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A mercenary, a torturer, and a conspiracy theorist walk into the White House. In the Trump administration, that’s called “Tuesday.” This week on Intercepted: Exxon Mobil is out at the State Department. A radical Christian ideologue is in. And a veteran CIA officer who tortured detainees and set up the CIA black sites after 9/11 is slated to take the helm at Langley. And all of this happened in one fell swoop on Tuesday morning. The Intercept’s Matthew Cole and Jeremy analyze the major re-shuffle in Trumpland and what it means for the future of the planet. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who led the investigation of Erik Prince and Blackwater for years in Congress, analyzes the ongoing scandal over his alleged role in the Trump era and explains why she had her house swept for surveillance when she was investigating Prince. Musical artists Ana Tijoux and Lila Downs talk about the politics of colonialism, neoliberalism, and revolution and their new collaboration on the song, “Tinta Roja.” And, fresh off her stellar debut on 60 Minutes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stars in “Kindergarten Cop.”
Lesley Stahl: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is the most hated member of the Trump Cabinet. Now, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, president Trump is expected to appoint her to prevent school violence.
LS: Do you think that teachers should have guns in the classroom?
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: That should be an option. I hesitate to think of like, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in that way.
Narrator: Now, more than ever, to be a teacher requires patience. Fortunately, Astoria Elementary has just hired such an individual: (Gun cocks.) Kindergarten Cop.
Penelope Ann Miller (as Joyce): Kindergarten is like the ocean. You don’t want to turn your back on it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (as John Kimble in “Kindergarten Cop”: Don’t worry. Everything is under control.
Narrator: He’s been trained to shoot.
PAM: What made you become a kindergarten teacher?
Narrator: He’s been trained to fight, before a killer does.
AS: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Stop whining. You kids are soft. You lack discipline. But I’ve got news for you: You are mine now! You belong to me.
Narrator: Kindergarten Cop.
President Donald J. Trump: A gun-free zone to a killer? That’s like going in for the ice cream.
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 48 of Intercepted.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: My commission as Secretary of State will terminate at midnight, March 31.
Between now and then, I will address a few administrative matters related to my departure, and work toward a smooth and orderly transition for Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo.
DJT: I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same intellect. The relationship has been very good and that’s what I need as Secretary of State. I wish Rex Tillerson well.
JS: Exxon Mobil is out at the State Department; a radical Christian ideologue is in, and a veteran CIA officer who directly participated in the torture of detainees and was key to setting up the CIA black sites during the Bush-Cheney administration, is now slated to take the helm at Langley. And all of this happened in one fell swoop on Tuesday morning.
DJT: And, I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want. But I think Mike Pompeo will be a truly great Secretary of State. I have total confidence in him.
JS: We’re going to get to Secretary of State designate and current CIA director Mike Pompeo in a moment, but first Donald Trump has now named Gina Haspel as CIA director and Trump is already boasting that she’s going to be breaking the glass ceiling as the first woman to head the CIA.
But Haspel has an atrocious, some would say criminal history, at the CIA. She oversaw the torture of at least two prisoners that were taken after 9/11. They were subjected to waterboarding and other acts of torture and abuse. This happened at a CIA black site in Thailand that Gina Haspel helped to set up and run.
She was also deeply involved with the CIA global kidnapping program — it’s officially referred to as “extraordinary rendition” but it was a kidnapping program.
Oh, and Gina Haspel? She was one of the key people at the CIA who directed the destruction of evidence in the form of tapes of CIA interrogations. This is the person that Donald Trump has just named as the next CIA director.
Of course, over on Fox News, they were just ecstatic about this. Here is the legendary Islamophobe and pro-torture retired General Jerry Boykin.
General William “Jerry” Boykin: Mike Pompeo is a perfect choice. Mike is in sync with the president but Mike is also a very experienced not only intelligence officer but also he’s been a member of Congress, been on the Intel Committees, and I think that he has a much better understanding of the situation in the world today in general, but certainly among our allies, as well as our enemies.
JS: So that was on Fox News, but over at MSNBC, the official television network of the #resistance, the coverage must have been harsh? I mean they were going to town on Gina Haspel, right? Wrong. They had on a string of former intelligence officers to tell us how we shouldn’t judge Haspel on her involvement with torture or black sites, that that’s in the past. And if that wasn’t gross enough, MSNBC had on John Brennan to discuss his longtime colleague.
John Brennan, of course, was President Barack Obama’s CIA director, and here is how John Brennan fawned over and defended this torturer who Trump wants to be CIA director:
John Brennan: She has you know more than three decades experience both abroad as well as at headquarters. She has a tremendous respect within the ranks. She was involved in a very, very controversial program and I know that the Senate confirmation process will look at that very closely. But Gina Haspel has a lot of integrity. She has tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when the CIA was asked to do some very difficult things in very challenging times.
JS: Whoa, hold up here a second! Brennan is praising Gina Haspel for her wealth of experience. He’s saying that she had integrity as she carried out the CIA’s torture to the best of her abilities. Is that we’re supposed to think about someone involved with kidnapping? Someone who destroyed evidence of torture? Gina Haspel is a person that we’re supposed to be cheering for as CIA director?
Oh, and this gushing? It was all done not on Fox News, but on MSNBC. But seriously, we shouldn’t be surprised that John Brennan is defending and promoting Gina Haspel. Brennan also defended the torture program. And when Barack Obama tried to make John Brennan CIA director in his first term, there was a lot of pushback from the left and from liberals on the grounds that he had supported torture.
Steve Inskeep: Liberal bloggers recently mounted a campaign against Brennan, charging that he was too closely associated with harsh interrogation practices. NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten has been following this story, he’s on the line. Tom, good morning.
Tom Gjelten: Yes, it’s this campaign that was being waged against him, apparently — at least that’s what he said in a letter he wrote to President-elect Obama. He said he feared that the hubbub that these liberal groups were raising about him would prove to be, “a distraction to the work of the intelligence community at this time.”
JS: But that was all in the distant past. That was just Obama’s first term. A few short years later, John Brennan sailed through with the support of Democratic lawmakers. In fact, Republican Rand Paul led a filibuster and got only one Democrat to support him. He tried to stop John Brennan’s nomination. He not only raised torture, but he raised the issue of John Brennan’s tenure as head of all U.S. global drone strikes.
Oh, and by the way? When Brennan was the director of the CIA, the CIA spied on the Senate investigators who were investigating the very torture that Gina Haspel was helping to run and which Brennan had defended.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein: CIA personnel had conducted a search that was John Brennan’s word, of the committee computers at the off-site facility. This search involved not only a search of documents provided by the committee, by the CIA, but also a search of the standalone and walled off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.
JS: You know, there’s a saying in intelligence circles that there is no such thing as former CIA. And that’s part of what we’re seeing here with John Brennan defending a CIA torturer, even if she’s going to be Donald Trump’s CIA director.
And also, by the way, during its coverage of Gina Haspel on Tuesday morning when this news broke, MSNBC had an on screen graphic that referred to torture as “rough interrogation.” What are they going to call it next week? Gentle prodding?
This major reshuffle within the Trump administration comes as so many questions are swirling about Trump’s possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with hawks beating the drums for escalation against Iran and, of course, the Mueller investigation.
Later in the show we’re going to be joined by Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and we’re going to talk about the role that Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince has played in this whole Trump-Russia ordeal.
But first, I’m joined by my colleague Matthew Cole. He’s an investigative reporter for The Intercept, and a few months ago if you recall, on this very show, he predicted that Mike Pompeo would be leaving the CIA.
The Intercept’s Matthew Cole and Jeremy Analyze Changes at the State Department and Discuss Gina Haspel and Erik Prince
Matthew, welcome back to Intercepted.
Matthew Cole: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: What’s going on here with Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo to the State Department?
MC: Well I think that we are moving further to the right. The Trump administration in year two, at least on foreign policy, is going to start looking a lot more like Trump the campaigner. I think that we’re not done yet, if the rumors and what I’ve heard is accurate, in addition to Pompeo taking over at State, you have John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster and there’s I don’t think any way to describe him as anything other than pro-war.
JS: That hasn’t happened yet.
MC: That has not happened yet, and it may not happen, but it looks increasingly like it is going to happen. Bolton was in the White House the day before the Trump administration announced that they would be meeting with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. So we’re looking at a real shift to the right. I would say that this may or may not signal something about how the administration is going to respond or deal with the nuclear agreement with Iran. It certainly does not bode well for the idea that the United States is going to remain in the agreement.
I would say, actually, it’s pretty alarming. Pompeo is an ideologue. He’s not dumb, but he is very ideological. He has entertained conspiracy theories for years while he was in Congress.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo: $30 billion dollars plus of taxpayer dollars that have been provided by this administration to the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. And we know, we know that this money will end up in the hands of terrorists all around the world and put our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at risk. We know it was done in cash, a way that makes it just as easy as pie to put that in places where the financial system can’t see it.
MC: By our own reporting here The Intercept, he’s entertained conspiracy theories as director of the CIA. And now we’re moving him over to a position where he is the United States’ top diplomat, and he will speak out about policy, which is something that as director of the CIA he certainly wasn’t supposed to do, although he did do it. So I think we are on a path that is potentially much more aggressive and hostile to the rest of the world.
JS: What is your sense of why Trump put Gina Haspel there? She’s been the deputy to Pompeo, and what message is that sending?
MC: I would say that with all things with Trump what we see at the beginning or on the surface may not be everything that there is. There may be much more than meets the eye. On the surface this is a very confounding decision.
On the one hand, you have someone who is at ground zero for the CIA’s long and disastrous counterterrorism efforts after 9/11 that revolved around torture and very brutal interrogation tactics. And Gina Haspel was in charge of, you know, the first black site in Thailand codenamed Cat’s Eye, and oversaw the interrogation of the first two high-value detainees, the first two al Qaeda detainees that were waterboarded quite viciously.
On the other hand, she would also represent the first female director of the CIA, and there’s a glass ceiling there that no doubt this administration, and there might be some in the national security world, will herald as a triumph.
JS: Well in fact in fact on MSNBC on Tuesday morning you had Malcolm Nance.
Malcolm Nance: You have to understand her position. She’s a career intelligence officer, but she was also a deputy throughout most of that time, which means when she was given orders, she had to carry them out.
JS: Who was formerly one of the instructors for the SERE program: the survive, evade, resist, escape program that prepares U.S. personnel for being tortured themselves in other countries.
MN: I think she’ll have to answer for some of the things that she did during her time, but, for the most part, I think the agency is out of that business.
JS: And Ned Price —
Ned Price: I completely agree with Malcolm on this.
JS: Who is the former PR flack for the CIA, who also is now nonstop on MSNBC.
NP: So we can’t look at this is something that Gina Haspel herself cooked up.
JS: They were defending Gina Haspel, and saying well, you know, let’s not look at her past, and let’s move forward, sort of echoing the line of Barack Obama.
NP: And so I think in these brave men and women were answering the call that the White House gave them.
JS: But you have a different theory about what may happen with Gina Haspel.
MC: Yeah, my first thought was that this is all just a ploy. That Haspel will be floated, that she can’t pass confirmation at the Senate and it’s a way to get Senator Tom Cotton in as director. He had been rumored to be the replacement for Pompeo when the Times first broke the story that Pompeo would replace Tillerson late last year, and I still have real questions about how the Senate would vote to confirm her in Given what will be I expect a pretty brutal confirmation process in which she’ll have to disclose all of the parts of the rendition and interrogation program in which she had direct involvement. Her career rise goes up with the chief architects of the torture program.
So she is controversial, I think is the softest way. I mean, I think the question really is in a Trump administration, now that we’ve had the Obama administration, have we normalized torture on some level? I mean it’s important to remember that when Haspel, for a time in 2013, was the acting head of the clandestine service for the CIA and she was passed over as the permanent head of the operations center, the DO, or the NCS at the time, because of her past and her affiliation with the torture program and regime at the CIA.
So in five years, have we gotten to the point now politically where it’s now acceptable that someone who had been so heavily involved in the torture of terrorist suspects, that it’s normal and it’s OK? And my first thought was: It’s not and there’s no way she’d pass and that there are few Republicans that would not be supportive of her background. And so that this may be a really sort of a fairly cynical effort to say: We nominated a female to break the glass ceiling but it wasn’t good enough for you, so we’re going to give you Cotton.
JS: Right, and Trump can then turn around and say: Aha! See, the Democrats are trying to, you know, spike this female who can become head of the Central Intelligence Agency. But we now have a situation where Mike Pompeo, a radical ideologue, someone that I think is clearly a Christian supremacist who embraces kind of neo-crusader ideology, he’s going to be the top diplomat. And someone who has directly participated in systematic torture and the destruction of evidence of torture may well be, or at least for the time being, is going to be the acting CIA director and may actually be confirmed.
What does this mean for the State Department that you have Pompeo jumping from CIA to State at this moment when this big focus is on Trump potentially meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea?
MC: I don’t have a crystal ball. You know, to the extent that I have spoken to people inside the State Department, there is no question that at the professional level, Tillerson was a disaster from their perspective and that the mismanagement or the view of the mismanagement at State Department was so bad in such a short time that they may view Pompeo, frankly, as a savior just from a management standpoint.
From the ideologue —
JS: But Pompeo knows Washington, he was in Congress, he —
MC: Right. He is still a creature of Washington and the U.S. government. And at the CIA, frankly, there was a lot of support for Pompeo when he came in because he was very aggressive about bringing back the CIA from its, you know, what he viewed as the need to bring it to its glory days and there was a lot of aggressive hostile talk, there was a lot of tough talk and in that way Pompeo really parrots and mirrors the president.
And so I expect more of the same at the State Department, which is to say as the top diplomat I think instead of having Tillerson who is clearly at several points but especially at North Korea, totally at odds with what was coming out of the White House, you can expect to see that Pompeo will be on message, because I think they largely agree with each other. My view is that Pompeo is not particularly serious, certainly not as a thinker, certainly not as the leader of an executive agency in the United States government, which isn’t to say he doesn’t wield power or influence. But Pompeo is not considered, for instance, part of the axis of adults that existed inside the administration with Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster. I am a little surprised that he took over. My understanding is that Trump does not particularly care for Pompeo, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t think he’s a nice guy, but he’s not particularly moved by his arguments inside the White House.
But nonetheless, if he tows the line on North Korea, I think what you can expect is an administration more on the same message, so that we don’t have multiple parts of the administration at odds with each other with public statements.
JS: Now you mentioned earlier the possibility that H.R. McMaster will, in the near future, be out as national security adviser. And it’s important to note, the national security adviser is not a Senate-confirmed position. What does that mean? It means that whoever Trump puts in that position just becomes the national security adviser. And so when you talk about someone like John Bolton, who also may not be able to clear a Senate confirmation process, the idea that you could kind of sneak him in the back door of this administration and have him serve as the national security adviser, for those of us that have followed John Bolton’s career, this is a pretty frightening prospect that you replace someone like McMaster with John Bolton.
Bolton, of course, wants war with Iran. He thinks the United States already should have joined with Israel and militarily wiped out Iran. He also wants an offensive attack on North Korea. I’ve predicted that I could see Donald Trump going the way of Dennis Rodman. You know, if anyone saw the documentary “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang,” where he goes, he gets drunk, I mean Trump says he doesn’t drink, but he’s partying with, you know, all of these apparatchiks for the North Korean regime. He then sings Happy Birthday to Kim Jong-un at a basketball game. I mean it’s a surreal scene. I honestly could see Trump going that way — John Bolton’s not going to be down with that. I mean John Bolton doesn’t want talks with Kim Jong-un, as far as I understand. He wants war with Kim Jong-un.
MC: Bolton has wanted war in multiple countries around the world basically since he turned 18.
JS: (Laughs.) But he wants other people to fight those wars.
MC: Well, John Bolton was a huge supporter of the war in Iraq, wanted the United States to go into Tehran shortly after the war in Iraq, believes that the war in Iraq was an astounding success, has called for strikes on North Korea multiple times and believes — every year John Bolton has advocated for war in Iran.
Tucker Carlson: And so why should we see Iran as our primary threat?
John Bolton: Because Iran, for many decades, has been the world’s central banker of international terrorism, funding Shia, Sunni terrorists on an equal opportunity basis, providing arms to them as they do to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, so it’s their support for terrorism generally the should concern us. It’s not necessarily specific attacks in the United States.
MC: For people who don’t remember: during the George W. Bush administration, Bolton was the U.S. ambassador to the UN.
JS: He was appointed during recess so he didn’t have to go up for any confirmation.
MC: Right. He’s basically viewed as un-confirmable in front of the Senate because his ideas — he’s not dumb, but he is extremely right wing. And some people have questioned his sanity in that regard. I mean he’s very, very zealous towards U.S. military action abroad and it’s important to remember the national security adviser position is essentially the most powerful position in the U.S. government that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. And the fact that it’s the only way that they could get him into the U.S. government, potentially, is an indication of how far to the right his ideas really are.
I think again with Pompeo moving over, we are seeing more of what Trump talked about. And if Gina Haspel were to be confirmed as CIA director, you would have someone who had been involved directly and heavily with some of the darkest period of CIA’s history and especially U.S. foreign policy, you know, in recent years, but matching what the president campaigned on. I mean this was a man who went out and said “torture was good,” and that we needed to torture. And if you remember, there was a lot of back and forth when he first won the presidency with Mattis about whether Mattis agreed with the fact that the United States should be engaged with torture.
So, we are I think actually somehow, I don’t know how this was possible, but in the second year getting closer towards a more pure, Trumpian vision, at least as defined by his campaign and his rhetoric in terms of who he chooses. So, it is very alarming, potentially very disturbing and I think on these questions of North Korea, Iran, which remains to be seen how the Trump administration is going to play some of these diplomatic issues out, how it’s going to play out, but we’ve moved to the right, I think.
JS: And also I think it is important to note that someone like Gina Haspel, who has been around for a long time, whose role in torture and destruction of evidence of torture has been known for many years, even before her name finally was reported in the news media, this was known in D.C., it was known in political circles who she was. And I have to say: When Obama came into office and he made his deal with the CIA, they told him. “Mr. President, if you start prosecuting people who are involved with torture at the CIA, you’re going to lose the entire agency, you’re going to destroy morale there.”
And, you know, I’m just sort of spit-balling here but I would imagine that for an incoming president that was a pretty intimidating message, and Obama very quickly changed his tune on the CIA and torture and just said: “Well, we need to look forward not backward. This should never happen again.”
But the main way that you prevent future acts of torture or other kinds of misconduct, abuses, crimes is by holding people accountable. That’s what all of the effective Truth and Reconciliation Commissions around the world have enacted.
But here it’s sort of like: Well we’re not going to do it. Gina Haspel would have been one of those people. So, we can cry until the cows come home about Gina Haspel, she was a torturer and now she’s going to be the head of the CIA, “oh my God we should all be so outraged at this.” Yeah! But there was a chance to hold her accountable. And it’s like, I feel like this is something that we keep repeating over and over again in our society, where we say: Oh, well our guy is in power, he must know what he’s doing. Look, we have Gina Haspel because we had John Brennan; because the Democrats kind of sold this idea that we’re moving on now from torture. And I think they shouldn’t be let off the hook in this stuff.
MC: Well I think that’s what I meant about the normalization, right? I think the body of the CIA is going to applaud this decision from the standpoint of the fact that she’s very capable, that, you know —
JS: She’s a very capable torturer; she knew how to destroy those videotapes so well.
MC: From the standpoint of operations, people who have worked with her, above her, under her, describe her as being incredibly competent, and from the tribal standpoint of the CIA that is very important.
I mean, and one of the other things that we didn’t mention in terms of why her nomination would be significant is that it has been a long time, in fact, off the top of my head, I cannot remember when the last time the CIA had a director who had been in operations, whose career started — she was not a case officer, she was a reports officer, but she’s not an analyst. She wasn’t an administrator. What we’re seeing is the practical side of government service saying: “Look, she’s competent, she’s capable, don’t knock her because she was involved in this dark past that we’ve agreed we’ve all moved on to” — in part because we haven’t necessarily agreed that we’ve all moved on. You have a president who is, who campaigned on it and who frankly could bring it back by executive order at any time. Now is actually the time, frankly, to bring the issue back up very much so. You know? Go back into the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the history of the program to remind ourselves of where Haspel played key roles in a very — it’s not just that, you know, people forget: It’s not just that torture is immoral. The fact is that it was highly ineffective. It has never been effective. It is highly ineffective.
And so that she was central to the CIA’s narrative that what they were doing was not only just and legal, but effective and worked. And that was bullshit.
JS: I agree. We should be digging back into that. I just want to clarify though: When you talk about the Senate Torture Report, this is the report that John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, passionately tried to stop from being released. And, in fact, the CIA under Brennan spied on the Senate investigators and it was one of the only times where you’ll see Dianne Feinstein of California, who normally just is in love with the CIA, actually getting angry. That’s the report you’re talking about.
MC: Yes, and what was released to the public was 500, roughly 500-page executive summary of what was 7,000 maybe?
JS: Thousands and thousands of pages.
MC: Thousand and thousands of pages that documented the history of the program, every detainee that went in that they had paper for.
The thing that was the most disturbing at the end, I thought, was that there was a full display of how the emperor had no clothes for years the agency argued that this was necessary for national security, it saved lives, hundreds, thousands, it was embellished over and over. And in fact, it didn’t. And even by their own documentation, what the Senate investigators found was that it was largely a figment of their imagination and their zealousness. And I think coming from the right place which was the CIA missed 9/11 and wanted to prevent another one and felt bad about what happened. But it was incredibly misguided and if Haspel is to be named director of the CIA, the United States will have essentially said that, you know, we’ll have truly moved on from torture by not holding anyone accountable.
JS: Matthew, you and I both have been on the Erik Prince/Blackwater story for a very long time, and on Monday evening I had a chance to interview Representative Jan Schakowsky who definitely has been the most passionate member of Congress in trying to hold Erik Prince and Blackwater accountable and we’re going to hear that full interview in a moment, but I just want to get your reaction, Matthew, to one part of what Representative Schakowsky said about Erik Prince.
Representative Jan Schakowsky: You know, he was working closely with the Bush administration and there were operations, intelligence operations that were coming out of the vice president’s office, and he was a valuable player in carrying out what they may have defined as the mission. And Erik is, I think, one frightening guy.
JS: So Matthew, here we had someone who was on the Intelligence Committee when this assassination program involving Erik Prince and Blackwater was briefed to that committee. Leon Panetta, who was the CIA director at the time, said that he had shut the program down. But what I find interesting, and I have never heard another member of Congress who had that level of access to classified intelligence say, is that Vice President Dick Cheney was running intelligence operations out of his office that directly involved Erik Prince.
MC: Yeah. To be honest with you, it was pretty stunning, because we’re in 2018 and that is information that confirms reporting that I know you and I have both done over the last 10 years. Other sources have placed Erik Prince and Dick Cheney in the same room and certainly on some of the same projects, and essentially Erik Prince reporting to Dick Cheney, sometimes through his daughter Liz Cheney, who’s now a member of Congress. I’ve had sources for years who told me, “Look, Erik worked for the vice president.” And that was something that was never revealed.
And I think you know we know from much of both Seymour Hersh’s reporting during the Bush administration, but also Barton Gellman’s reporting, how clandestine and covert that Cheney — Cheney really did run the dark side for eight years in the United States government, and the fact that he was using Erik Prince and Blackwater in ways that are still not fully understood, I think one thing that people need to keep in mind is in this administration we hear a lot of the whole issue of the “deep state?” Erik Prince is the “deep state.” Or Erik Prince certainly was the “deep state.” If ever there was someone who was never officially part of the CIA or a government employee outside of his time as a Navy SEAL, that is someone who knows where the bodies are buried and may have been involved directly in burying them.
It’s a pretty stunning thing that Representative Schakowsky revealed, and I think there’s still so much more of the Erik Prince story that is yet to come because there — he’s been involved for so long. And people don’t remember, people don’t realize, I think, that the relationship between Prince and Cheney comes through his father. Edgar Prince was the biggest GOP donor in Michigan for years and was a huge supporter of Gerald Ford. And that’s where Dick Cheney first met Erik Prince’s father, was when he was the chief of staff for Gerald Ford. So, they go back a long way.
So, when Cheney comes in as vice president in 2000, there was already a relationship or a familiarity with the Prince family. There’s still much more, and we have parts that — it’s sort of unfortunate that it takes so long to report these out — but they are deep secrets.
JS: Well and you and I will continue to talk about this in future episodes of this program. One thing to add, just by way of context for people is Erik Prince starts Blackwater in the late 1990s and his focus actually at the beginning was on protecting U.S. ships and vessels against terrorist attacks, like the U.S.S. Cole that was bombed on the Port of Aden, off of the coast of Yemen, but also militarizing our schools in this country.
Erik Prince built a mock high school called “R. U. Ready High” and he was taking advantage of the Columbine shootings that happened in 1999, and he starts inviting law enforcement from around the country and around the world to come and train in how to face down, in an armed way, against school shooters. And 9/11 happens and Erik Prince is on Bill O’Reilly’s program right after 9/11, and he says that now his phone is ringing off the hook. And a lot of those calls were coming from the CIA, and I know both of us have heard they were also coming from Dick Cheney. And, you know, the rest is sort of history as they say, and we’re going to get into some of that.
But this is a guy who has been deeply involved with some of the most high-profile, damaging operations that have been conducted by the United States post-9/11, and still is able to maintain these relationships, these businesses. And now, and I’ll give you the final word on this Matthew Cole, now he is in bed with the Chinese government and they just injected even more capital into his security company based out of Hong Kong.
MC: Right, so, you know, as we’ve discussed on the show before, Erik Prince is the CEO of Frontier Services Group, which originally was a logistics company, is now a logistics and security company, based out of Hong Kong and own and primarily by CITIC Corporation, which is the private investment arm of the Chinese government. And they recently, according to our sources put another $107 million into the company that allowed them to dilute actually some of Erik Prince’s shares, but it gives them effectively full control of the company and it makes the company that Erik Prince is the CEO of an actual arm of the Chinese government for security logistics around the world.
And it’s a endlessly confounding issue as to how an American businessman who is associated with the current administration and was considered for private intelligence operations around the world, as well as privatizing the war in Afghanistan, while maintaining his position and having, one time, been under investigation by the FBI for his relationship and contacts with Chinese intelligence. He is a man who has nine lives, so to speak, and he is also somehow, I think for many journalists, a lifelong jobs program. He has an incredible ability to find himself in rooms with very powerful people who make decisions, even if he is ultimately not particularly successful.
JS: Matthew Cole, investigative reporter at The Intercept. Thank you so much for joining us again.
MC: Thank you so much, Jeremy.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky on Erik Prince’s Alleged Role in the Trump Era and Explains Why She Had Her House Swept for Surveillance When She Was Investigating Him
JS: Now, the Republicans in charge of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into allegations of collusion between Donald Trump and members of his inner circle and Russia, those Republicans have announced that they are done interviewing witnesses and that they found no evidence of collusion. Big surprise there. But questions do remain about the truthfulness of the testimony of several of the witnesses that were called to appear before this House committee. And one of those is Erik Prince of Blackwater infamy.
Early last year, The Intercept broke the story that Erik Prince was advising the Trump transition team from the shadows. Now, of course, it’s important to remember Erik Prince’s sister is Betsy DeVos, the, as of now education secretary.
A short time after we broke that story on Erik Prince advising Trump, the Washington Post reported that Erik Prince had traveled to the Seychelles to take a meeting arranged by powerful royals from the United Arab Emirates. According to the Post, the Emiratis arranged this secret meeting on January 11, just nine days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the meeting was between Erik Prince and a Russian oligarch named Kirill Dmitriev. That guy controls a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund that was created by the Russian government. The purpose of that meeting, according to The Washington Post, was to “explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.” The Washington Post also said that Erik Prince presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump. This meeting has also been characterized as Erik Prince helping to set up a back-channel communication between Trump and Russia.
Well, after this story came out, Erik Prince went public and he blasted it. And he said it’s bullshit, and that he had never heard of Kirill Dmitriev before he met him at a bar and that this was just an innocent chance encounter, suggested impromptu by someone from the Emirati delegation. Erik Prince said that he just had a beer with Kirill Dmitriev, and that the Russian probably was drinking vodka and that there wasn’t much more to it.
Erik Prince: So if they asked me to go meet with some Russian, which no one actually did, I was — I happened to be there and I met a Russian.
CNN’s Erin Burnett: Who’d you meet?
EP: It’s pretty thin. Uh, some fund manager, I can’t even remember his name.
CNN’s EB: A fund manager. But you don’t remember his name.
EP: I don’t remember his name. We didn’t exchange cards.
CNN’s EB: How long was it? The meeting, do you remember?
EP: Uh, it probably lasted about as long as one beer.
CNN’s EB: So it was, it was a casual setting, over beers.
CNN’s EB: OK.
JS: The Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee didn’t buy Erik Prince’s explanation and they asked Erik Prince to appear before the committee, which he did, with the agreement that the transcript of his appearance would be made public, which it was. And according to that transcript, Erik Prince maintained that he had never heard of Dmitriev and that he’d only talked to him as long as it takes to drink a beer. Erik Prince did tell Congress that he told the Dmitriev that, “If Franklin Roosevelt could work with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, and then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”
During his testimony, Prince seemed much more interested in accusing Susan Rice, who was Obama’s national security advisor, of unmasking his identity and inappropriately spying on him.
Prince said that he had sources from the U.S. intelligence community who would back that up. That part of the discussion, by the way, was not released in the transcript and we don’t know what Prince was basing those allegations on. He said he would tell the members of the committee in a private hearing that would not be subjected to a transcript.
We now understand that an old associate of Erik Princes, a guy named George Nader has been cooperating in the Mueller probe. Nader is a Lebanese American and a very enigmatic character. He worked as a secret envoy on Syria for the Bill Clinton administration. He then was working with Erik Prince during Bush-Cheney, trying to help Blackwater get contracts in Iraq. And last year, George Nader was a frequent guest at the Trump White House. George Nader is now working as an adviser to some very powerful people in the United Arab Emirates, and Nader is reportedly cooperating in Robert Mueller’s probe. If press reports are correct, George Nader says that the whole point of Erik Prince’s trip was, in fact, to set up a back channel between Russia and Trump. If that’s true, then it could mean that Erik Prince lied to Congress.
Remember too, that Matthew Cole and I broke a story some weeks back that Erik Prince was pitching a private intelligence service to the Trump administration that was in part aimed at circumventing the deep state. Oh, and one other thing: Erik Prince seemed convinced that the U.S. government was spying on him. That actually may be true, but not because of some deep Obama conspiracy. But rather because he was under federal investigation, as we reported, for money laundering and for his business dealings with China.
JS: I’m joined now by the member of Congress who has been most dedicated in investigating Erik Prince. She is Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and she served on the Intelligence Committee during the height of Blackwater’s operations on behalf of the U.S. government. Representative Schakowsky, welcome back to Intercepted.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Thank you. Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Let’s just start with a historical question here. You were, more than anyone else in the Congress, there were other people that were paying attention but you were really dogged in your pursuit of Erik Prince, particularly when you were on the Intelligence Committee. Share with people, in your view, why has he never been held accountable for everything that preceded this meeting in the Seychelles?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well even the violence that was at the hand of Blackwater, really at the end of the day, the murders in Nisour Square where 17 innocent people were killed essentially — well, exactly — because of Blackwater. There’s been little or no accountability. But in many ways, that’s true of the whole Iraq story and in many ways, Erik Prince was perfect for that mission, because he has no respect for rules. He is sort of like the uber-mercenary, doing what he thinks he wants to do, he thinks he’s smarter than everybody as a military guy that knows how to do everything, and that he is above the law. I mean he has this self-confidence, or his ego is so big that he will do anything. And not really feel especially responsible or guilty for any of the bad things that may happen.
JS: Now, I remember when president Obama was elected and Leon Panetta was serving as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta went to Capitol Hill early on the first year of the Obama administration and he emerged from his meetings with you guys on the Intelligence Committee and said that there had been an assassination program involving Erik Prince and Blackwater, but that it had been shut down. What can you tell us about that chapter in all of this? Erik Prince, Blackwater being involved with the CIA assassination program.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Yeah, I can’t, I really can’t, I don’t think even at this point we did a study on the committee. I had insisted on it. And we actually — and it’s on the shelf, and I’ve encouraged current members of the Intelligence Committee to take a look especially as they’re investigating Erik Prince right now. But when I say anything goes, when it comes to Erik Prince and of course, he was working closely with the Bush administration and there were operations, intelligence operations that were coming out of the vice president’s office and he was a valuable player in carrying out what they may have defined as the mission. And Erik is, I think, one frightening guy, one of the current members of the Intelligence Committee said even after the testimony they had, that he’s the scariest person he ever met.
I have to tell you, Jeremy, you know at one point, because on the floor of the House members can say whatever they want without liability, and he threatened to sue me. I got a letter from their lawyers and even though he couldn’t sue me, I have to tell you, I had my apartment in Washington swept. He makes me very nervous. But this time, I think that Mueller may actually be catching up with Erik Prince, and the kind of lies that just roll off his lips, the kind of description of what he’s done, what he did in the past, which is clearly not true. Lying to Congress is against the law and you know, what a coincidence that he met with all these people in the Seychelles. Isn’t that amazing?
JS: I want to get into that, but to just close the loop on this, I realize that you are very respectful of the fact that when you’re on the Intelligence Committee, you effectively take a double oath and that there are, you’re very limited in what you can say. But in general terms: are there incidents and events that you investigated or heard testimony on when you were on the Intelligence Committee that you think should be raised in the current context of exploring the entirety of what Erik Prince has done around the world, including on the U.S. dime?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Let me just say an unequivocal yes about that, and I think that they’ve got enough, the members, the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee got enough taste of this person and what he’s like, even though he was so non-communicative about what he did and when he did talk about it, it wasn’t true at all. I think they get a sense of the kind of person who might be responsible for things that they need to know about in order, as you say, to get this comprehensive view of Erik Prince.
This is a dangerous person. Even before this incident in the Seychelles, or maybe it was afterward, he basically has gone to the White House and says: You know what? I will buy Afghanistan from you. Just turn it over to me, you know, give us the money and we’ll just take care of it. Why should you send American soldiers over there when we can do it? And probably do it at a decent price?
Erik Prince: So this plan, as I lay it out, puts contracted people, attaching them to the Afghan army for the long-term, at the battalion level, living with, training with.
Charlie Rose: But are these contract people going to be boots on the ground? They’re engaged in the battle?
CR: And are they, by definition, mercenaries hired by the U.S. government?
EP: Actually, the way the United Nations defines mercenaries by being attached to the Afghan army, they would not be mercenaries. So, they would be contracted people, professionals, former Special Operations veterans that have experience in that theater to go do that work.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: It’s just incredible. This is who he is.
JS: We also reported that he and another former CIA official were pitching the Trump administration together and one of the things they were talking about was the idea of offering the Trump administration a privatized intelligence gathering operation that they could use to “circumvent the ‘deep state.’” This guy is still very much in the center of pitching the CIA and Director Pompeo, as well as the White House directly.
Jan Schakowsky: Yes, he is. But, you know, let’s be clear: He’ll go anywhere in the world and he’ll be on the side of anybody in the world. You know, this attitude of being such a patriot and he will really help, I think is also very false and there’s, you know, the examples of what he did in Hong Kong and China for China and all of the things that he did in the Middle East. He’ll be on pretty much anybody’s side, as long as they’ll pay the price.
JS: Regarding China, just in the last two weeks we learned through the financial press that the largest investment bank in China, which is controlled by the Chinese government, the CITIC bank, has poured another $100-plus million into Erik Prince’s China-based security company and Erik is open about his mission, which is to help China to extract natural resources from Africa.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, to hell with the people in those countries and the rights to the minerals that are valuable, you know? If he can make a whole bunch of money going in there, protecting, I’m sure the people who are doing the extraction against any indigenous people that happen to live there, he will do it. So, this is a guy that is ultimately for sale I think to pretty much anybody.
JS: Right, and talking specifically about this Seychelles story, the story is that Erik Prince goes to the Seychelles and he is going there to meet with Mohammed bin Zayed, who is the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. They have these meetings, and of course, Erik has a long relationship with the UAE, but what is at issue to Congress right now, or what’s what the course of his testimony was about, is that he had this other meeting that he claims is only a half-hour or as long as it takes to, you know, get a beer, with a very well-known Russian oligarch named Kirill Dmitriev, who runs this Russia direct investment fund, and Eric told Congress that basically, they were just sort of introduced to each other. This is an interesting guy. You both are kind of in this similar thing, you should just chat. He has a beer with him, thinks nothing else of it, doesn’t make a deal and comes back to the United States.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Right. That’s his story. That’s his story.
JS: That’s his story. What is your sense of the focus of the investigation now regarding what Erik Prince told Adam Schiff and others on the House Intelligence Committee?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well, my understanding is what, you know, I’ve seen publicly. It’s in the media. The special counsel Robert Mueller has a man cooperating with him in this Russia investigation, testifying that what really happened is that a meeting was set up purposefully for Erik Prince to go to the Seychelles as an unofficial — well, it’s unclear — either official or unofficial emissary of the president of the United States and meet with this Russian who is in charge of a sovereign fund, but apparently very close to Vladimir Putin, in order to open up this backchannel with Russia. A very different scenario than this: Oh, my goodness! What a coincidence that you happen to be here, I happen to be here, why don’t we have a beer together kind of story. And that there is someone who was in the meeting, who is apparently testifying and spoke to a grand jury and is part of this Mueller investigation, and apparently there’s even some other source about this meeting, George Nader, the man who apparently helped set, and organized this meeting. And that is clearly problematic, especially if he was representing himself as an emissary of the Trump administration.
JS: Now, Erik Prince has had an established relationship with this guy George Nader, he’s been involved with him in the past, so it’s not like this name just came out of nowhere and the committee is certainly aware of this.
The pushback that I’m reading now in the in the right-wing or conservative press defending Erik Prince, is to say: “OK, well even if he did take this meeting and even if they were discussing setting up a backchannel, why does that matter?” Setting aside the fact that he may have lied to Congress or that’s the allegation right now, what would be the problem in your view, Representative Schakowsky, if everything that is sort of alleged is true?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well, first of all, why would he lie about it if there was nothing wrong with such a meeting? And it is not nothing. Often the cover-up is a bigger problem than the actual.
But I do think it is problematic. If this administration, let’s remember that his son-in-law was also supposedly working on setting up this backchannel, that the goal here was to work closely with the Russians, the Russians, who, in the meantime had been interfering with our elections, that is known. That is just sure. And so the whole thing is very corrupt, very slimy, and very inappropriate and he had obviously felt a reason to just lie about it to the Congress. He was not willing to discuss it and to this very day is denying that there was anything involved more than this casual, unarranged meeting.
JS: For those of us that have never served in Congress and are not sort of aware of how things work — you know, I’m one of those people, I have never served in Congress, I try to follow things, but explain this part of it to me: When I read the transcript of Erik Prince testifying in front of the Intelligence Committee, and there were some redactions but largely everything got put on the record, I wonder why the Democrats on the committee didn’t pursue any line of questioning about the fact that you have this American citizen, Erik Prince, who was a former Navy SEAL, a longtime CIA contractor, who was a green badger, he could walk around the CIA and pitch them projects, as he did all the time under Bush, and for the very beginning of Obama he was doing it, but then eventually the Obama administration said, “We’re done with this guy.” And I know you worked very hard on that. But this is a guy who is in bed right now with the Chinese government, helping them build a security company. He’s got one of his top business associates in China is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. You have an American working with China, who then is meeting with a Russian oligarch in the Seychelles. Why wouldn’t Democrats on that committee? I know the Russians — the Republicans would never ask it, why wouldn’t a Democrat say: Wait a minute, what’s the nature of your business with China and was it related at all to what you were doing in the Seychelles?
Because to me, I think about what Steve Bannon said in that “Fire and Fury” book: all roads lead to money laundering. I’m not so sure the bigger scandal here, Jan, is not: What was he doing brokering something involving Russia, China, and the Trump administration?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: That could very well be. I really can’t speak for the members of the Intelligence Committee. I have to tell you, though, I’ve been very impressed with Adam Schiff and all of those people who have been speaking for the Intelligence Committee. My understanding is that he was willing to share very, very little I actually, when he was before the Oversight Committee years ago, he’s a pretty clever guy. Now, you’re saying that the transcript itself did not indicate that the Democrats were doing enough probing to get information from him, but my guess is that even if those questions were on the record that the answers would not have been sufficient.
JS: Well, that’s what I’m getting at here. Basic, just sort of, you know, “Schoolhouse Rock.” When you’re in the Intelligence Committee, as you’ve been, and you’re in a closed-door hearing like that, if Representative Schiff or another Democrat, obviously they’re not in control of the committee right now, if they started down the line of questioning that the Republican chair of that committee, Devin Nunes, doesn’t like, what power does Nunes have?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well let me give you an example. One of the most recent people involved in the White House that have been interviewed by the Intelligence Committee wouldn’t answer questions, so what they can do is subpoena the person. And so the Democrats made a motion to subpoena and the Republicans just sat on their hands. Short of that, there’s really not a lot that the Democrats can do. And so most of the witnesses that have come before that committee have either, you know, claimed some sort of, you know, some right not to do it or just said, “I’m not going to. I’m just not going to answer that.”
And, you know, if the Republicans who are in fact in charge, even though Nunes is supposedly, he isn’t there, it’s Conaway, Mike Conaway I think, who chairs those meetings, if they don’t do anything, then nothing really can happen.
JS: Are the transcripts edited and can be the sort of ruling party say, “We’re not going include this in the publicly available or released transcript?”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: It’s actually pretty unusual to have the transcripts, from my experience, released at all, but I’m sure that if there is any significant information it’s certainly the right of the committee, meaning the majority, to be able to redact.
JS: And they certainly did. I mean I will say, having read that, that I understood the line of questioning that your colleagues from the Democratic Party were engaged in and the Republicans spent the overwhelming majority of their time trying to say: There’s nothing to see here, we’re wasting Mr. Prince’s time. You get a sense, they weren’t even interested in hearing the answer to the question.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: It’s so infuriating. This whole issue is so central to our democracy, and as you point out, it’s not just about Russian interference with the election, it’s about money laundering, it’s about how real conducting foreign policy, is it all about Trump businesses? Is it about money laundering? Is it about these sinister people who certainly have a, not the interest of the United States in their, in their mind it’s all about money, and that they would not be interested, even within the confines of the Intelligence Committee. This is the most partisan moment, I think, for the Intelligence Committee than there really ever has been. When Mike Rogers from Michigan was the chairman of the committee, and most of the time that I was there, there at least was ability for the Democrats to ask their questions to get the answers, and there was a different ethic, too, even among the people who came before the committee. They understood that, you know, this was a closed hearing but they were obligated to answer questions.
And that is not the case anymore. They think, and they, I mean the Trump administration and the people who are affiliated with them, think they can do anything.
JS: Part of the reason why I think some of the pursuit of Erik Prince has only gone so far is because he did so much work for the Bush White House, for the CIA, some of which was off-the-books or still hasn’t fully come to light. I wonder if because of the knowledge that Erik Prince has of where certain bodies are buried, maybe some of the things that were being run by Dick Cheney and company that wasn’t exactly on the level or wasn’t briefed to the Congress, if part of it is that he just, he holds some cards against some pretty powerful people within the intelligence community and consort of graymail, for lack of a better term, the federal government of the United States from ever actually touching him.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well, I would certainly agree that Erik Prince knows where bodies are buried, that he knows where a lot of things that would reflect very poorly on the role that he played, and certainly on the Bush administration. So, I’m sure there are some people that are still there. That is a real possibility.
But Erik Prince has proceeded ever since, I like very much that he’s associated with the name “Blackwater” still — he’s never been able, no matter how many times the company has changed its name, to extricate himself from that and the bad reputation that Blackwater gained. So —
JS: Oh, wait, Jan! I can’t not share this with you: Just last week, we learned that Erik Prince has licensed, because he still owns it, the Blackwater brand to create their own line of ammunition and silencers that are, right now, being targeted at law enforcement and the military, but luckily will eventually be coming to civilians for their use and perhaps will show up at a school near us, soon.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Well, so now he feels that the name has been rehabilitated and maybe that’s true. In the Trump world, a person like that, who’s real tough, who has the same kind of attitude as the dictators that Trump admires so much around the world, maybe there is now new space for Blackwater in new markets. Yes. That’s incredible to me.
JS: Question: not just, not on Erik Prince but on his sister Betsy DeVos, who had her widely sort of mocked appearances this weekend, most prominently on “60 Minutes”, how on earth is that person still education secretary and what on earth can be done about it?
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: It’s just so embarrassing. I mean, in the first place, this is a woman who spent her whole adult life fighting against public education, has no respect for public education, admitted that she’s never gone to low-performing schools in this country. It was a humiliating, I would think, for most normal people, interview that she did on “60 Minutes.”
Betsy DeVos: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
BD: I have not, I have not, I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.
LS: Maybe you should.
BD: Maybe I should. Yes.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: And none of this seems to matter and I think she may be the most hated cabinet member, but when you’ve got Pruitt at the EPA, and all of his anti-environmental policies, and you know someone at HUD like Ben Carson who doesn’t know a damn thing about, and doesn’t seem to care, except he’s still doing damage at HUD, it is so bad for our country and I think more and more people are coming to that realization, more and more people, I’ve never seen a mobilization like I have seen. I am having a lot of faith right now in the young people who are saying: This is about me. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to wait for the adults to take over here. We’re going to take things into our own hands. I just met with a group like that. I think they’re going to persist. I think it’s going to be, it’s a real sign of change in this country and a passing of the generations.
So, these people, the Erik Princes, the Donald Trumps, the Betsy DeVos’, can do a lot of damage that we’re going to have to spend a lot of time undoing when power gets back in the hands of people who care about our democracy.
JS: Representative Jan Schakowsky, thank you so much for joining us.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Been a pleasure, Jeremy, thank you.
JS: Representative Jan Schakowsky is a Democrat from Illinois. And you are listening to Intercepted. When we come back, we’re going to talk to two badass singer-songwriters from the global south — Ana Tijoux and Lila Downs. But first, check out this teaser for a new podcast coming soon from The Intercept.
Mehdi Hasan: My name is Mehdi Hasan. Throughout my career as a journalist, I’ve clashed with some of the biggest political figures in the U.S. and across the world. And now I’ve joined forces with The Intercept to launch a new podcast. It’s called: Deconstructed. Whether it’s challenging the racism and misogyny coming out of the White House or resisting the push for yet another war in the Middle East, my goal each week will be to cut through all the political drivel and media misinformation. So, join me, Mehdi Hasan, on Deconstructed, coming soon from The Intercept.
JS: On a personal note, I have to say I am really excited for this new podcast from my colleague Mehdi Hasan. He is such a great interrogator of powerful people and one of the sharpest minds that I know. That show kicks off on Friday, March 23, and we are going to be putting the first episode of Deconstructed down our feed. So, our subscribers, those of you who subscribe to Intercepted, are going to be among the first to hear it. Make sure you check that out.
Musical Artists Ana Tijoux and Lila Downs Talk About the Politics of Colonialism, Neoliberalism, Revolution, and Their New Song, “Tinta Roja”
JS: Now we just talked to Representative Jan Schakowsky, and back in 2007 when she questioned Erik Prince about the role of Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan, she raised the fact that Erik Prince was hiring mercenaries from all around the world.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky: In 2004, Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater U.S.A., admitted that your company had hired former commandos from Chile to work in Iraq, many of which served under General Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile. As you must know, his forces penetrate, perpetrated widespread human rights abuses, including torture and murder of over 3000 people. Did Blackwater or any of its affiliated companies at that time use any, at any time, use Chilean contractors with ties to Pinochet?
JS: Erik Prince hemmed and hawed in response to Jan Schakowsky’s question about the Pinochet connection, but Schakowsky is right: Blackwater did hire Chilean commandos who had ties going back to the Pinochet era for its operations in Iraq. And General Augusto Pinochet was absolutely a brutal dictator that the CIA and the U.S. government-backed as he rose to power and that the U.S. supported as he unleashed his brutality on the Chilean people.
To close today’s show, I’m joined now by a musician whose life has been directly impacted by the U.S. support for the Pinochet regime in Chile. I’m talking about singer-songwriter-rapper Anna Tijoux. She has an upcoming EP called “Roja y Negro” and she recently released a new song called “Tinta Roja,” featuring powerhouse Mexican American singer Lila Downs. This is their first collaboration, which is a long time coming for these two revolutionary women. Ana is known for her fast-paced raps in Spanish about injustice, colonialism, and American interventionism. In one well-known song, “Somos Sur,” she covers topics such as freedom for Palestine and how Latin American and African countries have been impacted by U.S. interventions.
[“Somos Sur” by Ana Tijoux plays.]
JS: She frequently takes on colonialism and calls for revolutionary action. Her song “Shock,” she says, was inspired by the book “The Shock Doctrine,” written by my colleague Naomi Klein.
And Lila Downs is a Grammy-winning Mexican-American singer-songwriter who grew up between Oaxaca and Minnesota. Lila’s anthropological music draws on traditional languages, like her mother’s native Mixtec, indigenous beats, and other earthy sounds, while confronting global injustices, issues around immigration and now the Trump presidency. In fact, Lila dedicated a song off her latest album to Donald Trump and that song is “The Demagogue.” It’s off the album “Salón Lágrimas y Deseo.”
Lila Downs, Ana Tijoux, welcome to Intercepted.
Lila Downs: Thank you.
Ana Tijoux: Thank you.
JS: So, let’s begin with you, Ana. How did you and Ana start collaborating or come up with the idea to work together?
AT: The first time I saw Lila in life, we was in Las Vegas. I’ve been listening to the music of Lila since a couple of years ago, and I saw Lila and I say, “Wow, she’s there,” and I always look Lila like, it’s not because she’s here, but this super powerful musician-woman and super-beautiful, and was like, “I want to be like her.”
[“The Demagogue” by Lila Downs plays.]
AT: I naturally like, we begin to talk, and then she came to Chile and she invited me to make a song with her, and then connection just like that.
JS: What was it like when you first made the bond and you first started connecting? You were familiar, of course, with Ana’s work. Yeah?
LD: Yeah! Love to hear her rhythmic appreciation of the Indian-ness of the Chilean way of speaking.
[“Antipatriarca” by Ana Tijoux plays.]
LD: Each of our countries in Latin America, we have a way of dealing with the clash of cultures, of course, and then the denial of being accepted. And rhythm has to do with that and the expression of beauty has to do with the way that we accept ourselves, and also where we want to go in the future. And so it’s wonderful to connect to people who have a intuitive feeling for that beauty.
JS: And both of you, your music is obviously appreciated by wide swaths of people, big audiences, but it’s very much rooted in revolutionary thinking and the politics of struggle and resistance. And Ana, I’m wondering, how your personal story informs your music and your passion.
AT: I think in all kind of way, because of course it’s got to do with a personal history, but I think it’s the history of the world. I don’t want to make it personal, porque [because], I think we live in un momento historico [an historical moment], very violent, and I think we are naturally politically involved, we don’t need to be academic, we don’t need to have a history.
So, I think it’s just a way of looking in the world, and how the mechanic of the world and the humanity has tried to struggle against the system. So, every relationship is a political relationship, like between couples, between mother and kids, it’s a natural relationship where you build a way of life, a way of building your vision with the world.
I was not born in Latin America, I was born in France. But, all the time Latin America, was resonando [resonating] in my house and in my ears and in my brain, and de forma natural [the natural way], for me it has been amazing to profundisar también esa raíz y que tiene que ver con una vision crítica, pero con un tremendo amor por un cambio [To deepen my roots and it has to do with a critical vision, but also with a desire for a bigger change]. It’s not because we are revolutionaries, because we want love, like, and we think that we — hay otra manera de vivir en el mundo there is another way to live in a more balanced way between the hurts and the economic way of the world.
JS: Lila, you sort of straddle two worlds because of your upbringing, but the rooting and the connection to Oaxaca I’m very interested in, because that is a city that in recent times has seen very serious struggle and uprising and repression, and you are viewed as sort of a revolutionary voice who is able to communicate with people of all education levels. And the accessibility of your music and your lyrics, I think, is really inspiring.
But how has your connection to Oaxaca informed your struggle and your music?
LD: Well, Oaxaca is a very particular place in terms of conscious identity, and by chance, I grew up in Minnesota as well.
JS: I hear the Midwest there. I’m from Wisconsin, so I can hear a little bit of that.
LD: OK. OK!
JS: She has a Midwest accent, you know?
LD: And so, Minneapolis also there were a lot of collectives and community efforts, and I related to that. When I went to college, I remember thinking: This is kind of like Oaxaca, you know? It’s about volunteer participation and learning the value of that. I think it’s huge. It’s an amazing concept. And if we stopped thinking that it’s Marxist, it would be even greater. (Laughs.) Because I think it’s a human nature. It’s, you know, I come from a place where there are sixteen different First Nations, meaning Native American groups, and who speak their languages. My mother is from one of them, the Mixtec, and we learn about the traditions since we’re children, and we learn about coming together for certain efforts, like making a road, getting drinking water for the community. We also have trouble, just like the rest of Latin America and we have leaders who are very corrupt, not so different from some leaders who are here in the U.S. (Laughs).
It’s interesting because all of this volunteer work and conscious community efforts I think is going to pay off in the end, but it’s about the younger generations. I can see it coming, I can see a wave coming.
JS: Ana, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned that you grew up in France and the events that happened in Chile, of course played a big role in your family, where your family physically was, but also like many Chileans, how you see the world.
What impact did the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and the rise of Pinochet have on your family?
AT: I think in every since, because we’ve got to understand that the dictatorship in Chile is not an isolation. It is not one case. It was like a mathematic repression that was built by, by the CIA, basically.
President Richard Nixon: If Allende should win the election in Chile, and then you have Castro in Cuba, what you will in effect have in Latin America is a red sandwich, and eventually, it will all be red.
AT: So, it was not only Chile, it was Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Operation Condor — I mean, there is like a systematic dictatorship that was in Chile.
RN: Allende lost eventually. Allende was overthrown eventually. Not because of anything that was done from the outside, it was because his system didn’t work in Chile, and Chile decided to throw it out.
AT: And the repercussion is until today. This kind of repression is not only about that people, and people that was in jail. It is also a system that was in place, and even in we, the television, like the amnesiac of the TV, and how the role of the TV, and how this culture of the garbage is also very important in the way of the dictatorship work until today. I’ve got this vision that the leadership never leave. We say that is a democracy, but in the end, people can be in the street, protest for free education, but at the end, nothing change very much.
That’s terrible. Because how much have we got to protest to ask for our dignity, basically? No? So, we live the same problem now with the south of Chile which is a very complicated problem with Ngulumapu, which is a territory of Mapuches that is between Argentina and Chile, and that also is part of that plan that was built. So we say that we got a new Operation Condor between Argentina and Chile right now.
JS: Ana, I wanted to ask you about the influence of Víctor Jara, the Chilean singer who was abducted and murdered in the early days of the coup against Salvador Allende, and there’s the sort of story about it is that they snatched Víctor Jara and then they forced him to sing in the stadium and then they killed him as he was singing.
[Víctor Jara sings.]
JS: I don’t know what was true and what wasn’t about it, but clearly they viewed Víctor Jara, who was a revolutionary singer as such a threat that they needed to kill him and to do it while sort of forcing him to sing his songs, and some of the people who witnessed it said that he continued to sing even as they were attacking him. But his influence on your life.
AT: What you say is this very symbolic, his death was very — un acto de demonstración de poder [an act of a demonstration of strength]. But it’s not about Víctor. Víctor is one person, just because his voice was so powerful, Víctor symbolized so many Víctor Jaras, that’s the point, and the powerless about Víctor, but I think it represents so many of our people, is those kind of artists that cross over everybody, is like these kind of scares of Chile, he represented that, como, something that is not resolved yet, because the persons that was involved with his death are all free, there is no justice with Víctor. And that is the point why Víctor is so — he represents the pain of Chile and the frustration of Chile. You know? That is the power of his legacy.
[Víctor Jara sings.]
JS: Lila, the Zapatista uprising that happened in the 1990s represented the face of kind of the global south mobilizing and unifying and confronting neoliberal economics, and also the iron fist of militarism that backs that up. And it seemed like that movement had so much momentum and then, bam! 9/11 happens, and it was like all of the air was sucked out of the room. And you saw this very quick transformation of people who used to be denounced as communists and they were a threat because they were communists, but now they’re terrorists.
Talk about the words that are used by both the resistance, but also the oppressors and those who are, who have the cannons, the guns, the weapons, the modern.
LD: Yeah that’s true. I think, though, that it was more of a cultural movement, as well, that really permeated our consciousness at different levels. You know? There were children who are now more conscious of our native Indian roots because of this movement. Recently there has been a woman who is a healer and she is the present candidate of the movement. Her speeches are very much like the spoken word of the elders of the healers seen in Mexico, which is amazing to see that.
Certainly I can venture to say that I am a successful artist.
JS: I think that’s objectively true.
LD: I live from our music. (Laughs.) And this is also one of the results of being more conscious of our roots I believe I try to be more of an optimist, even though there are a lot of dark things going on constantly, and of course I take from the darkness to compose and to write and to talk about the world and women in our lives. But I do believe in humanity. And I think there have been a lot of positive things that have changed in the recent past in Latin America.
JS: How do you see the ascent of Donald Trump to power and the people he has around him and the way that he talks and his policies and his ideas? If you can even give him credit for ideas. That’s maybe too strong of a word — the things that come out of his mouth? I don’t know.
LD: I think there are people who don’t appreciate life and the gift of life. They haven’t had a moment to be with themselves and recognize themselves, I think, and it’s sad.
Someone like this leader that we have in the U.S. now I think is someone that is similar in his approach, doesn’t think of the consequences of his actions and I think those actions will be seen later on. You know? They’re like seeds that you plant and then you will see the fruits of these seeds. But yeah, mainly I’m disenchanted, I’m broke-hearted, because I am half-Anglo. It’s disappointing.
JS: Ana, talk about “Tinta Roja,” and the project that you guys are working on together.
AT: “Roja y Negro” is a project that was born with some friend guitarists, because we were super bored in airports. So, the project was born like that, like, “Oh, we are bored. Take the guitar and let’s play and make a song.” Like, whatever.
So that’s the way that we built this project and, and in my case, like, como I begin to make music with rap like hip hop, and I love hip hop as part of my life and as my DNA, and I think a voice with a guitar is always something so powerful, like, and good lyrics get una fuerza que no se puede ni ver, no [a force that you cannot see, no]?
So, we try, in our way, to say, you know what? We say in Chile, tierarse la piscina [throw yourself in the pool] let’s make this mistake, and let’s make a song, and try it another way to work and build lyric, and we built this song thinking about, it could be a man or woman that was, that fell down with wine and alcohol. That is very common in Latin America and in the world, basically. We always got some person that we know in that —
AT: Situation. Yes, is very common. And musically, we put un toque de “Salla” un poco Andina, [a touch of “Salla,” a little Andean] it was very mixture, like, we play like, whatever we were feeling, basically.
[“Roja y Negro” by Tinta Roja (featuring Lila Downs) plays.]
It’s about release and truth and coming to terms with loss and melancholy about the self, I think. But there’s something about connecting to ancient time. I come from a place where you go to the ruins and you can stand there and you feel like you are connecting to some — something that’s, to the grandmothers, to the grandfathers of course, but something that’s bigger than us. A lot of times these pre-Hispanic places are placed in very particular mountains that are connected to the stars, because of course our ancestors, both Inca and Mixtec or Zapotec or Aztec peoples knew about these connections. You know? With the stars. It’s about bridging things that we were not allowed to say for hundreds of years, and now are coming through the art. And it’s enriching and it’s certainly empowering to be able to connect.
JS: Well, Lila, Ana, thank you so much for being with us.
AT: Thank you so much.
LD: Thank you for having us.
JS: I appreciate it, and I appreciate all of the work that both of you do.
LD: Thank you.
[“Roja y Negro” by Tinta Roja (featuring Lila Downs) plays].
JS: Ana Tijoux is a world-famous musician and rapper whose family is originally from Chile. And Lila Downs is a Grammy-winning Mexican-American musical artist. Both of them are amazing. Check out their work.
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.
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. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.