CIA Man Retracts Claim on Waterboarding

A study in "enhanced reporting techniques."

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Well, it's official now: John Kiriakou, the former CIA operative who affirmed claims that waterboarding quickly unloosed the tongues of hard-core terrorists, says he didn't know what he was talking about.

Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the agency's intelligence analysis and operations directorates, electrified the hand-wringing national debate over torture in December 2007 when he told ABC's Brian Ross and Richard Esposito  in a much ballyhooed, exclusive interview that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water.

"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

Well, it’s official now: John Kiriakou, the former CIA operative who affirmed claims that waterboarding quickly unloosed the tongues of hard-core terrorists, says he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the agency’s intelligence analysis and operations directorates, electrified the hand-wringing national debate over torture in December 2007 when he told ABC’s Brian Ross and Richard Esposito  in a much ballyhooed, exclusive interview that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water.

"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

No matter that Kiriakou wearily said he shared the anguish of millions of Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, over the CIA’s application of the medieval confession technique.

The point was that it worked.  And the pro-torture camp was quick to pick up on Kiriakou’s claim.

"It works, is the bottom line," conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh exclaimed on his radio show the day after Kiriakou’s ABC interview. "Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works."

A cascade of similar acclamations followed, muffling — to this day — the later revelation that Zubaydah had in fact been waterboarded at least 83 times.

Had Kiriakou left out something the first time?

Now comes John Kiriakou, again, with a wholly different story. 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 a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.

"Now we know," Kiriakou goes on, "that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied."

Indeed. But after his one-paragraph confession, Kiriakou adds that he didn’t have any first hand knowledge of anything relating to CIA torture routines, and still doesn’t. And he claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: "In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own."

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano dodged that mud ball.

"While I haven’t read John’s book, the line about deception doesn’t make any sense," Gimigliano told me last week. "He apparently didn’t know as much as he thought he did.  That’s a very different matter."

Some time ago, as it turns out, ABC quietly "updated" the story. A few paragraphs down on the front page of the website version of its Kiriakou yarn, it says, "see endnote."

A click or two later, Kiriakou, who later went to work for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, explains to readers:

"When I spoke to ABC News in December 2007 I was aware of Abu Zubaydah being water boarded on one occasion. It was after this one occasion that he revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack. As I said in the original interview, my information was second-hand. I never participated in the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner, nor did I witness the use of such techniques."

Kiriakou’s insistence, however vague, that Zubaydah "revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack" has to be taken with a soupçon of salt.

As Brian Stelter, a New York Times media reporter, wrote last April, Kiriakou "was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the C.I.A. headquarters in Northern Virginia. He learned about it only by reading accounts from the field."

ABC’s Ross had glossed over the glaring fact in its broadcast, saying only that Kiriakou himself "never carried out any of the waterboarding" — which got lost in the telling, in light of the main story line picked up by the rest of the media.

ABC has now removed the video of its Kiriakou interview from its site. But the headline, large photo of the CIA man, and story remain, with its opening paragraph, "A leader of the CIA team that captured the first major al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah, says subjecting him to waterboarding was torture but necessary." You have to dig deep to find that none of it is true.

Comments on the piece were closed last May, with a representative stating, "[I]n times of war, those on the front line make very tough decisions and the rights of the accused are not the ones they defend first."

After Kiriakou repeated his waterboarding-efficiency claims to the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and other media organizations last year, a CNN anchor called him "the man of the hour."

By some measure, evidently, he still is.

<p> Jeff Stein, the Washington Post's former SpyTalk blogger, is a longtime Washington editor and reporter. He wrote about the Abu Omar case for Foreign Policy in November 2009. </p>

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