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Authors: John Kiriakou

The Reluctant Spy

For “Katherine”
For my parents, Chris and Stella Kiriakou

by Bruce Riedel

business you learn early who you can rely on to get the job done right. John Kiriakou is one of those people. In a brilliant career he demonstrated the ability to understand what is important in confused and complex situations and how to judge information to discern how reliable and accurate it is. In this book he provides unique insights into the world of contemporary intelligence analysis and collection and into the real-world battle America is fighting against terrorism. Every American who wants to understand that battle needs to read this book; any American who wants to know what it is really like to work as an intelligence officer in the CIA should start here.

The intelligence business is a unique one. It is not a science, although it uses advanced science. As an intelligence officer, you try to peer into the future with only a few of the facts you need to see ahead. Your opponent will use deception and concealment to mislead you. You must always check and recheck your facts and your assumptions. An Israeli colleague of mine has aptly described it as more poetry than science, because those who are really good at it seem to see rhythms and patterns that are not obvious to most. In this book we see how that translates into action in the field, in trying to discern whether an enemy can be persuaded to turn sides, commit treason for our side, or provide information on what the enemy is planning. We also see how it works at headquarters where information from hundreds of sources must be deciphered, evaluated, and judged so that it can be presented to policy makers
in a concise form with the insights they need to fashion our nation's future.

I first got to know John in August 1990. At the time I was deputy chief of the Persian Gulf Task Force set up in the early hours of August 3, 1990, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. I was working without sleep for days at a time, often rushing down to the White House with the director of central intelligence to back him up at meetings of the National Security Council with President George H. W. Bush as we sought to assess Iraq's next moves from fragments of intelligence information. A relatively new officer but with expertise on Iraq and Kuwait, John was a crucial part of my team that was following the crisis around the clock from the CIA's watch office. I came to respect his judgment and knew I could rely on the analysis and information he gave me.

Our careers intersected at other times as well. We were both at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996 within hours after Hezbollah terrorists blew up a U.S. Air Force barracks and killed or wounded dozens. We both were sobered by the scene of devastation, which would be a portent of what was to come in the years ahead.

Much of the heart of this book is about the war against al-Qaeda that the CIA has been fighting since the late 1990s. Al-Qaeda is a difficult and dangerous adversary. Despite inflicting many blows on it, we have yet to destroy its top leadership, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. We squandered our best chance to do so after we had routed al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001 and had them on the run in Pakistan. The capture of Abu Zubaydah that John led was one in a series of dramatic takedowns that offered the promise of getting all the way to the top.

Instead, our attention and critical intelligence resources got diverted to an unnecessary war in Iraq. John's book provides important new insights into how that happened, what it meant for al-Qaeda, and how little serious analysis was done about the implications of going after Saddam instead of Osama. There are crucially
important lessons to be learned from this story about how intelligence can be misused by those in power and the costs of doing so.

John also writes in depth about the torture issue and its place in the struggle against al-Qaeda. As a country we need to get to the bottom of what happened in the CIA and in the White House regarding torture after September 11, 2001. Accountability is critical in a democracy. Our national conscience demands no less. This book is an important milestone in that process.

Espionage is a dangerous business. The terrorists have killed some of our very best officers over the past three decades. I will never forget burying one of them at Arlington National Cemetery. John's dramatic narrative reminds us that this is neither a game nor an adventure story. The men and women of the CIA who risk their lives, and sometimes the lives of their families, deserve our understanding, respect, and gratitude. Above all they deserve political leadership that puts them at risk only for good reason and asks them to uphold only the best of America.


the Central Intelligence Agency agrees to submit for clearance by the agency's Publications Review Board any material he or she prepares for publication or other use in the public domain. This requirement extends to all former employees as well. The CIA also requires any author to include the following disclaimer:

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author's views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

This book went through several reviews by the CIA's publications board, which, to its credit, allows authors to appeal—and to continue to appeal—its demands for changes and redactions. In the end, we were required to change some names; to obscure or eliminate certain locales; and, on a few occasions, to obscure a true event or series of events. We understand the need for these changes: Much of the work of the U.S. government can and should lend itself to greater transparency. Much of what the CIA does can and should remain secret because the release of certain information could jeopardize ongoing operations or relationships or otherwise compromise U.S. national-security interests.


excited, which was unusual because he was normally among the coolest of cool customers.

“John, get here as soon as you can,” he said. “Something very important has come up.”

It was late February 2002, and I'd arrived in Pakistan only a few weeks earlier—dispatched from CIA headquarters to become the new head of counterterrorism operations in a country with the third largest Muslim population in the world.

When I got to our offices, Grenier, the senior CIA officer in Pakistan, already had gathered a small group of FBI and CIA people to hear his news. We'd received information overnight from headquarters that Abu Zubaydah was in Pakistan. To be precise, he was in Faisalabad or one other Pakistani city.

“We've got to catch him,” my boss said, looking at me, “and we want him alive.”

He didn't have to say it a second time. After the mass murders of September 11, 2001, we had taken the fight to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with the CIA in the lead. We'd ousted the Taliban and rousted Osama bin Laden and his thugs from his stronghold in the cave complex at Tora Bora. But we hadn't captured or killed bin Laden or many of his top people, who fled to mountain villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Abu Zubaydah was part of bin Laden's inner circle, by some reckonings the number three man in al-Qaeda after Mohammed Atef was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001. He had American blood on his hands, and he could tell us plenty.

Yeah, I thought, I had to find this guy moving around two cities with a total of twenty-one million people speaking Punjabi and a bunch of other languages we didn't understand. We had fragmentary reports suggesting many locations that Abu Zubaydah or his allies might have used in Faisalabad or the other Pakistani city. But our target was smart, and he was constantly on the move.

After two weeks of frustration, I asked for help and got it when headquarters dispatched the agency's best targeting and analysis officer to Pakistan. Two days later, at 4 a.m., Rick Romanski arrived at a major Pakistani airport, managed a couple hours of sleep at a hotel, then pitched up at the office about the time the regular staff was arriving for the workday. I explained the problem to him: We knew Abu Zubaydah was in the country, and we were getting daily reports with long lists of locations and associates. But we couldn't pinpoint any locations with real certainty.

Rick got his hands on a huge piece of butcher paper, roughly the size of a U.S. billboard, pasted it up on a long wall in the office, and wrote Abu Zubaydah's name in the middle of it. As we received new reports, he would draw lines on the paper from Zubaydah's name to names and addresses of known associates in Pakistan. After a week, the paper was a beautiful mosaic, a spiderweb of lines with heavy concentrations to fourteen locations.

“These addresses are so active I can't cut any of them out,” Rick told me. “I can't get the list below the fourteen”—each of them a house in Faisalabad or perhaps one other Pakistani city.

During my first month in Pakistan, we started out with practice raids on one site a night; eventually, we worked up to two sites a night—all of them targeting low-level al-Qaeda associates. Now Rick was telling me we'd have to set in motion an operation to take down fourteen sites in one night, all of them coordinated to the split second. I was going to need a much bigger team.

Fine, Grenier said when I went to him with the request. “Give me the details and a budget and I'll pass along the package to Cofer
with a recommendation that he approve it.” Cofer was Cofer Black, the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC) at Langley and one of the agency's true heroes. He came through in a big way, although the details of the package he approved remain classified.

Rick and I flew to central Pakistan, rented a suite at a hotel, and established our initial base of operations. The hotel was one of the city's finest, but it reeked of rot and mold despite the housekeepers' daily efforts to scrub everything in sight; maybe it was because they scrubbed down the carpets, too. The odor was literally breathtaking.

In a sense, the hotel was a reflection of its environment. The city suffered from desperate poverty, with twelve million people living on top of one another, pits of raw sewage along the roads, dirty air, and garbage everywhere. But the weather was good and the city overflowed with flowers, magnificent mosques, and forts dating back hundreds of years. As a result, the city even had a fairly brisk tourist industry. “Ah, yes, land of contrasts”—or so goes one of the clichés world-weary travelers use to describe such developing countries. But this huge city really was a land of contrasts, especially when compared with Islamabad—an immaculate planned city built barely a half century ago.

Rick headed back to another Pakistani city that the CIA won't allow me to name just as an Arab American CIA officer named Amir arrived. It was time to introduce ourselves to the Pakistani security authorities—specifically to a man named Khalid, who turned out to be a good guy and a team player. He'd been waiting to hear from us because his headquarters in Islamabad had already sent word to cooperate with the Americans.

“They vouch for you guys,” Khalid told us. “I'll do anything you want me to do.”

Khalid wasn't really cut out for security work. He clearly had other professional and even artistic interests. Even so, he and his men were terrific people—smart, cooperative, and fearless. We couldn't have asked for more.

What we really needed first, we told Khalid, was a real estate agent because we had to find a good safe house. He found a guy who showed us several houses that were either too small or too close to other houses. We required space and security. Finally, he took us to an area of the city that featured many large houses rumored to be occupied by retired military people. Big houses? These were mansions.
Either Pakistani generals receive exceptionally handsome salaries and retirement benefits
, I thought,
or they must be exceptionally corrupt
. My bet was on the latter.

Finally, the agent showed us a house with many bedrooms and bathrooms—plenty of room to accommodate us.

“How much is it?”

The agent seemed slightly embarrassed: He quoted us a figure that seemed reasonable by U.S. standards but probably was extravagant in the local real estate market.

“We'll take it,” I said.

He was so flabbergasted that he didn't respond immediately. Later I learned that people generally don't pay such amounts in cash for a house with absolutely no negotiation.

Then he recovered.

“Sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“No, not at all.”

“What do you do for a living?”

I was tongue-tied—we'd been too busy to cook up a cover story—but Amir was nimble: “We're textile barons,” he said, without missing a beat. “We own a large textile factory outside of town.”

“Oh, yes,” the real estate agent said, pleased with himself. “Textiles are very important to our country and employ many, many people.” Then, putting his hand over his heart, he welcomed us to Pakistan.

We got a second safe house in Faisalabad because it seemed possible that all of the fourteen houses were there. The mystery, once we began to track down the locations, was site X. Most of the sites
were two-room mud huts with thatched or corrugated tin roofs. Another, site Y, was a house with the shutters closed in the broiling heat; we had reports that a large group of Arabs were living there.
We'll need a big team on that one
, I thought.

Site X was on our list because Abu Zubaydah's associates had referred to it several times. But site X was nothing—or more precisely, a vacant lot.

“How can this be?” I asked the Pakistani security guy Khalid had assigned to us.

“No, no, this is common,” he said. In large Pakistani cities, he explained, each plot of land is assigned a phone number, and the closest telephone pole is prewired to accommodate a line. But it's relatively easy for someone to climb the pole, splice the wire, and run a new wire to a nearby house; the charges from that line would go to the owner of the vacant land, not the telephonic thief.

The Pakistani security man got one of his young techies to the site as quickly as he could; the kid climbed the pole, started sorting through this amazing Medusa's head of wires, and finally isolated the one we wanted. On the ground, he walked the wire hand over hand down an alley. Then he stopped and pointed to an average, middle-class house. “It's that one,” he said.

Amir and I smiled at each other and, this time, the words came to me first: “We got him.” We were ready to go. Later, we headed out from the hotel to meet Khalid and hook up with our team at the safe house for a final briefing. Both of us were sick to our stomachs, victims of spoiled milk the hotel tea boy had inadvertently used in cappuccinos earlier in the evening. As we walked to the car, Amir wondered aloud, “So what do you think is going to happen tonight?”

I couldn't answer the question directly because I wasn't a fortuneteller. But after thinking about it, I responded as truthfully as I could.

“By this time tomorrow, we'll either be heroes or our careers will be over.” In the back of my mind was an agency tour leader's remark my first week at the CIA. In the Operations Center of the original
headquarters building, with its banks of television sets and clocks from around the world, he spotted a hunched older man coming out of a room and pointed at him: “See that guy? He predicted that the Israelis
attack in 1967. His career never recovered.” Maybe it was apocryphal, but the tale resonated with me that night in Pakistan.

Our plan required coordination, but it wasn't complicated. At precisely 2:00 a.m., our teams of U.S. and Pakistani security people would use battering rams to break down doors at all fourteen locations, separate and cuff all the men, and grab everything in sight—computers, phones, weapons, documents, whatever was or wasn't nailed down. The women and children would be taken to a detention facility and released the next day.

At two o'clock Amir and I were on the roof of the Faisalabad safe house. Seconds later, we heard a sound not too far away:
boink, boink, boink
—metal on metal. “That's site X,” I said, then went to our walkie-talkie. “Base to site X, come in.” Nothing. Nothing a second time. Lesson learned: The first thing to fail is always communications.

I pulled out a cell phone and called the site X team leader. It turned out the door had been reinforced with steel, and they couldn't break it down. Then we heard shots.

“We got to go,” I shouted to Amir.

Site X was close to the safe house, so we were there in minutes. The place was chaos, with people screaming and Pakistani security guys running everywhere. Outside the house, one man was down and obviously dead; another was gone or about to be. A third was covered in blood and screaming hysterically.

I grabbed the senior Pakistani security guy: “Where is Abu Zubaydah?”

“This is Abu Zubaydah,” he said, pointing to the guy apparently close to death. The man had been shot in the thigh, groin, and stomach with an AK-47.

Amir was excited. “Oh, my God, we got him, we got him.”

I wasn't so sure. “This guy doesn't look anything like his picture. Honest to God, this guy's forty pounds heavier and has this wild hair. I don't think it's him.”

I called Rick and asked him what to do. “Get me a picture of his iris,” he said.

“Open your eyes,” I shouted at the man in Arabic, but his eyes were rolled back in his head.

“Okay, then get me a close-up of his ear.” This was a new one for me: I didn't know that your ear was like a fingerprint, nearly a foolproof identification.

I photographed his ear, plugged the image into my cell phone, and sent it to Rick. A minute passed.

“It's him,” Rick reported.

We got the good news to Grenier as quickly as we could. George Tenet, the director of central intelligence (DCI), had instructed Bob to let him know whether we'd been successful or not—and he wanted to know immediately. At roughly 3:45 a.m. local time, or 5:45 p.m. in Langley, Virginia, Grenier used a secure line to call Tenet, who had gathered the agency's top officials for a daily counterterrorism policy conference. Bob told me the room erupted in cheers and applause when Tenet made the announcement. Moments later, my big boss, the director, passed the word to his big boss, the president of the United States. We made a lot of people happy that night of March 28, 2002.

Pakistan was one of the brightest moments of my professional life. I had joined the CIA less than two years after I completed graduate school. I wasn't exactly a choir boy, but I was a fairly provincial young man who had grown up in small-town Pennsylvania and who had few of the qualities the agency likes, especially in its covert operatives. I had no military experience and had never even touched, much less fired, a weapon. Survival skills and hand-to-hand combat were the stuff of spy novels and otherwise beyond my imagining. Foreign languages were Greek to me—
literally. It was the language of my grandfathers and became my second tongue only through diligent study in college.

I grew up in a Greek American household, with first-generation parents who were teachers and who pressed me to excel in school and extracurricular activities that, save my fixation with baseball, had everything to do with expanding my education. Love of country was a living, breathing thing in my immigrant family of FDR Democrats. At the CIA, I had signed on as an analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence, figuring that I could use my education, build upon my fascination with international affairs, particularly the Middle East, and eventually make a real contribution to the nation's understanding of the forces beyond our shores.

But I wound up spending much of my career in the Directorate of Operations—the clandestine spy service—running foreign agents, tracking down bad guys, and, yes, risking my life more times than I care to remember. We get medals and awards for this stuff, and I've got a dozen or so in a sideboard at my house, but no one does the work for honors or for personal advancement. We do it because we believe it makes our country a safer place.

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