffer from extreme physical distress from being in one position under tight restraints for too long.
Kiriakou’s time at a halfway house has also been attacked. In exchange for a nine-month stay in a halfway house and/or under house arrest — which would take some of the pressure off of his wife, who is now the family’s sole wage-earner — Kiriakou agreed to stop sending out his “Letters from Loretto.” Despite the agreement, the prison only gave Kiriakou 86 days of supervised release — less than half of what he was promised.
The cost of protecting secrets
These issues may seem light compared to the fates of Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who faces a minimum of eight years in the maximum-security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, and Barrett Brown, who has been in prison for a year while awaiting trial and may face 100 more for his association with Anonymous, but the parallels are clear. There is a danger in a government that is willing to violate its own principles to protect its secrets.
“I’m one of the people the Obama administration charged with criminal espionage, one of those whose lives were torn apart by being accused, essentially, of betraying his country,” Kiriakou wrote in a March op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “The president and the attorney general have used the Espionage Act against more people than all other administrations combined, but not against real traitors and spies. The law has been applied selectively, often against whistle-blowers and others who expose illegal, corrupt government actions.”