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Former CIA spy speaks out in new book about war on terror

By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
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Reflections of a spy
  • New book is John Kiriakou's view of life as a spy, role in fighting war on terror
  • Kiriakou, who spent 14 years in CIA, tells of capture of an al Qaeda senior lieutenant
  • He also talks about 9/11, says decision to invade Iraq made before public debate ended
  • He says waterboarding "caused more damage to our national prestige than was worth it"

Washington (CNN) -- Just months after the 9/11 attacks, the United States appeared to have its biggest catch in the newly launched war on terror.

Abu Zubaydah, considered one of al Qaeda's senior lieutenants, lay in a pool of blood on a street in Faisalabad, Pakistan, having been shot three times during a U.S.-coordinated raid on a house where a group of suspected terrorists was building a bomb. CIA operative John Kiriakou, who helped plan the raid, rushed to the scene. But when he gazed down at the critically wounded man, it didn't quite look like the person he had seen in a 4-year-old passport.

In his new book, "The Reluctant Spy," Kiriakou gives an insider's view of his secret life as a spy and his role in fighting the war on terror.

Kiriakou said he was able to quickly verify Zubaydah's identity by sending a picture of his ear to CIA headquarters in Virginia. "I didn't realize until that night that no two people have the same ears. It's like a fingerprint," he said. The American spy was ordered by then-CIA Director George Tenet to do everything in his power to keep Zubaydah alive and to never let him out of his sight. That's exactly what Kiriakou did.


Rushed to a rundown Pakistani hospital, Zubaydah barely made it through surgery. Word had apparently gotten out to al Qaeda where he was being treated. "Al Qaeda people started driving by the hospital just opening fire on the hospital," Kiriakou said, and a Pakistani security officer quickly arranged for a helicopter to transfer Zubaydah to a military base. Once on the base, Kiriakou used a sheet to tie the comatose Zubaydah to his bed and then stood watch.

When Zubaydah finally woke up, Kiriakou tried to speak with him in Arabic. Zubaydah refused, telling him in perfect English that he would not talk in what he called "God's language." Strangely enough, Kiriakou said, Zubaydah then asked for a glass of red wine. After a few hours of sleep, the prisoner pleaded for Kiriakou to kill him -- to smother him with a pillow.

After a couple of days, Zubaydah was transferred to an undisclosed location for further treatment. That was the last time Kiriakou saw him.

Kiriakou said his conversations with Zubaydah were surprising. "I expected an irrational, radical, hate-filled, hard-core terrorist, and what I got was a frightened young guy who realized he was in way over his head, had made terrible mistakes and was going to pay for it."

Kiriakou also tells the story of Zubaydah's cell phone ringing shortly after his capture. No one could answer it because FBI agents who took part in the raid had placed the phone in a sealed evidence bag and wouldn't open it. Kiriakou said a valuable lead may have been lost. "I should have opened the bag and snatched the phone," the former CIA operative said.

Iraq played a prominent role in Kiriakou's CIA career, most notably his role in supporting the U.S. policy to go to war.

In summer 2002, Kiriakou was back working at headquarters in Virginia when he was summoned to a top-secret meeting. He said he was told the Bush administration had decided the United States was going to invade Iraq in the spring -- it was a done deal. His job was to support the mission. Kiriakou said he was dumbfounded. "Here was someone at the CIA, obviously plugged into the plans of the executive branch, telling us that the public debate in Congress, reflected almost daily in the press, meant nothing." Months later, Congress passed a war resolution.

The book is filled with many more stories about Kiriakou's experiences as a spy, including how he tried to avoid surveillance in Greece and discovered he was being tailed, what it was like being in charge of foreign agents, and the fear of a pending terrorist attack just before September 11, 2001.

Kiriakou also discussed the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees.

In 2007, several years after he left the agency, Kiriakou was the first official to publicly confirm Washington's worst-kept secret: that Zubaydah had been waterboarded. He didn't have firsthand knowledge, but he said he had read cables that indicated the simulated drowning technique was used just once, because Zubaydah cracked and provided actionable intelligence.

However, a government report released in summer 2009 said the technique was actually used 83 times against Zubaydah. Kiriakou said he now feels he was duped by the agency. He questioned whether any useful information really came from the detainee and said he believes "it caused more damage to our national prestige than was worth it."

Kiriakou left the CIA in 2004 after serving 14 years in the agency. He's now a senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.