The spy who was undone by his email

January 27, 2012

Everybody has an email disaster story to share: Accidentally cc:ing to your colleagues X-rated correspondence with your lover; prematurely forwarding to your staff the bad news about impending layoffs; using the wrong list to send letters of acceptance to college applicants who have been rejected. But in the grand constellation of email goofs, who can beat the blunders of former CIA officer John Kiriakou? If the criminal complaint filed against him this week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is accurate, he could spend 30 years in prison for his email transgressions.

Drawing on correspondence obtained via search warrants served on two email accounts associated with Kiriakou, the government has charged him with illegally giving up the identity of a covert officer, disclosing classified secrets and lying to the CIA.

The emails, from which the complaint quotes, are less a smoking gun pointing to wrongdoing than they are Kiriakou’s suicide note. How could a CIA officer who worked at the agency from 1990 to 2004 handling dicey, undercover overseas assignments, including the 2002 capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, have been so cavalier as to discuss the name of a covert officer with a journalist in email? Furthermore, how could the journalists — who go unnamed in the complaint — have been so reckless as to use an insecure medium to converse with a spook about classified material?

Don’t these people ever go to the movies?

According to the complaint, Kiriakou exchanged a number of incriminating emails in 2007, 2008 and 2009 with individuals it calls “Journalist A,” “Journalist B,” and “Journalist C.” The complaint asserts that Kiriakou identified “Covert Officer A” to Journalist A by name, which is a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. (The act prohibits government employees who are authorized to know the identity of a covert officer from sharing that information with anyone who is not authorized. Remember the Valerie Plame episode?)

Kiriakou is also alleged to have disclosed information about the classified operation Covert Officer A was working on. Covert Officer A’s name was not published by Journalist A or anyone else, but the complaint alleges that Journalist A shared the officer’s name with legal defenders of Guantánamo detainees. The government first became aware of the leak when Guantánamo lawyers used this information in a 2009 legal filing as part of the defense of one of the detainees.

Again, citing emails, prosecutors maintain that Kiriakou disclosed or confirmed to “Journalists A, B, and C” classified information about the role of “Officer B” in the 2002 capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan. (Kiriakou helped lead that operation.) Kiriakou is also alleged to have given two of the journalists Officer B’s contact information. After Journalist A shared Officer B’s phone number with a defense investigator, “the defense investigator was able to quickly and accurately identify Officer B and photograph him,” the complaint states. “Four photographs of Officer B were included in the packets of photographs recovered at Guantánamo.”

Everything a current or former CIA employee writes for publication must be reviewed by the agency prior to publication. In a 2008 email, Kiriakou tells the coauthor of a book he’s working on (eventually published as The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror) of a lie he has told the CIA reviewer. Such lies violate Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001. In his email, Kiriakou wrote:


Here you go, [first name of coauthor redacted]. I laid it on thick. And I said some things were fictionalized when in fact they weren’t. There’s no way [the CIA reviewers are] going to go through years of cable traffic to see if I’ve fictionalized, so we might get some things through. Enjoy. John.

Did Kiriakou misplace whatever tradecraft he acquired in his 15 years at the agency? There is no other explanation for the enormous — and incriminating — electronic trail he generated in his emails. But at least one of the journalists he communicated with doesn’t appear to have practiced outstanding presscraft, either.

Who are Journalists A, B, and C? I’ve parlor-gamed with my colleagues over the identities of A and C to inconclusive results.

But ID’ing Journalist B is a simple matter: The complaint calls him the author of a New York Times story from June 22, 2008, “Inside a 9/11 Mastermind’s Interrogation.” That story was written by Times national security correspondent Scott Shane, and a Times news story about the prosecution acknowledges the fact this way: “Kiriakou is also accused of helping another reporter, Scott Shane of the New York Times, learn or confirm the name of another official involved in the interrogation program, which the Times published in a June 2008 article.”

The Times declined my request to talk to Shane about his contact with Kiriakou, citing the advice of its attorneys. The paper did provide a statement, however, in which it said that Journalists A and C did not work for the Times, and, “Neither the Times nor its reporter has been contacted by investigators at any time, and no information has been provided by the newspaper or the reporter to the investigators.”

Shane behaves conscientiously in his emails, especially compared with Journalist A. The CIA officer he discussed in emails with Kiriakou — Officer B — was not covert, hence not covered by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. So in chatting up his source on email about Officer B, Shane wasn’t putting him in any immediate, direct peril.

I can’t determine from the email excerpts whether Shane directly asked Kiriakou to confirm Officer B’s participation in a classified operation. The complaint alleges that the conversation “establishes probable cause” that Kiriakou confirmed the information, “thereby revealing classified information.” If Shane did ask directly about a classified operation, it’s still the type of thing most national security reporters are leery about discussing via email.

It’s Kiriakou who seems wildly undisciplined in this complaint. For instance, after Shane’s article was published in the Times, Kiriakou emailed Officer B denying that he had any role in naming him. “I did not cooperate with the article,” he allegedly lied to Officer B. “While it might not be illegal to name you [in the article], it would certainly be immoral.”

Shane also distinguishes himself with relentlessness. We learn from the complaint that he aggressively pursued Officer B, phoning him, emailing him and visiting his house, where Shane left notes under the door and in the mailbox. He even cased Officer B’s house for four hours and tried to contact the man’s mother, sister and high school friend. That’s what I call reporting.

For more about Officer B and why the Times named him, see this Times Editors’ Note, which was published the same day as Shane’s piece.

The carelessness of Journalist A is so egregious that it must be called out. Anybody working on a national security story must be mindful of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, especially in the post-Plame era. I’m all for journalists pestering sources — even agency veterans — for classified information, even about the identities of covert officers. But common sense dictates where and how to pester!

According to the emails quoted in the complaint, Journalist A repeatedly asked Kiriakou for Covert Officer A’s identity, even sending him a list of names from which he asked Kiriakou to “pick out” the officer’s name. Kiriakou recalls the name and turns it over to Journalist A, who allegedly emailed it two hours later to the defense investigator — with the officer’s name in the subject line! Common sense also dictates who you share your information with and how you share it! Journalist A really went off the reservation by sharing Covert Officer A’s identity with the defense investigators in Guantánamo. Kiriakou and Journalist A were so lax in their communications, they might as well have conducted their conversation on Twitter for all the world to see.

The complaint does not explain how the government obtained the email from Journalist A to the defense investigators about Covert Officer A, but the government emphasizes that it found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by the defense investigators. Go ahead and parlor-game this one however you like.

The emails make the government’s case look solid enough, but the prosecution has the slight smell of vendetta to it. Kiriakou is not a very popular fellow at the CIA because of the wide-ranging interviews he has given to the press. In late 2007, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News, where he gave an extensive interview about the CIA and the Abu Zubaydah operation. (See this transcript [pdf].) Kiriakou was less than honest about his role in the operation, as Gawker’s John Cook demonstrated and ABC News has acknowledged. Kiriakou became a regular not only at ABC News but also on MSNBC and CNN, where he routinely spoke about intelligence issues, and in a variety of newspapers as a named source.

Two of the four counts against Kiriakou allege violations of the Espionage Act for leaking classified information about the operation Officer B participated in. But should Kiriakou go to jail for making the sort of sensitive disclosures published in news stories almost every day? There are “authorized” leaks, such as the ones from the run-up to the Iraq war, in which the Bush administration used cherry-picked intelligence nuggets in an attempt to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was building scary weapons. Then there are the hard-to-interpret leaks, such as the torrent that rained down on Bob Woodward for his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, which teems with classified information about briefings, NSA programs, and CIA operations in Afghanistan, as Michael Isikoff writes. And then there is the ferreting out of classified information that the government doesn’t really want you to know, of which this 2011 Reuters report is an example.

If I were in charge of this case, I wouldn’t want to explain to a jury the disparity of why Kiriakou is being prosecuted but the other leakers aren’t. How sensitive was the information shared about Officer B? The government has declassified the information about Officer B in order to make the Kiriakou prosecution. In other words, it is confirming a leak in order to punish a leaker. Another count — that Kiriakou lied to CIA officials about his book — deserves punishment, but it’s hard to imagine the charge standing by itself outside this bundle of charges.

As for the charge that Kiriakou leaked a covert officer’s identity, I can only wish prosecutors good luck. As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists writes, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act has never been used in a contested prosecution before, and Kiriakou’s attorney has told the Times his client will plead not guilty. Prosecutors get nervous when laws like the Intelligence Identities Protection Act face their first judicial review. They always worry that sections of the law will be struck down by the courts, leaving them nothing to wave in the face of suspects to compel them to plead guilty.

None of the alphabetically named journalists have been charged with breaking the law. Still, this prosecution should remind all reporters — not just the folks on the national security beat — to mind their manners and always be looking over their shoulders. The same should go for sources.

It should also go without saying that sources need to mind their manners, too. If the feds convict Kiriakou on all counts and send him to prison for 30 years, he’ll have plenty of time to bone up on his email etiquette.


Thanks to the The Week, from whose pages I gleaned the email nightmares at the top of the piece. Send your email nightmares to I have yet to experience a Twitter nightmare, but I’m sure it’s coming. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: John Kiriakou, from ABC News.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

How can you say that Journalist A was careless? It’s obvious that anyone who sends such specific information to a Guantanamo defense attorney has a specific motive/agenda.

Posted by RonJohn | Report as abusive

“Journalist A really went off the reservation by sharing Covert Officer A’s identity with the defense investigators in Guantánamo.”

All this talk by the author of “parlor games” (how effete), and yet he expresses precious little curiosity as to WHY a “journalist” would HIMSELF become an informant, personally passing along the identity of a CIA officer to a terrorist’s lawyer. To prove my point, could you imagine for a moment ANY modern journalist conveying information in the OPPOSITE direction? Of course not.

The reason Journolist A (sic) did this should be self-evident, but for those new to American politics, let me educate: our press corps is infested from top to bottom with America-hating LIBERALS. By dismissing the issue of the journalist’s treachery by simply declaring him “off the reservation”, the author of this piece, Jack Shafer, just does his part to obfuscate and distract.

A pox on your profession!

Posted by NJ_resident | Report as abusive