WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice is investigating whether a former intelligence officer illegally disclosed classified information in interviews he gave on how the CIA interrogated a suspected senior al Qaida member.
In interviews with ABC News and The Washington Post earlier this month, former CIA officer John Kiriakou gave detailed descriptions of how a detainee known as Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. The procedure produces the sensation of drowning and is widely considered a form of torture, which is illegal under U.S. and international laws.
The interviews were the first public confirmation that Zubaydah, a Palestinian who allegedly helped finance the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had been subjected to the technique while in secret CIA custody. The CIA surrendered Zubaydah to the U.S. military in September 2006, and he's now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The department opened the criminal probe of Kiriakou after receiving a "criminal referral" from the CIA, according to officials familiar with the process. The officials requested anonymity because criminal referrals aren't made public.
The investigation comes as the White House and the CIA face congressional investigations and court battles over a 2005 decision to destroy videotapes of Zubaydah's interrogation and that of another al Qaida member while they were being held secretly by the CIA.
A federal judge scheduled a hearing in Washington on Friday on whether the destruction of the videotapes violated his order to the government to preserve evidence in a lawsuit brought by 16 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Kiriakou, who resigned from the agency four years ago, was a member of the CIA team involved in Zubaydah's March 2002 capture in Pakistan.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment when asked if the agency had sought a criminal probe of Kiriakou. But the spokesman, George Little, added, "Separate and apart from any specific instance, when the agency has reason to believe there has been a possible violation of the law, such as the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, it has an obligation to refer the matter to the Department of Justice."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment, as did FBI spokesman Richard Kolko.
Kiriakou's lawyer, Mark Zaid, said that neither he nor his client had been notified of a criminal investigation. "It wouldn't surprise me and I wouldn't find it unusual," Zaid said. "Knowing what I've seen or read, I'm not aware that he said anything that was unlawful."
Several attorneys who represent other Guantanamo detainees said that Kiriakou's disclosures could help their efforts to defend their clients' legal rights.
"This could also be helpful in a civil action seeking damages from the abuse in the CIA secret detention program," said Jonathan Hafetz of the New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice.
Kiriakou wasn't present during Zubaydah's interrogation, and he said in the interviews that he learned the details from briefing documents. He said that Zubaydah broke after 35 seconds of waterboarding and provided information that allowed the United States to disrupt "maybe dozens" of al Qaida attacks.
Kiriakou also described other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on Zubaydah and other detainees, including sleep deprivation, and the bureaucratic procedures by which interrogators obtained their superiors' permission to employ the measures.
He said that at the time he believed the procedures were necessary to prevent more terrorist attacks on the United States, but that he's since come to view waterboarding as torture.
The Bush administration and the CIA, while declining to confirm the use of waterboarding, have insisted that all of the interrogation methods used on detainees have been legal.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has taken a hard line against leaks because he believes national security has been damaged by disclosures of the administration's domestic eavesdropping program and the identity of an undercover CIA officer married to a White House critic.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity, said that current CIA officers have "expressed mixed feelings" about Kiriakou's interviews.
They welcomed his defense of their effort to save American lives, "but they are faced with the problem of a guy going out there and talking about stuff that he is not authorized to speak about. You can't send a signal to everybody to go out there and say what you know," he said.
(Marisa Taylor contributed.)
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View the ABC News interview.