Erik Prince is the most infamous mercenary in modern U.S. history. The Blackwater founder has also served as Donald Trump’s shadow adviser and secret emissary. This week on Intercepted, an exclusive interview with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who has fought a decadeslong battle against Erik Prince. Host Jeremy Scahill, who wrote the book on Blackwater, analyzes the news that Prince established a back channel for Trump and Vladimir Putin and, as Trump meets with China’s leader at Mar-a-Lago, outlines Prince’s latest venture with Beijing. On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s militant speech against the Vietnam War, television host and author Tavis Smiley talks about the “Santa Clausification” of Dr. King and explains why he would not be allowed to speak at his own memorial events today. Rep. Barbara Lee reflects on her own historic speech, delivered three days after 9/11, when she was the only member of Congress to oppose the blank check given to Bush and Cheney to wage an unchecked war on the world. And Vice President Mike Pence, who says he can’t be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife, gets the Norman Bates treatment.
Anchor: In 2000, Mike Pence told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. He also won’t attend any events where alcohol is served unless Karen is there with him.
Anchor: Mm. Is Mommy there with you?
Anchor: He calls her mother.
[Tiffany, “I Think We’re Alone Now”]
I think we’re alone now
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around
I think we’re alone now
Fox News anchor Ainsley Earhardt: You know Mike Pence as the VP candidate for Donald Trump. You also know him as a congressman for 12 years. He’s now the governor of Indiana. But do you know him as a dad?
Fox & Friends: No.
AE: And as a father?
F&F: I wish you could go to his house and interview him.
AE: I did just that. We sat down with his family. We got a little tour of their residence and heard some funny stories. Take a look.
[“Psycho” score, Bernard Herrman]
AE: Governor, this is your office.
Norman Bates (“Psycho”): Well, I run the office and tend the cabins and grounds, and do a little errands for my mother, the ones she allows I might be capable of doing.
AE: Well, I would love to meet your family. Can we meet your wife?
Mother: No, I tell you. No, I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds.
AE: Now we’re in the dining room. Is this where you eat dinner?
M: And then what? After supper, music? Whispers? As if men don’t desire strangers. As if – oh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me!
AE: What’s the secret?
NB: Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.
[“Psycho” score, Bernard Herrman]
Fox & Friends: What a great side of the Pence family we’ve never seen before. I mean he got choked up a couple of times.
AE: He loves his wife.
F&F: And the story that the night before the Trumps came, there they are out in the garden with the phone flashlight cutting flowers.
AE: I know.
AE: Makes them so real.
F&F: Can you imagine if you were one of the neighbors?
F&F: Wait a second. I think there might be something there, and there was.
[“Motherboy” by David Schwartz, Arrested Development Soundtrack]
Donald J. Trump: I will tell you one thing — he has one hell of a good marriage going. Come on, Wilbur.
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 11 of Intercepted.
Richard Nixon: As I have pointed out on a number of occasions over the past three years, there can be no stable and enduring piece without the participation of the People’s Republic of China and its 750 million people.
JS: That was how Richard Nixon announced that he would visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972. And Nixon did go to China. He went along with Henry Kissinger. And Nixon held his historic meetings with Chairman Mao Zedong.
DJT: China is ripping us off.
DJT: You know who’s getting the oil? China!
DJT: What China’s doing to us is horrible.
JS: This week, Nixon’s heir apparent, or hair apparent, Donald Trump, is meeting with the current leader of China, President Xi Jinping. Now, this historic meeting is not taking place in China. It’s taking place at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. We understand that President Xi does not golf, so the visit could pose some issues for Donald Trump. Now, when Richard Nixon set up his meeting for China and to meet with the leader of China, he used his emissary, Henry Kissinger, to lay the groundwork for that trip. Donald Trump also has his own emissaries — people like Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Last December, Bannon, Kushner and General Mike Flynn, who you’ll remember was briefly Trump’s National Security Adviser — they had a secret meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in New York City. And that’s according to the Washington Post. What they discussed in that meeting, we don’t know. But then the story gets really interesting.
A few weeks after that meeting in New York involving Bannon and Kushner and General Flynn and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh helped set up a meeting in the Seychelles Islands for an unofficial emissary of then President-elect Donald Trump. And that unofficial shadow emissary was none other than the notorious mercenary and founder of Blackwater: Erik Prince. Now, according to the Washington Post, that meeting was, in part, intended to put Erik Prince in the presence of Russian officials. And the meetings were supposedly, according to the Post, a way that a backchannel could be set up for communications between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Now, I reported in January for The Intercept that Erik Prince had been a secret adviser to the Trump administration. Now, of course, Prince and his family were major bankrollers of the Trump campaign. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is the Education Secretary. And to flesh out this whole situation of Donald Trump’s secret little Prince, I’m joined now by the Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept, Betsy Reed. Betsy, welcome back to Intercepted.
Betsy Reed: Hey, Jeremy.
JS: Now, the reason, Betsy, that I wanted to discuss this with you is that you and I have worked on the Blackwater Erik Prince story going back to 2005, when you were my editor at The Nation magazine. And you also edited my book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” So, you and I have been immersed in this story for many, many years. What was your reaction when you saw that Erik Prince — that the Washington Post reported that Erik Prince had been involved with a backchannel meeting in the Seychelles involving the United Arab Emirates brokering a meeting between Erik Prince as a kind of emissary unofficial for Donald Trump and Russian officials?
BR: Well, I mean, on one level, it’s shocking, right? Because this is a man who’s like so notorious and so discredited, and has been at the center of so many horrifying scandals — that he could be playing this role, and again, you know, at the center of the news — it’s just, it’s kind of amazing, right? But, you know, as you essentially predicted, you wrote a piece about how Erik Prince was advising Donald Trump from the shadows. And, you know, you’ve also written about Mike Pence and how ideologically, it actually is not surprising at all to find Erik Prince right at the center of the Trump administration, given his sort of similar Christian supremacist worldview. So, for people who don’t know who Erik Prince is, how would you sum that up?
JS: Well, I mean, he was the son of a billionaire, and he inherited a huge amount of money. His family was a very powerful rightwing Christian financier of very extreme rightwing political figures and movements in the United States. And he had served — unlike a lot of children of billionaires, he enlisted in the U.S. military and served as a Navy SEAL in Haiti and Bosnia and elsewhere. And when his father died and his first wife was dying of cancer, Prince left the Navy SEALs, went home, helped settle the family, the selling of the family business. He took his share of the inheritance and bought a huge plot of land in the great dismal swamp of North Carolina and started what became known as Blackwater Security and Training. And in the late 1990s, when Blackwater was created — this was pre-9/11 — the main business model of Blackwater was not to provide mercenaries. It was to provide training for the U.S. military, but also training for law enforcement that were going to face down against the violent youth of America’s schools.
The Columbine Massacre had just happened, and Erik Prince came up with this idea to build a mock high school in his swampland called R. U. Ready High, like the letter ‘R,’ the letter ‘U,’ R.U. Ready High. And the idea was to train SWAT-type forces to deal with school shootings. 9/11 happens, and Erik Prince was interviewed on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, and he says to Bill O’Reilly that, you know, before 9/11, people didn’t really get what he was about. And now, his phone is ringing off the hook. And what basically happened is that a very powerful figure in the CIA at the time named Buzzy Krongard was friends with the Prince family, and he would take his kids to Erik Prince’s Blackwater to help — to let them shoot on his range.
Buzzy Krongard and Erik Prince made a deal that Prince would recruit a network of former Navy SEALs and other special operatives that could provide a kind of deniable force for the CIA in the early stages of the war on Afghanistan. And Erik Prince actually deployed, with his initial team in a small village on the Afghan-Pakistan border called Shkin, and they set up an outpost that they called the Alamo. And basically, that was the beginning of the Gold Rush for Blackwater providing covert services to the CIA, and later overt services to the U.S. State Department.
BR: I mean, he’s long identified as a libertarian, right? So he believes that government functions should be outsourced. And he has used that model in the realm of security and military operations in order to create these forces that then operate with impunity, without the accountability that is forced on government forces. Is that correct?
JS: Exactly. And libertarian in the sense — I mean, there is one interesting thing. Erik Prince has spoken very critically of Barack Obama’s drone strike killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. And it’s not that Erik Prince has any admiration or support for Awlaki, but the idea that the president of the United States was ordering the assassination of an American citizen who hadn’t been charged with a crime. I wonder if it had been Bush or Cheney, if Prince would have taken that position. But he did take that position, which sounded very similar to that of Ron Paul when he was running his insurgency campaigns.
BR: But Blackwater itself was involved in secret assassinations.
JS: Of course, yeah. And their men were accused in court documents from whistleblowers in the company of doing night hunting in Iraq where they were randomly killing Iraqis. And whistleblowers in the company said that Erik Prince set an overt agenda of Christian supremacy, that this was a war of civilization, and that essentially, all Muslims were fair game. So, you know, he supported Pat Buchanan’s insurgency campaign against George W. Bush in 1992 in the election — in the Republican primary — because he said that the Bush administration was too liberal on social issues like gay marriage and etc. He was an intern in George H.W. Bush’s White House. But, you know, the essence of Erik Prince’s elevator pitch to the national security apparatus is: I want to do for you what FedEx does for the delivery of packages and mail in this country. It’s much more effective than the post office. And let’s run the CIA and the military more like FedEx, rather than the post office.
BR: And key to that is secrecy, right? Is the ability to operate in the shadows, as he’s tried to do in his relationships with Trump.
JS: Right. And this is classic Erik Prince, where part of privatization means that you are — and layering things in subcontracts and outsourcing parts of it to this company or that individual — is that it makes it very difficult for Congressional oversight bodies to actually know who the hell is doing what and for how much money. And we saw that repeatedly in the investigations of Blackwater and Halliburton and KBR. It’s like, who holds the actual contract and who are we hiring to do this stuff? That was part of the worldview that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, their careers were defined by. The idea that the executive branch of government, particularly when Republicans are in power, should operate as an effective dictatorship over national security policy, and Congress should only play the role of financing what the President determines to be necessary.
BR: I mean can you believe he’s back, Jeremy? I mean he’s sort of like your white whale.
JS: [Laughs] You know, it’s — you know, it never ceases to amaze me how often this guy pops up. And, you know, the fact that his sister is the education secretary, I think is only relevant in the sense that they share the same kind of ideological view. She wants to do for education what Erik Prince wants to do for the military — and the fact that they pour huge sums of money into these campaigns, including the Trump campaign. But Erik Prince is a very brilliant and evil sort of genius, very forward-thinking. And at times, he has sort of talked about how leftists and the Democrats in Congress ruined Blackwater.
Erik Prince: You know, the anti-war Left went after the troops in Vietnam. This time, it was easy to go after contractors, the kind of work we did, that my family background, all the rest made it a very easy target.
Scooby-Doo Villain: And I’d of done it, too, if you kids hadn’t of come along.
JS: And it’s almost like a Scooby-Doo type thing, where it’s like, I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those rascally kids. But the guy has an incredible ability to survive. I mean, you know, if the apocalypse comes, which they all think it will, I think we’re gonna have: Radio Shack, cockroaches, and Erik Prince. They’ll all somehow survive the apocalypse.
JS: All right, Betsy Reed, thanks for being with us again on Intercepted.
BR: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Betsy Reed is the Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. We turn now to Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Schakowsky was a long-time member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and she’s been perhaps the most dogged investigator of Erik Prince and Blackwater over the past decade in the U.S. Congress. She’s joining us now from Washington, D.C. Jan Schakowsky, welcome to Intercepted.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Happy to be here. Thanks.
JS: What’s your reaction to this latest news in the Washington Post that Blackwater founder Erik Prince held secret talks in the Seychelles to establish a Trump/Putin backchannel?
Rep. JS: Nothing about this report is a surprise to me. Erik Prince is exactly the kind of person I think that the Trump administration would want to invite into the inner circle, or at least allow in the inner circle, not just because his family has done something like a million dollars to Trump, and he himself a quarter of a million dollars. But he is the kind of un-vetted, unscrupulous kind of person that seems to fit very nicely, especially for the kinds of operations that they want done. And of course, its now been said that it’s a complete fabrication, it’s fake, it’s not true. But if you look at the history of Erik Prince, and even ongoing investigations, it seems, as you’ve reported — I thank you for that — that the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies are looking at some of the activities of Erik Prince, his brokering military services to foreign governments. I mean this is a mercenary that liked to disguise himself during the Iraq War as some sort of an uber-patriot. He was doing it because he loves the United States of America. Well, it seems that he’s given up even that facade working with the Chinese, with the Sudanese. And now, we find out, sending — facilitating backchannels to Russia, another Russia connection. So, you know, when I saw that, it was like, yup, that’s Erik Prince.
JS: Well, let me ask you. You know, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who himself has a very colorful past, is very close to Erik Prince — he at one point compared Erik Prince in a positive way to Colonel Oliver North, who was of course at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Colonel Oliver North: The effort to conduct these covert operations was made in such a way that our adversaries would not have knowledge of them, or that we could deny American association with them, or the association of this government with those activities. And that is not wrong.
JS: And what I wanted to ask you about is if, as we’ve reported, and now the Washington Post is confirming – if Erik Prince is in this role as a sort of shadow adviser to Donald Trump, while at the same time doing business with the Chinese government and other foreign government, including – you know, this guy was a former Navy SEAL who’s had secret security clearances, and has been able to walk the halls of the CIA. What are your concerns about Erik Prince serving in this kind of unofficial shadow capacity advising the President of the United States?
Rep. JS: Well, if you look at Oliver North, and you look at the Iran-Contra scandal, that’s exactly what we ought to be scrupulously avoiding, trying to not have people who, I think, are quite aptly associated or at least compared to Oliver North. This is the kind of thing that I think is going to erode all of our foreign policy, further degrade — you know, the Trump administration’s done a pretty good job so far —but further degrade that trust that any foreign country, any ally can have in the United States of America dealing with countries that are not our allies in ways that are just meant to enrich Erik Prince and his new company. And he should be absolutely barred from doing any kind of business with the government, particularly while he is already under surveillance for things like money laundering, etc. So, I mean, it’s just outrageous, not surprising, but should be – the light should be shown on him, and I’m so happy that you’re part of that effort and have been.
JS: Well, Congresswoman Schakowsky, I also want to just remind people of something that we at The Intercept reported a year ago. And that involved Erik Prince’s new company, the sort of new iteration of Blackwater called Frontier Services Group. In January of 2014, Erik Prince officially went into business with the Chinese government’s largest state-owned investment firm. It’s called the CITIC Group, and they created Frontier Services Group, which is now based in Hong Kong. And what we reported is that U.S. intelligence picked up a money-laundering scheme that involved Erik Prince and a bank in Macau. But also, the U.S. intelligence is aware that Prince has met with members of China’s intelligence and security services as part of his business. Donald Trump is meeting with the Chinese leader at Mar-a-Lago this week. What about this issue of Erik Prince doing security business with the Chinese government, including helping them extract minerals in East Africa, while at the same time shadow advising Trump, and Trump now meeting with the leader of China?
Rep. JS: First of all, I think that this is very concerning for the United States. I don’t know if this would come up — probably not — at a meeting that the President would be having with the head of China. But he is doing business with, as you report, this CITIC Group, the Chinese government’s largest state-owned investment firm. And if Donald Trump were somebody who wanted to protect the interests of the United States of America, he would discourage any kind of a relationship with someone like Erik Prince.
JS: Well, and Erik Prince also is pitching this idea to the European Union, and it involves also some shady figures in Libya that he could help create a private anti-refugee force that could stop the flow of people who are essentially fleeing not only the civil wars in that region, but the brutality of ISIS. And he actually openly wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times recently making the case for a privatized counter-refugee force. And, you know, this is not a guy that seems to be worried that he’s gonna get locked up by the United States government, particularly since Donald Trump is president.
Rep. JS: You know, and of course, with the massacre in Nisour Square in Iraq, there were Blackwater employees who were held responsible. Erik Prince has always been able to slither away, even slither out of the United States when the heat came on him, and to escape any kind of accountability. And especially, really, he’s gonna target refugees? You know, he will do business. He will make money on either side, maybe even on both sides of conflicts. And now, developing his own low-cost Air Force with re-equipped airplanes that can drop small bombs and get involved in small wars around the world. A very, very dangerous individual that makes the Trump administration even more frightening — that they would have association with him.
JS: What do you think should be done regarding this relationship and the details that have been emerging over the past months of Erik Prince and Donald Trump? What should Congress do? What should the FBI do? What are you calling for, or what do you think should happen right now?
Rep. JS: I think that even publicly, members like myself can raise some questions that the intelligence community needs to get answers. You know if they have been monitoring, as it seems, Erik Prince for a long time, what have they found? What are the things that he is engaged in? What are the things that the American people need to know about his activities, and how can we disassociate ourselves from him? And should he be held accountable by the United States for some of the activities that he’s been engaged in?
JS: Right, because we’re now all sort of living in this reality television show that is the Trump administration, and people are watching the Spicer news briefings like it’s like “Keeping up With the Kardashians”. And part of the reason why the Erik Prince story had gotten so much attention is the mention of the word “Russia”. But as you and I both know, that’s one tiny part to probe in this. It’s that Donald Trump basically has his — a new version of Oliver North that has access to the West Wing of the White House.
Rep. JS: Right. Apparently, is close to Steve Bannon, is close to the Vice President, Mike Pence, and, you know, is probably the kind of voice that the likes of Bannon and probably Miller would really welcome there. And the only way that we can fight back is if we make sure that the intelligence community is looking at it, that the Justice Department is looking at it, and that there is some transparency on what is going on. Because increasingly, I feel that the American people, as much as they may be enjoying this unfolding mystery kind of “House of Cards” that’s real, that there’s this really, really disturbing quality to it. I think more and more Americans are disturbed. And yes, it’s been focusing on Russia, but this with Erik Prince goes way beyond that, and I think more significantly beyond that, at least in terms of Erik Prince’s involvement.
JS: All right, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, thank you very much for being with us.
Rep. JS: Thank you. Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Jan Schakowksy represents Illinois’s 9th District in the U.S. Congress. And I should just say, whenever I reflect on Erik Prince and his ability to survive, I always think of this song.
[“Black Water,” The Doobie Brothers]
The Doobie Brothers: Old black water, keep on rolling
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me,
Old black water, keep on rolling
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me,
Old black water, keep on rolling
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me
JS: “Black Water,” by The Doobie Brothers.
JS: Coming up on the show, we’re gonna look back at an incredibly prophetic and important speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered 50 years ago this week. We’re gonna speak with the author and television host Tavis Smiley. Tavis wrote a book about King’s life and why he says King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” put the target on Dr. King’s back. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.
[“The Martyr,” Immortal Technique]
Hence I fear nothing
The point of guerilla war is not to succeed
It’s always been just to make the enemy bleed
Depriving the soldiers of the peace of mind that they need
Bullets are hard to telegraph when they bob and they weave
The only way a guerilla war can ever be over
Is when the occupation can’t afford more soldiers
Until they have to draft the last of you into the service
And you refuse because you don’t see the purpose
The only way to counter the insurgents that are well-equipped
Is to paint the people fighting for freedom as “terrorists”
Then find a faction, looking for foreign investment?Install them in power and murder any objections
JS: That was Immortal Technique, “The Martyr”. This week marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And today, Martin Luther King has a monument in his honor in Washington, D.C. There’s a national holiday named for him. And King’s story, a very watered down, whitewashed version of his life, is taught in schools across this country. It’s taught in schools around the world. But what is almost never discussed about Martin Luther King, Jr. was the truly radical nature of his politics, and how he was completely rejected, scorned, and ridiculed by the news media, eventually by the broader civil rights movement, and also, toward the end of his life, by large swaths of the black population in the United States.
Dr. King’s speeches, for many, many years, contained revolutionary, anti-imperialist ideas and visions, but those are never quoted. King described his own economic outlook as being rooted in democratic socialism. 50 years ago this week, on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a very historic speech at New York City’s Riverside Church. It was titled, “Beyond Vietnam.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: If we continue, there would be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play.
JS: We’re now gonna discuss this speech and the part of King’s legacy that never seems to make it into the cartoonish, almost cartoonish version of his life that’s been manipulated and used by Republicans and Democrats for their own agenda. Even the FBI, which many people believe was directly involved with King’s assassination — the FBI tweeted this week, supposedly in honor of King’s life, work, and commitment to justice. Now, given the fact that the FBI systemically harassed and threatened Martin Luther King while he was alive, and that campaign was led by J. Edgar Hoover, for whom the FBI building is named — I find that tweet sickening. Joining me now to discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and that last year of his life is Tavis Smiley. He is the host of a PBS show that bears his name. Tavis is doing an entire week of special programming on his show on PBS. I encourage everyone to check it out. He is dissecting various aspects of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. And in addition to hosting his television and radio show, Tavis is also the co-author of a very, very important book on the last year of Dr. King’s life. It’s called “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year”. Tavis Smiley, welcome to Intercepted.
Tavis Smiley: Jeremy, an honor to be on. Thanks, my friend.
JS: Tavis, most people, when Dr. King is celebrated in society or talked about, almost exclusively reference the “I Have a Dream” speech. Can you lay out how Dr. King came to give the “Beyond Vietnam” speech and the significance?
TS: First of all, Jeremy, it is the most controversial, the most unheralded, and I think the most powerful speech that Dr. King ever made. And it’s worth being studied by anyone who really wants to understand who Dr. King really was. I think it’s true for all of us, Jeremy, that we get to know who we are in the dark, desolate hours of our lives. And if you don’t know Dr. King in this last year from April 4th, ’67 to April 4th, ’68, then you don’t see him in the dark desolate hours to really come to appreciate who he was. And so, to your question, in ’63, he’s giving the “I Have a Dream” speech. And I think people think King only gave one speech in his whole life, Jeremy. And they act like this speech only had one line in it.
MLK: That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they’ll not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
TS: That’s all we seem to know from that one speech. Even that speech had some more subversive truths in that that America wasn’t really ready to handle. But it’s nothing compared to this “Beyond Vietnam” speech. So, here’s the quick answer to your question. In ’63, King is talking about integration. By the time he gets to the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he is saying publicly that he fears that for all the work he and others have done to fight for integration, these are his words — he fears that “we have integrated into a burning house.” By the time he gets to this speech, he’s preparing to preach a sermon entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.” In so many ways, King grows from 1963 to 1967, but this is the speech Vincent Harding — the late, great Vincent Harding who helped craft the speech — said he believes, Jeremy, that this speech is the speech that put the target on Dr. King’s back. And so literally, he gives this speech coming out against the war in Vietnam in New York City at the Riverside Church, April 4th, ’67. He opens the speech, as you well know, by saying —
MLK: I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.
TS: He goes on to say that sometimes silence is betrayal, and then he refers to his task that evening, to really just upbraid America.
MLK: We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society, and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia, which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So, we have been repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.
TS: And all hell broke loose the next year, and that bullet chased him for a full year. And it caught him a year to the day, almost to the very hour that he gave the speech. And it kills him April 4, 1968.
JS: How was this speech covered in the news media in 1967 when King delivered these remarks?
TS: Yeah. It got as much coverage as the “I Have a Dream” speech, and quite frankly, more in some ways when you consider that the “I Have a Dream” speech was covered, of course, live on the Mall by all the national media. Back then, Dr. King was recommended to put out an embargoed copy of his speech the night before he gave it so that the media would have time to wrestle with it and be able to cover it, in unison, the next day. King wasn’t crazy about that idea. For some reason, in his gut, he just wasn’t settled with it, but they said, “Martin, if you’re going to give the speech” — and nobody on his staff wanted him to give the speech except for James Bevel — everybody thought it was a horrible idea for a lot of reasons we can talk about later. But they said, “If you’re going to give it and you want coverage for it, let’s put out an embargoed copy the night of the speech.” They did that.
To answer your question, Jeremy, what that means is the very next day, every media outlet in the country had a copy of the speech with which to put around his neck and hang him, essentially, the next day. And that’s exactly what happened. There was no Fox News Channel around then. But you didn’t need the Fox News Channel because the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, all the so-called liberal news went in on Dr. King and said things like: “Dr. King has outlived his usefulness to his own people.” They said things like, “He is no longer of a service to his people.” I mean they just upbraided him the next day for this speech precisely because and particularly because they did not like one unique reference that he used when he referred to, as you know, Jeremy, America.
MLK: And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
TS: That’s a bold statement for a negro, even a negro with a Nobel Peace Prize, to stand up and tell America, “You, America, are the great purveyor of violence in the world.” They did not like that. They didn’t take it kindly, and they made him pay a heavy price the very next day.
JS: Because you’ve studied this speech so deeply and on a scholarly level, what was the thrust of the argument that King was making for his opposition to not only the Vietnam War, but also asserting that the United States government was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world at that time?
TS: He wanted to make the case of our involvement in this conflict, involvement in other conflicts around the world. He didn’t want to just say, “America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and not back up his point. So, he referenced any number of conflicts that we’d been engaged in and involved with, indeed, around the world. So, he made his case to back up that particular assessment. But then he goes on, as you know, to advance this notion of what he called the triple treat facing our democracy. And he basically says to America, “You, America, are simply going to lose your democracy if you don’t get serious about the triple threat facing our nation.” That triple threat: Racism, poverty, and militarism. Racism, poverty, and militarism. And I daresay, here we are, 50 years later, still trying to wrestle with that subversive truth that King told 50 years ago that still threatens to tear this democracy apart: Racism, poverty, and militarism.
JS: I wanted to ask you about the monument to King in D.C. and whether you believe that that monument would exist if the depths of King’s opposition to imperialism, his embrace of a sort of democratic socialist economic philosophy — if we really understood King beyond just, oh, he was the great leader that wanted black children and white children to play together in peace, do you think that the real King would get a monument in Washington, D.C.?
TS: In a word: No. There’d be no monument. And I’ll go further than that. There’d be no monument. There’d be no federal holiday. His name would not appear on schools and streets and libraries and just about anything else. The absolute answer is no. The unequivocal answer is no. The truth of the matter is, for Dr. King here this week, on the anniversary of this speech, and he, you know, volunteered to show up at a number of places in our society to kind of deconstruct this speech or kind of look back on it 50 years later, he wouldn’t have an audience. I’ve often joked that — around the King holiday that we celebrate every year — if Dr. King showed up backstage and said, “I’m Dr. King and I’m here, I’m back, and I’d like to go on the program in honor of me today. I figure can get on my own program. Can I get on the program to say a few words?”
“Well, Dr. King, what do you want to talk about?”
“I want to talk about racism and poverty and militarism. I want to talk about how Barack Obama, who I certainly would have voted for, you know, had a drone program on steroids. I want to talk about how he increased the military industrial complex. I want to talk about how he dropped more drones and killed more innocent women and children than George Bush, his predecessor, did. I want to talk about how poverty is threatening our very democracy, and now it’s a matter of national security. I want to talk about how racism is still the most intractable issue in this country.”
If Martin showed up and wanted to give that kind of critique, that negro couldn’t get onstage at his own celebration.
JS: [Laughs] When Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; he invoked the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. And in a way, he sort of used King as a jumping board to explain why it’s necessary for him to engage in these militaristic imperial powers — actions around the globe.
Barack Obama: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth. We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations acting individually or in concert will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago. “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there’s nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.
JS: And also, you and Dr. Cornel West became almost instantly persona non grata with the Obama crowd almost immediately after his election because of your political critique of his policies, the people he was surrounding himself with, and the vision that he was outlining for the United States. So, those two things: Obama invoking King’s name in his Nobel speech, and also then the price you paid for your critiques of President Obama.
TS: On the Nobel speech, it was disappointing, to say the least. I have had enough of people using Dr. King as a prop when they want to advance certain notions, and then giving him the Heisman, you know, stiff-arming him, if you will, when they want to advance this notion of so-called just war. What that bust of Dr. King that sat in the Oval Office during the Obama years, what that bust must have been whispering to Obama in the midnight hour, when he was working late in the Oval Office. When it was just the bust of Dr. King and Obama in that room together, in that office together, what must that bust have been whispering to him on various occasions? Dr. King, although proud of the opportunity for black men to be president, would have been a truth teller, as he always was.
And if you think my critique on Obama was tough, you’ve gotta go back and read literally what Dr. King said about and to Lyndon Johnson. It’s mind-boggling to see in print the kinds of things, the kinds of critique that Dr. King had against Lyndon Johnson about first of all, calling for a war on poverty, and then wasting all the resources on this war in Vietnam. King said that budgets are, “Moral documents. Mr. president, a budget is a moral document.” He did not hold back going after Lyndon Johnson. And so, my commentary about Obama, comparatively speaking, was almost tame. I am sick and tired — I’m like Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — of hearing this argument that Dr. King wouldn’t understand Hezbollah. That Dr. King wouldn’t understand Hamas. That Dr. King wouldn’t understand ISIL or ISIS. What the heck do you think he was up against every single day during his life? First of all, he was shot in the head. He was assassinated. But every day, there were lynchings of black people, and maimings and other killings of black people, cops shooting black people in cities all across this country. Martin dealt with this every single day. He preached far too many eulogies in his own lifetime. And it’s as if we don’t want to accept, Jeremy, that American terrorism, that domestic American terrorism, is no different than terrorism anywhere else. And so, every time we advance this notion that Martin wouldn’t understand these modern-day wars, these modern-day struggles because he just didn’t live in this era, it belittles what he was up against, and it — quite frankly, it doesn’t do justice. It doesn’t tell the truth, put another way, about the American story, about the American horror story of racism and lynching, etc., etc. So, I just get tired of making those arguments. For me, you speak the truth. You seek it, you speak it, you stand on it, you stay with it, and the consequences are what they are. So, I don’t cry about that. There’s nothing I’ve ever said or done that I regret. I just gotta tell the truth as best I can.
JS: You know if you Google around and you say, “MLK intervention Syria,” “MLK bombing Iraq,” you can find some prominent political figures that make these arguments. “Well, King would have supported going in to stop the killing in Syria. Well, King would have supported a regime change to get rid of Qaddafi.” And the point you’re making, which I think is so important to remind people of, is that King himself, was facing down against very well-armed, very well-organized terrorist factions, and did not call for the United States government to drop a bomb on the Ku Klux Klan. His response was, “My body and my ideas, that’s my weapon, and I use them nonviolently in between the state-sanctioned murder that we are facing and our own survival.”
TS: Yeah, King was fond of saying that slogans are not solutions. Slogans are not solutions. And so, you can try to deconstruct nonviolence 18 ways from Sunday. But King is the only one that had a winning record. Every conflict that he engaged in where nonviolence was a strategy, he won. I mean, every conflict he was ever involved in, from: Montgomery Bus Boycott, Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, just run the list. His strategy of nonviolence worked. He never lost a battle except his own life. And even then, they killed his body, but they didn’t kill his spirit. Here we are 50 years later still talking about the brother. So even that battle, he didn’t lose. And so, he would again say that slogans are not solutions.
Let me put it this way. My friend Cornel West, who you referenced earlier, Jeremy, in this conversation, came up with a term some years ago that I’m still tickled by all these years later. And what you’ve just described about people taking King’s words and twisting them like a pretzel, Dr. King calls the Santa Claus-ification of Martin King. Only Cornel West could come up with that term, the Santa Claus-ification of Martin King. And his point simply is that the farther we get away from Martin’s real life, real time existence, people want to take his words and twist ‘em. They want to tame him. They want to defang him. They want to deodorize him. They don’t want to deal with the subversive truth, I repeat, of what he was saying, and about the power of nonviolence.
JS: Describe what happened in the last year of Martin Luther King’s life.
TS: So, the media turned on him first. After that, he got disinvited to the LBJ White House. LBJ would continue to meet for the last year of King’s life with other black leaders, but they would dis-invite Martin to the White House. Black leaders turned on him. Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, the most famous black journalist of the day, Carl T. Rowan — all those leaders came out publicly against him. I loved and respected Thurgood Marshall, but I can’t even repeat on this program the language that Thurgood Marshall used to describe Dr. King. Yes, that Thurgood Marshall. Then the last poll taken in his life, the Harris poll, found, in the last year of his life, that almost three-quarters of the American people, three-quarters — thought he was irrelevant. Almost 60 percent of his own people, black people, thought he was persona non grata.
He was disinvited to speak in black churches. They would not run his op-eds in the newspapers. He had trouble getting his last book published. He could not raise money for his organization. He dies broke, and Harry Belafonte has to pay for his funeral.
When King stood on that balcony in Memphis and took that bullet to the head, he had no idea that all these years later, there’d be monuments and schools and streets and libraries bearing his name. But at the end of the day, for that entire year, the beautiful part of the story is, with all the hell that he caught, he never backed up. He didn’t take one step back, Jeremy, not even to gain momentum. He kept telling the truth. He kept organizing that Poor Peoples’ Campaign. He would not give into the threats of Hoover, or the FBI, or the White House. Martin kept telling the truth.
JS: And Tavis, what was the combination of factors that led to the statistics that you’re citing about believing that King was irrelevant? What caused that?
TS: What caused it was, again, he was telling the truth that we just couldn’t handle. They didn’t like the fact that he, at the height of war, was coming across – being portrayed as anti-American. They labeled him, as you well know, a communist. Inside the black community, his constituency was in trouble because the bourgeois elite negroes were made at him for getting into a tete-a-tete with Lyndon Johnson. I mean, Johnson was the best president that negroes had had in the White House since Lincoln freed the slaves. Because he had passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the bourgeois elite Negroes didn’t like Martin getting into it with our president, who was being good to us on a domestic agenda. Their thing was, “man, forget this war in Vietnam. This white man is being good to us. He’s advancing our cause on the domestic front. Do not piss off the president, Martin.”
So, the bourgeois elite negroes were made at him for that. To the younger blacks, they though Martin was passé. They wanted Stokely Carmichael and Black Power. They wanted Huey P. Newton and H. Rap Brown and Bobby Seale. So, within his own constituency, his own community, he was, again, persona non grata. The black churches were too afraid to have him come in. And my point is that King was so toxic that black leaders didn’t want to be seen in public with him. Too many people uncomfortable. That’s why I said repeatedly that sometimes the truth can be unsettling, un-housing, and subversive — too subversive, too hot for some people to handle. But in the end, we discovered that Martin was right. They just couldn’t tell – they just couldn’t handle it back then.
JS: People, pick up the book “Death of a King”. It’s a phenomenal read, and it’s taken on, I think, a very raw and real urgency because of what we’re facing in the world right now, with both the wars abroad and the economic and racial situation inside of the United States. And also, tune into Tavis Smiley’s program on PBS all this week for a variety of voices breaking down this incredibly momentous and important speech that Dr. King gave 50 years ago this week, “Beyond Vietnam.” Tavis Smiley, thank you for all you do, and thank you for being our guest here on Intercepted.
TS: My great delight. You stay strong in your work and witness, Jeremy.
JS: All right, you too. Thank you, Tavis.
TS: All right, brother.
JS: We end today’s show with another historic speech against war. It was delivered just three days after the 9/11 attacks, by California Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She was on the only member of either house of the U.S. Congress to vote against the authorization for the use of military force. That was the bill that gave Bush and Cheney this blank check to wage war on the world. And it had no definable end game, and still is on the books to this day. Barbara Lee’s speech was a prophetic one and a brave one. And she came under tremendous attacks and threats as a result of it. And I have to say; I believe that, like with King’s speech about the war in Vietnam, history is proving Barbara Lee right. This is the story of that speech, in her own words.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: It set the stage for what we know now as perpetual war. It said basically the president, and any president, has the authority to use force forever, as long as he or she can justify a connection to 9/11. Now, that was overly broad, it was unconstitutional, and it was wrong. Now, I didn’t come to this decision lightly, because I knew that there would be only a few who would vote no given the anger and the real despair and the frustration and the depression of the country at the time.
George W. Bush: The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.
Audience: We can’t hear you!
GWB: I can hear you! [Crowd cheering] I can hear you!
BL: But I knew that I had to vote no because this was something that went totally counter to what our Constitution requires. And also, given the fact that we have to fight, and I’m not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. I mean we have to fight terrorism. But we can’t engage in actions that are going to make our country less secure and create more anger and more war around the world. But those were some very terrible and difficult days. And I decided at the prayer service at the National Cathedral that I was gonna vote no. The minister, Nathan Baxter, in his prayer, he said, “Let us not become the evil who we deplore.” And at that moment, I knew then that there was no way my conscience would allow me to vote for a resolution that would set the stage for perpetual war, endless war.
Minister Nathan Baxter: Let us also pray for divine wisdom, as our leaders consider the necessary actions for national security, wisdom of the grace of God that as we act, we not become the evil we deplore.
Rep. Barbara Lee addresses Congress, 9/14/2001: I want to thank our ranking member and my friend for yielding. Mr. Speaker, members, I rise today really with a very heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and the loved ones that were killed and injured this week. Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world. This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced, that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter. Now this resolution will pass, although we all know that the president can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint.
Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, “Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.” Now, I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it today, and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Thank you, and I yield the balance of my time.
Speaker: Chairwoman’s time has expired. Gentleman from Illinois —
BL: I received many, many, many death threats. I received many email and phone calls threatening me and my family. It was very — I think very insightful for me, even though it was a very different time. But to see how people really don’t understand that central to democracy is the right to dissent. And that we have the right to exercise our First Amendment rights. We don’t have to go along with the program or with any administration, if in fact, we believe that it’s wrong. So while, yes, we needed unity, and we needed to let the world know that we weren’t going to accept any acts of terrorism against the United States, we certainly should do it in a way that doesn’t make people afraid, nor make people believe that if we don’t vote for something that’s gonna make us less secure that we’re committing acts of treason or a traitor. And that’s what I was called over and over again. But that blank check is still on the books. And now with this president, who claims that he loves war, and he has a shoot first policy, you know, I’m very fearful that this resolution, unless repealed, will give him the authority to do whatever he decides to do one day.
JS: Congresswoman Barbara Lee, of California.
JS: That does it for this week’s show. 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, and we had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. We now have our own Twitter feed for this show. It’s simply @Intercepted. We’d love to hear from you. We are retweeting comments. We’ll try to respond to as many of them as we can. Join us in the conversation off air but online at the Intercepted Twitter feed. Also, if you’re so inclined, go on to whatever platform you listen to this show, and not only subscribe, but give us a rating. And what’s really important is if you can give us a review. It helps spread the word, and we really appreciate it when this growing community of Intercepted listeners let their friends, their foes, their families know about the show. Thank you guys for tuning in. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.