Forever Wars Robert Scheer SI Podcast

John Kiriakou: A Traitor to Torture

Those who invented America's torture program were promoted and protected by presidents of both parties. Only the whistleblower was prosecuted. This is his story.

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Once upon a time, a keystone of American exceptionalism was the claim of a moral high ground when it came to how our forces operated abroad, in war or peace, especially when it came to the use of torture, that hallmark of enemies we stamped as evil, primitive and sadistic. The ends were not supposed to justify the means, lest we be no better than our rivals and predecessors. 

Yet, within months of the 9/11 attacks, frustration with the interrogation of a single alleged enemy agent led to the creation of a sprawling, global CIA-run torture program using violence, sleep deprivation and isolation on more than 100 men. While the program was eventually outlawed and deemed a massive strategic and moral failure, nobody was held legally accountable — except, in a terrible irony, a whistleblower who risked everything to expose it. 

Nearly two decades after US taxpayer dollars began paying, against all international law, to waterboard, beat, freeze, shackle, and isolate humans in boxes not much bigger than their bodies, the only person who has been prosecuted is John Kiriakou, a former analyst and case officer for the CIA, who served 23 months in federal prison for telling reporters the truth — after being prosecuted by a Democratic administration which actually promoted the torturers. 

In this week’s installment of the Scheer Intelligence podcast, host Robert Scheer hears from Kiriakou the inside story of how the the program started as part of a cynical power struggle between the CIA and FBI, why torture does not save lives or secure better intelligence, and how, while the program was started under Republican President George W. Bush, it was a top appointee of President Obama, himself a key architect of the torture program, who chose to prosecute him five years after his interviews with ABC which should have made him a national hero instead of a disgraced felon. 

The discussion also reveals how much is still unknown about the torture program, and how much bipartisan work has been done to repress a full accounting of it. What we do know, however, is horrifying, as Kiriakou details with many examples of practices that often led to madness, death and permanent disability:

“You know, people begin undergoing organ failure with no sleep. The CIA was authorized to keep people awake for 14 days beyond the point of [risk of death]. That was one technique. Another was called the cold cell, where you’re chained to this bolt in the ceiling and you’re naked, and your cell is chilled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And every hour a CIA officer goes into your cell and throws a bucket of ice water on you. We killed people with that technique.”

The conversation also explores the highly selective and self-serving choices the US government makes in who is prosecuted for leaking government secrets, including the shocking case of Gen. David Petraeus, who gloated when Kiriakou was convicted but himself had leaked classified information to his biographer (with whom he was having an affair), including the identities of ten covert CIA officers, but suffered minimal repercussions

“[Petraeus] had given her access to the black books, which are literally the most highly classified documents produced by the Central Intelligence Agency,” said Kiriakou. “And what did he get? He got 18 months of unsupervised probation, a misdemeanor, and at sentencing, the judge came down from the bench to shake his hand and thank him for his service to the country.”

Even before he left the CIA and became a whistleblower, it became clear to him that having a conscience and belief in the law were detriments to advancement. He tells the story of how, despite having been lauded for capturing the “number three in Al-Qaeda” he was passed over for a promotion; he was later told it was because he was the only one of 14 agents recruited for the torture program who had deemed it immoral, unethical and illegal.

Those who would eventually participate were otherwise highly-educated, successful people — as Scheer notes, the same so-called “Best and the Brightest” who engineered the disastrous war in Vietnam. 

“That’s right,” agrees Kiriakou. “These were friends of mine. Our wives were friends. Our children played together and here they turned out to be monsters, monsters. Murderers in some cases.” 


Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer


  1. The best and brightest are now proudly participating in the torture programs of the war on bioterrorism, collaborating with Nazi medicine to turn the whole world into a concentration camp. You’d be lucky to find one traitor among their ranks to crimes against humanity.

  2. Hindsite is golden. I voted for Obama. Twice. So many of our veterans have committed suicide. I am nauseated with the realities and my anger level is off the charts. Most of my anger, perhaps, comes from feeling insignificant and helpless to know what in the H to do. Even if we were to execute all of the major players, in all countries involved, 10 more will spring up to take their place. And no, don’t throw religious jargon at me for an answer.



      RED. WHITE. and BLUE

      You cannot take a surface to air missile
      In CARRY ON.


    2. As much as I respect Bob Scheer and listen weekly, even he has limits as to what he is willng to discuss, like Obama’s CIA ties (Business International Corp), Obama’s parents CIA ties (stepfather worked for Gen Suharto), and his maternal granparents ties as well. The birther bs was a convenient diversion from the more disturbing truth. Oh, and Obama’s mother worked for Timothy Geitner’s father, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that TG was appointed as Sec of the Treasury. Hmmm, why does nobody tell the truth about Obama’s history?




        THEY do what they DO !

        In silence …. Both sides.

  3. “Those who invented America’s torture program were promoted and protected and well rewarded by presidents of both parties. Only the whistleblower was prosecuted.”

  4. We shouldn’t need “whistleblowers” to “shine a light” on what our government is doing in our name. The “light” should always be ON, It’s the duty of our lavishly paid “elected representatives” to keep us informed of what our government is doing in our name—not persecuted for revealing the truth about what’s actually going on.

  5. Our torture program is when we became the terrorists. The victims and their families and friends will never forget or forgive us, and rightfully so. Torture is more than a blemish on American history. It will forever identify our nation as being susceptible to hubris and folly.

  6. We have no right to talk trash on Russian or Chinese human right practices ! THE 911 WAR IS A FAKE ! The captured men did not blow the towers ! The filthy rich Bin Ladin FAMILY from Saudi Arabia ARE GUILTY! And our WEAPON WAR BUSH CHENEY MACHINE made billions in the 20 year FAKE WAG THE DOG WAR ! Dumb Trump blurted out “we kill people too” when compared to Russia… HE IS RIGHT ! He’s an idiot but he blurted out THE BIG SECRETS FOR FOUR YEARS. NOBODY BELIEVED HIM BECAUSE HE IS SO FULL OF BS !

    1. IMHO I think it is a mistake to blame the Saudis as the primary perpetrators of 9/11. They were complicit in what was an inside job choreographed by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their cabal- a select few in the CIA and Pentagon with the particular skills and need to know. I also wonder whether the Mossad had more than prior knowledge of the attack or were also complicit- e.g., in wiring the three WTC buildings. As for Bin Laden- he may have cheered after the attack – but there was never any evidence that he was involved – nor was any offered to the Taliban, who demanded it for a show of probable cause before they would allow him to be extradited. And now from a recent Dan Rather report we learn that he wasn’t even in Afghanistan, but was in a Pakistani hospital.

      The perpetrators of this fraud and its terrible consequences over the past twenty years should be tried and, if convicted, then executed, as was done to the worst of the Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg Tribunals.

      1. Worse than that. At least seven of the “hijackers” survived, protesting their innocence.

        And the FBI Director at the time? Robert Mueller, investigator extraordinaire. Later tasked with investigating Russiagate which he got right only to the extent that he didn’t follow the right leads. Oleg Deripaska.

  7. To think that these people in charge of us are considered civilized, a model for other countries to follow, even Christians who denigrate others for their religion.

  8. The torture continues .
    Australian citizen and journalist/publisher Julian Assange still in prison in UK pending appeal by the US against the decision by British Court not to extradite him to the US and a possible 175 years in maximum security prison ,

  9. John –
    As an attorney, I was shocked (yeah, I know, I shouldn’t be shocked by anything regarding these issues) that the judge in the Petraeus case came off the bench to shake his hand. Do we know if anyone filed a complaint against this judge for obvious judicial misconduct?

    Keep up the good work.
    Larry McGovern (brother of Ray McGovern)

  10. Sadly, the tenor of this post and comments is extremely myopic, might give one the impression that CIA operatives and contractors were a bunch of upstanding choir boys before 9/11 or that torture suddenly became the new game in town for this agency. Ever since the CIA betrayed its original honorable mission statement of intelligence gathering long, long ago it has been a deadly rogue agency full of immoral operatives that one can only describe as murderers pretty much on par with Nazi war criminals. The agency has been directly involved in the torture, murder, and assassination of thousands of left wing political figures, reporters, idealists and activists in hundreds of countries across the world but especially in South and Central America either directly pulling the trigger or training and funding those that did. If anyone has heard of operation Condor or operation Phoenix they can fill in the brutal, horrific details of the CIAs dirty, dirty history of so called “covert operations”, sadly these recent revelations are just the latest chapter in a long and sordid saga, so please get some perspective. The CIA has been the closest advisor, active collaborator and mentor of the most repressive, blood thirsty, right wing dictatorships, Chile, Argentina, Gautamala and countless others, has trained and funded with US taxpayer money right wing death squads in Central America that have committed what can only be described as genocide, murdering thousands of innocent villagers in wholesale slaughters. Today, immigrants are fleeing the south and central american countries that the CIA has turned into cruel, brutal, murdering, corrupt oppressive dictatorships (overthrowing the democratically elected Arbenz in Guatamala because he dared challenge the feudal exploitation and rape of his country by the US United Fruit Co, seems our biggest contribution was teaching death squads the art of torture), not to mention that the CIA has turned these countries into lawless narco-states, also suffering from climate change etc. Without question in the last 70 years the CIA has been the biggest promoter of illegal drugs in the world (CIA-supplied contra planes and pilots carried cocaine from Central America to U.S. airports and military bases) the CIAs involvement with Laotian general, Vang Pao in heroing trafficking is the direct cause of almost 30% of US troops in Vietnam becoming heroin addicts.

    1. I don’t think there is a snowball chance in hell that Robert Scheer, who was the editor of Ramparts who 55 years ago exposed the CIA’s infilitration of universities, role in Vietnam, etc. is naive about the agency. Perhaps Kiriakou was, and certainly it is a rare thing to be the type to join the CIA but then later draw a moral line in the sand.

      1. I find the moderators response to my comment completely misplaced postulating some kind of ad hominum attack on the presumed ignorance of Mr Scheer. I have no doubt that Mr. Scheer (whom I have the greatest respect for) knows as much if not more about the past unsavory history of the CIA as I do. I also have no doubt that a lot of readers of this site are not as well informed as to the long horrific history of this rogue agency and so might not realize that the extreme depravity of the CIA described here is not a relatively new phenomena, not by a long shot, sick, bloody Gina who gets her kicks watching prisoners being horribly tortured is just the latest manifestation of a long line of CIA Gestapo like henchmen without a shred of moral conscience who have committed heinous crimes against humanity (not least of which is the indiscriminate slaughter of 100s of 1000s of innocents) and would certainly be convicted if put up for trial in the ICC. I do have serious doubts that Kiriakou ever bothered to really inform himself about the nauseating history of the agency he so gleefully joined, the details of the innumerable crimes against humanity of the CIA have been publically available for a long time. It would not have been misplaced to put the Kiriakou revelations in some historical context to make it clear that bloody Gina, or gung-ho torturing Brennan are not just a recent aberration in the deplorable history of this agency.

  11. Attacking whistleblowers reminds me of a statement I heard years ago about the Nuremburg trials as “the guilty convicting the guilty” but of course our war crimes weren’t war crimes because our men “were only following orders”, but I guess when said in German thats not a good enough excuse for them. Jailing and prosecuting whistle blowers should be a war crime in itself after all “following orders” has been accepted in the Nuremburg trials as no excuse! The hypocracy of Obama is sickening and I too was fooled by his charisma. P.S. When they charged the soldiers at Abu Grab the only thing done to stop it was to ban cameras, see no speak no say no should be the US Army’s motto!

  12. Truth is the most dangerous substance in the universe –
    dangerous to those who seek it and to those who want
    to conceal it.

    I always thought that Obama was a three dollar bill.
    His famous 2004 speech was fluff devoid of content.
    His true nature was revealed when he started to say,
    “We have to put all that behind us.” It was obvious at that
    time that this meant that we were going to put it all in
    front of us. Many were seduced by the aura. And here
    we are today.

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