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Donald Trump has not started any new wars — yet. But his administration is pouring gasoline on several initiated by his predecessors. This week on Intercepted: There are U.S. boots on the ground in Syria — now including conventional military forces — and more are reportedly on the way. Trump has eased restrictions on the killing of civilians and is pummeling Yemen with drone strikes. Combined with the presence of radical ideologues in the White House and the involvement of the powerful militaries of Iran and Russia in the same battlespaces as the U.S., Trump could take the world to the brink of the unthinkable. We speak with veteran war correspondents Anand Gopal and Iona Craig, both of whom have been on the ground in U.S. wars under Trump. Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald talks about FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the threats to jail journalists, and he reveals new evidence debunking one of the most insidious lies told about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Also, did you know that the NSA has its own classified, internal newspaper? Actor William Camp stars in the real-life story of the spy whose secret column made him “the Socrates of the NSA.”
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.
Donald J. Trump: I saw this morning on Fox & Friends — I watch — I like that group of three people. “Trump is the greatest president ever, and there will never be one like him.” Now, the thing is, I’ve only been there for like 50 days.
GW as WW: Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination
DJT [edited]: I love to read. Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book — I’m trying to get started. Every time I do about a half a page, I get a phone call, but I love to read. I’ve been reading about things. I read in certain very complex sets of things happening and wiretapping. I said, “Wait a minute. This is a lot of wiretapping being talked about.” I read other things.
WW: Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.
Lou Rawls: There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there you’ll be free
If you truly want to be
DJT: Wiretapping, I guess by, you know, this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps. And so, you shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.
Shepard Smith: Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled, at any time, in any way, full stop.
Kellyanne Conway: Microwaves that turn into cameras, etc.
Sean Spicer: The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, wiretapping. The president used the word “wiretap” in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities.
DJT [edited]: Those words were in quotes. I’ve been seeing a lot of things.
WW: Wrong, sir! Wrong!
LR: There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free if you truly believe
James Comey: I’m not gonna try and characterize the tweets themselves. All I can tell you is, we have no information that supports them.
WW: So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode nine of Intercepted.
DJT: The news is not honest, much of the news. It’s not honest. And when I have close to a hundred million people watching me on Twitter, including Facebook, including all of the — Instagram, including POTUS, including lots of things. But we have, you know, I guess, pretty close to a hundred million people. I have my own form of media.
JS: Well, the past few days have brought a whirlwind of controversies, and they’ve managed to make Donald Trump and his poorly oiled political machine look even more rickety than last week. And that’s quite an accomplishment.
DJT: Send a good picture back to Germany, please, make sure.
Angela Merkel: [Laughs]
JS: First, we had Trump meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He pretended that he couldn’t hear her when she asked him for a handshake as they were sitting together in the White House. Remember, this is a guy who has like 19-second to two-minute handshakes with various people, and he all of a sudden couldn’t hear a word that Angela Merkel was saying when she asked for his hand. Trump then attempted to be funny and clever at their joint press conference by comparing his apparently totally fake allegation, his totally baseless allegation that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama to the very real fact that the NSA did, in fact, spy on Angela Merkel’s phone. And we know that from the documents of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden.
DJT: We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox.
JS: Now, Trump’s administration — if sort of insulting Germany wasn’t enough, the Trump administration also promoted the claim that the British equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, they were the ones that spied on Trump Tower on orders from the Obama administration. That in turn prompted GCHQ itself to issue an extraordinary statement calling Donald Trump’s allegation, “nonsense and totally ridiculous.”
SS: Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA. He didn’t use the CIA. He didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It’s the initials for the British intelligence-spying agency.
JS: Then we had FBI Director James Comey head up to Capitol Hill to testify in front of Congress. And during his testimony, he confirmed that there is in fact an open FBI investigation into whether members of Trump’s campaign did in fact collude with Russia to influence the election. The NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers was there with James Comey, and he said that he agreed with GCHQ’s rejection of the tapping claims and said that they have no evidence that anything like that took place.
Rep. Jim Himes: So thanks to the modern technology that’s in front of me right here, I’ve got a tweet from the president an hour ago saying, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process.” So that’s not quite accurate, that tweet.
JC: I’m sorry. I haven’t been following anybody on Twitter while I’ve been sitting here.
JH: I can read it to you. It says, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral — the electoral process.” This tweet has gone out to millions of Americans — 16.1 million, to be exact. Is that accurate?
JS: But it’s really important that we not lose sight of the fact that there is a tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff. And there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be evidence, but it’s not here yet.
To discuss this, I’m joined by my colleague, Glenn Greenwald, who is my fellow co-founder of The Intercept. Glenn, welcome back to Intercepted.
Glenn Greenwald: It’s great to be back.
JS: What’s your response to Comey’s statement and the media coverage of it?
GG: So, everyone treated this like it was some kind of a bombshell, which was very strange, because I think everybody assumed that the FBI was already investigating this. And in fact, there had been an endless number of leaks saying that the FBI was actively investigating the question of collusion. So, I think I agree with our former colleague now at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, who said that essentially, Comey and Rogers spent eight hours saying virtually nothing. On the other hand, it obviously is significant and newsworthy for the director of the FBI to acknowledge openly before the Congress that the FBI is actively investigating what appears to be the president and certainly the closest associates of the president, not on some banal corruption matter, but on the question of whether he actually conspired with a foreign adversary to win the election.
JS: Comey was joined by Admiral Mike Rogers, who is the director of the National Security Agency, and Rogers, in his testimony, Glenn, echoed the denial of the British intelligence service, the GCHQ, that Trump had been wiretapped or surveilled, or that Trump Tower had been targeted in that way. Given that you’ve spent years now researching and documenting the NSA and the GCHQ, what’s your assessment of this whole story and where it stands right now?
GG: Oh, it was totally obvious from the very start that Trump was speaking out of his ass and that there was no basis for it whatsoever. He was just sitting, like he seems always to be doing, in front of Fox News. I swear, I mean, like you — I think the average person, if you could pick them out of the phonebook, has less TV time than Donald Trump. I mean he really does seem to spend the vast majority of his time watching cable news. And he heard from Judge Napolitano on Fox News that someone had told him that the wiretapping was effectuated by having the U.S. ask GCHQ to do it. I certainly don’t say that it’s implausible, at all, that the U.S. circumvents legal restrictions by getting GCHQ to do its dirty work for it. In fact, I regard GCHQ as by far the most abusive and invasive intelligence service in the West. But there just seems to be zero indication in this case that it actually happened, and I would be extremely surprised if someone like Obama or anyone associated with Obama was willing to do something so easily detectable and so obviously corrupt. It just seemed like one of those things Trump spit out from his mouth after watching Fox.
JS: I want to shift gears and ask you, though, about the way that the kind of Russia hype has been built up by many news organizations and prominent Democratic pundits and Democratic politicians. But it seems as though, taking that in combination with Comey, that this could well result in the fact that someone like a Carter Page, or a Paul Manafort, or a General Flynn, that they may actually be under investigation. That they may have done something that’s either criminal or, you know, wildly against protocols in the United States, and it may not end up with any direct connection to Trump and Putin or the kind of narrative that’s been offered and seems to be kind of the dominant one now on Capitol Hill among the Democrats. To me, it seems like they’re setting themselves up by really amping this up and putting the whole — every allegation on steroids. When the facts actually come out, it’s gonna be incredibly underwhelming, and it’s gonna undercut their own credibility, unless they just keep doubling down on it.
GG: It actually reminds me of what the Republicans did with Benghazi, where there was like a kernel of valid questions that needed systematic investigation and answers, which we never really actually quite got, about why they came out so quickly and made claims that were in their interest that turned out to be false about what motivated those killings. But the Republicans so wildly overplayed their hand and turned it into this unprecedented scandal, and went in so many wild different directions, that all their flailing and accusations that were without evidence and way premature in and just overzealous in terms of what they thought this was gonna accomplish completely destroyed the credibility of what, were actually, some valid and legitimate questions. Of course, there’s valid and legitimate questions when your ambassador is killed, and then the government makes false claims, wittingly or not, about what happened.
In this case, it’s actually even more serious because there are — there was a hack of the DNC and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief that did have the potential to affect the outcome of the election. We’ll never know what effect it did have, or if it had any effect, but it’s possible it did. And it’s very possible that the Russians were behind it, although we still haven’t seen any evidence for it. That, of course, ought to be seriously investigated. And then the same with the question of whether the Trump campaign, any member of it, colluded with them. And I do think that there are some really sleazy, slimy people in Trump world, like Carter Page and Paul Manafort and lots of others like that, who may end up having their illegalities uncovered, that are tangential to these core questions as a result of the investigation that has now been triggered.
But as we said earlier, there seems to be no evidence that there’s evidence of collusion. James Clapper has said that. Mike Morrell, Hillary Clinton’s CIA surrogate, has said that. But the investigation should play out. The problem is that Democrats are so insane with the conspiracy theories that they embrace with no evidence — of the way their media leaders like Rachel Maddow and other people on MSNBC, who look and speak like Glenn Beck at his chalkboard in 2010, frantically connecting dots and coming up with these wild sprawling theories — that they really discredited the entire operation. To say nothing of how they routinely call journalists and politicians, or anybody who questions the claims they’re making, calls them “Putin spies, and on the payroll of the Kremlin,” and just the most insane, insidious, xenophobic, jingoistic kind of craziness that is driving them.
JS: Speaking of the Benghazi thing, at the Comey hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is, you know, one of the most reprehensible of the reprehensible Republicans on the Hill, when he was questioning Comey, he suggested or seemed to suggest that reporters should face federal prosecution for publishing classified information, which means that he would want you in jail, and me in jail, and a lot of other journalists in jail.
GG: The climate that exists in Washington, whereby leakers are punished, is not an invention of Donald Trump or Trey Gowdy. This is the prevailing mentality that has existed for decades, but was particularly intensified over the last eight years under the Obama administration, which, as we all know, prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all prior administrations combined — in fact, almost triple the number. But the other point is, there is a statute that governs the leaking of classified information, of criminal law. And usually, it’s not a crime under the law to publish classified information if you’re a journalist. It’s only a crime if you’re an employee of the federal government to provide classified information to someone not authorized to receive it. So, usually, the leaker, such as Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, are the ones committing the crimes. But the journalists, such as myself, or WikiLeaks, or the New York Times, or The Guardian, or whomever publishing it, is not.
But there’s a very narrow range of leaks where the law actually does say that it’s a felony not just to leak but to publish, meaning the journalists are committing a crime. And one of those narrow categories is the content of interceptions that the NSA or the CIA collects while spying on a foreign government. So if they’re spying on Russia, they’re eavesdropping on the call of the Russian ambassador, they listen into the Russian ambassador talking to Michael Flynn, or Donald Trump, or whomever, and then anyone who leaks that is guilty of a crime, but also anyone who publishes it is guilty of a crime, a felony. And so, there is a law that says that that makes journalism a crime. The reason the government can’t punish journalists, hopefully, not withstanding that law, is because the First Amendment guarantees a free press, and the freedom of the press clause should bar the government from prosecuting journalists for reporting. But that has never been tested.
The official position of the U.S. government is that journalists are not exempt from those laws. And so, we do have this very dangerous law in the book that was used to threaten us during the Snowden reporting, and is now again being used to threaten whosever leaking about Michael Flynn, and Donald Trump, and the Trump White House, that is a serious law that we should repeal in order to prevent the Trey Gowdys of the world from trying to criminalize journalism.
JS: The story that you published this week at The Intercept about Edward Snowden — just to give people context here, there’s been this recurring line about Edward Snowden, that he spent 11 days in Hong Kong before actually meeting with you and Laura Poitras. And it’s been repeated by many news organizations and some prominent opponents of Snowden as evidence that he was meeting, potentially, with Chinese and Russian spies to work out his deal with them, and then he met you and Laura and Ewen MacAskill, and then he went to Moscow. Talk about what you found and what this is all about.
GG: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had to watch for three years while mainstream news outlets make a claim that I knew to be an absolute lie, which is that: Snowden wasn’t in this hotel until June 1st, not May 21st, as he claimed. And then they said, well, there’s 11 missing days that’s unaccounted for, which they used to imply something sinister had happened. And all along, I knew it was a lie, and it’s so frustrating to watch — when you have personal knowledge — mainstream journalistic outlets reporting something in authoritative tones that you know is totally false. And so, we had tried to get the documents for a while that showed that this is a lie. It was difficult to get them from the Mira Hotel. We didn’t really think it was worth it until this new book came out two months ago from this Wall Street Journal writer, Edward Jay Epstein, who based almost his whole book, at least in large part, on this lie. It got mainstreamed everywhere.
And so we finally got the records, which we published today, showing that he, in fact, checked into the hotel exactly when he said, on May 21st. There were no 11 missing days. He was in the Mira the entire time waiting for myself and Laura, and ultimately Ewen MacAskill, to get there. And the whole thing was just a complete fabrication, a total fraud that got laundered and whitewashed and repeated over, and over, by extremely reckless journalists who, even now that the documents are published, still haven’t corrected or retracted anything that they’ve said. And so now, that’s the next step. But it just shows how often false claims get reported by even the most authoritative mainstream news outlets.
JS: All right, Glenn, we’re gonna leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.
GG: Good talking to you, Jeremy. Thank you.
JS: That was my colleague Glenn Greenwald. You can read his columns and his journalism at theintercept.com.
JS: Now, most people listening to this podcast have certainly heard of BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post or ProPublica, and I would hope you’ve heard of The Intercept. We are all online news organizations. But there’s an online newspaper that you probably have never heard of. It’s called SIDToday, which stands for Signals Intelligence Directorate Today. And the reason you’ve probably never heard of it is because SIDToday contains classified information, and it’s published by the National Security Agency. And it’s only available to NSA employees who have security clearances. Signals intelligence, SIGINT, is the NSA’s shorthand for the type of information that it collects by eavesdropping on electronic data across the world. SIDToday, like a lot of newspapers, even has its own columnists. And at the NSA, those columnists are regular agency staffers who wrote their columns in their spare time.
There’s been a columnist on grammar, another on office etiquette, and there’s even been a columnist on the ethics of surveillance. These columns were among the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, and the Intercept has published a number of them. Now that brings us to the matter of this podcast. In 2012, the NSA named its new ethics columnist, whom the agency referred to as the “SIGINT philosopher, the Socrates of the NSA.” He was a language analyst who had gotten a master’s degree in Fine Arts, in creative writing, before joining the NSA. When the novel didn’t work out, he decided to become a spy. My Intercept colleague, the terrific journalist Peter Maass, wrote an in-depth story about the SIGINT philosopher, and you can read that story at theintercept.com. And Peter’s story included excerpts of the first and probably the most intriguing column that the SIGIIT philosopher wrote for the NSA’s internal newspaper. We asked the actor Bill Camp to perform this column for Intercepted.
Bill Camp as SIGINT Philosopher: Since I’ve become the new SIGINT philosopher — a position whose very existence will undo the good work of generations of parents who wisely begged their children not to major in philosophy because they will starve — I suppose I should be clear what I mean by the term “philosophy.” It is one of those words that can have many different meanings, ranging all the way from Plato to corporate mission statements to any kind of folk wisdom:, e.g.:
Andrew: I can’t believe the Ravens blew that game.
Chris: Well, some days you eat the bear, and some days, the bear eats you.
Andrew: Wow, man. That’s deep. You’re so philosophical.
But to me, philosophy is useful only to the extent it can help you figure out what to do with your life. And since I am the SIGINT philosopher, in this column, I’ll try to talk about questions that are relevant to what we all do at work every day. Call it “applied philosophy with a SIGINT slant” with possible gratuitous insertions of Heidegger just to make me sound smart.
One philosophical SIGINT conundrum that faces many of us SIGINTers is the feeling famously expressed by Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.”
While almost everyone would agree this is a hopelessly quixotic sentiment, and one doomed to be ignored by every nation on earth, I was surprised when I began working here to be assigned to a diplomatic target. Somehow, it didn’t sit well with me at first that we (the U.S.) would invest big money and effort into eavesdropping on the same people we negotiated with. It was as if with the right hand of our State Department we shook their hand, while with the left hand of the Defense Department, we reached into their coat pockets. Surely, I thought, if there were any place in the world that idealism should rule, and we should show voluntary restraint in our intelligence work, diplomacy was that place. Terrorists who meant harm to children and puppies were one thing, but civil servants talking about work while schlepping their kids to soccer practice seemed a little too close to home.
Last year, I unwittingly stumbled across what feels to me like a good answer to this question during, of all things, my polygraph examination.
I’m a libertarian by nature. I like to be left alone. Polygraphs, to me, are a unique kind of torture. Like many analysts in SID, I also make them worse for myself by analyzing and obsessing each question to death. Last year, a day before my birthday, I had a really terrible polygraph that I knew I had not passed. I spent a month obsessing over it, wondering how I would find a new job and launching into long internal diatribes berating a society in which it is no longer possible for me to take my family in a wagon out to the prairie and claim a plot of land by a creek and live in a mud cabin.
One of the many thoughts that continually went through my mind was that if I had to reveal part of my personal life to my employer, I’d really rather reveal all of it, rather than just a part of it. Partial revelation, such as the fact that answering question X made my pulse quicken, led to misunderstandings. I found myself wishing that my life would be constantly and completely monitored. It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself, but here was my rationale: If people knew a few things about me, I might seem suspicious. But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear.
This is the attitude I have brought to SIGINT work since then. If we are going to work on targets that fall short of being technically “enemies” but are rather informative for our policymakers — and we are — then even looking at it from the target’s perspective, we are honor-bound to do more and better monitoring rather than less.
For while the U.S. does not truly have god-like powers — we cannot do all things —we do have extraordinary powers. And we tend to mistrust what we do not understand well. A target that has no ill will to the U.S., but which is being monitored, needs better and more monitoring, not less. So if we’re in for a penny, we need to be in for a pound. From the perspective of the U.S., obviously, it is in our interest to understand a target better. But even for the target (if we, like Stimson, are going to chivalrously concern ourselves for him) it is better to be completely and competently monitored, rather than halfheartedly and incompetently so.
I guess, if we were a corporation, we could make our mission statement (or “corporate philosophy”) this: “building informed decision-makers — so that targets do not suffer our nation’s wrath unless they really deserve it — by exercising deity-like monitoring of the target.” Now that’s philosophy.
JS: That was actor Bill Camp performing a literal adaptation of the SIGINT philosopher, a columnist for the NSA’s classified internal newspaper, SIDToday. Check out Peter Maass’ reporting on this at theintercept.com. Coming up on the show, Donald Trump hasn’t started any news wars — yet. But he is dousing gas on the ones initiated by his predecessors. Could he start World War III? We’ll talk to two of the best war reporters around. Stay with us.
JS: All right, we’re back here with you now on Intercepted, and we turn now to the multiple wars the U.S. is currently engaged in across the globe. Now, we should be clear — Donald Trump did not start any of these wars. At present, they constitute a gruesome inheritance from Trump’s predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. But as we clearly saw during the eight years of the Obama administration, just because a president doesn’t initiate a war doesn’t mean that they can’t escalate it. Obama did that with the drone war in Pakistan. He did it with the troop surge in Afghanistan. He did it at various times in Iraq. Obama also did in fact start some new wars, namely, the consistent drone bombings and cruise missile attacks in Yemen. He also escalated U.S. operations inside of Somalia. He authorized air strikes and Special Operations activity inside of Libya, and those actions helped actually overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Obama also gave orders for the U.S. to act militarily in Syria and to reengage in Northern Iraq.
And in recent weeks, President Trump has shown that he intends to escalate or intensify several of these wars. And he is initiating policies that are almost certainly going to result in many more civilians being killed. In Yemen, he declared certain parts of that country so-called “areas of active hostilities.” That allows U.S. military forces to operate with less restraints on the killing of civilians. That was in place before the Navy SEAL raid that Donald Trump authorized in Yemen, and it was in place when Trump broke Obama’s record with an incredible number of drone strikes over the course of just a few days inside of Yemen. In Syria, the U.S. now officially has conventional U.S. forces on the ground. There’s several hundred Marines. There’s reports that others are moving toward Kuwait and elsewhere in the region, and that we’re going to see more boots on the ground in Syria. And this is all in addition to the covert Special Forces or CIA forces that have already been on the ground inside of Syria. The U.S. is also exhibiting very fierce airpower.
Barbara Starr: This is something the Obama administration had always rejected. It’s a very high-risk idea. If you’re gonna put U.S. ground troops into Syria, you have to be able to protect them on the ground and from the air. It is a very risky idea.
JS: But lingering over all of this is Iran.
James Mattis: As far as Iran goes, this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
JS: Defense Secretary James Mattis has been an ardent hawk on Iran. Iran is a country which the U.S. is now in a proxy war against in both Syria and increasingly in Yemen. And of course, there’s Russia.
DJT: Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing, frankly, if we actually got along with Russia and worked out some kind of a deal where we go in and knock the hell out of ISIS along with NATO?
JS: The Trump administration has tried to project this idea that what the U.S. is doing in Syria is targeting the same people that Russia is. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. We both want to kill ISIS, and that’s what’s at play there. But there are powerful elements within the U.S. national security and military apparatus in this country that believe Trump is sort of playing with fire in Syria because of Russia, because of Iran, particularly when you think of any potential endgame in Syria, and no one even talks about that. Is it gonna include Assad? Who’s gonna be in control? Who’s gonna govern it? Are the Russians going to remain? None of that. No one talks about it.
All of this, combined with the radical right wing ideologues embedded throughout the Trump administration and their vile rhetoric about Muslims or about Islam in general, it raises the prospects of a catastrophic spreading of this wildfire in the Middle East that was started by both Democrats and Republicans. Russia and Iran are serious military powers. This is an incendiary situation. And given the way Trump is governing, it could quickly explode into something unthinkable.
I’m joined now by two of the best war reporters in the world. Anand Gopal has spent more than a decade covering the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere as an unembedded journalist reporting on the ground. His incredible book on Afghanistan is called “No Good Men Among the Living.” And I’m joined by Iona Craig. She is one of the most experienced and brave correspondents to cover the multiple wars, both civil and foreign, in Yemen. Iona has been reporting recently for The Intercept, and she just traveled to the village in Yemen where the January Navy SEAL raid that Trump authorized took place. And her story, which was titled “Women and Children Yemeni Village Recall Horror of Trump’s ‘Highly Successful’ SEAL Raid” — that story can be found at theintercept.com. I want to start with you, Anand Gopal. First of all, welcome to Intercepted.
Anand Gopal: Good to be here.
JS: Iona Craig, welcome to Intercepted.
Iona Craig: Thanks for having me.
JS: Okay, Anand, let’s begin with you. We’re not disclosing where you are in the world right now. What we will say is that for many years, you have been covering various U.S. wars on the ground, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. And I just — I wanted to begin — I know that you recently were in Mosul, Iraq. Just describe what has been taking place on the ground in Iraq, particularly in Northern Iraq, over the past several months.
AG: Well, there’s been this major offensive to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, and it started back in October. And up till now, about half the city has been retaken by the Iraqi Army and backed by U.S. airpower, and that’s the east half of the city. And the west half is what’s being fought over right now, which is sort of densely packed neighborhoods. The Old City is there, and street by street fighting that’s happening at the moment.
JS: And what is the role of the United States on the ground right now in Iraq?
AG: There are American Special Forces on the ground, but much more important than that is U.S. airpower, without which the Iraqi forces probably would not be able to get very far. And they’ve been hitting pretty much everything in sight. And there’s been an extraordinary number of civilian casualties. Just kind of gone through the roof in the last couple of months, especially as the forces have moved into West Mosul, because like I said, these houses are really close together. And so, you can have a case where an ISIS sniper is on a house, and they’re — the Americans are dropping bombs on the house and killing everybody inside, including families that are cowering in the basement, people who are being shot on the street on sight. It’s a real humanitarian disaster that’s unfolding as we speak.
JS: Have you seen a shift in the operational tempo or the tactics being used since Donald Trump became president?
AG: Not really. On the ground, it’s been pretty much — he’s been playing Obama’s playbook. And so, we’ve seen an increase in the number of civilian deaths, but that’s only because it’s more crowded on the West Side. But in Obama’s last few months before he left office, he himself seems to have increased the tempo, ‘cause I think he really wanted to have Mosul being recaptured before he left office. That was really his showpiece.
JS: I mean, this may sound like the most basic of questions, but I’m gonna ask it anyway because of your experience. What is the force that is just referred to as ISIS or ISIL? Who are these people that are on the ground in Iraq and Syria under the banner of ISIS?
AG: Well, it’s a mix of people. You know, the core of it, the leadership, is the group that was al Qaeda in Iraq that was fighting against the American occupation back 10 or 15 years ago. But then you also have all sorts of assorted people who have taken up arms because they see the Iraqi state as an oppressor. There’s a lot of ex-Ba’athists who are in the movement as well. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but yeah, the core group that’s fighting is the same group that the Americans were fighting back in 2005 and 2006.
JS: As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time on the ground in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime, you know, I’ve studied this particular dynamic quite carefully. And I want to put something out to you, and you tell me if I’m wrong, or what you think about it, or if you agree. It seems like some of the particularly early military capacity that the evolved ISIS — as in, you know, al Qaeda and Iraq becoming ISIS — they had as a result of working with former Ba’athist military people. And also, in those heavily Sunni areas that butt up against some of the Kurdish areas, the same people who are fighting now on the side of ISIS from the kind of Ba’athist stronghold communities, it’s a battle that they’ve been fighting before there was an ISIS. It’s —essentially, there are tribes that are controlling some of these areas. And it seems to me like part of what’s at play is that these guys got screwed by the Americans, you know, at the beginning of the invasion in 2003. Then they got screwed again with the awakening councils and the backing of Shi’ite militias, and then the movement of Iran increasingly into Iraq. Is part of this kind of “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” or strategic alliance on the part of some of the tribes and the former Ba’athists?
AG: That was definitely the case initially when ISIS came about in 2014. So you had really what was an alliance between, like you said, the various tribal groups, especially in Anbar, ex-Ba’athists and al Qaeda figures. And from their side of — point of view, that was really kind of a deal with the devil because ISIS basically devoured every group that allied with them until they became the sole power in any given place. But that’s definitely the root of it. I’ll give you an example. There’s a town that’s not far from Mosul called Tal Afar, which was a place that, during the American occupation, the U.S. really kind of divided and ruled. They gave all the posts to Shia Turkmen. They armed one side, one part of the community at the expense of the other part of the community. And so, unsurprisingly, that part of the community that lost out ended up joining the insurgency against the Americans.
And it’s largely from that same element of the community that the leadership of ISIS that’s in Mosul right now is fighting. So there’s a real continuity there, and it really draws back to sort of what the U.S. — the calamity the U.S. sort of set in motion beginning in 2003.
JS: Now, I want to shift to Syria. The big story right now — well, actually, not that big of a story in the United States — is this airstrike that the U.S. carried out last week in Syria. People on the ground are saying it killed dozens of civilians. The U.S. Central Command is saying that it killed dozens of al Qaeda fighters. And I’m not sure if you saw this, Anand, where you are, but the New York Times and its reporting on this on Monday said, “The United States also conducted an airstrike last week in Syria that the American military said killed dozens of Qaeda fighters, but that local activists hurt civilians.” They used the phrase “hurt civilians.” That’s apparently the New York Times’ new way of describing killing people.
AG: Well, what’s amazing there is that this is not like it’s hard to figure out what happened, because there are people on the ground who’ve been to the site who’ve, you know, shared pictures on social media. The U.S. tried to show that it didn’t hit a mosque by releasing photos and video of the strike. And then, of course, you can see from the strike and the facilities that it actually was the mosque that they hit. So, this isn’t a real secret. And in Syria, pretty much everybody who follows this knows that this is what happened. The question is, who were the people inside the mosque? And that’s still unclear, I think, up till now. But, you know, we’ve seen this again and again, where the Pentagon comes out and will say that they did not hit, you know, a hospital, or a school, or a mosque, and then in the face of overwhelming evidence, they begin to slowly walk it back. And oftentimes, peoples’ attentions turned away after the fact. This is the same thing that happened in Kunduz in Afghanistan with the hospital strike.
JS: We now are seeing reports of a pretty significant buildup of American boots on the ground with more, it seems, coming down the pipeline. Talk about what the emerging U.S. strategy and presence looks like as we now know that there are not just Special Forces, but 82nd Airborne gearing up and some conventional units, I understand, also inside of Syria.
AG: Yeah, that’s right. And the conventional units are heading towards Raqqa, where the U.S. — Raqqa being the ISIS capital. And the U.S. is allying with the Kurdish forces, with the YPG, in the push towards Raqqa. And then if you look at the pattern of where the U.S. is deploying and where its airstrikes are actually hitting in Syria, what you see is the entire U.S. effort in Syria is to attack the enemies of Bashar al-Assad. You know, we tend to think that the U.S. has been supporting a regime change in Syria. But on the ground, that’s just not the case. In fact, the U.S. has really been avoiding doing anything to antagonize the Syrian regime, and instead has really been focusing its fire on ISIS or on other enemies of the Assad regime.
JS: Wait, so you’re saying that not just the Obama policy of sort of going back and forth on whether it would be good for regional stability if Assad remained in power, but you’re saying that also on the ground, the U.S. military actions are effectively supporting Assad?
AG: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, yeah, I’ll give an example. In Palmyra, which is a fight right now between Assad’s forces and ISIS, and the U.S. has been providing —giving airstrikes against ISIS. And so, the only forces on the ground there that they’re providing air cover for are Assad’s soldiers. There’s no FSA. There’s no other rebel groups there in Palmyra. And likewise, in other parts of the country, when they’re allying with the Kurdish forces, it’s again specifically to fight against ISIS. When rebel groups want to try to fight against the regime, the U.S. cuts off its funding or aid and insists that you have to fight against ISIS or you don’t get any money.
JS: Right. And let’s remember that the Russians are deeply militarily engaged inside of Syria. And of course, they openly want Bashar al-Assad to remain in power, and they’re spending an enormous amount of money and killing a tremendous number of civilians. You also have Iranian influence, Hezbollah, Qatar, other — it’s a huge chessboard right now in Syria involving some major world powers, and then some sort of second-tier world powers. And on that, I want to shift to Yemen. And Iona Craig, you’ve been reporting on the role of the United States in Yemen, and you just came out of Yemen, where you visited the village that was the scene of this U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed scores of women and children, as well as an American Navy SEAL. So, Iona Craig, talk about what’s happening on the ground in Yemen, what you’ve found in your recent investigation.
IC: Well, yeah, I mean, if you go right back to the core of it, this is really a war that kind of dates back many years, but really, it’s a fight between two presidents. You’ve got the former president, and he’s now got the Houthis onside, so in effect, Iran is now on his side, and he is fighting the current president that is recognized by the West and America and the international community, who is President Hadi. And he is supported by the Saudi-led coalition who started this bombing campaign back in March 2015, although the fighting on the ground actually started long before that. So when this raid happened, it was in an area that was under the — well, “under the control” is a very loose term, really, but was on the side of the Saudi-led coalition. And yes, there is Al-Qaeda fighting in that area. There is Islamic state fighting in that area. But they’re fighting against the Houthis and the former President Saleh. So effectively, this raid was against people who were, in theory, at least, on the same side as the U.S. in this war in Yemen at the moment.
JS: Let’s remind people. This was the raid that Donald Trump authorized when he was having dinner with, you know, the rabid right-wing characters — Steven Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner as well. And he’s, you know, chomping on his Trump steaks, and is like, “Oh yeah, let’s green-light this on the ground Commando raid inside of Yemen,” so that this thing happens. What did local people tell you?
IC: Well, they were totally confused when this first happened. It happened, obviously, in the middle of the night. As we know, they chose a deliberately moonless night, so it was dark. And because of the war, they’d been fighting the Houthi-Saleh forces in that area since the end of 2014. They assumed their village was being raided by the Houthi-Saleh forces. So every man with a gun within hearing distance of a gunshot, or then later, the helicopters that joined in, came in to defend the village, totally unaware that it was Americans they were going up against. And so, what happened was, you’ve got a predominantly civilian population in a very remote village on the side of a mountain in Yemen, and the Navy SEALS got pinned down. And when they got pinned down, of course, they called in air support, and they strafed the entire village. So you had women and children quite literally running for their lives, who were then gunned down by helicopter gunship fire. You had airstrikes and drone strikes being carried out.
And what you looked at from when I got there, sort of 11 days later, was blind panic of trying to get the SEALs out once they’d got themselves stuck in a situation of being overwhelmed by local tribesmen who were defending their village. And there were a small number of low-level al Qaeda militants who were also staying in one house, it appeared, that was at the bottom of this village on a hill. And the Navy SEALs were coming from the lower ground, so they were already at a disadvantage because the men that were coming in to support the fight, the locals, were on the higher ground as well. So even before they went in there, it was gonna be a very dangerous operation anyway because they should have realized that everybody was gonna come to defend that village because it’s right near the frontlines of the civil war at the moment.
JS: You know, the Trump administration and Trump himself, they continue to say that this raid was a success and that it yielded valuable intelligence. From your understanding, Iona, of the dynamics within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, in Yemen, would the figures that were connected to al Qaeda that were supposedly, I guess, the bad guys that were being targeted, would they have had top-level operational details or information that would have been a kind of intelligence jackpot for the United States?
IC: Certainly not. Not those guys that were supposedly there. The information was that they were going after Qasim al-Raymi as well. Now, even if Qasim al-Raymi was there, I doubt he would have been running around with either a laptop or external hard drive on him with loads of information, but —
JS: Qasim al-Raymi is one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and has been “killed” several times, and the U.S. has — he’s definitely one of the top targets of AQAP that the U.S. would want to either kill or capture.
IC: Yeah, absolutely. He took over the leadership from Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike a couple of years ago. And Qasim al-Raymi is now the new leader of AQAP. And the suggestion was that he was in the village. But according to the villagers, he certainly wasn’t. And the low-level guys that were there, no, they wouldn’t have done. And even if they did, the house that I mentioned that they were supposedly staying in ended up being droned and blown up before the SEALs could even get to it because of the fire that they were coming under. I even tried to sort of say to the villagers then, “Okay, which of the buildings below in the village did they get into?” And nobody could tell me whether they definitely did even get into a building or not, at all, and if they had access to perhaps any of the dead bodies to remove cell phones or whatever. So it’s not even clear that they did physically get into a house in order to be able to take anything that was in it. Certainly, the house that may have held anything in it, cell phones, laptop, or whatever, was destroyed before the Navy SEALs could even get inside.
JS: And of course, we had then, about a month or so after that raid, Trump basically authorizing — well, it’s not even clear if he authorized — let’s just say the U.S. did more drone strikes in basically a month than occurred in the entire year of 2016, the last year of Obama’s presidency. Describe that period, then, where you just had drone strikes, after drone strike, after drone strike.
IC: It wasn’t even in the space of a month. It was in the space of 36 hours. They carried out as many strikes as they had done in the whole of last year. So it was across three provinces, one of which was where the village was. And they targeted the village again. They killed two more children, three more adults, some of whom I’d actually met when I was in the village. They saw it as revenge — as revenge for killing a Navy SEAL, basically — that the Americans were coming back to destroy their village entirely and to make sure that everybody was gone. Even, you know, if that may not be the case, that’s certainly how they view the U.S. at the moment. Also, because of the Civil War, a lot of them there saw it as a way of helping Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, of course.
And this is the problem, that America is now at risk of being sucked into the very, you know, domestic political situation that’s going on in Yemen right now, and being seen as very much taking one side. Yes, they were already supporting the Saudi-led coalition, but now the people that were supposedly on their side, they now see them as helping their opponents. So, yeah, you know, it’s getting stuck into a very complicated mess in Yemen right now, that could get even worse, if now, the Trump administration decides to conflate the Houthis with Iran, which there have been, sort of, mentions of coming out of the White House — that that could be an even greater mess that America could be sucking itself into.
JS: Anand, the issue of Iran, is one that is really simmering up to the top. You have General Mattis, who now is the Defense Secretary, the former CENTCOM commander, who by all accounts has for a long time been very eager to have a war with Iran. We now know that Trump is delegating authorities much further down the chain so that the Pentagon can greenlight a variety of operations and full-scale plans without needing the direct involvement of the commander-in-chief. I was recently talking to a career covert military officer who told me that he fears that part of what is at play here in Syria is, ultimately, that they want to march on Iran. Something which I find somewhat unfathomable, given that Iran has a real military. But this person, who spent his entire life doing covert operations, said that there are a lot of people within the military and intelligence community who do think that there are very powerful people now that intend to march through Syria and build up the force that would actually go to war with Iran.
AG: I think in some quarters, there is certainly a fantasy of creating a Sunni force that would, at the very least, rid the U.S.’s reliance on Iranian forces, which is essentially what they had been relying on in Iraq, especially, but also really in Syria. And so, there’s this idea in some quarters that you can raise this — almost like a second awakening, and this would be your proxy force. How realistic that is, is another question, that I don’t think it is very realistic. I mean let’s take Iraq, for example: The anti-ISIS fight would not be happening without the cooperation of Iran. And so essentially, the U.S. cannot actually fight against ISIS without having, at the very least, a de facto alliance with Iran, and even so, in Syria. In fact, one of the reasons why the offensive is going a little slowly in Mosul is because a lot of the Iraqi Shia militias — the deadliest ones, let’s say — are actually in Syria. They were in Aleppo. They were fighting in Aleppo. They were in other parts of Syria. And so, it’s an extraordinarily complicated situation in which the U.S. and the Trump administration particularly is pretty anti-Iran. But at the same time, they have to rely on Iran if they want to fight ISIS.
JS: I have pressed that issue with people that are on the inside that keep saying, “No, you guys are missing the point, that this is real.” Like, these guys actually do want this, to the point where I actually — I’m kind of obsessed with this now because I’ve been told by so many knowledgeable people that that is the agenda, that I really am having trouble seeing what they would get out of it except a mass bloodbath. But it does seem like we’ve got some pretty insane people within this administration that have risen to positions of great power.
AG: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past them. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that pursuing that would just lead to an even greater calamity than what we see right now. You know, already, it’s a bloodbath in the Middle East, and already, there’s hundreds of different forces fighting. And any attempt to try to either create a Sunni proxy force or to, you know, push on to Iran would just be an even greater disaster. And there, we’re talking like World War III-level disaster.
JS: That’s a phrase I’ve been hearing. I mean, you’re speaking as a logical, well-informed person who cares about broader humanity, so you don’t belong in this conversation, really, Anand.
JS: Iona, I wanted to ask you — I think a lot of people don’t understand why the United States would be supporting what amounts to the utter decimation of Yemen in this merciless, kind of scorched earth, Saudi campaign — and also the reality, as you were describing: That the United States in several concrete ways is finding itself on the side of al Qaeda in Yemen, and simultaneously, trying to kill al Qaeda in Yemen. But what does the U.S. want out of this? Like, why support the just utter pummeling of Yemen?
IC: Well, it’s good business. In the first year of the war, the U.S. sold 20 billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia has been buying more and more weapons as a result of this war. And the same goes for the British government as well. This is ultimately about money, really. And Saudi being an ally is obviously important, and it, you know, plays into this regional conflict that we’re already talking about between Saudi Arabia and Iran because the Saudis see the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. But really, it all boils down to financial gain. And that’s the greatest win, really, for the U.S. But it’s an extremely costly one, obviously, for the civilian population of Yemen. You’ve got 20 million people out of a population of 25 million in need of humanitarian aid now. It’s the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. Because of the blockade that has been put on the country by the Saudi-led coalition, the country can’t import its food, and it relies on — 90 percent of its food comes from imports. At the same time, the Houthis have also been blocking access to food and to aid on the ground as well, so the two worst areas affected in Yemen by this looming famine are actually on both sides of the frontlines. So the civilians on both sides are getting completely screwed.
But yeah, at this rate, the U.S. is liable to be owning a famine in Yemen, and along with the rest of the international community, as long as they keep supplying Saudi Arabia with not just the weapons as well, but the U.S. is obviously, you know, heavily involved in the refueling of aircraft, which are carrying out all of these air raids in Yemen. And certainly, without doing that, without the logistical support, if the Americans stopped doing that today, that refueling, the Saudis would have to stop bombing tomorrow, quite literally. So they have a huge influence over what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen. But yeah, it all comes down to big business in the end.
JS: Iona Craig, thanks for being with us on Intercepted.
IC: Thanks a lot.
JS: Anand Gopal, joining us from somewhere in the world, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
AG: Thank you.
JS: Iona Craig is a veteran war correspondent who has spent many years covering the situation, the wars, the bombings in Yemen. And Anand Gopal is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living.” It’s a terrific book. You should pick it up. He’s reported from crisis and war zones around the world — both of them, very, very brave, important journalists.
JS: That does it for the show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. And our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. If you’re online listening to this show, if you are listening to it through iTunes or Google Play, or anywhere that you do such things, it really would help us out if you could first of all subscribe to it; secondly, rate the show; and third, if you’re so inclined, give us a review. Tell your friends, tell your foes. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
JS: I can go — I can buy my gun, I can buy my ammo, I can buy my beer, I can buy some organic vegetables.