Three major U.S. news organizations promoted a false story about Trump and WikiLeaks, giving the president a golden talking point. This week on Intercepted: an exclusive interview with former Nixon White House counsel John Dean about the Mueller investigation, how the CIA and military may benefit from Trump’s presidency, and how Trump stacks up to Nixon and Reagan. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg talks about the classified secrets he has kept for decades. He has just published his story in a new book, “The Doomsday Machine.” Jeremy takes on the false news report about the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks that was aggressively promoted by CNN, MSNBC, and CBS. Steve Bannon is no longer in the National Security Council, but he remains one of the most powerful political propagandists in the country. A new short film from Field of Vision takes us inside the very strange world of Steve Bannon’s films and how a focus group responded to being bombarded with scenes from Bannon’s movies. We talk to the co-director of “American Carnage,” Farihah Zaman. Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers talks about growing up in Alabama and how the civil rights struggle and George Wallace impacted his life. Donald Trump calls in to Delilah for life advice.
Watch “American Carnage” by Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert:
Delilah Rene: Hi, you’ve found Delilah on this cold, winter night, only on Lake 98.1 Hi thank you for calling the Delilah show. I understand you’ve got some exciting things you’re looking forward to in the future.
President Donald J. Trump: Dingo. Jobs. Jobs. Tax cuts. But wait until you see what we’re doing with healthcare. Merry Christmas, right?
DR: I’m glad that you are here with me tonight. My goal for the evening is to help you put all the headaches, all the heartaches, all the stress of the day out of your mind for a bit.
DJT: Big media. Special interests. Phonies. These are bad people, these are very, very bad, and evil people. They know who they are.
DR: I’m not suggesting you run away from your problems.
DJT: They don’t want to accept the results of an election where we won by a landslide.
DR: I’m not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and pretend that they’re going to go away.
DJT: But they call themselves the Resistance. Do you ever see these signs? “Resist.”
DR: But I am suggesting that you take a little bit of time for you and focus on those that you love.
DJT: My job is not to be president of the world. My job is to be President of the United States of America.
DR: I know it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have to stay up at night studying, listening to moi. All right?
DJT: You will never be ignored again. Your dreams are my dreams.
DR: I’ll be there for you.
DJT: God bless you, and God bless the United States. Thank you very much.
DR: Buh-bye, honey.
[Whitney Houston “I Have Nothing”]
Jeremy Scahill: This has been a work of pure fiction. To our knowledge, Donald Trump has never called into the Delilah show for life advice, or for some warm understanding and compassion at a time of deep loneliness. This has been a work of fiction and not an actual Delilah segment.
JS: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 39 of Intercepted.
DJT: This is a sick system from the inside and, you know, there’s no country like our country but we have a lot of sickness in some of our institutions and we’re working very hard. We’ve got a lot of them straightened out. But we do have, we really do, we have a rigged system in this country and we have to change it. Terrible! Terrible.
JS: We are closing in on the end of Donald Trump’s first year in office and it’s been a surreal and, at times, terrifying roller coaster ride. The aggressiveness in the reporting on this White House is unparalleled in modern history. But almost all of it focuses on questions of whether, or not, Trump and his family members and officials of his campaign and administration colluded or criminally conspired in any way with Russia or Russian agents to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
This coverage is the story, and almost every other event in the U.S. or around the world is treated almost like a burden or an afterthought that must occasionally take up some of the valuable Trump-Russia air time. This story, Trump-Russia, has the prospect of bringing down a president, so obviously it has to be covered and it should be reported on aggressively.
But there’s a disturbing pattern that’s been playing out where news organizations are so desperate to be the first that they’ve increasingly gotten important facts wrong. It also appears that, in some cases, news organizations are so willing to believe almost anything about Donald Trump that responsible journalistic practices and the verifying of information that you’ve been given, including from anonymous sources, has just been cast aside.
Take the case of last week’s explosive report on CNN that an e-mail had surfaced that purported to show that the Trump campaign, in fact, specifically Donald Trump, Jr., had received advance knowledge of a WikiLeaks dump of DNC e-mails. That e-mail, which was supposedly sent to Donald Trump, Jr., contained what CNN described as a secret decryption key. The ramifications were explosive and obvious: Donald Trump must have been in on the whole thing. They had knowledge of what was going to be published by WikiLeaks before it even came out.
Manu Raju: This e-mail on September 4, 2016, was sent to Donald Trump, then-candidate Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and others in the Trump organization, including Donald Trump, Junior’s personal secretary. And in this — personal assistant, I should say — and in this e-mail it actually has a decryption code and a link to a web address where purportedly they could have received the hacked WikiLeaks documents.
JS: NBC News correspondent Ken Dilanian then followed up on CNN’S report and he said that his sources had confirmed that this e-mail was real, that the date on it was correct and that it was sent before WikiLeaks dumped the e-mails.
Ken Dilanian: Two sources with direct knowledge of this are telling us that Congressional investigators have obtained an e-mail from a man named Mike Erickson, obviously they don’t know if that’s his real name, offering Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump, Jr. access to WikiLeaks documents. This was about September 2016, right in the middle of the campaign, when WikiLeaks was putting out some documents, hadn’t put out other documents. Remember the Russians had hacked the Democrats and handed this stuff over to WikiLeaks.
JS: By the way, Ken Dilanian, that NBC reporter, yeah, he’s famous for having sent the CIA his stories for review before they’ve been published: That’s a serious journalistic crime. So, I can’t say I was shocked when I saw Ken Dilanian promoting the story.
Oh, and CBS? They also ran with this story. And they said they too had gotten it confirmed. These networks that had legal analysts on, to weigh what these stunning revelations might mean for Donald Trump and the investigations into Trump and Russia.
Kate Bolduan: From a legal sense, what do you think this means?
Paul Callan: It’s a very interesting development because if this was an attempt to give stolen emails, hacked emails to the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign acted on it, you would have an argument that they were then in possession of stolen property, property they knew to be stolen.
PC: Now that can be a crime under federal law.
JS: The problem with all of this? The story was totally false. CNN, CBS, and NBC all wrongly reported that the email in question was dated September 4, 2016. These networks said that their sources had confirmed that. But then the Washington Post reported that the date was actually ten days later — it was September 14, 2016 and they actually published the email.
That enormous error that was promoted by CBS, CNN and NBC meant that the entire story that they were telling on their airwaves, nonstop, was pointless, insignificant, and revealed literally nothing at all about Trump, WikiLeaks, Russia, or collusion.
What it revealed in this non-story was that a random person somewhere on the interwebs sent Don Jr. an email that pointed to a batch of files that WikiLeaks had released along with the description protocols that WikiLeaks had shared with literally the entire world.
None of these networks will name the sources who fed them this false information and no reporters have been disciplined for pushing this false and inflammatory story. Once these things go viral it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Prominent liberal commentators breathlessly spread the false CNN story. Some of them had images of cannons — boom! Or atomic bombs. Democrats in Congress promoted it, getting thousands and thousands of retweets. And then came the quiet walking back of the story. The deleting of tweets, the sweeping it under the rug — oh, and the justifications.
And that famed Soviet tactic straight from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, Whataboutism. “Well, yes, I mean we got this wrong but we issued a correction. But what about Trump’s lies?” Sorry, guys: you live by the sword, you die by the sword, you are engaged in Whataboutism.
On Sunday, CNN’s media criticism program, Reliable Sources, sought to downplay this event by having on two people to defend CNN. One is CNN contributor Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, and the other is David Frum of neocon fame. He’s the guy who helped Bush and Cheney sell their wars on the world and is now a celebrated member of the anti-Trump #resistance.
David Frum: The worst mistakes that press organizations have made: CNN made, Raju and his co-author, the mistake they made, it was important, they promptly corrected it. The worst mistakes CNN have made have been result of the determination to bring in-house, Trump, Trump associates in order to promote Trump falsehoods, not from Trump HQ, or not from the White House, but with CNN’s own brand on them.
JS: This segment on CNN was a naked, and I would say pathetic, attempt to sweep all of this under the rug. And because news organizations seem willing to believe almost anything about Trump and his cabal, any mistake is just a small matter compared to how awful Trump truly is — and we know how awful Trump is — I think this is a really serious mistake.
Also, I should mention, Brian Ross at ABC News, before these stories came out on CNN, CBS, NBC, he was suspended over a false report that he did which is of a similar vein just a few days before this story came out.
Brian Ross: He has promised the full cooperation to the Mueller team. He’s prepared to testify we have told by a confidante, against President Trump, against members of the Trump family and others in the White House. He is prepared to testify that president Trump, as a candidate, Donald Trump ordered him directly, directed him to make contact with the Russians which contradicts all that Donald Trump has said at this point.
As well we’re told that Flynn made the decision to cooperate only in the last twenty-four hours — that he was distraught about the decision but feels he’s doing the right thing for his country.
JS: That Brian Ross report turned out to be false. But it seems that what had mattered to Brian Ross at that moment was being first. And it’s about Trump, so it’s okay if we loosen editorial standards.
Now, Donald Trump is undoubtedly on a rampage against journalists and journalism. It’s dangerous. He’s labeling the press enemies. He’s calling for journalists to be fired, for news networks to lose their licenses — all of this is extremely disturbing. But so too is the willingness of so many journalists today to believe anything just because it is Donald Trump. And CNN, CBS and NBC, they gave Trump an incredible real-life example of fake news, that he’s going to use over, and over, and over.
And Donald Trump was gleeful as he spoke in Florida last Friday the night that all of this stuff broke.
DJT: They took this fraudster from ABC — they suspended him for a month, they should have fired him for what he wrote. (Crowd cheers.) He drove the stock market down 350 points in minutes, which, by the way, tells you they’re really like me, right? When you think of it. And you know what he cost people, and I said to everybody, “Get yourself a lawyer and sue ABC News. Sue ’em!”
JS: Here’s the challenge that all of us now live with under Donald Trump. The President of the United States constantly lies about big things and small things. We know that.
Fox News lies about big things and small things. We know that, too. But other major news organizations seem so willing to believe almost anything if it’s about Trump that it’s as though common sense and attachment to reality has been cast aside. I honestly wonder which is worse: the known liars at Fox News intentionally spreading propaganda or those who claim to be about the facts but keep getting big stories wrong because it’s about Trump!
All journalists and news organizations make mistakes. The Intercept has definitely made mistakes. But we’re all at a crossroads here. If CNN, CBS and NBC don’t name publicly the sources who fed them this false information, that’s flat out-wrong. If there are people in the U.S. government or on Capitol Hill — perhaps, oh, I don’t know — Democrats on the intelligence committees or working for the intelligence committees investigating Trump and Russia. If there are these people in government who are knowingly spreading false information, that is of vital interest to the American public. And if CNN, CBS and NBC News do not name the source or sources of this false information then their credibility has really been shot. And that is ultimately a victory for Donald Trump.
This whole situation also reminds me of the way that the CIA and the FBI are now discussed in liberal circles and on cable TV in this country: that somehow these institutions are protecting us from the evil monster Donald Trump. It’s as though history and context don’t matter at all. All of the horrid policies of the FBI and the CIA, they’re just tossed out the window. The awful records of James Comey and Robert Mueller, those are irrelevant because now they’re the knights of truth and the knights of justice and they’re giving hope to the resistance everywhere. Why? Because all that matters is how awful Trump is and how we can get rid of him ASAP. This willful dishonesty is sickening and it’s going to come back to haunt this country.
Remember during the campaign when all those CIA and military people and foreign policy luminaries came out to endorse and support Hillary Clinton, and how they portrayed Trump as reckless and dangerous? It was quite shocking to have senior CIA people, including the then-current director of the CIA, John Brennan, openly attacking a candidate for the presidency. The former acting CIA director Mike Morell, he was one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent advocates. He hadn’t even run out of his official CIA business cards yet when he was writing op-eds advocating for Clinton and attacking Trump — and then Trump won.
So, if you want to understand the context of why Trump may be suspicious of the intelligence community, it’s worth looking at how he was treated when they all thought that Hillary was a shoo-in.
Mike Morell, in an interview recently with political magazine, recently acknowledged that he may have played a role in tarnishing Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community.
Mike Morell: Let’s put ourselves here in Donald Trump’s shoes. So, what does he see, right? He sees a former director of CIA and a former director of NSA, Mike Hayden, criticizing him and his policies, right? And could rightfully have said, “Huh,” you know? “What’s going on with these intelligence guys?” And then he sees a former acting director and deputy director of the CIA criticizing him and endorsing his opponent. And then he gets his first intelligence briefing after becoming the Republican nominee and within 24 to 48 hours there are leaks out of that that are critical of him and his then-national security adviser Mike Flynn.
And so, this stuff starts to build, right? And he must have said to himself, “What is it with these intelligence guys? Are they political?”
JS: This acknowledgement from the former acting CIA director is part of the same too late, not enough response that CNN, CBS and NBC had to these false reports that they promoted.
At the end of the day, they’ve all given Trump actual evidence to support his otherwise truly outrageous claims. This Trump derangement syndrome is going to have long-lasting impacts on journalism and public trust. This is all going to set a very dangerous precedent that could be used in the future to suppress or subvert a progressive political force or politician that challenges the national security state or the corporate domination of our lives and the corporate domination of our electoral process.
This short-sightedness poses a very serious threat to our democratic processes and it should be called out for what it is: a key part of the serious problems plaguing our country right now.
Okay, let’s get on with the show.
JS: We begin today with a man who knows exactly what it’s like to be sitting inside the White House as government investigators have legions of microscopes deployed to examine every aspect of the president, his administration and his political operatives. I’m talking about John Dean, the former White House counsel to Richard Nixon. Dean was convicted at the time of obstruction of justice and then he testified in front of the U.S. Congress on a variety of crimes that had been committed by the Nixon White House during the course of the Watergate investigations.
Dean, who wrote a book on the Bush-Cheney administration, called “Worse Than Watergate” has emerged as a fierce critic of Donald Trump and he joins me now.
John Dean, welcome to Intercepted.
John Dean: My pleasure.
JS: What’s your assessment of where we are right now?
JD: Well, I think if you look at the historical record and mine, which I’m most familiar of course is Watergate. But I’d also say the same thing for Iran-Contra and the Lewinsky scandal, other presidential scandals. But let’s just focus on Watergate. If you look at the event that christened the name Watergate, it was the arrest of the campaign operatives in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex that happened on June 17 of 1972.
Newscaster: Good evening. We have a mystery story out of Washington. Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the night.
Newscaster: The Democrat National Committee is located in the Watergate office building. The burglars forced the stairwell door then taped its latch open. The door, now part of police evidence, was noticed by one of the guards employed by the Watergate complex. At first the police found nothing — then they spied five men crouching behind some desks.
JD: The end of the scandal, the hard end, if you will, was on January 1, 1975, with the conviction of H.R. Haldeman the, Nixon’s chief of staff, John Mitchell. his former attorney general, and John Ehrlichman, his top domestic advisor, who were convicted for conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury. That’s 928 days from start to finish and there are obviously events that precede and followed both. But Nixon is out for example several months before Haldeman and Ehrlichman are convicted. So, it — we’re very early in the big picture of things. The investigation is really just getting underway.
JS: How has social media changed the way that these situations, crises or investigations at the highest levels of power in this country, how has social media changed these events?
JD: Watergate was initially ignored, even though it was a pretty spectacular scandal with five men arrested in business suits and surgical gloves with hundred dollar bills in their pocket in the offices of the Democratic National Committee and direct links back to the Nixon reelection committee. That was a pretty spectacular opening but people tired of the story, within 48 hours, the New York Times virtually stopped covering it. Only the Washington Post really gave it attention and the only people who were following the story were in the Beltway.
It’s not till April of 1973 that the public starts really getting serious about following it and that’s when the rumors start that this may well bring down a president. Initially people give Nixon the benefit of the doubt. He is overwhelmingly reelected in ’72, notwithstanding the fact that the shadow of Watergate was over him. What social media has done — it’s sort of accelerated the news cycle, but still it just takes X amount of time to undertake an investigation and X amount of time for the public to absorb events. So, while they’re faster, I don’t think that it is going to make that dramatically that much faster. It’s still going to take time for this all unfold.
JS: What is this scandal about, in your view, I mean it is possible, correct, that we could go all the way down this road and Trump finishes his first term and he’s not directly, meaning himself, touched by the law, or impeached, or having impeachment proceedings begin against him — that is a possible outcome of this. What’s the scandal in your view that it should be investigated regarding Trump?
JD: Well the scandal is an odd creature, it’s a way that elites deal with sort of middle level offenses. For example, the Boston bombing of a marathon is not a scandal. The Holocaust is not a scandal. Those are just pretty brutal criminal events.
Scandal is a lower-level but may or may not involve criminal activity. So, what we’re looking at here, the scandal, is whether or not Trump colluded with the Russians to help defeat Hillary and to win the presidency. That’s really the question. And it may or may not rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy. Then again, it might. He might have obstructed justice to prevent the investigation by overreacting.
Nixon, for example, there is not a scintilla of evidence that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in or actually knew it was going to happen, but he certainly did involve himself from the outset in the cover-up. He was knee-deep in that.
JS: You have a sort of small camp of Republicans, John McCain is certainly in that camp. Politicians or political figures in the Republican Party who are openly criticizing the president, although they’re not calling for his removal or his impeachment or anything like that. And then you have a huge chunk of Republican lawmakers that tend to avoid saying anything specific about the president, but celebrate when, you know, they get their tax plan past the house, et cetera. When did the House start to crumble for Nixon in terms of support of Republicans in Congress regarding the Watergate investigations?
JD: You’ve gotta remember the Congress during the Nixon era and the Democratic Party was much different than it is today, as was the Republican Party. There were actually big tent parties where you had — ran from conservative to liberal in both parties. What you had, though, was Republicans certainly did sit on their hands as long as they could until the odor got so bad. And what happened also is the cover-up metastasized from just really preventing the investigation of what had happened at the Watergate, to realizing the reason the Nixon White House was involved in covering up Watergate is that Hunt and Liddy, the organizers of the Watergate break-in had worked at the Nixon White House where they’d undertaken similar activities where they had organized a bungled break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office after Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers.
President Richard Nixon: And remember, within a year, people are not going to be thinking of this, they’re going to be thinking of what we’ve been doing, Henry. So —
Henry Kissinger: I’ll tell you what, Mr. President, no one will be able to —
President Richard Nixon: Frankly, people are getting goddamn sick of it now, you know.
HK: I think that in fact —
RN: I know that people just, I just have a feeling that even, you pick up the paper and go Watergate, Watergate, Dean charges this, somebody charges that, who broke into this psychiatrist’s office? Wasn’t that the silliest goddamn thing?
JD: Direct orders from the White House from John Ehrlichman who in writing approved it with the words, “So long as I have your assurance it’s not traceable to the White House.” Which later, they go to jail on his own assurance, because the same players were involved in both the Watergate break-in and the Ellsberg break-in is the reason the Nixon White House gets involved.
Nixon isn’t even told about these activities until fairly late in the cover-up. He’s just sympathetic to his attorney general who he assumes has approved this crazy break-in at the Watergate and he doesn’t want him embarrassed. So, a very simple reason: we may find a parallel with Trump, where Trump has no direct relationship with the Russians other than some sort of general admiration for Putin or he may have some financial connections of some nature or hope to have some, who knows what his real motives are here, that hasn’t come out yet. But he could have lots of reasons for, for example firing Comey, because he insisted on going forward with an investigation of General Flynn. It could be just very similar the situation between Nixon and Mitchell. We don’t know yet.
JS: Well, and there’s a lot of attention right now the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who seems to have played a role on the campaign and at least for some part of this administration as kind of being that the guy you need to talk to get Trump’s ear on a variety of issues. And it seems like Jared’s name keeps popping up in all of these sort of many investigations or the indictments, etc., that he was at this particular meeting, that he directed Flynn to have this call — I mean it really does, you get a sense that the hammer’s going to drop soon on Jared Kushner.
JD: That’s an interesting question because I’ve been chatting with former prosecutors and they feel a special sensitivity about indicting family of a target. I’m not clear from my discussions if it’s because they expect the fight will be even tougher to prosecute, or if they think juries will sympathize with family that gets swept up and turn against the prosecution of such people. We’ve heard very little about General Flynn’s son who we know was swept up in some way with his father in some nefarious activities, but his father had clearly been given a pass. It appears he’s been given a pass because they were getting too close to his son — yet that’s stuff disappeared from the scene. We don’t know what the trade was there, where he got a one count false statement indictment plea in exchange for giving up clearly what could have been multiple counts of false statements, and a potential conspiracy count, although one would think if there was a conspiracy that they had their hands around, they would have done a one count conspiracy because that would have made him a stronger witness in a conspiracy case.
JS: How significant of a witness will Flynn be based on what we currently understand about Mueller’s investigation?
JD: Well if proximity is helpful, and it typically is very helpful and can be decisive, he could be a remarkable witness for Mueller. He’s cooperating, he has to be truthful, I assume that the agreement is the only thing he can be indicted for after taking the plea would be to give false testimony, so he should be a very powerful witness because he certainly has proximity. He goes back to the campaign, he knows the thinking of the candidate and the thinking they brought together to the White House, where Trump has you know virtually no foreign policy or national security experience at all, Flynn is a fairly sophisticated player from days past in national security matters.
JS: One of the things that kind of astonished me is that some of the contents of Flynn’s plea agreement and also the statement of offense that accompanied it, I just want to read from because I’m kind of astonished that this didn’t get more attention: “On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the presidential transition team directed Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution” — meaning this resolution that the Obama administration was going to abstain on at the United Nations Security Council, that was on Palestine. And, of course, Bibi Netanyahu and others who in the United States and Israel were very much opposed to the idea that Obama was going to abstain from a vote on this issue. But they say that General Flynn was directed by a very senior member of the presidential transition team not to lobby Russia on anything involving elections because this was after the election, but on behalf of the Israeli government. And I’m kind of astonished that more attention hasn’t been paid to that because it pretty clearly looks like it was collusion between the United States’ incoming administration and Israel and that Russia was sort of a player that is on the Security Council that could help do the bidding of Israel rather than the bidding of Russia.
JD: It is curious. A lot of things in that plea agreement have not been focused on. Whether he was bought on that issue or not, it’s hard to tell. Maybe, I think that that’s something that just came up accidentally, because it’s clearly outside the charter of the special council. He wasn’t looking for Israeli influences and this looks like something he just encountered as they were investigating, which then put it in the parameters of his undertaking.
JS: Right. It’s not about a policy that, you know, would benefit Russia, in fact, you know Russia historically would vote against Israel on these resolutions in front of the Security Council anyway. It’s that they tried to get Russia to delay the vote or to do whatever it could to ensure that the Obama administration did not abstain from voting. To me, the headline there is that they tried to get Russia to help them collude with Israel, rather than like, you know, Vladimir Putin’s secret agenda.
JD: Well, yeah, and it certainly appears that the Logan Act which has never been prosecuted by any prior administration against any incoming presidency is kind of central. The Logan Act, for those who don’t know it, of course, prohibits citizens from engaging in foreign affairs on behalf of the United States when they have no authority to do so. And that’s exactly what the Trump people were doing from day one after they found themselves as winners, they started undercutting the sitting president.
Kristen Welker: Did you direct Mike Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador? Prior to your inauguration?
DJT: No I didn’t. No I didn’t! No I didn’t. Mike —
KW: And would you have fired him if information hadn’t leaked out.
DJT: Excuse me. No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence. Very simple. Mike was doing his job — he was calling countries and his counterparts. So, it certainly would have been okay with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it. I didn’t direct him but I would have directed him because that’s his job.
JS: I think a lot of people, particularly those who are Republicans, even if they’re opposed to Trump, wonder how different would it be for the Trump people to, let’s say that they did accept e-mails that were Hillary Clinton’s private emails and they want to use that as part of their opposition research, in your view, is there something inherently illegal or, on the other hand, immoral about doing that and isn’t that something that sort of every political operative wants to get the information from wherever they can get it?
JD: I suppose there’s the potential there are number of federal and state laws that prohibit hacking and if they are conspiring to hack or to disseminate illegally obtained information, that could have consequences. We don’t know if that happened. Watergate showed some of the parameters of what was tolerable opposition research. For example, spreading false stories about candidates without putting your signature resulted in a young lawyer by the name of Donald Segretti, getting prosecuted. That’s still the law where you have to identify yourself: if you put out information about an opponent, you better well identify the source of the of the material and who disseminated it.
JS: Right, and, of course, I mean if somebody came to a campaign and said, “Hey, we hacked these emails of your opponent and here they are,” obviously now you’ve been made aware of a criminal offense.
JD: You’re either an accessory or a co-conspirator at that point.
JS: Right, and so if, on the other hand you’re told, “Oh, sources in Russia have all of this, you know, bad information on Hillary and they have, they have some of the emails and they’re willing to provide them to that campaign,” if you don’t say, “Well, were they illicitly obtained?” There’s no rule that says you have to ask them how it’s obtained. It would just be if you knew that they were illicitly or illegally obtained, you then have —
JD: I’ll tell you one thing, if, any lawyer, or any person who’s involved in a presidential campaign and is getting assistance from a foreign country, if they don’t go to the FBI, they’re demented.
JS: Oh, I agree with you, 100 percent, but also if you look at also the Fusion GPS report, I mean they had all sorts of stuff sourced to Russians about Trump and that’s where I think some of the, I don’t mean to be sounding like I’m Trump’s defender, here.
JD: That doesn’t mean it was the government, though. Foreign individuals can certainly voice opinions and opposition research can pick that up. If somebody on the streets of London oversaw Trump doing something, there would be no prohibition against getting that in your opposition research. If the British government and MI-6 sent the information over, that’s a different story.
JS: Right, and I think, in that case, it was unclear who they were. It was well-informed Russians, intelligence sources within Russia, which could be former spooks or what have you, I think what you’re saying here that I think almost every American would agree with is any messing around with the existing policies of a country while you are not sanctioned to be speaking officially for the country, people that do that need to be held accountable. Is that essentially what you’re saying?
JD: That’s right. And we well could see a conspiracy to violate the Logan Act here. That could be a very legitimate crime.
JS: I know you wrote an excellent book about the Bush-Cheney administration, “Worse Than Watergate” and I’ve see that you’ve joked before that you should have saved that title for this administration. How bad of a president is Trump?
I mean, let’s set aside the kind of, you know, buffoonish behavior and the tweeting, etc., except insofar as it’s relevant to the potential for a nuclear war or war with North Korea or what have you. I mean, Bush and Cheney, their wars killed hundreds of thousands of people across the world, they authorized torture, they ran this whole series of black sites. I mean, Trump has a lot of killing to do to catch up to those guys and I’m wondering: Does Trump fall into the category of like, the great monsters of history or even the worst presidents in the United States?
JD: The short term answer is, he’s the most incompetent person who’s ever filled that job. So, he comes totally ill equipped to be president. He has zero curiosity, he doesn’t read, he doesn’t have any knowledge of history other than what people tell him, he is very susceptible to misinformation. So, it’s his incompetence level going in is the most frightening thing.
The second most frightening thing is his personality, where he’s clearly an authoritarian personality. And once he does learn how it works, I think he can become a killing machine if he remains in office that long.
Bush/Cheney, and I do put them together, I don’t think George Bush would have been a half-bad president had he not have picked the vice president he did, but he picked a vice president who really was a co-president, and Cheney is about as dark a character as has ever sat beside the Oval Office.
Vice President Dick Cheney: Torture was what the al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation. I’d do it again in a minute. It worked! It absolutely — it worked.
JS: When the Iran-Contra investigations were happening on Capitol Hill, Cheney was a member of Congress representing Wyoming and he was one of the chief authors of the dissent of the congressional investigation that alleged not that Iran-Contra was, you know, a scandalous criminal enterprise that undermined American security as the majority report had indicated. But that it was a model that should be defended for how the executive should be protecting America.
JD: Exactly. Exactly. That’s, to me, how radical Cheney was. He was the one who was helping to kill a serious investigation, keeping it in a joint committee which are never particularly effective, and then writing this defense for a minority report that justified it, and helping to prevent an impeachment that otherwise probably would have occurred of Reagan had Cheney not been up there running interference for him.
JS: I sort of have been referring, jokingly, of course, to this current situation as kind of Iran-Contra for idiots. Because if you, if you look at the layers of protection that Reagan had, I mean obviously there also were some clowns involved with Iran-Contra, but the layers of protection that extended to various entities within the U.S. government, was much more intact and effective than anything Trump has in part because of what you’re pointing out, John Dean, which is Trump doesn’t understand how this system works. Nixon did understand how the system worked. Reagan’s people understood how the system worked.
Trump, he truly is an outsider, and that’s a two-edged sword.
JD: It is. But he’s not stupid, and he is going to learn how it works. And that’s when I think he can be even more dangerous than he is because of his incompetence.
He brought Kelly over to run the White House because it was obviously so chaotic, that the place was dysfunctional beyond belief. I’m told his campaign was also. But he has stumbled through as a highly dysfunctional businessman. And I think he thinks that he just needs a little functioning to operate as president. And I think, eventually, he’ll figure out how this thing works and God knows what he’ll do then.
JS: You know, on the one hand, Trump has levied a lot of criticism at the CIA. Right now, the big target is the FBI and the Justice Department. Of course, Fox News is pushing these talking points.
Jeanine Pirro: There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice. It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in handcuffs.
JS: They all despise Robert Mueller, even though some, less than a year ago, they thought he was a great pick. But when you have a president like Trump who doesn’t want full presidential daily briefings, there’s a part of me that wonders if the kind of career, shadow government that exists in this country, and what I mean by that is like the people that aren’t subjected to a Senate confirmation or elections, that work at the CIA or the military, they may feel this is kind of like a golden era for them because no one’s paying attention to what they’re doing. And the White House isn’t asking tough questions.
JD: Oh, absolutely.
JS: Like, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen at the CIA and the military, because this guy doesn’t seem to care.
JD: That’s also a possibility. People are opening drawers and pulling out plans that they thought they’d never be able to do anything with, and now they’ve got a chief executive in the White House that really doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the executive branch, and they’re likely to do anything.
We’ve seen the lack of caliber of people that Trump has put in the top jobs, leaving so many vacancies in so many departments and agencies. That’s theoretically the management team that watches.
JS: John, do you see Donald Trump finishing a full term as president?
JD: At this point, unless the Congress in its totality, both the House and the Senate, in 2018, go Democratic, and we have a national experience that sort of parallels what happened in Virginia in their last election, I see him finishing his term. I don’t know if he can get reelected, but I certainly don’t see him being removed. If he does lose in 2018, and it’s a Virginia type of reaction nationally, I think he’s in a lot of trouble. And I think that’s where he should be.
JS: I think if he doesn’t finish a term it’s because he has a massive heart attack from eating all that McDonald’s.
JD: That is — he does not look like a man who’s in very good physical condition. And anybody who believes that exercise is something you have only so much in your system to handle, is not somebody who is fit to be president in many ways.
JS: Right, I mean, good thing he burnt down Michelle Obama’s organic garden and replaced it with ketchup trees.
JD: (laughs) Yes!
JS: John Dean, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
JD: My pleasure.
JS: John Dean was White House counsel to Richard Nixon. He is also the author of many books, including “Blind Ambition,” “The Nixon Defense,” and “Worse Than Watergate.”
JS: Well, a little more than a year into his first term in office, president Nixon had approved a plan to expand domestic spying inside the United States, not only by the FBI, but by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Like Donald Trump, Nixon viewed journalists as enemies of the people and he also view dissidents and protesters as agents of chaos. Now, under Nixon, the CIA began an unprecedented spying operation on more than 10,000 people inside the United States. They were anti-Vietnam war protesters, black activists, other dissidents — these operations flourished under Nixon. But some of them stretched all the way back to the 1950s,
And this is relevant because when the CIA was first established in 1947, the law stated that the CIA could not conduct such domestic spy operations. When the crimes of Nixon and Watergate are discussed, it’s pretty common for the narrative to be the one about operatives working for Nixon’s reelection campaign breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1972. The men who carried out that botched bugging operation were known as the Plumbers.
But this criminal entity had already been in operation before that break-in. In fact, they were created to stop leaks, hence their name the Plumbers.
In 1971, the Plumbers broke into the office of a psychiatrist in an effort to dig up dirt on the whistleblower who was responsible at the time for the single largest leak of classified information in U.S. history. I’m talking about the Pentagon Papers. The man responsible for that leak was Daniel Ellsberg. He was a former senior defense analyst who had worked in a sensitive position at the Rand Corporation during the Vietnam War.
Newscaster: Nixon didn’t like this man.
President Richard Nixon: What Ellsberg really boils down to, the man, the discrediting and all the rest, what it boils down to: I didn’t want to discredit the man as an individual. I couldn’t care less about the punk. I wanted to discredit that kind of activity, which was despicable and damaging to the national interest.
JS: By the way, as we reported recently, the Trump Administration has been listening to pitches about creating its own private security force to circumvent the CIA and other intelligence agencies. And it’s also obsessed, like Nixon, with stopping leaks and there are at least 27 active leak investigations going on right now. Anyway, Dan Ellsberg is famous for the Pentagon Papers but he has a new book out that tells the story of the other classified files that Ellsberg took at the time, but never actually leaked or published. And those dealt with U.S. plans for nuclear war in the 1960s.
Ellsberg is now telling that story in his great new book. It’s called, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”
And Daniel Ellsberg joins me now. Dan, welcome to Intercepted.
Daniel Ellsberg: Very glad to be with you, Jeremy.
JS: What’s your assessment of where we are right now with Trump and how it compares to some of the history that you yourself lived.
DE: Right now, Trump is making threats of nuclear weapons, which is not a first with him. All of our presidents actually have used our nuclear weapons the way you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head in an encounter. And if you get your way without pulling the trigger, it’s the best use of the gun, that’s why people have them a lot.
Trump is using his nuclear weapons right now, for that matter, as is Kim Jong-un, but the difference is that this is the first time in over half a century, it’s the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, 55 years ago, when an American president is making threats of imminent nuclear action against a nuclear weapons state. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, that was true, but most of our threats, as Nixon’s against North Vietnam, which was a secret he was trying to keep me from revealing, actually, when he hired the Plumbers and sent them after me.
Newscaster: The White House had formed its own Bureau of Investigation — an illegal organization called the Plumbers. It was the Plumbers who had broken into Ellsberg psychiatrist’s office.
DE: His threats against North Vietnam were against an ally of the Soviet Union, but not against the nuclear weapon state. The danger, now, is that as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, although we’re not confronting a superpower like the Soviet Union or Russia and there’s not a danger of nuclear winter because North Korea is the one member of the nine nuclear weapon states that doesn’t have enough weapons to cause a nuclear winter that would kill billions by starvation. Even without using nuclear weapons in their artillery against Seoul, and if they do use nuclear weapons in the course of escalation, we’d see more violence in a day or a week than the world has ever seen in that period of time.
So, they’re playing, again, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, chicken, nuclear chicken — and yes, it is very dangerous.
JS: Given this book and the work that you are now revealing to the world about your knowledge of the nuclear program and the work that you did on it, that, in some ways, I think, you know contains some more individually explosive observations as any one paragraph of the Pentagon Papers, it’s really extraordinary what you’ve pulled together here. How dangerous is Trump compared to any other president from Truman to now, on this issue of nuclear weapons and the first-strike policy?
DE: Really what he says about it is not very new. When he says they should always be on the table, I would never —
DJT: “I would never take any of my cards off the table.”
Chris Matthews: How about Europe? We won’t use them in Europe?
DJT: I’m not going to take it off the table.
CM: You might use it in Europe?
DJT: No, I don’t think so, but —
CM: How about just say it, “I would never use a nuclear weapon in Europe.”
DJT: I, I am not taking cards off the table.
DE: That’s what every president has said. Of course, Trump is worrisome because he seems so erratic, impulsive, thin-skinned. I’m not sure that he’s crazier than a number of other presidents. In fact, to tell the truth, I have come to believe that he’s not crazy, he’s just an asshole and that he’s catering to that in a certain segment of the population who admires him for precisely that.
I think that Trump’s apparent look of craziness has attracted people’s attention to dangers that really were always there, and the system that he has command of, all together, the strategic system which he is rebuilding at the cost over thirty years of more than a trillion dollars, a program that was, after all, launched under Barack Obama and he’s continuing it and claims to be even increasing it, if that were actually set into motion not just rhetorically, and by making the kind of use he is making now of pointing the gun but actually pulling the trigger, that would kill nearly everyone on earth.
Now, no one person, whether it’s Trump or anyone else, should have that power and strictly speaking, I mean very literally speaking, no nation should have that power. And two have it now in terms of killing everyone. India and Pakistan alone, together, without even using thermonuclear weapons, with their fission weapons, the kind that North Korea has, a war between them would starve by nuclear winter killing harvests for the smoke that blocks out the sunlight, would starve up to two billion people, a third of the world’s population. They don’t have a right to have that capability.
JS: You know, it’s so deeply embedded in our culture in the United States, this sort of revisionist history of World War II, that the United States heroically got involved in World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States led the fight that ultimately defeated Hitler and fascism, and that the definitive action that crushed Japan as a major ally of the fascists in Europe was the not one, but two uses of nuclear weapons.
Now, what’s always absent from that is the support that the United States gave to fascism, you know, in the 1930s, the refusal to aid those who are trying to stop the rise of fascism in Spain, what do you say to people who say we had to use the nuclear bomb during World War II. It brought a swift end to that bloody war.
DE: They’ve been lied to. They’re ignorant of the actual context of the bomb, which, by the way, was not threatened, it was just used as a fait accompli in an attack on a war which our leaders understood was very possibly going to end without it at the time of the entry of the Soviet Union, which was scheduled to be either on August 15 or they moved it up to August 8.
Newscaster: On the 8th day of August, three days after the one in which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared War on the Japanese Empire. This participation had long been expected by the leaders of the Big Three. In April, at the Yalta Conference, Marshal Stalin assured President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, that following the surrender of Germany, Russia would end the war in the Pacific.
DE: And that that was likely to make the Japanese ready to surrender on the terms we wanted. But, that, of course, brought the bomb into the world under the most attractive, you know, the only, what seemed like justifying auspices. It was an American weapon, rather than a fascist weapon, although it, in its nature, is the essence of fascism and its ruthlessness and indiscriminate killing of civilians — which, however, we had come to imitate in our strategic bombing program during the war, the British and the Americans, actually went further than Hitler in seeing our air war as a war against civilians above all. And that was a crucial basis for the nuclear era that followed with nuclear weapons that really can’t discriminate between a military target and its surrounding civilians.
So, the idea was then that this bomb had come in and had been necessary to avoid invasion. That was not true in the eyes of nearly all of the leaders at the time. The American public was not aware of the communications we had intercepted between the Imperial headquarters and their own diplomats abroad, and the Soviet Union, which showed that they were willing to surrender. They were not planning to fight to the death.
So, the public didn’t know that. So, the bomb looked like a miraculous savior of American lives, even Japanese lives in the end, and that’s the way it’s seemed ever since. That was a very dangerous opening to the nuclear era for the United States to believe that.
JS: You’re famous the world over for so-called Pentagon Papers, but this book tells the story of other documents that you were going to reveal to the world that deal with U.S. nuclear war planning, notes that you took on that program, various studies that were done of classified information.
So, lay out, basically the story that you’re telling in this book about the bomb.
DE: I was first going to put out the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam, where the bombs were actually falling at the time. And then, what I thought it was the more important information about the preparations for nuclear war that I’ve been part of, and that I was privy to, I was going to do that after my trial or two. I mean, the first trial was just for copying the Pentagon Papers, not for distributing. I mean, that alone, faced me with 115 years in prison, 12 felony accounts. Which, oh, I gave them to my brother to say, “Put them out.” He buried them in a trash dump in Tarrytown, New York, and had a green iron stove on top of the bluff where he’d buried them to mark the spot so he could recapture them. Hurricane Doria, Tropical Storm Doria.
Ed Herlihy: A furious lady named Doria, first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland this season, batters the Eastern seaboard from North Carolina to New Jersey. Packing winds up to 75 miles an hour, the storm brings death, destruction, heavy rains and high tides, causing widespread flooding.
DE: Tropical Storm Doria threw that stove about 100 yards away, dispersed the ground, the bluff down the road down the hill and everything, really made it unrecoverable. But a lot of that material has been declassified since.
JS: I think this is incredible. So, your brother buries them, then a hurricane whips through, blows the stove away, and disperses the ground, so you never actually were able to go back and find any of those documents?
DE: Well they went back and looked, weekend after weekend, actually, for a year and a half. They turned up a lot of green garbage bags in which the box with these papers was, which encompassed it, but none with, they found, with top secret documents in it. In the end, actually, they found that the trash and the ground from that trash heap was being used as fill for a condominium elsewhere, and — my brother — and then concrete is going to be poured over it. So he said, only dynamite, you know, could get it now and that wouldn’t preserve the documents very well.
JS: Little do the residents of that building know that they are living on top of some of Daniel Ellsberg’s most explosive secrets.
JS: [Laughs.] So walk us through what you’ve laid out in this book and what it’s based on.
DE: If war occurred with any conflict with the Soviet Union, this was Eisenhower’s emphasis that there should be no planning because it cost too much for any kind of limited war with the Soviet Union, only all-out war, and that would target every city in the Soviet Union and China, no matter how the war started over Berlin or an uprising in Eastern Europe, or whatever. So that is what has existed all this time and the reason that would have, by the way, killed everyone, is not from the immediate effects or from the radiation, the fall out, pretty much confined to the northern hemisphere, it would be from the smoke, from the burning cities which the firestorm caused by the attacks, would loft smoke and soot by the millions of tons into the stratosphere where it wouldn’t burn out, and it would envelop the globe in a cloud of smoke and soot that we now know would last for a decade, lowering temperatures because it would block the sunlight 70 percent of the sunlight and kill all the harvests worldwide.
And nearly everyone would starve to death.
JS: Were there specific projections on the number of deaths that that scenario would cause?
DE: At that time, we didn’t know about nuclear winter. Now, I was working on the war plans in 1961, ’62, and the concept of nuclear winter arising from this lofted smoke did not arise for another 20 years until 1983.
Newscaster: Their purpose was to discuss new work by atmospheric scientists which predicts that the climate of the Earth could change dramatically after a nuclear war with weeks or months of darkness and intense cold.
Newscaster: It must come at no surprise to my colleagues in the Soviet Union, namely that a very large group of prominent biologists in the United States presented with the scenario —
DE: And even then, it was doubted for quite a while and much confirmed just in the last ten years but at that time, rather than thinking that our plans would kill nearly everyone, the answer to the question that I drafted which was given by the president, Kennedy, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff was how many would our plans kill if they were carried out as planned. And the answer then was not nearly everyone, it was 600 million people over a matter of months. There would be a fifth of the world’s population, but that was an underestimate at that time, including that and including Russian retaliation at that time. You was certainly talking over a billion people in a war that we had initiated as a nuclear war, as an escalation or a preemption, 600 hundred million: A hundred Holocausts.
I was just stunned that the Joint Chiefs not only knew that, but were willing to say it to the president unapologetically, without resigning, and just say, “Yes, when you give the command or if we think you would give the command, if you had the ability, if there was time, if the communications were in and everything, we would launch a war that would kill 100 Holocausts.”
And I thought, “This is evil and insane.” There came to be, since that time, our own first strike would not really be better for our society, for our survival than a second strike. And that’s been true: in other words all the weapons we’re buying in order to limit damage to make credible our threats of initiating nuclear war, which we’re doing right now, and we were doing under Obama and now under Trump. And the Russian weapons that Putin has been buying, he’s spending a trillion dollars over the next 30 years, too, in the same kinds of weapons like ours: parity.
In each case, both of us now are making first use threats. The Russians didn’t used to do that because they had a conventional superiority in Europe; they don’t now. So, they’re making the kinds of threats Eisenhower depended on. So, both sides are threatening insane acts, in acts that they now know would kill nearly everyone. It’s the system that is not only threatening crazy action: it is crazy. And that doesn’t depend on whether it’s Trump or not. Yes, it’s more worrisome even under Trump than under some others. But it’s a marginal thing. The fact is that the system is insane.
JS: Of the countries that we’re talking about that actually have nuclear weapons, what country, in your view, seems most likely to consider actively using a nuclear weapon in the near future?
DE: Trump seems to be prepared to provoke that action, if possible, by making Kim Jong-un think that he’s on the verge of being attacked or conceivably might attack first himself. I think it’s doubtful Trump’s generals would encourage him or even support him very much in initiating nuclear war, though that’s not impossible, but I think more likely they’ll say let Kim initiate the nuclear war, and then we’ll annihilate North Korea, and then we’ll show what a monster Kim is by using nuclear weapons against South Korea or Japan or possibly the U.S., with a weapon on a boat, that he sends over in retaliation to being assassinated, which we’re rather openly planning to do.
So, right now, then, both sides are preparing for nuclear war. But the ultimate effect, I think, by the way of a war with Korea, the effects on South Korea and Japan, would be the renewal of testing by everyone. India and Pakistan would get thermonuclear weapons which they don’t have now. There would be new expansions of the arms race by everybody: China, France, along with us, and Russia. The Cold War I think would then be back irreversibly, and the chance of getting out of this situation would be nil for a generation or more.
So, we are at a very climactic moment, and Trump is the president who actually has committed himself to a goal, which is entirely unachievable, which is the denuclearization of North Korea. That’s not going to happen now.
Kim Jong-un has reason to believe, with our publicity about assassination squads, decapitation exercises, of invading North Korea, he’s not going to let go of the nuclear weapons he does have. He thinks he would be crazy to do that. And that’s not the kind of crazy he is.
The kind of crazy he is, is like us in thinking that he would do better to go first than second in such a situation and our chances of surviving the nuclear age another 70 years, another 100 or 200 years, is low. But I don’t think it’s zero.
My life is devoted to trying to raise those very low risks a little higher. I hope to awaken them to the fact that we are sleepwalking toward an abyss.
JS: Well, and we all thank you for that, Daniel Ellsberg. I hope, particularly I hope young people read this book, because it’s a really important part of history for younger generations to feel a connection to, and thank you very much for writing it and for joining us here on Intercepted.
DE: Thank you for having me Jeremy. A pleasure.
JS: Daniel Ellsberg is the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. His new book is called, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”
JS: Steve Bannon is no longer on the National Security Council or even officially in the Trump Administration anymore but he remains a very powerful figure in the far-right movements that have found inspiration and meaning in the Trump presidency.
Steve Bannon is back at the helm of Breitbart News and he’s going to start hosting his radio show on Sirius XM. He’s also threatening to run Senate candidates against every Republican except Ted Cruz.
Steve Bannon is now a virtual household name in American political circles, but that’s a pretty new phenomenon. Bannon has been in the far-right trenches for years and he’s also a quite prolific filmmaker. Now, you may not be familiar with such films as, “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed” or “Torchbearer,” which chronicles the gripping tale of the so-called duck commander Phil Robertson destroying the absurdity of life without God. No? Well surely you’ve seen “Clinton Cash: Everything Is For Sale.” What about “Fire From the Heartland”? Okay, you get it.
Well, our colleagues over at Field Division have a new short film out about Steve Bannon’s illustrious film career. They actually arranged for a politically diverse focus group to meet together and watch clips of Bannon’s films and offer feedback. The resulting short film is called “American Carnage” and it was produced and directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman. And Farihah Zaman joins me now. Farihah, welcome to Intercepted.
Farihah Zaman: Thank you for having me.
JS: Let’s start from the very beginning. Talk about the kinds of films that Steve Bannon has made and what his role was in filmmaking.
FZ: Sure. So, a lot of people have heard now because it’s a bigger name thing that he has produced some films that are better known in Hollywood — Titus Andronicus and stuff like that. But not a lot of people know that he’s also a director—or, as he would correct you immediately, writer-director, it’s really important to him that you get the writer part in there.
He has written and directed nine documentaries that are basically all about pushing a right-wing agenda. And a lot of people haven’t seen those films and they’re not hidden but they’re not so easily available. And my filmmaking partner Jeff Reichert wrote a piece for Film Comment about these films and had to sort of go through the torture of watching all these films and we thought it’s great to have written a piece about it but we need to share his vision with the world.
JS: Give some examples of the kinds of documentary films that Steve Bannon made.
FZ: He’s made a biopic about Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan: Let’s set the record straight: there’s no argument over the choice between peace and war. But there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace, and you can have it in the next second: surrender.
FZ: He’s made a biopic about Sarah Palin.
The Undefeated: A 42-year-old Wasilla lawyer, unseating a 26-year political veteran.
FZ: He’s made a film called, “Fire from the Heartland” that’s about female leaders in the right-wing movement.
Ann Coulter: And the culture has tried to take everything that makes women so strong away from them: their femininity, their morality.
FZ: He’s made what he calls, “The Tea Party Trilogy.” I think you’re noticing a theme in the subject matter of these films. There isn’t always a great correlation between the subject matter and the images that he’s using. It’s extremely confusing. He starts from a reasonable, logical point and then just shoots off into a place where it’s hard to even explain to people what the film is about.
JS: Explain what you mean by that, because when I watched your film I mean I was seeing like dinosaurs running around and them lots of explosions that seem to be made with not-very-high-end CGI.
FZ: So, first of all he just loves stock footage. I mean what he’s primarily using is this free stock footage material over and over. Sometimes we’ll see repeated images. He loves things like a stock footage image of money piling up, to show you that the economy’s in trouble and you should be stressed out about it. Sort of these, these rushed, harried images in and of themselves and then his technique of using many of them, sort of pummeling you with these images does create agitation and anxiety. I mean it’s successful on that level, but it doesn’t mean very much.
JS: What are the politics of these films, like what is the story—I mean I know you said that it’s confused and it starts off logical and then it sort of veers off into craziness. What’s the message in your view that he’s trying to convey about our country and the world.
FZ: I think he has an extremely nihilistic worldview that’s problematic in a politician. If somebody thinks that, you know, we’re essentially under attack and we need to be on the defensive, what kind of policy does that person create, it’s constantly defensive, it’s constantly the idea that you need to protect yourself from the forces that be. It’s a very disturbing worldview, honestly. And that’s where the explosions come in and the dinosaurs come in. It’s the extreme visual for what should be a more measured conversation around how the world is working right now.
Sometimes disturbing and specific ways that you see across the films, that I find personally very upsetting, so, for example, he uses images of, archival images of black civil rights movements, and then through the music or through what the commentator is saying in voiceover over those images, suggesting that those are instances of revolt or chaos.
It’s so problematic to show images of black people protesting for equal rights and suggest that’s the nation going to cede.
JS: Right, it reminds me right reminds me a little bit of Dave Chappelle’s alternate vision of history when he goes back in time.
Dave Chappelle: George Washington’s the worst of the worst. Yes, I said it. You mythologize this motherfucker like he was the greatest dude, man. If I went back in time with a white person, and we saw George Washington walk in front of our time machine, my wife would probably be like, “Oh my god, Dave, there’s George Washington, it’s the father of this great nation. I’m going to go shake his hand.”
I’d be on the other side like, “Run, nigga! George Washington!” [Audience laughs.]
JS: Depending on your frame of reference, history can be either violent, chaotic or freedom fighters, and clearly Steve Bannon believes that black people fighting for their rights, they’re agents of chaos, not fighting for what rightfully should be theirs. Leni Riefenstahl, the sort of official filmmaker of the rise of the Nazi party, was actually a good filmmaker.
JS: Steve Bannon does not appear to be, even though he seems to be in that same spirit of the point of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, does not seem to be a good filmmaker.
FZ: That is sort of the fun part of making this film is playing with that tension of what his grandiose dreams were for these films versus how they measure up artistically, and in terms of who was watching them. They were not huge box office successes and he wasn’t thinking of himself as an independent filmmaker or even somebody who was just speaking to his party him, making films for his friends and family. He thought, “I’m going to change the world with these movies.” And it wasn’t quite the right platform for him yet.
JS: Explain how the story of this film is told and how the focus group came into being and what they studied.
FZ: Sure. So, the more we started working with the material from Bannon’s films, we realized, you know, what we’re trying to do is essentially paint a portrait of this person through their work in a way that you couldn’t necessarily see if you hadn’t had the cinematic experience of living in those little pieces of his soul. We also came to the conclusion that it was kind of opening us up to a very easy criticism, that, you know, you’re filmmakers, you’re film elites, like these films aren’t made for you, so what could you understand about them?
And we thought what do other people actually think about these films? What do people who are pretty extremely right wing think about these films and what are they absorbing on — not just from the politics. Do they even understand the politics that are in these films or are they just completely confounding to them as well? And we found that to be the case. Like, we wanted to put together a focus group that was pretty representative of not just a New York environment but the range of sort of political-leaning, diversity in age, race, etc., and found that most of these people even when they explicitly agreed with the politics in the films still thought it was ludicrous or offensive on a regular basis.
Focus Group Member: I was like, scared. I was like almost about to close my eyes.
Focus Group Member: I’m not sure what the point of it was. You know, if the point was to shock, yeah, I was shocked. But to what end?
Focus Group Member: The editing was horrible. The shots were horrible. The distortions were extremely distorted. That was Breitbart, all through the movies. And he’s been dead quite a while now, too, by the way.
Andrew Breitbart: That’s what they got out of all of the blood, sweat, tears and rapes —
JS: For the people that may have agreed with the message of it, give some examples of the kinds of feedback that the focus group gave about Steve Bannon’s films.
FZ: So, for example, there’s a woman that you see in the focus group who’s in the film who is on board with him making the comparison between a dinosaur and Nancy Pelosi. She likes that visual metaphor.
Focus Group Member: Were they comparing Democrats to t-rexes?
Mediator: Well, I don’t know, were they?
Focus Group Member: I mean, I think — I think so.
Focus Group Member: Dinosaur. Nancy Pelosi. Do I need to say more?
Mediator: Is that what they were trying to say?
Focus Group Member: Do I need to say more?
FZ: But also kept talking about how the comparisons that were being made made no sense, even if she believed it to be true. So she, you know, cited comparing World War — the Holocaust with 9/11, and the idea that, see, we’re always under attack from some sort of foreign enemy. She couldn’t go along with that despite her politics.
Mediator: Anybody else?
Focus Group Member: I did not like the comparison to the World Trade Center and the Holocaust.
JS: So, she didn’t like that comparison, but liked the dinosaur-Nancy Pelosi comparison?
FZ: Yeah, she was a fan of that. We wanted to include that there were moments of connection for people in these films, but —
JS: Sounds like there was something for everyone in this focus group.
FZ: And the repeated question was like, “What is this even about?” Like we wondered at times if we should set it up differently so that instead of just showing the clip, we say this is supposed to be a movie about Ronald Reagan, a movie that’s supposed to be about health care, and yet you’re watching like Humpty Dumpty on a wall fall over and then Bigfoot running through the forest.
JS: Did the people in the focus group know that what they were watching were clips of Steve Bannon’s films?
FZ: No. So, we told them nothing — they knew that they would be watching a series of film clips. I think that there was a sort of ad for the, to bring in those people, they said it was sort of a conversation around documentary film and propaganda, what that line is. And we told them nothing about who made the films or who we were. And there was a really funny moment at the end of the focus group when the moderator reveals that the films were made by Steve Bannon. And everyone’s sort of shell-shocked.
And then they ask about who the client is, and one of the women said, “Is it — is it Breitbart? Have we been doing this for Breitbart?”
JS: What did you learn about Steve Bannon from watching every single Steve Bannon production?
FZ: Oh god. I feel like I live inside his headspace. It’s about how extreme his world view is. That is what I think is useful about the films is that they’re very explicit. Like, even if he’s not saying those words, even if he’s hiding behind a narrator or Andrew Breitbart as the narrator, it’s a vision of the apocalypse. That’s the world he thinks we live in.
JS: Steve Bannon, it appears, is heading back to Sirius Radio Network to once again resume his talk show. What’s your reaction to that?
FZ: He’s got his hands on his weapons. This was challenging in making a film in which you’re trying to accomplish two things: to both warn people and say “don’t dismiss this person,” but also take a moment to appreciate their failures.
And that’s how I feel about his continued movement. We can sort of laugh about it or say that, you know, he’s a little bit of a ridiculous figure but ultimately he’s still in a position of power. Radio is what put him in the greatest position of power. And the purpose of revisiting the films isn’t that it’s what’s most successful, it’s what’s hidden says so much about him.
JS: Farihah, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
FZ: Thank you for having me.
JS: “American Carnage” was directed and produced by Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert. It was commissioned by Field of Vision and Firelight Media as part of their Our 100 Days series. The film can be viewed in its entirety at fieldofvision.org.
JS: And we end today’s show with some music from the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers.
For most of their two-decade career they’ve written songs about their past, introspections into their Alabama origins, history and identity. But on their last record, 2016’s American band, the Drive-By Truckers looked outward towards the impending U.S. presidential election. Like a lot of Americans, they were shocked by the results.
We spoke to Patterson Hood, one of the principal songwriters and front men of Drive-By Truckers about his Alabama roots and how the current political climate has shaped his songwriting.
Patterson Hood: Patterson Hood. I play in a band called Drive-By Truckers.
I grew up in this place called Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Actually, a town called Florence, it’s part of the shoals area in northwest Alabama. Muscle Shoals has had this very infamous history in music and in music history, and my dad is part of that. He was a member of what’s called the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, also known as The Swampers. [Music.]
They’re four white guys, they all grew up in that area, and from like 1966 onward, he’s played on records by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, as well as Willie Nelson and Bobby Womack, Sam and Dave, Rod Stewart, Bob Seeger. I mean you name it, it goes on and on.
I grew up in the, you know, in that post-Civil Rights South just after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the integration of the schools. They integrated my elementary school a year before I started first grade, so I kind of grew up amidst all of that. I kind of grew up in this part of the opposition always, because my dad’s a musician. My dad hated George Wallace and so I grew up in a house where he was viewed as this, you know, horrific person who claimed to represent us and didn’t, you know, and was an embarrassment to us.
Newscaster: The University of Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa is under a tight security guard of State Police, as Governor George Wallace appeals for calm and prepares to confront a deputy U.S. attorney.
The federal officers are armed with a proclamation from President Kennedy urging the governor to end his average to prevent two Negro students from registering at the university. The governor is adamant.
Governor George Wallace: As governor and chief magistrate of the State of Alabama, I deem it to be my solemn obligation and duty to stand before you, representing the rights and sovereignty of this state and its peoples. The unwelcome, unwanted —
PH: In fact, he was governor for most of my life, through my college years and a lot of people know the South by kind of reactionary and loud-mouthed people like George Wallace and our Southern politicians that are so good at, you know, making all Southerners look like idiots. And now they’ve got Roy Moore down there who’s doing a really good job of making the South look barbaric and backwards.
Senator Roy Moore: Scientists who study evolution come up with some the oddest things, don’t they? [Audience laughs.] They tell us we evolved from something that crawled out of the water, but they have no evidence of that.
PH: I started writing songs when I was eight and I wrote every day, and my grades went to crap, and about halfway through 3rd grade, all of a sudden, I became like this really terrible student and I never really bounced back because I just kept doing it.
Right after that, punk happened, and all of a sudden it was like The Clash and Elvis Costello, and, Blondie and, you know, just different people I would hear, you know? Whatever punk artist I would get to hear about in Muscle Shoals Alabama, which wasn’t exactly the East Village, you know? [Laughs.]
Southern Rock Opera started out as a conversation between me and a friend of mine, a buddy of mine from back home. We were driving from Athens, Georgia in like a rented truck and somehow we started like brainstorming this idea of the story behind the band Lynyrd Skynyrd would make a very interesting narrative to make a movie about. It was a fun thing to talk about in a U-Haul truck for a few hours, for the six-hour drive back home and we went as far as like, a week later, actually drawing an outline of the story and then I got busy forming what became Drive-By Truckers.
[“The Three Alabama Icons” by Drive-By Truckers]
PH: And then George Wallace died, and all of a sudden it was everywhere on the news, it was all the footage that I’d grown up seeing of him standing in the doorways of schools, and fire hoses, and police dogs, and Bull Connor, and all that bullshit, you know, and I was just kind of mortified watching it all again.
Newscaster: He was a presidential candidates and four-term governor, yet George Wallace will probably always be remembered by the words: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He died last night of cardiac arrest.
PH: And, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that while this is part of this other thing we’re talking about. Actually this is all, this is all one thing. And Wallace was just this idealistic lawyer and judge who then basically played the segregation card in order to get power. Because he thought he could then use the power to help people. But, of course, you know, that’s the evil.
[“The Three Alabama Icons” by Drive-By Truckers]
PH: The same state that is famous for the police dogs and the, you know, schoolhouse stance, also gave the world some of the greatest soul music of all time, and a lot of the musicians on those soul records were these white dudes, these redneck boys that grew up, you know, in my hometown, including my dad.
I don’t buy into the argument of, you know, it’s “heritage not hate.” That may be that person’s intent with his personal flag, but there’s no removing what the flag has stood for, for a lot of people and continues to for a lot of people, and you’re just being naive if you don’t accept that as part of what it’s become and what it is. [Music.]
“American Band” was, “What It Means” was the first thing I wrote for what became that record. And when I wrote that song, I was responding directly to what was going on in the news with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson.
[“What It Means” by Drive-by Truckers]
PH: And I remembered a young man named Edward Wright, who was shot by a policeman in Athens, Georgia about a year after I moved there. He had actually had been a neighbor where I’d lived and he lived with his mom and, it was a really horrific story that had a lot of parallels to what’s been going on. And, I sat at my kitchen table and wrote the majority of it one afternoon just as a — trying to make, make some kind of sense at least of my own thoughts about it. And the song basically just asked a bunch of questions because it didn’t really offer any answers, but it was my way of trying to deal with it.
And then things kind of kept happening, and I played the song for the band and they really embraced it, and then it kind of wrote itself: it’s like things just kept happening.
[“What It Means” by Drive-by Truckers]
PH: I didn’t even try to write a song for years. It was first time since I was eight years old where I went 12 months without writing a single song. And one of the first things I tried to write was “The Perilous Night.”
And I started writing it in December of last year on the day the electoral college got together, and I was — I hated it, threw it away, you know?
And it was like, “This sucks. This is just devoid of any kind of light or hope, you know? And I don’t want to sing that, I don’t want to be that.”
And after Charlottesville happened this summer, that song popped back up and I rewrote it from the point of view of that having just happened. And it’s like well, you know, I still — I still kind of feel the same way I felt about it, but I think I got to say this. I think this is something we got to say.
[“The Perilous Night” by Drive-by Truckers]
JS: That’s Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers with the song “The Perilous Night.” He spoke with our producer Jack D’Isidoro.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show and for Season 3 of Intercepted. We’re going to be on break for the next month, but we will return with Season 4 on January 17.
If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to theintercept.com/join.
Our honorary producers for this season are Cam Cowan and Natalie Holme-Elsberg. Many thanks to both of you for making this show and this season 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. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next year, I’m Jeremy Scahill.