A Sorry Rendition

The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror BY John Kiriakou, Michael Ruby. Bantam. Hardcover, 224 pages. $26.

The cover of The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror

His name may not ring a bell, but John Kiriakou was the CIA guy who surfaced on television during the furor over waterboarding to declare that, sure, it was torture, but it worked like magic on Al Qaeda kingpin Abu Zubaydah. According to Kiriakou, a long-time veteran of the agency’s intelligence-analysis and operations directorates, Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water. “From that day on, he answered every question,” Kiriakou told ABC-TV’s Brian Ross in an exclusive interview on December 10, 2007. “The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.”

Having said that, the operative claimed that he, like a lot of ordinary folks, was having second thoughts about waterboarding. “I’m involved in this internal, intellectual battle with myself weighing the idea that waterboarding may be torture versus the quality of information that we often get after using the waterboarding technique. And I struggle with it.”

Struggle, shmuggle. ABC’s headline may have been “Coming in from the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary but Torture,” but nobody cared about Kiriakou’s second thoughts. News accounts called him “the primary source for the idea that waterboarding works.” Armchair Torquemadas like Rush Limbaugh and the scholars of the Heritage Foundation, who had featured the cast of Fox’s counterterror drama 24 in a panel discussion on torture, now had a real-life action figure to justify putting the screws to detainees. Not only that. Kiriakou presented liberal torture apologists with a kind of role model: Yes, we do it, but we’re sorry.

Kiriakou’s interview, in sum, was a very big deal at the time, nearly a game changer. Eighteen months later, however, facts emerged about the usefulness of torture in interrogating detainees that undercut just about everything he had claimed in his interview with Ross. So I opened Kiriakou’s slim memoir, The Reluctant Spy, with modest expectations: that the CIA veteran would untangle the conflicting facts, as best he could, and perhaps give us a glimpse of how agency operatives think and talk about torture.

Seventeen very newsless chapters later, Kiriakou still hadn’t gotten around to the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. I was about to toss the book aside. But then I came on a kind of “Oh, by the way” paragraph on its penultimate page. There, Kiriakou takes back everything he said to ABC. “What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he announces. “I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence.”

Well, never mind. “I wasn’t there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.” Oh, and something else: “Now, we know that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.”

You don’t say. Indeed, according to some accounts, the waterboarded “confessions” of Abu Zubaydah and others such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed caused the CIA to invest countless hours from personnel dispatched around the world to confirm statements the detainees had endorsed to make the pain stop. But Kiriakou offers only a dry, noncommittal summing up of the controversy: “In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the arts of deception even among its own.” This from the mind of a fifteen-year CIA hand who, by the way, in 2002 was made a branch chief in the Counterterrorism Center’s Osama bin Laden unit? It makes you wonder: Is Kiriakou representative of the agency’s middle upper ranks?

Maybe. I’ve met a number of present and former counterterror operatives who certainly knew (or know) the score in Afghanistan and Iraq but not much else. Still, it’s disconcerting to read Kiriakou’s memoir and find that he really has nothing to add to our understanding of the momentous events that riled the spy agency during his time there. The few details he does provide are inadvertently revealing, such as his discovery one day that the flag a CIA guy has been assigned to design for post-Saddam Iraq is blue and white—Israel’s colors.

Such cluelessness appears to be distressingly abundant in Kiriakou’s CIA. His agency is as full of dullards, self-serving bureaucrats, and job transfers as it is of dedicated, freedom-loving operatives (whose exploits, in any case, he is constrained from retelling). His heavily scrubbed memoir is chock-full of quotidian details about assignments, promotions, divorce, remarriage, and the challenges of sharing child custody while serving undercover abroad. It’s a memoir as mundane as an insurance investigator’s, although he insists it was exciting, even fun: “The agency I know is largely made up of bright, capable, patriotic people. . . . Many of them are hidden heroes.”

We can only hope. Kiriakou’s account is a Boy’s Life version of the spying life, a kind of Skippy Goes to the CIA, with everything relevant to what made him briefly famous—the important stuff—left out. As a result, his heroes remain mostly hidden.

Jeff Stein, author of A Murder in Wartime (St. Martin’s Press, 1992) and other books, wrote the SpyTalk blog for CQ Politics from 2005 through September 2009.