My Reports on 1995 Human Rights Abuses in Bahrain Ignored by State Department – John Kiriakou on Reality Asserts Itself (3/10)
On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Kiriakou tells Paul Jay that from Iraq to Bahrain, it was becoming clear to him that commercial interest, particularly arms sales, was driving U.S. policy in the Middle East
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Joining us again is John Kiriakou.
Thanks for joining us, John.
JOHN C. KIRIAKOU, FMR. CIA OFFICER: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So, one more time, John’s a former CIA case officer. He was a CIA analyst. And he’s one of the only people–in fact, he’s the only person–. Wasn’t there [incompr.]
KIRIAKOU: There was a guy–his name: Morrison–who leaked a photograph to Jane’s Defense Weekly, and he went to prison. He’s the first person convicted of leaking classified information to the press. I’m the second. But I’m the first CIA officer.
JAY: The first CIA officer–
JAY: –to actually go to prison.
KIRIAKOU: Yes, for leaking information to the press.
JAY: Okay. That classified information was revealing that torture was taking place, torture that everyone has condemned as illegal. No one that participated in the torture has gone to jail, but apparently letting people know about it, one should go to jail.
And I know that’s a tough rub for you.
KIRIAKOU: It’s been ironic.
JAY: To say the least.
John’s the author of the book The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.
So we’re going to just pick up the story where we left off. You were recruited to the CIA at 25 years old, you go through the orientation, and you’re studying Kuwait and Iraq just in the leadup to the first Gulf War. We were talking about being there during the leadup with the American ambassador. You meet Saddam Hussein and such.
Looking back on it now, what do you now think about why did the United States need to get into a war on such a scale between a dispute which they said was between two Middle Eastern countries?
KIRIAKOU: Very simply, oil. I actually had an argument with a fellow State Department officer in Kuwait in 1991 who was telling somebody that we had gone into Kuwait and pushed out the Iraqis for altruistic purposes, because it was the right thing to do, because we were standing up for human rights. And I said, that’s absurd. We haven’t invaded Sri Lanka; people get killed there all the time. We only moved into Kuwait to protect the oil supply. You know, there’s no shame in calling a spade a spade, but let’s not pretend we’re here for human rights. It’s for the oil.
JAY: So you’re saying that back at that time.
JAY: So if that’s clear, that tens of thousands of people are getting killed in these conflicts, not just this one, but over oil, as we started out in the beginning of the first part, the shaping of your Americanism and we do good things for the greater good and we do bad things for the greater good, do you start to wonder then, if this is really just about oil, then why are so many people dying and what is this policy about?
KIRIAKOU: Well, I remember a Kuwaiti telling me, as if he had discovered something special and something secret, the only reason you’re here is because you have national interests. And I said, yeah. So? Oil is our national interest. The only reason you asked us to come here is that you had an interest in pushing the Iraqis out of your country and you couldn’t do it on your own. So we both have national interests. So what? What’s the big secret?
JAY: That’s still the case now.
KIRIAKOU: Mhm. Sure. Sure. And I’m not saying that every foreign intervention is a good thing. In fact, I’ve concluded the opposite, that most foreign interventions are a bad thing. But if we’re going to intervene in a country to protect and preserve our national interests, let’s tell the American people the truth, that we’re going to go into Kuwait and we’re going to push the Iraqis out because we really, really need Kuwaiti oil. And if we don’t have the Kuwaiti oil, the price is going to go up, and that’s going to be unacceptable to the American people. Let’s not lie and say, by God, we have to stop a brutal dictator and we have to stop him killing these innocent people. Innocent people are killed around the world every single day, but we can’t invade every country that does such a thing.
JAY: But even we need that oil, I mean, Saddam’s not going to take oil so he can shove it in some cave.
JAY: He’s going to put on the world market and sell it.
JAY: So it’s not like he’s not going to not have access to that oil.
KIRIAKOU: But then you run the risk of our allies not trusting us to help them in their time of need.
JAY: So it’s not about access to oil. Now it becomes about–.
KIRIAKOU: Not just. It becomes a bigger issue. And what do you tell the Saudis? We sell the Saudis billions and billions of dollars of military equipment that, frankly, they’re not very good at using.
JAY: Something–I think last year it was $81 billion.
KIRIAKOU: [crosstalk] And so what do we tell them if they’re threatened by Iraq or Iran? “Well, you’re on your own.”
JAY: So why buy all our weapons?
KIRIAKOU: So why buy all our weapons? There’s a domino effect. One thing leads to the other.
JAY: So it starts becoming geopolitical strategy underlying commercial interest.
KIRIAKOU: Regional at least, yes.
JAY: But commercial interest driving it.
KIRIAKOU: Always commercial interests. Always.
JAY: Paid for by tens of thousands of American lives, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Arab lives, or, as we were saying, several million Vietnamese lives.
KIRIAKOU: That’s right.
JAY: This, at the time, going back to where you are, this is all justifiable ’cause we’re all kind of doing good here somehow.
KIRIAKOU: Yeah. At the time–at the time, that’s what I really believed, sure, sure, that American intervention was a good thing. It was good for us, it was good for the world, it was good for the economy, it was good for our allies. I really believed it.
JAY: Okay. What’s your next assignment?
KIRIAKOU: Well, I thought I would stick around on Iraq until Saddam Hussein was overthrown, which I believed at the time was going to happen imminently. And then, finally, by 1993 I decided Saddam’s not going anywhere, I should probably look for another job. Most people at the CIA, at least on the analytic side, will stay on a job for two, three, four years and then move on to something different.
So I applied for a job at the State Department. There was a program to allow CIA analysts to transfer temporarily to the State Department to do an analytic program there. And I got a job in the American Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf. So I went into Arabic training for a year.
JAY: What year are we in?
KIRIAKOU: This was–August 1993, I went into Arabic training. And it was 12 months full-time, nine hours a day, of Arabic. Some people went on to a second year at the State Department’s language school. I went straight out Bahrain. And then I was in Bahrain from 1994 to 1996, just in time for the first–what they called the intifada, the uprising in Bahrain.
JAY: And what’s your role? What’s your actual title, and what do you really do?
KIRIAKOU: I was the embassy’s second secretary for economic affairs. So I covered issues like oil and banking and Iraqi sanctions and commercial airlines, stuff like that, economic training.
JAY: But doing real embassy stuff?
KIRIAKOU: Doing real embassy stuff.
JAY: Why are they using a CIA guy to do real embassy stuff?
KIRIAKOU: Because it allows CIA analysts to be exposed to other government agencies. You can’t really understand how the State Department works unless you’re working at the State Department. That was the view. And it was the most rewarding two years of my entire career.
KIRIAKOU: Just because I felt like I was doing the real work that analysts took for granted. You know, so much CIA analysis is based on State Department reporting. I was able to be the guy on the ground doing the reporting. When the uprising began in Bahrain, it had utterly economic origins. It was unemployment, it was a low standard of living. And I was there in the midst of the riots and the demonstrations and the bombings. And things get very violent. Several police officers were killed. Something like a dozen Bahraini citizens were killed by the police.
JAY: So it was clear to you that this was a class-based uprising. This wasn’t Sunni-Shia stuff.
KIRIAKOU: No. It was–
KIRIAKOU: –it was billed as Sunni-Shia stuff, but it was really poor people versus rich people.
JAY: And you reported this back.
JAY: Did this in any way affect U.S. support for the royal family?
KIRIAKOU: Not in any way.
JAY: And did this not bother you some?
KIRIAKOU: Yes. But, you know, there was a larger truth, and that truth was that we had a very important naval base in Bahrain. And so, while we would recommend to the Bahraini government that it begin hiring Bahraini citizens to do work, rather than importing foreign labor from Pakistan and the Philippines and India and such, we really weren’t willing to go beyond that.
I was also the human rights officer at the embassy for both of the years that I was there, and as such I wrote the State Department’s human rights report on Bahrain. I had a very supportive ambassador at the time, Ambassador David Ransom, who’s no longer living. But Ambassador Ransom was willing to really call it as he saw it, and he gave me carte blanche to criticize the royal family for their human rights abuses.
JAY: And how bad was it?
It was bad. I actually–it was–maybe this is because I was young and inexperienced and a little more gutsy than I probably should have been, but I actually told the minister of interior, you can’t just call a house, tell the father to send his 15-year-old over to the local police station for questioning, and then shoot the kid in the head when he gets there. You can’t do that.
JAY: Which was what was happening.
KIRIAKOU: Which is what was happening. Sure.
JAY: And these are in your reports going home.
KIRIAKOU: Yes, and they were in my reports.
JAY: So the Fifth Fleet is in the port in Bahrain, and that trumps everything.
KIRIAKOU: It trumps everything.
JAY: Not only that, how much American arms sale was to the Bahraini government?
KIRIAKOU: Oh, billions of dollars. And whatever the Bahrainis couldn’t pay for, the Saudis paid for.
JAY: This trumps everything.
KIRIAKOU: Yes. When things got really rough, when it looked like the violence was just beginning to spin out of control, and the Bahrainis aren’t taking our advice to go easy on people, to back off, let them have their demonstrations, and in the meantime start replacing these foreign workers in the factories with Bahrainis, instead what the Bahrainis did is they invited the Saudi military to come in. And the Saudis crossed the causeway from the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and just began opening fire on people.
JAY: What year is this?
KIRIAKOU: Nineteen ninety-six.
JAY: So same thing happens again ten years later or so.
JAY: How many people were killed?
KIRIAKOU: Oh, dozens. Dozens.
It’s actually must worse now, because the Bahrainis know that after 20 years of no progress, they’re not going to see any progress now. So there’s this feeling of having nothing to lose at this point. In 1994, ’95, ’96, people really believed that, well, you know, the emir’s a nice guy, he really is. The prime minister, his brother, he’s a bad guy. But the emir says we’re going to have some freedom; there’s going to be this consultative council that he’ll allow an election for; we’ll be able to work this out. Well, 21 years have passed since then and it’s only gotten worse. So you can’t trust the new–he named himself king. He used to be Emir; now he’s His Majesty the King. You can’t trust the king.
JAY: So you see this massacre. You know these 15-year-old kids [are] getting shot in the head. You know U.S.–the Americans are selling billions of dollars of arms. It’s all for the Fifth Fleet. It’s all for commercial interest. The Fifth Fleet’s there, essentially, to guard commercial interest in the name of democracy and human rights and all the rest.
KIRIAKOU: Sure. Yeah. Right.
JAY: Are you putting–is this a pattern yet in your head?
KIRIAKOU: Oh, yeah.
JAY: It is.
KIRIAKOU: Oh, sure.
JAY: So are you starting to question your conviction of Americanism?
KIRIAKOU: Not quite yet. That came about five years later.
JAY: Okay. We’ll get there.
JAY: Please join us for the continuation of our interview with John Kiriakou on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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