A former CIA officer is facing decades in prison after being charged Monday with disclosing classified information to journalists, the latest in an unprecedented Obama administration crackdown against national security leaks.
John Kiriakou, who made news in 2007 when he became one of the first CIA operatives to speak publicly about water boarding, is accused of providing secrets, including the name and activities of one his undercover colleagues, to reporters. One reporter is alleged to have turned over the name of the covert CIA officer to lawyers for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, who were seeking to identify CIA employees involved in coercive interrogations.
The journalist and the defense lawyers were not charged.
The case against Kiriakou marks the fifth time during the Obama administration that charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 have been brought against current or former government officials who allegedly leaked information to journalists — a record unmatched in any previous administration, said Steven Aftergood, who follows the intelligence community for the Federation of American Scientists.
A sixth defendant, Bradley Manning, has been charged under the act in connection with alleged disclosure of documents to the website Wikileaks.
CIA Director David Petraeus issued a statement Monday saying the agency backed the 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.
Aftergood and other skeptics of official secrecy questioned how the government could use the Espionage Act to prosecute people who are not accused of spying for another country or terrorist group, but instead are accused of 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, who represented former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake in an Espionage Act case that collapsed last year.
In a criminal complaint, the Justice Department alleges that it possesses emails from Kiriakou to journalists in which he disclosed classified information. When confronted about it during a meeting on Jan. 12 with FBI agents, who recorded the interview, Kiriakou flatly denied doing so, the document says.
The complaint also charges Kiriakou with 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, "Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror."
Kiriakou is charged with two counts of violating the Espionage Act, which each carry a maximum term of 10 years in prison; one count of making false statements, which carries a maximum prison term of five years; and one count of illegally disclosing a covert officer's name, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and must be served in addition to any other prison term.
The investigation of Kiriakou was led by Patrick Fitzgerald, who in 2007 successfully prosecuted former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby for telling journalists the name of Valerie Plame, who at the time was a covert CIA officer.
Fitzgerald was appointed by the Justice Department as special counsel in January 2009 to look into how detainees at Guantanamo obtained photographs of U.S. government employees and contractors. The investigation revealed they got them from their defense team, and that an investigator on the team had obtained the names of two CIA officers from a reporter. Emails showed the reporter got them from Kiriakou, the federal complaint says.