Intercepted Podcast: The Emperor’s New Cruise Missiles

Nothing brings warmongers, hawks, and elites from both parties closer together than a cruise-missile strike.

Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept. Getty Images

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There is almost nothing that brings the warmongers, the hawks, and the elites from both the Democratic and Republican parties closer together than a cruise-missile strike. This week’s episode of Intercepted will piss off Assad supporters and the Democrats and Republicans fawning over Trump’s newest war. Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who recently met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, questions the official story on the chemical weapons attack. Murtaza Hussain explains what Assad would stand to gain by using chemical weapons. And we hear from Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian engineer who was kidnapped at JFK airport by U.S. operatives after 9/11 and rendered to Syria where he was tortured and interrogated by Assad’s intelligence agents. Arar explains why he is against Assad and U.S. military intervention in Syria. All that and a bucket of the media stupidity that is always on hand to ogle over the awesome, beautiful missiles.

Westminster Dog Show Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the seven group winners competing for Best in Show at the –

MSNBC Anchor Brian Williams: We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over this airfield.

[Leonard Cohen, “First We Take Manhattan”]

I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.

Male Speaker: You guys love the Tomahawk, don’t you?

Gen. Barry McCaffrey: We all love the Tomahawk.

Male Speaker: It’s a great weapon, and it’s cheap.

Gen. Bart McCaffrey: The Tomahawk missile, we all love.

Male Speaker: Good day for the Tomahawk missile.

[Pointer Sisters, “I’m so Excited”]

I’m so excited

And I just can’t hide it

I’m about to lose control

And I think I like it

I’m so excited

And I just can’t hide it

And I know, I know, I know, I know

I know I want you

Sean Hannity: They’re 18 feet long, a thousand pounds of ammunition, two feet wide.

Geraldo Rivera: We love the Tomahawk. They’re a precise weapon, terrific weapon.

Steve Doocy: Plus, it’s really easy to drive around. You push a button, boom.

Jeanine Pirro: And it makes us proud, finally.

Neil Cavuto: Brilliant strike. It was — it’s remarkable.

Scott Jennings: A restoration of American moral clarity.

Charles Krauthammer: America is back.

Anthony Scaramucci: The Ronald Reagan-like muscle.

Sebastian Gorka: This is just classic, classic showmanship. It’s not even brinkmanship.

Female Speaker: Yeah, I love it. Very strong move, very presidential.

Buck Laughlin (“Best in Show”): Am I nuts, or does he — something’s wrong with his feet?

Trevor Beckwith (“Best in Show”): I didn’t think I’d ever find myself saying this on this, but you —I think you’re right.

BL: Yeah. He’s got two left feet.

TB: That is certainly a first.

BL: Go get him, pal. Man.

[Pointer Sisters, “I’m so Excited”]

I’m so excited

And I just can’t hide it

I’m about to lose control

And I think I like it.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 12 of Intercepted.

Donald J. Trump: Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.

JS: There’s almost nothing that brings the warmongerers, the hawks, the elites from both the Democratic and Republican parties together more than a cruise missile strike. Over the past week, we’ve seen the phenomenal transformation of Democratic Party heavyweights who just days ago were screaming from the mountaintops about the Trump administration effectively being a sleeper cell for Vladimir Putin and the Russians. We’ve seen them now transform into, at least on this issue, lemmings heaping praise on Trump for his decision to rain cruise missiles down on a Syrian military base that, by the way, was back in operation almost immediately after the strikes ended. Now, that strike, of course, was ordered by Donald Trump, supposedly in response to the chemical weapon attack in Idlib province that the U.S. is saying definitely Bashar al-Assad’s forces conducted.

There are reports that suggest that somewhere between 30 or 80-plus people were killed in that attack. And the pictures are horrifying. Now, it may very well be the case that as the U.S. says, so it is. It’s completely plausible that this was a chemical weapons attack. I personally believe Bashar al-Assad is a butcher and a war criminal. I wouldn’t put it past him to order a chemical weapons strike. I wouldn’t. But, as we’ve seen time and again throughout the history of U.S. wars, the public is often not presented with evidence, not to mention solid evidence that what those in power, the administration, other powerful individuals — that what they’re alleging is actually true, or that it’s the full truth. As journalists, our job is to hold those in power accountable, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or some other iteration. And part of that means demanding evidence, particularly when it means war or military strikes, when people are going to die. Not just U.S. soldiers, but also innocent people on the other end of our missiles and our bombs and our guns. Everyone knows the old adage, “Trust, but verify.” For journalists, that shouldn’t be the policy. It should be “Distrust and verify.” The great I.F. Stone put it best: “All governments lie.” And they lie to justify wars and aggression.

1846: Mexico invaded the U.S. Lie.

1898: Spain blew up the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana Harbor of Cuba. Lie.

The U.S. opposed fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. Lie.

1964: U.S. warships attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin during Vietnam. Lie.

1990: Iraqi soldiers were ripping Kuwaiti babies from incubators and throwing them on the floor to die. Lie.

WMDs in Iraq. Lie.

Iraq worked with al Qaeda. Lie.

We don’t collect any personal data on Americans, on millions of Americans. Lie.

And you know what? Many of these lies took lives — lots of lives. Millions of lives.

And now, the Trump administration is pulling out a classic in American war selling: Compare enemy X to Hitler. It doesn’t matter if the new Hitler used to be our ally. Enemy X is now Hitler. Panamanian dictator and CIA narcotrafficker Manuel Noriega, when he outlived U.S. interests, he was just like Hitler. Saddam Hussein, after he fell out of favor with the United States and no longer was a worthy ally to kill Iranians? Oh, he was Hitler. Slobodan Miloševi?, who had all sorts of deals with the Clinton administration before the disintegration of Yugoslavia began? Oh, he has to be Hitler too. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer, he took it to another level, though.

Sean Spicer: We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II, you know. Someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to the — to using chemical weapons.

Reporter: “Hitler didn’t even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.” What did you mean by that?

SS: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly — I understand your point. Thank you.

JS: I’m just gonna leave Sean Spicer’s insane ahistoric comments right there, right where they are, and let them speak for themselves. Throughout history, those who have demanded evidence to support these assertions that lead to wars, they’ve been harassed, scorned, vilified, crucified in the news media and by the powerful elites of both political parties. Some have been accused of being traitors or siding with the enemy. And so many people, so many of the people who have a PhD in being wrong all the time, they’re praising Trump right now for his cruise missile strike on Syria. Hillary Clinton, who supported the Iraq War, who promoted the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — Hillary Clinton and almost every prominent Congressional Democrat…

Chuck Schumer: Making sure that Assad knows when he commits such despicable atrocities, he will pay a price, is the right thing to do.

JS: Leaders of liberal think tanks…

Nicholas Kristof: In this case, I think that this was the right thing.

Fareed Zakaria: I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment.

Thomas Friedman: I would be doing everything I could on every front to increase our leverage. Because in the Middle East, if you’re trying to do diplomacy without leverage, you’re playing baseball without a bat.

JS: Have joined along with famed neocons like William Kristol and hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham…

Sen. John McCain: It’s the beginning of a departure from the failed policies of the last eight years.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: The only Constitutional requirement that exists regarding war is for Congress to put the nation in a declared state of war.

JS: And they’re all back together again cheering this war on. Now, given this history, shouldn’t we seek out dissenting voices and listen to what they have to say while the decisions are being made, while history is unfolding in front of us? Dissidents are often right. Not always, but dissidents often turn out to be right. The only member of Congress that is questioning the official narrative about the Syria chemical weapons attack is Hawaii Congresswoman and combat veteran Tulsi Gabbard.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: We, as the American people, should be concerned when any president of the United States launches an illegal and unconstitutional military strike against a foreign government. This is something that Congress has not authorized, and it’s an escalation of a counterproductive regime change war in Syria that our country’s been waging for years. First for many years through the CIA covertly, and now overtly through President Trump’s reckless military strikes.

JS: A few months ago, Tulsi Gabbard visited Syria, and she met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. And boy, did the knives come out for Tulsi Gabbard ever since, including those from her own party. And it just intensified when she spoke out against Donald Trump’s cruise missile attack.

Alex Witt: Howard, how do you respond to Tulsi Gabbard?

Howard Dean: I think it’s outrageous. There’s a long, well-known history, both in our intelligence community, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders. Every single one of these agencies has said that Assad is using chemical weapons. He’s a barbarian. He’s murdered half a million of his own people. I can’t imagine how you could make a statement like that, especially being on the Foreign Relations Committee. I can’t imagine what could possibly have been going through her head.

AW: So, you said that Gabbard should not be in Congress, that this is a disgrace — all she’s asking for is proof, though. Is that a bad thing?

HD: If you’re on the Foreign Relations Committee, and you haven’t seen the proof in the last five-and-a-half years that Assad is a butcher and used chemical weapons, there’s something the matter with you.

JS: Now, I’m sure I’m gonna get attacked for this, and frankly, I don’t care. But I believe that especially right now, we need to act upon the principle that we need to see evidence, that we need to question deeply decisions that lead to war or military action, especially given the fact that we have an expanding number of U.S. wars being waged, both covert and overt, around the globe today. So, we’re going to focus our entire show today on Syria. And we’re going to hear conflicting perspectives. We’re going to hear very different points of view on what happened in Syria and what should happen in Syria. And some of these views get almost no airplay in the corporate media.

We begin the show with a politician whose entire career has embodied the necessity of dissent, former Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. He voted against the Patriot Act. He opposed the 1999 Kosovo bombing by Bill Clinton. He opposed the Iraq War, the drone wars. He’s one of the few members of Congress who’s voted against Congressional resolutions supporting Israel. He opposed the Obama administration’s war in Libya, and he has consistently opposed support for U.S. client states around the world. Dennis served eight terms in the U.S. Congress, and he ultimately lost his seat after a redistricting. Dennis Kucinich has run twice for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. And lately, he’s been in the news because of this: Back in 2013, Kucinich met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and he interviewed Assad. And Kucinich, during that interview, pressed Assad exactly on this issue, on his commitment to give up chemical weapons.

Dennis Kucinich: Can you tell us now, do you have chemical weapons or don’t you?

Bashar al-Assad: Of course, when we joined the treaty last week, it means that we have, and we said that, so it’s not a secret anymore.

DK: So, as far as the American people, you will agree that you do have a stockpile of chemical weapons.

BA: Well, that’s why we joined the international agreement.

DK: So you would say that President Obama, then, can trust you to follow through?

BA: I don’t think that President Obama should trust me first. The Syrian people should trust me. Not President Obama.

JS: Well, a few months ago, Kucinich accompanied Tulsi Gabbard on her visit to Syria, and once again, they met Bashar al-Assad. Dennis Kucinich joins me now. Dennis, welcome to Intercepted.

DK: Thank you very much. Great to join you, Jeremy.

JS: Do you believe that this was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s air force or military on April 4th?

DK: No, and here’s why. Because Syria had been winning on the ground. They had a major battle that was a turnaround moment in Aleppo. And it would go against everything that makes sense militarily and politically to engage in a chemical weapons attack.

JS: Do you believe that Assad has ever used chemical weapons during his time as president of Syria?

DK: I don’t believe so, but I have to tell you, you know, it’s up for debate. So my concern is this. The rush to judgment and the absolute refusal to ask for an independent inquiry to promote an independent investigation, to demand access to the forensics of it, raises questions about whether there was an agenda and whether or not this was in fact a false flag attack.

JS: And if it was a false flag attack, what would the agenda be and who is most likely to have conducted it?

DK: I don’t know that there was. But I certainly have to tell you that based on all the circumstances you can’t rule it out. I mean the gas attack was horrible, terrible, horrific. And America — you know, American people have a big heart. You’ve got elements that are aware of the sensitivities of the American people, and if they can try to prey on that and suck our country into a broader participation in a war, they’ll do it. So I think that, you know, you have to go back to 2013. That gas attack was used to try to draw the U.K. into bombing Syria. Their parliament said no. We have to look at timing. In 2013, there were weapons inspectors in the vicinity, which would make a gas attack by the government crazy. And this time, 2017, Syria had ISIS on the back foot. Talks have been proceeding to try to end the war. It just makes no sense at all. And if something doesn’t make military sense or political sense, you just have to ask, you know, is there some other process going on that is intended to develop a “Wag the Dog” scenario that draws countries in based on an emotional response to what appears to be a horrific attack?

JS: Now, you’re no stranger to standing alone in the Congress in opposition to otherwise popular militaristic policies. But on this issue of the chemical weapons, the entire political establishment seems to be quickly — seems to have quickly reached a consensus that this is a fact, that chemical weapons were used. And you have a number of organizations, Bellingcat and others, that analyzed the reporting of Sy Hersch and the MIT analysis that you’re citing, and they say that’s just fallacious science, and it doesn’t hold up. What do you say both to the political supporters of this strike, who are asserting that Assad did use chemical weapons, and also to the people who say, well, we’ve got our own scientists that are saying that that’s just gibberish, that whether it’s Sy Hersh, or you, or Reese Erlich, that you guys are basically just cherry-picking people who are going to be critical of the dominant narrative?

DK: If the response to the assumption of a chemical weapon attack is a military strike, then certainly, it brings in a higher level of responsibility on the part of America to demand an independent inquiry, to ask for the forensics, to ask for access to the site, to take samples of fragments, to take tissue samples, to interview witnesses, to interview victims. I mean, all these things should have been done. And the fact that there was a rush to judgment and they weren’t done does raise serious questions. If you believe in the rule of law, then civilized nations, as President Trump likes to refer to — do not proceed in a response by violating international law with a military strike. We had an obligation to go in and get the details. And then once that happens, you take that information to the U.N. Security Council, and if necessary, to The Hague to begin prosecution. But none of that was done.

And I’ll tell you what it reminds me of, Jeremy. You know, yes, I mean, I’m probably one of the few people out there, as well as Tulsi Gabbard, saying, “Look, slow down. We don’t know for sure.” And when the entire Washington establishment is aligned going in the other direction, it kind of reminds me of Iraq. And I did a report in 2002 that looked at all the available intelligence and everything that was on the record, and a few things that weren’t, and there was no proof that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, al Qaeda’s role in 9/11. Iraq didn’t have the intention of capability of attacking the United States, and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, as it well turned out. The moment has the same feeling. And it has a similar feeling to Libya where, you know, Qaddafi was going to slaughter people, and that was just a pretext for being able to go after Libya. And what we’re looking really looking here are pretexts, pretexts for running an agenda of regime change.

And the thing that I think is the most ironic about all this, Saudi Arabia sits with President Trump and approves of his missile strike, while hello, Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and Turkey, the U.S.-backed channel and the U.K., have been helping to fund these so-called moderate groups who end up being cousins to ISIS, al Qaeda, and al Nusra. And they’re trying to take over the government of Syria, which, like it or not, is a pluralistic society where people can worship freely. But there’s some obvious incongruities here that do not argue for further military intervention, in any case, and certainly argue for patient, calm, and deep and detailed investigation.

JS: What is it about someone like Tulsi Gabbard, or yourself, that you’re immediately assumed to be a nut? And all of the people who’ve been so wrong for so long are welcomed on the airwaves of the most prestigious cable news networks, and written about, and write op-eds in the prestigious journals of our nation?

DK: I’m, of course, very familiar with the scenario that you’re speaking of because, as the person who led the effort against the U.S. march to war in both Iraq and Libya, you know, I understand how one becomes marginalized by challenging the status quo. I ran for president and was treated as a second-rate candidate because I opposed the war. And yet, everyone who was on the stage with me had favored it, and they were wrong. You have to ask the question then, what is America all about? Are we simply about imperium? Are we about expanding the reach of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex? When you consider, we have 800 bases in over 130 countries, that we spend more than 10 times what Russia spends annually on the military, that we have a substantial part of the American resources go for war, this machine is a juggernaut that demands to continue to be fed. And anyone who gets in the way, they try to run over.

So, you know, when I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, I used to go to Cleveland Indians baseball games, and there was a guy who would walk up and down the steps and the bleachers and go, “Scorecard, scorecard! You can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” You know, in Washington, D.C., you need a scorecard, which includes: Who are the defense contractors who benefit from this? Who’s promoting this in the Pentagon? Who’s promoting it in the State Department? Who’s promoting it at the CIA? And once you have that, you kind of can figure out where this thing is going. And, you know, what about the genesis of war? If the American people really understood, if they really understood that our country has tilted in favor of ISIS and al Qaeda to knock out a government that’s pluralistic; that our country is aligned with Saudi Arabia, which has funded Wahhabis and is part of the axis of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.S., and the U.K., who overtly or covertly has been opening up the door for these radical Islamic jihadists’ interests, I think the American people would be in full revolt. But they’re showing pictures of children, who have been gassed, and so, you know, there’s an emotional response, and everybody closes ranks based on that.

JS: We’ve talked to reporters who are on the ground there, including some that I’ve known for many, many years, and they are certainly not pro-war or imperialists. And they have a little bit of a different take, particularly since Trump took office, that the United States and Russia were increasingly cooperating, or at least conducting operations that would assist the Syrian government forces in reclaiming territory. Are you saying that you don’t believe that that’s accurate?

DK: No, I — look, it very well could be a double game. Let me give you an example. I mean we could be doing one thing overtly and another thing covertly. I mean that’s not unusual. Let’s go back to October of 2013, where President Obama sent Secretary Kerry to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov to come to an agreement to end the fighting in Syria. The news accounts prominently featured unnamed sources from the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who opposed any agreement with Russia. The CIA did not want to share intelligence, which was one of the things it was agreed to do with Russia, and the Pentagon did not want to share any military intelligence, which was another one of the covenants of the agreement. So there was an agreement, but less than a week later, there was a bombing attack on a Syrian army barracks that killed about a hundred Syrian soldiers. That ended the agreement.

Now, let’s focus attention just for a few seconds on what happened here — that the Pentagon and the CIA basically overruled the president of the United States and the Secretary of State, and decided that they were not going to tolerate any kind of an agreement with Russia. And you’ve got to look at the Deep State potential here. And at the same time, there’s this narrative going forward about Russia stealing the U.S. election, which some of my Democratic friends vying for the remake of a movie about Joe McCarthy are auditioning for a role as acolytes. We are in a quandary with Russia, where we asked them to participate. We bomb a barracks in a country that they have been invited in to protect. And then we blame them for stealing the presidential election. This is a calculated effort to drive a wedge between the United States and Russia so that the permanent war machine just keeps going on and on and on. And if you have peace, they don’t make any money. There’s no money in peace, so they just will precipitate, manipulate. And you’ve got a newer president who’s not experienced. I would imagine that he’s really at the mercy of these forces who are at work in the national security structure.

JS: Well, I mean, we don’t even need to go down anything even vaguely smelling of a conspiracy to just state quite clearly what we know to be true, which is that Trump has said that he is going to defer far down the line to the generals. And, you know, the guy spends a tremendous amount of time golfing. He doesn’t seem to be interested in reading his presidential daily briefings. And, I mean, my fundamental concern is that when you’ve got a guy like General Mattis, who’s very hawkish on Iran, you’ve got the mixture of arrogance and fawning over the military in the Oval Office, and you have major world players like the United States and Russia, and secondary players like Iran all in the same battlefield — that we could be looking at sort of unthinkable war scenarios here, or the prospect of something resembling a war between the United States and potentially Russia, if not Russia and Iran.

DK: Well, that’s my concern right now. When you have the Russian president, Medvedev, warning that the U.S. and Russia could be heading into combat, people ought to take notice. The last time I heard words like that was years ago when the leader of one of the major parties in Russia said that if we blockaded the port of Montenegro, it would be a path — direct path towards nuclear escalation. Now, we’re in Syria. We’ve done military strikes. Our Navy is sending those missiles. We are forcing Russia’s hand. Any miscalculation, any mistake in the air, on the ground, could precipitate a wider conflict. We’re playing in a flash of World War III here. These people who are making decisions for America at this moment do not have the kind of diplomatic experience, which is required to be able to handle a major crisis with another country and with another power. There is no military solution in Syria, and there certainly is no military solution, any differences between the United States and Russia and the United States and Iran.

JS: I believe that Bashar al-Assad is a butcher and a war criminal, and I want him held accountable. As a journalist from the United States, I’ve always viewed my primary job as holding the government of my own country accountable for what it does around the world, and that’s been my position on U.S. involvement in Syria from the beginning. But isn’t Assad also a butcher who has mercilessly killed civilians?

DK: Well, they’re in a war, so the answer to that question is yes. But on the other hand, you have to ask, if this is all about regime change, what follows? And you have to go into the circumstances under which he is at war. Because if he’s wrong, so is Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey. So is the United States and the U.K., whether it’s covert or overt action, in stirring up a war and opening up a war for people from 90 different countries. Now, how someone defends his country against an attack from 90 different nations, people from 90 different nations who are essentially jihadists, how is he to do that? Is there a nice, neat way to do that? I don’t think so. And I’m not making excuses for anybody. Now, anyone who is defending their country against the kind of onslaught that Syria’s experienced is perforce going to be seen as a brutal dictator. On the other hand, what’s his choice? Does he concede his country to al Qaeda, al Nusra, and ISIS, and world powers who are using Syria as a proxy place for conflict with Iran and Russia?

So, I — the focus now — the demonization of Assad is part and parcel of an effort to push regime change. It’s not about creating peace in Syria. You know, this idea of regime change always ends up being a game of ulterior motives that results in a country that is targeted. People living there are the losers. I’m well aware that there are people who are outside of Syria right now who feel very strongly about removing Assad. But, you know: That’s not our job. And they have to be aware, and they may not be, that this war was accelerated with — from outside, and people had an agenda. And there are radical Islamic jihadis who are being financed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Qatar, Saudi Arabia being one country that was linked to 9/11. Al Qaeda, linked to 9/11. And we’re holding hands with them walking towards Damascus. I don’t think so. You know about dirty wars. This is a dirty war.

But one thing for sure: The Syrian people are not the winners in this, at any point. And if there is an attempt at regime change, they will be the losers. And I oppose it wholeheartedly, and I think that inevitably, the people in Syria are going to have to make a decision about who they want to run their country. And at this point, the people I talked to who are opposed to Assad do not want to put their country in the hands of al Qaeda or ISIS. And that’s exactly what they’re looking at, and they know it, and they know their life, which they’re desperate to try to hold onto, would be immeasurably worse. And for the people who are outside the country who don’t like Assad, I mean, I can understand that. But I am not going to endorse the wholesale slaughter of a country, which is going on with all kinds of covert and overt action on the part of big powers who really don’t have any business at all, any legitimate ethical, moral business at all in Syria.

JS: All right, Dennis Kucinich, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for being with us on Intercepted.

DK: Thank you.

JS: Dennis Kucinich is a former U.S. representative who served eight terms in Congress, and he was twice a candidate for president of the United States.

[Music interlude]

JS: Russian President Vladimir Putin has now spoken publicly about the chemical weapons attack. During a meeting with the Italian leader in Moscow, Putin charged that this is a false flag operation.

President Vladimir Putin (Translated): We have intelligence showing that such provocations may happen in other parts of Syria as well, including territories south of Damascus. They plan to use some substances and then accuse the Syrian government of using those chemicals.

JS: Those are the words of Vladimir Putin. Now, as I said, I would not be shocked if the truth is that this was a merciless use of chemical weapons on April 4th in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. But if that is true, it then begs the question: Why would Assad use chemical weapons? In many ways, conventional munitions can kill more people and faster. I went back and I read the writings of one of the past century’s early supporters of the use of chemical weapons: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Writing of his support for the use of chemical weapons in India and what is now Iraq, then it was Mesopotamia — Winston Churchill wrote, in 1919: “I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gases. Gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror, and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.” Those are the words of Winston Churchill.

Defense Secretary James Mattis: I have personally reviewed the intelligence, and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself.

JS: So, if what we’re told is true, that Assad did in fact order this attack, what would his motive be for doing so? I’m joined now by my colleague Murtaza Hussein. He’s been covering the war in Syria for several years. Maz, welcome back to Intercepted.

Murtaza Hussain: Thanks for having me.

JS: How would it benefit Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons? We don’t know exactly how many people were killed, but there’s estimates between 30 and more than 80 people killed. He could have killed in a far more efficient way with dumb bombs or basic strafing of the areas in Idlib that were hit.

MH: Well, there are a number of possible gains you could get from this action. First of all, there’s a strategic perspective. There is a rapprochement, which is happening between the United States and Russia over Syria, especially since Trump came into office. Now, from Assad’s perspective, it’s not necessarily in his benefit that Russia and the U.S. should come to terms with each other in this way, because it’s very likely or very possible that Russia and the U.S. could come to a solution in Syria, which excludes him. Now, Russia, unlike Iran, has always had some communications and relations with the Syrian opposition. He — and he knows this — is an embarrassing proxy for Russia. He has a very tarnished reputation because of the events of the last few years. By taking this action, he has driven a wedge between the U.S. and Russia. So, whereas before, there was a risk starting to emerge where he may be excluded in a political solution which is developed by Russian and American leaders, now, very firmly, Russia’s back in his camp in hostility to the U.S. So, in a sense, he is in a much more favorable political position today than he was a week ago, despite the threats that have been issued to him against — by the United States.

And now, secondly, there’s also a very hard strategic reality behind the use of chemical weapons, which is that he has to regain control of a province of Idlib of two million people. His army is in a shambolic state after six — five years of conflict. And he now has the ability to use chemical weapons as a force multiplier to send a message to people in Idlib that we may not have the strength to take back the province in the normal military fashion, but we can use very heinous weapons to demoralize and terrorize people. And now, based on statements by the Trump administration in the past few weeks, he may have thought he had the green light to do that. And it would have sent a very stark message if he had and there had been any response. But even with the U.S. response, his position has still improved in many ways.

JS: The Obama administration, though, made this deal with the Russians and with Syria back in 2013 that Assad was going to allow all of the chemical weapons to be removed from the country.

President Barack Obama: My preference was always to resolve the issue diplomatically. And it turns out, lo and behold, that Syria now is actually removing its chemical weapons that, a few months ago, it denied it even possessed, and has provided a comprehensive list, and they have already begun taking these weapons out of Syria. And although that does not solve the tragic situation inside of Syria, it turns out that removing those chemical weapons will make us safer, and it will make Israel safer. And it will make the Syrian people safer, and it will make the region safer.

JS: Are you saying that didn’t happen, and that Assad still maintains a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons?

MH: It’s very difficult to make the determination right now. I think that the fact that a chemical attack may have happened on the regime’s watch is reason to question whether that deal was implemented, and implemented as fully as the Obama administration claimed. But I also think that after so many years of conflict, it’s very possible that the logistics of the Syrian Army could be in disarray. We saw the same thing with the Iraqis after several years of conflict. They had misplaced chemical weapon stock piles, some of which were found after the U.S. invasion, which is not to say that the WMD claims were true, just that there was such a messy logistical situation that, you know, weapons could exist where it had thought they’d been taken out of.

JS: Is it possible that there are various entities of the Syrian state that are freelancing, essentially? That, you know, Assad is — I mean, is Assad fully in control of everything that the Syrian Armed Forces do, or is it possible that there are different factions maybe sometimes striking at the same enemies, or of different mindsets on how the so-called enemy should be struck?

MH: There’s been a warlord-ization of the country in many senses, both on the opposition side, but also on the government side as well too. After the regime first began to grapple with the reality of a very well funded or very vigorous armed opposition, it began to decentralize many of its functions. It helped train popular militias throughout the country to fight back. And many of these militias now have created their own, you know, fiefdoms of influence. This is not to say that nothing that happens in the country is ordered by the government. Certainly, especially at Damascus, a lot is. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility at all that local commanders could order attacks or engage in atrocities, which were never greenlighted by the government itself. They are the consequence of a state, which has been forcibly decentralized by so many years of stress and conflict.

JS: Mm-hmm. Murtaza Hussain, thank you very much for joining us.

MH: Thanks for having me.

JS: Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept. Coming up on the show, we’re gonna hear from a Canadian citizen who’s originally from Syria. He was kidnapped by U.S. operatives at JFK Airport in 2002, and he was sent to Syria, where he was tortured by Assad’s intelligence service. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.

[Music interlude]

JS: Now, most of the voices that we hear in U.S. news coverage of Syria are not Syrians. They are retired generals, political strategists, so-called terrorism experts, politicians, media personalities. There are great reporters that are covering this from the ground, including for corporate media networks. But it is — you know, when we’re talking about the generals, and the politicians, and Trump, and the Democrats, it’s easy to advocate for a war when you have no personal stakes in it, or when it makes you look tough as a politician; or, military strikes can be really convenient if you want to distract from scandals or controversies. Back in 2002, when George W. Bush was selling the case for the war in Iraq to the American people, he singled out Syria as a particularly evil country. And that’s a key part of why my next guest’s personal story is so horrifying.

Maher Arar is an engineer who was born in Syria. He immigrated to Canada when he was 17 years old in the 1980s. Maher built up his family in Canada. He got married. He has two kids. Back in September of 2002, Maher Arar and his wife and their two young children were on vacation outside of the United States, outside of Canada. Maher had to return early to Canada for work, so he left his wife and his kids back on vacation, and he had to connect in New York to then move on to Canada. He had his connecting flight at JFK Airport. And then came the hell.

Maher Arar was detained at JFK Airport. He was held for nearly two weeks on a suspicion that he had some connection to al Qaeda. After that period where he was held in New York, he was put onto a small aircraft by U.S. operatives. He was flown to the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan. And then the Jordanians took custody of him. They beat him. They drove him to Syria, and they handed him over to Bashar al-Assad’s Secret Police. Assad’s Secret Police and intelligence officials tortured and interrogated Maher Arar, and then eventually locked him in a dungeon for almost a year.

The Canadian government, after Maher Arar was freed, cleared him of any connection to terrorism. They apologized to him, and they gave him a settlement. The U.S. government has never acknowledged that Maher Arar was innocent, and that his kidnapping by U.S. operatives was totally unjustified. Maher Arar is still unable to enter the United States, and he believes that he remains on the No Fly list. So Maher Arar can’t join us in New York, but he does right now from Ottawa, Canada. Maher, welcome to Intercepted.

Maher Arar: Thank you, Jeremy, for having me.

JS: Your reaction to the missile strikes ordered by Donald Trump and the geopolitical game that is now being played with Syria?

MA: I will never cheer the U.S. government striking other countries in any way, shape, or form because history has shown that when U.S. government intervenes, it’s never because of humanitarian reasons. But at the same time, we have to realize that a lot of people are dying in Syria, and Assad has committed horrible crimes. So, I won’t cheer on what the U.S. has done because I know especially Donald Trump has his own reasons for doing so, maybe political reasons. We all know that his ratings have been declining since he took over. So, yeah, I’m against interventions in general, but I also worry about the death toll in Syria that’s been mounting for years now.

JS: What do you think the United States should be doing in Syria right now?

MA: I don’t think the United States should have ever intervened in Syria at all, or in any other place. I think the international community should be involved as a world community, as opposed to just a single country. What worries me is the United States reasons behind intervening is not really to serve the Syrian people. And the other reason I am not of the opinion that the United States should be the only country taking action in Syria is because imperial past and even present, unfortunately, no other single country, you know, with no imperial past has taken the initiative to stand up and protect the Syrian people. That is reality on the ground.

JS: Are you saying that you don’t believe that the United States should in any way seek to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad by force or proxy forces?

MA: I don’t think the United States is serious in getting rid of Assad. I mean history proves that if anything, up until last week, the United States’ efforts has been directed at those who oppose Assad, whether it’s ISIS, or al Qaeda, or other groups. In my opinion, what happened last week, it’s just a face-saving exercise, nothing more, nothing less.

JS: We’ve seen this sort of celebration of the cruise missile strike on corporate media in the United States. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are on the same team.

Hillary Clinton: And I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.

JS: But on the other side, we’ve seen a kind of interesting response from left-wing circles in the United States and elsewhere. And part of it seems to be that people are adopting an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” posture on Syria, where it’s not just about opposing U.S. intervention, or U.S. militarism, or U.S. regime change politics, but actually defending Bashar al-Assad. And I’m curious, ‘cause I know you’re very active on social media, what’s your analysis of both the way it’s been handled in the U.S. corporate media, but also in segments of the left in the United States and elsewhere?

MA: It’s only news when the United States intervenes, right? We all know that the United States has been intervening militarily at least since 2014. What also strikes me is the position that has been adopted by people who consider themselves to be on the left spectrum of politics. There is a good majority that have been portraying Assad as the victim. And I really don’t understand this position because you could still oppose U.S. intervention without siding with Assad and apologizing with his crimes. What I’ve noticed over the last year or so is that the position adopted by many pundits on the left and journalists — a few of them, at least — is that it really is going beyond analyzing the situation. It’s going beyond seeking the truth, and it’s going to basically attack Assad opponents and use the same language that Assad has been using to describe his opponents.

The thing is, we always have to look at how people who are suffering in Syria, how they look at the situation, not how we look at it, right? I don’t deny that Assad has his own support in Syria. But the stats are very, very clear on this. Assad is behind the majority of destruction and death and misery in Syria. And it is not new. Assad does not really distinguish between those who carry arms and those who oppose him politically. There is absolutely no distinction. The starting ground should be to declare that Assad is a dictator, that Assad is not really friends of the West or friends of secularism. But he is really only a friend of his own self.

JS: Well, it’s interesting that you bring up Assad labeling his opponents as terrorists, because when the so-called War on Terror was launched by Bush and Cheney with the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, that was the language used by the most powerful people in the world, that you’re with us or you’re with the terrorist.

President George W. Bush: Either you’re with us, either you love freedom and with nations, which embrace freedom, or you’re with the enemy. There’s no in between.

JS: Maher, I want — for people who don’t know your backstory or why you have credibility beyond the fact that you’re — you were born in Syria and your roots are in Syria, what happened to you, in summary, after 9/11?

MA: Well, I was arrested at JFK Airport, and I did not know that the Canadian police had sent some information about me to the U.S. government. I was detained. I was not given food for at least 24 hours. I was, you know, not told what charges were laid against me. I was told to go to Syria willingly, and when I refused, in the middle of the night about, I think, 12 days later, I was shipped off to Jordan — to Syria via Jordan on a private jet. There, I spent in Syria about a year. I was physically abused and tortured at the very beginning. During that time, I was detained in underground cell that I still call, until this day, the coffin or the grave. I thought I was gonna die, frankly, and in fact, I wished death many times because that awful place was a psychological torture on its own. And I was released mainly because my wife lobbied on my behalf.

Richard Reynolds: A CIA plane shipped him first to Jordan. Then he was driven to Syria. Yesterday, Canadian judge Dennis O’Connor, who had investigated Arar’s case for almost two years, said that Arar had no links to terrorists.

Judge Dennis O’Connor: I’m able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense, or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada.

Robert Siegel: So far, the Bush administration has tried to prevent the case from being heard on the grounds that it would harm national security.

Dina Temple-Raston: Maher Arar couldn’t attend the hearing. That’s because he’s on a No Fly list and can’t come to the United States.

MA: And there was an inquiry in Canada eventually that basically cleared my name, blamed both the U.S. government and the Canadian government for my fate. And eventually also, I settled a lawsuit against the Canadian government. The U.S. government never, never, never acknowledged their role in my — in what happened to me, and they dismissed my lawsuit. And we tried to bring our lawsuit to the Supreme Court, but unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused. And most of the arguments that were raised were based on state secrets argument.

JS: One of the things that just strikes me is your incredible humility. I say that because I think a lot of people, if they were in your situation, where they were rendered by the United States, you believe quite likely the CIA, to Syria, where you then were brutalized and held in this underground small tomb, that they would be taking the position that the Assad regime should be overthrown by any means necessary. And I’m just wondering how it is that you have come to a position that is far more nuanced than that, and that you’re not just motivated by bitterness or anger at the injustice. Set aside the other policies of Assad in Syria, but just based on what happened to you, how is it that you are able to look at this in the way that you do, versus just, he should be overthrown?

MA: I’ve always been able to survive by trying to understand the other. Like, one way I was able to cope with what happened to me is by trying to put myself in the shoes who sent me to Syria. I’m not trying to justify their action, but I’m just trying to understand why they took that decision, just to come to terms with what happened to me. You know, there was 9/11, they were scared, they did not think rationally. It’s always good to have empathy for the others, even if they have done evil to you. So I do agree, you know, that the U.S. government has done injustice to me — big injustice, in fact. But at the same time, I can’t let this blind me from seeing the good side of things, right? I can’t let what happened to me and my personal experience blind me from the facts. So if the U.S., for example, has been wrong on my — like with respect to my story, they might be — you know, they might be right on other things. So, I can’t just paint everyone and every action with the same color. I have to — otherwise, I would just not be just, right? That’s why, when I look at the U.S. actions in the Middle East, I have to distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad. And based on that, I make a judgment.

JS: Is there any doubt in your mind that Assad did in fact use chemical weapons on the occasions that it’s been reported, most recently April 4th in Idlib?

MA: There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt. Whether Assad knew about it or not, that’s not for me to answer. But there is no doubt that Assad has used it two weeks ago, and he even used it before. There is no doubt about that.

JS: How do you think this could be resolved or ended in the best way possible for Syrians? Not for global powers, but for Syrians?

MA: Well, Jeremy, I wish I had the crystal ball. By no means, I’m saying that the United States should intervene and put a stop to this. But if the international community, maybe through the U.N., does not take serious action and say, “Enough is enough,” I think he will continue with his slaughter. And in fact, he has been playing a very, very smart game so far, smarter than anyone else, including Trump, by emphasizing that the people who is — who he is fighting are all terrorists. And unfortunately, this message has so far resonated with European countries. And that explains why there is reluctance to try to get rid of Assad. I would be very much happy if Assad today say, “You know what? Let us stop the war.” And I think he owns that decision, by the way. And I believe has owned it for a long time. “Let us stop all this, you know, war. Let us sit together. Let us find a political solution.” And he has to stop portraying all of his opponents as terrorists. And this is the only way to go forward. And if Assad is willing to leave power by elections, I think this would be the best solution. But if he continues to label all his opponents as terrorists, I just really don’t see how this will end. It’s unfortunate, but this is the reality.

JS: Well, and of course, Assad is doing that, just as other despots and thugs around the world do, and just as the United States has done on numerous occasions. But there really are terrorists in Syria. There is such a thing as the Islamic state. There are foreign fighters who have poured in. They do control parts of Syria. And I’m wondering if you just completely reject the notion that the alternative to Assad is that these groups consolidate more power in larger swaths of territory inside of Syria?

MA: I think the role of ISIS and, you know, similar like-minded groups have been magnified in the West. This is because ISIS and such groups, part of their agenda is to go outside Syrian borders, right? So, the West view them as a threat, as opposed to Assad, the secular. This is the reality. I mean, if you look at the stats and who is responsible for the most destruction in Syria, I mean, by far, Assad is the big winner. So I think the role of ISIS and al Qaeda have been taken out of proportion, and talk about ISIS and very little about Assad. And of course, the average citizen will think ISIS is the biggest threat to the world. It may be from the Western point of view, but for Syrians, ISIS and like-minded groups, they’re not the biggest threat to their existence. And that’s the reality.

JS: Well, Maher Arar, I always — every time I talk to you or I’m with you, I’m in awe of the humanity that you exhibit given everything that’s happened to you and to your family. And I just — I want to thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

MA: Thank you for having me, Jeremy. Good luck.

JS: Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian engineer. He was kidnapped by U.S. intelligence at JFK Airport in September of 2002, and he was taken in an extraordinary rendition to be tortured in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Maher Arar is now the CEO of CauseSquare, a fundraising application for social justice causes and other campaigns.

[Music interlude]

JS: That does it for the 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. However you listen to this show, we want to ask you to make sure that you are subscribed to it. If you use iTunes or Google Play, or any of those other platforms, don’t just subscribe. Give us a rating. And what would really help is if you give our show a review. We also really enjoyed hearing from our listeners on our Twitter feed, which is simply @Intercepted. You can weigh in there. You can get into fights, arguments, agreements, disagreements with other people who listen to the show and our wonderful staff, and sometimes I pop in — we’ll also try to respond to as many of you as we can. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

FZ (2003): I know people in the administration who are dying to use military action. The problem is, there aren’t targets.

William Kristol (2003): Charlie, that’s just — people who say ahead of time in a war that they know what it’s gonna be like are always wrong.

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