I rang the doorbell of John Kiriakou’s home shorty after noon. It was around Halloween and the entrance to his suburban Washington house was decorated with witches, pumpkins and black netting. He opened the door wearing jeans, a T-shirt and socks, holding a cup of coffee in one hand. He welcomed me with the warm affability of so many Americans, and nothing in his demeanor suggested that for over a decade this man had led a double life as a CIA agent.
“Sorry about the mess,” he said as we navigated our way through piles of boxes. After spending over a year in jail, and without a steady job, his family had been forced to move into a much smaller house.
“We had to rent out our home so we wouldn’t lose it. We just moved back and we don’t have a lot of furniture. I sold most of it to pay for the attorneys,” he said frankly.
The “nightmare,” as he described it, began in 2012, when Kiriakou was charged with disclosing classified information, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities, to journalists. He believes his conviction was a pretext to punish him for speaking about the agency’s use of waterboarding to interrogate terror suspects.
“I paid a high price but, no, I don’t regret it. We like to tell the rest of the world that we Americans are a beacon of light and hope and respect for human rights, and that’s just not true,” said Kirakou.
Sitting on the kitchen counter was a collection of mementos from his time with the CIA: awards and medals from dangerous missions in the Middle East and also Greece, proof of a lengthy and successful career.
“Their goal is to ruin you, to write off everything I did. But I won’t give them the satisfaction,” he said.
He picked up one of the medals and showed it to me. “This is from my friends in EYP [Greece’s National Intelligence Agency]. We had a very good cooperation.”
He put on shoes and a jacket and drove us to his favorite restaurant. “I’ll take you where I had my last meal before going to prison. The best souvlaki in Washington! When I came out of prison I was under house arrest but I said that what I wanted more than anything was a gyro platter, so my poor wife drove all the way across town to bring me a gyro,” Kiriakou recalled.
When we arrived at the restaurant he looked around to see whether any of his Greek-American friends were there. Kiriakou and both his parents were born in Pennsylvania but hailed from the Greek island of Rhodes. I asked him about his relationship with Greece and to my surprise he answered in Greek.
“I grew up in a Greek home – Greek 24/7. We celebrated the saints’ days, ate the food, spoke the language.”
The first time he went to Greece was on holiday, traveling by train through Yugoslavia. Crossing the border, a young lady said, “Welcome home.”
“I’ll never forget that,” said the 52-year-old. “Ever since, this has been my goal: to return to Greece.”
Kiriakou joined the service at the age of 22, recruited by a professor serving as an agent at the university where he was studying. When asked whether he was interested, Kiriakou said “Why not?” – giving little thought to how much his life would change.
He started off as an analyst and one of his first jobs was an anlysis on the Persian Gulf. Nine months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Kiriakou was thrust among the CIA’s highest echelons in the White House.
He was climbing the ranks fast and soon realized that he needed to make allies in the competitive environment of the CIA. He turned to the Greek-American lobby.
“The Greek Americans in the CIA stick together more closely than any other ethnic group, to the point where we met for lunch every month. I was just the young kid at the time. I knew that if I had a question – maybe an ethical question or a moral question – if there was something that I was asked to do that bothered me, I knew that I could go to this Greek-American group and get advice and not have it hurt my career,” he said.
Moving to Athens
Kiriakou later heard of a special post at the US Embassy in Athens and asked some of the senior Greek-American CIA agents to put in a good word for him. He went through a tough selection process, but ultimately had to get the green light from his wife.
“I thought she’d hate another overseas assignment (I had just returned from Bahrain),” Kiriakou said. “But she also has Greek roots and was excited when I told her. I came home and found her packed and ready to go. ‘Are you nuts?’ I said. ‘We’re not going for another year!”
Kiriakou came to Greece on August 8, 1998. He started work the very next day: “I was thrown in at the deep end.” Just the previous year, Athens had been chosen to host the 2004 Olympic Games and domestic terrorism problems had also become a problem for the Americans.
“Don’t forget that Greece at the time was considered to be a crossroad. Every Arab tied to every major terrorist group went through Athens at one point. And, of course, the members of November 17 were roaming around free,” he said in reference to the Greek terror group. “Over the years, the US spent tens of millions of dollars, maybe more, on technology, but more on trying to cultivate human resources.”
Kiriakou recruited five agents and traveled extensively, investigating new and old leads from the classified November 17 files. “A lot of things shocked me when I first read those files,” he said, pausing. It was the first time during our discussion that he seemed wary. “I have to be very careful how I say this because the information is still classified and, God knows, I’ve had enough trouble with the CIA,” he said.
“I was surprised at the depth that the files went into, where – how can I say this? – where the information pointed to a potential conspiracy – I’ll put it like that – that there were politicians at the time that may have known far more than they were willing to let on about the creation of November 17 and about the group’s ongoing ability to launch operations in Athens. And they wouldn’t say it,” he said.
Kiriakou turned to all the suspects the CIA considered and said that one informant even claimed November 17 was run by marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
“All jokes aside, we investigated even the most unlikely suspects. There were so many conspiracy theories implicating mainstream politicians like Andreas Papandreou, Iosif Valirakis all the way to Vassilis Vassilikos, one of the most important and prominent Greek authors,” he said. “I would say that that the reason the CIA investigated and in some cases cultivated these theories was out of desperation. If you were to ask the CIA how many people it suspected of being November 17 members, it could have given you 5,000 names, 10,000 names. Everybody was a suspect.”
Kiriakou left the US Embassy in Athens on the morning of December 13, 2000, a few hours after the publication of a proclamation by November 17 claiming responsibility for the assassination of British military attache Stephen Saunders in Athens.
“I knew Stephen. We were neighbors in Kifissia,” said Kiriakou of the northern Athenian suburb just a few kilometers from where Saunders was gunned down in his car by two men on a motorcycle in June 2000.
“We were at a cocktail party one night and he was he was jokingly making fun of my car. I had just got a fully armored BMW 540. And he said to me: ‘You Americans, you are so paranoid. Why are you afraid? This is an EU country, it’s a NATO country.’ And I said: ‘You Brits live in a dream world if you think because they have palm trees and pretty beaches that they are not going to kill you if they get the chance,’” Kiriakou recalled.
When the proclamation came out, the embassy analysts thought a “head-spy” mentioned in it was none other than Kiriakou.
“The senior CIA officer in the country came into my office and said: ‘Did you see this? They are talking about you in here. You have to go right now. We’ll pack up your house.’ So they drove me in an armed car to the airport and told me, ‘Go, get out of here.’ That was like 10 o’clock in the morning. By 12 I was on the flight to New York.”
Kiriakou took a personal interest in the progress of the investigation into November 17.
“I still remember the night of their arrest. I was back at central headquarters, sitting at my desk. There was this one piece that came through the CIA press office and it said ‘flash’ – which means emergency – ‘bomb goes off in the hands of bomber in Piraeus.’ And I thought: ‘Why would someone carry a bomb in Piraeus? Unless he was using it to assassinate someone, and who would do that but N17?’ So I just kept waiting in front of my computer – ‘refresh,’ ‘refresh’ – and each piece would come out, ‘flash,’ ‘Savvas Xiros,’ ‘flash,’ and I could hear people cheering, screaming, shouting in the next office: ‘The Greeks did it, they really did it after all these years, 25 years!’ It was a very exciting day,” Kiriakou said, remembering the day that led to the arrest of key members of November 17.
We finished lunch and got back in his car for the 20-minute return trip. His cell phone rang. “Excuse me for a minute,” he said. “That was the producer of my television series. He was calling to say that Oliver Stone agreed to a meeting, so I think it’s going to happen, it’s moving forward. That’s very good news.”
Kiriakou is talking about a TV series based on his life, one that is already changing for the better. His wife is working again after also being fired from the CIA and the family have returned to their home. Kiriakou is planning a trip to Greece this summer to show his three younger children (he has two older children from a previous marriage) where they come from.
The last time Kiriakou was in Greece was in 2015, on the invitation of the government, and specifically then anti-corruption minister Panayiotis Nikoloudis, to advise on how to use and protect informants.
“At first, in July 2015, we had a wonderful reception from the ministry for anti-corruption and an extensive meeting,” he said. “They asked if I could come back out. I flew back to Greece in October of last year but by then there had been a cabinet change and most of the people that I was working with had moved on to different jobs. When I finally got there they just said: ‘Thank you. We don’t need your help anymore.’ I’m very sorry to say nothing ever came of it.”
Kiriakou suggested that he had been back to Greece in recent years on missions that he was not at liberty to discuss. The November 17 case, he said, should not be considered closed and it is not about to be shelved.
“There are still some members of the organization we don’t know about. Not everyone has been arrested,” said the expert. “For example, we still don’t know who assassinated [deputy chief of the Joint US Military Aid Group to Greece George] Tsantes and his driver [in 1983]; we don’t know the identity of the woman involved in the assassination of [CIA Station Chief Richard] Welch [in 1975]. That they may have regretted their part or left the organization for some reason, obviously doesn’t mean that they should be pardoned for their sins. They have to pay,” Kiriakou insisted.
Kiriakou is already author of several books including “The Reluctant Spy” and “The Convenient Terrorist,” and is determined to write another, this time on November 17.
“I know that if I want to tell the story of November 17, the CIA will not allow me to tell the whole story. There are a lot of things that are not public yet, things that I believe are in the public interest, things that the Greek people have the right to know and deserve to know. So I’m going to do my best to try get things out there,” he said.