A former CIA officer was charged under the Espionage Act on Monday with disclosing classified information to journalists, the latest prosecution in an unprecedented Obama administration crackdown on national security leaks.
If convicted, John Kiriakou could face decades in prison. He is accused of providing secrets, including the name and activities of one of his undercover colleagues, to unidentified reporters, according to a federal criminal complaint. One of the journalists is alleged to have turned over the name of the covert CIA officer to lawyers representing a Guantanamo Bay prisoner.
Separately, Kiriakou is accused of giving another reporter — whom the complaint makes clear is Scott Shane of the New York Times — information that Shane used in a 2008 story that identified CIA analyst Deuce Martinez as a key figure in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda logistics chief who was subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding. Martinez was not working undercover, but his role was classified. The New York Times had no comment, spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said.
At a hearing in Alexandria, Va., on Monday, a federal judge ordered Kiriakou released on a $250,000 unsecured bond. Kiriakou’s attorney, Plato Cacheris, said afterward that the defense may argue that the charges criminalize conduct that has been common between reporters and government sources for decades.
The lawyers and their investigators, including attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, did not break the law, the Justice Department said. No reporters were charged either.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero called the investigation “incredibly troubling” and said it would have a chilling effect on reporters, whistle-blowers and defense lawyers. Romero criticized “the fact that the government continues to investigate those who research and report on the individuals who committed torture and yet don’t prosecute those who undertook that torture.”
The complaint refers to emails from Kiriakou to journalists in which he discloses classified information, including the name of a CIA employee identified as “Covert Officer A.” When interviewed on Jan. 12 by FBI agents who recorded the session, Kiriakou denied doing so, the document says.
Kiriakou is also accused of trying to include classified information in his memoir by lying to the CIA’s Publication Review Board, which reviews and approves all written material by former CIA officers. The book, published in 2010, was titled, “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.”
The case against Kiriakou marks the fifth time since President Obama took office that charges of violating the Espionage Act have been leveled against current or former government officials who allegedly leaked information to journalists — a crackdown unmatched in any previous administration, said Steven Aftergood, who follows the intelligence community for the Federation of American Scientists.
Another former CIA officer, Jeffrey Sterling, is accused of leaking information to a New York Times reporter, and a State Department official, Stephen Kim, is charged with leaking information about North Korea to Fox News. An FBI translator, Shamai Leibowitz, was accused of leaking to a blogger. After pleading guilty in 2010, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
A sixth defendant, Bradley Manning, has been charged in connection with alleged disclosure of documents to the website Wikileaks.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus said he supported the Kiriakou investigation. “Unauthorized disclosures of any sort — including information concerning the identities of other agency officers — betray the public trust, our country and our colleagues,” he said in a statement.
Aftergood and other skeptics of official secrecy questioned how the government could use the Espionage Act to prosecute people who were not spying, but allegedly providing information to reporters.
“What’s missing from all these cases is any allegation that these people have actually caused harm to the United States,” said Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, which represented former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake in an Espionage Act case that collapsed last year.
Kiriakou is charged with two counts of violating the Espionage Act, each of which carry a prison term of up to 10 years; one count of making false statements, which carries a maximum five years in prison; and one count of illegally disclosing a covert officer’s name, which carries a sentence of up to five years that must be served in addition to any other prison sentence.
Kiriakou, 47, worked for the CIA from 1990 to 2004 and supervised a 2002 raid in Pakistan that captured Abu Zubaydah, believed to be an important Al Qaeda figure. In 2007, Kiriakou said in a television interview that Zubaydah began cooperating after one waterboarding session. In fact, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times before cooperating.
The Kiriakou investigation was led by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who in 2007 successfully prosecuted former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in connection with his disclosure to journalists the name of Valerie Plame, then a covert CIA officer. Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to 30 months in prison, but President George W. Bush commuted the sentence.