Intercepted Podcast: The Undisciplined Authoritarian

Journalist James Risen breaks down Trump’s declaration that the media is the enemy and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio talks about the war on the transgender community.

Top photo: Donte Stallworth (L), Chase Strangio (C), and James Risen (R). Photo Illustration: The Intercept. AP/Redux/Getty Images

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James Risen exposed warrantless wiretapping by Bush and Cheney, faced imprisonment under Obama’s Justice Department, and is preparing to do battle with Donald Trump. This week on Intercepted, the New York Times investigative journalist breaks down Trump’s declaration that journalists are the enemy and analyzes Trump’s royal court. Transgender Americans are being targeted in record numbers as Attorney General Jeff Sessions moves to quash LGBTQ rights. ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio and former New England Patriots star Donté Stallworth talk about the war on the transgender community and the rising resistance of pro athletes. Sam Biddle exposes the Trump-connected firm set up by the CIA that helped the NSA spy on the world, and actor Wallace Shawn stars as an NSA operative who is worried about adversaries spying on his luncheons. Plus music from Anohni.

[Music interlude]

Bob Ross: I thought today, we’d just do a very simple little scene that I hope you’ll enjoy. And in our world, we can do anything that we want to do here.

Donald J. Trump: This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

BR: In your world, you create any illusion that you want.

DJT: The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake.

BR: Just let your imagination take you anywhere you want to go.

DJT: And the wall is going to be a great wall.

BR: Don’t worry about it. You don’t always have to have a perfect vision in your mind.

DJT: It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news.

BR: And in your world, you make all the decisions.

DJT: I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.

BR: Create any illusion that you want here. Mm. I can do anything. Absolutely anything. Let’s get crazy.

DJT: You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons and other things, like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.

BR: Let’s have some more fun. Hm.

DJT: I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it. Nuclear holocaust would be like no other.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode five of Intercepted.

DJT: When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that they don’t get away with it. They have their own agenda. And their agenda is not your agenda.

JS: If you study the history of authoritarian regimes and fascist movements, you’ll find that there are some core common strategies and tactics that unite all of them. Today, we’re gonna focus on one particular part of that, the dehumanization of classes of people, and attacks on a free and independent press.

DJT: Wrong.

JS: Later in the show, I’m gonna be talking to the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, Jim Risen. He was targeted by the Obama Justice Department for seven years — seven — in retaliation for reporting that he did exposing the Bush and Cheney administration. And Risen faced imprisonment for refusing to give up his sources. I’m gonna talk to him about Trump’s declaration of war against a free press. But first, I want to focus on the hate and vitriol and dehumanization of transgender people in our society.

Newscaster: Investigators say on Wednesday evening, they found the body of 41-year-old Mario, better known as Mesha Caldwell, on Heindl Road in Canton. Family and friends tell us Caldwell was a transgender who went by the name Mesha.

Friend of Caldwell: This is something that we have seen continuous — I know for the last every four years, I have lost a transgender friend.

Newscaster: 25-year-old Maya Young, who police say is a transgender woman, was found stabbed multiple times —

Newscaster: The July 20th murder of a transgender woman on —

Newscaster: Taja DeJesus, a transgender woman who was stabbed to death at her Bay View apartment —

Newscaster: Investigating the murder of a transgender woman. She’s been identified as Brandi Bledsoe —

Newscaster: Kiesha Jenkins, a transgender woman, was murdered —

Newscaster: Accused in the death of a transgender woman at a Montgomery hotel —

Newscaster: A U.S. soldier is accused of killing a transgender woman in West Texas. The FBI is now involved and investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.

JS: Hate crimes against transgender people are on the rise, particularly trans women of color. Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the U.S. There were 27 murders, most of them against trans women of color. This year, there have already been three reported homicides of trans women, all of them women of color. And these are just the cases that we know about that were reported. Last year, lawmakers in 34 states introduced more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills. At least 50 of those targeted transgender people specifically. Now, part of the propaganda that’s being pushed to defend the smearing and dehumanization of trans people centers around gender nonspecific bathrooms, or whether trans women have the right to use the women’s room.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: You can mark today as the day that Texas is drawing a line in the sand and saying no. The privacy and safety of Texans is our first priority, not political correctness.

National Organization for Marriage Ad Narrator: Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day.

Gov. Pat McCrory: Allow boys to use the girl’s locker rooms and showers. Are we really talking about this? Does the desire to be politically correct outweigh our children’s privacy and safety?

Massachusetts Family Institute Ad Narrator: Our legislators are really going to make it legal for men to use women’s bathrooms to somehow help transgender people. But that makes no sense.

JS: This idea that’s being promoted is that it’s going to put real women at risk. It’s gonna put children under the threat of being attacked. Now, this line of law and order, we need to protect the women and children — it’s long been the rallying cry of those who seek to dehumanize others as part of their broader agenda of hate. Not so long ago in this country, black people were portrayed as nonhumans, and were lynched because they allegedly smiled or whistled at white women. Law and order.

The Trump administration now, on an official level, is accelerating the campaign against LGBTQ people, and it’s moving to roll back some of the Obama-era gains.

Sean Spicer: The president has maintained for a long time that this is a states’ rights issue, and not one for the federal government, that this is not something that the federal government should be involved in. This is a states’ rights issue.

JS: But it’s not just the White House or lawmakers around the country and their legal, legislative war to strip or deny the rights of transgender people. It’s also fueled by public mocking or shaming of trans people — a rejection of their humanity.

Milo Yiannopoulos: But I think that women and girls should be protected from having people — men who are confused about their sexual identities in their bathrooms. That person —

Bill Maher: That’s not unreasonable. Yeah.

JS: All of this helps to normalize and even encourage the violence unleashed against them. To talk all about this, I’m joined by two people. Chase Strangio is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project. Chase is one of the leading lawyers spearheading the fight against these discriminatory bills nationwide, and is also one of the lawyers representing the imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who herself is a transgender woman. In addition to the legal battles that Chase is helping to lead, it’s also personal for Chase. He is transgender.

And I’m joined by Donté Stallworth, who played ten years in the NFL as a wide receiver. He’s been very outspoken on LGBTQ issues and also on U.S. foreign policy. All right, so Donté Stallworth, Chase Strangio, welcome to Intercepted.

Donté Stallworth: Thanks for having me.

Chase Strangio: Yeah, thanks for having me.

JS: So, Chase, let’s begin with you. Give us an overview of the reality facing transgender communities, people in this country, both from a legal perspective, but also with regard to hate crimes.

CS: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve seen tremendous progress for the trans community over the last five, 10 years, but the reality is, I think, in sort of three key metrics, things are pretty dire for the community by and large, and particularly for trans women of color. On the legal level, we still don’t have explicit protections at the federal level for trans people, so that means no explicit protections in employment, housing, public accommodations. But then we’ve also seen an upsurge in anti-trans laws being proposed, and in some cases, passed, like House Bill 2 in North Carolina. Then, you all —

JS: Explain what House Bill 2 is in North Carolina.

CS: Yeah. So, House Bill 2 is the law that the North Carolina General Assembly, in their infinite wisdom, passed through a special session last March. It was designed to strip localities from expanding protections to include LGBT people in response to what Charlotte had done to protect people. But it also went even further and implemented a discriminatory mandate with respect to transgender peoples’ use of restroom and locker room facilities, essentially saying trans people can’t use the bathroom and the locker room that matches who they are. You have to use one that corresponds to what’s listed on your birth certificate.

And then going back to two other metrics of conditions for trans people, one is the reality and the drivers of incarceration of the community, particularly trans women of color, which is of course related to the lack of legal protections. But you just see incredibly high rates of police profiling of trans women as sex workers. The data shows almost 50 percent of black trans women have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. The third metric, then, is the individually perpetrated violence. And we see, with more visibility, with more trends, people being out as trans, an incredibly high rate of violence towards the community. Again, particularly targeted toward trans women of color.

JS: And the — I was reading through some of the statistics, and the numbers are just spiking. They’re just going through the roof, of hate crimes being committed against the broader LGBTQ community, but specifically against transgender people. What factors are making that a reality? And also, I’m sure that there are a lot of totally unreported hate crimes against people from that whole broad community, but specifically the trans community.

CS: Yeah. I mean, so I do think we just have to start from the assumption that we’re only hearing just a fraction of the numbers because people aren’t reporting them, police aren’t investigating them, and then the media in many circumstances is misgendering people, so nobody ever knows that it’s a trans person that’s been murdered. You know, you can look to so may factors as to why this is happening, but I think one of the key ones, and especially with respect to the uptick, is that with the visibility and these new laws, like HB2, the new rhetoric that is insistent upon calling trans women men, about propagating lies about predatory behavior of trans people, it legitimizes individually perpetrated violence. Because what usually happens is someone ends up in some sort of romantic encounter with a trans person, and finds out that they’re trans, and feels such rage, which is obviously being given to them in a feedback loop by society, and then kills them. And then — or a stranger on the street is so angry that a trans person exists that you see in violence towards that individual.

JS: How many attacks against women or children have there been in bathrooms by — that are committed by transgender people?

CS: You know, I know of not one incident.

JS: This isn’t a rampant occurrence around the country? ‘Cause there’s some very prominent people that seem to think that this is a plague, that transgender people are preying on our children and our women in bathrooms.

CS: Yeah. And that —

JS: You’re saying that that is not true?

CS: That is just a patently untrue lie, and it is a dangerous one. And it is one that we are hearing from people. But there’s not a shred of data to support it. And people are looking for that. They would love for there to be lots of examples, and they look everywhere, but there are no examples. And so, all that people are left with are lies and just the reality that, at the end of the day, it’s our job to show that what people are doing is urging that trans people not exist. That is their — that is really want they want, because there’s no truth to what they’re saying. And really, what they’re saying is that trans people are so gross and uncomfortable to me that I would rather come up with a reason why we should justify the violence against them and justify the passage of laws that tells them that they’re not fit to participate in public life.

JS: Right, and let’s remember the dehumanization is one of the core early stages of authoritarian regimes, fascist movements, justifying not the official state-sanctioned violence against whoever happens to be the least among that society and the views of the state, but also encouraging mob action. Over and over and over again through history, you see this. And I want to bring in Donté Stallworth, who is an NFL wide receiver. What brings you guys together, in addition to probably some common views, is that Donté played for the Patriots, Chase is from the area up there and is a Patriots fan. I don’t want to increase the amount of hate mail you get, Chase, so I’m gonna have to take care —

CS: I will take it for the Pats. Anything else, I’ll be annoyed, but the Pats, I will take it.

JS: Is it okay if I call you a weirdo for being a Pats fan?

CS: That’s fine.

JS: Okay, good. ‘Cause those people do truly baffle me.

DJT: Tom Brady, great guy, great friend of mine. Great, great champion. Unbelievable winner.

JS: Donté, we’re now seeing an incredible engagement from very high profile athletes. We had the recent confrontation of the CEO of Under Armour by Steph Curry, this massive NBA star; Colin Kaepernick taking the knee, which then sparked a lot of other athletes to take action. But now the NFL itself is basically threatening the state of Texas that if it goes forward with the very kinds of bills or policies that Chase is laying out, that they’ll consider taking away future events in the state of Texas. So, your analysis of what’s going on right now within the pro sports community, specific to this issue first, and then we’ll talk about some other ones later.

DS: Well, initially, when you look at — I think there has been an uptick in a social consciousness of professional athletes and even collegiate athletes as well. And I would say that started probably right around the time when the things that were going on in Ferguson with the protests, and players for the St. Louis Rams were conscious of this. Players around the league were conscious of this. And so, when you have players who are starting to awaken to what type of power they have off of the football field, then that is something that can become special, especially when it’s used for a progressive movement. And again, this was all for equality.

And so, moving on to the NFL, this is not something that’s new. Back in 1990, the NFL threatened to take away a Super Bowl from the state of Arizona because they did not recognize and acknowledge Martin Luther King’s birthday as a state holiday, and they did take it away. And in this country, money talks. And so, they came to terms with the NFL. I don’t want to say necessarily with the NFL, but they came to terms with designating the Martin Luther King holiday as a state holiday, and three years later, lo and behold, you had a Super Bowl in Arizona. So the NFL understands the power that they have, and I think they’ve pretty much made it clear what they could do.

And you look at what happened with North Carolina last year. They lost reportedly up to $600 million dollars, so at the end of the day, the state legislators and the people of that state will have an issue when money’s leaving that state.

JS: And Chase, how does this all play into what you guys are doing at the ACLU on this issue, the fact that you now have a very large, powerful cultural institution in the United States in the NFL taking this position on this issue?

CS: Are you gonna make me say something nice about Goodell here? Because that is gonna be really hard for me. But no, I mean, I do think that —

JS: Well, Donté made the point.

CS: Yeah, yeah.

JS: I mean, at the end of the day, these guys are ultra über-capitalist.

CS: Right. Yeah.

JS: But it’s also — there’s a political value to it.

CS: Yeah. There’s a huge political value. And I think of course, we’re pushing their hand by organizing movements that are making them — because they know their fan base are gonna make a difference in their bottom line. And so, I don’t want to give — I think the businesses and the institutions are important, but of course, it’s related to all the mobilizing we do on the ground. But of course, yeah, the experience in North Carolina was incredibly helpful and instructive, both in terms of the loss of revenue and McCrory’s lost election. And now, the NFL — the Super Bowl just happened. And now — I do want to ding them a little bit. They — it wasn’t like they pulled the Super Bowl that was there. I mean, that would have been really hard, but they could have done that. And that would have really hurt Texas badly, and they didn’t do that.

But even now, just coming in and saying, “Listen, we’re gonna play ball with you, and you’re gonna lose the Super Bowl if you go down — future Super Bowls if you go down this road.” And so, between the NCAA, the NBA and the NFL all wielding their power in this way, you’re not acting in the best interest of your state at all if you’re willing to forego that amount of revenue for the purpose of telling people where to go to the bathroom because of a made-up problem that you’re focusing on.

JS: Donté, part of your political development was around the issue of homophobia and LGBTQ rights. Maybe talk about how that issue, in a very macho, manly culture of the NFL helped to kind of transform some of your thinking.

DS: Yeah. I think there’s —

JS: Trump and those guys like to talk about, “It was just locker room talk when we talk about grabbin’ pussy and all this stuff.”

DS: Yeah.

JS: But I’m sure you hear a lot of that in the actual locker room also.

DS: Well, yeah. There’s — it’s definitely not a churchgoing environment. I mean there are instances where guys talk about things that they wouldn’t talk about in public. But, me personally, I grew up kind of in this environment in California where homophobia was rampant in my neighborhood. And it was never in anger or a violent outburst towards gays, but it was just a sense of, like, I don’t want to be around them. And so, luckily for me, I ended up moving to Miami after I was drafted, and there was this restaurant that I frequent called Nobu in Miami. And so I was there all the time, eating sushi, of course. And the waiters and the waitresses and the host, the general managers, I knew everyone there ‘cause I was there literally every day. And one of the waiters was gay.

And so, I invited all of them, ‘cause they were friendly to me, so I invited all of them to come out with me one night. And I remember the couple times that we went, he didn’t come. And so, I asked one of the young ladies who I was probably closest to at the restaurant, I asked her, “Why didn’t he come to the spot with us?” And she said, “Well, you know, because he’s gay, and the whole football macho thing.” And my heart just kind of sunk. Like, am I giving off that vibe? And she was like, “No, it’s just, you know, you come in here with the other big football players, and you come in here with the women, and blah, blah, blah.” And for me, I’ve never looked at myself as a bigot, but then I started to understand how I used to think, because I didn’t want to be around gays. And then, I specifically — next time he passed me, I grabbed him and said, “Hey, we’re all going out later. You should come.” And he said, “Well, I don’t — I’m not sure. I may have a couple things to do.” And so I kept pulling on his coattails and asking everyone else to have him come out, and he ended up coming out.

And I spent — when he finally got there, we spent like 20, 30 minutes talking, just he and I. And I left there that night — I remember lying down in my bed thinking what a bigot I had been. I was like, this dude is super cool. He’s not trying to talk to me and get my phone number and holler at me — I mean, like the myths you’ve talked about. And I realized how ignorant I was, and I felt so, so bad. And over time, I just realized that I can’t just — you know, I can’t leave it there. I need to start becoming vocal about this because still, a lot of my teammates and friends and even family members were still kind of in that mindset that I had been in.

JS: There are several players on the New England Patriots that have stated publicly that they will not go to the White House to meet with Donald Trump. And you were invited on Bill O’Reilly and on CNN to talk about this issue. And there’s a lot of people that say, “Well, people like Colin Kaepernick,” you know, who’s of course the San Francisco 49ers, they should stay out—

DS: Spawn of Satan. He’s the spawn of Satan.

JS: Yeah. They should stay out of politics, and that Martellus Bennett and these other people, they basically — all they should be doing for us is performing in the bread and circus. And — but you’ve pushed back against that quite strongly. What’s your argument for why what they’re doing is right?

DS: I mean, I think what they’re doing is right is — I’m a big fan of history. And so, you can go to recent history in 2003, 2004, when Steve Nash wore this shirt in pregame that said, “No war. Shoot for peace,” and was ridiculed for that. And even Skip Bayless, who was at — I believe he was at —I believe he was writing for the San Jose Mercury at the time — just totally ridiculed him and said, “How could you have the audacity to speak your political opinions? You should be more worried about playing in the game.” And these people don’t understand that there are some things more — even though this is a part of our life, this is our occupation, what we do for a living and what we love to do and have dreamt of doing since we were children. But there are some things that are more important than sports.

And you look at what Carlos Delgado did in 2004. He did not stand for “God Bless America,” and the same thing. He was ridiculed for that. His reasoning for not standing was — he acknowledged, obviously, the horrors of 9/11 and what happened to the American people in New York City, and at the Pentagon and with the crash in Pennsylvania. But he also acknowledged the lives of innocent Iraqis and Afghanis who were caught in this war on terror who had nothing to do with any terrorism. And he was ridiculed for that. I don’t understand how you can ridicule somebody for trying to bring light to an issue of civilians being murdered that had nothing to do with the war.

JS: Well, and you — I mean, and you and I have talked about this before. You go back to the ‘68 Olympics.

DS: Yup.

JS: With John Carlos and Tommie Smith holding up the black leather fist at a time when civil rights leaders were being assassinated.

DS: Right.

JS: Where open war was being waged against black people, and where rights were being denied. And the U.S. was in Vietnam, and Mohammed Ali refusing to enter the U.S. military, a case that also went all the way to the Supreme Court over his draft resistance.

Mohammed Ali: My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people, some poor hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, or rape and kill my mother and father. What, I’m gonna shoot them for what? How am I gonna shoot them? They’re just poor little black people, little babies, and children, and women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

JS: A lot of stories of resistance and using your public platform to speak out. I find it interesting that these attacks come from people who also are very passionate supporters of Donald Trump, who is a reality TV personality that has become president.

DS: That seems to be what people are expecting now. And I don’t — when you talk about these things, you just mention, there’s so much historical precedent that is set with all of this, and it’s — when I look at it, it’s like, well, you look at Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The L.A. Times said it was a “Nazi-like salute.” You look at — again, go back to Steve Nash, Carlos Delgado. A lot of these players, even Jackie Robinson, I mean, you can look at history in so many different aspects and so many different sports. But at the end of the day — and of course, the great Mohammed Ali, but at the end of the day, all of these players have been vindicated for standing up for human rights, for standing up for equality, and justice, and peace, and truth. My biggest thing is, be careful when you criticize these players because usually, they turn out on the right side of history, and not the people who are casting their aspersions on them.

JS: Chase, when ordinary people say, “What can I do?” about a whole slew of issues, I’m curious what you tell people on this issue that you’re working on right now with all of these fights for transgender people to be given the exact same rights as people of any — of other genders. When you’re in that struggle, what would you say to ordinary people beyond just support the ACLU and give us some money?

CS: Well, I mean, I think first, is exactly sort of what Donté described about his own process with sort of internalized homophobia. I mean, we all have to recognize that whether it’s about communities we’re a part of, or particularly when it’s communities we’re not a part of, that we have work to do to recognize our own biases and discomforts, and sort of really work actively to undo those. And part of that is working within ourselves, and part of that is taking it upon ourselves to educate and engage with others. And that’s really how we move through history, how we make progress. You can win all the cases in the world, but if you’re not sort of fundamentally mobilizing power in the communities and educating people, you’re not gonna be successful.

And, I think, use the platforms that you have. I mean if you’re someone with — like a professional athlete with an incredible platform, it is that much more powerful to take that problem. This week, Laverne Cox took her moment at the Grammys to talk about our client, and that was the single most effective piece of public education for our case that we had. And it took her less than 60 seconds.

Laverne Cox: Everyone, please Google Gavin Grimm. He’s going to the Supreme Court in March. #StandWithGavin.

CS: It was transformative. It could change the outcome of something. And so, I think, obviously, if you have a huge platform and you have a huge, I think, amount of responsibility and power. If you have a small platform, then you have — you still have a responsibility to engage and to try to work to sort of upset these power structures. Then I think just quickly going back to the professional athletes, I do think what is important to note is that in this country, which is really founded on anti-blackness in almost every way, we consume black athletes in a particular way, and when they speak out, white people in particular are like, “Well, you’re not playing your role, because we’re okay with you as long as we can control your body in a particular way.”

And so, I think when you have athletes sort of standing up to that, what you’re seeing in the people who are criticizing them is their discomfort with the order that we’ve set up, which is precisely to set up to oppress and dehumanize black people and many other groups, anti-blackness, I think, being one of the most — the most important thing to really centralize and think about. But all of the work that we have to do is about upsetting those power structures and recognizing that the people who criticize us when we’re doing that are just the people who need those power structures because they’re benefiting from them.

DS: Perfectly said. I mean that was right on. And you get it a lot as a professional athlete. You’ll hear guys say it all the time, where they’re telling you to stick to sports, whatever your respective sport is, and that’s well said. I have nothing to add. That was perfect.

JS: Donté Stallworth, thank you for being with us.

DS: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

JS: Chase Strangio, thank you as well for being on Intercepted.

CS: Thanks so much.

[Music interlude]

JS: Donté Stallworth played ten years in the NFL as a wide receiver, and Chase Strangio is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project.

[“Drone Bomb Me” by Anohni]

So drone bomb me

Blow me from the mountains and into the sea

Blow me from the side of the mountains

Blow my head off, explode my crystal guts

Lay my purple on the grass

Let me be the first

I’m not so innocent

Let me be the one

JS: That is the musical artist Anohni, performing her song “Drone Bomb Me.” Coming up, we’re gonna talk about a company with close ties to the Trump administration that helped that NSA spy on the world. Stay with this.

[Music interlude]

JS: All right, we’re back with Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill. Well, Donald Trump is now in control of the most powerful surveillance system the world has ever known. And this whole apparatus, the architecture of spying and surveillance that’s run by the NSA, the CIA, the DIA and all of the other alphabet soup agencies for decades, that whole system has been fueled by the private sector — private spy companies, private defense contractors. And that’s been true under both Democrats and Republicans. It was true under Barack Obama. But Trump is perhaps the most militant radical free marketer — so-called free marketer — to ever control the presidency. And early on in his administration, if you remember, Donald Trump had that meeting with all of these heads of tech companies. And some of them looked like they had been dragged in there, and some of them clearly were excited to be there.

DJT: I’m here to help you folks do well.

JS: Well, that was all arranged by Trump’s good friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor. This week, The Intercept has a major exposé on one of Peter Thiel’s companies, Palantir Technologies. And the exposé, which is written by my colleague Sam Biddle, reveals new details about how Palantir helped the NSA expand its global spying operations, and also the role of the CIA in creating Peter Thiel’s company, Palantir. The article is called, “Peter Thiel’s Palantir Helped the NSA Spy on the Whole World.” It’s author, Sam Biddle, joins me now. Sam, welcome to Intercepted. What is Palantir Technologies?

Sam Biddle: It’s hard to describe because it is so open-ended by design. But what it’s intended to do is take vastly different kinds of data — so videos, emails, spreadsheets, PowerPoints — basically any kind of computerized information from all different sources. You import it into one centralized database that can then be visualized, graphed, charted in a lot of really intuitive and useful ways.

JS: What kind of data?

SB: Sure. So, there are —

JS: And whose data?

SB: Great question. There are two main Palantir products. One is called Palantir Gotham and Palantir Metropolis. Yes, this is a very nerdy company.

JS: Is there also Palantir Batwoman and Palantir Joker?

SB: [Laughs] Not yet. Not yet.

JS: All right.

SB: Although the company’s name is a Lord of the Rings reference.

Pippin: He asked me my name. I didn’t answer. He hurt me.

Gandalf: What did you tell him about Frodo and the Ring?

SB: So, Palantir Gotham is aimed at government, so law enforcement, FEMA, Homeland Security and the intelligence community, of course. So that’s a lot of geographic data. Again, GPS coordinates, photos, videos, emails.

JS: Whose emails?

SB: Anyone’s emails. It could literally be any data source. You have to bring your own data. This isn’t software that’s used to procure data. But let’s say the FBI has subpoenaed an email provider, and they get a bulk dump of text. And then they also have phone call records, and then they also have GPS data from someone’s phone. This stuff is hard to visualize together ‘cause there’s — one’s a spreadsheet and one’s text, etc. But with Palantir, you can basically put it all in one map. I mean, sometimes literally on Google Earth, which it connects to. So it makes it relatively easy to analyze the kind of data that the CIA, or the FBI, or Homeland Security would be dealing with in the course of an investigation.

JS: Now, you’ve been going through the archive of the material provided by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and you’ve been looking in there at the materials on Palantir. What did you find in your investigation?

SB: It’s been known and widely reported that Palantir was partially funded by In-Q-Tel, which is the CIA’s — believe it or not, their venture capital arm. They fund startups regularly. Palantir’s one of them. But we have documents that describe and state that Palantir was actually co-developed with help from the U.S. intelligence community, from the CIA; that it wasn’t just their cash that was paying Palantir’s engineers, but actual U.S. intelligence analysts and employees working in tandem with Palantir employees.

JS: And what’s the problem with that?

SB: I think that any time the private sector and the most capable spies on the planet are making a product in secret, the uses of which are also secret, I think that should be unsettling to most people. I mean, again, every part of this is hidden and secret, so we don’t know exactly what they built into it, or what role they had, or how much oversight they had. But it’s generally not great when our country’s police and spies are working with mass-market startups.

JS: Now, one of the other things that you’re revealing, and, I understand for the first time, is confirmation of the extent of Palantir’s integration with the NSA and its Five Eyes partner’s XKEYSCORE program. Which of course was one of the first massive exposés Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras did with Edward Snowden that revealed this massive collection of data, private communications, etc., not just foreign adversaries, but also American citizens. So what did you learn about Palantir’s role in that?

SB: One of the problems with XKEYSCORE is that it’s sort of too good at vacuuming up the world’s metadata and communications records. I mean, they deal with tens of billions of individual records, which no human can comprehend, and even machines would struggle to comprehend. Palantir’s role has to been to say, okay, look: you feed the raw data from XKEYSCORE into an application we’ve created, and it will then be made relatively intelligible to your analysts. So, the problem of having too much spy data, too much private collection, we can fix or at least mitigate. I like to sort of think of it as the difference between, in olden times, when you would have your Hotmail or Yahoo email inbox with just everything listed in chronological order with no real organization. The big deal about Gmail was they put it in these convenient threads, and they made it really easy to search. And it was the same data, but presented in a very — a highly useful, intuitive way. So that’s sort of what Palantir’s provided the NSA and its partner spy agencies.

JS: Let’s say that these agencies actually are following the laws and not lying under oath to the Senate. Is there a problem with the capabilities that Palantir is providing to intelligence agencies?

SB: If an agency is in a position where it has literally so much data that it can’t even make sense of how much data it has, it’s probably collecting too much data, right? It’s at odds with the idea of, look, we carefully target our surveillance tools. We only go after bad guys. It’s hard to reconcile that claim with the fact of we have tens of billions of records. There aren’t tens of billions of terrorists. There’s only so many bad people — bad people, however you want to qualify that — in the world, right? So, they clearly have an overabundance problem.

And Palantir is stepping in saying look, more or less, we can fix that problem. It’s cool that you’re collecting a shitload of Skype, Facebook message, Twitter, whatever, every possible form of electronic communication. We’re gonna help you with that problem, which is to make all that useful. Previously, you were encumbered by the fact that you had too much to use. Now you can use it all. Which again, sure, that’s a position they could take. But it’s hard to take that position and then also say, we believe very strongly in the protection of civil liberties and personal privacy. Those are mutually exclusive positions.

JS: Does Palantir, and do Palantir contractors, employees, etc. — are they retaining this data that they’re processing and breaking down for these intelligence agencies?

SB: All we know is — and we were actually able to look at some Palantir source code, which contains an end user license agreement, more or less, so, the terms of use. Here’s what you have to agree to if you want to use this software. And it says, “This Palantir software is not to be used for any activity that could possibly violate anyone’s privacy or rights of any kind.” And this was literally software that was handed over to GCHQ, the U.K.’s equivalent of the NSA, for use with XKEYSCORE, the NSA’s massive collection tool. So it’s clear that they don’t give a shit about their own legal standards or contractual obligations for their clients, so that is worrying.

But I think — and this is something that you’ve, of course, reported on a lot about, is the use of contractors in the military, the overlap of the private sector and soldiers, and everything that can go wrong with that. Palantir routinely uses what they call forward-deployed engineers or FDEs, where they will send their employees, their engineers, to client’s offices, and they will just work out of their offices so that the client has in-house representatives from the company working alongside them. And we have documents showing that Palantir employees were available to help train GCHQ spies.

JS: So they’re like — so Peter Thiel is like, “Here’s our forward-deployed engineer, Bilbo Baggins.”

SB: Right. [Laughs] Yes.

JS: And he is going to walk you through on how to use our incredibly invasive tool.

SB: Right. Right. So, look. Even if Palantir is not collecting or storing this intel data, they’re — at the very least, they’re helping the collection of it, right? And providing hands-on training for the people who are doing the spying. So, you have to ask yourself, should software engineers from Palo Alto be working alongside the most powerful and capable spies in the world?

JS: Right. And one of my big picture concern about the sort of collect-it-all mentality is that when they’re vacuuming up everything, and they’re saying, “Oh, but we’re not gonna access that, we’re not gonna look at that.” But they do repeatedly. They use it for parallel construction. Our entire lives now, our medical records, our emails, our texts, our deepest secrets are being held, not only on the servers of the companies that provide us with these tools, but also in the hands of multiple intelligence agencies. And most people in their life are not gonna end up in the crosshairs of the NSA, or the CIA, or Chinese intelligence or the Kremlin. But if you do, it’s essentially a time machine to go back and do a very invasive proctological exam, basically, of your entire life.

SB: Right. And one thing that you could normally take solace in is, look, I’m a needle in a global haystack. Even if they try to define me, it would be hard, ‘cause I’m buried alongside everyone else. But that’s exactly what Palantir is trying to correct, is say, “Look, there aren’t—there’s no more haystack. It’s all needles.”

JS: All right, Sam. We’re gonna leave it there. Thanks for being with us.

SB: My pleasure.

JS: Sam Biddle is a reporter for The Intercept. You can read his article on Palantir at

[Music interlude]

JS: Well, there’s a whole lot of intrigue around the questions of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia and the calls that his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, that were reportedly picked up by U.S. spy agencies. But according to a document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA isn’t just concerned about what may or may not be said on the phone by Americans in sensitive positions talking to Russians. At least one NSA operative is also concerned that U.S. spies going out for an innocent dinner may prove to be an OPSEC — or operational security — nightmare.

Wallace Shawn: April 7, 2004. Highest possible classification is top secret. OPSEC. Why should you care? From, redacted.

Most of us have taken the mandatory OPSEC training for this year, and many people are wondering, why should I care, or what does this have to do with me? If you think OPSEC doesn’t apply to you, consider the following scenario.

[Restaurant ambiance]

Waiter: All right, if I could just have you follow me.

WS: You’re at a luncheon at a local restaurant to bid farewell to Sue, a coworker who is moving on to a new office. There are 15 people there, all agency employees from your immediate team, plus Sue’s spouse, an agency employee who works in another area.


Your boss gets up and starts talking about the great contributions Sue has made to your efforts against international crime, and the wonderful working relationship she’s had with our sister agencies inside the Beltway.

Boss: Such a valuable member of our team.

WS: He goes on to mention that she’ll make a great branch chief. And the people working Russia are lucky to get her.

Boss: We’re all gonna miss you greatly, especially —

WS: Sue gets up to thank specific individuals present who have helped her succeed. Sound familiar? Then you’ve witnessed or perhaps participated in a demonstration of poor OPSEC. But who cares? Did anybody do any harm here? After all, we know what is classified, and we would never divulge that in public, right? But have you ever stopped to consider what your unclassified public discussions might be giving away? Take this scenario, for instance.

This is a scene that’s played out monthly in the Fort Meade area. It’s entirely possible that nothing said during the speeches was classified, and everyone who attended works here. So what’s the big deal? To understand the answer, you need to think like the adversary. That’s really what OPSEC is all about. What information do our adversaries care about, and what are we giving away every day? Let’s look at the scenario from an adversary perspective.

Pretend you’re the bad guy sitting at the next table in the restaurant where the luncheon is being held. What did you learn? Take a minute to think about what information you believe was shared, and then compare that to the list below.

One, the names and faces of team members picked up either because of introductions to Sue’s husband, or just in casual conversation. Two, the fact that this team works on international crime issues. This shows not only that the NSA is interested in this issue; it also shows the adversary who specifically knows about this target. Three, the most senior people on the team have been identified, specifically the boss, who praised Sue’s efforts. It’s also highly likely that the general hierarchy of the team can be determined just by watching social interaction. Four, the links between NSA and other agencies working crime issues. Five, the skills necessary to work both the international crime and Russian targets, and any parallels between them.

There are potentially many more correlations that can be drawn from this scenario, but I think you get the point. So what can we do to reduce this risk? There are some simple adjustments we can make that can help a great deal. No, I’m not going to suggest discontinuing luncheons. But requesting a private room or for tables to be set up away from other customers for privacy purposes is a relatively easy way to make it much more difficult for an adversary to gather information unobtrusively

I hope that this has shown you that OPSEC does in fact apply to everyone. The SID OPSEC program managers are ready to assist you in determining how OPSEC relates to your particular mission area and day-to-day work activities. For more information, contact redacted or redacted on redacted.

[Music interlude]

JS: That was actor Wallace Shawn performing a document from the NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDtoday. And by the way, Wally has a great play that’s currently being performed in New York City. It’s called “Evening at the Talk House.” If you’re in town, check it out.

[Music interlude]

DJT: Look, I want to see an honest press. When I started off today by saying that it’s so important to the public to get an honest press. The press — the public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know.

JS: In Donald Trump’s constant denunciation of the news media, he almost never forgets to mention what he calls the “failing New York Times.” Now, I’ve had my own views on that paper’s failings over the years, including some of its coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War that helped push the false narrative that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But that paper also employs a number of really good journalists, including one of the best journalists reporting on the realities of the post-9/11 era. And I’m talking about investigative reporter James Risen.

He was the first reporter to expose warrantless wiretapping. No, not Edward Snowden revelations, warrantless wiretapping. Wiretapping as it was happening in the Bush and Cheney administration. And James Risen had to fight his own editors to publish that story. Risen has broken numerous stories on private war contractors, torture, the CIA, and special operations forces. And for seven years, he fought a battle against the Justice Department, the Obama Justice Department, which tried to force him to give up his sources. James Risen never budged, even under the threat of imprisonment. Well, eventually, the Justice Department dropped its pursuit of Risen, but the precedent set in that case is gonna have far-reaching implications, particularly in light of Trump’s posturing about leakers and journalism in general. Jim, welcome to Intercepted.

James Risen: Thanks for having me.

JS: You know, I think a lot of people are making a mistake by just covering Trump as though he’s this buffoon, and oh my god, what’s the next thing he’s going to say? Because I do think there are not just whiffs, but kind of a growing stench of authoritarian, almost fascistic policies that seem to be being implemented via Twitter, the public statements, these executive orders. So, I mean, I see something quite demonic in the attack on the news media because I don’t think it’s really just an attack on news organizations or journalism. It is — it’s an attempt to sort of say, “Nothing is true unless it comes from the Dear Leader.”

JR: Right. Right. That’s the scary part of it. And I think there — he seems to have a base of support for that in the United States. And I think that’s one of the relatively uncovered aspects of the campaign was the degree to which people were voting for an authoritarian candidate consciously. I don’t think that’s just a side plot. I think there was a significant portion of the American people who want authoritarianism. And I think Trump is — he’s definitely got a strong strain of authoritarianism. And I think one of his — one of the problems we have is that the Republican Party refuses to recognize that. And so, you’ve got all these relatively normal Republicans trying to reign in Trump in various ways without acknowledging what he really is.

JS: Right. And it’s like journalist Allan Nairn said recently, that he kicked the oligarchs and the neocons and the traditional Republicans, he dragged them unwillingly into power in this election.

JR: The problem is, you don’t really know from day to day what Trump is or is going to do. I mean, I think you’re right. He’s authoritarian. At the other side, he’s kind of completely unhinged on certain things. And so, you never know quite where he’s going. In some ways, that’s comforting. You know, I was talking to a friend of mine who used to be in the government who was saying — he worked overseas, and he was saying, “You know, I’ve seen author — I’ve seen dictators up close. And the one thing about dictators who are successful is that they are disciplined.” And he said, “The one thing that gives me comfort about Trump is that he seems completely undisciplined,” which is small comfort, actually.

JS: [Laughs] What — you, you wrote this very provocative — well, I actually didn’t find it provocative ‘cause I follow your work, and I know what happened to you under both the Bush and Obama administrations. But the title of it was, “If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama.”

JR: The Obama administration was by far the most anti-press administration we’ve had since at least Nixon. They — as you know, they conducted more leak investigations and did more leak prosecutions — more than all the previous administrations combined. And they targeted journalists in ways that no other administration ever has. And they went — you know, in my case, they went after me for seven years. They had a grand jury trying to get me to — they subpoenaed me, and then during a trial they tried to subpoena me to testify and to reveal my sources. When the trial judge in my case quashed subpoenas against me, the Justice Department under Obama appealed that to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. And the 4th Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered that I testify, and in that order, agreed with the Obama administration’s position in the case, which was, there is no such thing as a reporter’s privilege in a criminal case.

We appealed that to the Supreme Court because it’s such a devastating blow to press freedom in the United States. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused to take the case. And so, as a result, the biggest legacy of the Obama administration on press freedom right now is the 4th Circuit decision, which states that there is no such thing as a reporter’s privilege in the 4th Circuit. And the 4th Circuit covers Virginia and Maryland, which are home to the CIA, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency.

And so, virtually — what that means is, legally, if there is a leak investigation involving the CIA, the Pentagon, the NSA or any of the major security agencies in the United States, which is where most leak investigations occur, there will be no legal protections for any reporter because of the ruling in my case, which I think was an outrageous decision by the Obama administration to file a brief. They said flat-out, there is no such thing as a reporter’s privilege in a criminal case.

JS: So what does that mean, then, for — Trump, of course, celebrated the publication of the DNC emails and, and John Podesta’s emails, and was constantly tweeting in praise of WikiLeaks. And then that caused this chain reaction where people like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter became, you know, major backers of Julian Assange. And now, Trump is essentially saying, “I’m gonna go to war against the people leaking information about my administration, and from within the intelligence community.” So what are the consequences of your case and the Obama legacy on press freedom now, in this moment we’re in with Trump saying basically, “I’m gonna go after all leakers?”

JR: Yeah, it makes — what Obama did makes it much easier for Trump to do what he wants on leaks. They have created an environment and have left it for Trump that makes it very easy to subpoena a reporter and then force him to testify. And the alternative — the only alternative right now is for a reporter to go to jail to protect their sources.

Look, the hypocrisy on leaks is a long tradition in Washington. Most leaks, as you know, come from official sources. You know, I would say 80 to 90 percent of leaks that you read about in the press every day are something that the government itself wants out. It’s the 10 to 20 percent of leaks that are inconvenient for the powers that be that always get the powers, whoever’s president or whoever, they get upset about. And so, it all depends on whose ox is getting gored by the leaks. And that’s always been true. When the Democrats are in power, they hate leaks; when the Republicans are in power, they hate leaks. I think Trump has just taken that language to new heights.

JS: Do you think there really is a conflict between Trump and the intelligence agencies? Do you think that the NSA or the CIA are, indeed, withholding information from Trump because of concern about his erratic behavior and potential for him to be blackmailed or compromised?

JR: Well, I know there’s been some reporting on that. I find it a little bit hard to believe because of what my — what I know about the way those agencies work. I think that there is a — they tend to be filled by people who are — who want to be part of a large organization. They’re not filled by rebels. It’s — these are people who tend to be conservative culturally, and maybe not politically so much, but they are — they’re not the kind of, you know — there’s not very many whistleblowers in the intelligence community. You know, Edward Snowden is a — is an outlier.

JS: What about the clearly very influential role that Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart empire, and Stephen Miller are playing, particularly when it comes to national security issues and the National Security Council?

JR: You know, you’ve got these, these various centers of gravity that appear to be forming in the Trump circle, you know? You’ve got the adults, or the seeming adults, like Mattis or Trump — or Pence, I mean. You know, and then McCain playing this role from the outside, kind of this hazy role. And then you’ve got kind of the insurgents within the Trump circle, Bannon and Jared Kushner. It seems to me, from what little I know, that Kushner is kind of the key bridge between the more moderate forces and the insurgents. And he seems to have the ear of the president. And I wonder whether all of this won’t boil down to a fight for control over Jared Kushner’s brain, you know, where both sides realize that they have to get control of the flow of information between him and Trump.

And I think that, that may be where — how this pans out, is Trump seems to have —most of his trust lies with his family. And so, it’s kind of like an old European court, where you have to decide, okay, which relative do I need to impress and — to get to the king? Maybe that’s what the fight will be about, controlling the flow, the access to and the flow of information between Kushner and Trump.

JS: Did your ordeal with — under the Bush and Obama administrations, and the — sort of the war against you, and I think at times, it seemed like they were trying to punish you for the reporting that you had done.

JR: Yeah. [Laughs] I think they were. You know, I think, frankly, I’ve always thought that the reason they came after me on — the story they came after me was on my CIA in Iran story that was in “State of War.” I think it was because of the NSA stories we did for the New York Times, which they — I think they made a calculated decision. We’re not gonna go after the New York Times, but we can isolate Risen and go after him.

The whole way in which leak investigations is done and has been done is arbitrary, and makes no legal — there’s no real legal rationale you can make, other than, you know, the use of political power. The — you know, the Obama and Bush administrations just did it a little more subtly than Trump seems to be starting to do.

JS: Did the battle that you were forced to fight by this targeting of you and some of your alleged sources, has it changed the way you report or the way that you deal with sources?

JR: Yeah. It made it difficult to talk to some people. Some people didn’t want to talk to me ‘cause it made ‘em nervous. Other people, I think the fact that I was fighting and refusing to cooperate made other people want to talk to me. So it was kind of a mixed bag. But it was exhausting, and it kind of made me very wary about, you know — about the way I operated. I try to, you know — everyone talks about encryption today and how, you know, reporters have to use encryption. I think — I think that personal meeting, face-to-face meeting, is still the best.

JS: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I really do think that, you know, that the reality is that journalists now are being forced to act like spies, and of course, we’re not spies.

JR: Yeah.

JS: And —

JR: Right. Right.

JS: And it’s not just for our — the integrity of our own reporting process. It’s because of the humongous stakes for somebody slapped with an espionage charge.

JR: You kind of feel like you’re living in a police state. You know, that’s not the way you should have to work as a reporter in a democracy.

JS: Right. I mean, it’s like, let’s meet Deep Throat in the car garage.

Deep Throat: It involves the entire U.S. intelligence community — FBI, CIA, and Justice. It’s incredible.

JS: But it is almost like you have to become a Luddite with, you know, counterespionage or counter-surveillance skills just to do your job as a reporter.

JR: You know, I’ve got a lot of funny stories about the way I’ve had to meet sources. I had one source who demanded that we meet in sauna —

JS: [Laughs]

JR: Where we were both naked, so — because he wanted to make sure he wasn’t being recorded, and that there were no listening devices. And so, we met in like a — it was like a bath, a Russian bath type place. And that was probably the weirdest I’ve had to do. And I couldn’t take out my notebook in there ‘cause it was all steamy, so I just had to remember the best I could what he said.

JS: Jim, I will never be able to erase what you’ve just told me from my mind.

JR: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s kind of too much information, probably.

JS: [Laughs] Although, that could have been an interesting author photo for your book.

JR: [Laughs]

JS: Why — what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going as a reporter, given that you’re — as you said, there are elements of feeling like you, you’re in a police state just doing your job. What keeps you going?

JR: [Sighs] Good question. Actually, I have to say — I have to admit that Trump’s election made me question — made me question whether people really want to hear about the abuses of the government that, you know, you and I and other people have been reporting on, particularly since 9/11. Because the American people just voted to basically double down on those things. And so, I’ve had to rethink, you know, what is it that I’m trying to do? And I guess the answer is, we just, you know, have to keep trying to tell the truth.

JS: Jim, thanks. Thanks a lot for talking with me.

JR: Thanks.

JS: James Risen is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of several bestselling books, including “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” and “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.”

[Music interlude]

JS: That does it for this week’s show. And I have a small favor to ask of you, our listeners. Please tell your friends about the show. Hit the subscribe button on iTunes, Google Play, wherever you do such things. And if you feel so inclined, please head over to iTunes and give our show a rating. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Top photo: Donté Stallworth (L), Chase Strangio (C), and James Risen (R).

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