Republicans say the deep state spied on Trump’s team. The Democrats back the FBI. Both support the very program the Nunes memo claims was used to spy on Carter Page. This week on Intercepted: Former State Department official Peter van Buren and civil liberties advocate Julian Sanchez offer provocative analysis on warrantless surveillance, the Nunes memo, and the FBI’s role in the 2016 election. Jeremy blasts the use of former CIA and NSA officials as news analysts and the hypocrisy surrounding the FISA debate. In 1953, CIA scientist Frank Olson jumped to his death from a Manhattan hotel after an LSD experiment gone wrong. But is that the real story? Academy Award winner Errol Morris and actor Peter Sarsgaard talk about their new hybrid-documentary series Wormwood and present their case that Olson was murdered by the CIA. Yemen continues to burn in the fires of a U.S.-fueled Saudi bombing campaign, as cholera and famine spread. How did the world allow it to get so bad and who is really responsible? An in-depth discussion with Yemeni analyst Nadwa Al-Dawsari detailing the key events of the past 20 years that have led to the current hell in Yemen.
[“Frasier” theme song plays.]
Peri Gilpin (as Roz Doyle): Dr. Crane, we have Don on his car phone, he’s having a problem with his weight.
Kelsey Grammar (as Dr. Frasier Crane): Hello, Seattle. This is Dr. Frasier Crane. I have a very special guest with me today. Hello, Donald.
President Donald J. Trump: Yeah, I think I could lose a little weight. I’ve always been a little bit this way, you know?
KG: Don. It’s a common problem. I’m listening.
DJT: The one thing I would like to do is be able to drop 15-20 pounds would be good.
KG: Yes. Well, losing weight can be a lifelong struggle. It takes a commitment.
DJT: It’s tough because of the way I live.
KG: Well, if you’re ready to accept that, there are a number of things I can suggest.
Drive-through: May I take your order please?
KG: Don, what was that?
DJT: Yeah, if I had one thing, I’d like to lose weight.
KG: Don, where are you?
DJT: You know, I’m speaking in front of 15,000 to 20,000 people, and I’m up there using a lot of motion. I guess in it’s in way, it’s a, it’s a pretty healthy act. [Laughter.]
KG: Excuse me?
DJT: People want positive news, really positive news like that. They were like death. And un-American. Un-American, somebody said “treasonous,” I mean, yeah, I guess why not. Can we call that treason? Why not?
DJT: A lot of times these rooms are very hot, like saunas. And I guess that’s a form of exercise, and, you know.
KG: Don — ?
DJT: So, in a certain way, I get a lot of exercise.
KG: I beg your pardon?
DJT: More exercise than people would think.
KG: Well, that’s all the time we have for today. [Laughter.] You’ve been listening to Dr. Frasier Crane, KACL-780. Stay tuned for the news, then next up. I never miss it!
Jeremy Scahill: 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 43 of Intercepted.
DJT: Oh, but did we catch them in the act or what? You know what I’m talking — oh, did we catch them in the act, they are very embarrassed. They never thought that they were gonna get caught. We caught ’em!
JS: Since this whole Devin Nunes memo controversy began, the discussion in major media organizations has sent us into this bizarre world of utter hypocrisy that is going to have major consequences for the liberty and the privacy of countless Americans. There is a FISA scandal. There is a scandal about spying on U.S. citizens. This scandal is not some low-stakes bullshit about Carter Page, though. The scandal is the program itself and the very long and ongoing history of U.S. abuse of surveillance powers.
The FBI and the CIA have a well-established track record of political spying, of using surveillance programs supposedly in place to protect the country from crime and terrorism and foreign adversaries to dig up dirt on dissidents, for racial profiling and for breaking up terror plots that never would have been hatched but for the involvement of the FBI. But apparently Fox News’ Tucker Carlson just figured out that there may be something wrong here.
Tucker Carlson: For the first time in generations, Americans have reason to believe that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies gravely misused the powers we have given them, violating the civil liberties of Americans and taking sides in political contests.
Well, you can’t trust a government that would do something like that and many Americans don’t. That is a disaster in a democracy where the trust of the population is key and transparency is the only antidote to that. So release all the documents, all relevant documents and let the rest of us decide what they mean. Maybe that’ll make us trust our government again. Nothing else will.
JS: Perhaps what Tucker really means is that this is the first time rich white men have had reason to be concerned about the surveillance. We’ve been talking about these abuses for years. Anyone heard of Edward Snowden?
Donald Trump, Jr., he seems to be equally outraged to learn about a program that has been targeting Americans for a very long time. I wonder why he cares now?
Donald Trump, Jr.: But listen, I think the takeaway should be that Americans should be a little bit scared about what’s going on right now. I mean, when you hear this stuff going on, you don’t think of this happening in the United State you don’t think of this happening in a country where we have a foundation of laws and principles grounded in the Constitution because this to me seems like a clear violation of that. I mean, this is crazy stuff!
JS: You want to investigate a scandal? Look at the lawless, warrantless surveillance program that was put on steroids by Bush and Cheney right after 9/11. Look at how leaders of both major political parties supported it! Look at how President Barack Obama grew the no-fly list database and the way Muslim Americans are disproportionately targeted under both Democrats and Republicans.
There is, without question, a problem right now with the exaggerations and propaganda being broadcast on major media outlets, surrounding the Nunes memo and spying on American citizens.
Sean Hannity: Welcome to “Hannity.” And breaking right now, the highly classified, FISA abuse memo has now been released and it is absolutely shocking. It is stunning. Now this now is the biggest abuse of power, corruption case in American history.
Corey Lewandowski: This is one of the grossest abuses of power that we’ve seen from a government agency and there has to be accountability. What the president has said is completely right: It is shown once again, and —
Steve Doocy: When Donald Trump sent out that famous tweet a number of months ago, where, you know they wired, Obama wiretapped me, was he talking about this? Because it, if that was it, you can kind of connect those dots.
Ann Coulter: That’s interesting though, if you listen — by the way, it makes me totally love and I think it makes most Americans love Trump even more. It really, it illustrates the point that it was always —
JS: Of course anyone paying attention knows that Fox News is on the crazy train, but I’m talking about supposedly respectable news organizations promoting this idea that somehow the answer to the Nunes memo and the Trump presidency is to rally around the spies and the national security apparatus of the United States government.
I’m talking about all these former CIA officials or NSA officials or FBI people that are constantly being presented in the media as somehow serving the interests of the broader public with their analysis.
Anderson Cooper: The former director of national intelligence General James Clapper. General Clapper —
Mika Brzezinski: Joining us now, former CIA Director John Brennan. He’s now a senior national security and intelligence analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
Jake Tapper: Michael Hayden was director of the CIA, and the NSA, he joins me now. Now, general, first of all —
JS: Let’s be very clear here: James Clapper, John Brennan, Michael Hayden and their ilk, they are no friends of civil liberties or transparency they have spent their careers building up sweeping surveillance powers, global assassination operations. They have fought tooth and nail to hide their activities from Congress and the American people.
You know what was a major scandal under Obama? His CIA Director, John Brennan, tried to stop the United States Senate from releasing its investigation into the CIA’s torture program. The CIA went so far as to spy on Senate staffers. That was Obama’s administration trying to cover up the Bush administration’s crimes.
This was so severe that Democratic Senator Tom Udall went so far as to take to the Senate floor and call for then-CIA Director John Brennan to resign.
Senator Tom Udall: The deeper, more endemic problem lies in a CIA, assisted by a White House that continues to try to cover up the truth. The CIA’s formal response to this study under Director Brennan clings to false narratives, when it comes to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and includes many factual inaccuracies, defends the use of torture and attacks the committee’s oversight and findings.
JS: In case you don’t remember this massive scandal, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is a great promoter and friend of the CIA, was outraged when she learned that her friends at Langley were actively spying on Senate investigators.
Senator Dianne Feinstein: Besides the constitutional implication, the CIA search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as an Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.
JS: How on earth is James Clapper being touted as an expert on protecting our liberties? Why is he constantly allowed to take to the airwaves of CNN and other networks to spout his CIA/NSA/DNI propaganda? Clapper is a man who actually lied under oath to Congress on the very issue of spying on Americans.
Senator Ron Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper: No, sir.
RW: It does not.
JC: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect but not, not wittingly.
JS: That was Democratic Senator Ron Wyden questioning James Clapper, and here’s Republican Senator Rand Paul after that perjury was committed by Obama’s Director of National Intelligence.
Senator Rand Paul: What I’m saying is that the Director of National Intelligence, in March, did directly lie to Congress, which is against the law. He said that they were not collecting any data on American citizens.
Jim Acosta: You’re talking about James Clapper?
RP: And it turns out they’re collecting billions of data on phone calls every day, so it was a lie. What I’m saying is that by lying to Congress, which is against the law, he severely damaged the credibility of the entire intelligence community.
JS: So, was James Clapper prosecuted for perjury? Nope. He didn’t even get a suspension. Did Obama fire John Brennan for the CIA spying on the Senate? Nope.
Now those two men are on CNN and MSNBC all the time, nonstop telling us how great the CIA is and how big, bad, evil Trump is hurting them and how Devin Nunes’s memo is going to harm national security.
The irony and hypocrisy from John Brennan and Jim Clapper might make for good comedy if it wasn’t so dangerous, that these men are treated like sage, principled detached wise experts. They were both involved in truly atrocious activities, and in senior positions. Carter Page being surveilled? That’s the scandal?
To paraphrase the hypocrite Sean Hannity, this Carter Page situation? Yeah, it’s like stealing a Snickers bar, compared to spying on the Senate or doing mass collection on Americans without a warrant or lying about doing it while under oath. But back then the deep state was beloved by most Republicans who say that the CIA is protecting us from all of these threats around the world, and even protecting us from the socialist Obama. You see how this works?
I’m much more concerned about what the political and espionage elites do every day to violate our rights than I am with the surveillance of Carter Page. The real scandal is the program itself. The scandal is the ongoing U.S. legacy of the state targeting political opponents of all sorts of stripes with its vast surveillance tools.
One of the reasons that we are where we are is that none of this is actually based on the principles that former CIA/DNI/NSA directors claim it is. It’s not about protecting us, it’s about protecting them, about protecting their spy programs.
Nor is this Nunes memo crowd being in the least bit sincere. These Republicans have been the biggest cheerleaders for the deep state spying on Americans and for giving the executive branch massive unchecked authorities to kill people without charge or trial to spy on e-mails and texts and calls, to maintain a massive watch list that overwhelmingly targets Muslims. Where was this outrage when Obama was ordering the killing of people, including American citizens, who had not been charged with crimes in drone strikes across the world?
After 9/11, the CIA systematically tortured people, put them in horrid gulags, shipped them to Guantanamo —
Vice President Dick Cheney: We have to work sort of the dark side, if you will, spend time in the shadows. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.
JS: When Barack Obama came into office, what did he do? He told us, “No, no, no, no one is going to be prosecuted, we need to look forward, not backward.”
President Barack Obama: We’re still evaluating how we are going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices. And I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.
JS: The circus in Washington right now over this Nunes memo is a spat among white-collar elite politicians. At the end of the day, this is mostly about partisan bullshit and it’s dripping with hypocrisy. The elite of both political parties, they’re on the side of the surveillance state, the war machine, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the drone strikes, the massive spying.
The most important point to understand in all of this right now is that Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff helped Paul Ryan and the Republicans push through reauthorization of the very spy program that the Republicans are now railing against because of this Carter Page bullshit.
Pelosi sided with the Republicans in defeating a bipartisan amendment supported by a majority of Democrats that tried to protect Americans’ privacy. Isn’t that what the GOP claim is the actual issue here? It’s all bullshit. The GOP and the Democratic leadership remain on the very same team when it matters most: it’s team mass surveillance.
If the Republicans really cared about these core issues of the abuse of surveillance powers, they wouldn’t have just voted to remove that very program that they claim was used to target the Trump campaign. And if Democrats really believe that Trump is this grave danger, why would they join the Republicans in giving him incredible authority, along with Jeff Sessions, over this surveillance apparatus?
So when you see all these Democrats railing against how the Republicans are going to hurt our security or they’re going to hinder the FBI’s ability to spy because of this memo, keep in mind that those very same politicians support the whole rights abusing system.
This is just a disagreement among allies when it comes to the CIA/NSA/FBI and the whole spy program.
Chuck Todd: CIA director himself, under President Obama, John Brennan who is making his debut as an NBC News senior national security and intelligence analyst. Mr. Brennan, welcome to NBC and welcome to “Meet The Press.” Let me start —
JS: I don’t have a problem with former CIA Director John Brennan being interviewed on NBC if the point is to grill him on the drone program that he dramatically expanded at the CIA, or how his agency spied on the Senate. Same with James Clapper. Let’s hear a good grilling of Clapper on how he lied to the Senate about warrantless collection of Americans’ communications.
Because if they’re not constantly asked those questions, whatever else they say is just propaganda. I’m glad we’re discussing spying on Americans, but let’s cut the bullshit here and be honest: This is a system that was built up, supported, authorized by Democrats and Republicans alike. And if the Republicans were truly concerned about these powers and not just using it for their stupid partisan crusade, then we’d have a great and worthy battle in front of us. But they aren’t.
And neither are the leaders of the Democrats. This isn’t Nunes and the GOP versus the Democrats and the noble intel community. This is a battle between our civil liberties and our rights and the addiction of a relatively small number of elite politicians with disproportionate power to keep the mass surveillance operation going.
OK, let’s get on with the show.
JS: Joining me now to discuss the current state of affairs with the Nunes Memo, Carter Page, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorization, and warrantless spying, I’m joined now by two people.
Peter van Buren spent 24 years working for the U.S. State Department and he spent a year in Iraq. His book on his time there is called “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
And we’re joined by Julian Sanchez. He’s a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and has done extensive work on surveillance, the FISA process, and abuses of civil liberties. I welcome you both to Intercepted.
Peter van Buren: Thank you.
Julian Sanchez: Thanks for having me.
JS: Julian, let’s begin with you — your analysis of the Nunes memo and also the current discourse on it.
Julian Sanchez: I mean, this seems largely like a partisan stunt designed to essentially create the impression in people who are not reading it very closely that some kind of scandal has been uncovered.
It’s not to say it’s impossible that there was some impropriety or sloppiness in seeking application for the FISA warrant on Carter Page, but there really isn’t any evidence of it in the memo that was disclosed and the extent to which it sort of grasps around to try and weave sort of disparate strands into something that looks like evidence of a scandal suggests they really didn’t have a whole lot.
JS: Is there anything in this memo or what Nunes and his allies are talking about right now that concerns you regarding how Carter Page was surveilled?
Julian Sanchez: The central claim they made was something that, at least initially, I thought was in itself a valid complaint, that in invoking this infamous Steele dossier they had not disclosed to the court that this is some, essentially a piece of opposition research that had been commissioned by, indirectly, by the Democratic National Committee. I thought, well that does seem on face like something relevant that should have been disclosed, whether it’s a big deal depends on how central the evidence in the dossier was and to what extent it was independently corroborated.
But then we saw almost immediately some pushback suggesting that in fact they hadn’t named the DNC but they had characterized it as politically motivated information gathering or information gathering that was sponsored by a political entity. And that wouldn’t be that surprising. They often don’t name specific U.S. persons beyond what’s necessary to evaluate the information. So, if they had simply said it was some American political entity that sponsored this, I think the FISC would have been able to put two and two together there, but that it doesn’t say DNC is of no real significance.
So the one thing that had seemed like potentially was legitimate cause for concern, if that’s correct, doesn’t seem like a particularly significant admission.
PB: Julian’s comments are very focused on the memo standing alone, and I think if you look at it in that sense there’s something to be said. We’ve seen it played in the media now as a he-said, she-said. It’s either the most significant thing that’s ever happened in the Gates and the Mueller investigation or it’s a nothing burger.
What I see in the memo is something a little different, and that requires zooming out a bit and instead, focus on the fact that the Nunes memo confirms for the first time in American political history that the U.S. government was conducting surveillance operations on persons connected to a political campaign.
That’s not an insignificant revelation.
JS: Didn’t they acknowledge that the surveillance on Carter Page began in 2013, before there was a Donald Trump presidential candidate?
PB: My understanding is that in 2013, what happened is that Page was identified as a potential target of Russian intelligence. From what I read, it was a minimal dangle. The idea is that the Russians identified him, as someone who had a big mouth, wanted a lot of money and might be useful in some form. That was not the start of surveillance on Carter Page. That was simply his first time that he popped up on the FBI screen.
We have fingerprints of the intelligence services throughout the election process and now, continuing after the election process sand that to me represents something unprecedented and it represents something very dangerous and it represents a very clear marker on what happens when you create a surveillance state and make those tools available to people.
Julian Sanchez: I don’t actually think either of those things is unprecedented, not that their presence I regard as attractive, but —
PB: My point here is that what happened in 2016 was public and was influential in swaying the opinions of voters and that represents something unprecedented.
Julian Sanchez: Well, it’s not clear to me how that description fits what happened here. Page was monitored after he had left the campaign and the first news of that came out only well after the election.
So, first, it’s hard for me to see how Page is an attractive target if your goal is to surveil someone actively associated with the presidential campaign, but second it’s not clear to me how this really would have influenced the progress of the campaign given again that the public was talking about the investigation of Hillary Clinton but the wiretap on Page wasn’t publicly known.
PB: Keep in mind, we’re talking about the totality of the intelligence community’s effect on the election, not simply Carter Page by himself.
JS: But Peter, I do want to push you a little bit on this. I, I’ve now read the Nunes memo several times, and try to follow all of this closely. Do you believe that this memo is somehow presenting an unvarnished truth that warrants the kind of analysis we’re doing right now?
PB: I think what one way of looking at this might be that you need to open the door somehow. You need to start somewhere if you’re going to see what surveillance can find. You need an ear on the inside. And if Carter Page walks up to you and presents himself and if the Steele dossier is on the desk and allows you to, in whole or in part, obtain the FISA warrants that you need to begin this process, that’s all you really need to do. Because Carter Page, while not part of the campaign, I’m sure made phone calls to people who were of interest, and once you start connecting A to B under the way that the NSA works, that allows them to suddenly start expanding the nature of the surveillance and the scope of the warrant.
We do know, in addition to the FISA warrant, that we have the inadvertent collection that went on, that picked up Flynn and Sessions. And, again, this is just the slivers of what have been revealed.
JS: Well and Mike Flynn knows very well how all of this system works. He not only was at DIA, but he was the intel chief for JSOC under Stanley McChrystal.
JS: And presumably would know if he’s on the phone with a Russian in the United States who is in, here in some official capacity that his calls were going to be heard. They were going to be intercepted.
I mean I do think that Devin Nunes is acting primarily in a political sense here and my evidence for that is quite simple: Look at how these people vote on 702 authorizations. Look at how they vote on FISA, on all these other surveillance issues. It’s like, well, just because our guy happened to be caught up in this, and I do think we should know the extent of how they went after Carter Page and General Flynn, et cetera, but come on, give me a break, Devin Nunes is hardly, you know, the sort of congressional version of like an Edward Snowden or something.
Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, I’m inclined to agree. I think it would be easier to take all of this seriously had they not three weeks before the release of this memo had a vote in the house on reauthorizing 702, which is about essentially warrantless foreign directed surveillance, but picks up Americans incidentally all the time, in the same way Flynn was picked up as part of incidental collection. And there was a discussion about whether there should be an amendment to require warrants before searching that database for U.S. person information and Nunes and his allies were pretty uniformly of the view that no such thing was necessary, that we could trust that there had never been any abuses because that’s what the intelligence community had told us.
It’s hard for me to understand how someone could simultaneously believe there is a massive conspiracy at the sort of very senior levels of these agencies to mislead the FISA court and at the same time have no reservations about surveillance tools that have far fewer safeguards.
JS: This isn’t just oh, let’s look at how hypocritical Devin Nunes and the Republicans are. The Democrats were crucial to pushing through that legislation, so much so that Paul Ryan publicly thanked Nancy Pelosi for helping to tamp down a bipartisan amendment that would have addressed many of the privacy concerns that you and Peter share.
PB: Well the ironies here obviously are as deep as we want to pile them up. But, at the end of the day, you’ve got government as an organization, if you will, saying that we love this idea of surveillance and that was clearly what the Congress showed us, where they found bipartisanship in a place otherwise where it doesn’t exist, and that was simply saying what we can agree on is we do want to spy as broadly as possible. What we don’t want, of course, is us to spy on the wrong people and reveal the wrong things. Nobody wants that.
This is actually going to be potentially a very interesting time for those of us who follow these issues because you’re going to have the Democrats and the Republicans trying to score points on one another, and every time that they do, they’re going to pull a little piece of the curtain back to reveal something that they feel supports their side of the case. It may give us a chance, for example, to see a little bit more about what kind of evidence is used at the FISA court. Otherwise that’s been kept from us.
JS: Well, and of course that’s what you hear Adam Schiff and other people in Congress saying is the problem with this, that it’s going to make the work of the FBI and other intel or law enforcement agencies even tougher. But Julian, do you agree with Peter there that there is some good to be found in this for civil libertarians and people like yourself who have been, you know, hitting hard on these issues for many, many years?
Julian Sanchez: Potentially, yeah. We’ve seen the New York Times now essentially litigating to try and get the full FISA application, the full underlying documentation on the argument that the declassification of the memo, the release of the memo effectively pulls back the veil of secrecy and makes it susceptible to FOIA requests. I don’t know how likely it has to succeed, and I feel almost certain that even if improbably that did succeed, the documents that were ultimately released would be redacted beyond recognition.
But even that, even just seeing the size of the document and the relative proportion of different, different elements that were unredacted might be instructive. We have only since really 2002 ever started to see any opinions at all out of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. There were, I mean essentially, two that ever been public in the decades-long history of that court, before the Snowden disclosures. Now we’ve seen a, frankly, shocking number that have been published. But we’ve still never seen an actual FISA application. So we’ve been required to trust or, or distrust, as one prefers, the assurances of people in the intelligence community that this is a very rigorous process and that they really go at it with a wire brush and there are many layers of review, this is potentially an opportunity to actually kick the tires there and see what it really looks like, what it actually takes to get a wiretap approved on American.
JS: Peter, do you honestly believe that this is evidence of a campaign to target the Trump presidential run by the previous administration?
PB: What I’m saying is that an extraordinary amount of information appears to have been gathered on some of the inner workings of a political campaign. That information exists. And if information exists, it will find a way to be used. To simply trust everyone in the structure to not misuse that information in any way, is a view of humanity, never mind of government that I think is very difficult to sustain.
So, to say conspiracy, to say intent, those are troublesome words to use at this point in time. To say that whether it was intended or not to affect the outcome of the campaign, it did. I think that’s something we can say with a fair amount of confidence.
JS: Julian, this issue that people who are defenders or supporters of Hillary Clinton, where they basically say, “How can this be the focus of attention? The idea that the FBI somehow had it out for Donald Trump or Carter Page, I mean look at what they did to Hillary Clinton, look at the leaking that James Comey did and the constant harping on her emails, et cetera. What do you make of that dynamic given how closely you follow the surveillance part of this?
Julian Sanchez: There’s something to that. I mean, put it this way, whatever else you might think is improper about what they might have done, it seems very difficult for me to argue that any of this was kind of done in a way that reveals a calculated effort to influence the outcome of the election and Trump’s favor. You know, we do know quite a bit about the investigation of Clinton and her email server and everything related to that. It was really pretty late in the game when even sort of a hint of the idea that the Intelligence Committee was looking into Russian intervention as it was connected to Trump.
JS: Taking off on your point, though, I’d like to hear from Peter if, using your same configuration, if we flipped it around, and you have the FBI director who’s coming out and making the statements that Comey made days before the election, I think a lot of Republicans would rightly say, “Shit, the FBI is on the side of the Democrats here.”
PB: Yep. I agree with you if you look at it that way, but I’m asking the listeners to take one more step back and to say, not to worry which side they think the FBI was on, but to focus on the fact that the FBI seemed to be on a side. And that’s what’s wrong here: The FBI should not be on a side.
We can argue whether or not Comey’s statements represent a faction within the FBI, perhaps one that leaned one way, leaned Clinton, leaned Trump, whether they represent just simply a mistake, the FBI and James Comey are not infallible. They do things wrong, too. But the bottom line here is the FBI had a side, and the fact that we can have a legitimate discussion about whether that was Trump’s side or Hillary’s side is in fact the problem, not parsing out which side they were on. The fact that they were on a side.
JS: Julian, the issue of the way all of these former senior intelligence officials are in a mass pile-on right now against Trump, you have John Brennan now has just signed up with NBC, you know, which we can sort of call NBCIA, and you have all of the heads of various intelligence agencies, it seems like they’re just on TV to go after Donald Trump.
Yes, he, to people like me, seems like he’s an extremely dangerous president. What’s your analysis of the pile-on from all of these senior, recently departed intelligence chiefs? I don’t — I can’t recall ever seeing this before.
Julian Sanchez: You know since, I think there’s a mix of motivations here. On the one hand, I do think the memo is extraordinarily thin if you take it in the context of the kind of media build-up and the worst in Watergate, this is making some really kind of extraordinary accusations against personnel in the intelligence agencies with really no evidence.
So I understand why officials there would be resentful of that, but I will say very often I am watching some of the reactions shade into uncomfortable territory. I think I saw Chuck Schumer on TV saying something like, well you go, the intelligence agencies, they’ve got six ways from Sunday to go back at you. There was a column in The Washington Post with Eugene Robinson saying, “Well, it sure is a mistake to go up against the intelligence community, then, you know, presidents lose fights like that all the time.” When it lapses into the idea that somehow, and now he’s going to get his comeuppance because the intelligence community, you know, has the power to destroy presidents. Well, I mean, that just seems like if he didn’t have the evidence before, that kind of argument is very much supporting the picture they’re trying to paint. So I get, I get very nervous when I hear that.
JS: Well, and also Peter, when you see John Brennan as a talking head on television, or a Michael Hayden or a James Clapper, when you’re going to have these people on television talking about those agencies and you’re not going to question them on their own role in destructive policies, in the killing of civilians and the stripping of Americans rights and the lying to the Senate, what’s the point of having them on at all if not to just be propaganda agents for the agencies that they’re quote-unquote retired from?
PB: Well, giving them credit as propaganda agents is probably the most benign way that you can say that, because this is where people come up, and I hate to even say the words, because these are buzzwords now: deep state. And you know, we’re not talking about a bunch of guys like in a “The Simpsons” episode getting together at Mr. Burns’s house to plot out world domination. What we are talking about are people who have vested interests in keeping things working roughly the way that they are. And when you create the circular pattern where the media steps aside from any role as a watchdog, any investigative role, and simply serves as a platform to allow the people who have committed crimes against the American people to go on and explain those away or to ignore them, that creates a whole lot of problems in what is supposed to be a democracy.
JS: Julian, can you explain the most important aspects of the reauthorized surveillance legislation? What are the most important aspects of that for people concerned about civil liberties to understand?
Julian Sanchez: The authority in question is Section 702. It’s part of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which was effectively a kind of legalization of the warrantless collection had been conducted under the ages of the Stellar Wind program, authorized by president Bush shortly after 9/11.
It permits targeting of foreigners outside the United States for surveillance using methods within the United States, but of course also sweeps in what’s called incidental collection, any Americans who may be talking to those foreign targets. We know the last couple years there have been a little bit over 100,000 targets every year without any particularized judicial approval.
The problem is, we now know, at least in terms of sort of strictly domestic civil liberties perspective, the NSA and CIA, several thousand times every year, and the FBI more than that, but they won’t give us a count, are able to search through that database of probably billions of Internet communications, looking for American identifiers. So they are essentially able to get at least your international e-mails and potentially phone calls as well without obtaining a warrant in the way they would have to target you directly.
So one concern is about the so-called back door searches and whether, if you’re searching through that vast database for an American’s information, you should be required to get a warrant in the same we’d have to if you were targeting them, that person directly whether for criminal or for intelligence purposes.
There’s also some issues around what’s called upstream collection, collection live off the Internet backbone, message and e-mail or other communication that mentioned, included in the contents of it, the selector, meaning essentially the e-mail address, of a target could be swept in as well, even if that target was not a party to the communication. As a result, a lot of totally domestic communications were swept in under this authority that is meant to really only pick up communication with at least one side outside the U.S. That’s a practice the FISA court essentially finally put a stop to, but it’s referenced in the most recent reauthorization, essentially codifies and gives it tacit blessing. It just says, “The FISC should inform Congress within 30 days if this about collection practice is restarted.”
And that really is kind of unsettling practice because it involves not saying you’re going to be collected on based on your personal targeting or even the fact that you’re communicating with someone who’s been personally targeted based on something that is the content of your message, which, you know, sort of traditionally you can’t target someone based on the contents of their message, that’s something that you only get to look at traditionally after the surveillance of you, as an individual, has been authorized.
So those are I think the things that there are legitimate concerns about, given especially that the intelligence community has basically reneged on pledges it made to provide greater transparency about how these authorities are used — in particular, how many Americans are actually swept in incidentally in this very large-scale collection.
JS: It seems to me like the folks that are under intense investigation or scrutiny from the special prosecutor and perhaps other entities have done an incredible amount of fumbling in cover-ups and lying and misleading investigators, which, you know, I’m sure it’s very intimidating to be questioned by the FBI, but come on! I mean it really seems like this is a cast of characters that aren’t even capable of colluding with Russia, but are very capable of telling really non-believable lies about who they talk to on the phone. And in the case of Mike Flynn, the guy was the head of DIA, like he knows that those calls are picked up. Like, isn’t there some level at which you’re sort of like, “Wow, these guys are either incredibly stupid or we’re all missing some piece here.” Like —
PB: You’re left with the possibility that some of these people are just dopes.
PB: And, you know, that leads us into a whole different realm of political questioning here, what’s going on. The other question though is that this is been going on for a while now, in terms of actually some, some form of investigation of something. At least a year and a half that the full weight of the American surveillance state has been directed against some version of Donald Trump at all.
And 18 months later, what you’ve got is Carter Page who seems like a braggart arrested for lying about something that the FBI already knew, you’ve got Mike Flynn tied up about lying to the FBI in something, something with Turkey? And so forth. You’ve got to start asking the question of: At what point are we going to see something that rises to the level of deposing a president of the United States?
Because that’s, in fact, what this is supposed to be about and the fact that we’re having these arguments about what is and isn’t a nothing burger raises the question of, “Well, at what point are we going to see something that rises to the level of talking about impeachment?”
JS: Well, I think the nothing burger idea comes from the fact that Sean Hannity and the Republican leadership intelligence and actually quite a number of other committees, judiciary, have really built up the Nunes memo into, it’s like this smoking gun showing that, you know, the non-American, you know, Muslim, socialist Barack Obama was, you know, spying on Donald Trump.
It’s sort of like when the Benghazi hearings were happening and it was a carnival of crazy. I think that there actually was a real scandal to be investigated but we never got to it because the Republicans were off in la-la land with their conspiracy theories about it rather than looking at the serious issue of what was the U.S. doing covertly around that time in Libya that resulted in these actions.
And I feel like this Nunes memo was sort of a similar set-up. We could be having a really serious discussion about FISA, incidental collection, and it could be a real moment for the public to become educated, but instead it’s sort of like, once again, we’re on the crazy train where Democrats and liberals and people sort of the left say, “Oh, that’s Republican craziness and then the Republicans are down the line with you know, oh my god, the black president spied on Donald Trump.”
Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I mean if the pitch for this had been, you know, not “There was some kind of Obama conspiracy,” but, “Look, we think, it turns out on closer scrutiny the evidence that was deemed sufficient to wiretap an American for now over a year was really not up to the standards one would expect,” I would be very much open to and welcome that kind of conversation. I agree. It’s unfortunate that it’s sort of been preempted by. “Is this crazy thing true or not?”
Although, I’ll also say just in response to what Peter said, I think there are interesting questions to get out of this investigation that may have nothing to do with whether we’re going to impeach Donald Trump. If there are people like Carter Page associated the campaign who were, you know, unwitting dupes, they’re not going to be indicted for being Russian spies, but were in some way used unwittingly as assets, that’s interesting to know.
If Paul Manafort was in some way in contact with the Russians and Trump didn’t know about it and it doesn’t rise to an impeachable offense, that’s still interesting to know about.
If the Russians have leverage through kind of unrelated financial entanglements over Trump, that’s interesting to know about. There are a lot of questions that we should want the answers to about how an intelligence operation to interfere in a presidential election was carried off that are worth answering regardless of whether the end game is: And now we can impeach!
JS: All right. We’re going to leave it there. Julian Sanchez, thanks for being with us on Intercepted.
Julian Sanchez: Thank you.
JS: Peter van Buren, thank you very much for joining us.
PB: Thank you.
JS: Peter van Buren was a career U.S. diplomat who spent 24 years working for the State Department. Julian Sanchez is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
JS: Donald Trump and the Nunes posse are trying to use their so-called memo to prove that there are swampy operatives at the highest levels of government that are using the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA to push their own disloyal agendas and their Democratic leanings to undermine Trump. And the bottom line is that these shadow operatives for Barack Obama are a reprehensible danger to American liberty and freedom. They are the deep state or the swamp that Trump promised to drain. But of course, this is a disingenuous, feebly disguised pile of bullshit.
Trump has publicly said that Edward Snowden was a “spy” and “in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, Snowden would be executed.” Hmm, would that be the same Edward Snowden who exposed the abuses of the very program Trump claims Obama used to target him? Yeah.
Maybe Trump thinks the 1950s were America’s truly great years when the CIA was reportedly looking to assassinate Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea during the Korean War, while the U.S. viciously bombed villages with napalm.
The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh and an anti-communist fervor was gripping the American public who also believed that North Koreans and the Chinese had brainwashed U.S. soldiers returning from the war. They believed this because that’s what they were told by the U.S. government.
These soldiers, who had been filmed by their captors talking about their use of biological bombs in the Korean War or otherwise challenging the official U.S. line on that war — well, they were under communist mind control, and nothing they said was true. It’s a pretty convenient narrative.
A new series on Netflix weaves together fictional reenactments and more classic documentary filmmaking to examine in detail the 1953 death of a man who was wrapped up in many secrets that the U.S. government desperately wanted to keep hidden from the world. That series is called “Wormwood” and it’s directed by Academy Award-winner Errol Morris.
Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson: And a third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp. And it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood. And the third part of the waters became Wormwood. And many men died of the waters because they were made bitter.
JS: The man at the center of this investigation, and the government cover-up, is Frank Olson. He was a bacteriologist who worked as an Army scientist at Virginia’s Camp Dietrich facility, a site known for its research into biological warfare in the 1950s.
The CIA had recruited Olson to work on a few covert assignments, including an early iteration of the mind-control program known as MKUltra. These efforts were headed by an infamous doctor named Sidney Gottlieb. He was the head of the CIA’s technical services staff. Gottlieb was the lead architect of the CIA’s experimentations with LSD at that time.
The mystery at the center of Wormwood is how and why Frank Olson died. The official CIA story is that an experiment with LSD took a horribly wrong turn, Olson jumped out the window of a 13th-floor hotel room in Manhattan. But this series investigates a whole other scenario, a whole other possibility: That Olson was murdered because of what he knew.
The series is narrated by Eric Olson, who has spent the majority of his life obsessed with investigating the events and people involved with the night that his father died. Eric Olson was a young boy in 1953, and it wasn’t until 22 years later, in 1975, that he started to rethink this suspicious suicide of his father.
Eric Olson: There it is on the front page: “Suicide Revealed: The Rockefeller Commission has discovered that an army scientist, after being drugged with LSD, jumped out the window of a New York hotel.”
How many scientists could be jumping out of windows in 1953 in New York City? This has got to be my father. But wait? They didn’t call us, they didn’t notify us, they didn’t say, “This is your father.” How do you know? Maybe it isn’t.
JS: We are joined now by the director of this series, Errol Morris, and by actor Peter Sarsgaard — he plays Frank Olson in “Wormwood.”
Welcome, both of you, to Intercepted.
Peter Sarsgaard: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Errol Morris: Are you going to read me my traditional Miranda warnings?
JS: [Laughs.] Yes. You have the right to remain silent. And then we won’t even have a show.
Errol, let’s, let’s begin with you: For people who haven’t yet seen your series Netflix that you’ve directed, explain who Frank Olson was.
EM Frank Olson was an Army scientist also employed by the CIA germ-warfare research at a facility in Maryland, Fort Dietrich, that was actively involved in making biological weapons.
JS: During the course of your investigation and the course of this series, we sort of discover that it’s likely that he was perceived or they were starting to perceive him within the intelligence apparatus that was working on this biological weapons program as somewhat of, as Sy Hersh says in the, in the series, a dissident or a problematic character who was not marching to the same drumbeat as the CIA wanted its people to do.
EM: They started to perceive him as a threat, perhaps because he was leaking information or desired to leak information because he found the work that he was doing morally unacceptable, had doubts about the whole program that he was part of. He was seen as someone who was no longer reliable, someone who could no longer be counted on and, in fact, could possibly be someone interested in undermining the program.
JS: Peter, you and I have known each other for quite a while, we’re friends and I know that you are a very political person, that you follow the news, that you read books, and I’m wondering how you prepared for this role playing Frank Olson.
PS: One of the things that always really interested me in terms of what we were just talking about is what is it like to be someone who’s perceived as being a security threat who also might perceive himself as a security threat because of the state of mind he’s been put into.
PS as FO: I think you should fire me.
Scott Shepard as Vincent Ruwet: Excuse me?
PS as FO: I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have it in me.
PS: So someone who, in a way, you know, if you think of a person who might be a whistleblower, to me this was a person who was so in the system, so in a certain time, I started thinking about my own father, you know, in the ’50s believing in the state in some way, possibly because of what we did in World War II, but, you know, a time that I think of as a naive time.
And so instead of your whistleblower that you might have now who would come out and have a real motivation to speak out, this was someone who was in total turmoil because I thought of him as someone who did have a moral problem with what he was doing.
Molly Parker as Alice Olson: Why would they laugh at you?
PS as Frank Olson: I made a terrible mistake.
PS: That was sort of the key for me, you know? This guy living this very normal life who’s basically a scientist, who’s recruited into his job who’s suddenly looking at something close-up that his government is doing and going, “But, isn’t this wrong?”
Eric Olson: My father was also extremely upset by these interrogations which the agency was doing in Western Europe which were often terminal. My father’s involvement had been with something called ARTICHOKE. Interrogation programs that go back to the early years of the Cold War.
JS: One of the programs that Frank Olson was reportedly troubled by what was this Project ARTICHOKE, which we understand was a CIA interrogation program in Western Europe that often ended in what they called “termination.” You know, so this is sort of the precursor to the kind of torture that we saw the Bush and Cheney administration authorize in the immediate aftermath of —
EM: Termination is a fabulous euphemism, no?
JS: Right. I mean that’s what they called it. What would you call it?
EM: Interrogating people to the point of death.
JS: And was Olson directly involved with this Project ARTICHOKE?
EM: Either involved or witness to it.
JS: And they were using drugs and physical/psychological torture on prisoners, correct?
EM: Yes, indeed. This is an investigator’s problem. What happens if you’re investigating something, but the people that you’re investigating are in the process or have destroyed all the evidence? Gottlieb, who was head of many of these programs, at a certain point realized that they did not make him look good.
Eric Olson: Gottlieb is the guy who took the poison in 1961 to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the only democratically elected leader the Congo has ever had, and he was also involved with all these attempts to assassinate Castro with various kinds of contraptions and concoctions and poisoned cigars and all these various things.
EM: Frankly, it made him look bad, and destroyed a lot of the documents, just wholesale destroyed a lot of the documents relating to MKUltra.
Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Sidney Gottlieb: Gentlemen. TSS has embarked on a new program called MKUltra. This program is designed to help us to better understand human behavior, who we are, what we do and more importantly what we could reveal.
JS: Talk about the roots of the use of LSD by the CIA, including on someone like Frank Olson. What was their story about what MKUltra was and why Frank Olson was taking acid?
EM: There’s a war in our history that is all but forgotten: the Korean War. As I became more and more involved in this particular project, learning about the Korean War, learning how violent it was. More napalm was dropped over North Korea during the Korean War than was used in Vietnam. At one point, it was even contemplated the necessity the using atomic weapons.
So, we’re engaged, as we might see it, in a battle for our lives or a battle for the preservation of democracy, a battle against international communism.
Wormwood (Car radio): Just released films lay bare the shocking truth behind communist charges of germ warfare in Korea, and the so-called confessions of captured U.S. airmen.
EM: We know that the Japanese and the Chinese were interested in perfecting mind control, of memory replacement, changing what’s inside our heads, changing how we think about ourselves, changing how we act. The most famous or infamous example: “The Manchurian Candidate.” Programmed assassinations. Could you alter someone’s mind to the extent that you could turn them into an assassin?
So what did we think? We thought, “Hey, they have it! Why don’t we have it, too?” (laughs)
Michael Chernus as Mal: I just don’t understand why anyone would betray their country.
TBN as Sidney Gottlieb: Those men weren’t weak. Just susceptible to certain influences. Remember, they’ve got methods we’re just beginning to understand. We’re desperate to keep up.
JS: What was your understanding, Peter, of why Frank Olson and all of these other special operations division people went to Deep Creek Lake in November of 1953? This was a few hours from Camp Detrick. And what was sort of the official story of why they were there, and what is sort of the, the emerging truth of why they went there?
PS: From my point of view, from Frank’s point of view, this was a company retreat. We’re going, you know, out to the woods. You know, it was a very benign sort of thing.
TBN: Gentlemen. We have much to discover.
PS as Frank Olson: All right.
PS: And the events that followed were something that I had no idea of.
JS: They go out to this cabin at Deep Creek Lake. Frank is, is he slipped LSD or does he willingly take it?
PS: No, no it was — I was slipped it. You know, if you can imagine, he had no idea what was going on, I think. At least he had no prior experience with it, so it must have been a very, very, very upsetting experience.
TBN: It’s a lot easier to break a man than you might think, Dr. Olson. Confusion to the enemy.
SS as Vincent Ruwet: Here, here.
JS: Yeah, I mean, I can’t even imagine being slipped a psychedelic drug without your knowledge, and what — the panic that would, sheer panic that would ensue.
PS: Yeah, and then in various ways over the next ten days, intentionally disoriented, drugged in various ways, taken to doctors that had no business examining him. The idea of did he fall? You know, did he jump? Was he pushed out the window? Is in some way irrelevant. What happened to him the proceeding ten days set him up for going out that window.
JS: Speaking specifically about the fact, and in “Wormwood,” you play a lot with the words that are used in those documents: Is it jump? Is it fell?
Eric Olson: How does fall, jump and accident, how can you arrange this triangle of terms so this thing gets sorted out in any possible way?
JS: But one of the things that you reveal and you sort of emphasize is that the method of causing someone’s death to appear as though it was a suicide was actually straight out of the CIA playbook.
EO: I’m sitting there reading this thing: “the preferred method of assassination, push somebody off a high building or out of a window.” And then you just say we didn’t see anything, we don’t know what happened.
JS: And there were instructions that you would —
EM: Oh, it’s better than that! It’s called the “CIA Assassination Manual.”
JS: Right. Very subtle, it leaves it open to interpretation. So in the “CIA Assassination” — well, you explain it, in the “CIA Assassination Manual,” describe the method of killing people that is dealt with in Wormwood.
EM: Well it’s one of my favorite words: defenestration. You toss them out a window! And it should be a window, properly considered, that’s pretty high up. At the Statler, they’re are 13 floors above 7th Avenue. It’s a good drop. Immobilize the person maybe by hitting him really hard on the head, and then you toss him out a window.
PS: Aren’t you supposed to open the window first?
EM: Bingo! One of the strangest things about the story is that window was broken, but did he really jump through the window? If you look at the room — Eric Olson tells a story about how years later he checked into that room, trying in his own head to reenact the circumstances of his father’s death. And he realizes in that room, none of this make sense!
Eric Olson: The window had this sash in the middle of it — I mean, it was a two-paned window. You would have had to get horizontal to get out this window. I mean the verb jump no longer was operative. It was either fall or dive.
JS: The term “wormwood,” Peter, where does that come from?
PS: Comes from Hamlet, and Eric’s story, obviously, in this relates to that one. You know the U.S. government certainly knew that this man had been given — well, if you, to believe any of it, the story being that he was given LSD and that he fell or jumped out a window ten days later. And of course, when they went to his family, including his son, Eric.
Eric Olson: I was told that, “Your father has had an accident. He fell or jumped out the window and he died.”
PS: If I put myself in Eric’s shoes as a boy hearing that, and then 20 years later they say, “Oh, by the way, he was given acid before that happened,” then of course for the rest of your life you’re looking for the real story, because why would you believe the story that they tell you 20 years later.
So you spend the rest of your life — it’s as if Hamlet never died.
Eric Olson: It took me a long time to say, “Wait a minute, there may be something here.” Yeah, the whole idea of, of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, “remember me,” that you have some kind of a task ahead of you.
PS: What would happen? Well, he might spend the rest of his life obsessing over what happened to his father and rightly so. So, you really see the destructive power of lying, of our government lying to us, of people lying to each other, but it’s wildly destructive and in terms of wormwood, you know, wormwood is what Hamlet mutters and it’s the agent used to kill his father, you know, that was dropped into the ear. The description of the way his father died with this poison in the ear is really awful.
JS: You also, in a variety of episodes introduce us to a man who is most certainly one of the great characters of our age, Sy [Seymour] Hersh, the legendary investigative journalist. You know, I know Hersh personally, too, and I know he’s the kind of guy who will say, he answers the phone, “What do you want?”
Sy Hersh: All right, let’s go. What do you want to talk about?
JS: I mean it’s classic Sy Hersh, but he has played an essential role in our understanding of the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency and reporting on some of these very programs. Talk about Sy’s role in “Wormwood” Errol?
EM: No Sy Hersh, no story! It was Sy Hersh’s investigative reporting in the 1970s that revealed this story. It was the result of a whole series of page one articles that Sy Hersh issue wrote for The New York Times.
SH: I’d been a reporter for 15 years, had won all sorts of prizes, done My Lai, this stuff in the CIA, in Chile, in Watergate, and I still didn’t know how it plays.
EM: Exposing the CIA’s involvement in domestic surveillance, eventually leading to the appointment of a commission, the Rockefeller Commission, depending on how you look at it, either a commission to investigate the CIA or a commission to cover up a lot of the crimes of the CIA so that the CIA could continue.
That’s how we know about this. At the end of this Rockefeller Commission report, they mentioned almost in passing, unnamed Army scientist who was given LSD and jumped out a window.
Newscaster: The CIA, experimenting with LSD, apparently caused a suicide in 1953 of civilian scientist Frank Olson.
EM: So Sy Hersh originates the story. It starts with him. But Sy Hersh, much to Eric’s annoyance, buys into the CIA account provided in the 1970s. I once thought of giving the series a subtitle: “The LSD Was a Red Herring.” The LSD might have been a red herring. This might not have been about LSD at all. It might have been an assassination by the CIA to prevent one of their own from spilling the beans about biological warfare in Korea.
JS: What was Sy Hersh’s ultimate conclusion and how did he come to it and what did he share with you, Errol?
EM: He shared a lot with me, which I am not at liberty to share with others, alas. We’re working on this.
SH: Guess what? I probably know, but I can’t tell you. Now, isn’t that awful? Is that what you want in an interview? Somebody like that saying to you, I’m being coy like that.
Frank was viewed as a dissident. You understand that in 1953, if you thought somebody was detrimental to the war against the Russians, you have no problem dealing with them.
JS: Do you believe that you know why Frank Olson was killed and how they did it?
EM: I do believe that he was killed by the CIA. I do believe the biological weapons were, in some way, involved.
Remember, we’ve always denied — by we, I mean the U.S. government has always denied — that we used biological weapons in Korea. If you ask me what I believe based on evidence is that we did use them.
It’s a strange world of people making claims and counterclaims, destroying evidence along the way, where God knows ultimately where the proof of what really happened lies. And that, in many, many ways, is the story of “Wormwood.”
JS: This is a really important and telling story from this dark history of the CIA. And Errol, I want to thank you very much for telling it.
EM: Dark history of America.
JS: Peter, thank you for your phenomenal job playing Frank Olson in the series.
PS: Thank you so much. I’ll see you soon, man.
JS: Errol Morris is the Academy Award-winning director of “Wormwood.” And Peter Sarsgaard plays the main character in the series, Frank Olson. I encourage people to check it out. It’s available right now on Netflix.
JS: Coming up on the show we’re going to take an in-depth look at the modern history of Yemen, and the role of the U.S., al Qaeda, and that country’s corrupt political leaders. Stay with us.
Anna Holmes: Hey, intercepted listeners. This is Anna Holmes, the editorial director of topic.com, part of First Look Media.
I’m here on the podcast to tell you about a powerful new documentary series we just debuted. It’s called The Loving Generation. The series tells the story of Americans born to one black parent and one white parent in the years leading up to, and following, the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision. That ruling overturned all the remaining laws outlawing interracial marriage.
The project is really close to my heart. I’m a member of the loving generation, born in 1973 to a white mom and a black dad. We’re all now adults in our 30s, 40s, and 50s, and our stories have never really been told before.
The generation includes really incredible people, from Halle Berry to Ben Jealous to Derek Jeter. And for those who are wondering, Barack Obama is sort of on the leading edge of the generation, though not squarely within it.
The series launched February 6 and features the voices of folks, like journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, academic Melissa Harris-Perry and novelist Mat Johnson. Check out episode one on topic.com. We’ll be releasing a new episode every Tuesday all this month.
JS: Today, Yemen is the site of the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster. And the U.S. has played a major role in making it so. Yet Yemen receives only sporadic coverage, if any, on many major U.S. media outlets.
So today we’re going to take an in-depth look at a history that all of us really should know. It’s complex. It has lots of twists and turns, but it’s vital that we understand the role that our governments have played in manufacturing this unforgivable reality faced now by the entire nation of Yemen.
Immediately after 9/11, the then-president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, presented himself to the Bush administration as a key ally in the so-called War on Terror.
The Bush administration and Congress began to beef up U.S. military and funding to Yemen for counterterrorism. But Ali Abdullah Saleh took this military and intelligence aid and used it to further consolidate power around his family. In 2002, the U.S. carried out its first known air strike in Yemen. They used a CIA-operated Predator drone that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, an alleged al Qaeda member tied to the USS Cole attack. That drone strike also killed a U.S. citizen, by the way.
Ali Abdullah Saleh talked a good game about working with the U.S., but in reality, he did very little to help the U.S. with its stated goals. Saleh’s government began using U.S. military aid to wage a series of wars against a growing insurgency from the Shiite-Houthi movement in Yemen, and his political foes in the south of Yemen who wanted to secede from his government.
Saleh would justify getting the aid, saying he needed it to fight al Qaeda, and he’d then turn around and use it to wage domestic political power wars — rinse, repeat.
As President Barack Obama came into office, al Qaeda members in Yemen and Saudi Arabia had joined forces to create al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. That group attempted a number of terror attacks against U.S. and international targets, including the 2009 attempted underwear bombing on an international flight to the United States. The Obama administration soon characterized AQAP as representing the greatest external threat to the United States.
In December of 2009, president Obama authorized his first strike in Yemen. It was a cruise missile attack with cluster bombs. The strike was supposedly aimed at an al Qaeda camp, but that claim now seems dubious at best.
The strike resulted in the killing of more than 50 people, including 21 children and a dozen women. That strike kicked off a sustained bombing campaign that lasted for the entire duration of Obama’s presidency, mostly using armed drones.
In 2011, the Arab Spring inspired a youth-led uprising that ultimately resulted in President Saleh resigning, though he remained the most powerful figure in the country. In the midst of this uprising and Saleh’s resignation, AQAP began to seize territory in Yemen. Saleh formally transferred political power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2012. The U.S. then began to expand its drone strikes and the so-called Yemen model was born: Aid Yemeni forces on the ground and pummel al Qaeda with drone strikes from above. Sounds good on paper. But these strikes killed a lot of civilians. They also killed American citizens, including a 16-year-old boy.
In 2015, the Houthi militias from the north of Yemen took control of the capital Sana’a and many Yemenis believe that they were aided in doing so by Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The message from the former dictator was, “If I can’t be president, I’m going to wreak havoc from behind the scenes.” Ironically, Saleh would end up being killed by the Houthis just a few months ago
President Hadi has struggled to assert control over Yemen, and his unwavering support for the U.S. and its increasing drone strikes was also widely unpopular. Eventually, Hadi had to flee the country and has been a president in exile ever since. Led by Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states, an air campaign officially aimed at restoring Hadi back to power began. It included logistical and military support from the United States, Britain, and France. And this Saudi-led scorched earth campaign has now become the leading cause of civilian deaths and casualties in Yemen.
Within one year in office, Donald Trump has amped up U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and its war in Yemen. The Pentagon’s own numbers show that U.S. drone strikes increased six-fold in 2017, refueling support doubled for Saudi planes, and the U.S. now has boots on the ground in Yemen. And U.S. personnel have died in raids there.
Joining me now to talk about how Yemen got to the state that it’s currently in is Nadwa Al-Dawsari. She’s a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. She’s also the author of the new report “Foe Not Friend: Yemen’s Tribes and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Nadwa, welcome to Intercepted.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari: Thank you for having me.
JS: Yemen is very seldom discussed in the broader large media in the United States. I want to sort of walk through some of the history that gives context to what’s happening in Yemen right now. What was going on in the early 2000s in Yemen, in the period between Bush becoming president and then Obama taking over?
ND: You’re right. I mean Yemen has not been covered much in the media and whenever Yemen is covered, it is usually about terrorism or Yemen conflict has been pretty much explained in regional terms. So, Saudi versus Iran, which has some truth to it, but [the] Yemen conflict is much deeper than just a proxy war between Saudi and Iran. And the year 2000 is critical because that’s the year when Saleh started consolidating power into the hands of his family and marginalizing his allies, his key allies.
JS: That’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen.
ND: After September 11, U.S. government support, military support to Saleh increased and he used that support to increase his family’s power and control over the government. He became more of a dictator and the fact that the support for Saleh was almost unconditional helped him get away with corruption, lack of accountability which fueled the grievances that basically led to the 2011 uprising —
Newscaster: This was the moment tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sana’a calling for political reforms. It was February 11, 2011. The protest movement spread, galvanizing the nation against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
ND: — which was not dealt with effectively by the international community, which led us to the current war.
JS: Ali Abdullah Saleh, his family roots are actually — he would be from Zaidi-Shia tradition, and yet his hold on power in Yemen often depended on his alliances with many of the forces that were fighting against the Houthis and their various leaders, and you had the six wars. So, talk about that balancing act that Saleh played with the southern tribes, Sunni tribes within the country, and then the Houthis on the other hand.
ND: So, I mean the Zaidi-Shafi’i/Sunni divide in Yemen has never been significant. Zaidis and Shafi’is have intermarried, we had no significant differences.
There are two important aspects to Yemen conflict that if you want to understand Yemen conflict, you need to keep in mind.
There is the power struggle among the political elite and that Saleh and his key allies that he started undermining in the early 2000s when he appointed his son as the commander of the Republican Guard and started kind of preparing him to become the next president, which angered his allies who felt that any future president or power arrangement should be in agreement with them.
So the tension increased throughout the 2000s between Saleh and his key allies because he increasingly became more powerful and made his family more powerful at the expense of his key allies. And so by the year 2011, his key allies actually found an opportunity to pay Saleh back and they quote-unquote supported the youth uprising but in fact, they hijacked the youth uprising.
And then you have the 2011 uprising and then after that you had the GCC initiative, which is the transition deal that was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries, but also backed by the UN and the international community.
Newscaster: [Protestors shouting in the background.] Anger at a deal brokered by Yemen’s rich neighbors from the Gulf Cooperation Council. A deal that could see President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for leaving office. Originally agreeing to the deal, president Saleh backed out at the last minute. These protesters say they’ll go nowhere until he leaves.
Translation of a female protestor: Oh god, take away the slaughterer who burned our hearts, who had no mercy on us, who made us starve.
NA: And this agreement was no more than a reshuffle of the political elite. And that’s why it didn’t work.
So the Houthis fought six wars against Saleh government from 2004 to 2010. The way the Saleh government dealt with the Houthis, the use of excessive force in Sa’dah have kind of fueled the grievances that drive the Houthi rebel group.
JS: During that same period it wasn’t just Saleh waging these six wars against the Houthis in the north, but also Saudi Arabia would periodically come in and conduct airstrikes against those very forces from the Houthi parts of the country.
ND: Yes, absolutely, an agreement of Saleh that happened, but what I was going to say is that a lot of people today try to explain Yemen conflict by saying that it was because of Houthis grievances. Yes, that’s an aspect of the conflict, but Houthis are not victims. They are part of this conflict. They are part of the problem. But, also Houthis were participants of the national dialogue conference and at the same time they were pushing down from Sa’dah by force all the way through Jawf, Ma’rib, these are governorates in the north, to ‘Amr?n which is north of Sana’a, until 2014 when they took over the capital city of Sana’a, backed by Saleh who is their alleged suppressor.
So with the Houthis, it is not just a question of grievances, because they did not revolt against Saleh, but at the end of the day, they chose to ally with Saleh to take power. So I think the issue of Houthis grievances, I think it’s overblown by some analysts.
JS: I’ve read through carefully the U.S. diplomatic cables that were released by WikiLeaks that covered of course a very wide span of time in a number of countries, but specific to Yemen, what I found most fascinating was that during the Bush administration in the period that you’re talking about, particularly from 2004 forward, and let’s remember that Ali Abdullah Saleh was the first Arab leader to send word after 9/11 to the United States saying, “Hey, I’m on your side, let me know what I can do.” I mean he was a very strategically smart person when he played with the United States.
President George W. Bush: And I thank the president for his strong support in this war against extremists and terrorists.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh (English translation): I’m very pleased for the limitless support by President Bush and the United States for Yemen and the field of combating terror.
JS: But in those cables, you see Ali Abdullah Saleh and his men trying to convince the Bush administration on the one hand, that they need more counterterrorism assistance to fight against al Qaeda, and on the other hand, campaigning to use that counterterrorism assistance to fight against the Houthis. And the representatives from the U.S., including Fran Townsend and others, say in their cables, “Saleh keeps trying to convince us that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy. We reject that. We don’t think that there’s any facts for it. And we continue to instruct him that he’s not allowed to use our support to fight the Houthis.”
What do you make of that analysis that existed under the Bush administration? Because it shifted under Obama.
ND: Saleh used U.S. counterterrorism money not only to strengthen his family’s grip over power, he also nurtured and used terrorists to keep the threat of al Qaeda alive so that counterterrorism money kept flowing to his regime. He used the counterterrorism support to fight the Houthis, he used the counterterrorism support to crush the southern secessionists in the south, and he has the counterterrorism trained forces to crush the peaceful protesters in 2011. And then again, he used the counterterrorism forces that received training and support from the U.S. and the arms to end the transition process and stage a coup with the Houthis.
JS: That moment in history, I think, is a very important one because what little discussion there is about Yemen right now in larger media outlets around the world, the history of it often begins with the Houthis descending on Sana’a and effectively taking control of the capital.
When you say that Saleh helped these the Houthis to do that, or maybe it’s even a stronger term, facilitated the Houthis in doing this, how did that happen and why would that be to Saleh’s benefit?
ND: When Saleh was pushed out of power in 2011, and particularly after the attempt to assassinate him, Saleh became obsessed by revenge. He wanted to take revenge on his former allies who helped push him out of power in 2011. And so he became blinded. He joined hand with the Houthis to basically, simply, take revenge and so what he did in 2014 and before 2014, I mean there were, there was enough evidence and I heard that from the tribal leaders back in 2011 and ’12, that when Houthis were pushing down towards Sana’a, they were supported by Saleh and this was 2011 and 2012.
When Hadi came to power, most of the forces were technically under Hadi’s command but they were still loyal Saleh. A lot of these forces fought with Saleh with Houthis in plain clothes. They trained Houthis. Most of the arms that belonged to the Yemeni military were still under the control of Saleh, officers loyal to Saleh. So, these were used to stage the coup and overthrow the Hadi government and then launch attacks to take over Bayda, Taiz and the south in 2015.
Newscaster: Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is stepping aside. The U.S. ally resigned on Thursday throwing already unstable Yemen deeper into chaos. His departure comes just days after Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels battled their way into the presidential palace, demanding more power in the country.
JS: Do you believe that in the early 2000s, before the Houthis marched on Sana’a, that it would be fair to describe them as an Iranian proxy? Was the Iranian government supplying them with military aid? Because, I have to say that when I was on the ground in Yemen over the course of some years during this period, it seemed like that was being exaggerated. Yes, the Iranians probably wanted to be able to utilize the Houthis, but it seemed like it was more aspirational at that point before they took the capital than it was real, but maybe you disagree with that. What’s your assessment?
ND: So, I absolutely agree with you. I mean Houthis are not an Iran proxy. There is a relationship between Houthis in Iran. A lot of Houthis have been trained, hundreds have been trained by Iran and Lebanon by Hezbollah, but Houthis are not Iran proxy. They’re not dictated by Iran. Certainly, they have received a lot of support from Iran, but Houthi’s endgame is power. They want to take over power in Yemen, and the Houthi leadership in particular believe in the right of the Prophet descendants to rule Yemen, just like it was the case during the Imamate. Most Yemenis who are opposed to the Houthis describe Houthis as revivalist, people who want to revive the Imamate. So even in that context, Houthis are driven by local power dynamics that probably go back at least to the 1960s.
JS: You know, you referenced earlier that Ali Abdullah Saleh used U.S. counterterrorism assistance to keep his grip on power and to enrich and defend his family and his immediate circle. You also had, at times, Saleh feeding bad intelligence to the United States and other actors to actually kill his political opponents. And there’s at least one case that we know of the United States killing a deputy governor who was negotiating with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the U.S. claim is that they were fed bad intelligence and that, in effect, they were served as high-tech hit men for Ali Abdullah Saleh.
ND: People can read my report that came out on February 1, 2018, on tribes and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I did mention the incident of the deputy governor, Jaber al Shabwani of Marib when he was killed in 2010, and what is really appalling is that U.S. officials knew. They knew Saleh was feeding them wrong intelligence. They knew Saleh was using al Qaeda to keep the money flowing from the West. They knew he was not serious about fighting terrorism. And yet, the unconditional to Saleh continued from the U.S. government and most Western governments.
JS: In your new report, which I hope that people read because I think it’s essential to understand the kind of complexities of the various political factions in Yemen, but also the ways in which Western countries, primarily the United States have contributed to what we’re witnessing right now in Yemen, not just in the form of aid and military support and intelligence support for this scorched-earth bombing that the Saudis are doing, but also how the United States played a role in further destabilizing Yemen.
The air war that Barack Obama initiated, both with drones and Tomahawk cruise missile, sometimes cluster munitions, yeah, they killed a bunch of figures from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but they also killed innocent people, including families and children and others. What role did Barack Obama’s policy on Yemen, which began really just months after he took office in 2009, what role did that play in creating the circumstances we see now?
ND: Yeah, so Barack Obama utilized much more military action in Yemen than Bush did, simply by using drones and air strikes. And while these drones and airstrikes killed some top al Qaeda leaders, they also killed a lot of Yemeni civilians, but more importantly, from a U.S. interest perspective, they did not undermine al Qaeda.
al Qaeda continued to be stronger, it expanded, and so that approach was not effective.
JS: In conversations I had a couple of years ago with people who were members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it seemed like their main focus and obsession post-2011 started to shift from attacking the West or trying to bring down airplanes to the United States. It seems like the all-out war that they believed in was fighting against the Houthis.
I mean, I was constantly bombarded on telegram channels and other things with this AQAP propaganda about how we need to fight the Houthis. Was that your sense?
ND: Well, al Qaeda shifted in many ways. First of all, they started adopting more like local agendas that are appealing to the population. So, fighting corruption, improving governance, solving conflicts. In areas where they gained influence, they basically filled a vacuum that the government did not fill.
With the Houthis, I mean Houthis are an ideological of al Qaeda. And, you’re right: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen, as it seems, they don’t really care much about the global jihad as they care about local issues and fighting the Houthis and fighting the Iran influence in the region.
JS: Well, which is kind of fascinating, right? Because on the one hand, the Saudis, and to an extent, the United States, have really tried to portray the Houthis as like Iran’s ground troops in Yemen. On the other hand, they say, “Oh, we have this horrible, external threat to the security of the United States emanating from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” And yet, both the United States and the Saudis and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are fighting against the Houthis.
So, the United States is simultaneously supporting the bombing of the Houthis and attacks on the Houthis, and also continuing to carry out its own unilateral attacks supposedly aimed at targeting one of the Houthis’ sworn enemies, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
ND: This speaks to why Yemen is extremely complex. Even though Houthis are the sworn enemies of al Qaeda, Houthis also, at the same time are the best thing that happened to al Qaeda.
Houthis launching war on Taiz, on the south, on Bayda, has created conditions that helped al Qaeda expand tremendously over the last three years. So, I think Houthis also hold as much responsibility. I know you’re looking at this issue from you know more kind of international regional perspective and I agree with you; but at the same time I see some analyses that Houthis are the sworn enemies of al Qaeda, which might give the impression that the Houthis can fight al Qaeda, are the answer to fighting al Qaeda. And I want to say here that they are not. They’re exactly the opposite of that.
JS: You know, prior to the Houthis taking Sana’a, I had come to the conclusion that the United States’ drone policy on AQAP actually was benefiting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula more than it was either U.S. security or Yemeni security. And I think now you have this convergence of forces, including the Houthis, that are providing al Qaeda with a life raft for itself and actually allowing it to be perceived in some areas where it’s the only form of semi-governance as a stabilizing force rather than as a terrorist organization.
ND: What we see today is also the result of the failure of the United States and the Gulf countries to address the 2000 uprising.
JS: What does the humanitarian situation look like on the ground in Yemen?
ND: As a Yemeni, it’s very heartbreaking to me to read about how the humanitarian situation is in Yemen. I’m not in Yemen, but I have family members in Yemen. I read Yemen news every day, all day, sometimes and it’s just horrific.
I have a friend in Sana’a. She said their neighbor died of a heart problem because they took him to different hospitals in Sana’a, and none of the hospitals in Sana’a had a place for him. They didn’t have a bed to put him in that bed and give him the medical attention he needed. And he died because of it. This is the capital city.
If you go to the rural areas or the areas where there is active violence, like in Taiz, the situation is even much worse.
Dr. Nevio Zagaria: We have more than 14.8 million people lacking access to basic health care in Yemen. And at least two 274 facilities have been completely destroyed during the current conflict.
ND: It’s the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
JS: It’s a horrifying reality to witness but it is entirely a manmade situation. And I, you know as I know you do very much, I struggle to even see how this ends or how Yemenis are even given the chance again to live. It seems like there is no real end in sight. I mean, is that too pessimistic?
ND: You know, I’m a Yemeni; I’d like to be optimistic. All my family are back home in Yemen, I would like to go back to Yemen and visit or live whenever I want, and I think also that we haven’t seen the worst yet. So I think the conflict will get even more intense in the next few years. I think it’ll be a long time before we see de-escalation. I think Yemen will just keep getting worse.
It’s really sad to come to this realization. As a Yemeni, I feel extremely helpless. I have tried to educate people about Yemen’s conflict. Many of Yemeni colleagues and some Western analysts tried to do that too, but it seems that Yemen is just simply not the priority and there are things that can be done to mitigate the conflict in Yemen, to improve services not at a national level but maybe at, you know, some local level. Because even though Yemen has, the central state’s government has collapsed, there is some level of order in some areas and so there is an opportunity to kind of build peace and governance, you know, in Yemen in certain areas and kind of improve conditions.
But the international community is extremely fixated on the UN peace process, and the UN peace process is basically another negotiation of power among the political elite. And that’s not going to solve Yemen’s problem.
JS: Nadwa Al-Dawsari, I’m going to leave it there. But thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
ND: Thank you for having me.
JS: Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. She’s the author of the new report “Foe Not Friend: Yemen’s Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you’re not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto theintercept.com/join. Sam Sabzehzar is our honorary producer, and we thank you for your generous support.
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Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.