ShareThis Page

Charges against ex-CIA officer from New Castle shock associates

| Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012

Charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act, New Castle native and ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou faces up to 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines if he's convicted.

John Kiriakou grew up in New Castle with a strong fascination for politics, foreign affairs and the world outside his Lawrence County town, friends and former neighbors said.

Now the ex-CIA officer who helped track down top al-Qaida financier Abu Zubaydah in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks stands accused of disclosing classified secrets, including the role of an associate on that covert mission.

Kiriakou, 47, of Arlington declined to comment as he left an Alexandria, Va., courthouse on Monday. His attorney, Plato Cacheris, said he is "examining the government's evidence" and declined to comment further.

Some of the disclosures allegedly happened while Kiriakou was a senior investigator from March 2009 to April 2011 with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Kerry spokeswoman Jodi Seth said Kiriakou left voluntarily and the staff became aware of the charges on Monday. The office initially said that the allegations predated Kiriakou's service on the committee but changed its statement.

"Mr. Kiriakou had been working for the committee for just exactly 14 days when one alleged e-mail exchange occurred. The committee had absolutely no knowledge of or connection to any of these allegations, nor was Kiriakou authorized to speak with the media in any capacity as a committee employee," Doug Frantz, chief foreign relations committee investigator and Kiriakou's supervisor at the time, said in a statement that Kerry's office released last night.

According to the criminal complaint filed yesterday, Kiriakou leaked information several times in 2009, including an e-mail exchange between him and an unnamed journalist on April 8, 2009.

According to authorities, Kiriakou divulged to three journalists, including a New York Times reporter, the identities of a covert CIA officer and an employee who worked with Kiriakou to capture Abu Zubaydah, thought to be the third-ranking member of al-Qaida.

"If the charges filed against Kiriakou are indeed true, then he is guilty of absolutely despicable crimes," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "This disclosure clearly placed these officers and their families at great risk of harm."

Kiriakou is charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act. A federal judge ordered Kiriakou to be released on $250,000 unsecured bond. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

It is the latest in a series of prosecutions by the Obama administration against suspected leakers.

"I was absolutely shocked to hear this news," said William Panella, a New Castle city councilman who lived next to the Kiriakou family for more than three decades. "He was a very bright, good boy growing up -- never in trouble with anyone -- and a very successful adult. It doesn't make sense."

Kiriakou loved to engage in political debates about affairs in the Middle East and found the Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran "exhilarating and frightening," according to the forward of his 2009 book, "The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror."

Kiriakou, a 1982 graduate of New Castle High School, grew up in a devout Greek Orthodox home with parents who were teachers. His father, Chris, went on to be principal of Arthur McGill Elementary and his mother, Stella, was an elementary school teacher. Both are deceased.

Kiriakou's father played in a Greek music band, according to his childhood friend Mike Epitropoulos, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. John Kiriakou's brother, Emanuel, played in his father's band and is now a singer, songwriter and producer in Los Angeles. He has written and produced songs for numerous artists including Whitney Houston and the Backstreet Boys, and his music was featured in the 2002 movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

His sister, Tina Kiriakou Moulis, was very popular and outgoing as a child, but John was the "quiet, reserved one," Panella said.

Kiriakou's brother and sister could not be reached for comment. Other former classmates declined to comment.

"John was very academic and more serious than his siblings, or even other kids his age," Panella said. According to Kiriakou's book, he was "active in almost everything," including the American Field Service international student exchange program, the debating society, the Key Club and baseball, his "one sports passion."

The family was very active in St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Castle. Officials there didn't return calls.

After graduating from high school, Kiriakou went on to receive a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern studies in 1986 and a master's degree in legislative affairs in 1988, both from George Washington University in Washington. He joined the CIA in 1990 and as an analyst at the Iraqi-Kuwaiti desk oversaw intelligence during Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, according to his book.

"Even when we were kids, he wanted to talk about foreign diplomacy and international relations," Epitropoulos said. "I always respected him. He went straight from New Castle to the big time in the belly of the diplomatic beast."

By the late 1990s, Kiriakou wrote that he was "yearning for action" and transferred to the operations bureau, where he served a tour in Greece and was chief of counterterrorism in Pakistan, where he was part of the raid that captured Abu Zubaydah after Sept. 11.

He returned at times to speak at schools in New Castle, and in 2008 he spoke to Pitt students about the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, which he called a "form of torture," but said U.S. agents were right to use it against Abu Zubaydah in 2002.

"Everyone back here was proud of him when he rose higher in his career and accomplished what he did," Panella said. "He was kind of the local kid who made it big."

The Associated Press contributed.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.