Intercepted Podcast: The Distraction in Chief

While the media overwhelmingly focuses on Trump and Russia, Yemen is dying, covert ops are spreading, and war is raging.

Photos: Getty Images (5) Photo Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept

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As the Trump/Russia reality show continues to consume endless hours of media coverage, the U.S. is backing the genocidal, scorched-earth bombing of Yemen. Trump has granted the CIA and military sweeping authorities to conduct lethal operations, all while laughing it up with the murderous despot, Rodrigo Duterte.

This week on Intercepted, Rami Khouri breaks down Saudi Arabia’s agenda in the Middle East, its destruction of Yemen, and the bizarre case of the exiled Lebanese prime minister. Despite what you may have heard, the CIA and U.S. military are quite content with the Trump presidency. Aram Roston of Buzzfeed, Spencer Ackerman of the Daily Beast, and The Intercept’s Matthew Cole join Jeremy for a discussion on Trump’s new covert action czar on the National Security Council and his past work for Blackwater’s Erik Prince on the CIA assassination program. They also discuss Ackerman’s report that the mysterious death of a Green Beret in Mali came after the soldier allegedly discovered Navy SEALs were stealing money.

WikiLeaks slid into Donald Trump Jr.’s DMs. The media went crazy. Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy analyze what the messages actually say and how they have been portrayed in the media. Glenn also blasts the Justice Department’s order that the Russian-funded news organization, RT, registers as a foreign agent.

And we talk to two newly elected Democrats who stunningly upset red seats in Virginia’s elections. Former Marine Lee Carter campaigned as a Democratic Socialist and Elizabeth Guzman, a Peruvian immigrant, is one of the first Latina women elected to the state legislature.

In this week’s cold open, Donald Trump stars in American Beauty.

Thora Burch (as Jane Burnham): I need a father who’s a role model. Not some horny geek boy who is gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. What a lame-o. Someone really should just put him out of his misery.

Anthony Atamanuik (as Donald J. Trump): My name is Donald Trump. This is my White House. This is my golf course. This is my life. I’m 71 years old and in less than a year, I’ll be dead.

Donald J Trump: Mr. Trump would like a hamburger to go.

AA: Of course, I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already.

DJT: I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.

AA: Oh look at me: Yanking my pud in the shower. Wow. What a glamour hammer. Hey sperm. You’re fired. This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.

Melania Trump: I don’t feel he insulted the Mexicans.

AA: That’s my wife Melania.

MT: He said “illegal” immigrants.

AA: See the way the Emilio Pucci overcoat matches the cobalt blue Louboutins. That’s not an accident. Believe me. That’s our vice president Mike and that’s his mother, Karen.

Karen Pence: We are a normal family. OK?

AA: Between us, he’s a total Jesus freak.

Vice President Mike Pence: My faith became my own when I made a personal decision to trust Jesus Christ during the spring of my freshman year in college.

AA: Oh, man. I get exhausted just watching Melania pack for our trips. She picked out a special outfit for Duterte: blood red. Rodrigo’s a great guy.

Rodrigo Duterte: Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.

AA: Melania wasn’t always like this. She used to be happy. We used to be happy.

AA: My daughter Ivanka, only child. There’s a few others out there that I know of, some Tiffany person, but Ivanka. Mmmm.

Ivanka’s a pretty typical piece of ass — I mean, daughter. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass. But I don’t want to lie to her.

Ivanka Trump: If being complicit is wanting to be a force and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit. I don’t know what it means to be complicit.

AA: Both my wife and daughter think I’m this tremendous loser. And, they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is. But I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back. Believe me.

[Musical interlude]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Musical interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 36 of Intercepted.

It may not seem this way if you watch cable news in the U.S., but there are severe life or death crises unfolding across the world and they have literally nothing to do with the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged relationship with Russian officials or Don Jr.’s direct messages with WikiLeaks. I’m not saying that this investigation is not important or relevant or necessary. It is. But the emerging pattern is that nothing else matters. And that is extremely dangerous and frankly reckless, particularly when you consider the level of humanitarian destruction and the wars, both covert and overt, that are raging across the globe.

It’s an unspeakable scandal that what the U.S., and Britain, and Saudi Arabia are doing to the people of Yemen is not on every single newscast every single day. The world is witnessing a genocidal war that is made possible by the United States government. For three years, the Saudis have used U.S., British and other Western-supplied weapons to systematically target the civilian infrastructure of Yemen. They have bombed power plants, including destroying the main power grid in the capital, Sana’a.

There is now a horrifying outbreak of cholera. More than a half a million Yemenis have been infected with the disease this year alone. Two thousand people, most of them children, have died from the cholera outbreak. By next month, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, there are estimates that cholera cases will rise to about one million. This is a direct result of the scorched-earth bombing that the United States is facilitating.

Some seven million Yemenis are facing what a coalition of 20 international aid groups call famine-like conditions. Twenty million people right now have about six weeks left of food rations and the country has a vaccine supply that’s expected to last no more than a month. People are living in sewage. Hospitals are closing or are totally overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses have not been paid in months. It’s a matter of time before diseases like polio and measles begin rapidly spreading.

Making matters even worse, the Saudis have imposed an embargo, a blockade on humanitarian supplies coming into Yemen and they’ve actively prevented ships from delivering desperately needed aid. Now under international pressure in recent days, the Saudis now say that they’re going to ease that blockade. We shall see. The past three years have shown a ruthless, merciless, and heartless Saudi agenda that is collectively punishing the entire population of the poorest nation in the Arab world, all with the enthusiastic support of the U.S. government under Donald Trump.

Pope Francis’s envoy to the United Nations warned that the bombing campaign in Yemen is creating, “a humanitarian disaster of apocalyptic proportions.” Think of all of this the next time you hear Trump or any other U.S. official talk about how important Saudi Arabia is to the United States.

Secretary Rex Tillerson: America’s security at home is strengthened when Saudi Arabia’s security is strong as well.

JS: Or when you hear Trump bragging about weapons sales to the Kingdom.

DJT: And we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies, the greatest anywhere in the world.

JS: Think of this when military or intelligence officials claim that the Saudis are an important ally in the fight against terrorism.

Secretary James Mattis: Well, welcome, your Royal Highness, Excellencies, distinguished members of the Kingdom’s delegation. Welcome to the Pentagon.

JS: It’s one big deadly lie. And this bombing could end tomorrow with one phone call from Donald Trump. But instead of stopping a genocide, Trump is fueling it, as Obama did before him, albeit with a little bit of feigned concern about the humanitarian conditions in Yemen. This policy is shameful. Utterly shameful.

Late on Monday night this week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the civilian deaths and the spread of disease in Yemen. But by the time it was actually voted on, it was so watered down as to be completely meaningless as though it’s a mystery who’s doing most of the killing in Yemen. It doesn’t even mention the Saudis! That resolution will have no actual consequences. It doesn’t stop the U.S. from selling arms to the Saudis, it doesn’t stop the U.S. from refueling Saudi warplanes or providing the Saudis with intelligence to wage its bloody air war.

In fact, Congress remains totally unwilling to stop this genocide. There are a few who seem to get it, among them Senator Chris Murphy.

Senator Chris Murphy: I mention that the blockade is being run by the Saudi-led coalition. The United States is a member of that coalition. For two years the United States has been aiding the government of Saudi Arabia in a bombing campaign of the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. That bombing campaign has caused this outbreak of cholera. Why is that?

JS: Now, I don’t believe that either the Democrats or the Republicans will actually confront this horror with anything except toothless resolutions, but Murphy should be applauded for speaking out. And here’s the other thing: it’s not just Yemen. U.S. drone strikes have continued unabated under Donald Trump. There were four in Somalia in the last week alone. Afghanistan is once again escalating. The CIA has been given wider latitude to conduct lethal operations and Trump has removed some of the Obama era approvals that the CIA would need to get in order to conduct drone strikes. Meanwhile, Trump has eased the rules on the military, the U.S. military, killing civilians and the death toll in Syria and Iraq are spiking through the roof since Donald Trump became president.

U.S. Special Operations Forces are deployed in 130-plus countries around the world, but there’s almost never mention of this in big establishment media. No, all day every day it’s: Trump, Russia, Trump, Russia, Trump, Russia.

What presidents do, including in their personal lives, when they’re president, it’s very important for the media to cover. It was important under Bill Clinton, as it is under Donald Trump. But the point is, at what price does this obsession with a small part of what’s going on in the United States and around the world, at what price does that obsession and imbalance in coverage come? The secret and public wars that the U.S. has engaged in, they all must be covered in depth regardless of what’s happening inside the palace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We are going to pay a price at home for what is done with our money and in our names abroad, and this is all going to come back to hit us as it has before. So, let’s not fall into this trap of deciding what to cover and in how much depth, as though news organizations are producers of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or that we’re somehow cheap ambulance chasers. People are dying in massive numbers because of the actions of our government. Our wars make new enemies every day. And it’s all of our job, as reporters, as journalists to report on it, regardless of what else is happening in the country or the world.

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JS: Today we’re going to take a deep dive into some of the stories that you won’t get much information on from watching the big networks or splashed as breaking news on the websites of the most serious journals of our time. In a bit, we’re going to examine the unfolding crisis in Lebanon, the purge under way in Saudi Arabia and the role of Trump and the U.S. government in all of it.

But first, over the past week, several stories have broken that speak to the ongoing secret wars that the U.S. is waging and also reveal some details about who is running parts of the covert action campaign now that Trump is in power.

Spencer Ackerman of the Daily Beast reports that a U.S. Green Beret who was killed in the African nation of Mali recently had actually discovered that some Navy SEALs deployed in Mali had been stealing money while they were there on a counterterrorism operation.

Matthew Cole, my colleague at The Intercept, reported the name of one of the Navy SEALs involved with this and that he is a former mixed martial arts pro.

And Aram Roston, of BuzzFeed, broke a story this week on how one of Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s men, who worked on the assassination program under Bush and Cheney, he’s now working on the National Security Council as its chief intelligence officer, meaning he is the main liaison between the White House and the CIA right now.

These three excellent reporters join me now. Matthew and Spencer, welcome back to Intercepted.

Spencer Ackerman: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

Matthew Cole: Thank you.

JS: And Aram, welcome to your first appearance on the show.

Aram Roston: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

JS: Your exposé that was just published this week by BuzzFeed News, the headline CIA Officer Joins NSC (that’s National Security Council) Staff As Agency Vows To Be More “Vicious.” What caught my attention was what is advertised in the subhead, which is “Michael Barry once worked on a CIA assassination program that had been contracted out to the controversy over security contractor Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.” Who is Michael Barry and what is he doing right now in the Trump Administration?

AR: Michael Barry is a longtime CIA case officer, and he was virtually unknown, he was apparently undercover until now. And he just joined the NSC as the senior director for intelligence programs, which means he functions as a liaison between the White House and the CIA, in terms of covert programs, in terms of covert action.

The reason it’s so fascinating is, it turns out, according to two sources years ago, over a decade ago, he was involved in a CIA assassination program that we’ve heard of, we don’t know too much about it, but we’ve heard of it. For a brief period for several years it was contracted out to Erik Prince. It was a plan to set up these hit teams that would go do targeted killings of terrorists, and the reports are there never was actually a killing by these teams, but we don’t really know that. Anyway the sources said that he’d been attached to that for a little while, and knew Erik Prince from back then.

JS: And his current role now, you describe it as being a liaison between the National Security Council and the CIA. What does that mean exactly?

AR: That means — well the NSC does coordinate and advise the president on matters of national security. On intelligence programs, he’s the one who does the oversight, in a sense. If there is oversight of the CIA, it’s really in the senior director’s hands and he’s a channel by which the CIA contacts and submits ideas for covert action and policy.

JS: Matthew Cole, you also know a bit about Michael Barry, who is now Trump’s point man with the CIA on the National Security Council and you know a bit about Erik Prince. You’ve been doing some reporting that hasn’t been published yet that deals with some of what Aram’s report covers here in BuzzFeed about Erik Prince’s connections to the current National Security Council in the CIA. What do you have to add to this story, what are you hearing?

Matthew Cole: Aram’s story filled in a missing piece that I was trying to understand, which was what the relationship was between Barry and Prince, because we’ve been told by a good source that in the last month or so, Erik Prince pitched a covert action program to Michael Barry. We don’t know what the substance of the covert action was, or is. I don’t believe that the White House was inclined to essentially contract it out to Prince, but what I didn’t understand until I read Aram’s story was the background and understanding of how he would have gotten that meeting, especially now that Bannon is gone, because Bannon had been his biggest supporter inside the White House that gave him access until he left.

So, it is another piece of the puzzle of trying to figure out what Erik Prince is still doing or what he is trying to continue to sell to the U.S. government, now that he has a Republican in office.

JS: And Spencer, also, we know that Steve Bannon has been flirting with the idea of having Erik Prince run as a Senate candidate in Wyoming. I’m sort of, I mean I’m salivating at that possibility on all sorts of levels, but this relationship between Prince, and Bannon, and the Trump White House, and a Senate run.

Spencer Ackerman: Well, one thing, you know, to be concerned about, should Prince actually make this run, his connections to agents of the foreign powers, his connections to foreign power, whether it’s China, whether it’s the UAE, perhaps this isn’t the axis on which the Barry appointment turns, but given that you mention the Bannon connection, Aram, Matthew, maybe you guys know: A) Was this Pompeo nominating Barry to this position, which of course is very important to CIA directors, and what’s his relationship like with H.R. McMaster who famously pushed to get the guy’s predecessor, Ezra Cohen Watnick, off the NSC from this role.

AR: I know, I mean, as Spencer was saying, the position’s really important to the CIA and the predecessor was not CIA, so they wanted him out. And I do not know what Pompeo’s relationship was with Barry or what Pompeo’s is, but they must have a decent one, right? Because McMaster’s accepted him just a month and a half ago. Right?

JS: Correct. But I want to also highlight this major story that Spencer broke this week on the Daily Beast. The headline: “Green Beret Discovered SEALs’ Illicit Cash. Then He Was Killed.” Now, the Green Beret in question, you know from a previous discussion on this show, was killed in Mali, the African nation of Mali, looked like he was strangled. Matthew Cole broke a story last week, identifying one of the SEALs in this case and showing that he, in my opinion, seemed to have kind of a failed career as a mixed martial arts fighter. He’s one of the people that’s now being investigated for this killing of a Green Beret.

Spencer then breaks news that really feels like it’s snatched from some kind of a TV show or a film. The Green Beret had discovered that the SEALs were stealing money from the operational budget on the ground that they were supposed to be using to conduct covert operations?

SA: That’s right. So, this was the first indication we had after chasing the story that The New York Times broke and that Matt advanced, why this Green Beret was killed. The donut hole in the middle of the story was the motive. And we were able to find out, we had five Special Operations sources for this story that what’s going on in Mali where the U.S. has a minimal troop presence and apparently a robust counterterrorism presence, aiding with the French in fighting a variety of Islamist factions in essentially the Mali-Niger area, that there is some intelligence activity to identify counterterrorism targets that basically amounts to, as we see, in various intelligence activities around the world. A lot of cash being handed out essentially to buy informants or to make informants feel more comfortable coming forward. And this is typically money that’s not very good at being traced, and you’re sort of on your honor to properly account for that money.

Sergeant Melgar, we don’t entirely know if he was working in this activity or he was just proximate to it, but he discovered information that the two SEALs were skimming money off the top from it and pocketing it. Our sources indicated to us that they tried to cut Melgar in on the action, Melgar declined and an altercation ensued at around 5 am on June 4 in Mali, and Melgar died. It appears, from what we know, that they did not intend to kill him. That they strangled him, that he lost consciousness and that, very alarmingly, he stopped breathing. The SEALs attempted to revive him, my understanding is by opening his throat, that made matters worse.

They end up essentially depositing him at a French clinic nearby the U.S. embassy and it turned out he was dead on arrival. This was the first indication that we had about why Sergeant Melgar was killed. In addition to that, we found out that they concocted — the SEALs concocted — a cover story that very quickly fell apart upon forensic examination. They tried to say that Melgar was drunk during combatives, that is a kind of like training exercise, and that he lost consciousness that way. They tried to bring him back, but that essentially his impairment from alcohol was the reason why that he ultimately died. Toxicology came back showing he had neither drugs nor alcohol in his system.

At least one of our sources is under the impression that Sergeant Melgar just didn’t drink period. Either way, this was a cover story that fell apart so quickly, which also helped explain why the SEALs were taken into custody so quickly.

JS: Now, I just want to be clear here that Spencer as a reporter is speaking in shorthand to explain what his reporting has found, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that no charges have been filed, and that what Spencer is relaying here is what he’s heard from sources within the Special Operations community.

Now, Matthew you did this massive series, in-depth series, earlier this year on SEAL Team Six, talking about the crimes of SEAL Team Six and also the high points of SEAL Team Six. Most Americans now have probably heard of SEAL Team Six because of the Osama bin Laden raid. But I want to ask you: When you read this reporting from Spencer Ackerman that alleges a plot to steal money from an operation that results in a dead Green Beret, were you at all surprised?

MC: Not at all. I mean, you know, let’s first start by saying that no one’s been charged. There’s not even an allegation yet. We can’t assume or presume that they’ve done anything wrong. However, I will say that what has come out so far both from the Times from my reporting and from Spencer’s at the Daily Beast, the outlines of which fit sadly very well into what SEAL Team Six has done in the past and what they’re capable of covering up.

What I worked on, and continue to work on, is their total lack of acknowledgement or accountability, which is a cultural issue. But the fact is that when they do their job well, they are professional killers and professional criminals. I mean, they steal, they lie and they cheat, and that’s — they do that on orders.

Sadly, when units like that, and there is a long history of it in Special Operations and in clandestine units that go without oversight, they tend to cheat. One of the well-known cases the people sort of first got a sense of what SEAL Team Six was or who they were was in the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009, and in that case, $30,000 went missing from the lifeboat in which he was rescued. And two members of SEAL Team Six were polygraphed and passed and the NCIS brought no charges.

I can tell you, I actually know which two SEALs were polygraphed, I can tell you that I’ve had sources tell me that the polygraphers who were brought in, were known to SEAL Team Six. That they don’t have a problem passing polygraphs, and that internally there’s no doubt in SEAL Team Six’s minds, in the teammates minds, that those guys stole the $30,000. That doesn’t mean jack in terms of the court of law, but the idea of skimming off of informant money is sadly not out of the realm of possibility at all for SEAL Team Six.

JS: Aram, you’ve been covering the world of clandestine ops and proxies for the United States for many years. You wrote an excellent book about Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi quote-unquote opposition figure who was a long time CIA asset and you have covered Blackwater and you’ve covered the Obama administration’s counterterrorism. How has the world changed, what are you hearing from sources, what is the landscape like of the kind of world that you’ve covered as a journalist now under Donald Trump?

AR: I keep on asking myself that. I guess we all do, right? Obviously the CIA is saying it’s getting much more aggressive and there’s a lot of indications the agency itself is getting much more aggressive. But it’s hard to even look at a difference because we’re forgetting how aggressive and secretive Obama’s DOD was, and CIA was, right?

JS: Have you seen a shift, Spencer, that you could sort of translate into something tangible since Trump became president?

SA: This isn’t entirely attributable to Trump but it’s something that seems, it has a lot of momentum behind it, which is: it seems like the next sort of post-Syria center of gravity of what we call the war on terrorism is Africa. And, in particular, it’s starting to be West Africa. And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to follow up on the reports of Sergeant Melgar’s death — not just because this is a shocking story just in itself that two SEALs are potentially under investigation for killing a Green Beret, but it shows that we’ve got a whole lot of digging to do around just what U.S. counterterrorism is becoming in a place that had seemed like kind of a backwater to counterterrorism efforts until starting around 2013 when the Niger government signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the Obama administration to construct a drone base. And, you know, that also, I should say, followed on the French-led war in Mali that the U.S. supported, but it seems like there’s a lot of momentum going to this particular area and that’s going to mean death, that’s going to mean dollars, that’s going to mean atrocities.

AR: I was just going to say, I mean that’s one of the other things that started the Obama administration, the focus on Africa, and it’s one of things we didn’t expect from Trump, right? Because he famously — well at least all signs were — he didn’t care much about but Africa. I mean one thing that shifted obviously, the idea that the U.S. is fighting for the to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, that’s gone. But it’s interesting: this is just part of a process that began under Obama.

JS: Just in the past week, there’s been three or four drone strikes in Somalia. There are now I think upwards of 400 U.S. troops that are deployed in Somalia, I think most of them are based at the Aden Adde airport, but we have been hearing increased reporting on U.S. troops out in the field in Somalia. My sense isn’t that like Trump is sort of renewing a focus or turning up the heat in Africa as much as it is that we’re seeing the agenda of careerists at the CIA or the military being able to implement an agenda in a more radical way than they maybe were able to under Obama. Am I off on that?

MC: No, I think the anecdotal evidence tells us, and there has a been a small amount that’s been leaked out or reported on, which is that under Obama CIA and DOD felt very constrained by what they could do and where they could go. So, in January, within a week he goes to, he orders the SEAL Team Six raid in Yemen. In March there was a SEAL Team Six operator who was killed in Somalia, in an operation where they were supposed to be just advising on, you know, train and assist or advise and assist. And so, what we’re finding is that places where quietly the U.S. had moved into, Africa into sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa, parts of East Africa where there had been less concentration, all of that has been ramped up because the approvals have been delegated down and no longer requires the White House to deliberate and make a decision about whether to deploy people. So, I think that we haven’t seen yet the intensity of it, how intense it is in terms of the change from one administration, but there’s no question that there has been more going on as a result of the new administration.

JS: And we recently had Charlie Savage of the New York Times on this program talking about — and he’s the reporter that really confirmed this — that this updated order of sorts, it’s not really legally an order, but Trump signed authorizing the U.S. military to conduct operations against terrorists without needing to be as concerned about killing civilians or to be certain that you have a specific individual that is the target of the operation. In other words, if it’s a certain region and you believe that you have enough evidence to suggest somebody bad is there, go ahead and take the shot, which is different than what Obama said the policy was at the end, Spencer.

SA: Yeah, it’s a relaxation of a bureaucratic constraint, you know, as you mentioned, the sort of legal constraints that were on it are also bureaucratic constraints, they’re less restrictive once the lawyers get their hands on them than probably you, or I, or the average listener, would think a legal constraint to be. I just want to go to one point that you made in your introduction to that, because you kind of brought out some numbers that really crystallized this. There are four hundred U.S. troops in Somalia. The U.S. has been fighting in Somalia directly and indirectly for a decade.

The U.S. has twice that, 800 troops in Niger, a place that most Americans, until the ambush that killed Sergeant La David Johnson and three others, and wounded two others, also Army Special Forces, some of them Green Berets, probably didn’t know that the U.S. was in at all.

There has been some kind of pushback on that point, given that Congress is informed, but frankly you know how much does Congress actually want to look into this, how deeply does Congress want to look into this beyond the bureaucratic fact of getting a piece of paper passed over to them. That just speaks to the broader point that whatever we thought U.S. operations in East Africa were like, where there has been this apparatus of institutionalization, both physically and bureaucratically/legally, now we’re seeing quite an extensive and eye-opening expansion of that over to the west of the continent, and that just seems like something that the four of us talking right now are probably going to end up covering for several years.

AR: You guys have convinced, I think you’ve thought it through a lot more cogently than I have. But I do think a lot of this just started under, its, as you were saying, it’s the bureaucracy at work, not necessarily Trump. Except for, you know, the CIA says and promises to be much more aggressive in this. I think in a way it’s, we’re seeing these bureaucracies clashing a little bit more than we know yet.

JS: My sense, and I just want to reiterate this, is that the people that are really kind of running the show at the Pentagon, at Special Operations Command, at the CIA, are probably pretty darn happy that Donald Trump is the Commander in Chief and not Obama, if for no other reason than they can push this envelope that we’ve all been talking about.

I mean there’s, right now, Special Operations forces in 130-plus countries around the world. Now they’re not whacking people in all of those countries. In some cases they’re just advising a local military force. But increasingly those lines are blurred. I mean, Matthew, when we hear those kinds of statistics, what should we be imagining that they’re doing? What does Congress know about what they’re doing?

MC: I think on the granular level Congress doesn’t know that much because they don’t ask too many questions. I have heard, by the way, specifically on the continent of Africa, that the edict basically coming down to SOCOM and DOD, from both the White House and Congress is, just keep it out of the press. You know, just don’t have a flap. As long as you can keep it out of the press, we don’t care. It’s the, relative to the budget, these are small numbers, these are small people.

The problem with that system is that you end up with this situation that you have in Niger with this ambush and you have four American servicemen killed in what should have just been a training and advising role, and so the question becomes what were they doing there and is it classic mission creep. I think the evidence so far suggests that it is.

And so, if you have people deployed in, you know, a hundred different countries, the truth is that all of those become a possibility. They were always a possibility. The thing in Niger, by the way, could easily just happen under Obama. That has absolutely nothing to do with which person occupies the White House.

You know, we have a quality military, but shit happens. I mean the reality is that things you don’t foresee occur when you’ve got weapons. And I’m more surprised that these things don’t happen with some greater frequency, although we may start seeing that this happens now because there are just so many places outside of traditional battle zones, war zones where U.S. forces are deployed.

SA: We have to be really careful about not just where the mission creep goes next and where it intensifies but also how little we’re going to know about it. This isn’t really going to be a very good time to rely on official pronouncements of what these missions actually are. Think, for a second, the way in which the military first discussed this ambush of the four Army Special Forces in Niger. First they were just on a training exercise, and now it appears — we reported the Daily Beast that what actually happened was, at some point during this supposed advisory patrol, they get tipped to some senior terror suspect target, and then end up getting waylaid by the locals that they were supposedly meeting for information. We’re just sort of seeing how that peels back.

So, we have to be really cautious, both as reporters and I think as news consumers, if I can be so bold, to think about what it’s actually going to mean when we hear “this is a training and advisory mission.” That’s basically, since Obama frankly, the kind of euphemistic way that these operations are typically described. But, as we can see, they can turn into combat in a flash and we shouldn’t just sort of accept what the kind of initial descriptions of these things are.

AR: All four of us have written about contractors, and I think, I was looking at Erik Prince now, because I think his access and the allure of subcontracting out a lot of these missions is going to be not lost on the Trump administration that sees the value of business, right? Which believes that private contractors and private business men can do things better than the government’s own. I think that’s one thing that we haven’t right appreciated yet with this administration.

JS: Right, and Erik Prince publicly is pushing this Afghanistan plan to privatize the war and, you know, I think he secretly wants to be or not so secretly wants to be the viceroy sent over to do that but it’s, the question remains open on this table, what is he pitching to the Trump Administration that has not yet made it in public. Matthew Cole, what is something people should be looking at to break in the coming weeks or months, a country, an issue, what are you looking at?

MC: Pompeo is out.

SA: Mm. Whoa!

JS: Alright, Matthew Cole predicting Pompeo is out. We’ll leave that for the pages of and not blow it on this show, but you’re now going to start a race with Spencer and Aram.

MC: And anybody else.

SA: Well, he’s beaten me before, so.

JS: Spencer Ackerman, thank you very much for joining us.

SA: Thank you.

JS: Matthew Cole, thank you for joining us.

MC: Thank you.

JS: Aram Roston, thank you for your first appearance on Intercepted.

AR: Thanks a million.

JS: Aram Roston is a reporter with BuzzFeed News. Spencer Ackerman is at The Daily Beast. And Matthew Cole reports for The Intercept.

[Musical interlude]

JS: Now, as I mentioned earlier there is a really bizarre and potentially very dangerous chain of events that has been kicked into motion in Saudi Arabia. That country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has been leading a political purge, arresting potential rivals and holding them in a luxury hotel as prisoners of sorts.

By the way, Salman is one of the primary players in the Saudi bombing of Yemen. Trump has thrown all of his support behind Salman and Aramco Oil and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, no nuance or hiding anything there. No platitudes as those were offered under President Obama. He’s cold, out in the open about it all.

And then last week, this whole story broke open on to another front as the prime minister of Lebanon abruptly announced his resignation on Saudi television.

Saad Hariri: [Speaking Arabic]

JS: Then this weekend, that Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, gave an interview from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he’s apparently in exile at this point. Whether that exile is self-imposed or Saudi-imposed remains really unclear right now. He says he’s a free man but honestly it didn’t look that way in the interview.

The Saudis are extremely influential in Lebanon and Hariri himself is a dual citizen of the nations. Lebanon has an unusual system of government that requires the president of the country to be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament to be a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim. The Saudis have long sought to exert serious influence over the prime minister and that definitely has been the case with Saad Hariri.

Lebanon’s most powerful and influential faction, however, is the Hezbollah movement led by Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah is supported by and works in coordination with Iran, so Lebanon is definitely part of the geography of the not-so-proxy wars that the Saudis claim to be waging against Iran, in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere.

Joining me now is Rami Khouri, he is a veteran journalist based in Beirut. He’s now a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Rami, welcome to Intercepted.

Rami Khouri: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

JS: What is going on here?

RK: Well this is quite an extraordinary phenomenon that we have. It’s like a Turkish soap opera inside a Byzantine drama inside a Persian poem, all wrapped up in Lebanese politics. It’s just extraordinary, we’ve never experienced anything like this in the Middle East or the Arab world, with so many interlocking dynamics, many of them based on military might.

This is really mostly about Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese side, the Qatari situation, the Yemeni situation, Iraq, Iran, these are all elements in this drama, but the central theme is the transition inside Saudi Arabia as it essentially does two things. You have a transition to a new leadership, which is now cemented, anchored in one person, Mohammad Bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia has become like Egypt, like Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, like Saddam Hussein, all power — economic, political, military, social, media, religious — all power is in the hands of one man. He happens to be a young, inexperienced, rather dynamic young man, but he’s got all the power in the country and he’s showing it.

The second thing that’s happening is that Saudi Arabia has reached the high watermark now of its attempts which have been going on for about a year and a half, two years, to show the world and its own people that it really has muscle: political coercion, military, economic, that it has power that it can use and it will use that power to defend itself against what it sees as threats to its national well-being. Those two things are happening simultaneously in Saudi Arabia, they’ve completely overturned within the last really six, nine months all the foundational principles that have defined Saudi Arabia’s life for about the last 100 years or so.

And, and now Lebanon is just one little peg in this situation where the Saudis — having failed with their siege of Qatar, having failed with their war in Yemen, having failed in trying to overthrow the Syrian president, and in one or two other proxy battles where they failed in the region — they’re now trying to put pressure on Lebanon so they can have any win, so they can be seen to be successful tough guys taking care of their people and the whole Gulf region, as they see it.

That’s a summary really, I think, of what’s going on. And it’s dangerous, it’s reckless, it’s really frightening for people around the region. If you see what’s happened in Yemen in the last three years, two and a half years, with this extraordinary mass starvation and cholera, and misery, this is just a sign of what may happen in other Arab countries.

JS: Now to what degree does this have to do with Saudi Arabia and Iran? Of course in the case of Yemen, the Saudis are trying to convince the world that the Houthis equal Iran. In Lebanon, the Saudi line is that Hezbollah is nothing more than an extension of the Iranian regime, but this issue of Iran, Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia.

RK: It is and it isn’t about Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis say it is about Iran because they see Iran under the Islamic revolutionary leadership that’s there. They see it as a hegemonic, predatory, dangerous and terroristic threat to all the Arab world. They see it closing in on them, they see it surrounding them, they see it having links with people all over the region, and it scares the daylight out of them, and therefore their central foreign policy objective right now seems to be a need to push back, roll back the Iranian threat all around the Middle East.

My feeling is that this is extremely superficial that there is no real battle between Iran and the Arab world in terms of hegemonic control of the region. The Iranians are mostly Shiite and they’re Persian, they’re Iranian, they’re not Arab, they’re not mostly Sunni, there’s no way that the Iranians or the Turks who have often been put in this position of being accused of wanting to have had hegemonic ambitions in the region, there’s no way that Iran can take charge or be the superpower of the Arab world. It just wouldn’t happen.

But the Saudis are frightened. They really fear that the changes taking place in the Arab world, that have been taking place for the last six or seven years are an existential threat to their kind of life, to their government system, to their political mechanisms and to their very future.

I think they’re completely mistaken. I think the real issue is they feel that they are going to be forced to change, that they cannot maintain their style of top-heavy, autocratic, welfare state governance that gives their people most of what they need at the material level — schooling, medical care, housing, et cetera — but that’s about all they have. They don’t have cultural freedom. They don’t have political participation. They don’t have social vitality. They don’t have any kind of participation or accountability in governance. And this is what the Saudis and the Emiratis are desperately trying to stop.

What they see happening around them is a series of events, all of which they link to Iran, which I think is not the case, but they see Muslim Brotherhood groups winning elections, peaceful, free elections, like in Egypt and other places. They see civic activism all over the region, they see groups of citizens in Arab countries freely expressing themselves, organizing, challenging political autocracy, challenging the existing prevailing political and economic order. They see American governments and foreign governments engaging with Iran, making deals with Iran. They see open media like Al Jazeera and many others that have copied Jazeera, they see all of these things and that scares the daylights out of them, because they don’t want any of that stuff to come to them.

So, they’ve chosen Iran and more recently Jazeera and Qatar, they’ve chosen them as kind of proxies for these threats that they see, but these threats I think are really not totally a mirage, but they’re really exaggerated.

JS: But what’s going on with this resignation of Saad Hariri? On November 4, there was this abrupt resignation, which took place on a Saudi television station. Then, Hariri is in Riyadh, in his home, and he is a dual citizen of Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and he does this totally strange interview with a well-known anchor from a television network in Lebanon that he owns, flies her to Riyadh, she does this interview with him.

SH: [dubbed in English] I submitted my resignation. I know it’s not a normal process for a prime minister, but I had to take some security measures to return back safe and sound.

JS: What is going on? Why would he be in Saudi Arabia? What’s behind the resignation? What do the Saudis get out of this? I mean I really don’t get what’s happening there.

RK: Everybody in the Arab world right now, especially in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, is asking the same question. And I think only one person knows the answer, and that’s Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and maybe Hariri knows the answer, but Hariri probably doesn’t know all the answers. The general assumption, by people who know Lebanon and Saudi Arabia well and have studied the situation, and I share this assumption: is that the Saudis, desperate for any kind of progress, are trying in any way they can to blunt the power and political presence of Hezbollah inside Lebanon, in the Lebanese government. Because they’re part of the government, they’re in the cabinet, they’re in the parliament. The force of Hezbollah is so strong now, it’s so powerful that the Saudis are frightened of it because they accuse it of being involved in regional events like helping arm the Houthis with advanced missiles and train them and other people around the region. Now, whether that’s true or not, we’ll find out in due course, but they see Hezbollah as a real, serious threat to them and Hezbollah is a very close strategic ally of Iran.

So, I think what the Saudis are trying to do is create chaos in Lebanon by shaking up the coalition that exists, smashing that coalition, creating tension in the country that would should shake the country at its foundations, maybe if you hit the economy which is the most vulnerable, the value of the Lebanese pound would collapse and this will create mass suffering in Lebanon. And they think that by doing that they might then force the Lebanese to clamp down on Hezbollah.

If this is actually what they’re trying to do, then they’re more amateurish than even they have made themselves appear to be in the last year or so. Because this is totally not going to happen. Many people have tried to do this, including the mighty United States, with its sanctions and its threats and all of the things that it does. Hezbollah has many things that it does. Some are acceptable globally, some are not acceptable. It has a lot of enemies; it has many more friends. It’s a controversial group. But the reality is that they are the most powerful group in Lebanon. They may be the most the single most powerful political organization in the entire Arab world — possibly.

They have proven this many ways, many times and they are not going to be thrown out of their current position by these kinds of threats from Saudi Arabia.

The interesting thing is that what happened when the Saudis put this pressure on Lebanon, they also advise their Saudi nationals to leave Lebanon, as did four other Gulf Cooperation countries: Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, et cetera. They all told their nationals to leave Lebanon. Suddenly people in Beirut I’ve been talking to in the last few days are scared, that, “Oh my gosh, there’s going to be a war, there’s going to be a war!” And people said, “Who’s going to attack us? The Israelis, or the Americans, or the Saudis, or maybe all of them?”

And there was real panic in Lebanon for a few hours, until the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, spoke out. The president of Lebanon Michel Aoun, a Christian who’s quite a powerful, you know, focused, resolute figure, he spoke out. So, the Lebanese calmed down.

And then when Hariri spoke, it started to lessen the fear and the concerns, because Hariri spoke about coming back to Beirut and maybe negotiating and possibly coming to a new agreement by which Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government work together. So, the interview that Hariri gave was quite psychedelic. I mean, I watched it carefully and it was like a puppet was there, not him. He didn’t look like himself, he didn’t act like himself, he didn’t talk like himself, he clearly was not in his normal element.

Now, why this is? We don’t know. There’s just an incredible amount of speculation going on. A lot of it we can put into a pattern of how the Saudis have acted recently in the region. This is primarily about Saudi Arabia and its frenzied hysterical attempt to have a win in the region where it shows that it’s actually been able to blunt the power of the Iranians and push back the wave of Shiite militarism all around the region. That strikes me as the central dynamic that we need to keep to keep, to keep our eye on.

JS: Why, now, I’ve heard that joke in Beirut that Saudi Arabia is ready to fight Iran to the last Lebanese.

RK: You know, this is proxy wars taken to their extreme, where you get Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran, they see it, and then they might get other Lebanese to try to fight, they get their proxies to fight another proxy. And, so, we, you know, all of this is speculation right now.

The great tragic irony that confirms the amateurism of Saudi foreign policy today in the region, is that we’ve seen the Saudis now lead two campaigns against two smaller countries: one was Qatar, the boycott about, what, four months ago or so? And the other was Lebanon.

Now, in both cases, they expected that their show, their mighty show of force and threats would immediately cause Qatar to cave in and accept whatever the Saudis wanted from them and they expected the Lebanese to do the same. What happened in both cases is exactly the opposite, that the Qataris all rallied around their leader, they all said, “We’ve got to hold our ground. We’ve got to work on being self-sufficient. We’ve got to improve links with Turkey, and Iran, and Brazil, and India, and everybody else who will help us, and maintain our sovereignty above all else.” And they have done that so far and they weathered the storm.

Lebanese did exactly the same — they all rallied around Hariri. There was a Beirut marathon yesterday and people were running around with pictures of Hariri, saying, “We’re running for you.” So, the Saudis have shown a great capacity to bring about exactly the opposite of their intended aim when they carry out foreign policy moves in the region. They don’t, they just don’t know how to do it. They don’t have any experience in statecraft around the region and they’re showing it.

JS: The sense that I had under the Obama administration for eight years is that the Saudis were playing Washington pretty masterfully by serving essentially as the eyes and ears of the CIA, and, at times the U.S. military, and really kind of manipulating the American agenda particularly as it related to the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Yemen.

However, when Trump comes into power, you now have almost this dumbing down of international relations and it seems to me that, you know, Trump has been sending these messages to the Saudis on Twitter and in his speeches and we went over and grabbed that glowing orb with everyone. When this crackdown started happening, when the crown prince starts locking up all these other princes, when mysterious deaths start occurring, Trump says, “Oh, the Saudis know what they’re doing and I trust them.”

How much of Trump’s posture and what he says and the way he carries himself empowers or emboldens the Saudis to make these kinds of overt moves?

RK: The Trump position explicitly approves of what the Saudis are doing and gives them enormous confidence to keep going in this direction. That’s what happened when he first went there for his first trip overseas. He, and Sisi, the tyrant of Egypt, the president of Egypt, when Sisi, and Trump, and the Saudi leadership all got together around the orb, it was a signal of where American policy was in the region.

And we now know very clearly that the basic positions that the Americans, the Israelis and the Saudi leadership agree on are very simple: Keep Israel’s superiority militarily above everybody else’s in the region, fight ISIS, and other terror groups, push back Iran, keep our autocrats in power and strengthen them as needed, and do all this while making huge deals that bring jobs and income and exports to American companies.

Those five basic principles are the foundation, now the cornerstones, of American foreign policy in the region. And with the ascendancy of Mohammad bin Salman to the crown prince’s position and his, now, in the last ten days, bringing all power, literally all power in the kingdom into his hands, what we have going on in the region is a third phase of what I call, the capture of governance systems in Arab countries by autocratic or military individuals.

It started with Nasser in the 1950s in Egypt, then in the 70s went to the Syria with, you know, Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and Assad in Syria, Gadhafi in Yemen, and a bunch of others. And now this is the third phase, where this is the first time we have a single person, it’s not even a family, it’s just one person right now, who has all these leavers of power in his hands, who’s crushing his opposition domestically quite fiercely, who is directly supported by the United States, and who is using his military power around the region in Yemen and other places anyway that he wants.

This is the first monarchy that has adopted the Sisi formula of one-man-rule-for-life.

JS: I wanted to get your take on Syria. I think this is a war where there certainly are no good guys in the sense of organized armed violence. There are varying degrees of bad actors there. You have major world powers like the United States and Russia both killing a tremendous number of people. ISIS seems to be fractured and in tatters in parts of Syria and Iraq, but it’s unclear what a unified Syria looks like going forward.

Based on your analysis and also your geographic proximity to Syria, being based out of Beirut and monitoring the situation very closely as you do, is there any peaceful end to all of this or any of this in Syria in your view?

RK: The simple answer is yes, there could be a peaceful end with Bashar Assad and his supporters, Hezbollah, Iran, the Russians and others, dominating Syria or at least those parts of Syria that they still control, that seems to be happening now. It’s still early days, but they are gradually regaining control over much of the country as ISIS is being defeated. The other rebels, Islamists and secular ones are being slowly cornered to one or two parts of the country, so you could possibly see a resolution of the actual fighting by a combination of exhaustion, dominance by the pro-government, pro-Assad forces and strong international support for an end to fighting, some kind of peaceful arrangement that allows the, I think, the six million Syrian refugees and displaced people to go back to their homes. So yes, you could see that, but that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a governance system and an economic order that the majority of Syrians can agree on. There’s no sign that they’ll be any change under the current Assad regime in Syria of they mechanisms of decision-making. In other words, they will continue to be top-heavy and autocratic and ordinary people really won’t have a say. And this is a tragedy as well, because it means all this fighting and killing and dying and suffering would have been for nothing.

So, this is a sign that Arab sovereignty and Arab statehood and Syria have both been totally relinquished, totally lost. And this is a dramatic, more dramatic sign than in other places, but the same kind of sign of the essential failure or at least serious fragility of both statehood and sovereignty in most Arab countries. And there has to be some kind of reconfiguration of how power is exercised and how states are defined and how policies are made in which the ordinary citizens have a say, in which the consent of the governed is somehow implemented.

Tunisia is trying it now, it’s the only one to make the breakthrough, so we hope it will succeed in and others will follow. But until that happens, we’re going to continue living in an Arab world with huge stresses, distortions, inequities, exploitation with all the foreign interventions, military and otherwise, that come with it. So, it’s very depressing and the answer is very simple — until the ordinary Arab citizens have some kind of say in how their countries are organized and run, you’re going to continue to have autocratic leadership, which is going to lead to the kind of problems that we’ve suffered for the last 60 years or so.

JS: We’re going to leave it there. Rami Khouri, thank you very much for your analysis and your expertise on all of this. Thanks for being with us on Intercepted.

RK: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JS: Rami Khouri is a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University in Beirut.

[Musical interlude]

JS: Donald Trump has openly said that he despises many media organizations. He’s whimsically opined on how he’d like to see some news organizations shut down and he’s actively encouraged hostility toward reporters, including in front of large crowds. Trump’s mantra of ‘fake news, fake news, fake news” has caught on among his supporters and it’s really created what feels like a major divide in the perception of reality in the United States and it can be totally crazy-making, particularly when it’s absolutely clear, no two ways of looking, at it that Trump is lying. At times, it reminds me of that shady lawyer Nathan Thurm from the old Saturday Night Live sketches about 60 Minutes.

Mike Wallace (Henry Shearer): We saw your people making pirate Minkman schnozes.

Nathan Thurm (Martin Short): I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s so funny that you say that. We don’t make schnozes. We make semiconductors for a very reputable computer company, what’s wrong with that? Is there something wrong with that? Why is that suddenly wrong to do? I don’t understand that. Why are you pointing the finger at other people all the time, why don’t you point it at yourself?

JS: Trump is certainly no friend of a free press, and this week he wrapped up his Asia tour by meeting with his great new friend Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines.

DJT: We had a great relationship, this has been very successful. We have many meetings today with many other leaders.

JS: When Duterte kicked the press out of a meeting that he had with Donald Trump, Duterte joked that journalists are spies. And Trump laughed. But it’s not funny — at all. More than 170 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986. And last year, the summer of 2016, Duterte responded to the murder of a journalist in Manila by saying quote —

Rodrigo Duterte: Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch!

JS: Duterte, by the way, has also bragged that he’s personally murdered people. But Trump has repeatedly praised Duterte, including for how the Philippine strongman has waged his so-called war on drugs, by encouraging mob killings and extrajudicial executions. So no — nothing is funny about Duterte joking about journalists being spies and it’s shameful that Trump cackled away.

And Trump actually bragged about how Duterte rolled out a literal red carpet, very fitting, a red carpet, for Trump to trot down for his big welcome. Trump told reporters that Duterte gave him a, “red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received.”

Announcer: His excellency, Donald Trump, President of the United States of America.

JS: And the music that played for Trump’s Philippines catwalk was just plain creepy.

[Music plays.]

Oh, and according to Duterte’s spokesman, there was no discussion of human rights abuses while Trump was talking with Duterte. As Trump was finishing his love fest with Duterte, back in the U.S. a story broke about an organization that has been embraced in a very contradictory and baffling way by Trump, attorney general Jeff Sessions, CIA director Mike Pompeo, I’m talking about WikiLeaks.

On the campaign trail, Trump regularly praised WikiLeaks. But then after winning the White House, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his CIA director basically said Julian Assange is a major public enemy that needs to be taken down.

So, here’s the latest: on Monday, the Atlantic published a story based on leaked transcripts of the private direct message, or DM, history between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump, Jr. Soon after that story went online, Don Jr. posted screenshots of the entire chat history and alleged that some of the context had been left out or that the contents of the DM’s had been misportrayed, and he said that the leaking of it was political given its timing.

In any case, those DMs are now available for anyone to see. What these messages clearly show is that WikiLeaks made offers to help the Trump campaign, shared private information about a website that appeared to be focused on Trump’s alleged connections to Vladimir Putin in Russia, WikiLeaks suggested that the campaign leak Trump’s tax returns to WikiLeaks to publish. The WikiLeaks account also suggested to Don Jr. that should Trump lose, he should not concede and instead focus intensely on “challenging the media and other types of rigging that occurred.”

Oh, and Assange also suggested that should Trump win, he should insist that the Australian Government name Assange as its ambassador to the United States. Now, this week on Tuesday after this DM story started to spread, Julian Assange tweeted from his personal account, “Dear Donald Trump, Jr., our offer of being ambassador to the U.S. still stands, I could open a hotel-style embassy in DC with luxury immunity suites for whistleblowers. The public will get a turbocharged flow of intel about the latest CIA plots to undermine democracy.”

In these direct messages, which we understand spanned from September 2016 to possibly July 2017, Don Jr. responds infrequently, a total of three times according to him. He did post a link provided to him by WikiLeaks in these direct messages and the timing of this correspondence does appear to line up with an uptick in Trump citing WikiLeaks in connection with the DNC e-mails.

Regarding the pitch to leak Trump’s tax returns to WikiLeaks, the account told Don Jr., “If we publish them, it will dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality. That means that the vast amount of stuff that we’re publishing on Clinton will have much higher impact because it won’t be perceived as coming from a pro-Trump, pro-Russia source which the Clinton campaign is constantly slandering us with.”

Now I personally believe that a lot of the media coverage of WikiLeaks over the past year plus has been sloppy, inaccurate, much of it relies on taking unproven allegations or innocuous bits of information and passing them off as facts to craft a particular narrative.

WikiLeaks has been the publisher of some of the most vital national security leaks of the modern era, but when I read these DMs with Don Jr., I cannot see any reasonable defense for Assange or WikiLeaks other than self-interest combined with, frankly, an understandable opposition to the policies of Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state regarding WikiLeaks.

Now there’s another angle here, which is the overwhelming dominant narrative you’ll find in the U.S. media right now: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are working for Putin and the KGB, and that’s why all of this happened. The problem is there’s just not actual evidence right now to back that up, at least not any that meets basic journalistic standards. Now, in a move that’s bound to attract a lot of haters, joining me right now to discuss this is my colleague and fellow Intercept co-founder, Glenn Greenwald.

Glenn, welcome back to Intercepted.

Glenn Greenwald: It’s great to be back.

JS: Before we get into all the details, your broad response to the way that the story is being reported and also what it actually tells us.

GG: Well, it resembles every other similar report, which is the minute it comes out for two hours, journalists on Twitter mindlessly claim it’s a huge story. They say “whoa” and “wow” and “boom,” with no attempt to analyze what the actual implications are. And the only person I saw doing that was Marcy Wheeler, who, I think, pointed out very astutely, that on the key question of collusion, it’s actually exculpatory for Trump Jr., because it makes clear that he had no idea what the WikiLeaks leak was going to be when everyone was previewing it and talking about it like Roger Stone, he asked Assange, “What is this that everyone’s talking about?”

It’s interesting in that it shows that Trump Jr. is willing to take help from anywhere, including WikiLeaks, which I don’t think is surprising. It shows WikiLeaks trying to leverage its relationship to the Trump campaign for its own benefit, which I also don’t consider to be surprising. But in terms of like the collusion issue, it has nothing to say other than the fact that Trump Jr. didn’t know what these WikiLeaks documents were going to be until WikiLeaks published them.

JS: Right and a lot of the press coverage of this is taking for granted the idea that Julian Assange and Wikileaks is like an extension of the KGB or of the Kremlin.

GG: Right, I mean, if you assume that Vladimir Putin is Julian Assange’s boss and directs WikiLeaks, then maybe some of this has more meaning. But for those of us in the world where evidence and rationality reigns supreme, there’s zero evidence that that is even remotely true, that WikiLeaks is some kind of an arm of the Russian government and therefore in terms of evidence it doesn’t get you anywhere in terms of proving collusion between Trump and the Russians.

JS: OK, let’s set aside that question for a second. Now, you and I both have had communications with Julian Assange over a period of years. I’ve been to see him in the embassy. We had him on for an entire show earlier in this season. I really, for the life of me, do not understand at this point what his agenda is or what his mission is. It just seems nuts to me the way that Julian is conducting himself right now. And these direct messages, I read them and I say, “What’s wrong with you?”

[Yo Gotti “Down in the DM”]

JS: Why are you communicating with Donald Trump Jr., and overtly saying, “Hey these things we could do could help you guys out,” and helping them sort of strategize? To me it’s not about collusion with Russia or something. Like, why on earth is Julian Assange or WikiLeaks engaging with an overtly fascist political campaign in what appears to be an effort to help them.

GG: I can only speculate about Julian’s motives. I’m not his spokesperson. I’m not WikiLeaks’ spokesperson. I’ve never talked to drawing about these questions, the ones that you just raised. But I think there’s a couple of things going on.

So, on the one hand, you have Julian who cares a lot about his own personal situation namely trying to get out of the Ecuadorian embassy without getting arrested and spending lots of time in prison. I think he perceives that a positive relationship with the Trumps will help him in that quest to improve his own circumstance, so I think there’s a lot of that going on. I think that there’s a lot of just desire for attention going on. So, if you’re WikiLeaks and you’re publishing these emails and you can get Donald Trump himself to constantly promote them, that elevates the importance of WikiLeaks.

And I think that finally what you see is that even in these last messages, where you hear Assange saying to Trump Jr., ‘When your father loses, don’t have him concede, call the election rig.” I don’t think Julian expects the Trumps to win, I think he’s hoping to just keep things chaotic, which, remember, is a major part of WikiLeaks’ or certainly Assange’s world view, which is that the United States is a hegemonic power that does evil in the world, and so when you throw sand in its gears and make it more difficult for it to function properly as a hegemonic power, you’re actually achieving something good.

So, I think there’s a lot of mixed motives going on there, that have to do with Assange himself, with a desire for attention for WikiLeaks, and then also just the broader philosophy and world view that I think Julian and, to a lesser extent, WikiLeaks have embraced quite a long time ago.

JS: I’ll play here an excerpt from our conversation with Julian Assange where I asked him what it was like watching Trump cite WikiLeaks during the course of the campaign.

DJT: This Wikileaks is like a treasure trove.

JS: I mean, just on a personal level, Julian, like what, what was it like to see Trump citing WikiLeaks during the course of his campaign in the way that he did?

JA: Well, I mean, whenever a high-profile person cites our material, especially when a big audience is watching, we think, “Great, more people are going to read it.” From that perspective, we thought, “Well, this is great. Donald Trump is marketing our material. People are going to read it.”

We thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, we thought our publications were actually going to create a very infuriated Hillary Clinton on the other end that we would have to deal, so it’s a kind, far from that publishing cycle being one of self-interest, it was one of, far as we saw, one of self-sacrifice, because we were infuriating what everyone perceived would be the next executive.

If, if we had wanted to kind of do things for me, we would’ve praised Hillary Clinton, and published stuff about her opponent, because everyone was predicting Hillary Clinton would win, including me.

GG: I think it’s fair to assume that Julian thought what everybody thought, what like, the geniuses of the New York Times, like Nate Cohen’s data models were showing, that it was overwhelmingly likely that Hillary Clinton not Donald Trump was going to win. And so, I do think it’s hard to say, “Well, what Julian was up to was helping Trump win.” Pretty much everybody thought that was impossible. I think it’s much more persuasive that he thought that by gaining support among Trump’s followers, by ingratiating himself with the Trumps by getting more attention and elevating the importance of WikiLeaks, that he was helping himself. And then once Trump won, then I do think he thought, “Wow this is a real opportunity for me now, given that the president of the United States is somebody has been running around for the last three months saying, ‘I love WikiLeaks’ to use that to protect my own situation.” I think that’s clearly a major part of the motive.

DJT: Now, this just came out. This just came out. WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks. [Cheering.]

JS: You know, Mike Pompeo, CIA director, one of his first public pronouncements was saying:

Mike Pompeo: It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.

JS: Jeff Sessions has said:

Jeff Sessions: So, yes it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.

JS: I mean this would be an odd thank you gift for Julian Assange, if everything that all of these journalists are extrapolating from these direct messages with Donald Trump Jr., is true.

GG: Yeah, I mean look, you know, Donald Trump himself has never shown a molecule of ethical conduct or loyalty to anyone but himself in his entire life, so there’s zero reason to think he would intervene to defend WikiLeaks after getting from WikiLeaks what he wanted.

And there are, you know, most factions inside the U.S. government: the CIA, the FBI, the entire Republican Party that have hated WikiLeaks for many years and regarded them as a serious enemy of the United States, wanting to kill them or imprison Julian Assange forever. They clearly still want to do that. And so, the idea that Donald Trump is going to stand up to all of those factions in order to protect Julian Assange, I think is a pipe dream.

I think the posture of the U.S. government very much is that regardless of what Assange might have done to help Trump get elected, they want to get their hands on WikiLeaks, and Assange specifically, and put him into prison for a really long time. And I think that if he ever leaves the Ecuadorian embassy in London, that’s by far the most likely outcome still.

JS: Now, in the few moments we have left, Glenn, I want to get your comment on this: the Russian television network that is state funded in Russia, Russia Today, says that it has complied with an order from the U.S. Department of Justice that it has to register as a foreign agent.

Now, of course, RT has been discussed in front of Congress, it’s regularly talked about on MSNBC, there’s these groups that have put out sort of a hit list of every journalist, thinker, academic in the Western world that has voluntarily appeared on RT.

Joe Scarborough: This would be like Russia being able to control Walter Cronkite’s broadcast, you know, in the late 60s, early 70s.

JS: The largest press freedom organization in the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which itself I’ve gone to battle with them because they have defended the U.S. government in cases where I thought it was wrong, when the U.S. government was attacking journalists, they have said that this is a threat to the First Amendment. And you’ve weighed in saying that you agree with that. How is it that a Russian state media outlet, operating in the United States, registering as a foreign agent, how does that harm the First Amendment?

GG: Well, because it gives the government regulatory power over directing the conduct of media outlets. There are all kinds of media outlets that operate in the United States that are funded by or to some extent governed by foreign governments, whether it be the BBC or Saudi outlets, there’s an endless number of them, public broadcasters and the like, and yet none of them are being required to register as foreign agents.

So, the concern is twofold: One is that it gives the U.S. government control over kind of picking and choosing which media outlets it wants to subject to this regulatory constraint, and then on the other hand it also incentivizes and justifies other countries including the Russians to then turn around reciprocally and start doing it to U.S. media outlets that function in their countries, which is almost inevitable and likely to occur.

So, I think if you’re the Committee to Protect Journalists, you want, the government, all governments, to stay as far away as possible when picking and choosing which media outlets it dislikes and which ones they’re going to force to register and disclose, because it’s very dangerous that they could abuse that power themselves and that it will set a precedent where other governments in other countries will start doing that as well.

JS: Glenn Greenwald thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

GG: Thanks for having me.

JS: Glenn Greenwald is my fellow co-founder of The Intercept.

[Musical interlude]

JS: After last week’s election, Democratic wins in Virginia were interpreted by many within the party, as well as its supporters, as evidence that Donald Trump’s unpopularity was costing Republicans at the polls. We’ll see if that bears out.

The Democrats won the governor’s race and they also gained a foothold in the Virginia legislature. Before the election, Republicans held 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates. After the election Democrats, secured 49 seats and a few more races have yet to be settled. Just one more seat for the Democrats would force a power-sharing agreement with the Republicans.

Now maybe Virginia is a barometer for what’s in store in the 2018 midterm elections. It’s also possible that Trumpism without Trump is just not a winning strategy, and that Virginia is not necessarily the beginning of a pattern. We don’t know yet.

But we do know is that the Republican Party’s playbook has long included an intense focus on down-ballot races and this could be a spark for the Democrats to start competing with them at their own game.

To discuss all of this, I’m joined by two newly elected Virginia House delegates: Elizabeth Guzman will now serve as the delegate for Virginia’s 31st district, she’s an immigrant from Peru, a social worker and a public servant. She’s one of the first Latina women elected to the state legislature.

And we’re also joined by Lee Carter. He is a Marine Corps veteran and he is going to be representing Virginia’s 50th House district. Carter was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, and he won by a nine-point spread and his opponent was also the State House majority whip, so it was a major blow to the Republican Party at the state level in Virginia.

Elizabeth Guzman and Lee Carter, welcome to Intercepted.

Lee Carter: Thank you very much.

Elizabeth Guzman: Thank you. Glad to be here.

JS: Elizabeth, first of all, congratulations on your victory.

EG: Thank you. Thank you so much.

JS: On a personal level, what inspired you to run for political office.

EG: Living in Prince William County in an environment where Latinos were portrayed as criminals, gang members by our chair of the County Board of Supervisors has been an experience.

Campaign Ad: Corey Stewart fights for Virginia security by fighting illegal immigration in Prince William County. Stewart took 7,500 criminal, illegal aliens off our streets.

Corey Stewart: People who are here illegally are illegal.

EG: Many times I felt like a criminal because, they, he would make me feel that way just because of the way I look. Having to carry my passport with me to prove that I am documented alien here in Prince William County. So, I decided to run for office because I wanted my children to be raised in environment where they are respected, where they are, they feel like they are Americans. I want more children who look like me to run for office.

For me to get there, I was inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders when he told me that if we wanted to make a difference, we need to consider to run for office because decisions are not only taken at the federal level, also at the local level and the state level, so when he was saying that I just had immediately these flashbacks about my life as a minority in Prince William County.

JS: Lee Carter, first of all, congratulations on your victory.

LC: Thank you so much.

JS: You have, also, an interesting story as to how you decided to seek political office.

LC: Yeah, so, I served five years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps from 2006 to 2011, deployed twice with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, went to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. You know I decided to run for office after an injury on the job in the summer of 2015, long after I got out of the Marin Corps, but I was installing a lighting control panel and I got shocked and I blew my back out pulling away from that panel, and I could barely walk for about two and a half, three months. You know I couldn’t walk more than about fifty feet at a stretch, and I just got shuffled around from doctor to doctor on worker’s comp and none of them really wanted to address the actual problem, they just wanted to give me pain pills and get me out the door.

But finally, I decided to pay out of pocket for a specialist to figure out what the problem was and he was able to get me back on my feet fairly quickly. And when I was able to get back to work, I called my boss and I said, “I’m ready to go, put me back to work.” And they said, “We have work, but we don’t have any for you. Because our customer is not comfortable with you on their job site.”

That’s what sort of pushed me into politics, you know? There was this rage that I put my body on the line to make this company rich and when I finally got hurt, you know, when that dangerous job caught up to me, they just threw me under the bus. So, I decided I was going to step forward and run for office and fix this. Because there’s a very common phrase in the construction industry that goes, “If you fall off a ladder you’re fired before you hit the ground.” Most construction workers have heard that and you know they’ve heard it, not as a joke, as a threat.

So, you know, I decided to step forward and run for office and make sure that what happened to me didn’t happen to thousands of other Virginians.

JS: Talk about the struggles you had in fighting both the Republicans and the institutional Democratic Party in Virginia.

LC: Yeah, we were able to put together a coalition of groups, you know we had the Democratic Socialists of America, we also had the anti-gerrymandering group, Let America Vote, which was founded by former Congressman Jason Kander. We had, you know, the support of the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-choice Virginia and the Virginia AFL-CIO and sister district and all these sort of women’s march type groups.

So, we had the support of the base of the Democratic Party, and also, you know, the Democratic Socialists of America and we put that coalition together sort of in defiance of Virginia’s Democratic Party leadership.

The leadership here certainly wanted a lot of minute to minute reports on exactly what was happening in the campaign that I wasn’t comfortable providing. They wanted some editorial control over my message that I wasn’t comfortable providing. So, I decided, you know what? I’ve got the manpower to do this. I’m going to go ahead and do this and I’m going to do it my way.

And the mailers that my opponent sent out, he actually sent out to 11,000 homes, a mailer that had Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung and Lee Carter’s face on them, all the text on it talked about my health care policy, because, you know, if there’s one thing that people remember Stalin for, it’s the health care.

JS: [Laughs.]

LC: But clearly that sort of 1950s, 1960s, you can’t go to the left or they’re going to call you a commie type of common knowledge in politics doesn’t hold true anymore.

U.S. Armed Forces Video: If a person defends the activities of the communist nations while consistently attacking the domestic and foreign policy of the United States, she may be a communist.

JS: Elizabeth Guzman, you came to the United States from Peru as a single mother. What role did the rise or the victory of Donald Trump play in your decision to seek office?

EG: It was very important to me, I was like, he’s attacking the Latino know community all the time and I’m like bring it on, you are just making me more famous. And my opponent was using Trump-like messaging, attacking me since August. He sent three negative pieces relating me as a person who wanted to provide driver’s license to illegal aliens so they could vote for me, so they could buy guns, so they were MS-13 members.

What he wants to do is to distract that community from the issues. So, I never responded to those attacks, I decided just to bring my supporters back to the issues. There were people in my district that care about increasing the minimum to a living wage. There were people who were dying to have early childhood education programs that we don’t have. There were people who care about transportation issues and those were more important for me. I wanted to make this fight not just a fight in between the immigrants versus the veterans, because my opponent is a veteran and I thank him for his service, but I wanted to make it about a campaign that would advocate for all hardworking Virginians, regardless of their race, regardless of their immigration status, regardless of their sexual orientation. I wanted to be the voice from all those people who sacrificed so many things just to put food on the table.

JS: Now Lee, you, of course are at the beginning of your political career and it seems to me like there’s this bifurcation within the Democratic Party right now where you have the kind of more corporate, elitist, old school Democratic Party headed by the Clintons and their supporters. And then you kind of have everyone else who seems to want the Democratic Party to move in a different direction, more to the left and more in sync with the visions of the most popular political figure in the country right now, Bernie Sanders.

What’s your analysis, Lee, of the state of the Democratic Party?

LC: This is something that’s happening on both sides of the aisle. 2008 saw a massive collapse of the global economy on a scale that we hadn’t seen since the Great Depression. The fact that we never really fixed the global economy after 2008 has built up the simmering discontent with politics as usual on both sides.

You know, you have politicians particularly within the Democratic Party because Barack Obama was the president at the time, who, for the last eight years have spent the entire time saying, “Look, we’re in a recovery, things are going great, we don’t need to change anything about us, the problem is the Republicans.”

And then the Republicans were pointing to the actual problems with the recovery and the fact that prior to 2008, we had millions of people who had a single full-time job that was able to pay the bills and now they’re having to work, you know, two and three precarious jobs to get most of the same amount of money as they had before and they’re saying, you know, the economy is not recovering, it’s still in the tank and the problem is the Democrats.

So, so the center of American politics in that environment is really not holding anymore. If you look at the polling, you know, obviously that the most unpopular thing in American politics is president Trump, but the second most unpopular thing in American politics is the Democratic Party. So, the Democratic Party, right now, the leadership certainly seems to think that just by tying all acted Republicans throughout the country to Donald Trump, they can see electoral success. And in the short term that very well may work, but unless we actually clean our own house and recognize that the recovery that we have overseen since 2008 has been incomplete, that we never addressed the structural problems of America’s economy, that there are people who are being left behind, if we don’t address those problems within our own party and become the kind of party that fully embraces the working class and the health and welfare of 98 percent of people, once Donald Trump is gone, we’re going to go through the floor, because we won’t have that crutch anymore.

You know, Donald Trump is not going to be around forever, and once he’s gone, if we haven’t fixed our own problems, we are in a lot of trouble.

JS: Elizabeth, the Democrats do not have a great record on immigration, in fact Barack Obama, in many immigrant rights circles, was known as the “Deporter-in-Chief,” and you have Donald Trump taking up the mantle of policies that harm immigrant communities.

How should this country deal with the issue of undocumented immigration to the United States?

EG: Immigration reform is a federal issue, it’s not something that we can fix at the state level — I wish we could, but we can’t. But one of the things as an immigrant myself, I think that I represent the people that come to this country, looking for opportunities. Many times we hear in the news, we listen to the news, we watch on TV, immigrants equals criminals. And that’s not the case.

Many people who come to this country, come leaving behind their homes, their families their culture, their food, many professionals come to this country just to start over from scratch — even people graduated from college come and take these minimum-wage jobs or construction jobs just because they see America as a land of opportunities, as a place where they can provide reliable education to their children.

In their minds it’s not about harming the country, so I had to have these conversations with people from the Republican supporters at the doors and also with Democrats as well. My job was to educate them and tell them, “Listen, this is what we do when we come here.” And I think that I represent the American Dream.

As far as the immigration, I think that the country needs to take responsibility of allowing these people to come to this country and being here, because if they get here it’s because we don’t have systems in place that could prevent from them to come in and staying here. I’m not supporting any criminals to be documented, because I believe that people who behave according to the law should be given an opportunity. People who are paying taxes, people who are contributing to this economy, like the Dreamers, and those are conversations that we don’t have.

No one in this country stays here for free, no one in this country does not pay taxes. Everyone pays taxes and that’s like, as an immigrant, you come here and you don’t get any break from paying taxes or anything — those are myths that are incorrect.

JS: Lee Carter, one of the issues you ran on was sort of getting corporate money out of politics. What would your approach be to try to limit or ultimately eliminate the influence that powerful corporate interests, including the defense industry, which is huge in Virginia, how do you get them out of politics? Where does it start?

LC: Yeah so for a little background here, Virginia’s campaign finance laws are really sort of the wild west. There’s no limits on anything. You know, you can get unlimited contributions from corporate sources, you can get unlimited contributions from individuals, my opponent actually got a $61,000 single contribution from the National Association of Realtors.

I see fighting against corporate control over Virginia politics as the first step to actually getting good policy on a number of issues. You know, it happens in all industries. My opponent sat on the subcommittee for consumer lending, and took money from Title Max and Loan Max and all these predatory lenders. And that happens over, and over, and over, again in every committee. Personally, I’m going to be fighting for an outright ban on corporate contributions in Virginia politics and a limit on individual contributions. Because a corporation shouldn’t be able to write a single check and fund an entire campaign. It just shouldn’t happen.

JS: Lee Carter, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

LC: And thank you for having me.

JS: Elizabeth Guzman, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

EG: Thank you for having me and thank you for the pronunciation of my last name. It was really good!

JS: All right, and well, congrats to both of you on your victories, we look forward to seeing what you do now when you get down to work.

LC: Thank you so much.

EG: Thank you!

JS: Elizabeth Guzman and Lee Carter both won seats in the Virginia House of Delegates.

[Musical interlude]

JS: That does it for this week’s show. I want to thank everyone who contributed to our recent fundraising drive. It was really a tremendous success, to paraphrase Donald Trump and we are all humbled by your support.

Our honorary producers our Cam Cowan and Natalie Holme-Elsberg. Many thanks to you both for making this show possible.

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. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Anthony Atamanuik is our Donald Trump whisperer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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