Wednesday we celebrated Chelsea Manning’s release; last week another jailed whistleblower was in the Berlin spotlight: ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou. We met for a captivating talk about torture, terrorists, and sociopathic presidents. Not for the faint of heart!
John Kiriakou is the ex-CIA agent who exposed the Bush administration’s systematic use of torture against Al Qaeda prisoners in the aftermath of 9/11. He’s also the first CIA agent to have been jailed for leaking information to the press. He’s now a staunch civil rights crusader and a captivating storyteller – recounting his memories in books and conferences, replete with vivid details and memorable anecdotes.
In Berlin for a preview of his book Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, prior to a fascinating discussion at the Disruption Network Lab on May 12, Kiriakou met with us for a two-hour chat on the 50-plus hours he spent at the bedside of a most-wanted Al Qaeda man, the CIA’s dirty interrogation methods under Bush, Obama’s crackdown on whistleblowers and how the CIA taught him how to thrive in a US jail.
Here’s part one of the our chat with the “spy”. Check back next week for part two.
Let’s start with your new book about your two years in jail. Can you tell us how a CIA agent ends up in a cell with drug dealers?
It’s pretty straightforward, actually. I spent 15 years at the CIA. The first half of my career was in analysis, on the Middle East; the second half was in counter-terrorism operations. After September 11, I was the chief of CIA counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and, in that role, I led a series of raids that resulted in the capture of Abu Zubaydah and dozens of Al Qaeda fighters. When I returned to headquarters, I was asked if I wanted to be certified in the use of what they called “enhanced interrogation techniques” – I had never heard this term before, so I asked what it meant.
What professionals call ‘EIT’?
Yes, exactly. That’s what professionals who support the programme call it. I call it torture. As it turned out, they asked 14 of us if we wanted to be trained, and I was the only one who said “no”. So I was immediately cut out of that compartment; that means I no longer had access to the information.
So how did you end up finding out about the torture?
Because the capture of Abu Zubaydah was so important, I was promoted: I was named Executive Assistant to the Deputy Director of Operations, and I regained access to the information. So I learned that on August 1, 2002, the CIA began to torture Abu Zubaydah, relentlessly torture him – and it’s all documented now in the Senate Torture Report. To make a long story short: I objected to the torture, and was told to keep my mouth shut, which I did, for five-and-a-half years. Well, I left the CIA in 2004.
Why did you leave?
You know how people always say that they leave a job to spend more time with their family? I actually left so that I could spend more time with my family. I truly did. We had a war going in Afghanistan, a war going in Iraq, we had counter-terrorism operations all over the world. I was newly divorced at the time, my sons were nine and six at the time, and they needed their father.
So, the CIA was not good for your first marriage.
The CIA has the highest divorce rate of any organisation in the American government!
Not at all! Not. At. All. Oh my gosh, the CIA has the highest divorce rate of any organisation in the American government! You leave for a meeting at 3am, and you have to leave at 11pm because you have to drive around to make sure you’re not being followed, and then get home at 7 or 8am, and your wife says, where were you? And you say you were working. And she says, what was her name?
After leaving the CIA, you worked as a terrorism consultant for ABC News and on films as well, right? I heard some crazy stories about you trying to advise Sacha Baron Cohen on Bruno…
Sacha Baron Cohen said: I want to go to the Middle East, get in front of bonafide terrorists and I want to show them polaroids of men having gay sex.
Oh, he was craaaaazy. Fearless in an uninformed way – which I guess helps. The first time we met, he said, you know, I have this character Bruno. I want to go to the Middle East as him, get in front of bona-fide terrorists – Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, like real terrorists, show them polaroids of men having gay sex, and ask them if this constitutes “torture”, and if so, if we should send them to Guantanamo. And I said, that is a terrible idea – they’re not going to think this is funny at all.
So what did you propose instead?
I said, what about this: I can get in touch with some older men in the Middle East who were members of communist or nationalist terrorist groups in the 1960s and 1970s – they were shooting up airports and hijacking planes, all of this stuff. So he said, okay, let’s get them to Jordan.
What did you tell those old terrorists to get them to fly to Jordan?
I said it was an Austrian documentary and they want to talk about the Middle East peace process. So he’s meeting with these guys, and he shows them these graphic, hardcore gay sex polaroids. What he wanted was for them to jump across the table and choke him, beat him, and all they did was look at it and go tsk tsk tsk. “No, no, no… this is haram, this is no good.” That was it. The only time things turned violent is when he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, wearing pink women’s hot pants and a leather vest with no shirt underneath. A group of Jewish yeshiva students attacked him and beat him. But that was the only occurrence.
Finally, in 2007, you went public on the CIA torture programme on ABC News. The story was actually broken by the Times a day earlier. But you were the first CIA agent to publicly confirm it.
I said three things, in a nationally televised interview: I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners; I said that torture was official US government policy. It was not the result of a rogue, which is what President Bush had been telling people. And I said that the policy had been personally approved by the President. So, the very next day, I learn that the FBI had begun investigating me.
How did you know?
Two ways: they leaked it to CNN, and so I was reading CNN the next morning, and here is this article saying I am under investigation for “criminal disclosure of classified information”. And they sent a letter to my attorney saying I was under investigation. That lasted from December 2007 to December 2008, and then they closed that investigation, saying I had not committed a crime. What I did not know was that, three weeks later, when Barack Obama became president, the CIA secretly asked him to re-open the case against me. They investigated me for three more years, from January 2009 to January 2012; and finally in 2012, they charged me with five felonies: three counts of espionage, coming out of that original interview; one count of making a false statement, and one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. The first four were dropped.
In the end, you went to jail for disclosing the identity of an undercover agent.
Yes. I actually did that. There was a reporter who told me he was writing a book on the CIA’s rendition programme, and he sent me a list of names, but I said I don’t know any of these people. And he said, well can you introduce me to this man? Who you mention in the first book? I think his name is John. And I said, oh, you mean John Doe – he’s probably retired and living in Virginia somewhere. But I’d confirmed his last name, and that’s what they got me for. So I had no criminal intent to out this man. But the bottom line was – and we know this from the memos that the CIA sent to the Justice Department that were released to us for my defense – the CIA didn’t care about criminal intent. They were so angry that I had aired the dirty laundry in public that they wanted to make an example of me. We found a memo that the CIA wrote to the Justice Department, and it said: “Charge him with espionage.” And the Justice Department wrote back and said: but he hasn’t committed espionage.
So that’s the famous Espionage Act that’s been used so much by Barack Obama.
Yes, nine times. Three times as many as all previous presidents combined. So the Justice Department said this, and the CIA wrote back and said, charge him anyway and make him defend himself.
So you see it as a vindictive case.
Oh, yes. Without any doubt. I’m 100 percent sure of it.
What’s interesting is that originally on ABC News, you confirmed the use of torture but didn’t necessarily criticise it. You even said it might be needed.
I tried to explain that there were two separate issues here. One: was torture moral, ethical and legal? And I said, it was not. But there was a second question: did it work in getting information? Now, the only information I had was what I had read in CIA channels, and in CIA channels, they said that it had worked, and that Abu Zubaydah had cracked, and that he had provided this actionable intelligence. Back then I didn’t know it was a lie.
Times were different, right? This was just after 2001 and as [EIT developer] James Mitchell tried to rationalise later: the CIA was obsessed with 9/11 and the duty to protect the lives of Americans from another terrorism attack… So you had this urgency to find information.
Oh yeah. Bin Laden had told us that he was going to launch an attack that “will dwarf September 11”, and we were terrified this was going to take place. So, yes, there was an urgency. It wasn’t until 2009, when the CIA Inspector General’s Report was released, that I even realised that all of those reports that Mitchell was writing from the secret prison site, were just lies. The information was correct, but it had been gathered weeks earlier by Ali Soufan, who had just been sitting across the table from Abu Zubaydah, before there was any torture involved at all.
So it was before the CIA takeover.
Yes, it was before.
Can you tell me more about these 54 straight hours spent at the bedside of what you believed back then was a top Al Qaeda terrorist? Abu Zubaydah had been seriously wounded and brought to a Lahore hospital. What feelings did you go through sitting alone with him in the confinement of that hospital room, witnessing him battling against death?
We weren’t even sure that he was going to live that first night, he was so severely wounded; he had been shot by a Pakistani policeman. He was in a coma the first day and a half or so, and when he finally came out of it I said: “You know, I should hate you; I should want to kill you – and I don’t.” He was far younger than I thought, 29, 30. And he was bloody and dying and crying, and when he first came out of his coma, he was initially shocked. He looked at me and he realised, Oh my god, the Americans have me. And so his heart was beating so hard that he went into atrial fibrillation. They had to come in and shock him, and then they gave him a shot of demyrol and then he was out again for six hours. By the time he woke back up again, I had taken his sheet and tied him to the bed, because I was afraid I’d fall asleep – and that he was going to escape.
But what was your exact assignment: to sit there until…
The CIA office in Islamabad called me, and they said George Tennant, director of the CIA had called, and said: “24/7 CIA eyes-on. Do. Not. Leave. His. Bedside.” So, I sat there for 54 hours, just constantly drinking coffee and walking around the bed, trying to stay awake. There were mosquitos everywhere. And he was just soaked in blood. It was all over us. I put the fan on for as high as it would go just to blow the mosquitos off of him. After those six hours he finally woke up again and he was terrified, and like I said, he was tied to the bed, and he motioned for me to come next to him. He wanted to tell me something. So I removed his oxygen mask and I said to him in Arabic: “What is your name?” He said to me, in English, “I will not speak to you in God’s language.” And I said that’s okay…
So he spoke good English…
Beautiful English. But I said that’s okay, Abu Zubaydah, we know who you are. And he said: Please, brother, kill me. Take the pillow and kill me. And I said, no, nobody is going to kill you: we’ve been looking for you for a long time. You’re going to get the best medical care that the American government can provide. Which was true: we were flying in the chief of trauma surgeon from Johns Hopkins University medical center. He was very upset; he cried a lot. He said he would never know the touch of a woman, the joy of fatherhood. And I said to him: You’re not the victim here. There were 50,000 people in those towers. Did you think that we wouldn’t try to find you, to kill you, to capture you? Did you think that we wouldn’t try to kill Bin Laden. I said: You murdered 3000 people.
What was Abu Zubeyda’s actual involvement in 9/11?
Well, as it turned out, very little. Back then we thought he was the number three in Al Qaeda. He wasn’t. I mean, he was a bad guy. He was a logistician on behalf of Al Qaeda. He set up and managed the two training camps in southern Afghanistan. He managed the safehouse in Peshawar. He would screen recruits that were coming through Pakistan to see if they were good enough to become Al Qaeda fighters, but he never actually joined Al Qaeda, and he had nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing. So, as time passed, we talked more, we talked about our families, we talked about… he had written poetry; he recited poetry…
So your feelings towards him move from hatred and kind of pity to empathy, and then you end up talking man-to-man about your lives?
I said, I am the nicest guy that you are going to meet in this experience. So if there is one thing that you do, it’s that you have to cooperate. And Abu Zubaydah said: You seem like a nice man, but you’re the enemy, and I’ll never cooperate.
Oh yeah! We did. We talked about the differences between Christianity and Islam, about Shi-ism and Sun-ism. You know, normal intellectual conversations. Later, Abu Zubaydah became upset because he didn’t know what was going to happen. I said: I know a plane is coming, and I know they are going to take you somewhere. I have no idea where that is, or what they are going to do, but I’m going to give you a piece of advice. I said, I am the nicest guy that you are going to meet in this experience. So if there is one thing that you do, it’s that you have to cooperate. And he said: You seem like a nice man, but you’re the enemy, and I’ll never cooperate.
When did you see him last?
A plane landed at about 3am. I was standing next to his bed with three FBI agents and he asked me to hold his hand. We carried him out to the the plane. He was bleeding so profusely – these wounds were so severe that they were pumping blood into him and as fast as they pumping blood into him, it was leaking out of the wounds. It was like a scene from a horror movie. So I held his hand, we carried him out on the gurney, we maneuvered him into the plane, put him on the luggage rack in the back, tied him down. And I told him good luck, but remember what I said, you have to cooperate. And that was the last time I saw him.
Sounds like a weird bubble in time? How do you look back at it?
You know, this was 15 years ago and I think about it every single day. It was the defining event of my adult life. I didn’t realise it at the time.
In which way?
I think because I came to understand my own humanity. I mean, I had colleagues who were gladly travelling around the world and killing people. And that wasn’t me. I ought to hate that man and I ought to want to kill him; but I don’t.
So you are a bit of a ‘softie’, not ready to do what it takes to fight terorrism – at least, according to CIA’s reasoning that you need to fight empathy and do what’s needed to get intelligence and save American lives.
I hate the FBI. And I hate what the FBI did to me, and its like a kick in my stomach to have to compliment them. But the FBI is really good at interrogation. And they never touch a person.
No, because to me that’s not real intelligence. Listen, I hate the FBI. And I hate what the FBI did to me, and its like a kick in my stomach to have to compliment them. But the FBI is really good at interrogation. And they never touch a person. What they do is sit across the table from you and establish a relationship. Would you like a cigarette? Would you like something to drink? Here’s a bowl of fruit that we put on the table. And they establish a rapport. And sometimes it takes weeks, or months. But you know what, they succeed, and you end up giving them information. Abu Zubaydah was a hardened terrorist, and he ended up giving Ali Soufan actionable intelligence that disrupted attacks.
He was interrogated by the FBI first, right? Your colleagues at the CIA must have been pretty unhappy about that!
Yes! And that’s a story in it of itself. The FBI was given primacy because the CIA has no trained interrogators. The decision came from the White House. And they were furious. Furious. So here comes Ali Soufan, who’s a good guy, but he’s kind of arrogant. You know: he’s Lebanese-American and he’s smarter than you are. So it’s him and Abu Zubaydah at the table, with another 20 CIA people standing around the edges of the room, not speaking. Well Abu was answering questions like “If I wanted to do an attack in Hamburg, how would I do that?” And Abu Zubaydah said: Well, there’s this guy Mohammed and this is his phone number, and he has a friend Abdallah…
So he would give names, cooperate?
Yeah, he was cooperative. But when Ali sent it in, the CIA was furious. Because, remember, they think this giant attack in New York or Washington is coming, and we’re talking about Hamburg, about Milan. So George Tennent went to the White House and told President Bush, this interrogation is not working; we’re not getting any real information that we can use. We want you to order the FBI out, and we want the CIA to take over. And for whatever reason, George Bush did that. So on August 1, 2002 the CIA took over and immediately began waterboarding. Within hours he was choking and had a seizure.
But so back then in 2007, when you were on TV, you were not aware about the whole thing. What you said back then was that you thought he was waterboarded just once and he gave his information right away – vindicating the idea that waterboarding worked out.
And that made them torture him more. Eighty-three times. And it wasn’t just waterboarding – it was other things. Like we knew he had an irrational fear of bugs. So they put him in a dog cage, and they put cockroaches in the cage with him, just to make him crazy.
Well, the reason why I said that is because after they waterboarded him and his heart stopped and they had to revive him, James Mitchell wrote a cable, saying, “We did it, it worked, here’s the information.” But the information that Mitchell wrote was what Ali Soufan had collected, that was only in the FBI channels. He put it in CIA channels and said that we got it. It was all a lie. But we didn’t know this until 2009. In reality, as soon as they started torturing him, he stopped talking. And that made them torture him more. Over and over and over again. Eighty-three times. And it wasn’t just that – it was other things. Like, we knew he had an irrational fear of bugs. So they put him in a dog cage, and they put cockroaches in the cage with him, just to make him crazy.
Reminiscent of 1984, you know the scene?
It is. There was also sleep deprivation. He was naked for months – they kept him naked, just to humiliate him. They did all sorts of different kinds of things to him.
And when did the torture finally stop?
Well, it stopped, and then it started again. In the end, it was a disaster. He really didn’t give us any actionable intelligence. And then they began moving him, from country to country to country to country, and finally ending up in Guantanamo. He’s been there about 12 years now.
And still no trial?
The Constitution says that you are entitled to face your accusers in a court of law. But the CIA cannot allow that to happen, because he was tortured. So anything he said under torture is inadmissible in court which means, if he were to go to court, he would probably be found not guilty, and be released. With Abu Zubaydah, the torture stopped in 2005, so he was tortured for three years, but there were other prisoners, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.
As finally acknowledged by a Senate report released to the public in 2014, these “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not only wrong but worthless. They were banned by Obama in 2009, but you’ve said he refused to look into what had happened, or investigate abuses committed by the CIA.
Yeah, it was greatly disappointing to the human’s rights community in the United States. He said, we want to look forward, not backward; but what I don’t understand is why there was no investigation and no prosecution of the people who knew better. Of the leaders of the CIA. Of the attorneys who tried to justify it. Of the CIA official who destroyed the evidence of the torture. What about these CIA officers who murdered suspects in custody? Where is the justice for those people?
Let me add something, because that really is an important issue. In January 1968, the Washington Post ran a front page photograph of an American soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. The day that photograph was published, the Secretary of Defense ordered an investigation, and the soldier was arrested, he was charged with torture and convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But the law never changed! We still have the same law from 1946, so why…
Well, then the trauma of 9/11 happened in between…
But the law didn’t change. I suppose reasonable people can agree to disagree. But if you want to torture somebody, change the law and make it legal! Because as it stands now, I don’t care what the Bush Justice Deptaprtment says, as it stands now, torture is illegal, was illegal, and the torturers were committing crimes.
President Obama didn’t only refuse to investigate CIA torture crimes, he started to really crack down on whistleblowers in general. How do you explain that?
Barack Obama was talking about the drone program and said, I never knew I was so good at killing people. I think that he’s a sociopath. And I think that he is unable to feel empathy, is unable to be sympathetic.
I’ve struggled with that question for years now. It’s easy to blame Eric Holder. Because he was militant in his pursuit of national security leaks. But, you know, I still have friends who were at the CIA with me and who went to the Obama White House – and they told me that President Obama had a Nixon-like obsession with leaks. That makes sense to me. In a book that came out in 2013 called Double Down, two political journalists interviewed Obama and he said two things that just shocked me. One, and very matter-of-factly, he said: I never said I was a liberal. Like we were the stupid ones because we thought he was a liberal. In fact, he was not; he was very conservative. And two, he was talking about the drone programme and said, I never knew I was so good at killing people. I think that he’s a sociopath. And I think that he is unable to feel empathy, is unable to be sympathetic…
But he was sympathetic about torture…
Not necessarily. I think he saw it strictly as a legal issue. Remember, he’s a constitutional lawyer. Also by that point it was a big scandal – and it was an easy way for him to come out looking like the good guy.
I guess this is where you would agree with James Mitchell, because he said: you’re getting on our case for waterboarding, but look at what President Obama is doing with drones; going to a wedding ceremony and killing one bad guy, and his whole family…
I can’t tell you how many weddings we bombed because somebody was wearing white and was tall. They said: “It has to be Osama bin Laden!” And we would fire a hellfire missile and blow up the whole wedding and it was just some innocent wedding.
Yes, the whole family. I can’t tell you how many weddings we bombed because somebody was wearing white and was tall. They said: “It has to be Osama bin Laden!” And we would fire a hellfire missile and blow up the whole wedding and it was just some innocent wedding. I can’t tell you how many times that happened. So yeah, I actually have to agree with James Mitchell on that issue, unfortunately.
Since we’re reviewing presidents, what can you really expect from President Trump on these issue? He definitely said that waterboarding terrorists was okay and if it were up to him, it could be a lot worse.
“A hell of a lot worse,” he said. Listen…I think Trump is a madman; he’s impulsive; he’s not very bright; and he doesn’t take advice from anybody. He just acts off the cuff with whatever pops into his mind at any given moment. And I was shocked when he said that about waterboarding because I cannot recall a presidential candidate promising to commit a crime, an impeachable offense, if he’s elected president. But then when he began interviewing people for the Cabinet, General Mattis, who became the Secretary of Defense, said that torture just doesn’t work. He didn’t say that it was immoral, or illegal; he just said that it didn’t work, that I’d rather offer the guy a cigarette than waterboard him. General Kelly, who became the Secretary of Homeland Security, said the same thing. So I’d like to think that these guys are the adults in the room, and are able to tell him, don’t do that. And the bottom line is that the 1946 torture act we’re signatories on is clear. Actually, we were the drafters of the International Convention Against Torture.
But as you said yourself – torture was illegal under Bush. This didn’t prevent the CIA from resorting to it…
In 2016 we passed the McCain-Feinstein Amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act which formally banned torture and said that national security interrogations had to follow the army field manual. But the army field manual belongs to the army, and the army belongs to the executive branch, and Donald Trump is the head of the executive branch. So if he wants to torture people all he has to do is change the manual. He could do it with the stroke of a pen. He hasn’t yet and I would like to think that there would be a public outcry if he did. So our ban on torture is not such a tough and strong ban as we think it is, it can be changed. And it won’t require an act of Congress.
And what about pursuing whistleblowers? Chelsea Manning has finally been released, but CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling is in solitary confinement now and you are pretty actively campaigning for his release. How do you see this evolving, this crackdown on whistleblowers?
Great question. With Trump we’re just simply not sure yet. He has called whistleblowers “low-life leakers”, but he says a lot of stupid things and doesn’t follow up on them. So I think the jury’s still out. Frankly, because we haven’t really had a national security whistleblower yet that’s gone public. We have Vault 7, we think it’s a CIA officer or CIA contractor.
With the release of Chelsea Manning, who’s appealing her Espionage Act convictions, do you see hope for prosecuted whistleblowers?
There is some real optimism, not necessarily that we’re going to win at the appeals court level, but no matter what happens it’s going to the Supreme Court for the first time in history. Now that Trump named somebody to the Supreme Court it’s more of a question mark, but I think the Espionage Act is unconstitutionally broad and vague. I think it needs to be rewritten, and maybe we have a chance to get these Espionage Act charges against whistleblowers thrown out.
But do you agree that some classified information needs to remain classified? Say… you’re not happy with your boss, he fires you and the next thing you do is you leak information.
That’s leaking; that’s not whistleblowing.
This is a grey area between leaking and whistleblowing.
Not necessarily. First, it’s against the law to classify a crime. So if the CIA is doing a torture programme – torture is a violation of international law – it is illegal to make that information classified. Number two, and this is a problem with the Espionage Act, is that there is no affirmative defence. Your defence cannot be ‘I leaked it in the national interest.’ Whistleblowers are bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to public health or public safety – it’s not just leaking anything. That needs to be written into the Espionage Act. Plus, we have a whistleblower protection law in the United States, but national security whistleblowers are exempt from its coverage. So if you work for the Department of Agriculture and you blow the whistle you’re a big hero and you’re going to get a cash settlement – if you’re with the CIA, FBI, NSA, DOD or Homeland Security you’re going to go to prison, probably under the Espionage Act. And that’s not justice.
An article in The New Yorker made an interesting point about this idea of “classified information”. Apparently under Obama, they classified more documents than ever before, which makes it easier to ‘leak’… and then officials leak all the time, without people noticing and without being prosecuted. Your example shows that if they have a grudge against you, they’re going to dig and dig until they find something you disclosed somehow. Chances are that if you blew the whistle, in one way or another you leaked something. Like in Snowden’s case – there were some leaks as collateral damage, right?
I want the NSA to intercept Angela Merkel’s cellphone! It’s fine! Every country does that.
My overall opinion is that Snowden is a national hero. Because without his information we would have no idea that our government was spying on us. With that said, there is a lot that he said that I would not have said. For example, I love Germany and Berlin is one of my favourite places in the world. But I want the NSA to intercept Angela Merkel’s cellphone! It’s fine! Every country does that. That’s how you’re able to verify whether your friends are telling you the truth. That’s what intelligence services do. So I wouldn’t have disclosed everything that Edward Snowden did, but all in all I’m glad that he did what he did.
Do you think that Ed Snowden should come back and face trial?
No, in fact I’ve told him that he should not come home. Because he would not get a fair trial. All of us with national security cases are charged in the eastern district of Virginia. And in fact we all get the same judge, Judge Leonie Brinkema. She did me, she did Jeffrey Sterling, she reserved Snowden for herself, the rumour is that she has reserved Julian Assange for herself. No national security defendant has ever won a case in her courtroom.
She even went on the record that she thought that your sentence was too lenient.
When I accepted a guilty plea in October of 2012 and came to an agreement with the prosecution for 30 months in prison, she said 30 months, and these were her exact words, 30 months is fair and appropriate.
So how do you explain her change of opinion?
Very easily, because at the formal sentencing in January the courtroom was packed with every journalist in Washington, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the foreign press, packed. And she wanted to get her name in the paper because she’s a big tough judge. I told that to Snowden, You’re not going to get a fair trial from Leonie Brinkema. You may think that you have a deal with the Justice Department when you come back but whatever you think that deal is, she’s going to give you 40 years in prison and you’re going to die in prison.
So you think it’s better for him to stay in Russia?
I do. Like I say, I’ve strongly urged him to stay there until he gets some kind of executive leniency. Any president could sign an order saying ‘consider his exile in Moscow time served’, just come back. But in exchange you have to brief the NSA on how you did it. Something.
Actually, any head of state could give him asylum.
Who’s going to take the risk of angering Donald Trump? But yeah, any head of state can do it. And ought to do it. Berlin seems like a really perfect place for somebody like Ed Snowden.
Check next week’s Exberliner Weekly newsletter (sign up here) for part two.