Was Ron Kessler a CIA Journalism Asset?

The author of The CIA at War pushes back against a Senate Report insinuation.

US President George W. Bush (R) and CIA Director George Tenet(L) pose for photographers at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters 20 March, 2001 in Langley, Virginia.

US President George W. Bush (R) and CIA Director George Tenet(L) pose for photographers at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters 20 March, 2001 in Langley, Virginia.

LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images

In 2003, Ronald Kessler, the writer known today for breaking the news that U.S. Secret Service agents solicited prostitutes while in Colombia, published a book called The CIA at War. It included an impressive trove of classified information—of the sort that can launch federal investigations, followed by journalist subpoenas (as to the New York Times’ James Risen), and sometimes ending with leakers (like former CIA agent John Kiriakou) in jail. Kessler wrote, for instance, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom the 9/11 commission named the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks, “told the CIA about a range of planned attacks—on U.S. convoys in Afghanistan, nightclubs in Dubai, targets in Turkey, and an Israeli embassy in the Middle East.” He wrote that Abu Zubaydah, a prisoner from Al Qaeda, offered intelligence on “planned plots.” (The detainee was “singing” with information, Kessler said.) But the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture, released Tuesday, called these statements “incongruent” with CIA records. It noted that CIA officials had “provided assistance” with Kessler’s book, in order to “shape press reporting on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” The Senate report quotes then-Senior Deputy General Counsel John Rizzo saying that the Director of the CIA “blessed” Kessler with agency cooperation. It seems to paint Kessler as something of a chosen mouthpiece, the person in whom the CIA put its faith.

Kessler believes that the Senate report’s implication that he is any kind of preferred journalist, an asset and dissemination tool, is outrageous. “I’m not some kind of patsy,” he said by phone on Wednesday evening. He said that he followed “standard operating procedure for journalism. They tried to make it into some nefarious plot to bamboozle me. It’s not.”

“I think this report is bogus, bogus, bogus,” Kessler continued. “Some rant on the Internet. It’s just totally off base, and motivated by some desire to push this point of view. They dishonestly spin things, and in this case they present it as though the CIA was looking for some reporter to post about their program.”

The Senate report describes further cooperation in 2007, when Kessler was writing another book. It mentions a meeting between CIA officials and the writer, after which Kessler revised his text to attribute CIA “successes” to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques. The report notes:

Kessler's "substantive changes" made after his meeting with CIA officials included the statement that many members of Congress and members of the media "have made careers for themselves by belittling and undercutting the efforts of the heroic men and women who are trying to protect us." Kessler's revised text contended that, "without winning the war being waged by the media against our own government, we are going to lose the war on terror because the tools that are needed will be taken away by a Congress swayed by a misinformed public and by other countries unwilling to cooperate with the CIA or FBI because they fear mindless exposure by the press." Finally, Kessler included the statement that "[t]oo many Americans are intent on demonizing those who are trying to protect us."

To this, Kessler took particular offense. “To infer that some text changed because I met with them, that they knew what went through my mind when they had a favorable conclusion about what I wrote... I came up with my own opinion. It’s not because I was being bamboozled by the CIA. That was a clear example of distortions that they seem to want to introduce. The Senate never wanted to talk to me. That alone is outrageous. They never asked for my comment.”

He went on, “They excluded the Republican side. That’s very unusual in any congressional investigation to exclude any side. Their own little version of events without any countervailing information, without actually talking to the people involved.”

“It’s just like the Rolling Stone article,” he added, referring to a controversial article concerning gang rape at the University of Virginia.

I asked what he made of the Senate Committee’s findings that some of the information the CIA gave him was inaccurate. He said, “I don’t think it was inaccurate at all. The key people involved—Panetta, Brennan, people Obama appointed—all say that this was helpful and helped to lead to Bin Laden. They didn’t say this was nirvana and led directly to Bin Laden. If anything, they downplayed.”

He disagreed with the report’s definition of torture. “Torture is defined in the dictionary as pain,” he told me. “These procedures were not painful, they were scary, they’re the same things inflicted on our troops to prepare them. There’s a respectable, moral issue involved, but to me our safety comes first.” He paused, and added, “Obviously President Obama believes that because he’s killing people with drones.”

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