This week marks the 15th anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But what is almost never discussed is the fact that the U.S. has been waging war against the Iraqi people over the past six decades. This week on Intercepted: Jeremy digs deep into the U.S. legacy in Iraq, beginning with the CIA-backed overthrow of a popular leader who nationalized Iraq’s oil and overthrew the British-backed monarchy. It is a history that spans 11 U.S. presidents, both Democratic and Republican. U.S. policy has always been about the interests of Western capitalism and the flags of American victories have long been planted on the corpses of Iraqi civilians. Mehdi Hasan, host of the new Intercept podcast “Deconstructed,” talks about the commercial that “60 Minutes” ran for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the war in Syria. Matthew Cole talks about how before becoming FBI director, Chris Wray supervised an investigation that found that Blackwater founder Erik Prince likely broke U.S. laws. What happens now to the Prince investigations? The Intercept’s Sam Biddle takes us inside the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the chaos at Facebook. And artist, writer, and educator Eve Ewing talks about her new book “Electric Arches,” how Trump talks about Chicago, and she imagines LeBron James journeying through time to meet his teenage self. And an undercover investigation reveals Prestige Worldwide’s use of prostitutes to influence the outcome of elections.
Channel 4 Reporter: Finally, the man at the helm of Cambridge Analytica, CEO Alexander Nicks, has agreed to meet. In a phone call, first to our fixer, the final sales pitch begins.
Will Ferrell (as Brennan Huff in “Step Brothers”): I’m just gonna come out and say it, I’m ready to take on the Catalina wine mixer. I’ve been earning and burning, snapping necks and cashing checks. And I’m ready to nail it. I want it! OK? I want the Catalina wine mixer.
Channel 4 Reporter: It would be our final meeting with Cambridge Analytica. This, the man who, in public, eulogizes free and fair elections but who, in private, we’re about to discover, appears to play dirty.
Undercover Reporter: And what we want to know what is the expertise of the deep digging that you can do to make sure that people know the true identities and secrets of these people.
John C. Reilly (as Dale Doback): You’re probably wondering why we gathered you here tonight. We thought we’d roll out a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity.
WF: Prestige, worldwide … wide … wide … wide.
WF: Financial portfolios. Insurance.
WF: Black leather gloves.
JCR: Research and development, putting in the man-hours to study the science of what you need.
WF: Last week, we put liquid paper on a bee. And it died.
JCR: And —
WF: And —
JCR: Investors …
WF: Possibly you!
Channel 4 Reporter: So, there you have it: the self-proclaimed digital masterminds. How much of this was hype, how much the truth? We may never know.
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 49 of Intercepted.
Jim Miklaszewski: There are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.
Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
JS: This week marks the 15th anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and it’s important that we examine what happened, how it happened: the lies, the crimes, the mass killings, the destruction — all of it. And George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, and the neocons all should hold a special place in the hall of shame for mass killers for what they did to Iraq.
But they did it with the support of many in Congress, including some of the most prominent and elite Democrats.
But I also believe that we need to understand how we got to where we are today in Iraq because this is a classic case study in U.S. imperial crimes.
And that means stepping back and examining a much broader history. It’s a 55-year history that is filled with constant interventions and bombings and sanctions and covert CIA activity and regime change. And in this history, a history you never hear discussed on cable news, the main victims are, as they’ve always been: ordinary Iraqis.
Newscaster: The latest Middle East crisis, perhaps the most menacing of all, has flared up in Iraq, a country that produces over 30 million tons of oil a year. In this picture, King Faisal is at Kirkuk with his uncle, Crown Prince ‘Abd al-Ilah.
JS: July 14, 1958: Baghdad, Iraq. Army Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim leads a military revolt against the British-backed Iraqi monarchy.
Newscaster: Without warning, revolution has swept away the young King Faisal of Iraq and his uncle Crown Prince ‘Abd al-Ilah. Iraq becomes number one danger spot. Veteran premier Nuri al-Said is deposed. He has fled, and the Republic rebels have offered 10,000 pounds for his arrest. The tide of Arab nationalism is again in flight.
JS: Facing almost no resistance, the Iraqi rebels seize key military and government installations in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country and they declare an end to the era of the Hashemite royals who ruled Iraq backed by the iron fist of Western colonial powers.
Abd al-Karim Qasim: Our revolution is a real reaction against tyranny and corruption. We want to use our wealth to raise the standard of living of the people.
JS: Abd al-Karim Qasim declares Iraq a republic, and he consolidates power through a revolutionary council. Qasim and his allies created a structure for the Iraqi presidency where power will be shared by representatives of the three largest groups in Iraq: the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. Qasim becomes prime minister and the new government begins to implement sweeping economic and political reforms.
This new government seized nearly all of the land in Iraq that was controlled by the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company and redistributed that land to Iraqi farmers, and Qasim pulled out of the U.S.- and British-run Baghdad Pact, which was aimed at keeping the Soviets away from Middle Eastern oil.
Newscaster: At Lancaster House in London, representatives of five nations meet to discuss a crisis. Mr. Macmillan, who presided, opened the meeting with a tribute to King Faisal.
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: We meet today under the shadow of the recent, tragic events in Iraq.
JS: While the British and Americans began plotting to isolate and possibly remove Qasim, the new revolutionary government in Baghdad gained rapid, widespread support in the country. Laws on women’s rights were passed and amnesty was granted to Kurds who had engaged in uprisings in Iraq in the 1940s. Qasim also ended a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party. He pulled Iraq out of the security and military partnerships with the United States and other Western countries, and he normalized relations with the Soviet Union.
Qasim openly backed Palestinian liberation causes and the Algerian resistance against the French. He also stated clearly that oil-rich Kuwait was part of Iraq and that its independence was a project of Western oil corporations. Qasim nationalized many of Britain’s oil fields and formed a new Iraqi national oil company.
Newscaster: The story in the capital city of Baghdad is the scene of the latest bloody coup d’état, a demonstration of violent, 20th-century Arab tensions, set against a way of life that has changed little since the Dark Ages.
JS: The United States and Britain wanted Qasim gone, and the CIA, under John F. Kennedy, began working with Iraqi factions that the U.S. believed could help overthrow Qasim — namely the Ba’ath Party, and one of its most vicious henchmen, a man who had actually tried to assassinate Qasim in 1959. His name? Saddam Hussein.
And that assassination attempt failed. But a few years later, on February 9, 1963, Abd al-Karim Qasim was overthrown and he was executed after a bizarre show trial on Iraqi radio.
Newscaster: In the storied city of Baghdad, capital of Iraq, has been the scene once more of bloody revolt, that has ceded a new government. For five years, General Abd al-Karim Qasim, right, ruled the country by armed might, after he seized power by assassinating King Faisal and the prime minister. Now, like many before him, he has fallen as he rose: Violently. A pro-communist, Qasim died before a firing squad in the wreckage of the Defense Ministry building.
JS: As Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party consolidated power, they massacred thousands of people, including a huge number of communists.
Newscaster: Army and militiamen carry on the search for communist infiltrators, over 100,000 of whom entered Baghdad during Qasim’s regime. When they are found, the communists from other countries are deported. Native reds, known for crimes perpetrated on behalf of Qasim, are sent before firing squads, as the Arabs show they are more concerned about the dangers of communism that is realized by some Western leaders.
JS: The interior minister of the new regime would later say that the Ba’ath Party came to power on a CIA train. Yes, a decade after overthrowing the democratically elected leader, Mossadegh, in Iran, the CIA played a similar role in toppling the Iraqi government, which like Mossadegh was unfriendly to colonial Western oil corporations.
The CIA provided lists of people for Saddam and his men to exterminate. Those lists were compiled at CIA stations across the Middle East. Suspected communists, leftists or supporters of Qasim, were tortured and summarily executed.
Newscaster: The streets of ancient Baghdad become the scene of a short but decisive revolution that topples the pro-communist government, of Premier Abd al-Karim Qasim, shown here on the right. A six-man military junta seizes power on a holy day, and within hours, the premier, who reportedly had executed 10,000 people, is himself shot.
JS: The U.S. and other Western powers characterize the overthrow of Qasim as a victory against Soviet incursions into the Middle East, and Washington responded enthusiastically to Qasim’s downfall. The characterization that it was a massive blow to the Soviet Union became the dominant narrative, and the United States started to resume military aid to the new Ba’athist regime.
[“Ba’ath Party Anthem” plays.]
By the time Saddam Hussein officially took over as the president of Iraq in 1979, the country was considered by the U.S. to be one of its most strategically important regimes in the Middle East, particularly after the U.S. backed-shah was overthrown in neighboring Iran.
Newscaster: Khomeini, almost unknown outside of Iran just a few months ago, returned a hero: The man who, from long distance, had led the revolution to topple the shah. Inside the airport terminal, Khomeini was greeted by scores of Muslim religious leaders and political allies. He called on Iranian Prime Minister Bakhtiar to resign and said all foreigners should leave the country.
In an obvious reference to the United States, he said, “Foreign advisers have ruined our culture and have taken our oil.”
JS: When the Islamic Revolution of Iran happened in 1979, the Iran-Iraq War soon followed, and would kill hundreds of thousands of people — some estimates say as many as a million dead. The United States supported both sides in that war, but no doubt wanted Iraq to win.
Saddam was known as a brutal mass murderer, but that was preferable to Washington over an Islamist government. U.S. war planners gave Saddam Hussein targets to bomb throughout Iran, they poured weapons into the effort and the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that the weapons could flow unimpeded.
President Ronald Reagan: Well, the Ayatollah is in a war, and if he’s going to go on with provocative acts against us or anyone else, then he’s running a great risk because we’re going to respond.
JS: After Reagan removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the U.S. began increasing its military aid to Iraq, including selling Iraq attack helicopters — helicopters that were used in the most famous incident of the Iran-Iraq War involving chemical weapons, and that was when Saddam Hussein ordered the gassing of Kurds in Halabja.
Donald Rumsfeld, who was a private citizen at the time, was tapped by the Reagan administration as a special envoy and he traveled to Iraq in 1983 to deliver a gift to Saddam Hussein from Ronald Reagan. It was a pair of golden cowboy spurs.
Jamie McIntyre: Tell me what was going on during this, this period?
Donald Rumsfeld: Where did you get his video, from the Iraqi television — ?
JM: This is from Iraqi television.
DR: When did they give it to you? Recently, or back then?
JM: No, we dug this out of the CNN library.
DR: I see. Isn’t that interesting. There I am.
JM: So, so what was going on here? What were you thinking at the time?
DR: Well, Iraq was in a battle, a war with Iran and the United States had just had 241 Marines killed, and president Reagan asked me to take a leave of absence from my company —
JS: In that meeting, Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein discussed solidifying U.S.-Iraqi relations, and it was during this period when the U.S. was at its most cozy with Saddam Hussein that the Iraqi dictator was at his most brutal. He was a mass murderer, but he was Washington’s mass murderer.
It was only when Saddam Hussein decided to invade oil-rich Kuwait, a country that many Iraqis characterized as an oil field with a flag, that the U.S. posture changed.
Suddenly, overnight, Saddam was being compared to Hitler, and George H.W. Bush launched a massive air attack on Iraq in 1991.
President George H.W. Bush: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq, in Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged. This conflict started August 2, when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor: Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed. Its people brutalized.
JS: Despite Bush’s claim that the U.S. led attack was aimed at the Iraqi military and Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War saw the United States bomb Iraq back centuries. Its civilian infrastructure was obliterated; its water treatment and sewage facilities destroyed. The U.S. also heavily used depleted uranium munitions that would later cause a skyrocket in cancer and birth defects.
But George H.W. Bush decided to keep Saddam Hussein in power. Why? Because he was considered preferable to an Islamic government, particularly one that would have aligned itself with Iran. And so, Saddam remained.
GHWB: As commander-in-chief, I can report to you, our armed forces fought with honor and valor. And as president, I can report to the nation, aggression is defeated. The war is over. [Cheers and applause.]
JS: Under Bill Clinton, the U.S. imposed the most sweeping economic sanctions in modern history. It was tantamount to economic warfare. Not on Saddam or his government or his henchmen, but on the Iraqi people.
When the United Nations estimated that upwards of half a million Iraqis were killed as a result of the sanctions, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended it on “60 Minutes.”
Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, and, you know, is the price worth it?
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.
JS: In addition to the sanctions that Madeline Albright was defending, Clinton initiated the longest sustained U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam, at some points bombing Iraq an average of once every three days throughout the 1990s.
President William “Bill” Jefferson Clinton: My fellow Americans, this evening I want to speak with you about an attack by the government of Iraq against the United States and the actions we have just taken to respond. This past April, the Kuwaiti government uncovered what they suspected was a car bombing plot to assassinate former president George Bush while he was visiting Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti authorities arrested 16 suspects, including two Iraqi nationals.
JS: In response to an alleged plot to kill former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton ordered an airstrike in Baghdad that killed several Iraqi civilians, including the famed painter Layla Al-Attar.
Kris Kristofferson: (singing “The Circle”): Who killed this woman, this artist, this mother? Who broke the candle and snuffed out her light? Along with her husband and wounded her husband and sauntered away like a beast in the night. Not I, said the soldier, I just followed orders, and it was my duty to do my job well. Not I, said the leader, who ordered the slaughter. I’m saddened it happened, but that war is hell. Not us said the others —
JS: I can say from having spent extensive time in Iraq in the 1990s, that its hospitals were like death rows for infants. There were no medical supplies. Birth defects that weren’t found in modern medical journals were appearing. Syringes were being reused and hospital floors were being cleaned with gasoline.
Iraqi Woman: He’s one of the crime, of the American crime. And if the Bush or the Clinton, they know exactly what happened here. They hung themself by themself, I thought. And which crime were done by our children to receive this punishment? Only the Iraq children, believe me. Most of the children are dying because of the cancer, congenital malformation, malnutrition — they are diseased. And this is one of the weapons of mass destruction against Iraq. This is not only use of chemical weapon, but also this make everyone illiterate, sick, and reduce the generation of the future. This is one of the mass destructions against Iraq.
JS: A once secular society with advanced schools and progressive positions on women’s rights, relative to its neighbors, Iraq started to become much more religious. In 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act which was authored by the neoconservatives of the Project For A New American Century. Quite a few of the PNAC gang are now on MSNBC regularly, celebrating their principle in opposing Trump and never answering for their crimes in Iraq.
But that legislation signed not by Bush, but Bill Clinton, made regime change the law of the land. Even Bernie Sanders supported it.
Bill Clinton: The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power he threatens the well being of his people, the peace of this region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat, once and for all, is with a new Iraqi government.
JS: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld came into power with a mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein. 9/11 was not even hours old when Rumsfeld started pushing to invade and attack Iraq, a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. This push to war was aided by powerful media organizations that breathlessly reported on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Prominent Democrats and Republicans pushed this myth.
Then-F.B.I. director and current special prosecutor Robert Mueller also pushed those lies in front of Congress. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who at the time was the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, refused to call a single antiwar witness to the hearings that he conducted on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. And neocons like Paul Wolfowitz promised America that the occupation would pay for itself and go swimmingly.
Paul Wolfowitz: These are Arabs, 23 million of the most educated people in the Arab world, who are going to welcome us as liberators. And when that message gets out to the whole Arab world it is going to be a powerful counter to Osama bin Laden. The notion that we’re going to earn more enemies by going in and getting rid of what every Arab knows is one of the worst tyrants, and they have many governing them, is just nonsense.
JS: This was an elite bipartisan beating of the war drum that culminated with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the United Nations Security Council.
Secretary of State Colin Powell: We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.
JS: None of that, of course, was true. And 15 years ago this week, the U.S. began its invasion and occupation of Iraq with massive air strikes across the country in an operation called Shock and Awe.
[Bombs falling on Baghdad.]
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed throughout the course of the U.S. occupation; millions were forced to flee their homes and the country. The U.S.-backed death squads and paramilitary militias conducted massacres in cities like Fallujah and encouraged sectarian battles. Mercenaries, including those from Blackwater, poured into the country: war profiteers. And Iraq became a massive killing field.
But the image of Saddam’s statue being pulled down in Firdos Square helped the myth that victory was as simple as the neocons promised.
And just months into the occupation, George W. Bush declared victory.
President George W. Bush: Thank you very much. Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans. Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. [Cheers and shouts.]
JS: Despite this idiotic and sick display by George W. Bush, where he dressed up as a military pilot and stood in front of that “Mission Accomplished” banner on the warship, the war in Iraq was just starting. The viceroy that was sent to Iraq to run the Green Zone and the occupation, L. Paul Bremmer, he was a neocon who profited off of risk insurance and he made a series of disastrous and stupid decisions. His de-Ba’athification edict resulted in 250,000 Iraqi soldiers losing their jobs. It wasn’t long before they joined the resistance. And by the end of 2004, here were both Shiite and Sunni uprisings against the United States.
It was at this point that large numbers of U.S. soldiers began to die. And in D.C., Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were whistling past the graveyard and minimizing the anti-U.S. uprisings.
Vice President Dick Cheney: The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint I think will clearly decline. I think they’re in the, in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.
JS: The highest price for this invasion and occupation was of course paid by ordinary Iraqis. And it didn’t take long after Saddam Hussein was executed before his trials were even complete for Saddam Hussein’s popularity to rise. Many Iraqis hated Saddam, despised him but they hated what the U.S. had done to their country even more and that phenomenon continues to this day. In fact, Saddam has never been more popular.
President Barack Obama: We are in full agreement about how to move forward. So, today, I can report that as promised the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.
JS: Barack Obama, who campaigned as an anti-Iraq War candidate, did pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq. But then he quickly changed course and sent thousands back as fighting intensified along the Iraq-Syria border.
What the U.S. started in Iraq ultimately spilled over into Syria, and out of the ashes of a disastrous U.S. policy, ISIS rose. And some of their most sophisticated military operatives and strategists had been Iraqi soldiers fired by Paul Bremmer in 2003 and 2004.
At least one Iraqi general, a famous one, he was on the deck of cards that the U.S. military created for the kill/capture campaign of high-value targets. He had worked with the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war; he ended up joining ISIS. And when Obama left office, there were more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and an expanding U.S. Air War.
President Donald J. Trump: I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox and Sean Hannity said, he said, “You were totally against war because he was for the war.”
Lester Holt: Why is your judgment better?
DJT: And wait, excuse me. And that was before the war started. I was against the war, he said, “You used to have fights with me.” Because Sean was in favor of the war. And I understand that side also — not very much because we should have never been there. But nobody called Sean Hannity.
JS: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump railed against the Iraq war, claimed he was always against it, which of course is not true but he still managed to make some valid points during the campaign, albeit in a very Trump way.
DJT: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
John Dickerson: You still think he should be impeached?
DJT: You do whatever you want, you call it whatever you want, I wanna tell you: They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
JS: Despite all of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, he came into office and proceeded to start ratcheting up the bombing in Iraq and Syria. He loosened rules on killing civilians and the death tolls skyrocketed.
Iraq today remains shattered and violent and dangerous and sectarian. And the U.S. continues to play a destabilizing role on top of the legacy of blood that it had already created in Iraq. From the 1960s and the CIA working with Saddam and the Ba’ath Party, to the weapons, intelligence, and support for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, to the Gulf War and the destruction of the civilian infrastructure, to the sanctions and the no-fly zone bombings, to the lies about WMDs and the invasion of Iraq, from the stupidity of the neocons before and during the occupation to the massive refugee crisis caused by the war: U.S. policy has been consistent. For the past 55 years, there has been one central truth about the U.S. role in Iraq. And that is: that it’s been consistently anti-Iraqi people.
Since the 1960s, U.S. policy under Democrats and Republicans has been about the interests of Western capitalism and the flags of American victories have always been planted violently on piles of Iraqi corpses.
To discuss well, just the past 15 years, since the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, and also the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince who happens to be Jared Kushner’s new BFF, Mohammed bin Salman to the United States, and this commercial that aired as a “60 Minutes” segment this weekend, I’m joined by my colleague Mehdi Hasan. You likely know him as a ferocious interrogator of powerful people from his Al-Jazeera show “UpFront.” Or maybe you’ve read his columns on The Intercept or watched his excellent video series for theintercept.com on blowback.
Well, now you’re going to get Mehdi in a totally new format. He’s going to be hosting a weekly podcast for The Intercept starting this Friday. It’s called Deconstructed. I’m really looking forward to this, and I think it’s going to make an excellent companion to this show but also a very important program in its own right.
Mehdi Hasan, welcome back to Intercepted.
Mehdi Hasan: Hi Jeremy, thanks for having me on.
JS: First I want to congratulate you on the launch of your new podcast for The Intercept which premieres on Friday. It’s called Deconstructed.
Give people a sense, Mehdi, of what you’re going to be doing on that show and its format and the kinds of guests you’re going to be interviewing.
MH: Thanks, Jeremy. I’m very excited about launching this podcast with The Intercept on Friday. As some of your listeners may know, I’m a TV journalist, I present TV programs, I’ve been doing interviews on TV for years now, but I’m very excited about getting into podcasting. It’s a very different format. You’ve mastered it so well so I’m going to try and follow in your footsteps and do this weekly show.
It’s going to be a half-hour long. It’s called “Deconstructed.” It basically does what it says on the tin. We’re going to try and take a big story of the week and really take it apart, Jeremy, really go at it from all sides and try to understand what’s been missed, what’s been distorted, what’s been misrepresented — like you, I’m not a great fan of the quote-unquote MSM, the mainstream media, especially cable news as, as an immigrant, Jeremy, as a foreigner living in this great country of yours, I just find it so bizarre the way in which news stories are chosen, discussed, debated, and I want to bring a slightly different approach to things — dare I say a slightly more serious and substantive look — at big stories, whether it’s you know the crown prince of Saudi Arabia visiting the U.S. and getting softballs on “60 Minutes” or whether it’s stories like poverty and inequality and how the corporate media basically just doesn’t cover these issues that matter to so many millions of Americans.
JS: You’ve also been doing this great video series for The Intercept, “Blowback,” and the most recent episode of that focuses on how the U.S. invasion of Iraq gave rise to ISIS, and as we speak now we are commemorating the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, occupation, destruction of Iraq and you recently had on one of the main mouthpieces for the Pentagon during that war, General Mark Kimmitt, who was the principal spokesperson for the United States military at the height of the brutality of the early stages of the Iraq war. And let’s take a listen to how Mehdi Hasan interviews powerful people like generals from the United States military:
MH: 15 years on from that invasion and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, do you have any regrets? Do you have anything you want to apologize for? You think the U.S. should apologize for?
General Mark Kimmitt: There is nothing to apologize for.
MH: Nothing to apologize for. So when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, in defiance of international law, no WMDs found, no al-Qaeda connections, terror threat to the U.S. increased, thousands of people tortured, hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced from their homes, Iran’s influence increased in the region, ISIL born in Iraq, several trillion dollars burned through in the process, you don’t think that requires any kind of, “You know what? We got some things wrong?”
JS: That’s Mehdi Hasan questioning General Mark Kimmitt on his television program. Mehdi, your thoughts on 15 years removed from the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Yeah, I mean, these anniversaries sadly they come and go, I can’t believe it’s been 15 years, 15 years of a horror show, 15 years, Jeremy, of a war that’s still not over, that’s still ongoing.
I was just thinking the other day, isn’t it amazing that Donald Trump was sworn into office and then began bombing Iraq, just like Barack Obama did before him and George W. Bush did before him and Bill Clinton did before him and George Bush, Sr. did before him? It’s like a rite of passage for U.S. presidents. You become president, you take the oath of office and then you bomb Iraq. It’s the war that never seems to end and it was a complete disaster, I think most people now agree that it was a complete disaster.
What’s so sad, Jeremy, and again, coming back to the idea of kind of media failures, is that so many of the people responsible for that war, both politicians and a lot of the journalists, the pundits who were credulous, who bought into the lies, who pushed the myths about WMD’s and al-Qaeda ties, they’re all still around doing well, Jeremy. There’s been really no penalty. I was just watching Bill Kristol looking smug on Jake Tapper’s CNN show earlier this week thinking, this guy got everything wrong about the biggest geopolitical issue of our lifetimes, hundreds of thousands of people died because of decisions made by journalists, quote-unquote, like Bill Kristol and others.
William “Bill” Kristol: George Bush is not fighting this like Vietnam. Whatever the, we don’t need to really fight the whole history of Vietnam.
Daniel Ellsberg: Saddam may be, that’s the danger of Saddam may be.
BK: But it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen. This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war.
DE: It’s going to be two months, not six months.
MH: And I think that’s a reminder 15 years in that we should always be skeptical of power, questioning of governments when they want to start wars. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s being attacked for not being gung-ho and hawkish on Russia, and, you know, we have to be able to ask questions when intelligence agencies, when governments tell us, it’s time to go to war against this bad guy.
JS: Well and of course the current special prosecutor in the Trump-Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, was part of that very strong chorus of voices from the Bush administration — and let’s be honest, some Democrats as well, including Hillary Clinton — that were promoting this lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
MH: John Kerry, the candidate in 2004, supported the war in Iraq. Hillary Clinton, the candidate in 2016, supported the war in Iraq. Barack Obama didn’t. Bernie Sanders didn’t. But yeah it was — we couldn’t have gone to war had the Democrats not fallen in line behind George W. Bush and in 2002, early 2003, and again, the lessons learned since Iraq, what are those lessons? Some say we’ve overlearned the lessons of Iraq. That’s why we haven’t taken action in Syria, to topple Bashar al-Assad.
Others say we haven’t learned enough lessons. Look at Libya, and Barack Obama, the man who said he was against “dumb wars,” goes into Libya without Congressional approval and leaves it behind as a kind of failed state, Mad Max hell-scape in North Africa. What lessons have we actually learned from Iraq?
And as a journalist, I think those are the key lessons that we have to learn about questioning everything that’s put in front of us. And above all else, you know, let’s have some consequences. You were saying on your show last week about torture and how the Obama administration, you know the way you stop torture from happening again is holding people to account, you were saying. And that’s the same thing when it comes to prosecuting illegal wars. The only way we stop from jumping into mad, catastrophic, immoral bloody wars, is to really hold to account the people who have gotten us into the last few wars.
JS: History and context is important and you know it’s important also, even if the politicians are also people who you may agree mostly with or you like better than the others, we have an obligation to hold them all accountable. You are, I believe the best interrogator of powerful people that we have in media in this country.
And one of the ones that I loved was this exchange that you had with General Michael Flynn, the former and now disgraced national security adviser for Donald Trump. Here is Mehdi interviewing General Flynn.
MH: Just on the phraseology, when you say you’ve been at war with Islam.
General Michael Flynn: Right.
MH: That’s not helpful language.
MF: I know!
MH: Oh, no, no, no, I’ve had, I’ve had arguments with, I’ve sat in the — I’ve sat with individuals just like you.
MF: Islam is a religion of a billion-plus people, and you say you’re at war with ever —doesn’t that give ISIL what they want? ISIL will be saying: Look at the U.S. General on Al Jazeera, he’s saying he’s at war with Islam, come join us, defend Islam. You’re going to send recruits their way with language like that.
MF: We are at a war with a radical component of Islam, and the way I believe it is that Islam is a, it’s a political ideology based on a religion.
MH: Islam is?
MF: That’s what I believe and that’s how —
MH: So, do you mean Islamism? Or Islam? Sorry. I’m confused.
MF: Islamism. Islamism.
JS: You interviewed a former CIA officer, John Sipher, we had had him on Intercepted, but here’s your interaction with him.
MH: Aren’t you worried that you might come across as a bit of a conspiracy theorist? Because you say, well the Russians are great at this, they’re great at espionage — on that grounds, you could accuse them of anything, and say, well, they’re great at covering their tracks. Do you see what I mean? There’s no limit to what you accuse the Russian government of.
John Sipher: I do see what you mean, and I do acknowledge that we don’t have evidence to go to a court. Like I said, we’ve seen behavior that’s either unethical or unpatriotic.
JS: Mehdi, in these cases where you really are going at powerful people, military people, CIA, politicians what’s your sort of strategy and how do you prepare when you’re going into, well let’s just call it what it is, battle?
MH: (Laughs.) It’s a good question. You know, there’s that famous phrase that, you know, news is what powerful people don’t want people to hear, you know, everything else is just PR. And you really, the approach is: What do they not want to talk about? What do they not want to say? Let’s find a way to get them to say it. Or if not to say it, at least, you know, have to deal with it, have to answer questions about it.
And I wrote this piece earlier this week for The Intercept about Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, who just did this horrifically bad interview on “60 Minutes” with Norah O’Donnell in which, you know, it was a great PR puff piece for the Saudis because she didn’t actually ask any of the tough questions that you would want to ask. And I wrote a piece about the questions I would have asked him had he come on my show. Of course, he’s not going to come on my show because he’s not stupid. But this is the crux of the matter: Are you willing, are American journalists willing to ask questions that the people in front of them, their interviewees, the senator the congressman, the administration official doesn’t want to hear, will make them uncomfortable, might make mad? Or do they just want to have the friendly fireside chats? And I think that’s what’s important when you have people of power on.
What’s interesting about my next endeavor, about the podcast is it’s a very different medium, as you know better than me, and I think as much as we like to have the bottles and have the heat, which is very important to me, we also need the light and for me I’m really excited about doing the kind of interrogations of the people in power, the General Flynns, the General Kimmitts, but also talking to people who don’t maybe get the opportunity to really explain what’s going on in the world and give them a chance, give them a platform, as you do so well on Intercepted.
JS: You mentioned Mohammad bin Salman on “60 Minutes” and this absolute propaganda piece.
Norah O’Donnell: Known by his initials MBS, his reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary. He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema, and cracking down on corruption, in a land —
MH: A little bit of my dinner came up as I was watching it. I was nauseous.
NO: What’s been the biggest challenge?
Mohammad bin Salman: Well, there’s a lot of challenge. I think the first big challenge that we have is: Do the people believe that what we’re doing?
MH: So, top of the list is Yemen, the war in Yemen is a catastrophe, UN officials have called it an apocalypse. You have millions of people at risk of starvation, cholera’s back there, tens of thousands of people killed, maimed, lost their homes, in a Saudi-led war, a Saudi-led bombardment for the past nearly three years. And for Norah O’Donnell and “60 Minutes” to give that war two minutes out of a 30-minute segment, and in that two minutes, she allows him to say stuff like, “You know, it’s all the fault of the Houthi rebels, they’re the ones who are preventing aid from getting into Yemen, which is completely untrue.” The humanitarian agencies are very clear that yes the Houthi rebels are committing war crimes, yes they’re exploiting the aid situation, but the number one reason why people are starving in Yemen, are not getting access to medicine in Yemen is because of a Saudi blockade, a Saudi embargo, Saudi restrictions on what gets in and out of the ports, and no questions on any of that in detail.
No pressure, no pushback from Norah O’Donnell when the crown prince says it’s all the fault of the rebels, you know, we have — we feel really bad.
NO: Do you acknowledge that it has been a humanitarian catastrophe? Five thousand civilians killed and children starving there?
MBS: It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.
MH: The tough questions on Yemen, the follow-ups on Yemen would have been, for me, key and that’s what bothers me about so many interviews that are done with the rich and powerful in this country, which is a question has no value unless there’s a follow-up, unless you push back against the dishonest answer that is by and large the option for most of these people when they’re responding.
I think another question that would have been important to ask is about, for example, the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure how you can do an interview with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who claims to be a liberal reformer without asking about the death penalty. Saudi Arabia, by all accounts, has beheaded more people than ISIS.
And how about democracy? I thought this is the land of the free. How can a U.S. journalist interview an absolute monarch and not ask about elections? Not ask about democracy. The word democracy, Jeremy, did not appear anywhere in that 30-minute segment. I watched it a second time just to make sure.
JS: Mehdi, I sort of hesitate to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway: I want to ask you about the debate on the left about Syria, and, you know, of course, this doesn’t represent every single person on the left, but you have sort of two prominent camps that seem to be in a constant war social media and in journalism circles, in some cases, where you have one group of people that really want Bashar al-Assad overthrown and it seems like they sort of want it accomplished by any means necessary including the United States going in and enacting regime change. And I think that there are many people within that camp that are not motivated by some sense of love for the U.S. empire, but of just being horrified at the utter massacre of civilians in Syria. And they have said that the main culprits are Bashar al-Assad and his Russian supporters, and they want regime change.
On the other hand, you have a fairly large group of people that are totally of the mindset that there should be a complete hands off Syria, and that the most stable and just resolution is that Bashar al-Assad remains in power. And, at times, some of the people in that camp really do sound like they are fans of Bashar al-Assad.
There are a lot of good-faith people who I’m sure have no love for Bashar al-Assad but know the U.S. track record and see the reality on the ground of the various proxy forces and what the CIA has done and how the Trump Administration escalating its bombing but it’s a toxic debate and a toxic discussion that immediately degenerates into insanity.
Now, I know you’ve taken a lot of heat and you’ve been attacked on this very issue because of your positions on Syria, but what do you make of this debate? And what’s your position on Syria right now?
MH: There are good faith people in this debate and they’re bad faith people in this debate on both sides. There are people who defend Assad and are pro-Assad and there are people who just don’t want to see the United States or Gulf countries going to war to topple Assad in a war of regime change. I would argue I’m one of those people.
I’d love to see Assad gone. I’m no fan of Assad. I’m — I believe people should choose their own rulers. Of course, I hate Bashar al-Assad. But how do you get rid of him? I’ve never seen a good plan or a legal or moral or justifiable plan.
We just started the interview talking about Iraq. Look at the chaos in Iraq. There were a lot of good-faith Iraqis who wanted to see the back of Saddam Hussein and called for Western intervention? Didn’t work out for a lot of Iraqis, hundreds of thousands are dead since 2003.
So, Syria is a mess. I never thought we’d see a mess like Iraq in my lifetime and yet we’ve seen one again so soon. There are no easy answers to Syria. There is no silver bullet or simple solution. And I think people who go around kind of just attacking each other, pretending that they have all the answers is a really big part of the problem.
And yes, bad faith actors on one side saying Assad is good; bad faith actors on the other side who really don’t give a damn about the Syrian people or Assad, but want to use it as a way to give Russia a bloody nose or to take Iran down. And then there are good-faith actors on both sides, Jeremy. There are people who genuinely want to see Assad gone, who see no other way of protecting the Syrian people from barrel bombs other than regime change. And there are good-faith people on the other side of the argument who really do care about the Syrian people, but don’t support a Western military intervention or a Gulf-led military intervention for very good reasons.
And I think that’s why I wrote a piece for the Intercept recently saying look, the best we can do, you and I can do sitting far away in our comfortable homes and cozy offices watching the suffering is to at least just support the Syrian people regardless of whose side they’re on, support them with aid, call your congressman and get them to open the borders to refugees, that’s the best thing we can be doing in the short-term, because I genuinely any of us left or right, pro-war or anti-war, Shia or Sunni, have a solution to Syria in the short-term. That’s the reality. The brutal, sad reality.
JS: You know, my personal view of Syria is the United States should have never involved itself in Syria, including when it was shipping prisoners, like Maher Arar, to be tortured under the Assad regime. Or the covert clandestine —
MH: Emailed questions to Assad’s prison guards to ask him.
JS: Right. And I’m against the CIA paramilitary operations in Syria. I’m against the United States increasing the number of civilians that it’s killing in Syria. I’m against the Russians killing extraordinary numbers of people in Syria. And I’m against Assad crushing protests and killing, massacring civilians. But I am militantly opposed to U.S. regime change, if for no other reason but for the long history of what happens after the U.S. goes into these countries. And, you know —
MH: What happens next is a question that just isn’t asked. We talked about the lessons from Iraq. You mentioned earlier, a lot of people on the left, liberals who do support military action in Syria, you know, call it, whatever you want to call it, the Hillary Clinton-wing of the party, you know, people, good faith, quote-unquote liberal interventionist, humanitarian interventionist who do genuinely want to protect people who are being bombed and gassed by the Assad regime and others, the question I would ask them when we have these pointless name-calling debates, a lot of them opposed the Iraq war as you said and got angry when Fox News and George Bush and Dick Cheney called them Saddam Hussein apologists. So, do they understand why those of us who loathe Bashar al-Assad but don’t support no-fly zones or bombing campaigns against him, were not Assad apologists either.
And here’s an important point: The U.S., right now, is bombing Syria and Iraq, and you know record numbers of civilian casualties under Trump, so I think all sides of the left, whether you are pro- or anti-intervention to get rid of Assad or ISIS should at least acknowledge what is the U.S. doing right now? It’s very easy to condemn Russia or Syria for bombing, and we should condemn them for bombing and killing civilians, but right now Western governments, led by the United States, are killing record numbers of civilians on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Donald Trump doesn’t give a damn about Syrian lives, let’s not delude ourselves on that front.
And here’s an important point to link back to another earlier discussion of ours about Yemen and Mohammad bin Salman: Some people say to me, “Oh, how come you’re so agitated about Yemen, you’re always calling for doing stuff in Yemen.” What is interesting, because in Yemen, of course, we can actually stop the war. This is another problem with Syria: I’d love to stop the war, I just don’t know how to. I’ve never seen a viable, credible, moral legal plan that would end the violence.
In Yemen, we actually could end the violence. We actually are arming the Saudis, refueling their fighter jets in mid-air, providing them with Intel and obviously giving them diplomatic cover at the United Nations and elsewhere. We actually do have some leverage over the Saudi government and its allies in Yemen.
You know, we spend all of it on a war we can’t stop rather than one we can stop, and I find that so morally and politically indefensible.
JS: Mehdi Hasan, one of the great journalists of our time and someone that I really, truly believe is the best interrogator of the powerful operating in the news media today.
MH: Ah, you’re too kind, Mr. Scahill, you’re too kind.
JS: Alright, thanks, Mehdi.
JS: Mehdi Hasan is an Al Jazeera host, he’s a columnist for The Intercept, and he’s now the host of a new weekly podcast for The Intercept. It’s called Deconstructed. Hop onto iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and hit that subscribe button.
And oh! A note for our listeners: We’re going to be putting the first episode down this podcast feed so you’ll already have it on your device.
JS: A quick update on our ongoing reporting on the activities of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. You may recall that my colleague Matthew Cole and I discussed Erik Prince on last week’s show. Well, Matthew and I have a new story up this week at The Intercept that reveals for the first time that before he was Trump’s FBI director, Chris Wray, and another current senior Justice Department official, Rob Hur, were partners at a white-collar law firm called King & Spalding, and they were hired by Erik Prince’s Chinese company, Frontier Services Group to do an internal investigation into possible violations of U.S. law committed by Erik Prince — and these involved Erik Prince’s plan to sell modified paramilitary aircraft to Azerbaijan’s military.
And guess what? Chris Wray and company found that Erik Prince had likely violated U.S. laws on the export of defense articles or services. And they reported it to the Obama Justice Department and the State Department. But then? Nothing. So, what happens now that Chris Wray is FBI director? What happens if Erik Prince gets charged with lying to Congress. Will Chris Wray have to recuse himself?
It’s a strange story and Matthew Cole joins me now to discuss it. Matthew, welcome back to Intercepted.
Matthew Cole: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: OK, explain the documents that we got and what they say.
MC: Well, we received a few internal documents from Frontier Services Group, which is the Chinese-based company that Erik Prince is the executive chairman of the board, and the documents go back to essentially a story that we did two years ago which were an internal investigation by a law firm into Erik Prince’s alleged activities, trying to broker defense sales and deals on his own, or essentially for his own, and identified where Erik Prince had likely violated U.S. laws for defense materiel and defense services and brokering — trafficking, he essentially was trafficking in light-armed attack planes and ideas for a mercenary army.
JS: And the point was that Erik Prince wanted to create these small, paramilitary aircraft that could be used by foreign governments or foreign forces in counterinsurgency operations or in operations to protect the extraction of natural resources by corporations, including national petroleum corporations in some countries.
MC: You know, this story really was a bookend to what we did. We did two stories two years ago about Erik Prince’s efforts to sell mercenary outfits, essentially part Air Force, Army, ground forces around the world and what had come out of that was that there was a federal investigation into Erik Prince’s efforts to sell those items as well as his contacts with Chinese intelligence and opening up bank accounts for Libyans, which was a very curious and odd story.
But one of the things that we didn’t have an answer for was what had happened to that investigation. And one of the things that came out of the documents that we received recently was that the law firm that did the investigation for Frontier Services Group, King & Spalding, the unit was led by now-FBI director Christopher Wray, and another top Department of Justice official Rob Hur and an Obama administration Justice Department official Gary Grindler.
And so, the question becomes: Now that they are in the Trump Administration, if the Prince investigation is still open, if it continues, if it’s reopened, what’s their role and responsibility? Do they have to recuse themselves? And what is ultimately going to happen to Erik Prince?
JS: So, just to be clear here: In 2015, officials from Frontier Services Group, not Erik Prince, but other officials, start to notice some irregularities or suspicious activity around these paramilitary aircraft and Erik Prince has a long history of sort of using the veneer of, you know, a big established company like Frontier Services group that is a logistics company largely and then trying to cut deals once he’s on the ground negotiating that for other things that aren’t necessarily Frontier Services Group projects.
So they discover this stuff. They start to poke at it and they say, huh, Erik Prince may have violated these laws that are very serious, civil penalties up to $500,000 and if there are criminal charges, it can be a million dollars per incident plus up to 20 years in prison. So they hire this powerhouse law firm, King & Spalding, the head of the division, as you say, is now the FBI director, Chris Wray, these other two veteran Justice Department lawyers, one of whom is now Rod Rosenstein’s top deputy at the Justice Department, they start looking into this to determine the risk and they say, huh, it looks like Erik Prince likely violated these laws.
The company then has these lawyers go and brief the Obama Justice Department on what they’ve discovered about Erik Prince. And, within a few months after they do that there’s a huge shuffle at Frontier Services Group, Erik Prince essentially ousts all of the people that were investigating him, consolidates power with his Chinese backers in Hong Kong and then they submit an updated report to the government, according to them, that says nobody did anything wrong. And so that case is closed.
MC: Right, and now that he’s back in the limelight because of the Trump Administration and connections to — potential connections to the Mueller investigation and the Seychelles meeting reportedly being a back channel between Russia and Trump, what people forget is that for eight years while the Obama administration was in, he was basically out around the world trying to sell global mercenary services. Once he no longer was running Blackwater and didn’t have the American contracts, he went out, door to door, through Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, selling his, what he believes are his services, which is the ability to provide a private air force, a private army, deniable operations for low intensity conflicts around the world. And in doing so, he ended up working with the Chinese and starting a company out of Hong Kong that was focused only on logistics and it was backed by, the single biggest investor is CITIC Group, which is largely a company trying to benefit Chinese development in the third world and that fit nicely with Erik’s interests in both resource mining and business opportunities. And this story that we published yesterday is really a bookend to it, which was that it wasn’t just the people who he worked with who decided that he had done something illegal or may have done something illegal, but rather a very serious law firm that had come in and been hired by the company and looked into what he had done around the world, but especially in Azerbaijan and determined he likely violated the law.
JS: And Prince though clearly has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. His sister, Betsy DeVos is the education secretary, Erik Prince and his mother poured huge sums of money into super PACs backing Donald Trump, and just this past weekend, at his home in Virginia, Erik Prince with Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame, hosted a fundraiser — it was a, I believe, $2,700 admission price fundraiser — for Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who is characterized as being pro-Putin, but Rohrabacher has much more to him than just his recent statements about Russia. He is the guy that claims that he has proof that the Hillary emails, the DNC emails, the Podesta emails were leaked to WikiLeaks and he’s been trying to get a meeting with Donald Trump.
Rohrabacher also went to Afghanistan in the ’80s to fight alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets. Erik Prince, early on in his adult life, worked for Dana Rohrbacher and Rohrbacher has been one of his main sponsors ever since.
Matthew as we wrap up, what is the significance of the fact that Chris Wray, the FBI Director, and Rob Hur, who is now the top deputy to Rod Rosenstein and Donald Trump’s pick to be the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, why does it matter that these senior officials in the justice system in the U.S. are aware of potential crimes by Erik Prince?
MC: Well, potentially, you know, if the FBI has an open investigation into Erik Prince or opens another an investigation into Erik Prince —
JS: Like if he gets charged with lying to Congress, which some Democrats think he may have in his testimony.
MC: Right but there’s also, we have not been told, we have no evidence that the original investigations into potential ITAR violations were ever closed.
JS: ITAR is the rules that govern the export of —
MC: The international trafficking of arms regulations, and essentially it’s his defense services and defense materiel efforts abroad, that if that investigation has not ended, if it was still open, the question then becomes if it were to continue or move forward in any way, would the director of the FBI have to recuse himself for Rod Rosenstein’s deputy?
The question is if the Department of Justice were to take a case against Erik Prince to court, whether to indict him, whether or not Rosenstein’s deputy would have to recuse himself, what role he might have, or as you say if there were to be charges or an investigation into whether or not Erik Prince lied in his closed testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on the Seychelles meeting, whether either of those two people would have to recuse themselves.
JS: OK. And just to be fair here a spokesperson for Frontier Services Group, who also was acting as a spokesperson for Erik Prince and responding to us for this story said that, “Any assertion that FSG or Mr. Prince violated any laws in this matter is categorically false.” It seems as though the current FBI director and another senior Justice Department official disagree with that. We’ll see if anything comes of it.
Matthew Cole, thanks for the update.
MC: Thank you.
JS: Matthew Cole is an investigative journalist at The Intercept. He and I have a new piece up at theintercept.com. It’s called: “Before He Was FBI Director, Chris Wray Supervised an Investigation That Found Erik Prince Likely Broke U.S. Law.”
JS: By now, everyone has, of course, heard of Cambridge Analytica. That’s the UK-based firm that allegedly stole the personal data of 50 million Facebook users. It’s the same firm, financed by billionaire Robert Mercer and whose leadership once included Steve Bannon, that claims to have successfully used this data to push Donald Trump into the White House.
The Guardian newspaper first started reporting on Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data to manipulate electorates a few years ago. Now, it’s been revealed that this data was obtained under the false pretense of being part of an academic study. The Intercept reported on this last March.
And in the past few days, hours, minutes, there’s been total chaos at Facebook. The company’s security chief announced that he’s leaving the company, though that’s reportedly because of fake Russian political ads and not the most recent scandal. Facebook’s stocks have taken a beating and there are masses of people saying they are quitting the Facebook platform.
Meanwhile, a former Cambridge Analytica contractor has now gone public and is blowing the whistle on the company’s practices and its real strategic mission. That contractor’s name is Christopher Wylie, and he’s been on TV and radio all across the globe for the past few days.
Cambridge Analytica initially denied the stories outright, but a new undercover video released by Britain’s Channel 4, catches the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, and its managing director, Mark Turnbull, bragging on tape about, among other things, their ability to entrap politicians in foreign elections using bribes and prostitutes.
Undercover Reporter: For example, you’re saying, when you are using the girls to introduce to the local, to the local fellow, and you’re using the girls for this, like, the seduction. They are not local girls. Not Sri Lankan girls?
Alexander Nix: I wouldn’t have thought so. That was just an idea. The Ukrainians did on holiday with us, you know?
Undercover Reporter: Yes. There are very beautiful Ukrainian girls.
AN: They are very beautiful.
Undercover Reporter: Yes.
AN: I find that works very well.
JS: That was Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He’s since been suspended from the company. Well, there are a lot of implications on this, potentially for hundreds of millions of people across the world. My colleague at The Intercept Sam Biddle has been tracking this story for some time and he takes us inside the developments and also explains Facebook’s response.
Sam Biddle: The current controversy around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica centers around 50 million Facebook profiles that were obtained by Cambridge Analytica, they say validly, legitimately, legally; Facebook says in violation of their policies.
These 50 million profiles were removed from the site very deceptively. People signed up for a third-party Facebook app that was described as being part of a university research program, so they consented maybe to some murky idea of a research program that would collect information about them based on what they had put in their Facebook profiles. They did not know, presumably, that this was going to be then handed off to Cambridge Analytica who was working with this app maker.
Cambridge Analytica then fed these profiles into their very complex data-processing system that they use for what’s called psychometric modeling, where they will take Joe Schmoe in Florida, and based on his Facebook data — his likes, what he shared, what groups he follows, etc. — they can profile him in terms of political leanings. They can make predictions about whether he is a likely NRA supporter or is someone who’s maybe xenophobic or someone who is a big Planned Parenthood supporter, and then on the basis of those predictions, a political campaign will know where to spend their money.
And many political campaigns have used Cambridge Analytica for targeting. Ted Cruz used it in the last election, and (laughing), more notably, Donald Trump used it.
One of the big promises of a company like Cambridge Analytica is if you find the right people to advertise, to target, you can spend less. You don’t have to just blanket every swing state, every district with TV ads, radio ads, Facebook ads.
If you find the exact right people who are vulnerable or susceptible to certain messaging, you can advertise to them, especially through something like Facebook which is made for micro-targeted advertisements.
You know part of the severity of this scandal depends on how effective you actually think Cambridge Analytica is and how much you buy their claims of being able to reduce any human on the planet to a certain set of psychological criteria. But the idea is that if you have a list of, you know, the following attributes about a person: Where they’re from, where they live, where they’ve lived in the past, what music they like, what food they eat, what websites they visit, what brands they buy, etc., you can from that deduce the rest of their psychological profile, including political leanings. That’s what Cambridge Analytica was selling.
So, Cambridge Analytica started out in elections in smaller countries like Kenya whose elections are not monitored as closely as, say, British or American election that makes international headlines. So, these were sort of used as laboratory settings. At some point, the company’s chief executive met with both Robert Mercer, the right-wing billionaire and Steve Bannon. Bannon would later go on to join the company as its vice president; Mercer would later go on to invest $15 million into it. This also brought it into the fold of the conservative American political scene who used it to great effect.
Cambridge Analytica partners with a university professor who introduces an app into Facebook’s app marketplace that, you know, includes many, many innocuous things like Farmville that are irritating at worst but not typically thought of as part of a data mining operation, right? This app is submitted and described under what now seem to be pretty clearly false pretenses, as being part of a university sociological study of some sort, where, you know, if your data was being handed over you were doing it for the good of some research project.
What the app didn’t state was the fact that this was being done to siphon data to Cambridge Analytica, not to facilitate a university research program. Something like 200,000 people actually connected the app to their Facebook profiles. But then, from there, the app didn’t stop — it continued to script not just their information but the information of their friends, of their entire social network. That is where it balloons up to the 50 million number. Once you start talking about not just 200,000 people, but 200,000 people plus everyone they know, that becomes a really big number really fast.
Carole Cadwalladr: How do you feel about your own involvement in this now? I mean, do you feel responsible for what happened?
Christopher Wylie: Um, yeah. Yeah, I do feel responsible for it.
SB: One of the original employees of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, went to the press.
CW: It’s incorrect to call Cambridge Analytica a purely, sort of, data science company or an algorithm, you know, company. You know, it is a full-service propaganda machine if you can control all of the streams of information around your opponents, you can influence how they perceive that battle space and you can then influence how they’re going to behave and react.
SB: This whistleblower seems to have just been disturbed by what he witnessed, like many whistleblowers are, by how he viewed the company, not just studying but really exploiting people’s personal profiles and using their data also to then support right-wing candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
CW: It was a grossly unethical experiment because you are playing with an entire country, the psychology of an entire country without their consent or awareness. And not only are you like playing with the psychology of an entire nation, you’re playing with the psychology of an entire nation in the context of the democratic process.
SB: I think there might be a certain reckoning that will happen to people, not just to Cambridge Analytica, but throughout the data-mining industry where they stop and think about how this information is being collected and where it’s going and sort of reckon with that.
Facebook’s posture on the Cambridge Analytica issue has been extremely defensive and outraged, and sort of positioning themselves as also a victim among the 50 million. I think it’s a little disingenuous to be that upset by what Cambridge Analytica did when Facebook itself — again, their business model is more or less Cambridge Analytica’s business model and on a much vaster scale. I mean, keep in mind, Cambridge Analytica made off with what — 50 million something profiles roughly. There are two billion people using Facebook. So that the scale at which Facebook processes personal information and mines the details of your personal life to then target you with information is orders of magnitude greater than anything Cambridge Analytica did. That’s Facebook’s business. This is just another company doing it and they made off with Facebook’s data.
There is very little stopping an app that you connect to your Facebook account from doing what this app did on behalf of Cambridge Analytica. If you connect a third-party app to your Facebook account it is entirely possible, depending on the permissions you set, that they have access to everything that was handed over to Cambridge Analytica.
You know, the difference is that we probably trust the app we use to order takeout a little more than we would trust Cambridge Analytica because they’re like something from a James Bond film, but really it’s the same data, it’s just a matter of how you’re using it and whether you trust the holders or not. But the fact is that Facebook did permit this app and allow people to sign up for it and could have stopped it if they had made it a priority to do so, to make sure that this sort of thing couldn’t happen. Facebook built a system in which this was possible.
The lesson learned is that we have essentially no control over what we’ve spent the past decade-plus putting on to the Internet, under varying conditions. We have lost control and we probably know extremely little of how it’s been used and to what ends and to aid whose agenda. I think it would be fair to say that this Cambridge Analytica story is just one data point among many.
JS: That’s my colleague at The Intercept, Sam Biddle. He spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro.
JS: Every week on this show, we examine various threads of power and their impact on our society and on everyday people’s lives. We talk to journalists, lawmakers, lawyers, activists — about war, about guns, about racism, political hypocrisy. But we’ve also made a commitment to feature the work and the voices and the words of artists and musicians and poets. These folks play a unique role in our society, particularly at moments like the one that we are currently in.
One such artist is Dr. Eve Ewing. Well, she’s actually much more than an artist. She’s a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. Her research has focused on racism, social inequality, urban policy and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. She also was a public school science teacher
Eve Ewing has a new book out called “Electric Arches.” It explores these issues by blending stark realism with the surreal and the fantastic. It’s a beautiful collection of Eve’s poetry, essay and some of her visual art. And I should say the book itself is really beautiful.
Eve Ewing joins me now from Chicago. Eve, welcome to Intercepted.
Dr. Eve Ewing: Thanks for having me.
JS: Before we get into this new book, “Electric Arches,” I wanted to first ask you because Donald Trump and his allies bring up Chicago so much, and they make it sound like Chicago is the epicenter of this frightening violence in America, just your general response to the way that Chicago is talked about in this moment in time by a specific group of people in this country.
EE: The way I feel about it is that it’s very convenient to use Chicago as a symbol that is really, for many people, kind of like an effective dog whistle. It frightens people. It’s used in the service of the same kind of rhetoric that we heard in past presidential administrations with things like, you know, welfare queens and crack babies, right? These are racialized images that are meant to inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of Americans and to make them feel as though there’s justification for any kind of extreme crackdown, right, that might happen afterward. It has nothing to do with an actual desire to help, or care for, uplift, or support, or nurture, or even listen to people who actually live here, because if it did stem from that genuine desire, there would be so many different kinds of interventions like providing us with more social services and resources, helping us hold our elected officials accountable for our educational system, responding to the Department of Justice and their inquiry into the fact that the Chicago Police Department has longstanding generations, long systemic racism.
But it’s really not about us. It’s really about using this symbol as a scary, violent black place that is supposed to inspire fear in the hearts of Americans. And, unfortunately, it works pretty well.
JS: Right and with this whole discussion now about guns in the United States and the school shootings and now so many young people walking out, confronting politicians and political figures, the refrain from the right and from Trump is always: Well, if you care about guns, why aren’t you doing anything about Chicago? And the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the gun-related problems in this country are not coming out of Chicago. The problem is that we have a gun culture where people are addicted, and they’re largely white males, to stockpiling very high-powered weapons.
EE: You know, people here do fight violence every single day. There are so many community organizers and leaders and educators that not only stand against gun violence, not only actually show up to the vigils of the young people that are lost in our communities all the time, but are attuned to the deeper issues and reasons and committed to the city and committed to actually unpacking the reasons behind this violence.
Again, you’re exactly right, this is really rhetoric, you know, it’s using the city as a stand-in for fear. And, you know, I am really, really grateful and moved and excited by the younger folks that are stepping up and speaking out against gun violence. What I really hope is that they can form meaningful coalitions and solidarity between students who are from, you know, wealthier, whiter communities, saying that, “We don’t want this to happen in our community again” and young people from places like Baltimore places, like Chicago, places where this violence is an everyday reality — those young people want the same things. They want to show up and be safe at school. They want jobs. They want to see a future for themselves.
JS: Now, unlike Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, you’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in public schools.
EE: Yes, yes I have.
JS: And taught public schools. Her proposal, it’s not just hers, but she’s now sort of in charge of it, this idea of arming teachers. Your thoughts about that, and sort of what it indicates about the moment we’re in?
EE: You know when I was a public school teacher, I spent an average of $100 a week on supplies for my own students, especially because when I started out I was teaching science and I was the only science teacher for the entire middle school, so I had about 170 students, and I was committed to providing them the best inquiry-based science education that I possibly could, which meant I didn’t just want them to read about things in textbooks, I wanted them to do all the things that so many of us remember as being the fun things that allow you to see how science actually works and bring it to life. I wanted them to connect circuits. I wanted them to look at things under microscopes, right? And all those things cost money. And I never heard the secretary of education or any of these people out here outraged and wanting to arm me with the actual things that I needed to do my job every week.
And so to hear these same folks, in the name of protecting students or protecting lives, talking about how we should arm teachers — you know, many teachers have risen up and said, “Arm us with pencils. Arm us with nurses. Right? Counselors.” And I don’t think that the teachers of America should have to worry about volunteering their lives or making the decisions between going home to their families that day and sacrificing themselves for the children in their classroom.
JS: Well, and we’ve also seen videos that young people are posting of staff inside of schools assaulting students.
JS: And this is not even having a gun. My, my real fear about guns in school is that these altercations where we’ve seen, you know, staff at schools slamming black children down or putting them in a headlock or restraining them by extreme force or doing other things that may not be physical assault, but are meant to humiliate them in retribution, you know, in revenge for some perceived slight, that now you’re going to have some of these hotheads in schools — not necessarily teachers, but other staffers who have guns — and what are those altercations going to look like now if those staffers have guns on them?
EE: You know, we also already have police and these SROs, these security resource officers in schools. You know? There are many, many students in this country that attend schools, that have security or police presence and no counselors to help them get to college. That is despicable.
And I think you’re right. I think about the children, the black children murdered across this country who will never get to make it to high school because somebody thought they were dangerous. You know, I think about Tamir Rice, I think about Aiyana Stanley, and the idea that we would further introduce that dynamic into schools, a place where children are supposed to feel safe and where many of them already do not, it’s just bad policy.
JS: And you wrote this great essay for The Fader that was called “Black Life and Death In a Familiar America.”
EE: Oh, thank you for reading that.
JS: We always say on this show that history and context matter, and I think the nuance that you’re writing with is really refreshing and really essential. I just want to share with people part of that.
You were writing about Mount Greenwood, which is a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that is different from what you might imagine the way that the South Side of Chicago is talked about. And you write: “Mt. Greenwood residents became excited at the mere mention of his name, and for a moment the altercation had the tone of a spontaneous campaign rally. They began to chant ‘Donald Trump,’ and one of them directly addressed the young black woman holding the camera, ‘Build that wall! We’ll fuckin’ put you on the other side, motherfucker!’ I watched him through a screen, through another screen, through the eyes of another. I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to look at him through a chain link fence.”
Was this an event that signaled to you that Donald Trump’s vision for America was sort of alive and well even in patches of this part of the country in Chicago that’s talked about so much before he was even elected?
EE: Thank you. That was a beautiful reading. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, so that piece was published the day after the election, and the event that I’m describing there took place before the election.
You know, during the campaign and then right after he was elected there was a lot of justifiable and understandable, you know, fear, hand-wringing and shock, especially from corners of liberal white America where people thought basically this was a referendum that made them realize that the America that they thought they lived in does not exist, or this election constituted a transformational historical event that somehow gave permission or highlighted, you know, new forms of racism or new forms of xenophobia.
In no way do I want to undercut what I do think have been some of the uniquely awful aspects of this administration, but I also think it’s important for folks to remember that this is not like the man in a laboratory conjuring up these racist people like Frankensteins, who had never existed — you know, Frankenstein monsters that never existed. Rather it is him giving a voice and a platform for an energy behind white supremacy and hatred that has a long history in America and that actually, in my opinion, constitutes the very fabric of the nation.
And so I think that that’s important to realize, because it makes you understand that in order to conquer or change or transform the kind of hatred and vile evil that we’re seeing right now, it’s not just about these particular voters, it’s not just about this particular election, but we have to be brave enough to confront and understand a history that is much deeper.
JS: I have to say one of my most favorite pieces in your new book, “Electric Arches” is the piece called “The Device.”
EE: Oh, thank you.
JS: And I just wanted to see if you could maybe read the opening paragraph of it and then carry on with explaining the story.
EE: This is the first paragraph of the short story, “The Device”: “It wasn’t like a George Washington Carver kind of thing, where one brilliant Negro with a soldering iron made some magic and poof! a miraculous machine. It was an open-source kind of situation. Thousands of high school science-fair whiz kids, this and that engineering club at this and that technical college, the One Black Person at a bunch of Silicon Valley startups getting together with a bunch of other One Black Persons over craft beer and coding late into the night, even some government folks working off the clock (or so the rumors go). Not just one person. A hive mind of Black nerds, obsessive types, scientists, and inventors but also historians and archaeologists and the odd astrologer here and there. Project Delta Mother, they called it (goofy name TBH but it’s whatever).”
So that’s the beginning of this short story, “The Device.” The story is about a collective group of black scientists across the country who build this machine and the purpose of the machine is to allow you to communicate with your ancestors. And the story describes the first time that the machine is turned on and the little girl who is selected to be like the test pilot flips the switch and finds herself communicating with her ancestors over space and time. And it doesn’t go exactly as everybody thinks it’s going to go.
I was invited to give a reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was — so I had some time to tour the gallery by myself and check it out, and there was a series of West African masks that were supposed to enable the wearer to basically channel the spirits of their ancestors and so they were used in different rituals and events where somebody would wear them and then they would like embody the spirits of the people that had gone before them. And I thought about what a powerful idea that was for African-Americans, for those of us for whom, you know, our lineage is necessarily cut off by chattel slavery.
I have a tattoo on my right shoulder blade of my matrilineal genealogy, and it goes back to my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma, back to my great, great grandmother who died a free person but was born an enslaved person. And because she’s considered property and record keeping is spotty, I don’t have any access to the people who came before her. You know, this is something that African-Americans specifically wrestle with a lot in this country, especially as we consider our place in the diaspora and sometimes get messages from other people in the diaspora that, you know, we don’t have a real history or that slavery is something we should be ashamed of and it doesn’t give us access to kind of a national identity or an understanding of who our ancestors were.
So I wanted to grapple with that idea and think about, you know, what if we could use science to talk to them. I tried to think about what it actually means to not just consider our ancestors as these like mythical, magical people, but as human beings with their own opinions and thoughts and unexpected quirks. So that’s kind of where the story came from.
JS: Yeah, it’s a great story.
EE: Thank you.
JS: And I encourage people to read it.
EE: You know, the book overall a lot of it is about like coming of age and black girlhood and black womanhood, with the obvious understanding that those things are not monoliths, right? And so this is like my particular story and my particular life and I hope that some people find things that are true in it and other things maybe not so much.
JS: And one of your inventions is the decoder rings that used to come in cereal boxes and the one that you’ve cooked up in your imagination allows the wearer to be able to understand what black girls are saying.
EE: Childhood and playfulness are recurring themes in the book and in my own life. The black girl decoder ring is kind of playing with the fact that so much of popular culture is based on this like sort of two-faced desire of black women, where on the one hand there’s like a desire to imitate and to copy and to steal beauty and body styles and hairstyles and things like that, but that’s also coupled with a disrespect and like invisibility and even disgust with, or like sense of contempt for like actual black women and black women’s bodies.
And so the decoder ring is sort of like the thing that Taylor Swift or Katy Perry gets to wear that will allow them the thing they most desire, which is to be able to understand and fully access what black women are doing and saying without actually engaging with them as human beings. And I thought about that kind of translational work and the idea of like this cereal box toy that you could get.
JS: Wow. Well, as we wrap up our conversation, I want to encourage everybody to pick up this book by Eve Ewing, which is called “Electric Arches.” And Eve has generously offered to share some unpublished poetry with us today, and I’m going to hand the reins over to her to do a short reading here on Intercepted.
EE: So, I’m going to read a poem from a new project that I have coming out in 2019. It’s called “1919,” and it’s about the race riots that happened in Chicago in 1919. The poem I’m going to read is a persona poem, and it’s in the voice of a train bringing black people up from the South during the Great Migration to Chicago. And the poem begins with a line from the report that was commissioned by the state to evaluate the causes of the race riot, so that line is: “The presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.”
The poem is called, “The Train Speaks”:
“Even now, I dream of them. All my babies. Quiet nights in the rail yard when the little feet skitter beneath me, when the last of the strong men with his gleaming silver buttons has locked the door and laid his hands against me, warm palms offering a silent farewell.
I see them dancing in every passing cloud. My babies, my babies born unto me in the hills and green lands, loose threads catching in my sharp parts when they don’t watch out, blistered hands hauling parcels of burlap as hefty and shapeless as bound cotton. They move like rabbits then. They look for a lash that isn’t there. Even them that never felt it. It’s in their shoulders. The lash lives in their shoulders.
Long after the last biscuit is gone when the sunrise brings steel mountains, my children look and look through the space I have made for them. The gift I prepared. They are safe within but can see without. They feel it before they know the words, then smile when it comes to them. It’s flat. The land is flat. And they smile to think of it, this new place, the uncle or cousin who will greet them, the hat they will buy, the ribbons. They know not the cold, my babies. They know not the men who are waiting and angry. They know not that the absence of signs does not portend the absence of danger. My innocent children, my precious ones, I can never take you home. You have none. But, oh, if I could keep you here safe in my iron heart, I would never let you go out into the wind.”
JS: Briefly, Eve, the context of the poem.
EE: The 1919 race riots happened sort of in the still beginning phase of the Great Migration, unprecedented migration in the scale of the United States and much of human history, and brought massive numbers of black people from the South into the industrialized North. And my grandmother moved from Mississippi to the North when she was five years old.
And I think that the train has an interesting sort of symbolic resonance in black culture in America, both because the train was often used as like a metaphor for freedom. You know Langston Hughes has a famous poem called “Freedom Train,” the Underground Railroad obviously and for many people, the train actually became the real pathway to their freedom.
And so I wanted to think about what it meant to regard these folks who came up North from, you know, a warm, lush verdant place where they also were living under the threat of racial terrorism, to a North where they were hoping to find a different life and where there was still violence but a different kind of violence that perhaps they weren’t prepared for and I wanted to view them from the perspective of someone that would see them with love and care and nurturing. And the train is that, right? It’s this kind of like loving, caring thing that envelops you and shepherds you from one place to the next.
Yeah, and so that’s the poem. I read it the other day in Battle Creek, Michigan and I could see this elderly woman in the back and like the whole time she was just grinning, and smiling, and like making noise, and celebrating me as I was on stage. And afterwards, she came up and told me that the poem was so amazing and special to her because she remembers coming up North and she remembers being 7 years old. And I said, “You remember the train?” She said, “Oh honey, I remember everything. I remember picking cotton in Mississippi and I remember leaving and we came up here and my uncles went to Chicago and we kept going and we landed here in Battle Creek.”
And so, it’s a part of our history that I think is really important and beautiful and also special because our elders are still here to tell us about it. And I think it’s important for us to capture it as much as possible. So I’m hoping that, you know, the poem and the book more broadly will invite people to think about a chapter of our history that we often, I think, don’t talk about as much as we should but that actually shapes the fabric of the cities and the country that we live in today.
JS: What a great note to end on. Wikipedia Brown, aka Killmonger But Make It Feminist, aka Dr. Eve L. Ewing, thank you so much for being with us on Intercepted.
EE: Oh, it’s my great pleasure. Thank you for having me and thanks for the great questions.
JS: Eve Ewing is the author of “Electric Arches,” which is available now online and in bookstores. And her book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side” is due out later this year. You can find her on Twitter @EveEwing.
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. Remember also to subscribe to Mehdi Hasan’s new podcast. It’s called Deconstructed.
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.