CIA Director Mike Pompeo attacked a story in The Intercept in front of the U.S. Senate. This week on Intercepted: Senior National Security Correspondent Jim Risen talks about the secret NSA negotiations with a Russian intermediary and discusses where he sees the Russia investigation going. As Trump continues his obsession with the MS-13 street gang, The Intercept’s Alice Speri reports on how this “war on gangs” has given the green light for federal agents to target high school students for deportation. NYU professor Nikhil Singh talks about his latest book, “Race and America’s Long War,” and offers a provocative perspective on some of the golden calves of “American exceptionalism.” Iran analyst Holly Dagres of The Iranist discusses the politics of regime change and the recent protests in Iran. Plus, Stormy Daniels helps Trump wag the dog.
“Wag The Dog” Narrator: There’s a crisis in the White House.
Robert De Niro (as Conrad Brean): What’s the crisis?
Narrator: And the president’s top advisers have been called together.
RDN: Oh, jeez.
Newscaster: There’s that other story rocking the White House tonight.
Rachel Maddow: One month before the election, the president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen —
Anderson Cooper: Arranged a hefty cash payment to an adult porn star —
RM: A payment of $130,000.
AC: — to prevent a porn star who goes by the name —
RM: Stormy Daniels.
Newscaster: Stormy Daniels.
AC: — Stormy Daniels, from disclosing details of an alleged affair with now-President Trump.
Narrator: Now, Washington’s top spin-doctor has an idea.
Dustin Hoffman (as Stanley Motts): You want me to produce your war?
RDN: Not a war, it’s a pageant. We need a theme, a song, some visuals — we need, you know, it’s a pageant!
President Donald J. Trump: Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.
Narrator: All the spectacle —
Vice President Mike Pence: Not only is North Korea guilty of military provocations —
DJT: We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.
Vice President Mike Pence: America will not be bullied. America will not be threatened.
Narrator: All the drama —
Lisa Montgomery Kennedy: So, the president tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
DJT: They can be very, very nervous, I tell you what.
DJT: Do not underestimate us.
DJT: Things will happen to them like they never thought possible. OK?
Narrator: And all the effects of real war —
Vice President Mike Pence: We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games.
DJT: The longer we wait, the greater the danger grows, and the fewer the options become.
Vice President Mike Pence: The era of strategic patience is over.
DJT: Nuclear devastation.
DH: It’s, it’s a pageant.
RDN: It’s a pageant, that’s what it is.
Narrator: — Wag the Dog.
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 44 of Intercepted.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo: Reporting on this matter has been atrocious. It’s been ridiculous. Totally inaccurate. In, in our view the suggestion the CIA was swindled is false. The people who were swindled were James Risen and Matt Rosenberg, the authors of those two pieces.
JS: CIA director Mike Pompeo on Tuesday attacked reports in The Intercept and The New York Times in an appearance before the U.S. Senate. Last week, the Intercept’s senior national security correspondent James Risen reported that last year U.S. intelligence agencies opened a secret communications channel with Russian operatives who were offering to sell damaging or compromising intelligence on Donald Trump. Risen reported that the CIA, which is headed by Pompeo, the Trump loyalist, has feared taking possession of the compromising information on Trump because it might aid the Mueller investigation or it could spark backlash from Trump.
The New York Times published a version of this story after Risen broke the story for The Intercept. The New York Times concluded that U.S. officials ultimately believed it was likely Russian disinformation that was aimed at sowing discord in the U.S.
In any case, the CIA took the unusual step of releasing a statement purportedly to deny these stories and to label them as fictional. On Tuesday, when Pompeo appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Susan Collins asked the CIA director about these stories.
CIA Dir. MP: It’s our view that the same two people who were phony — proffering phony information to the United States government proffered that same phony information to these two reporters. The Central Intelligence Agency did not provide any resources, no money to these two individuals who proffered U.S. government information directly or indirectly at any time. And the information that we were working to try and retrieve was information that we believed might well have been stolen from the U.S. government. It was unrelated to this idea of kompromat that appears in each of those two articles.
Senator Susan Collins: Thank you.
JS: Now there’s several interesting things about Pompeo’s response here. First, he says the stories are false and that the reporters fell for a Russian disinformation trap. But then Pompeo goes on to confirm that the CIA was trying to get information on files stolen by the hacking group Shadow Brokers; both The New York Times and The Intercept reported that. So take from Pompeo’s statements what you want.
I spoke to Jim Risen over the weekend about this story and he stands by it. Risen says that within the CIA, the issue of whether to actually take possession of potentially damaging information on Trump caused a rift. Some within the CIA, Risen reported, feared that Trump would retaliate against anyone perceived to be aiding special prosecutor Robert Mueller in his investigation of Trump-Russia.
James Risen: And that was like throwing a hand grenade into this whole thing for people in the intelligence community because they, over the months after, you know, this, they first made contact with the Russian and he began to talk about this stuff, you know, there was a lot of back and forth in the intelligence community: “OK, what do we do about that?”
It’s a minefield if you’re like a CIA case officer or, you know, somebody from the NSA and you’re trying to figure out, you know, what’s my job here, you know? You join the CIA to gather foreign intelligence, but suddenly the president of the United States is a subject of foreign intelligence collection. And it’s a fascinating dilemma.
I think one of the things that this case shows is that there is a lack of aggressiveness within the U.S. intelligence community to go after this kind of material. If they were really aggressively out there, pursuing every lead about Trump and Russia, they would not have handled this case the way they did.
And I think that there’s a reason for that — is because a political pressure, political concerns either overt political pressure or the concern by people in the community that they would face political pressure if they pursued these things. I think that’s obvious and it would, it’s hard to ignore that.
JS: My entire conversation with Jim Risen is available right now at the theintercept.com. It’s also in your podcast feed already if you’re a subscriber to this show. Jim and I talked about a lot of the wild details from this story, including how the NSA used its official Twitter account to send coded messages to their Russian intermediaries. Risen also offered some big-picture thoughts on the state of the Russia investigation.
JR: I have not seen conclusive evidence of collusion. I think there’s a lot of evidence of that but not, nothing conclusive. And I think that’s one of the, to me that’s the missing link in the Trump story. I think there’s a lot of evidence of Russian intervention in the election. I think there’s a lot of evidence of Trump and his associates seeking to obstruct justice. But I think what’s missing is conclusive evidence of collusion between the Russians and Trump. And I think that’s the big hole in the story right now.
To me the most interesting — here’s the most interesting scenario that I think could play out, is what if you charge him or charge somebody close to him with obstruction of justice, and yet you can’t prove the underlying case of collusion? What do you, so what did they obstruct? And that’s the most, I think that would be a fascinating legal scenario that might play out, as it is, you get obstruction without proving the underlying crime.
JS: Jim Risen is going to be writing a lot more about this investigation in the coming weeks on The Intercept.
JS: Well we all certainly know that Donald Trump has his pet issues, and they often magically coincide with whatever those three blow-up dolls on Fox & Friends are talking about any given day. But Trump has spent a really incredible amount of time raising the profile of a relatively small street gang called MS-13. He’s portrayed MS-13 as using America’s lax immigration laws and open borders to recruit murderers, who are then rampaging through the country killing ordinary Americans.
DJT: As you know, the blood-thirsty cartel known as MS-13 has infiltrated our schools, threatening innocent children.
DJT: — Recently told me that MS-13 are the equivalent in their meanness to al Qaeda.
JS: Listening to Trump, one would come away with the impression that this gang is like a mash-up of al Qaeda and a paramilitary force that has operated with impunity and must be stopped.
Now MS-13 is definitely a violent, murderous gang. Over a two-year period, the group killed some 25 people in Long Island, New York.
But what’s often left out of this recent discussion about MS-13 is how most of its victims are immigrants themselves. And this is the point. Trump’s rhetoric often employs wild exaggerations and factual inaccuracies.
MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and it accounts for less than an estimated one percent of U.S. gang membership.
When U.S. federal agents conducted a series of raids against MS-13 in 2015 and 2016, most of the people arrested were found to be U.S. citizens. So, the dots that Trump wants people to connect are in fact not there.
But, of course, Trump’s talk of MS-13 is not really about that gang. It’s a major dog whistle aimed at supporting the administration’s racist targeting of undocumented, and also documented, immigrants in the United States.
My colleague, Alice Speri has an in-depth feature article up at The Intercept about Trump, MS-13, and how Trump’s war on gangs has given the green light for federal agents to target high school students for deportation. Alice’s article is called, “From School Suspension to Immigration Detention,” and she tells the story of how increased police presence in schools has merged with the aggressive federal deportation program under Trump. Kids who end up in trouble for reasons that would traditionally be handled within the school are now being criminally charged, and some have actually been snatched from their homes by ICE agents and sent into deportation proceedings.
Alice Speri has spent time on the ground in Long Island researching the story. That’s one of MS-13’s largest bases of operation, and Alice joins me now. Welcome back to Intercepted.
Alice Speri: Thank you for having me.
JS: Let’s start just big picture here: Explain what MS-13 is.
AS: Right, we’ve heard a lot about the MS-13 in the last several months and all of a sudden it seems like this is the focus of this administration. Trump suddenly learned about this gang and suddenly everything he’s doing is somewhat related to it. The MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is a gang that is actually not from central America as many believe, it’s a gang that originally started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and it was mostly made up of the kids of immigrants at the time and refugees really, people that were fleeing the civil war and El Salvador at the time.
Ironically or tragically, if you will, this gang has become a problem in Central America after these families were deported and returned to El Salvador and Central America after the wars were over.
The MS-13 is one of several gangs. Its main rivals are the Barrio 18 in El Salvador, and some of these people have returned to the United States and, you know, through immigration in various ways, but the gang here is actually pretty loosely related to the gang back in El Salvador. I mean they’re really independent groups, for the most part.
What the administration is saying is that the gang is explicitly trying to take advantage of our immigration loopholes, as the president calls them, to bring gangsters through the border, through the unaccompanied minor program and settle them into communities like Long Island, like Maryland, and other places there have large Salvadoran communities. But really, when you look at the history, this is as American a gang as it gets.
JS: First of all, it seems pretty clear that this is a recent discovery by Donald Trump.
AS: Absolutely. One of our colleagues did a story where he looked at all of Trump’s speeches during the campaign, and he never once mentioned this gang at all. He was really obsessed with Chicago at that point.
DJT: Since president Obama became president, almost 5,000 killings in Chicago.
DJT: In Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws in the United States, probably you could say by far, they have more gun violence than any other city.
DJT: In Chicago, 3,664 people have been shot since January 1st of this year. Can you believe that? [scattered boos from the audience] That’s worse than the places you read about and see in the Middle East. These are war zones.
JS: It was all dog whistling about black people committing crimes and the black people are the violent ones, and now this is sort of, it’s more than dog whistling, but it’s basically like: Immigrants are going to murder you and rape you.
AS: Absolutely and it’s really, I mean the MS-13 tragedy is that it’s really come at an opportune time for this administration. It has given them an excuse to do what they wanted to do, which is mass deport people, which is racially profile Latinos, and particularly Latino youth, and detain them first, because they to fill all these immigration centers and all of these privately run detention centers they have, and then deport them. So, it’s, of course, a real gang, and it’s a brutal and extremely violent one. But it is also provided an excuse, and an opportunity for this administration to really implement pretty fascist-friendly immigration policy.
JS: Well, you know, Donald Trump at his State of the Union Address invited families whose loved ones were killed, reportedly, by MS-13.
DJT: These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their home. Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders.
JS: One of the things that you point in your excellent article that I hope everyone reads is that most of the victims of MS-13 are not white Americans.
JS: They are?
AS: Well, most of the victims are immigrants like most of the perpetrators, and many of them did come in as unaccompanied minors, many of them are undocumented.
JS: The victims, you mean.
AS: The victims, and the perpetrators. So, it’s really, it’s, you know, as often is the case with gang violence, the victims and perpetrators very much share the same background.
What happened in Long Island is that there was actually an escalation in violence for a number of years, and people there say that police and authorities didn’t really take it seriously 2016, when two girls who happened to be U.S. citizens and the daughters of U.S. citizens — they weren’t white but they were American families that really felt better able to go to police, they were less scared to go to police and demand justice for their daughters — and these two girls, of course, were brutally murdered. The story’s absolutely horrifying, and that’s what really put Long Island and the Long Island gang violence problem on the map for the rest of the country.
But it didn’t start there. There were kids that had gone missing months before that. And in fact, when police finally started investigating these two murders, they started finding all these other bodies, mostly immigrant kids that had gone missing for months and that nobody had really bothered to look for.
One of the things that I’m hearing over and over again, and I think that’s what’s really interesting, it tells you how much of an American story this is, as opposed to this transnational immigrant one that the administration is trying to portray, is the fact that this violence happened in the same way that violence happens in other American communities: because schools are underfunded, because kids don’t have places to hang out at, because there’s massive poverty, because of, you know, the same issues we see in suburban communities all over the country.
JS: Your article centers around the story of one teenager in Long Island. You call him Dennis, you changed his name for his own protection, who is right now in jeopardy of being deported. Explain his story.
AS: Dennis arrived in Long Island just over two years ago as an unaccompanied minor, which means he crossed the border without a parent or legal guardian and he was one of more than 8,000 kids who crossed the border alone and resettled in Long Island, which is one of the largest communities where unaccompanied minors were resettled.
He had left El Salvador because of fear of gangs there, you know, gangs there had tried to recruit him, a few kids were killed in his neighborhood and he just fled to join his mother who already lived in Long Island. And then when he arrived, as many unaccompanied minors do, he filed for immigration which is a process that’s pretty lengthy, and so he was really in legal limbo. He was waiting for his legal status to be approved.
Meanwhile, he attended school. He went to Hempstead High School. He was doing well. One day, he says he was attacked by a group of kids that he didn’t know that called him “chavala,” which is this gang’s slang word for enemies of the MS-13. He said he defended himself and that resulted in a school suspension.
Now, in any other situation, that would have just ended there with a school suspension, but we have seen two things happening here. First of all, because of the growing partnership between local law enforcement and schools, there are police officers that are now stationed in schools across the country, including Long Island, and so often when something like that happens that normally would just be a disciplinary issue, a criminal charge is triggered. And that’s what happened in this case: Dennis got an assault charge on his previously clean record.
Secondly, because he’s undocumented, while awaiting his immigration status to be legalized, he had ICE agents show up at his door.
But that didn’t happen right away, that happened months after his suspension. So, he thought he was fine, he thought he was doing well, he was taking remedial classes, he was kind of keeping a low profile and trying not to get in trouble. And then one day, out of nowhere, ICE showed up at his door, they let themselves in and I say that because they told the mother, “We have to come in.” They didn’t ask, “Can we come in?”
And this is an important point because ICE maintains that their officers don’t just walk into a place. They need a warrant or they need a consent of the person.
JS: Did they have any warrant when they showed up?
AS: They didn’t have a warrant and what, according to what the mother tells me, they didn’t ask to be let in, they just said: “We have to come in.” They took Dennis with them. They told the mom they would bring him back; they didn’t bring him back.
She called the police, the police told her: “It’s ICE, we can’t do anything about it.” And then a day later, Dennis called her from LaGuardia Airport while he was on his way to California.
And he was sent to Yolo [County Juvenile Detention Facility] detention center in Northern California, which is a center for unaccompanied minors. Usually, that’s where kids that cross the border are sent while the government tries to figure out their situation, but increasingly a lot of kids that have lived in the U.S. for months or years and suddenly are accused of gang affiliation are being picked up by ICE and sent there.
JS: So, they were going to deport this teenager to — ?
AS: Before somebody is deported, they will be sent to a detention center while an immigration judge reviews their case. While that happened, his lawyers, of course, got involved and, you know, his mother who is an undocumented worker in a restaurant, she’s definitely like not wealthy by any means, she’s paid thousands of dollars to an immigration attorney.
JS: Yeah, you said $5000.
AS: $5000, yeah, after having paid $6000 to get Dennis smuggled across the border by a coyote, right? So, the burden, the financial burden on this family is also massive.
JS: Where is he now?
AS: He was eventually sent back to New York after two months to a different attention center, a lower-security detention center outside of New York City. When I met him, he was still living there and then just recently he was released them was able to return to Long Island. But his removal proceedings stand.
So, what happens is when detention centers release somebody because they don’t have enough evidence, that doesn’t mean that the deportation risk goes away. While you’re undocumented, you’re going to be at risk of deportation, and so he basically lives with the expectation that ICE could come knocking on his door anytime.
JS: In your investigation, your reporting you’ve discovered this is hardly a one-off thing or sort of the exception to how these cases are handled. Talk about Operation Matador, which is ostensibly a program to target gang members even if they don’t have a criminal history like that’s the official explanation of it. How does it work?
AS: Right, it’s a partnership between local and federal law enforcement, and we’re seeing that happening across the country right now where you have local police departments, particularly in places that don’t have sanctuary policies, work very closely with ICE and federal agents.
And Operation Matador essentially gives ICE more leeway because, you know, being a gang member by itself is not a crime but what they’re doing is targeting all those people that are not being charged for a crime and just are accused of gang affiliation and they target those for removal. So, the way ICE presents it is, you know, this is a way for them to arrest somebody and deport them before they commit crimes.
And what’s interesting about this is that Congress has been trying to pass legislation that would essentially make that the law for everybody, including immigrants with legal papers. So, a week after Trump decided, announced that he would end DACA, Congress passed a bill that would essentially make any gang affiliation of any immigrant cause for removal, which is obviously a much looser criteria than what we have now, which is, you know, a criminal conviction is required.
That hasn’t passed the Senate yet, it’s unclear whether it will, but it kind of gives you a sense of how sweeping and broad this administration’s crackdown is.
JS: You talk about how sometimes kids who don’t speak English are put in a position where they are led to believe that they need to sign paperwork that they don’t actually understand.
AS: Yes. Some of the tactics used by ICE, and not only ICE, local police as well are really quite appalling. I mean, kids, again, as you mention, that don’t speak English are made to sign, sign away access to confidential information, confidential records. Kids are threatened with deportation in order to collaborate with authorities’ investigations.
Sometimes there are kids that collaborate with authorities’ investigations, you know, provide them information about gangs and then suddenly have ICE turn on them and deport them after having contributed to investigations.
JS: And calling this thing, you know, Operation Matador, I mean it’s —
AS: It’s disgusting.
JS: I mean, but it’s, yet it’s not at all surprising. I mean, I read your story, and as I’m reading your story, I see that Jeff Sessions is giving this speech in front of all of these sheriffs and talking about the Anglo heritage of the sheriffs.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: So it’s an honor for me to be with you. This association is one of biggest law enforcement groups in America, with more than 75 years of history here.
JS: He wasn’t like paraphrasing some, you know, Supreme Court justice of old. He was owning that idea right now, and he knew exactly what he was saying when he was invoking the idea of the Anglo tradition of sheriffs.
AS: Absolutely and they’re not going to any length to kind of hide the racial bias.
JS: Right, I mean it’s like, the white sheriff, taking them down in Operation Matador.
AS: Absolutely. And, you know, what’s interesting, one of the fascinating things about this story is that the level of discourse, I mean the level discourse in this administration has been pretty appallingly low across the board, but around the MS-13 question, in particular, you’ve had ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan boasting, “My gang is bigger than theirs.” That’s the level of discourse we’re seeing right now. You have Trump calling these kids animals.
DJT: I was reading, one of these animals was caught, and explaining they like to knife them and cut them and let them die slowly because that way it’s more painful and they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals.
AS: There’s really, like, no effort at all to sort of disguise the racism.
JS: And we always, when we talk about this, we always then have to go back to: How did he talk about a mob of white supremacists who murdered someone, who gang-beat an African-American guy in a parking garage of the police department, and he was left there almost to die but for bystanders who intervened? I mean the politics of racism right now are so; it’s so overt what Trump and his attorney general are doing that I can’t see how anyone could interpret it any other way.
AS: And I think it’s strategic. I think he knows that there are people that want to hear that, and that’s why he keeps doing it. And actually, something that didn’t make it into the story but that I think is notable: When Trump went to Long Island in July to give one of his speeches about MS-13, he was talking to a Suffolk County Police Department audience, and he basically told officers that they should feel free to rough up suspects when they arrest them, that they shouldn’t be too concerned about their well-being.
DJT: I said, “Please don’t be too nice.” Like, when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand — [Scattered laughter from the audience]. Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head? I said: “You can take the hand away, OK?” [Laughter.]
AS: And the audience, which was made of police officers cheered and clapped, and that just gives you an idea of the violence and racism that this administration is promoting.
JS: You talked Walter Barrientos, who is with the group Make the Road New York, and he’s the coordinator for Long Island, they work really closely with families that end up in this situation. And I just want to share with our listeners some of the comments that he gave to you. He said: “In essence, what they’re doing is what they did post-9/11 with Muslim men […] We just don’t have a Guantánamo; what we have is all these immigration detention centers they’re sending young people to.”
AS: The parallel with Guantánamo is really striking and really important. There’s something else that’s mentioned in the story that’s, these really widespread use of gang databases that are picking up all across the country, there are these massive databases with thousands of names in them, and thousands of mistakes, you know, there’s a California database that lists 42 babies as active gang members, and ICE uses these databases and people don’t know when they’re inserted into these databases, and they don’t have any means to fight back, which is very similar to what happened with the no-fly list and other Muslim surveillance lists in the last decade or so.
JS: Alice Speri, thank you very much for your reporting.
AS: Thank you for having me.
JS: Alice Speri is a reporter for The Intercept. Her latest article is, “From School Suspension to Immigration Detention.”
JS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech in front of the National Sheriffs Association in Washington D.C. on Monday. And in his speech, Sessions said this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elective process.
JS: Now, all of that was in Jeff Sessions’ prepared remarks, but then the attorney general followed up with this statement that was not in the prepared remarks released by the Justice Department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.
JS: Yes, I know there is a legalistic and historical backstory to the use of the term Anglo when talking about sheriffs. You know what? There’s also a legalistic and historic backstory to black people being banned from voting or being counted as three-fifths of a person.
Jeff Sessions knew what he was doing. Maybe someone else could be cut some slack or ask for clarification if they said that, but we’re talking about a man in Jeff Sessions whose own colleagues said that he used the N-word and that he would make jokes about how he was going to join the Ku Klux Klan. There is nothing in Jeff Sessions’ history that would allow us to see what he did in that speech to the sheriffs as anything but a wink-wink to let the racists know he’s still their man — just like Trump saying that there are “good people on both sides,” just like how Trump and his acolytes constantly talk about violence in Chicago as a substitute for the racist perspective they only want thinly veiled these days.
There’s no doubt that the way that Trump talks and tweets, the people he’s chosen to surround himself with, the policies he’s announced or implemented, that this is a dangerous administration. But also there’s a risk in combining horrible things Trump does with horrible things that the U.S. has done for a very long time and then acting like it’s all Trump. It’s a complicated conversation to have, but it’s one that we should be having. It means exploring the historical roots of white supremacy in the United States, the way American wars are constantly put through a laundering process to make them seem noble and brave. The way “real American” has been defined and continues to be defined in our society.
For eight years, we had the first black president in U.S. history. And now we have a reality TV host who spends a great deal of time tweeting and watching TV.
So, what is unique to Trump and what is embedded in the politics of empire in the U.S.? Our next guest has written an excellent new book that takes on a lot of these questions. Nikhil Singh is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. His latest book is “Race and America’s Long War.”
Nikhil Singh, welcome to Intercepted.
Nikhil Singh: Thanks for having me.
JS: I want to start off by talking about one of the big themes in your latest book, the link between war-making and what you call race-making. Explain that.
NS: You know, I start the book with an epigraph from one of my favorite thinkers, who’s not that well known, a civil rights activist named Jack O’Dell. And he said that, “the great through lines of American history run from the slave plantation to the ghetto, and the frontier to the Pentagon.” So he’s really thinking about frontier war-making as a kind of formative national experience and then an internal security project that’s focused on a kind of anti-insurrectionary project aimed at slave revolts, essentially but against a population that is seen as potentially threatening, that’s internal to the Republic.
Both of those are projects that are defined in terms of state violence and war-making, that are fundamentally about alien populations: one, on the border, one in the interior. And so thinking of those as through lines, thinking of those as kind of origin stories for the formation of the United States that have a kind of a longue durée, it’s something that I’m interested in and I’m kind of tracing in various ways throughout the book.
JS: What do you mean by the phrase race-making?
NS: Race-making, I mean the creation of populations, groups whose alienage or whose difference becomes understood as constitutive of a relationship between them and another group.
By calling it race-making, I’m trying to highlight the fabrication of racial difference, to not see it as something that is somehow inherent out there in the world, but something that has to be produced by constituting divisions among people, often people who actually live together in the same social space. It’s something that happens through the passage of laws, the restriction of movement, the allocation of resources, but in a really fundamental way it happens through the distributions of violence. And that’s really what I’m arguing in the book.
JS: You write: “The commonsense view that overt, racially targeted, state-sanctioned violence is now unacceptable and a social problem leads to assessments that deem such violence, for example, police shootings of unarmed black men and women, as arising from justified fear, accident or individual error, rather than a structured and structuring public mechanism and investment.”
NS: I’m thinking about how we’re addressing a situation where we now have an increasing consciousness partly due to movements around Black Lives Matter, that there is a widespread phenomenon of police killing of civilians, often unarmed civilians and that is disproportionately African-Americans who are the victims of this violence, although not just African-Americans obviously, and there’s, if you really look at numbers for Native American populations, you find those are disproportionate as well.
So, in the United States, now, though — this is a little tough to parse because of Trump — but we tend to operate within an understanding of publicly sanctioned racism as something that’s been receding. It’s normatively unacceptable.
JS: We had a black president.
NS: We had a black president. We believe in inclusion. We believe in tolerance. And above all, we believe that our justice system operates fairly, which obviously extends to the police. So how do you square these two stories? How do you square the excessive force and violence of the police, on aggregate, the racial disproportionality of that story, with the kind of public story that wants to tell us that we are a constantly improving society organized around the rule of law, justice, and inclusion?
You square that story by essentially saying: These are events that happened in error, they happened by accident, they happened because a policeman was afraid, justifiably so, and that’s when the narrative starts to creep into something else. And you start to see how this sort of demonology of the black criminal or the dangerous subject kind of comes into the defense of the rationalization, right? What gets rationalized away as something that that has no real systemic reason, right? Has no structural reason, sort of begins to be made visible is something that actually is structured. Right? It is structured into our understanding of criminality. Race, that is, structured into our understanding or structures our understanding of the criminal, of the threatening, of the other in a way that is part and parcel of why there is this level of violence.
JS: What do you make of the discussion about gay men and women serving in the United States military and the question of whether the military is going to allow for government-funded gender reassignment surgery? What’s your view of that, because I sort of look at it and I sort of think: Well is it a good thing that there’s this idea that we have a rainbow-colored military that’s going to be slaughtering people across the world?
NS: Yeah it’s something I think about a lot and it’s something I think about a lot in the book which is that the military and the national security state, especially since, say, World War II, has been this kind of engine of inclusion. It has been at the forefront. I mean it was at the forefront of racial integration — of course, under social pressure, it didn’t just happen automatically, and now we see the extension of that into questions around women in combat or gays and lesbians or trans people in the military, and the various ways the military is going to continue to be or not, because it’s still contested, an agent of diversification. This is a tricky thing for us to work through because now that story of diversification and inclusion is enlisted in the project of empire.
The project of empire clearly once had a very naked, kind of racist face. You know, it was about the white man’s burden, it was about benighted peoples, it was about, you know, the inferior lesser breeds and so forth in the kind of language of the say, the British Empire, or the American Empire before World War II.
But after World War II, you really see how this notion of a kind of racially inclusive or multicultural imperial machine begins to develop.
And I’ll never forget this moment early in the Iraq War watching a Frontline episode. It was almost like one of those episodes from an American war movie where you see the kind of multicultural platoon out on patrol, it’s like a Latino guy, an African-American guy, a white guy and there are some Iraqis in handcuffs by the side of the road.
U.S. Soldier: That child don’t need to be here. You know where school is? That’s what he need to be doing. Not following you.
Narrator (of “Truth, War and Consequences”): We filmed these GIs after they caught a group of Iraqis stealing wood.
NS: These three guys are interrogating them and then, all of a sudden they say, “Well, you know because you did this, we’re going to have to exact a kind of punishment.”
U.S. Soldier: We’re trying to stop them from looting, and they don’t understand, so we’ll take that car and we’ll crush it. United States Army tankers.
NS: And they basically take their armored vehicle, and they like crush these guys’ car.
[Sounds of car being crushed by an armored vehicle. Laughter.]
U.S. Soldier: That’s what you get when you loot.
Narrator: Later, the car’s owner told us, “I’m a taxi driver. The car was my livelihood.”
NS: It’s this kind of moment of sort of, they don’t kill them, but they steal their livelihood, they enact collective punishment, all in the sort of image of their own righteousness. These guys are in their own country, their country is under occupation, they’re trying to eke out a living, and here they are like facing retribution from this military machine with a multicultural face.
And it’s really kind of become an alibi for the empire which still operates in its other face with the notion that it is policing and disciplining an inferior people. So even if the multicultural and inclusive face has sort of emerged as a kind of form of justification or a legitimation for the American military, there is still always this other side that constructs the enemy as somehow benighted, inferior, congenitally sort of constituted as a threatening population. And that is part of the kind of underside, the sort of history of race-making, to go back to the earlier point, I want to sort of foreground as a kind of insistent part of the rationale and logic of how the United States fights in the world.
JS: The way that you talk about the language that’s used in official American history to talk about war, American wars, I think it would be interesting to kind of give some examples of how various U.S. wars have been described and talked about and sort of what is drilled into the heads of kids in this country when it comes to war.
NS: The language of war is ubiquitous, right? We’ve had wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on crime. Cold War that lasted for 40 years, a War on Terror that now we’re told is going to last for another 40 years. You know? So, the language of war is ubiquitous.
But on the other hand, the United States hasn’t declared a war anywhere in the world, really, like formally, since World War II. So, there have been police actions, there have been various kinds of military authorizations.
JS: “Global contingency operations” was Obama’s favorite term.
NS: Right. Exactly. Yeah. So these sort of euphemisms for something that is not war, even though the popular discourse is all about war.
And then sort of think about the kind of earlier history, a continuous history of fighting Indian wars that were not understood or recognized as wars, they were really, again, seen as contingency operations, they were seen as the operations of kind of quasi-authorized settlers. You know, they were clearing operations, they were really kind of an ongoing counterinsurgency project.
JS: Well, and one of the most murderous ethnic cleansing campaigns, that is what happened here.
NS: That is what happened here.
JS: People from elsewhere got off their boats, onto the shores and almost instantly started a mass extermination, ethnic cleansing campaign of anyone that wasn’t a European, “settler.”
NS: Exactly, exactly. In the context of a least initially having to confront indigenous people as a real counterforce, having temporary agreements that were then constantly broken. And once the balance of forces shifted, any acts of violence by Indians in defense of their land or their kind of customary rights was increasingly described as crime. So, you have the kind of translation of sort of the language of co-equal combatants who have certain kinds of rights into a kind of asymmetrical language in which one party has the right of war and the other party is essentially seen as the party of a sort of asocial violence that needs to be disciplined, exterminated, sequestered, what have you.
And so there’s a reason, you know, why that history becomes so prominent again in the War on Terror because it’s almost the same kind of language. So, in a strange kind of way, we, we’ve inflated the language of war and then we’ve sort of hidden the idea that war is our modus operandi in the world.
JS: And in this country, there’s a media culture that dictates that you have to accept two primary factors in order to talk in a reasonable or responsible way about war. The one hand, you have that the U.S. motive is always based on some benign interest — that it’s a humanitarian intervention or it’s to stop a despot or a dictator from threatening world stability or it’s that a particular country is pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program, and then the other factor that I’ve noticed that needs to be present is you have to agree, if it’s not already natural to you, to a self-induced amnesia about how we ended up where we are, like in Syria today, in Iraq today, in Iran, in Somali, all these countries — Pakistan — around the world that the United States has played an active role in creating the conditions we see today. It’s like you erase all of that and only talk about the narrow question that officials in the U.S. pose: Is it right or wrong to try to stop country x from pursuing weapons of mass destruction?
NS: Absolutely. I mean you’re sort of pointing to two things: Wars are defensive, American wars are defensive, and they’re in the general interest. Right? So, they’re not motivated by a particular American desire for power, for resources, they’re not connected to any sort of past history of involvement or engagement that may have produced enmities or conflicts or destabilization, they’re always about creating security and creating the rule of law.
So, the acts of destabilization that have gone into producing the conditions of insecurity that then are sort of understood to be the motivation for the intervention are completely erased. And then the continued destabilization that is constituted by the intervention becomes the kind of stuff of like debate, and sort of hand wringing, you know, until the next time that an intervention is planned and demanded.
JS: In your study, have you ever come across a U.S. war that you believe was actually defensive in nature?
NS: I would actually have to say no. Even World War II was, in many ways, built upon threat inflation; it was built upon arguments that were later proved to be false about the ways in which the United States was actually threatened. And when you think about the rationale for World War II, when Roosevelt says, “We can’t be an island in a sea of tyranny in the world,” essentially. I mean the thinking that’s going into the intervention in World War II is that we’re going to become the world ordering power after this war, and that our security is now going to be bound up with being involved in every part of the world.
And I think it’s Dean Acheson who says to Truman a few years later, “There is no concept of security that is local anymore for the United States.” That’s a new thing, right? That’s a new idea, but that is an idea that is not actually about sort of a national defense. It’s actually about something else.
JS: And also, I mean it’s such an incendiary topic to raise in this country. When you go to almost any public event, whether it’s a graduation at a high school or a middle school, a sporting event, someone is going to invoke the heroic nature of the World War II record of the United States. And it happens, Republicans, Democrats, across the board, everywhere! It’s like our society is dripping in it.
And as I read your book, I was sort of thinking it’s such a great pushback to this notion that being born an American means you are born into the greatest nation that’s ever lived, the country that saves the world. I mean it really is like a nonstarter if you disagree with that in the mainstream of American discourse.
NS: To any way challenge the notion that the U.S. is a benign, world-ordering power is to break from a kind of a ideological sort of monolith. I mean it’s not even just a consensus, it’s kind of a, it’s really the equivalent of what we used to condemn as you know, Soviet, ideology. Right? It’s a kind of axiomatic and it’s one of the reasons why you know in this book and in some of my previous work, I really go back to the black radical tradition in thinking about World War II, in particular, and I use this quote from Langston Hughes where he talks about, we hate Hitler as much as anybody, but we also want to defeat what he calls our native fascisms.
And for African-Americans, you know, that notion that World War II would require a double victory a victory against fascism abroad and also against racism at home became a very sharp critique. Right? It was a refusal to prioritize something like kind of national security citizenship at the expense of the fight for justice at home, for one thing. And it was also a refusal of the idea that the United States was somehow, again, like a coherent sort of moral entity as opposed to actually a deeply divided imperial society internal to itself, one riven by these kinds of histories of racial violence, and sequester, and separation and dispossession that actually were not distinct historically or conceptually from the kinds of acts that the Nazis themselves were engaged in.
And, in fact, national socialists throughout the 1930s are reading about American Jim Crow law to like, figure out how to write the Nuremberg Laws. I mean they see the United States as an example. They’re talking about Eastern European Slavs as the equivalent of redskins. There’s a way in which in the history of kind of radicalized colonialism in the world, the United States has always been a major player. And so, the idea that that history is suddenly wiped away by the fact that the United States fought against fascism in World War II is really a kind of a laundering of a much longer history.
How do we square these things? This is not about saying that the United States is the source of all the world’s evil or anything like that, or even that the world isn’t a complicated and dangerous place in which you might actually have to think about the use of force.
I mean we could have that conversation, right Jeremy? I mean we could have, if we were going to have a serious conversation about how to think ethically about American power in the world.
JS: This is part of the point I’m getting at, we can have that conversation about World War II —
NS: Right, exactly.
JS: — if you don’t start the history of World War II at ’39. Is there a such entity, as al Qaeda, that does want to kill Americans, Westerners et cetera? Yeah, there is.
I would love to have the conversation about: How do we take away the motive or the justifications that these people use to their own base to justify their acts of violence. But it requires a real reckoning with American history. And that’s what’s not allowed.
NS: Well that was the amazing thing after 9/11, and it’s hard to believe sometimes that 9/11 is like, 17 years ago. It like, created like a total miasma, right?
JS: Well, and think of how many people, how many young people grew up — 9/11 is their entire reality.
NS: Their entire reality.
JS: That’s the entire frame of what’s going on in the world —
NS: Right, right.
JS: — is shaped by 9/11 and nonstop war.
NS: That’s right. And remember the one thing that was disallowed, right from the beginning of 9/11, you could not make an argument that there was motive. You could not make an argument that the people who committed that act might have had some even kernel of rational grievance that motivated it. It could only be the act of what became called terror.
JS: If you look at the targets that were chosen, I mean, the Pentagon, clearly a military target and then you hit the World Trade Center, right in the heart of financial power in the United States. Now, it’s dangerous to even go down this line of talking about it, but I think the point you’re making is: We have to remove any sense that people who are the others are motivated by a set of their own grievances that we may have played a role in creating. Rather, we can only look at it for the crime that was committed. Civilians were killed. End of story.
NS: That’s right. That’s right. And the only answer that we can engage in, in response to that, is our own kind of traumatizing violence. Right? So, 9/11 was a kind of traumatizing violence for Americans, to be sure and that was it by design. But the response to that can only be a kind of traumatizing violence, you know, and as opposed to some approach that might actually be reparative, and of course what we have done now for the last 17 years is to commit a kind of traumatizing violence all over the world. And to, if anything, strengthen the very possibility of long-range terrorist networks with motive and grievance that we were ostensibly setting out to eliminate.
So on its face it’s a failure, right? In its own terms it’s a failure. But we’re left with a situation where we’re asked to basically believe that the only response now is to continue down the same road. Right? Not to actually try to pull back and think about what it might mean to think differently about the kinds of relationships we’re in with people in different parts of the world.
JS: On the issue of Obama and how he talked about the killing of civilians, I’m sure you recall when Obama finally publicly came out and expressed some sense of regret over the killing of people in drone strikes, and it was when white Westerners, including an American citizen, were killed in strikes that Obama said were mistakes. But the overall way that Obama and his team talked about the issue of civilians being killed was always one of moral superiority: We don’t intend to kill civilians; when we bomb a hospital, we didn’t mean to do that; when we bomb a wedding party we didn’t mean to do that, see that’s the difference between us and al Qaeda. We didn’t mean to do it and they do mean to do it.
NS: Right. Right.
JS: Which, by the way, that’s bullshit. The United States has intentionally killed civilians.
NS: Of course.
JS: And they’ve said, “OK, a terrorist is in this building, we want him dead, there happy to be 30 other people in there, boom, they die today.” That’s cold, crass war-mongering right there and it’s war crimes, but Obama really spent a lot of his moral capital with the base trying to convince people that the benign nature of American war-making makes us morally superior to those who fly planes into buildings or shell a school.
NS: Definitely, and I think this is an old debate — again, even going back to the Vietnam War and the sort of origins of American counterinsurgency. You know, the idea that that we act with a minimum of violence, we, through our very careful, deliberative, kind of rule-bound process, we come to the sort of absolute minimal threshold of necessary force and that is what makes us morally superior. So, it’s both about the following of a rule and it’s about the minimization.
And I’ve, I always find it extraordinary because of course you’re right. Oftentimes the calculation is probabilistic. It’s like: There might be one terrorist. So if we do this and take them out and there are other casualties, it is collateral damage. It’s not intentional, but it is entirely foreseeable.
So what does it mean to say that we commit mayhem that is not intentional but entirely foreseeable? How does that make us somehow morally less culpable? And thinking about it from the other side, from the eyes of people who are the victims of American power, of course there’s no distinction.
And therefore when you turn around and try to look at American power through those eyes, what do you see? You don’t see the operations of rule and the minimization of violence, you see the operations of a power that sees itself as able to act with impunity and to commit a kind of atrocity that has no sort of limitation to it that is understandable within the terms of those who are on the other side of it or on the receiving end of it. Right? So Trump comes in and basically says, you know: We’re going to take the gloves off because this hasn’t worked and now we’re going to sort of free the commanders in the field to sort of use maximum discretion and we’ve already seen what’s, what’s happening with that.
JS: Discretion sounds almost like they’re being — I mean, I know what the words means, but he’s widened the rules of engagement so they can kill more civilians if they feel like it’s necessary.
NS: Right, right. Basically: Take the gloves off, do what you need to do and don’t worry so much about it. So, and that’s seen as the sort of adventurous spirit, the spirit that’s really going to lead to victory.
So, you oscillate between these poles of kind of: We’re following the rules and we’re being careful and we’re killing just enough of them to keep everyone safe, and then, when that doesn’t work, now we’re going to take the gloves off. Nobody really thinks about trying anything different.
And you’re right. Not only is this going to be with us for a long time, but as we excavate the sort of history of violence in the future, we’re going to find out things that we didn’t know before about the consequences and the casualties. You know, I’m thinking of like Nick Turse’s work on you know, “A My Lai a Month” in Vietnam, you know, that there [are] shrines all over rural Vietnam where massacres occurred, you know and, where people —
JS: That book is called “Kill Anything That Moves” and it’s amazing.
NS: Right. It’s a fantastic book. This is not a well-known history, and the use of body counts in the Vietnam War, I mean the scale was bigger, so let’s not make it identical, but it was a similar kind of obfuscating exercise. You know? It was always the enemy who was killed.
JS: What do you think is the both the short-term and long-term impact of having such overt racist rhetoric attached to racist policy in the United States? Or to have someone like Trump who seems to just thrive on the idea in his own head that he is the anti-PC guy, but really, you know, completely legitimizing, if not at times celebrating, acts of outright violent racism from the presidential podium, whether it’s Twitter or a press conference.
NS: I’m not like, one of the sort of the apocalypse is coming, you know? I mean: the apocalypse may be coming, which is the environmental apocalypse. There are all kinds of things —
JS: Well, I keep saying to people, Trump’s nowhere near murdering as many people as Bush and Cheney yet.
NS: Exactly. Exactly.
JS: But he’s as scary in his own way.
NS: Exactly. And, you don’t really, you don’t know with him when the, when the shoe is going to finally drop, right? Whether it’s in North Korea or, or, or somewhere else. There is a sort of a feeling of anxiety that people have that’s legitimate. But I think that again the anxiety has been something that’s being stoked in us for at least two decades, you know, that Americans live with the expectation of violence. And we live with the expectation that our state will commit violence on a, sometimes, perhaps even on a scale that is horrifying to us as Americans, right?
But in terms of the kind of consequences of what Trump’s doing, I mean Trump is dangerous in the sense that I think he is animating a kind of a notion of American citizenship and native-born status and racial status as somehow either the equivalent of an entitlement to rule others or something that has been dispossessed and therefore we need to kind of reclaim it. That’s a scary gambit.
I think there was a kind of a sense that, OK, the white supremacy project, you know, which was such a huge sort of part of American history is no longer really viable. But I think Trump’s trying to make it viable again.
JS: Professor Nikhil Singh, thank you very much for joining us.
NS: Thank you so much, Jeremy. It was a pleasure talking to you.
JS: Nikhil Singh is professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. His latest book is “Race and America’s Long War.” His previous book was “Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy.” We’re going to be running an extended version of this interview over the weekend at theintercept.com. Make sure to check that out.
JS: Last December, as nationwide protests broke out across Iran and continued into the New Year, Donald Trump and a battalion of neoconservatives salivated at the idea that the protests could be co-opted into a push for regime change.
Trump launched a tweetstorm that was essentially using the veneer of support for the protesters and their democratic rights to press for regime change. At one-point, Trump tweeted: “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever.”
The official TV network of the White House living quarters, Fox News, got into some game theory about regime change with the famed neo-con and possible future administration official John Bolton.
Brian Kilmeade: Is there a way that we can use these protests to benefit our geopolitical stance in the world?
John Bolton: Absolutely. These protests [are] about whether the regime survives or not and that makes them much more threatening to the ayatollahs much more dangerous and raises the stakes considerably. I think President Trump has already signaled a huge difference from the Obama administration by supporting the protesters. But I think we need to do more. We do not want to make —
JS: But it’s not just the John Boltons or the Newt Gingrichs of the world talking on Fox’s news. Those guys are sort of Trump’s outside B team banging the drums for regime change.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is a well-known hawk on Iran, recently characterized Iran as the greatest threat in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary James Mattis: What we find is wherever there are challenges, wherever there is chaos, wherever there is violence, whether it be in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, the attempts to unsettle Bahrain, we always find Iran and the IRGC at it, and it’s not the Iranian people. We are convinced it’s a regime that is conducting itself in order to stay in power in Tehran as a revolutionary regime, not as a proper nation-state. They are not looking out for the best interests of their own people and so you’ve got this revolutionary cause that causes them to then go around creating mischief everywhere.
JS: Trump and his administration continue to rail against the nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration. That deal’s known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. But Trump’s people always leave out a key detail. This deal was not just with the United States. It wasn’t just Obama and the ayatollahs. It was with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union.
There’s been a lot of focus lately on North Korea, and rightly so, but Iran has long been in the crosshairs of the neo-cons, and the Trump moment may offer them the best shot they have at regime change.
We’re joined now from Jerusalem by Holly Dagres. She is an Iranian-American analyst who worked for the U.S. State Department. She grew up in Iran and is also the curator of The Iranist newsletter. Holly, welcome to Intercepted.
Holly Dagres: Thank you for having me.
JS: Let’s start with some of the most recent developments on Iran. Put the protests that we saw recently in the broader context of what’s happening with Iran and the Trump administration and other players in the region.
HD: Well, these protests you’re talking about started on December 28, and essentially there were small protests that were started by what we assume to be the working class Iranians.
And, at first there were small numbers in the street, a few hundred to a thousand at most, and then soon these protests had spread to over 80 cities and provincial towns, places we haven’t heard since the 1979 revolution. Protesters had legitimate grievances. They were discontent with the state of the economy, corruption and, of course, disenchantment with the Iranian government’s itself. And for us, even though this number was about 100,000, probably at max, out of an 82 million population, these were like the number, biggest protests we had seen in years.
[Chants of Iranian protestors.]
HD: The thing that was really interesting was the perception of it in the West, so the way that some of the media was covering it and of course the Trump administration itself. They were looking at these protests like this was going to be the start of toppling the Iranian government.
Now, it’s worth noting that these aren’t the first protests we’ve seen in Iran in the past 39 years. One of the bigger ones was the 1999 student uprisings under President Mohammed Khatami, everyone knows the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement.
Unfortunately, when we look at protests in Iran, everyone tends to think this is the second coming of a revolution and this might be the end to the Iranian government and that there’s going to be a regime change. And so I think there was this sense in Washington, especially amongst neo-cons and of course a lot of U.S. allies that this was going to be the beginning of the end of the Iranian government. But so far, we really haven’t seen that happen.
Protesting is in the Iranian people’s blood. They’ve been protesting since the early 20th century. So when we’re looking at these protests, while they are very important, and these people have very legitimate grievances, this isn’t exactly news for Iran.
JS: What are the actual demands of the protesters and is there any way in which there are sectors of the individuals protesting that are in sync with a neo-con agenda, or would welcome sort of the analysis of John Bolton to guide them forward?
HD: So, there are three major things: the economy, corruption, and discontent with the Iranian government. The economy, we had a lot of Iranians discontent because there was a big unemployment, it’s 12 percent, but for youth unemployment, it’s as high as 40 percent. And Iranians are highly educated, some of the more educated in the Middle East and North Africa, so for them they’re getting out of college with degrees, kind of almost like Americans are and they’re not able to find jobs. So that’s a very big problem.
And, at the same time, Iran is isolated from the world, they’re trying to make entry into the world community after the releasing of some of these sanctions, and the nuclear deal, and they’re not seeing some of that trickle-down hope that they were promised when the JCPOA was signed in 2015, and they’re seeing that a lot of Iranian government officials are somehow making money off of this, some of their kids are driving Ferraris and Maseratis in the street, how is it that this government that came to 1979, to the people, came through the people’s protests, then promised so much, that they’re doing exactly what the Shah did? Which is: There’s a lot of corruption, and they’re helping their cronies and there’s a lot of disparity between the rich and the poor.
And then going back to John Bolton and the neo-cons, there were protests that actually chanted for in favor of the Shah and the regime change, but these were really big numbers and they didn’t make up the majority of the protester’s demands and whatnot. And I think it’s worth noting that some of this is coming from Iranian diaspora channels, like Manoto Farsi, which is a pro-Shah diaspora channel that paints a picture of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as this perfect democracy where Iranians could wear bikinis at the beaches, without really talking about the countless human rights violations, some which were so bad that Amnesty International said in 1976 that there was no worse human rights in the world than in Iran.
And so there’s a new generation of Iranians that are growing up in Iran with no memory of what the Shah did, and they’re watching these things on satellite and they’re thinking, “Well, this is something that I long for, something that should have been in our country but this revolution ruined it for us.” And I think this is that narrative, this very small group of people in Iran that feel this way that the neo-cons are trying to hijack and push for regime change in Iran.
JS: There are some similarities with how certain sectors of the political class in the United States talk about North Korea and Iran, and obviously there’s huge differences between these two countries and their history, but what I find particularly interesting is that in the early 1950s, you had the United States really carpet bombing North Korea, using napalm. An enormous number of people were killed by the United States, and when we talk today about North Korea, that part of history is never brought up in terms of understanding the current political context.
And in Iran, in the early 1950s, the United States overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Newscaster: Attention is focused once again on the Middle East, where the events in Iran have taken a dramatic double twist. In Tehran, it looked as if Mosaddegh would soon be named president, and on his orders, troops occupied the Shah’s palaces and surrounded parliament.
Mosaddegh and his government were swept from power in favor of General Zahedi, the man appointed by the Shah in the first place.
JS: Do you think that coup and that overthrow that the United States initiated and facilitated in one 1953 in Iran still has a legacy to this day in how Iranian politics work, and function and the role of protest?
HD: I think it absolutely does. The reason the Iran Hostage Crisis happened was because there was this concern that the U.S. would install the Shah. So, I mean it wasn’t official that the coup was actually CIA-backed, it wasn’t until the Clinton administration was that publicly known, so you had all these Iranian students take over the embassy with the fear that the Shah was going to come back to Iran.
Newscaster: The American embassy in Tehran is in the hands of Muslim students tonight, spurred on by an anti-American speech by the Ayatollah Khomeini, they stormed the embassy, fought the Marine guards for three hours, overpowered them and took dozens of American hostages. The students want the deposed Shah returned to Iran for trial.
HD: And ever since, I mean when Khomeini devised the Vilayat-e Faqih, the Islamic jurisprudence that makes up the Iranian system of governance, he very much had the Mosaddegh coup in mind. And he devised a system of governance that was virtually coup-proof, which meaning that you could remove the president or the supreme leader, but the Iranian government was here to stay. And that’s also one of the reasons why there’s an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to protect the revolution from outside meddling and so on and so forth.
And so I think a lot of the legacy of what is the Islamic Republic today is based on that very coup in 1953, and it still resonates in the Iranian peoples’ mind.
JS: I’m curious to know your analysis of the spate of assassinations, killings, that we saw some years ago of Iranian nuclear scientists, and your sense of who is behind that.
HD: It was very shocking to a lot of people. I think when the first nuclear scientist reportedly had died of a fixation a lot of people just thought it was kind of an exaggeration by the Iranian government, that this was done by outside forces.
And then when a more of the assassinations happened, like including a bomb that was strapped to a car, there was a sense that this was definitely something from the outside.
Diane Sawyer: Precision kill. A nuclear scientist who was a key player in Iran’s nuclear program killed in broad daylight. And tonight the dangerous tension between the U.S. and Iran has ratcheted even higher, Iran pointing the finger squarely at the U.S. and our allies in Israel.
HD: Now, we weren’t really told exactly what went on, but it seems that the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which is a terrorist organization that was formally designated under the State Department. There was a sense that these MEK operatives were the ones that actually were doing a lot of the bidding by the CIA, and I assume, the Mossad. But I don’t have enough information in front of me about that, but just based off of what I’ve been reading in The New York Times and whatnot, that seems to be the consensus of what happened.
JS: Well and you talk about the MEK, which, of course, was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, and yet you had very prominent politicians from both the Democrats and Republicans taking money to go and speak at MEK events or promote them as the real democratic force in Iran, including people like Howard Dean.
Why are our prominent U.S. political figures in bed with this group that you just described as a terrorist organization?
HD: Well, the MEK is an interesting group. During the 1970s, they were known to have attacked and killed Americans. They were very much involved in the 1979 revolution and actually sided with Khomeini until Khomeini saw them no longer relevant. And they eventually went to Iraq and fought on the side of Saddam against their own Iranian compatriots during the Iran-Iraq war, and a lot of Iranians saw them as traitors.
And the MEK for the average Iranian, is not just a terrorist organization, but they’re seen as an Islamic, Marxist cult and likened to Khmer Rouge of Iran. And so, when Iranians from the inside or even in the diaspora see them cozying up to not just Howard Dean, but Senator John McCain, General Wesley Clark, this is something that makes a lot of Iranians, whether they’re Iranian-American or Iranians in general, uncomfortable.
JS: Well let me just add a couple more: two former CIA directors James Woolsey and Porter Goss were speaking at MEK conferences, Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary under George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Mukasey, the former attorney general, Louis Freeh, the former FBI director. I mean these are pretty elite supporters to have in terms of the U.S. national security community for a group that was specifically designated a terror organization.
HD: Absolutely. I think that’s really a disturbing notion, just the idea of the MEK even having that sort of relevance, the fact that we’re giving them a voice, that were interviewing them nonstop in big news organizations and that we have all these U.S. politicians cozying up to them like that.
And it amazes me, we still don’t know where they’re getting their funding. We’re under the assumption that Saddam Hussein gave a lot of his oil money to back the MEK during the 1980s, but now with Saddam Hussein toppled, it seems that some people are getting the sense that the Saudis are the ones that are backing the MEK and paying a lot of these politicians to speak on their behalf. For five minutes, you can get paid 25 to 50 grand just for saying some nice things about regime change and democracy in Iran. And so, that’s really a disturbing precedent.
JS: Let’s talk about the Iran nuclear deal. Give us a sort of nuclear deal 101: What happened under Obama, the context of it, and what was agreed to?
HD: So when you talk about the Obama nuclear deal, everybody sits down and says, oh, well this is just so easy, they made a deal with Iran and promised them millions and billions of dollars. But it really wasn’t like that. When you, when you talk to both sides, whether it’s the Obama administration, the Iranians or the Europeans, nobody liked the deal.
President Barack Obama: Today, the United States, together with our allies and partners, has reached historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This framework …
HD: This was a nuclear deal signed between five world powers, specifically on Iran’s nuclear program. Not about human rights and other things that a lot of people like to bring up. But this was specifically about curbing Iran’s nuclear programs from making nuclear weapons.
BO: And Iran has also agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.
So this deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification. With this deal —
HD: It’s some of the most robust inspections in the world. There’s constant surprise visits to these nuclear facilities and this is not even being talked about enough. Instead, right now, the Trump administration seems to be focusing on the human rights angle and the missile angle, and when you’ve signed the dotted line, and everybody, all parties have agreed to it, this is what’s going to happen: you can’t just suddenly say, “Well, I don’t like what’s going on. I want changes, I want to add some, some additional things to that.”
And that’s right now what the Trump administration’s doing, and every time Trump says he’s going to kill the nuclear deal, it really hurts Iran’s economy, it hurts the possibility of other countries investing in Iran and I think that’s really worth mentioning.
DJT: When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom. [Audience applauds.]
JS: What about the role of Israel both as a unilateral actor and also as a U.S. ally the situation vis-à-vis the situation with Iran?
HD: Israel is kind of in a good situation right now because they’re in the good graces of the current U.S. administration. And I think, in a way, it gives them a carte blanche to do whatever they want.
At the same time, I think Israelis, especially when you talk to a lot of their former intelligence heads, they have a sense that going to war with Iran or attacking nuclear facilities isn’t really a good idea. And even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to say that, I think there’s a sense, a general consensus among the intelligence community here that what they’re really focusing on is more of the proxy wars, so focusing on Lebanon and Syria, like we just saw in the past few days.
And I think they’re going to be focusing on a potential military strike there more than anything than actually going to Iran proper.
JS: What is the current Iranian strategy in the region? I mean, you know, Iran is definitely deeply involved in Syria, remains incredibly involved in Iraq, is — certainly wants to be involved — in Yemen though that’s an extremely complicated situation that often is radically oversimplified in the U.S. press. What is Iran’s perspective on its role as a regional power?
HD: I don’t think Iran really chose to be in this position, necessarily. I think what happened was that when the U.S. when it invaded its two neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, it kind of had to reassess its role in the region. When you have U.S. military bases surrounding you, and especially in neighboring Iraq, where there was a big military presence, there was a sense that Iran might be next. And as somebody that had grown up in Tehran during that time, on the ground, we really had that sense that Iran was going to be the third country. And I think the Iranian government realized this was an opportunity to go into Iraq and make a quagmire and make sure that the Americans don’t come knocking on their door.
And when Syria kicked off, an interesting note is that Syria and Iran actually have a defense treaty from 2006 and they said that if one was attacked they rushed to protect the other, and essentially that’s what happened with Syria. Unfortunately, it’s the biggest tragedies we’ve seen since the World Wars, I would say, with the refugee crisis and whatnot and Iran, unfortunately, has a hand in those atrocities.
But for Iran, this is purely defensive. It’s not that they’re trying to spread Shiaism through the Middle East. And I think when people talk about Iran in terms of a Persian Empire, Iran is not trying to spread a Persian Empire, Iran has an empire mentality. Iran has thousands of years of history and culture, and with that, history of statecraft, and for them, they want to be part of the regional table, they want to have a say in things and by having their hands in Syria and Iraq and, in some ways, in Yemen, they want to say, “We are relevant too,” and it’s no different than what Turkey and Russia is doing. And I think that again goes back to the empire mentality.
JS: Do you see a scenario in the relatively near future where the kind of more theocratic influences on Iran’s political system, system of governance, foreign policy will abate or lessen or sort of be overthrown by protest?
HD: As somebody that’s lived in Iran, and unfortunately, I’ve been interrogated by the Iranian government, threatened with imprisonment, I do want to see change. But at the same time, I think we have to be realistic. This is a government that has been devised in a way that it’s virtually coup-proof. There’s a big system of governance involved here. It’s not like the Shah and his generals. This is a group of people that don’t have to dual nationalities, in some ways. They don’t have the ability to flee to the West if some things were to kick off, so they’re going to be holding on to dear life.
And for the average Iranian, they’re very much aware of this. I mean Iranians know about the atrocities being committed in Syria, and they know that if things were to really kick off in Iran, the Iranian government would violently try to stay in power. And having seen what the Iranian government has helped the Assad regime do in Syria, you know, for us, we’re looking at that and we’re like, wow, they really can do that to us, too. And this is coming from people that thought 2009, the Green Movement, was one of the worst things that ever happened to them, when they had at least 50 dead and thousands of arrested.
So I think Iranians themselves are very much realistic about the realities on the ground and its people that have survived a very bloody revolution in 1979 and people that have survived an eight-year, bloody Iran-Iraq war, I think there is a sense of caution when it comes to regime change in Iran.
JS: Do you think that Iran actually does pose any sort of a security threat to the United States? I mean clearly, Iran has been involved with targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq, either indirectly through weapons or, in some cases, you’ve had Iranian support for various militias. But in a broader sense, does Iran pose a security threat to the United States or to Israel?
HD: I would say no. I’m not just saying it because that’s what my gut tells me. I think that Iran’s very much on the defense. I think Iran only acts out when it feels like it’s being threatened, and for Iran there’s been a sense it’s been under siege for 39 years now, there’s this constant threat of regime change, and given the history of U.S.-Iran relations, and some of the things that the United States has done, such as the coup and even providing intelligence and maps for Saddam Hussein’s soldiers to gas Iranian soldiers, I think there’s a sense for Iran that everybody is out to get them. And if they were just left alone, and had the Iraq war not happened, and the Arab Spring, I think things would have been very different in the region right now.
But, unfortunately, we have a lot of hard-liners in Iran that like to run their mouths and not very different from President Donald Trump, they like to say things that saber rattle and kind of puff their chests and unfortunately say, they’d like to wipe Israel off the map. But do they really mean it? I highly doubt it. I mean, if that was the case, they would have done in ages ago. And I think Iranians are very much aware that if they were to drop a bomb in Tel Aviv tomorrow, they were going to get 20 over, so that would be the end of their country and their people and their civilization.
So, there’s common sense on the Iranian part when it comes to this sort of thing.
JS: What would you envision as a reasonable U.S. posture toward Iran? What would your counsel be to try to achieve what status with Iran?
HD: We need a China model with Iran. We’ve made friends with our enemies before — China, Russia. I don’t see why things can’t be any different with Iran and I know we look at the hardliners and a lot of the rhetoric, but I think the worst thing you could do to the Iranian government is try to make friends of them. And it’s something that the Iranian people want, it’s something that would actually hurt the Iranian government more than anything because essentially their raison d’être is to be anti-Western imperialism and anti-West, especially the United States. But if you give them this opportunity that you’re like, hey, let’s be friends! I think they’ll be caught with their pants down, and the sanctions and the threats of war and so on won’t do as much damage as actually opening relations with Iran.
And I think Cuba is a perfect example of that. We’ve been sanctioning and talking about regime change in Cuba for over 50 years, and what did it get us? Nothing. But unfortunately, the damage has been done. If we want to talk about the reality, the Trump Administration’s threats, a lot of just the history of U.S.-Iran relations kind of make it seem like that’s a really unrealistic thing.
Perhaps if there was magically a third term under Obama, which obviously democracy doesn’t allow, but had the Iran deal happened in his first term, I think the second term maybe things would have been different. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.
JS: Well Holly, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for sharing your analysis with us on Intercepted.
HD: Thank you.
JS: Holly Dagres is a former State Department Iran analyst and the curator of The Iranist newsletter. She spoke to us from Jerusalem.
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. We have some great thank you gifts for our sustaining members. Sam Sabzehzar is our honorary producer, and we thank you for your generous support.
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. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Special thanks to Josh Begley. And Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
William H. Macy (as Charles Young): Two things I know to be true: There’s no difference between good flan and bad flan. And there is no war.