Last week we brought you part one of our chat with ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou. Now fresh after the German release of his newest book, Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, we wrap up the serial with a chat on his time dealing with the Italian mob and neo-Nazis in a US federal prison.
On January 25, 2013, six years after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”, Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing classified information to a journalist. He ended up serving 23 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania.
Kiriakou met with Exberliner‘s Ruth Schneider while in Berlin for a preview of his book at the Disruption Network Lab.
This is part two of our chat with John Kiriakou. Check out part one here.
Let’s talk about your newest book. The title says the CIA taught you not only to survive, but to “thrive” in prison… So you were prepared before you got there?
In the prison context, yes, I did. I was there from February 28, 2013 to February 3, 2015 – so just over 23 months. My lawyers asked the judge to send me to a minimum security work camp. At the camp, there are no bars on the windows, there is no fence, you are free to come and go as you please, you can work in the town. You just have to promise you’re not going to run away. And the judge agreed.
Now there is always a camp next to a higher security prison because if there is a riot in the prison, the people in the camp have to take over and do the laundry, the cooking, clean the floors, all these things. So I went up to the prison and I turned myself in. The cop takes me out the door and we start going around to the back. I said, “No, I’m supposed to be at the camp across the street” and he says, “Ha! Not according to my paperwork, you’re not!” There was nothing I could do, so I just tried to relax. It took me five days before I got access to the phone. I called my attorney and I told him they put me in the actual prison with the murderers and the paedophiles and the drug kingpins. He told me that we could file a motion but it’d be two years before we got a hearing. I’d be home by then. “You’ll have to tough it out,” he said. Once I got over the initial shock, I decided, well, I’m trained for this. I’ve lived in Yemen.
So you had to share a cell?
There were six men in a four-man cell. We have a terrible overcrowding problem in American prisons. There were two “chomos” – child molesters – two drug dealers, and the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, who was in on a corruption charge.
A nice cross-section!
The drug dealers were great and the mayor was one of my best friends, but the child molestors… that was a problem. You’ll see in the book, the stories are horrific.
I got a job in the prison library. My first day working there, the leader of the janitorial crew was about my age and he said “How much time do you have?” I said “Thirty months. You?” He told me 22 years. And so of course I asked him what he did. “Well, I like to masturbate looking at pictures of dead children and I have a friend who works at the morgue…”
Maybe he needs psychological help.
They all do. But there is no psychological help in American prisons. That’s one of the problems.
So is prison really as hardcore as American TV likes to present it? What was the worst part?
What saved me was that I had ready access to the media. The guards realised that if they fucked with me, they were gonna have CNN standing next to their car when they go out after their shift.
The single most difficult thing was the prison guards. They’re corrupt, they’re stupid, they’re violent and they’re constantly trying to get you to lash out at them so they can send you to solitary. Or they try to get you to fight other prisoners, or they try to set you up, plant things in your locker, for example. What saved me was that I had ready access to the media. And when I started writing this blog series, “Letters from Loretto”, CNN, 60 Minutes and the BBC came to the prison, so they realised that if they fucked with me, they were gonna have CNN standing next to their car when they go out after their shift.
So the publicity around your case helped you?
I think it kept me safe. I never turned down a press interview because the more I got my story out there, the safer I became inside. I’ll tell you about one incident that really captures this. I had written an open letter to Ed Snowden and it went viral. It got more than two million hits. After that, one friendly guard came up to me, and he kind of liked that I was famous and he said “Listen, they’re talking about putting you in diesel therapy.” That would have meant getting sent to the penitentiary in Kanen, Pennsylvania, which is a transportation hub for the east, sitting there for three weeks or three months, then on to Oklahoma City; Yankton, South Dakota; Lompoc, California… they basically keep you in transit status until the end of your sentence, so you have no access to a telephone, email or pen and paper. Nobody will know where you are, nobody will be able to hear from you, you’ll just be lost in the system.
And what happened? Why didn’t they do it?
I immediately handwrote a blog. Within an hour. And I ran it to the mailroom and I sent it to my attorney Jesselyn Radack, she sent it to Ariana Huffington, The Huffington Post published it: “Kiriakou threatened with diesel therapy”. John Cusack tweeted to his 1.2 million followers: “BOP (Bureau of Prisons) Hands off John Kiriakou” and then he attached the article. Yoko Ono tweeted it, Oliver Stone tweeted it. As it turned out, Code Pink, the peace group in the United States, told me that there were 1600 phone calls to the office of the director of the Bureau of Prisons, saying you better leave John Kiriakou alone.
That’s the amazing power of digital media, right.
It saved me! Because that’s a form of torture, when you’re lost in a prison system and no one knows where you are for two years. So it saved me.
What was the most difficult to adapt to, on a personal level? I could just imagine sleeping there with people snoring all night and the smell…
I can’t tell you how many times they had to close the prison – no visitors – because we had some disease that was spreading around. One guy in my housing unit got tuberculosis!
The smells are the worst ever. There are a lot of old men in their seventies and eighties, they shit themselves, they have heart attacks and they pee their pants. And the disease! The prison is built for 800 people, when I arrived we had 1400 people, when I left we had 1200. So you’re constantly passing diseases. I can’t tell you how many times they had to close the prison – no visitors – because we had some disease that was spreading around.
What kind of diseases?
One guy in my housing unit got tuberculosis! Oh my god, if you get TB in prison, you can die from that. And you can’t ever get rid of TB – you always have it. So that was a problem. But the biggest problem, and an ongoing problem for me personally, was the boredom. Every day is exactly like every other day. So what kept me sane was two things. One was writing a book, because it was cathartic.
So you knew it would be a book, or were you just writing a blog?
I knew it would be a book. And I handwrote it. Imagine writing 100,000 words by hand and not knowing if you’re repeating yourself. Every time I would write 10 pages, I would send it to Jesselyn [Radack]. Because the guards were going into my locker and taking my pages! So I’d put them in an envelope marked “attorney client privilege” and send it to her. It ended up being 500-and-something pages.
So writing heped you stay afloat. What else?
On my very first day in prison, I got a letter from a lady in Ringgold, some little tiny town in Georgia. I had no idea who this woman was, but she sent me a letter and a photograph of a beautiful flower. “I followed your case, I wish you the best of luck.” I decided that very first day that I would answer every letter that I got. I ended up getting almost 8000 letters.
And you answered every letter?
Every single one of them. There were some days where I got as many as 60 letters.
So what are those CIA techniques you ended up implementing to thrive in prison, as suggested by the title of your book?
Yes, but it’s not a very nice story. There was a guy in prison, in the book I call him Wallace. He was a con man. He would just steal from everybody. And he had dated an A-list Hollywood star. So he was in People magazine, he was in Variety, he was in the Hollywood Reporter, he’s on the red carpet with her arm around his… big star. But she realised he was a con man and she left him.
So who was the star? That’s not CIA classified!
I’m not supposed to say!
So he was sentenced to what?
He was sentenced to five years for embezzlement. He was stealing money from clients: he would tell people, “Oh, I’m an investment broker” and he would take their money and buy a boat with it. This guy, it was in his DNA to steal from people. So in prison, he told all these stupid child molestors that he was a lawyer and if they got their family to wire $10,000-20,000 into his account, he would write their appeal and they would be released. So people were transferring thousands of dollars into his account, and he’s not a lawyer.
You didn’t warn anyone?
Not my business. I can’t help it if you’re stupid. It’s not my responsibility to make you not stupid.
Everyone minds their own business, right?
Yes, you can’t involve yourself with anybody else, it’s one of those jailhouse things you don’t do because then you’re gonna get problems. But eventually, I could not take this guy any longer.
What did you do to this poor con guy?
At the CIA they taught us a rule: if calm is not to your benefit then chaos is your friend. And there was another rule: Achieve what you want by using dirty tricks.
At the CIA they taught us a rule: if calm is not to your benefit then chaos is your friend. And there was another rule: Achieve what you want by using dirty tricks. Two rules. So here’s what I did. When you’re being released from prison, they give you a paper called a “merry-go-round”, a list of offices in the prison, and on your last day you need to go to every office to get a signature. You don’t really need the signatures, it’s just to keep you out of trouble on that last day. My cellmate Jesus was getting out, so I said “Jesus, can I borrow your ‘merry-go-round’?” So he gives it to me. I go up to the library, make a copy of it. I whited out his name and prisoner number, put in Wallace’s name and number, and made a new photocopy so it’s clean. Then I stole a duffle bag. They give poor prisoners a duffle bag when they’re released to take away their possessions. So I waited until 5:00 on Friday afternoon and I put the ‘merry-go-round’ and the duffle bag on Wallace’s bed. He walks into the room and over to his bed, holds it up and says, “I’m going home! I won my appeal! I’m going home!”
The Italian I was sitting with said, “Wallace, we have to have a going-away party for you. Let’s make it dinner, Sunday night we’ll celebrate.” He was so excited that he started crying. The next day he gave away all of his possessions to other prisoners, just gave everything away. We had a big night for him – the Italians had a crooked guard on their payroll, so he would bring in wine and lamb and pasta and vegetables, whatever we wanted. The next day, we all walked with him down to RnD, Receiving and Discharge, it’s where you first come in and where you – at the end – come out. The cop said to him, “What are you doing here?” He said, ‘I’m going home!’ and he handed him the “merry-go-round”. And the cop looks at it and says, “Turn around, you’re under arrest.” “For what?” “Attempted escape.” So he starts crying again. They cuff him and bring him to solitary confinement. He was in solitary for six months. And then they sent him to another prison to finish his sentence.
That guy must hate your guts.
Oh I’m sure he hates my guts.
He’s gonna show up at one of your…
… one of my book signings.
Did anyone ever try to hurt you or gang up against you?
Right before I left, there was another incident. So Frank said “Hey John, there was a guy in the medical unit tonight telling everybody that you’re a rat!” If you call somebody a rat in prison, blood is gonna fall on the floor. I said “Who is this guy?” He said, “I don’t know, I never saw him before, I think he must be new.” New prisoners come every other Thursday. The next night at dinner, my friend comes over and says, “That’s the guy right there.” I never saw this guy before. He looked like he was a meth addict – sores all over his face, long dirty hair, white trash like a hillbilly from Kentucky. So I’m sitting at the table with the Italians – he was with the neo-Nazis. I stand up and I shout “Hey do you have a problem with me?” He says, “You know where I live.” I said, “Fuck that, let’s go right now.” Well this was crazy, because the only place in the prison where the police feel threatened is in the cafeteria because it’s 10 of them and 1400 of us. It’s the only place where they can lose control very quickly.
So if a fight breaks out in the cafeteria, they’re outnumbered…
I said ‘Pete, I’m gonna fucking kill this guy’ and he says “No you’re not. You’re gonna finish dinner and you’re gonna go to my cell and you’re gonna read the USA Today and I’m gonna take care of it.’
… yes and the cops are going to get killed. So I feel somebody pulling my sleeve, and I turn and it’s one of the very senior Italians, a captain in the Bonanno crime family and he says to me, very softly “What in the world are you doing?” And I said “Pete, I’m gonna fucking kill this guy’ and he says “No you’re not. You’re gonna finish dinner and you’re gonna go to my cell and you’re gonna read the USA Today and I’m gonna take care of it.” I picked up my tray, turned it in and I went to his cell and I’m sitting there reading the stupid USA Today. About 20 minutes later the Italian comes in, and he says “It’s all taken care of.” I went back to my cell which was right across the hall. I pick up the New York Times and from the corner of my eye I see the guy. There’s blood coming from his nose and there’s blood coming from his lip …!
Right… so the Italians had taken care of him on your behalf. Nice!
Yes, and I look at him and he says “Excuse me…” I’m looking at him and I thought, this is no time to show weakness. This is also a CIA tactic of “Allow others to do your dirty work.” And I said “Get the fuck out of here before I break your legs.” And he ran away and he never spoke to me again. So the Italian is watching all this from his cell and he says, “The only thing I ask is that when your book comes out you sign a copy and send it to my wife,” and I said, “Done.”
So one of the things you learn at the CIA is to basically deceive people.
Oh sure! You’re trained to lie, you lie to everybody. One of the reasons the divorce rate is so high at the CIA is that people sometimes don’t know when to turn it off and they go home and they lie to their wives, their girlfriends. You have to know when to turn it off.
Do you keep a journal to see where you stand exactly?
I used to. But I was always so worried about accidentally saying something classified and then getting in trouble for it because you’re polygraphed. And I was afraid they would say “Have you ever revealed classified information outside of CIA channels?” And you know you can’t do that, so I stopped.
So do you have a mental technique?
Yes. A lot of my former CIA colleagues tell me I went too far on the other side. Sometimes you have to turn off your personal morals, you have to turn off your personal ethics and you do what they tell you to do. And I said no, I wouldn’t do that.
So, can we actually believe anything you write in your books? Can I trust anything you told me in this interview?
People ask me that all the time. And I’ll tell you one thing that my wife said. I called her from prison one time in December 2014 and she said, “Today was a great day.” And I said, “Yeah, why?” and she said, “Because today the Senate Torture Report was released and it proves that everything you said was true.” And you know what, I’ve hung on to that. Everything I’ve said has been true to the best of my knowledge.
After your first book, some CIA people accused you of embellishing reality. Do you think you do that?
No, I didn’t embellish. You’re talking about Robert Grenier. He said that I embellished. He was my boss. I sold the option to that book to Universal Pictures and when he found out he was furious and he called a mutual friend. He was so angry that he stopped speaking to me and he shouted to my friend, “That was my story, he was my assistant, I should have been the one to write that book.” And I said that’s it, it was jealousy.
So the way you are describing it, it ends up being about who’s going to cash in on their memoirs first…
Yeah. He was so angry that two of my friends cut him off. They won’t speak to him anymore. He ended up writing a book called 88 Days to Kandahar. But it just came out about a year ago and nobody gives a shit about Kandahar anymore. You’re 15 years too late. That was before 9/11.
You were a spy, a consultant, a whistleblower, a writer. Now do you consider yourself an activist? What do you say when people say, John Kiriakou, what do you do?
That is a great question, I struggle with that. I have this Wikipedia page, I’ve never written on it, nothing. I probably should have. But somebody wrote that I’m a journalist. And I said to my wife “Somebody on Wikipedia said I’m a journalist.” And she goes, “Well, I guess you kind of are, you write this weekly column.”
So now you’re mostly living off your books and writing? What about your consultancy work on films – you told me about your adventures with Sacha Baron Cohen. And are you still working for Hollywood?
That’s going to be my primary source of income. I sold three shows since I’ve been home, three television series – one with Oliver Stone and one with Alec Baldwin. So that’s where my real money is going to come from. I can’t ever work in Washington again.
It sounds like a good retirement project.
I think so. It’s fun and I love California.
Better than Virginia?
Better than Virginia!