A former CIA officer who helped capture senior Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan was charged on Monday with disclosing classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert US intelligence officer.
The case is unusual because it is an effort by the Obama administration to prosecute a former government official suspected of leaking sensitive information to the news media. Such cases are rare.
It also stands in contrast to the Justice Department’s decision not to seek criminal charges against intelligence officials who violated a court order and destroyed recordings of the harsh interrogation of high value terror suspects.
Mr. Kiriakou, author of the book “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror,” served in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1990 to 2004. He is accused of providing classified information concerning the identity or activities of two intelligence officers to at least three journalists.
The journalists are not identified by name in court documents, but an affidavit suggests that Kiriakou was a key source for a June 2008 New York Times article written by Scott Shane.
If convicted, Kiriakou faces up to 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
“Safeguarding classified information, including the identities of CIA officers involved in sensitive operations, is critical to keeping our intelligence officers safe and protecting our national security,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“Today’s charges reinforce the Justice Department’s commitment to hold accountable anyone who would violate the solemn duty not to disclose such sensitive information,” he said.
Kiriakou is charged with one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for allegedly revealing the identity of a covert official. He is charged with two counts of violating the Espionage Act for allegedly revealing that a particular CIA official was associated with the agency’s secret rendition, detention, and interrogation program.
He is also charged with lying to the CIA’s publications review board for trying to publish classified information in a submitted manuscript by falsely claiming that he’d simply made the information up.
Prior to publication of "The Reluctant Spy," Kiriakou was required to submit the manuscript for review to ensure it did not include classified information.
Prosecutors say Kiriakou tried to “trick” the review board into allowing publication of a detail of how US officials were able to locate and arrest Abu Zubaydah. The book said the CIA in Pakistan used an electronic scanner that allowed officials to track and pinpoint the location of a working mobile phone. Kiriakou called it a “magic box.”
In a letter to the review board, he claimed that the detail was fabricated and that no magic box was ever used to help capture Abu Zubaydah. After making those representations to the review board, Kiriakou forwarded a copy of his letter to the co-author of his book.
In an accompanying email, obtained by the FBI, Kiriakou said: “I laid it on thick. And I said some things were fictionalized when in fact they weren’t. There’s no way they’re going to go through years of cable traffic to see if it’s fictionalized, so we might get some things through.”
The review board excluded the “magic box” reference from the manuscript because it was still a classified secret.
Officials say the “magic box” information was recently declassified to allow Kiriakou’s prosecution.
The charges against Kiriakou stem from a leak investigation that began in March 2009. US officials discovered that a classified motion filed by defense lawyers representing high value detainees at Guantanamo included top secret information that had not been disclosed to defense lawyers by the US government.
The information had apparently been obtained as a result of a defense team investigation of the case. The Justice Department launched an investigation.
Officials said on Monday the investigation revealed that no laws had been broken by the defense attorneys or their investigators. The secret information they obtained had been filed under seal in a classified document. No law makes that action illegal.
Investigators also discovered that high value detainees at Guantanamo were in possession of 32 photographs that included pictures of CIA, FBI, and government contractor personnel. The photos had been provided by defense counsel and were seized by the government.
The Justice Department also announced on Monday that it had concluded that the detainees were entitled to receive the photos as part of a legitimate defense effort to identify US government officials who personally participated in their capture and interrogation.
“No law or military commission order expressly prohibited defense counsel from providing their clients with these photo spreads,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
According to court documents, investigators traced the sensitive information at Guantanamo through a defense team investigator who received the information from an unnamed journalist. Court documents suggest the unnamed journalist had earlier received the same information from Kiriakou.
Investigators say they identified Kiriakou’s role in the disclosures by searching two of his computers and recovering emails.
Kiriakou was confronted by agents last Thursday. In a recorded interview he denied any knowledge of how a covert officer’s name ended up in a defense filing at Guantanamo.
“How the heck did they get him?” Kiriakou told the FBI according to court documents. “[He] was always undercover. His entire career was undercover.”
Kiriakou denied providing the officer’s name to a journalist. “Once they get out, I mean, this is scary,” he told the FBI, according to court documents.
The former CIA officer also denied providing any information about a second intelligence official. “Heavens no,” he said, when asked if he revealed the officer’s name or other information to a journalist.