The Portrait of a Whistleblower: Torture Cannot Be Tolerated

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Common Dreams

The Portrait of a Whistleblower: Torture Cannot Be Tolerated

Unveiling of the portrait of John Kiriakou, at Busboys & Poets, January 23, 2013, Washington, D.C.

On January 25th, 2013 in Washington, D.C., former CIA agent John Kiriakou will be sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for revealing the name of an undercover CIA agent. On the eve of that sentencing, Americans Who Tell the Truth and the Government Accountability Project are unveiling his portrait as the newest in the AWTT portrait series. Why are AWTT & GAP celebrating and honoring a man whom our president, Justice Department, intelligence agencies, and military are prosecuting as a criminal?  

The first and most important answer to that question is that in Mr. Kiriakou’s indictment and conviction there is no mention about what he really did nor his intent.  As a CIA agent he refused to go along with the Bush administration’s claim that “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding, were not torture. And he pointed out that the decision to use torture was not being made by low level “bad apples” in the military & intelligence communities. Mr Kiriakou wrote in his book The Reluctant Spy ( Bantam Books, 2009)  that the decision to use torture was being made at the very top of our government, by the bad apples at the top of the tree. People in positions of great power decided to employ “enhanced interrogation “ techniques and “extraordinary renditions” and to deny these programs while they were simultaneously re-writing the law to legalize them. John Kiriakou refused to go along and blew the whistle.

He is being prosecuted not by the Bush administration but by Obama´s. President Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined. When the  president ran for office the first time he pledged to protect whistleblowers, saying how important they are to maintain integrity in government. He has offered to explanation for his change of heart.

When I was asked to write a statement for the press release about the portrait unveiling event, I wrote, “A state that consistently uses law to subvert justice and to violate human rights has become an enemy of its own defining spirit. It takes great courage to defy the power of such a state and to demand that it adhere to its moral imperatives. John Kiriakou has shown that courage in opposing this country’s flagrant use of torture and its attempt to justify that use. It is my great honor to add his portrait to the Americans Who Tell the Truth project.”

In saying, “A state that consistently uses law to subvert justice…,” I was thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., writing in 1963  his Letter from the Birmingham Jail condemning the praise that the racist southern sheriff of Birmingham, Bull Connor, was receiving from white ministers for using “nonviolent” techniques to arrest the people protesting for civil rights. King said, “Maybe Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather publicly nonviolent … but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of flagrant racial injustice.”  And Dr. King continued addressing those ministers, “I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” In other words, it was the courageous nonviolence of the protesters that prevented violence.

This portrait is an attempt to recognize a real hero. It is a terrible irony that the people who ordered the use of torture are free and continue to be rewarded for their “service” to this country, while the man who tried to stop torture is going to prison.

I was telling a friend recently about my choice to paint Mr. Kiriakou, and she said she was disappointed that I had chosen to do it. Why, I asked. Well, she said, Code of Honor. She was referring to the notion that an honorable member of an intelligence agency or the military would never speak negatively about another member publicly, never desert a comrade. Her attitude is understandable but fails to see how dangerous this code can be when it is used to hide the breaking of a more serious code. Just as a soldier is required by law to report a war crime, an intelligence officer who tries to stop the use of torture is staying true to the oath he or she took to defend the Constitution. The people who ordered torture, who lied about the fact of its use, who carried it out have made a mockery of any idea of the Code of Honor. For a person to invoke the Code of Honor as a reason for not reporting a crime makes one complicit in the crime. And for a person in a position of power to expect those under his/her jurisdiction to remain silent about a crime because they are respecting a Code of Honor is tantamount to moral bribery. A higher Code of Honor was broken by those political, military, and intelligence leaders who lied to create an unnecessary, illegal war and then denied and justified the use of torture.

Some people defending and supporting John Kiriakou have said that he has been destroyed by this ordeal. Originally he was charged under the Espionage Act and faced 35 years in prison. As a young man ( 48 ) with five children rather than risk conviction, he plea bargained to one count of revealing an agent’s name (even though that name was never revealed publicly and did nothing to expose classified information). Mr. Kiriakou has had his freedom taken away from him. He has lost his job, his house, his income. He has a debt of half a million dollars in lawyers fees. But destroyed? I’d say created. He has discovered a moral fiber that he may not have known that he had. He can, without denial, rationalization or hypocrisy, look at himself in the mirror. It’s hard to say you are on the right side of history when most of your former colleagues are on the other. But he has a new community now -- a community of whistleblowers, truth tellers, and activists for justice and human rights who support his courage. His former colleagues fear him because they know his courage to tell the truth complicates their  Code of Honor and, perhaps, indicts their cowardice.

John Kiriakou’s quote on his portrait says:

“Even if torture works, it cannot be tolerated -- not in one case or a thousand or a million. If their efficacy becomes the measure of abhorrent acts, all sorts of unspeakable crimes somehow become acceptable. I may have found myself on the wrong side of government on torture. But I’m on the right side of history. … There are things we should not do, even in the name of national security. One of them, I now firmly believe, is torture.”

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth Project's website, where posters of the Edward Snowden portrait, and many others, are now available.

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