Donald Trump enjoyed playing fireman and asking where the fire is. Hint: all around you, Mr. President. This week on Intercepted: Falling, falling is Babylon the Great! Just the greatest. The best. Tremendous. The famed rebel academic, Alfred McCoy, whose book on narcotrafficking the CIA tried to stop from being published, lays out his meticulously argued theory that the U.S. empire will fall by the year 2030. The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, explains why she is not yet convinced that Trump colluded with Russia and talks about Trump ratcheting up the war on whistleblowers and the existence of a free press. Jeremy weighs in on the mounting civilian death toll from U.S.-led strikes in Iraq and Syria. Under Trump, that toll has skyrocketed to 360 civilians killed per month.
Jonathan Karl: Health and Human Services, Secretary Dr. Tom Price. Dr Price, thank you for being here.
Jerry Lundegaard: Yeah, how you doing Wade?
JK: Shouldn’t Republicans be worried about voting for a plan that is actually less popular now than Obamacare has ever been?
JL: Wade, what the heck are you talking about?
JK: More than ten medical groups are against it.
JK: 32 cancer organizations oppose it.
JL: Yeah, but —
JK: Unworkable in any form.
JL: No, no —
JK: Widespread terminations of coverage.
JL: No, no, see I —
JK: Dr. Price, why this wall of opposition?
JL: Oh for Christ’s sake here. What the heck do you mean?
JK: There is not a single governor in the country that is on the record saying that they unequivocally support this bill!
JL: Well those numbers are right, alright. Believe me.
JK: So the bottom line, this vote’s been delayed, did McConnell have the votes to get it passed?
JL: (laughs) No, but we had a deal here. A deal’s a deal.
JK: Alright, Dr. Tom Price, Health and Human Services Secretary, thank you for joining us.
JL: Aw jeez. Oh jeez. (dials phone)
Male Voice: Service?
JL: Yeah, give me Shep.
Shepard Smith: … to repeal and replace later is also dead. And Obamacare is the law of the land, despite Republican promises to kill it. So what to do? The White House solution? Do not fix Obamacare. Let it fail. President Trump is calling for exactly that. Allow the collapse of the health care program in which tens of millions of American men, women, and children …
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from The Intercept, and this is episode 23 of Intercepted.
Donald Trump squeezed himself into a fire truck this week to celebrate American-made products, or something. And like a little kid who the tough firefighters let sit in their fire truck, Trump wanted to know where the fire was — that he would almost certainly not help put out. As president, Trump has started his share of fires already and he’s doused gasoline on fires other people started.
Remember when Trump and his advisors promised that they would kill the families of suspected terrorists?
Mehdi Hasan: Would you kill the family of a terror suspect? Yes or no?
General Michael Flynn: Waterboarding was legal.
MH: OK. Would you kill the family of a terror suspect? Yes or no?
MF: I would, I would have to see what the circumstances of that situation was.
MH: Are you kidding me?
Donald J. Trump: You have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.
JS: They spoke about killing and war like a real estate deal. Or a game show. Sort of like kids getting to sit on an awesome tank. And just six months into office, Trump is presiding over a bloodbath that is killing civilians in record numbers in Iraq in Syria.
The independent war monitoring group, Airwars, published a new investigation last week showing that under Trump, U.S. led strikes have killed almost as many civilians in a half a year as they did it Obama’s last year or so in office. Airwars estimates that more than 2,200 civilians have been killed in U.S. and coalition strikes since Trump became president.
To put it a different way, under Obama the U.S. killed about 80 civilians a month in Iraq and Syria. Under Trump, that number is closer to 360 civilians killed a month. Now why is this the case? It’s not entirely clear at this moment, but as we said on the show before there have been reports that Trump has relaxed the rules of engagement for the military allowing operations to go ahead even if it’s known that civilians are going to be killed.
I also want to say another development to watch is that the U.S. is increasingly deploying U.S. troops boots on the ground on clandestine or covert missions inside of both Somalia and Yemen. Look for that to flare up sometime in the near future.
Now, despite reports that the military and the deep state are somehow protecting the Republic from Donald Trump, it seems to me that some of the most hawkish elements of the intelligence and military community — they’re doing just fine under Trump’s non-watchful, non-vigilant turn at the helm of power.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Among the chief beneficiaries of this administration are some of the most dangerous and unsavory forces within the U.S. military and national security apparatus. Follow the money and the bombs. They almost always lead back to those pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Now, speaking of behind the scenes, there are so many questions that continue to swirl around that meeting that Don. Jr and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort and who knows who else, had with the lawyer from Russia. Well the Trump Administration keeps changing its story and in changing its story, it’s proving for anyone with a brain that they have lied over and over and over as details about this story trickled out. It’s really astonishing to watch.
Meanwhile, Trump and the congressional Republican leadership’s much hyped effort to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that would result in a horrendous dystopia for millions of Americans appears to be totally dead now. Trump’s approval rating is in the toilet, he made a fool of himself in Paris and the most powerful media outlets in the country continue to have their knives out for Trump. And Trump seems happy to put himself on their cutting boards, day after day after day. Trump and his loyalists seem to be banking on the idea that if they just repeat, “Fake news, fake news, fake news” over and over and they tweet their alternative reality, that they’re going to be able to weather these storms.
I’ll say one thing about this: Trump is lucky that the Democratic Party is so incompetent at taking him on and energizing people. If the Democrats had their act together, if they had real vision, we might actually see a swift conclusion to this presidency. But at this point? That seems some ways away, if it will happen at all, before the natural course of the Trump presidency is played out.
I also want to caution people to remember that facts matter and they matter in the case of Trump as well. Just because we want to believe something, doesn’t mean it’s true. We should go wherever the facts lead us. But it does no one any good to engage in massive evidence-free leaps about the extent of Russian involvement with Trump. Let’s uncover the facts confront their implications and meaning as we have them. That is responsible journalism. It’s not that Trump deserves any grand benefit of the doubt. As president, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. He deserves to be investigated. Mistrust and then verify. But it’s that we as journalists have an obligation to assert what we can prove.
Joining me now is Margaret Sullivan. She’s the media columnist for The Washington Post and, until recently, she was the public editor of The New York Times. Margaret, welcome to Intercepted.
Margaret Sullivan: Hi.
JS: The first thing I want to ask you about, I mean, I should say I have tremendous respect for you. In fact, I would say you’re one of the people that I respect most that operates in, for lack of a better term, big media. And I particularly loved your work when you were the public editor at The New York Times. And having said that, you understand the motivation for my question. Are you convinced by the reporting that we’ve seen that there was collusion between President Trump and his campaign or members of his White House and the Russian government?
MS: No at I’m not convinced at this point. I think it is a worthy story line to pursue and I’m following it closely and I think there’s certainly reason to continue to aggressively report it. But to answer your question directly, no I’m not convinced of collusion.
JS: If somebody that had no knowledge of this political scandal and the investigations going on were to sort of ask you to summarize what the allegations that have been proven consist of, what would be the most glaring facts that have come to light, that you think warrant further probing?
MS: The number of contacts that took place between close associates of President Trump and Russian government types, or people close to the government. For me, it’s as much the insistence that these contacts never happened as anything I know about their content at this point.
JS: The big story right now, or one of the big stories, is this meeting that Donald Trump Jr. had; Paul Manafort was there, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who is the only one of the people that we know was at this meeting that holds an official position in the White House.
And the way it was initially reported in The New York Times was that this lawyer was a Kremlin-connected lawyer. The reason I bring that up is because I think in some of the coverage, there is an eagerness to believe that all smoke must mean that there’s a blazing fire somewhere. And I’m concerned that in the end, the facts as we understand them, about misconduct perhaps by the Trump Administration are not going to be as salacious as maybe some Democrats and some in the, you know ,the undeniably liberal media want to believe.
MS: I think you’re right about that. You know, people are very whipped up about this story. You know, I have a very simple point of view on this, which is I think it’s absolutely worthy of investigation, continued reporting and fair mindedness throughout. You know, which is I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And in general, I am proud of what The Washington Post has — you know not that I’m involved in calling the shots at all, I’m not. But I think the Post has approached it fairly.
And has there been too much excitement and, you know, verging on semi-hysteria about it in the news media in general? I’ve seen some of that. Yes.
JS: One of your recent columns was titled: “Are Americans Moved By Trump’s Media as Enemy War Cry? The Opposite May Be True.” Talk about what you wrote in that column and what it tells us.
MS: Well this was based in part on some new research from Pew that said that, while people don’t think that the news media is a very positive force in society right now, it’s actually changed over the past year in a surprising way. Republicans and conservatives think very poorly of the news media, but it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t gotten any worse. It’s at a low level, very low level, but it hasn’t changed. So that could lead you to believe and leads me to believe that, you know, whatever Trump is saying about the fake media and all of that.
DJT: And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake new. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
MS: It just is confirming what people already think on that side of the aisle, rather than driving them deeper into their corner. Whereas people who lean left or who are independent actually think more positively of the news media one year after all of this disparagement.
You know, again, the numbers are terrible if you care about the independent press ,which I do. But they’re actually not moving in the direction that you would think if you thought to yourself, well, it must be having some effect that the president is constantly disparaging the free press and, you know, threatening to change libel laws and calling reporters scum and all of that.
JS: It’s interesting because Vice President Mike Pence, who himself for a long time, operated in the media as a talk radio host.
Mike Pence: Is adultery no longer a big deal in Indiana and in America?
JS: And he actually, when he was in Congress, won praise from some press freedom advocates for his support of a shield law for journalists. And now he’s, of course, the vice president of an administration that has made clear what you just laid out, that they are contemplating changing libel laws. You know, they stopped just short of using the exact phrases that Joseph Goebbels used to describe the news media, but it really is serious when you consider the war against whistleblowers in this country. But also, the pathological lying that we see on the part of the White House; it does have a whiff of kind of fascist mentality toward the press, Mike Pence’s past record withstanding.
MS: Yeah, it is. You know, Pence was one of the co-sponsors in Congress of the shield law, as you say, which still hasn’t become reality and may never be. But I think we could use it and I think we could use it now more than ever because of the very administration that Pence is a part of. So, I’m very concerned about it and I agree that at least the language and some of the behavior — the lack of transparency — the fact that, you know, the traditional press briefings, whatever you may think of their usefulness, have become in many cases off-camera. It’s all pretty worrisome.
Kellyanne Conway: What’s the conclusion? Collusion? No. We don’t have that yet. I see illusion and delusion. So, just so we’re clear, everyone, four words: conclusion, collusion — no. Illusion, delusion — yes. I just thought we’d have some fun with words.
MS: But you, Jeremy, just made an allusion to the pursuit of whistleblowers and that’s something that did not begin with the Obama administration, but the Obama administration really ramped it up. And the use of the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute sources, whistleblowers — or leakers or traitors — as some would have it, was very, very concerning in the last administration and it really does create something of a blueprint for doing the same thing, but more so, in an administration that’s extremely press averse. We’re only six months into the Trump Administration and, as you well know, there’s already been one leaker who is being charged under the Espionage Act. And I don’t think it will be the last one.
JS: Right, and I mean I don’t want this to be the elephant in the room here. I mean, what you’re referring to is this young woman named Reality Winner, who the FBI, in a very political affidavit that the Justice Department swiftly released to the media within moments of The Intercept publishing a story on June 5th that was based on a top secret NSA document that revealed Russian cyber-espionage efforts targeting U.S. software companies that were servicing parts of the U.S. electoral and voting system. And they announced her arrest and slapped her with an espionage charge.
And The Intercept, as it stated publicly, you know, received this document anonymously, and we can’t confirm that Reality Winner is the source of that. And even if we knew that, we wouldn’t confirm it based on our principles of source protection. But the fact remains that this Justice Department is really throwing the book at her. And you’ve written about this recently, you sort of wrote about the statement that our editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, put out stating that our parent company, First Look, is helping to pay for a set of lawyers to work on her case, as well as making another $50,000 contribution to a defense fund set up in her name.
But I’m curious to ask you, because you are not at all handcuffed in what you can say about this, just looking at this story, the FBI’s response to this and the way that they’ve gone after this young woman, what’s your read on what’s going on here?
MS: The Trump Administration has made it clear that leaks are bad — at least not the ones that they like, but then the rest of them — that leaks are evil, that anonymous sources are evil. I think that they are looking to pick a case and go after it hard, and, you know unfortunately, Reality Winner is the one who is going to be the first, probably the first of several or of many. And, you know, as you said, they’re throwing the book at her and it’s very concerning. I think that her motivations, if indeed she is the source of your story, and I don’t expect you to comment on that, I know you wouldn’t, I think her motivations were to get what she considered valid and possibly important information released to the public.
So in general, I am a fan of whistleblowers and certainly of people who, you know, see something going on that they feel should be made public. I’m sorry to see this happening and I hope that she’s treated fairly as the prosecution continues. And I give First Look, The Intercept’s parent company, a lot of credit for helping to defend her and for standing up for her, whatever the relationship may be between her and your news organization.
I have a lot of respect for Betsy Reed, the editor of The Intercept. And I think it was tough for her to, and I think for all of you because you stand for transparency — that’s such a huge part of your core mission. I think it’s been tough and still is not to be able to say everything you might know about this, or to be really out front with it. The circumstances are such that it’s just not possible. But the actions and the transparency, now, I think of been really valid and very good and admirable.
JS: I appreciate that and, as you know, we definitely have people within our organization pushing for us to say more. At the end of the day, look, we can’t do anything that’s going to harm this young woman’s case and that ultimately is kind of the roadblock to us saying, “Hey, here’s everything we understand about this.” And you know, I personally wish it wasn’t that way. I personally wish we could own the mistakes that Betsy referenced The Intercept having made as part of this process. And I hope we will one day fully own all of that.
The flip side of this is that the FBI has leaked her private conversations, this Reality Winner, with her mother from inside of prison. They’ve gone into her diaries. They really have attempted to kind of prosecute her in the court of public opinion before she’s even begun her trial and we should remember, she’s pled “Not Guilty” to this as of now and we have to respect the fact that that’s what she’s asserted.
MS: Whenever I’ve written about any leaker or whistleblower, whether it’s Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner, I’m always so struck by the reader comments that I get both and, you know, right on the story itself or also in my e-mail. It’s so incredibly split. There are people who see someone like her as a patriot and completely admirable and very brave, and there are people who really want to tell you that this is a traitor and don’t you understand, classified information is secret for a reason and this is a crime. Period. The court of public opinion is a very undependable one and a very un-unified one in this case.
JS: I wanted to sort of go back a little bit in history and talk about “her e-mails,” so to speak, as a lot of people like to say on Twitter. Now that we have some space between the election campaign, the publication of the Podesta and the DNC emails by Wikileaks, what’s your sort of, you know, Monday morning quarterbacking of that situation? You know, was it significant? Was it right to publish those? Did it affect the election?
MS: I’m hardly the first to say this, but I am in agreement with those who think that that story was overplayed, and that it was overplayed because as the campaign got into full flower, we had a candidate in Trump who had very troubling history and was continuing to say outrageous things. And there was an effort to even things up, and the words “false equivalency” are the ones that people mention here. And I agree with that. I think there was false equivalency in trying to bring up the level of how problematic her email practices were, as opposed to all the things that were deeply troubling about Trump, and his campaign, and his background and, you know, so much of what had happened in his history.
And you’ll remember the the day in October, very close to the election, when Comey came out and said that the investigation was still alive. And many of us remember seeing the front page of The New York Times that day, that had, I think six stories, and everything above the fold was about this, and you know what the New York Times does, as I know well, as former public editor, does affect the rest of the media ecosystem. And it was a big deal and I think they overplayed it.
JS: And also, the same kind of vibe was on display during the Benghazi investigation because the most insane people within the Republican Party were leading the Benghazi investigation and focusing on the most ridiculous, unfounded wild conspiracy theories. We never really got an accurate understanding of exactly what happened. And it’s sort of like, in both cases, the way that the Republicans dealt with these issues made it so that we couldn’t actually have an honest debate about “her emails” anymore than we could get to the bottom of what happened at Benghazi.
MS: You know, I remember a big investigation that the New York Times did of what happened in Benghazi that really was very solid and didn’t completely let her off the hook. But did that resonate the way — I mean, with Fox News, for example, amplifying everything that the Republicans were saying about it and treating it like it was in fact the end of the world, there was no way to actually look at it. And it’s very hard for the news media to break through that, because you’re covering the politics of it as well as covering the substance of it.
JS: You know, you mention Fox News. I mean, I have long found Fox News either unwatchable or some kind of a stoned entertainment, where you’re like, “Okay, let’s all watch Fox News just to kind of, you know, check in on alternate reality.” By the same token, these days, I really find MSNBC almost entirely unwatchable. And I think that they’re in sort of two different camps in terms of the inherent dishonesty that’s on display constantly on Fox News. I don’t think the same is true of MSNBC, but they really have gone all in on almost all of their programs with the belief or pass along almost anything that’s flung at Donald Trump. And I want to get your take on the state of cable news.
I mean I’m leaving out CNN here, because actually I think CNN has not done a terrible job of covering, you know, the Trump White House. And I think Jake Tapper, for instance, has really been fantastic at many points in covering this. But I do find both MSNBC and Fox News virtually unwatchable for their own reasons.
MS: Yeah, and I think it’s cable news that people — you know, when people start talking about how much they hate the media or don’t trust the media, I think they’re really talking about the extremes of cable news. And while it’s true, and I agree with you that CNN has done a pretty good job of covering the Trump White House, they also did a terrible job of elevating Donald Trump during the campaign, especially during the primary campaign, and really are in part to blame, if we want to think of it that way, for his success.
The showing of the empty podium as he approached for his rallies and the hours-long broadcasting of his campaign rallies, it had a big effect. You know, it’s very hard to tell what CNN is. It’s a split personality always. You know, Fox has been, I think, in general has not hewed closely to the truth in recent years.
JS: And I think your criticisms of MSNBC are valid ones, you know, I mean I don’t want to come off here as a CNN defender. I completely share in your analysis of the role that they played in the lead-up to Trump taking the presidency. And I have to say, on Fox News, Shepard Smith, and this isn’t just under Trump, from time to time shows tremendous spine, including debunking assertions that the president makes about things that he supposedly heard on Fox News.
And when Judge Andrew Napolitano turned out to have been the source for Trump saying that Obama had “tapped Trump Tower,” Shepard Smith when on the air and said —
SS: Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-President of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way. Full stop.
JS: It is interesting, Shepard Smith is one of the people at Fox News, it’s kind of fascinating to watch these days.
MS: That’s right and I mean as recently as a week or so ago, he kind of went into a tirade about the number of lies that were coming out of the Trump White House, which was pretty interesting to see on Fox.
SS: If there’s nothing there, and that’s what they tell us, they tell us there’s nothing to this and nothing came of it, there’s a nothing-burger, it wasn’t even memorable, didn’t write it down, didn’t tell you about it because it wasn’t anything, so I didn’t even remember it with a Russian interpreter in the room at Trump Tower.
If all of that, why all these laws? Why is it a lie after lie after lie? If you clean, come on clean? You know, my grandmother used to say “when first we practice — oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The deception, Chris is mind-boggling and there are still people out there who believe we’re making it up. And one day they’re going to realize we’re not and look around and go, “Where are we? And why are we getting told all these laws?”
JS: You know people are saying it was his Cronkite moment, but I think that’s a little bit too far. But it showed a stiff upper lip there.
MS: It did, and I think that Chris Wallace is a very dogged and good interviewer, so it’s not as if there aren’t some decent journalists there. But in general, if Fox were your sole source or major source of news you would not be getting, I don’t think a very good picture of what reality is in, you know, American politics right now.
JS: I wanted to ask you what you believe is not being covered or paid enough attention to in our broader media culture, because of the palace intrigue about Trump and Russia, and the sort of insatiable appetite that the public seems to have, or at least that cable news and the papers seem to believe the public has for every minor detail of this Trump investigation.
MS: I think in general the news media tends to get too caught up in the drama of the process and in politics ,and forgets about the issues that really affect people’s lives. So that even in the coverage of the very recent healthcare debate, we seem to hear a lot about, you know, what the vote count is in the Senate and who’s moving in this direction who’s moving in that direction and certainly a lot less about the effect of these proposed policies on people’s lives.
You know, there’s some of that, but it sure isn’t the major message that comes across. And in general, I don’t think we do a great job of talking about substantive issues that actually matter to people’s, you know, real lives, their pocketbooks, their families, the American economy. And we know very well that that is a huge driver for voters and for citizens and certainly a huge mistake that Hillary Clinton made during her campaign in not speaking more directly to that. And Trump did speak to it. I mean, I think he spoke to it disingenuously, but he spoke to it effectively. And I think we see kind of a mirroring of that in the news media, in not putting enough emphasis on actual policy and substance. And it can be a little boring. And I think that we need to find ways to tell it in in ways that will resonate and go to peoples’ emotions and their daily lives.
JS: Do you believe that Trump will finish one full term as President?
MS: I think he will finish the term but he will be besieged at every moment and that he won’t run for reelection — that Pence will run and lose. My prediction was that Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York senator, will become the first female president.
JS: Wow that’s a stunning prediction. I mea,n I thought for sure you would say Elizabeth Warren, but we’ll put you in the Kirsten Gillibrand category on that. My money thus far, Margaret, has been on Trump either quitting and sort of saying, “You know, I don’t need you. I’m going back to Trump Tower. Schwarzenegger destroyed The Apprentice, I need to make it great again.” Or just croaking from a heart attack because he just eats fast food all the time.
MS: Whatever happens, he’s going to spin it as a victory.
JS: Almost everyone in this country would agree with you. Margaret Sullivan, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
MS: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
JS: Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. When we come back we’re going to talk to a professor who was once attacked by CIA mercenaries as he investigated the heroin trade in Vietnam. He has a new book out predicting the fall of the U.S. empire. And his prediction says it won’t be in the distant future. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.
JS: Okay. We are back here on Intercepted. Remember when Donald Trump famously hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping at his Mar-A-Lago resort and how he now calls Xi his friend and they had this emerging friendship?
Well that’s quite a different portrayal than the tone that Trump struck throughout his presidential campaign.
DJT: China is ripping us off, and who is getting the oil? China! What China is doing to us is horrible.
JS: Now, while Donald Trump extends the U.S. military footprint around the world and killing an astonishing and growing number of civilians, China has quietly and rapidly expanded its own influence without deploying its military on foreign soil. And a new report in the The Wall Street Journal highlights one of the ways that China has been challenging U.S. military supremacy:
“Chinese state companies have begun selling aircraft resembling General Atomics Predator and Reaper drones at a fraction of the cost and they’re selling them to U.S. allies and partners and to other buyers.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, “China sales have enabled multiple countries, including some with weak legal systems and scant public oversight of the military, to use unmanned aerial vehicles to spy and kill remotely as the US has done on a large scale since 9/11. Among the Pentagon’s concerns is that advanced drones could be used against American forces. China is now the world’s third biggest arms seller by value behind the U.S. at number one and Russia.”
I bring up this Wall Street Journal story because there is a new book coming out by the historian, Alfred McCoy, that predicts that China is set to surpass the influence of the U.S. globally both militarily and economically by the year 2030.
And Alfred McCoy, I should say, is not some Chicken Little. He’s a serious academic and he has guts. During the Vietnam War, Alfred McCoy, as a young academic traveled to Vietnam and Laos where he was investigating the swelling heroin trade that was emerging during that war. When he got back to the United States and he wrote a book the CIA tried to stop the publication of that book and it’s now become a classic. It’s called “The Politics of Heroin.” McCoy also wrote one of the earliest and most prescient books on the post-9/11 CIA torture program and he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on U.S. covert action.
The new book that he wrote, which is going to be released in September by Haymarket Books, is called “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power” and I want to share with you part of what McCoy asserts. This is from his book: “For the majority of Americans, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralizing decade of rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness. After years of swelling deficits, fed by incessant warfare in distant lands. In 2030, the U.S. dollar eventually loses its special status as the world’s dominant reserve currency. Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying its bills, China, India, Iran, Russia and other powers provocatively challenge us dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace.”
That is from the forthcoming book “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power by Alfred McCoy.” McCoy is the Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he joins us now.
Professor Al McCoy, welcome to Intercepted.
Alfred McCoy: Jeremy, lovely to be here.
JS: Before we start, I just want to say that when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I was a terrible student, but I had a very good sense of what classes to take and I actually took one of your classes — I’m honored that you have now said that I can call you Al, but at the time I took one of your courses and it really opened my eyes to a world that I would end up being invested in later in life, and that is investigating clandestine and covert U.S. operations.
So I wanted to how to thank you, Al, for helping to put me on the path toward investigative journalism.
AM: Thank you Jeremy, that’s very kind of you to say so.
JS: I wanted to begin by asking you to assess this current moment that we’re in with Donald Trump. How do you see him in a historical context, and what does his presidency represent about the American Empire?
AM: Through some kind of malign design Donald Trump has divined, has figured out what are the essential pillars of U.S. global power that have sustained Washington’s hegemony for the past 70 years. And he seems to be setting out to demolish each one of those pillars one by one. Now, it’s important to realize that the United States is no longer the preeminent global power we were, let’s say at the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, back in 1960. Our share of the global economy has declined substantially. We’re about to be eclipsed by 2030, by China, and become the world’s number two economic power. The world system is spreading its wealth and there’s a number of second tier powers, the rise of the European Union, et cetera. It’s a more complex world, so United States can no longer dictate to the world, or at least much of the world, like we could back in the 1950s.
Nonetheless, there are presidents, and I say Barack Obama was one of them, George H.W. Bush was another, these presidents — through skillful diplomacy, their knowledge of the international system, their geopolitical skills — they could maximize U.S. influence on the world stage. They could use U.S. military power strategically, deftly. They could lead international coalitions. They could set the international agenda. Trump is turning his back on all of that and I think he’s accelerating, perhaps markedly, even precipitously, the U.S. decline.
JS: I wanted to ask you about a much earlier book that you wrote, Al McCoy, “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.” And that details your investigation and it really was what introduced you to this world of covert CIA operations, client states, mercenaries, local proxies, and you also found yourself in conflict with very powerful individuals in the CIA and the national security state because of what you were researching. Talk about that book and the process that led to writing it and how it was eventually published?
AM: Now, almost fifty years ago, looking back, it was an extraordinary experience. In the space of eighteen months to two years, I acquired an amazing education. Up to that point, I was a graduate student looking at the history of colonialism in Southeast Asia, writing articles that had lots of footnotes. I was a library rat.
And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly in 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research done by the White House, determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam, were heavy heroin users. There were more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.
Vietnam Veteran: That was the whole thing about. To keep myself going through the day, to combat, I would get high. I would be under the influence of some type of drugs. And I would — I would feel fear. But after coming down from the drugs, I would stop feeling fear, and that’s when I would go back to get high again.
AM: And so what I did was I set out to investigate. Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.
So, I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina. And he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations. So, the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld — the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”
So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went into Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos — whose main cash crop was opium — and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills. And there were heroin labs. One of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming in those labs the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. What I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic. And that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America, when the Contras became involved the traffic. The CIA looked the other way as their aircraft and their allies were smuggling cocaine from Colombia through Central America to the United States. Same thing in the one 1980s, during the secret war in Afghanistan, the mujahideen turned to opium. Afghanistan went from supplying zero percent of U.S. heroin supply — soared to 65 percent of the illicit heroin supply for the United States came out of Afghanistan. The CIA sent arms across the border through caravans to the mujahideen fighters and those same caravans came out carrying opium. So a clear pattern.
The other thing was when I began to do that investigation and write up the book, I faced enormous pressures. My phone was tapped by the FBI. The IRS — I had an audit as a poverty-stricken graduate student. The Department of Education investigated my graduate fellowship. Friends of mine who had been serving in military intelligence were recruited to spy on me. In other words, what I found was the CIA penetrated every aspect of my life. They, the head of CIA covert operations, a very famous operative name Cord Meyer Jr., visited the offices of Harper and Row, my publisher, and tried to persuade the publisher to suppress the book — hold the contract, just don’t release the book — claiming that it was a threat to national security.
So what I discovered was not only CIA complicity — complex, compromise relationships with covert allies far away in remote places like Southeast Asia — but also the incredible depth of the penetration of the CIA within US society under the conditions of the Cold War. Every aspect of my life was manipulated by the CIA.
JS: Well, and you write in your forthcoming book, “In the Shadows of the American Century,” “I had crafted a historical method that would prove over the next 40 years of my career surprisingly useful in analyzing a diverse array of foreign policy controversies, CIA alliances with drug lords, the agency’s propagation of psychological torture, and our spreading state surveillance.”
Part of the reason it seems that they were concerned about what you were investigating in Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere was that you were tapping into something that was an emerging nexus that the CIA would rely on for decades to come.
AM: Indeed, all of those areas. The method I came up with was very simple. Start far back in the past, as far back as you can go. Go back to the U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines when we started surveillance circa 1898 to pacify the Philippines, and then track it forward, step by step, all the way to the present, keeping in mind that the patterns — the structure of the operation. And then, when you get to the present where it becomes secret, highly classified, and very controversial, you understand the structure. So, you know where to look, what assumptions are likely to be sound, what hypotheses might work, how you can conduct your analysis and that can lead you to an insight.
For example, let’s take the case of torture, okay? In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Marcos regime, there was this coterie of military colonels that had plotted an abortive coup, that had sparked a so-called people-powered revolution that put a million Filipinos on the streets of Manila calling for Marcos’ downfall, forcing Washington to provide him with aircraft that flew him out to exile in Hawaii and brought democracy. So I was very interested in who these colonels were.
And what I found when I investigated them is that they weren’t line officers, let’s say combat officers, they weren’t even intelligence officers. They were internal security officers who’d been personally involved in torture. And what I begin to realize is that torture was a transactional experience. That these officers who’ve been trained by the CIA on how to interrogate and use torture, by the way, that, that as they broke down their victims, they empowered themselves and inspired themselves to this coup to overthrow Marcos.
Well, that also introduced me to the idea that the CIA was training torturers around the globe. And I figured this out in the 1980s, before it was common knowledge. There was some research in the ’70s, people working on this, but we didn’t have the full picture. And what I began to figure out was also the the nature of the the methods that that these that these colonels were using. Now, look, these were physical guys that were brutally physically hazed at their militant, military academy, as often happens in such organizations. And so, instead of beating physically their victims, they used something counterintuitive. They didn’t touch their victims. They used psychological techniques.
And so in 2004, when CBS Television published those those photographs from Abu Ghraib prison.
Dan Rather: This is a picture of an Iraqi prisoner of war, and according to the U.S. Army, Americans did this to him. The Army confiscated some 60 pictures of Iraqi prisoners being mistreated, and in many of the pictures, Americans, both men and women, are laughing, posing, pointing, or giving a thumbs-up. The result? Six Americans are being court-martialed.
AM: There was that famous photograph of an Iraqi detainee standing on a box with his arms outstretched, with phony electrical wires attached to him, he’d been told that if he lowered his arms, he’d be shocked, and he had a bag on his head.
And I looked at that photo and I said, “Those are not bad apples. That is CIA doctrinal techniques. The bag is for sensory deprivation, the arms are for self-inflicted pain, those are the two fundamentals techniques a CIA psychological torture.” And it would not be for another ten years until 2014, when the Senate, the U.S. Senate Senate Intelligence Committee, spent $40 million and reviewed six million CIA documents and came to rather similar conclusions. So the method’s useful.
JS: I wanted to transition and ask you how we ended up with national security state that we have today. What I mean is, the NSA, with its vast powers, which of course you document in the book. The CIA employing tactics under what you you’ve called “covert netherworld,” that there is this sense under someone like Barack Obama that we’re not going to send massive troop deployments around the world, as much as we are going to depend on drones, discreet covert operations, escalated use of Special Operations Forces and CIA paramilitaries. But sort of talk about the post-World War II growth of what now has come to be known as the national security state.
AM: I think the national security state is the instrument the United States used to build and exercise its global hegemony. Looking at the comparative history of empires in the modern age, going back 500 years, the thing that distinguishes the U.S. empire from almost any other, is the reliance upon covert methods. And it’s a result of an historical moment.
The U.S. empire coincided with the decolonization — the dissolution — of half a dozen European empires that produced 100 new nations, more than half the independent nations on the planet today. And so, U.S. hegemony was being exercised not over colonies, whose sovereignty was compromised, but over independent nation states, who had sovereignty. So, how do you exercise hegemony in non-hegemonic world? You have to do it covertly.
And in 1947, President Harry Truman, right after World War II, and Congress passed the National Security Act that laid down the bureaucratic apparatus for the U.S. national security state. That National Security Act created the Defense Department, the U.S. Air Force, the CIA, and the National Security Council — the key instruments of the U.S. exercise of global power. And then when the next administration came in, under President Dwight Eisenhower, what he did is he realized that, you know, that there were nations that were becoming independent across the world and that he had to be intervening in these independent nations. And so the only way he could do it was through plausible deniability — you had to intervene in a way that could not be seen. You had to do it covertly.
And so Eisenhower turned to the CIA, created by Harry Truman, and he transformed it from an organization that originally tried to penetrate the Iron Curtain, to send agents and operatives inside the Iron Curtain. It was a complete disaster. The operatives were captured, they were used to uncover the nets of opposition inside the Soviet Union — it was absolutely counterproductive. Eisenhower turned the CIA away from that misbegotten mission of penetrating the Iron Curtain and instead assigned them the mission of penetrating and controlling the three-quarters of the globe that was on the U.S. side of the Iron Curtain, the free world. And we began to exercise our global hegemony, covertly, through the CIA and allied intelligence agencies. And that’s been a distinctive aspect of U.S. hegemony since the dawn of American global power in 1945.
JS: You know it’s interesting because there’s a lot of talk now about foreign interference in the U.S. election, with, you know, exclusively the attention is being focused on: Did Russia interfere in our election? And if so, were they successful in promoting Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton? And in your book, you cite this compilation from Carnegie Mellon University that says between 1946 and 2000, rival superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union, then Russia—intervened in 117 elections or eleven percent of all the competitive national level contests held worldwide via campaign cash and media disinformation. And then you write: “Significantly, the United States was responsible for 81 of those attempts, 70 percent of the total.” Walk us through some of the greatest hits of the CIA and other intelligence agencies in election interference, since the 1940s.
AM: Look, under the colonial empires — Britain, France, Belgium, all the rest — they had district officers and they worked with chiefs, maharajas, emirs, local officials in colonial districts around the globe. And they controlled who was going to be the new emir, who was going to be the new sultan, who was going to be the new maharaja. Ok?
And then when all of those nations decolonized and became independent, the fulcrum for the exercise of power shifted from the colonial district to the presidential palace. And so, the United States paid a lot of attention in controlling who were the leaders in those presidential palaces. The U.S. did it through coups and during the period of the 1950s to the 1970s about a quarter of the sovereign states in the world changed government by coups, and they also did it by electoral manipulation.
One of the most famous ones, the one that actually established the capacity of the CIA to do that, was the 1948 elections in Italy, when it looked like the communist and socialist parties were slated for capturing a majority of the seats in parliament, and then forming a government. And you could have on our side of the Iron Curtain, in a very important world power Italy, a legally elected, democratic elected communist government. And so the CIA spent, bargain basement, $1 million. Imagine: Buying Italy for $1 million. Seems like a bargain. And they produced the electoral results of the Christian Democrats, a centrist government. Any time that there was a serious electoral contest in which the outcome was critical to us geopolitical interests the U.S. was intervening.
Now, the difference between that and what we’ve seen with the 2016 elections in the United States, if you’re the global hegemony, you are manipulating influencing other people’s elections. And when we’re manipulating other people’s elections we’re the global power. And when we’re being manipulated, when other powers are penetrating our society and manipulating our elections, that’s a sign that we’re a declining power. And that’s very serious.
JS: One of the things you write in the book is, “Future historians are likely to identify George W. Bush’s rash invasion of Iraq, in 2003, as the start of America’s downfall, but instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this 21st century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic contraction or cyber warfare.”
Talk about why you seem so convinced that this is inevitable, and how you foresee potential scenarios for the demise of what we now understand as the American empire?
AM: One of the key things that I think very few people understand, after World War II, the United States became the first world power, the first empire in 1000 years to control both ends of the vast Eurasian continent. Now Eurasia, that enormous landmass, is the epicenter of world power. It’s got the resources, the people, the civilizations — you’ve got to control that to control the world.
The United States, through the NATO alliance in Western Europe and a string of alliances along the Pacific literal with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, controlled the axial ends of the Eurasian landmass. And then we link that with layers of power: treaties, multilateral defense treaties. And then we had fleets. We had hundreds of military bases. By the end of the Cold War, we had about 800 overseas military bases. Most of those were arrayed around the Eurasian landmass. In the last ten years, as drone technology is developed, we’ve laid the latest layer upon that, which are the drone bases. There are 60 U.S. drone bases that stretch from Sicily all the way to Andersen air base on Guam, and that has been, if you will, the key pillars in the global architecture of U.S. power.
And those pillars are starting to crumble. Your organization, The Intercept, last April, had a very important document that leaked out, the transcript of that phone conversation between President Trump and President Duterte of the Philippines.
If you read that transcript closely, you know, you can see the waning of U.S. power along the Pacific literal. Donald Trump is calling up — he’s got a fellow demagogue in the person of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who has killed about 8000 people in his so-called drug war. People blown away and bodies dumped in the streets of Manila and Cebu and elsewhere in the country. And he’s calling up and congratulating him and trying to bond with him, you know, autocrat to autocrat.
And then Trump shifts the conversation and says, “Well, we got this problem in Korea. Kim Jong Un is unreliable.” And Duterte says, “Yeah, I’m going to call China, I’ll talk to Xi Jinping about that.” And Trump says, “We’ve got some very powerful submarines, which we’re going to have in the area.” And Duterte says, “Yeah, I’m going to call Xi Jinping about that. I’ll be talking to China.”
And it’s clear that Trump is trying to court the man, trying to impress him with U.S. strength, and every time Trump tries to do it, Duterte responds, “I will call China.” It’s a clear indication of China’s rising power along that Pacific literal. So we are slowly, because of China’s investment, its development, some of our mismanagement of our relationships and long term trends, those axial ends of Eurasia they’re crumbling. Our power, our control over that critical continent is weakening, and China’s control is slowly inexorably increasing and that is going to be a major geopolitical shift.
You know? Those invisible movements of power arrayed across the landscape, and then the technological and educational shifts, coming together, means that there are all kinds of ways for the U.S. to lose power, either with a bang or a whimper, but by 2030, it’s pretty much over for our global dominion.
JS: And is that, is that in your opinion a bad thing?
AM: Well, yes it is, and I here, you know, I speak — you could call me, you know a narrow American. But, ok, every empire — if you think we’ve had empires in the world for about four thousand years. Some have been more benign and beneficent, others have been absolutely brutal. If you want to go to the the most brutal empire I think in human history, the Nazi empire in Europe. It was an empire. It plundered, alright? Much of that mobilization of labor was just raw exploitation. It was the most brutal empire in human history and it collapsed.
The U.S. empire has been, and so we’ve had our excesses, Vietnam, we could go on. Afghanistan. There are many problems with the U.S. exercise of its power. But, we have stood for human rights. The world has had 70 years of relative peace, lots of medium-sized wars but nothing like World War I and World War II. There has been an increase in global development, the growth of a global economy, with many inequities, but nonetheless, transnationally, a new middleclass is appearing around the globe. We’ve stood for labor rights and environmental protection. Our successor powers, China and Russia, are authoritarian regimes.They stand for none of these liberal principles.
So you’ll have the realpolitik exercise of power, all the downsides with none of the upsides, with none of the positive development. I mean, we’ve stood for women’s rights, for gay rights, I mean, for human progress, for democracy. You know, we’ve been flawed in efficacy but we’ve stood for those principles and we have advanced them. So, we have been on the scale of empires comparatively benign and beneficent. And I don’t think the succeeding powers are going to be that way.
Moreover, there are going to be implications for the United States. Most visibly, I think that when the dollar is no longer the world’s unchallenged preeminent, global reserve currency, the grand imperial game will be over. Look, what we’ve been able to do for the last twenty years is we send the world our nicely printed paper, tea notes, and they give us oil and automobiles and computers and technology. We get real goods and they get brightly colored paper. Because of the position of the dollar. When the dollar is no longer the global reserve currency, the cost of goods in the United States is going to skyrocket.
We will not be able to travel the world as we do now. We won’t be able to enjoy the standard of living we do now. There will be lots of tensions that are going to occur in the society from what will be a major rewriting of the American social contract. This will not be pleasant. It’s possible, if we look back, we could see Trump’s election, and all of the problems of the Trump administration as one manifestation of this imperial decline.
JS: All right well, Al McCoy, we’re going to leave it there. I really appreciate you joining us here on Intercepted.
AM: Jeremy, it was a real pleasure. Thanks for all the great questions.
JS: Alfred McCoy is the Harrington professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.” His new book, which comes out in September, is called “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.” I highly recommend that you pick up that book when it comes out.
And that does it for this week’s show. I’m going to be away next week but my colleague Glenn Greenwald is going to be filling in for me, and I would guess he’s going to bring some fireworks with him. 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. We production assistance from Elise Swain. Many thanks to Rino Dunic from Zadar, Croatia for engineering help for this week’s episode. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.