Does waterboarding make people take back what they said earlier? Well, in one case, the man who said that waterboarding works has now taken it back.

In an article on Foreign Policy‘s website by Jeff Stein-an article which should merit wide attention but does not seem to have gotten it-we learn that:

John Kiriakou, the former CIA operative who affirmed claims that waterboarding quickly unloosed the tongues of hard-core terrorists, says he didn’t know what he was talking about. Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the agency’s intelligence analysis and operations directorates, electrified the hand-wringing national debate over torture in December 2007 when he told ABC’s Brian Ross and Richard Esposito  in a much ballyhooed, exclusive interview that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water. “From that day on, he answered every question,” Kiriakou said. “The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.” …

… [T]he pro-torture camp was quick to pick up on Kiriakou’s claim. “It works, is the bottom line,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh exclaimed on his radio show the day after Kiriakou’s ABC interview. “Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works.” A cascade of similar acclamations followed, muffling — to this day — the later revelation that Zubaydah had in fact been waterboarded at least 83 times.

….Now comes John Kiriakou, again, with a wholly different story. On the next-to-last page of a new memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror Kiriakou now rather off handedly admits that he basically made it all up. “What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he writes. “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.”

But never mind, he says now. “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.”… “Now we know,” Kiriakou goes on, “that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.” …Kiriakou… claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: “In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own.”

Given the enormous amount of ink and airtime devoted to Kiriakou’s original—and wildly and damagingly wrong—claim, the corrective would be to provide heavy coverage to his retraction. Thus far, that has not happened.


  • Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.