John Kiriakou is the first current or former CIA officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information to a reporter.

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WASHINGTON — Looking back, John Kiriakou admits he should have known better. But when the FBI called him a year ago and invited him to stop by and “help us with a case,” he did not hesitate.

In his years as a CIA operative, Kiriakou had worked closely with FBI agents overseas. Months earlier, he had reported to the bureau a recruiting attempt by someone he believed to be an Asian spy.

“Anything for the FBI,” Kiriakou replied.

Only an hour into what began as a relaxed chat with the two agents did he begin to realize just who was the target of the investigation.

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Finally, the older agent leaned in and said, by Kiriakou’s recollection, “In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that right now we’re executing a search warrant at your house and seizing your electronic devices.”

On Jan. 25, Kiriakou is scheduled to be sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a plea deal in which he admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by emailing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it.

The law was passed in 1982, aimed at radical publications that deliberately sought to out undercover agents, exposing their secret work and endangering their lives.

In more than six decades of fraught interaction between the agency and the news media, Kiriakou is the first current or former CIA officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information to a reporter.

Kiriakou, 48, earned numerous commendations in nearly 15 years at the CIA, some of which were spent undercover overseas chasing al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

He led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah, a terrorist-logistics specialist for al-Qaida, and other militants whose capture in Pakistan was hailed as a notable victory after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He got mixed reviews at the agency, which he left in 2004 for a consulting job. Some praised his skills, first as an analyst and then as an overseas operative; others considered him a loose cannon.

Waterboarding critic

Kiriakou first stumbled into the public limelight by speaking out about waterboarding on television in 2007, quickly becoming a source for national-security journalists, including this reporter, who turned up in Kiriakou’s indictment last year as Journalist B.

When he gave the covert officer’s name to the freelancer, he said, he was simply trying to help a writer find a potential source and had no intention or expectation that the name would ever become public. In fact, it did not surface publicly until long after Kiriakou was charged.

He is remorseful, up to a point. “I should never have provided the name,” he said Friday in the latest of a series of interviews. “I regret doing it, and I never will do it again.”

At the same time, he argues, with the backing of some former agency colleagues, that the case — one of an unprecedented string of six prosecutions under President Obama for leaking information to the news media — was unfair and ill-advised as public policy.

His supporters are an unlikely collection of old friends, former spies, left-leaning critics of the government and conservative Christian opponents of torture. Director Oliver Stone sent a message of encouragement, as did several professors at Liberty University, where Kiriakou has taught.

Whatever his loquaciousness with journalists, they say, he neither intended to damage national security nor did so.

Bruce Riedel, a retired veteran CIA officer who led an Afghan war review for Obama and turned down an offer to be considered for CIA director in 2009, said Kiriakou, who worked for him in the 1990s, was “an exceptionally good intelligence officer” who does not deserve to go to prison.

“To me the irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that he’s going to be the only CIA officer to go to jail over torture,” even though he publicly denounced torture, Riedel said. “It’s deeply ironic under the Democratic president who ended torture.”

The leak prosecutions have been lauded on Capitol Hill as a long-overdue response to a rash of disclosures and defended by Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder Jr.

Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, hailed Kiriakou’s conviction: “The government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations. Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”

Plea offer accepted

The leak case is a devastating turn for Kiriakou, a father of five who considers himself a patriot, a proud Greek American from Pennsylvania steel country.

After he was charged last January, his wife, though accused of no wrongdoing, resigned under pressure from her CIA job as a top Iran specialist. The family had to go on food stamps for several months before she got a new job outside the government.

To make ends meet, they rented out their spacious Arlington, Va., house and moved to a rented bungalow a third the size with their three young children (he has two older children from his first marriage).

Their financial woes were complicated by Kiriakou’s legal fees. He said he had paid his defense lawyers more than $100,000 and still owed them $500,000; the specter of additional, bankrupting legal fees, along with the risk of a far longer prison term that could separate him from his wife and children for a decade or more, prompted him to take the plea offer, he said.

After Kiriakou first appeared on ABC, talking with Brian Ross in some detail about waterboarding, many reporters sought him out. I was among them. He was the first CIA officer to speak about the procedure, considered a notorious torture method since the Inquisition but declared legal by the Justice Department in secret opinions that were later withdrawn.

Kiriakou came across as friendly, courteous, disarmingly candid — and deeply ambivalent about what the CIA called “enhanced-interrogation techniques.”

He recounted his experiences in Pakistan and the CIA allowed him to include much of that material in his 2009 memoir, “The Reluctant Spy.”

Building case

From court documents and interviews, it is possible to piece together how the case against Kiriakou took shape. When he first spoke on ABC in 2007, the CIA sent the Justice Department a “crimes report,” a routine step to alert law-enforcement officials to an apparent unauthorized disclosure of classified information. At least six more referrals went to Justice as he continued to grant interviews covering similar ground.

In 2009, officials were alarmed to discover that defense lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had obtained names and photographs of CIA interrogators and other counterterrorism officers, including some who were still under cover.

It turned out that the lawyers, working under the name of the John Adams Project, wanted to call the CIA officers as witnesses in future military trials, perhaps to substantiate accounts of torture or harsh treatment.

But initial fears that al-Qaida might be able to stalk their previous captors drew widespread coverage. FBI agents discovered that a human-rights advocate hired by the John Adams Project, John Sifton, had compiled a dossier of photographs and names of the CIA officers; Sifton had exchanged emails with journalists, including Matthew Cole, a freelancer then working on a book about a CIA rendition case in Italy that had gone awry; and Cole had exchanged emails with Kiriakou. The FBI used search warrants to obtain access to Kiriakou’s two personal email accounts.

According to court documents, FBI agents discovered that in August 2008, Cole — identified as Journalist A in the charging documents — had asked Kiriakou if he knew the name of a covert officer who had a supervisory role in the rendition program, which involved capturing terrorist suspects and delivering them to prison in other countries.

Kiriakou at first said he did not recall the name, but followed up the next day with an email passing on the name. (Sifton, Cole and federal prosecutors all declined to comment.)

Kiriakou and his wife struggled with how to explain to the children that he is going away, probably in mid-February. They settled on telling the children that “Daddy lost a big fight with the FBI” and would have to live elsewhere for a while.

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