Did President Lyndon Johnson really take a shit in front of reporter Tom Wicker? This week on Intercepted, live in Brooklyn: Legendary reporter Seymour Hersh shares what he thinks of Donald Trump, his analysis of the Trump-Russia story, and some wild stories from his new memoir, “Reporter.” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt recounts the latest on the immigrant families that are being ripped apart and separated indefinitely, and shares personal stories of the victims he represents in a nationwide class-action suit against the Trump administration. Activist Mariame Kaba explains the historical foundations of the American carceral state and calls for the abolition of ICE and the prison-industrial complex. Multimedia artist and rapper Yassin Alsalman, better known by Narcy, performs an original spoken word and premieres his new song, “Yemenade.”
President Donald J. Trump: Warriors come out to play. Warriors come out to play. Warriors come out to play.
DJT: We must have American dominance in space.
Al Pacino in “A Dog Day Afternoon”: Yeah? Doing what?
DJT: The Air Force and we are going to have the space force.
AP: Oh. Uh —
DJT: Separate, but equal.
AP: What? I don’t know what you mean by that.
DJT: You have to take the children away.
Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost”: Oh Shut up. Nobody’s talking to you.
DJT: The Democrats have to change their look.
WG: Kiss my butt.
DJT: You can’t do it through an executive order.
WG: I’m not going to stand down here all day.
DJT: We’re signing an executive order, keeping families together.
DJT: A gang of vile savages known as MS-13.
[“West Side Story” music plays.]
DJT: You’ve all heard of them. They’re bad.
Everywhere they go, the thousands of MS-13 gang members —
Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”: I’m one of your biggest supporters, you know. I tell everybody that comes in this taxi that they have to vote for you.
DJT: The world is a mess.
RDN: Oh yeah?
DJT: The world is as angry as it gets.
Narration: New York City is a part of each of us.
JS: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you live from the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and this is episode 62 of Intercepted.
The main reason that we wanted to do this tonight was to get Sy Hersh at a rap show. [Audience cheers and applauds.] I think we’re the only people that could ever get Sy Hersh to come out to hear hip-hop. So, big ups to everybody here for making it happen and sharing the night with Sy Hersh, and an Iraqi rapper.
You know, Sy Hersh was the very first guest that we had on Intercepted when we started just days after Donald Trump was inaugurated and gave his “American Carnage” speech. Sy Hersh has been in the game of journalism for almost his entire adult life. This was a man who, decades before Edward Snowden, blew the whistle on warrantless spying, not only on people around the world but inside the United States, exposed CIA operations targeting the antiwar movement in this country and engaging in spying on all forms of dissidents. Sy Hersh was one of the key journalists that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.
At one point during the Ford administration, and this is really when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld began their rise, Dick Cheney was so furious about Sy Hersh’s reporting, reporting of secrets that the United States did not want exposed, that he contemplated indicting Sy Hersh. He agitated for raiding Sy Hersh’s home to seize his materials, his reporting materials. And this wouldn’t be the only time by far that Sy Hersh faced down against the national security state and the most powerful individuals in this country, in the military, in the CIA.
He exposed the My Lai massacre, he exposed the Abu Ghraib torture; Sy Hersh did incredible groundbreaking reporting on the U.S. assassination program post-9/11, well before many news outlets even understood what the real project of Cheney and Rumsfeld actually consisted of. This is a man who is nothing short of the greatest journalist of his time, and perhaps of our time.
Please join me in giving a big Intercepted welcome to the legendary journalist Seymour Hersh. [Audience applauds and cheers.]
JS: I believe Sy just said to me, “What the fuck is this?”
SH: What the fuck is this? I mean. [Audience laughs.] The first, the last time I did one was in my kitchen, with Jeremy. Is that true?
JS: Yes. I believe your wife walked in and was like, “What the hell is this?” You said, “Oh, that’s that kid who wrote that book about Blackwater. You probably know who he is.” She didn’t.
Sy, I want to start off by, given that you were such an aggressive reporter for your entire career, but particularly under Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and you continue to break very significant stories, is Trump the worst or most dangerous president in U.S. history?
SH: Trump lies. He has a five-minute conversation and you repeat something he said and he says, “I don’t — I didn’t do it.” I’m not diminishing lying; lying is awful. But we had a president named Lyndon Johnson that told us for five months that there were no troops going to go to Vietnam and he had troops already in there and he sent more during that time. And so I don’t know what a lie means — that to me, that’s a lie.
Trump is — he’s evil, of course. He’s a buffoon of course. But, I hate to say it, he was elected. So, what do you do?
So, look, when I say what I think it means nothing because what I think is, you know, the answer is we really don’t know what goes on in his mind. He doesn’t read much, we know that. No, he just doesn’t. But, gee, I think a lot of people underestimate him. And this doesn’t mean I respect him or anything to do with. I always have a lot of trouble with this. This is a guy that took down 13 Republicans with maybe 270, 280 years of political experience. He beat them all.
This is a guy that took down two dynasties, the Bush dynasty and the Clinton dynasty. This is a guy who while he was playing footsie with his treats, with the press corps, you know: I’m going to go to Korea, I’m not going to go, I’m going to do this and dominating the news. He went up eight points. He got called out: How long has it been going on, what’s going on in Mexico with the kids, how many months? Four months? Finally somebody got, you know, somehow a tape got made of children crying and all of a sudden it’s a big story. Where was it a couple of months ago?
You mentioned Yemen. We’re talking about mass murder, particularly now there’s going to be a blockade of a main port that could end up killing — that’s getting reported, but the American role in it, besides supplying intelligence, we refuel the planes that are doing the bombing missions, we supply all sorts of intelligence support. We’re up to it up to our ass, and nobody really gets into that.
And so I would say: You want to go after Trump, forget about the tweets. And forget about Pruitt and that stuff, there’s always been Democrats that have been as much jerks in terms of thinking the office is theirs and the perks are theirs. Go look at what he’s doing down the line. I spoke the other week at a convention of journalists, the Investigative Reporters and Editors, which I obviously have been a fan, a supporter for decades. They had the third-largest crowd of students and would-be journalists last weekend in Orlando. I mean that’s not exactly a pleasure spot — maybe it is for some people, I don’t know, I shouldn’t … Sea World lovers. Anyway. But. [Sy laughs, and audience laughs.] There are 800 reporters in a down time for the market and they’re doing it because they sense journalism is a ticket out. We are still seen, even though it’s a bitterly divided country in a way that you could almost talk about civil war on the edge here, I always think about that movie, that brilliant movie about the family that took the little girl to a beauty contest in Florida. What was it called?
Audience: “Little Miss Sunshine.”
JS: “Little Miss Sunshine.”
SH: You gotta watch it again, because, the guy had a, his second point was: Wow, these people who do that stuff, they’re not in the same world. They’re Trump people, but they’re there. They vote. And so how do you bridge the gap?
And maybe journalism in a way can do it and it was wonderful to see that many people there, and here’s the stuff I learned: A kid from Oklahoma told me, “Well here’s how it impacts us, Pruitt and these EPA standards.” There’s a company in the area where she reports that makes baby cribs, used to be kids fell out of cribs because they could pull them down, now they’re much stronger, there’s requirements that they have to make them to certain specifications, they got it changed, they lobbied to get it changed, a couple of companies, and because they can make an extra 17 cents per copy or whatever it’s being litigated. But that’s the kind of stuff down the line that people should — I’d like to see more reporting of that. But, you know, that’s in Plato’s Republic maybe. We’re going to stick to his tweets. You’re not going to beat this guy unless you do something different.
JS: There’s this sort of metamorphosis that’s taken place where, I mean, I will give Trump credit for getting Fox News and Sean Hannity to stop advocating for the total obliteration of North Korea. I mean it’s, it’s really interesting to see to compare how North Korean media reported on that and Fox News. It was very, very similar.
But the MSNBC, the so-called liberal network is just beating the drums for war and having on an endless string of generals to criticize this and you have the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, basically saying, “We need to put more sanctions.” We also have a very uncritical reporting or repeating every allegation against Trump, no matter how wild it is, it just must be true because it’s Trump and it’s like all standards are completely gone, particularly when we’re covering the issue of election interference. And I’m wondering, a year ago, a year and a half ago when we spoke, you were very critical of the way that the broader news media was reporting on the so-called Trump-Russia affair. Has your assessment changed at all and is that a legit story?
SH: Wow, you go right to it, don’t you? [Audience laughs.]
Let’s just start with this premise: After 9/11, before he invaded Iraq, we were told by the American intelligence community that they had high confidence, that phrase was said again and again, that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. They’re saying now the same thing about Russia.
I have been reporting something, I’ve been watching something since 2011 in Libya, when we had a secretary of state that later ran for president, and I will tell you: Some stories take a long time. And I don’t know quite how to package it. I don’t know how much to say about it. I assure you that there’s no known intelligence that Russia impacted, cut into the DNC, Podesta e-mails. That did not happen. I can say that.
I can also say Russia learned other things about what was going on in Libya with us and instead of blowing — oh God, this is too tantalizing. Why are you asking me these questions?
We deal with Russia a lot. We deal with Russia much more than you know. We coordinate with Russia even in the worst of times. They say deconfliction. Deconfliction, I’m going to digress, but deconfliction is the notion that we, when we’re flying, any American pilot wants to know where the Russian planes are, where the Syrian planes are, when the Iranian planes are during the war there. That war’s pretty much over. The Kurds have made a big concession. And whether you like it or not, a lot of people hate Bashar al-Assad, and they certainly, he’s despicable, but you name me a guy in the Middle East that isn’t. You know? This, the Saudis. They’re better? I mean, you tell me.
Anyway the beginning of deconfliction, it was a small group of very, very secret offices in America and our allies, the French particularly, the Brits, all of our allies after World War II, and during the Cold War, if we were going to kill somebody — and this is, I hate to say it, America does do these things — if we’re going to kill somebody, we had to set up a form to make sure the person we were going to kill, overseas maybe, wasn’t an asset one of our allies. And that’s how deconfliction started. There was just a back channel.
And so Russia deals on a very sophisticated level with the United States, with people in Israel, people in Iran, people — I mean, it’s just amazing. There is a background of cooperation and military cooperation, because despite all the feelings about Russia, they have one thing in common with us. It’s nothing to do whether you like Putin or don’t like Putin or whether you don’t like the government there or you like the government: They’re against the kind of terrorism we’re similarly against. And there was a lot of pressure on Bush and Cheney after 9/11 by the rational people in the government. The first stop should have been not to declare a war on an idea, which everybody knows how stupid that was. I mean, how are we doing? 18 years in Afghanistan, how’s it going? You know, I guess the Taliban wished they’d do the bombing against us.
Anyway, I’m trying to parse words here.
JS: I realize I’ve put you in a difficult position.
SH: The fact of the matter is, if Russia wanted to do, cause lot of difficulty to the American election they could have. Instead, they went and talked privately to us. So when the government says Russia intercepted stuff that was very important to us, I’m being very fuzzy about it, it wasn’t about the election. They told us that there were certain people in America doing things that were very deleterious to the War on Terrorism for personal and financial gain, and they could have blown it publicly but they went internally to us.
And this is a real difficulty because it’s a story, I obviously, I did this memoir in between. I couldn’t do my Cheney book because of a source issue, and I did this memoir during that time and all that stuff, but basically I’m still doing it because it’s a great fuckin’ story. [Audience laughs.] But I can’t tell you more about it. You know, Jesus, Jeremy. Now I’m being coy — I don’t want to be coy. [Audience laughs.]
JS: There’s been 22 indictments. A lot of it is has nothing to do with the direct allegation that’s being made around the clock. There are some interesting questions about meetings in Trump Tower, particular the role of Don, Jr., Jared Kushner and others. They seem to be all somehow gravitating toward calling Russians connected to the Kremlin meeting with them, setting up meetings. General Flynn is on the phone, not so much to collude with Russia but to collude with Israel and to try to get Russia to advocate the Trump position at the U.N. while the Obama administration was still in power. It’s like Iran-Contra for dummies in some ways. Everything that we know about all of the circumstantial evidence there, are you saying that that is just that, that it’s circumstantial and they happen to be constantly having these meetings, on the phone, doing things to subvert the Obama administration before they took office?
SH: I’ll tell you what somebody told me who actually knows something —
SH: which none of us do. I mean I don’t know, I don’t know what Mueller’s doing. I know he’s seen the tax stuff early, and he didn’t indict. There wasn’t enough there to indict, which is really interesting to me.
JS: You’re talking about Trump’s tax returns.
SH: He got it right away. Somebody who knows something about how the meetings go.
JS: This is what it’s like when you talk to an actual, you know, a real investigative reporter, is that Sy likes to say, “That’s my business. Don’t ask me about that.”
SH: Stumbles. He mumbles.
JS: No, no you’re trying to figure out how to talk about something you shouldn’t be talking about.
SH: No, no, but he said to me: “Collusion involves —” this is somebody who knew firsthand, this isn’t like you read in The Washington Post, 19 interviews with people that maybe you know something, you know? My favorite thing is on MSNBC, and even the other idiot channel, they’re all pretty idiot channels. I mean it’s, the lowest form of journalism is what the cable news does. When you get a panel going and the narrator says to the panel — journalists are there and politicos and others, they say: “What’s going on now in the White House?” And they all began with the most lethal two words in the world, “I think.” Because nobody knows nothing. They don’t, nobody says, “How the hell do I know?” which is the right answer, most of the time.
So somebody who really does know something, he said, “Here’s the thing about collusion and Trump. Collusion suggests — ” this is literally what he did with the coffee cup, there are two of them. He said, “Collusion says suggests that Trump does this because he knows how it’s going to impact this.” And he said, “The reason you can’t get mens rea is it’s all impulse. He does this, period.” [Audience laughs.]
But wait, I’m serious. But I’ll tell you how it works. I’ll give you an example, I’ll give you a secret. OK? You want a secret? OK.
JS: It’s just you and me here, anyway.
SH: Yeah, right.
JS: Trump goes to see the North Korean creep, right? And 6 months ago they were like two pit bulls with a wire fence between them, having a ball, going at each other. So now he’s going. And of course everybody’s mocking, and the Democrats in particular, which, again will they please articulate a policy? You know? [Audience cheers and applauds.]
Well, you lost. You have white farmers, working class people, always voted Democratic if you give them a reason to in Iowa, Ohio, where you have construction workers, and there’s still some steel working stuff, there’s not much left in other places. Democrats lost it by 10 points, 8 in Iowa.
And you don’t have a problem with the white middle class, the workingman who should be voting Democrat because economically that makes more sense than votes for this cretin.
So he gets criticized, you mentioned that Schumer and others were criticizing him for going to Korea. You said to me just a minute ago, before we went on, that I’d used the word circuit breaker for him. I had more hope for him. I had some hope for him, because at least we’re going to get something different. And so he goes to Korea and he’s getting ridiculed because he doesn’t know anything about nuclear bombs. I’m telling you — you name a president. Obama was — I’m OK with Obama for the first term, I’m not OK with him for the second term. I can understand playing the middle, and being a trimmer, you know that famous phrase, everybody studied trimmers in school, when he’s first term because he wants to be a black man who’s reelected. And he’s certainly as bright as any president we’ve ever had. And anyway, in the second term I wanted him to do much more to stop the murder that’s going on. We’re in 76 countries right now conducting war, most of them in Africa. And you know nothing about it. And if you believe what the Joint Chiefs, the Joint — the Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations Command tells you about what happened in Mali, I’m not going to sell you whatever the cliché is, they’re completely out of control. They’re just there. They do their thing and they’re just causing havoc, particularly in Africa and also in the Middle East.
Anyway, to get back to what I was going to say, so Trump goes to Korea. And of course he doesn’t know anything about nuclear weapons and how to get rid of them, and he makes some joke. Well here’s the background: There may be idiocy in the White House, but there’s a lot of competence still in the bureaucracy and they worked like demons for about three weeks. They got, the CIA has a bunch of psychoanalysts and psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, people who actually practice, private practice, but they do consult with the agency and they bring them in and they get access to, I don’t want to shock anybody, but we always cry and mew and puke about how bad it is, the Russians are coming with SIGINT and the Chinese and Iranians. We are really good. We can steal anything. We’re very good at signals intelligence and intercepting stuff. We can do malware. We can tell a major corporation that has all sorts of internal security when they’re being attacked even before their own security knows. I’m talking about Lockheed Martin and places like that. We are good. And so we had a lot of stuff on this guy; a lot of his conversations.
So they gave the shrinks all his conversations and they produced a psychological profile. They did one on Putin; none of these are public. But one of them, I will tell you, would shock a lot of people because it wasn’t nearly as bad as you might think, as terms of him being this fanatical, long tooth warrior.
JS: But you’re talking about Kim Jong-un, the current head of state.
SH: The third generation kid. I call him kid.
So anyway, so they read all this stuff, and the papers basically say, he is desperate for a money way out. He’s broke, he knows he’s going the wrong way, he’s desperate for a change. So you brief Trump on this, and how does it come out? It comes out with him saying and being quoted as saying, “Boy, you’ve got great beaches and I can see a lot of condos there.” [Audience laughs.] But, so, it’s seems idiotic, but he’s singing, believe it or not, he’s actually saying in the right, he just has the wrong — he’s got the music going. So it just isn’t quite as awful as it seems. There is still a government there. And it’s not just that there’s 26,000 or 28,000 he wants to get out, and I’ll tell you why I think he wants to get them out, thinking, not me knowing. Believe or not, there’s over 200,000 support American troops in Korea that they don’t tell you about.
So we’re dealing with billions and trillions a year for nothing. And treaty has a year for nothing. And I don’t know if a Democrat, a regular Republican could have gone in and done it. He just does it. Why? I’ll tell you what I think he’s doing, and this is heuristic, which is Dan Ellsberg’s favorite word, he said in the State of the Union something that nobody paid attention to. At the end of the State of the Union, he said: We’re going to do something special. We’re going to have a Marshall Plan to rebuild the world, rebuild America and private corporations can contribute, private people, which wasn’t in the Marshall Plan. It was just simply government. I don’t even know what he’s talking about is legal. I know he’s raising a kitty. He’s got, I know he has a huge commitment from the Saudis, he’s raising a kitty for after, and my heuristic guess, it’s more a little bit more than a guess, after the congressional elections and no matter what happens, this could be a Republican Senate. And in order to get impeachment you really have to do more than just showing he’s evil with the what he did on the border and all that stuff. I mean, it’s horrible stuff, but you’re not going to impeach him.
So, you got this guy for two half more years and another election. And so what’s he doing? He wants to raise billions, trillions, trillions and then announce a major public works program. And I’m told by somebody who does know this stuff that this idiot Salman that we support, the little creep that runs Saudi Arabia, with little murderous —
JS: Mohammad bin Salman, yeah.
SH: The thug. The thug! I know people in the government that call him the bum, the thug, the bum, just awful man.
JS: You wouldn’t know that, though, from reading the beautiful, glossy propaganda magazine that the Saudis released here.
SH: Or some of my ex-colleagues at The New York Times that go there and swoon because he speaks English to them.
JS: I mean, Thomas Friedman’s column about hanging out with him was almost erotic. He talked about fire hosing with him and it was very — [Audience laughs.]
SH: So anyway, just to finish the thought. The Saudis, I’m told, Salman ask if he could bid on contracts and the president said, “No.” He said actually: “I’ll tell you what, you can do anything you want,” we’re talking about 2019, “but you’ve got to hire American workers.” And that means he’s thinking of putting a program to put $5 million, $3 million, as much money as he can gather to work on infrastructure. And so, I know this is going on. And so, what do I say? Does he know about it? Does he understand it? He’s what he is, but don’t sell him short. He knows how to win elections. And I’m afraid he’s going to win another election unless the Democrats come up with a candidate, and believe it or not, I’m the last person you think I would say that: I think a woman would be, again, a great choice, with a solid person.
I know the Eric Holder and Comey are thinking of running, in case you care. Believe it or not. You heard it here first. Straight off the press! Holder wants to run, and Comey, I think, wants to be his VP. This is vodka. [Audience laughs and applauds.]
JS: What we really need is an FBI guy running the country. Before we transition to some other issues I want to ask you a couple of historical questions about the book which by the way is an incredible piece of work, particularly for young aspiring journalists. My favorite parts of the book are the asides throughout it. No, but really, because it’s chock-full of like, extremely valuable intel. And my colleague, Jon Schwarz, in his review of your book at The Intercept —
SH: Oh my God, he’s my brother-in-law, did you know that?
JS: OK. I’m not going to read the quote now.
SH: He’s not my brother-in law.
JS: Oh, OK.
SH: But, he could be. He could be.
JS: This is what he wrote. “Reporter” demonstrates that Hersh has derived three simple lessons from his rule — rule about reporting: “The powerful prey mercilessly upon the powerless, up to and including mass murder. 2. The powerful lie constantly about their predations. 3. The natural instinct of the media is to let the powerful get away with it.”
SH: Well, we know that. I mean, you guys all know that. That’s why The Intercept lives, right? You guys are practicing journalism in sort of the purest sense, which doesn’t always translate into widespread acceptance, particularly by your peers, right?
And so: I did work for the New York Times and I was OK at the New York Times, although I always joke, it’s not a joke, I always tell the story that Rosenthal, who was the editor who hired me, because he knew the coverage of Vietnam wasn’t good — I was then at The New Yorker working for William Shawn, and he used to give me — Bill Murray used to come in behind me in Washington, when he came to Washington from New York and give me that rub, what do you call it, the knuckle rub? The noogie. He used to give me a noogie and say, “How’s my little commie today?” And then he’d say: “What do you have from me?” Because who cares what my personal — I turned against the Vietnam War because I covered it, I was in the Pentagon for year and a half for the AP and I learned from American soldiers who just wanted to tell the truth, American officers, that it was mass murder. You got promoted by number of kills. In the Special Forces, when you have a promotion, there’s a piece of paper in the promotion board that’s never left in the file, it’s a separate piece of paper with your kills. And that’s how you make it from major to lieutenant colonel and stuff like that, if you can show you really have killed a lot of people. I mean it’s crazy — we’re a nutty society.
Anyway, but what else you wanna know? [Audience laughs.]
JS: Very quickly, I want you, if you will, to share the story of what Lyndon Johnson did to the journalist Tom Wicker.
SH: Tom Wicker, who was a brilliant journalist, he died about ten years ago, just a wonderful, he was a North Carolinian, he was the golden boy of The Times, he was not only a columnist in ’64, he was also the bureau chief, the youngest bureau chief. He was a noble person as far as reckon, and so honest. He pulls up a chair next to me and he says, “I’m going to tell you a story that I’ve not told anybody, really.”
He said, “In the spring and summer, the president would always —” this must have been ’65 — the war was just getting cooking then, and he was lying about it, Johnson, the war was just getting going. “And on Fridays, we used to fly down to the Johnson Ranch.” I actually went there once. It’s a huge big, I don’t think they had much livestock, but it was 20 square miles of the typical.
JS: We’re talking about Lyndon Johnson.
JS: So you’re telling the story about Lyndon Johnson.
SH: Not the Johnson that was impeached. Let’s get that clear. Wasn’t he Johnson, too? Right? Anyway.
So what he says is, “Before going down with the plane, I wrote what they called in the Times a curator, an analysis piece that they spread all over the paper saying that Johnson’s leading us into war, it’s dangerous, we’ve got all sorts of problems.” In those days the Times had enough money to fly down people to the ranch, so everybody, all the reporters there, 30, 40 reporters would go with them.
And Saturday morning, Wicker wrote it on Friday, and with the rest of the press corps, he was there for briefing by the press secretary, I think George Reedy at the time, at about 10:30 in the morning, Reedy announced what they called the lid is off, you guys can go play, go play golf, go get drunk, do whatever you want, nothing’s going to happen today.
And in the middle of this sort of exchange, out comes Johnson, he had a white Lincoln convertible, four doors and it’s cloud of smoke, and he comes down and screeches to a stop and he reaches over, opens the four-door convertible, I remember, and opens up the front door, and says, “Wicker!” and everybody turns and he goes like this.
JS: This is the president of the United States.
SH: I’m telling the story. [Audience laughs.] The same Johnson, and comes in the car, says nothing, turns the car around, goes like a bat out of hell, stops where the press are, they’re still there wondering what’s going on, and opens the door, goes like that, and he leaves.
So, Wicker says: “OK, I know he’s crazy. I know he’s talking about the same Nixon I’m hearing, this mad sort of Jekyll and Hyde stuff, and I know then he’s going to go all out on the war. And I know then, we’re not only not going to win this war, but we’re going to kill all sorts of people. I know then. And I didn’t write it.” And we’re talking an honorable, honorable southern gentleman. “I didn’t write it because: How could you? But I knew in my soul what he was going to do, which is what he did.”
And it’s an amazing story because he was crazy! This is a crazy act about the war, crazy act about some criticism. And so, there’s no reason to buy the book for this story. [Audience laughs.]
JS: We are going to talk about some of the other stories in the book, and also coming up in a few moments we’re going to be joined by Lee Gelernt, who is one of the lead attorneys for the ACLU fighting the Trump Administration right now on forced family separation. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
We’re also going to be joined by the activist, curator, prison abolitionist, Mariame Kaba. First we’re going to here from Narcy. Sy has agreed to also drop some verses on this one. So please welcome Narcy.
Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman: A moment of silence for morality.
Where are we? I mean like, where have we arrived? Here we are. We’ve survived but, where are we inside? When so many are deprived of lives for us to arrive, here, where have we left to? What has left us so empty? A pride so comfortable we can’t let go. A grounded denial, not high enough to die, reaching an all-time low in our time.
Do you ever look outside? Of yourself, I mean?
You ever think about how the world views you? Do you even have to, like we do? By we, I mean us, you know? The ones on the margins of the page, passed where Nas’ words were. The minority, the refugee, the immigrant, the migrant, the militant-minded, the limited client, the mimicry of our science, the pillars of the silence, the killers of our mind and village of our dying, venomous and violent. The tweets of a terrible tyrant.
Do you ever feel like you’re running out of mileage? Feared like the pious, smeared by liars, sneers to a child, as feared as a child is, as a child in fear. Do you even remember what that feels like?
It’s so vile you can feel it in your eyelids after you try to ignore what you’re witnessing beside it. There’s an ad for Latuda, olanzapine and kind of enhancers like, guafacine or cyan, just another drug to buy in. Sidebar: Those are anti-psychotic drugs given to children in Walmart interim camps.
A presidential tool, not hesitant in rule, elemental cruel on an evidential fool. But you are also have been in denial. See, this is been a reality of North America since residential schools, slavery and world wars, Hiroshima, shame on a hero who tried to run game on my people. In Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, Cuba, Sudan, Mali, Yemen, Vietnam, too. I hope it’s not all the same to you —
Children have been the biggest victim of our sinful beginnings as nations. Women torn from their children all over Africa as children are torn from their mothers in Kanata. So let me ask you this: Why are we not shocked enough to move? Why are we not seeing the links between Antwoe Rose, migrant children, young Gazans — a reality to get lost in.
I ask you this: When has America ever been about human rights to those who aren’t American? Even Americans! Who chooses if we are, I mean we humans right? Humanity isn’t selective in heresy, it’s all around you like white supremacy and life expectancy if you’re black or brown that’s a type dependency, and patriarchal menacing the face and heart of any being.
You can pretend this piece is meant to be, but that would be a lie, too.
So what will it take? We’ve heard it all, seen it all, you know? Walls, bans, cages, false flags, guns, buildings, women and now children. Woe be unto us. We have the privilege to watch a lack thereof. What more does it take to move us.
As a father of two children, I can’t get the image of children in prison out of my mind. You know? It’s been a weird couple of days. And I saw it on the Internet and it became real. Because otherwise I was blind to it just like you.
So you ever look outside yourself? Where are we? Where have we arrived? Are we going to survive? If we don’t feel empathy for others then are we even alive? Our souls are severed, but still gotta keep the families together.
A moment of silence for morality. [Audience applauds.]
JS: Yassin Alsalman, also known as Narcy. He’s a musician, hip-hop artist. He’s also an educator in Canada.
I was just reading, as we came on stage tonight, the report that the Pentagon has been asked to game out plans to hold as many as 20,000 children at these detention centers, potentially at military facilities in addition to the tents, the Walmarts, the cages, the fenced areas. And all of us have followed that Trump held this open meeting and announced that he was going to sign this executive order and he did sign that executive order to keep more families together, but together in detention. And they have done nothing — nothing to address the children that have already been separated, a few hundred of whom have been brought to this city, New York, without the mayor or the governor even knowing that they were being brought here.
The next two people who are going to join us on this show have been on the frontlines of fighting not just against the Trump administration’s policies, but they’ve been in the struggle for a long time under both Democrats and Republicans, working on issues surrounding the prison industrial complex and also the war against immigrants that has intensified in this country.
Lee Gelernt has been an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union since 1992 and he works on both immigration and national security issues. He’s the leading attorney in this nationwide class action suit that’s been brought on behalf of hundreds of unnamed families who have been torn apart by federal immigration authorities. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to the ACLU’s Lee Gelernt. [Audience applauds.]
Mariame Kaba is an organizer, an educator, a curator who is active in movements for racial, gender and transformative justice. She’s also the founder and director of Project NIA, which is a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration completely. And my favorite term that applies to Mariame Kaba is that she is a prison industrial complex abolitionist.
Please join me in welcoming Mariame Kaba. [Audience applauds.]
JS: Mariame, welcome.
Mariame Kaba: Thank you.
JS: Lee, welcome to you as well.
Lee Gelernt: Thanks for having me.
JS: Lee, let’s start with you: give people the latest on what is happening right now with thousands of families that are in this country right now and separated.
LG: Yeah. It’s as bad as you can imagine. The kids, they’re little babies, even, they’re just being torn away from their parents. Most recently, because the kids were screaming, “Please don’t take me away,” they’re now telling the parents, “We’re just taking your kid for a bath,” and then the kid is whisked away off and, you know, the parent never sees them again.
You know the conditions are horrible and the kids are being traumatized likely for the rest of their life. I just met with a family of 4 and 10-year-old boy who had been separated from their mother for over two months and when I got there, you know, the little boy is petrified when I walked in and the mother told me that every night he just keeps asking his mother: Are they going to come and take me away again? And that’s what we’re doing to all these children.
You know, as the medical community has said, they’re going to be permanently traumatized, probably for the rest of their life. And there’s thousands of them and it was intentional. You know, this is not sort of a bureaucratic snafu that left some kids separated from their parents. This was an intentional practice that the Trump administration decided to engage in because they thought if the word gets out around the world that you’ll lose your child, bona fide asylum seekers will stop coming here. It’s horrendous. It’s the worst thing I have seen in my 25 plus years of doing civil rights work.
JS: Hmm. Explain for people what the difference has been in Trump’s policy and prior administrations, particularly Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
LG: Right. Right. So, the ACLU had problems with what Obama did in immigration, but those problems are dwarfed by what’s going on now. You know, we thought that far too many people were deported under Obama and far too many people were detained, but this is a whole other level, and I think that’s why we saw the outcry — not just from liberals and Democrats, but from conservatives, Republicans and everyone. Because this notion of separating families and tearing away little kids is something that no prior administration did.
And I think the Trump administration thought: Well this is really clever of us. Well, every administration knows that if you did that, you know, you could terrorize little kids, but they didn’t because it’s both illegal, it’s immoral, and it’s inhumane.
JS: Mariame, I follow your work very closely and I’m a big fan of your Twitter feed and you never pull punches. You’ve been in the trenches working on the carceral system, as you refer to it.
As you’ve watched this atrocity play out at these children prisons basically, what has sort of been running through your mind given that you’ve been so deeply involved in a variety of struggles against a variety of aspects of the so-called criminal justice system in this country?
MK: You know, it’s sad to hear the voices of small children crying for their families. That’s a sad thing we should all be — you know, you’d have to be callous not to feel anything around that. I think it’s a sad thing to see pictures of little children losing their parents, being taken away, not knowing when they’re going to see them again. Those things are all horrible and we’ve been doing this for generations in this country, to particular groups of people. [Audience applauds.]
We have been doing this over and over again.
You know, I used to teach young people in a juvenile detention center. Those centers are torture chambers for children. Putting a kid in a space that’s less than six by nine with no windows for hours at a time during the day at the age of 13 is a form of torture. The fact that we’re doing it to young people who are coming in, seeking asylum, is a bad thing. But we’re doing it to American-born citizen children every single day. So what I’d like to see is a conversation that takes into account the historical foundations of this issue, because we’re not going to solve it if we don’t take seriously the fact that this is a profoundly anti-black country, a profoundly xenophobic country always, a profoundly kind of, you know, anti-brown people country and at the level that that these things are happening because people are already seen as dehumanized people that we can do this to on a regular basis. So we have no care for them.
And so this is just an escalation of something that consistently has been happening for generations in this country. Right? I mean the people that we look at as our touchstones are people who told us about convict-lease systems in the mid-19th century. Those were children on those convict lease farms, basically toiling the earth for profits, for a slaveocracy that is the basis of our country.
So I would just like people to stop pretending to be surprised. I would like us to take this seriously and to fight consistently. [Audience applauds.]
JS: Lee, obviously you have white supremacists’ ideology that is not hidden at all right now. including from the highest levels of power in this country. You have Stephen Miller who seems to be particularly dedicated to trying to harm or eliminate as many people of color as he can while he has this shot at being in the Oval Office. We have a Ku Klux Klan figure as attorney general. I mean, I don’t see any daylight between Jeff Sessions and any other member of the Ku Klux Klan, whether he has the card in his pocket or not.
But it’s not just — I mean, Mariame is making a very profound set of points, but even in the micro-situation that you’re on the front lines of right now Lee, it’s not just Central Americans fleeing war in Honduras and Guatemala and elsewhere. You also have a client who is a Congolese woman and her daughter was taken away from her by border agents shortly after she entered the country.
Can you share with all of us the story of that fight and this woman’s struggle?
LG: Yeah, so she is the lead plaintiff in our national class action in San Diego. I found out about her in February. We had been hearing stories. You know, the administration had said, “Well, look, we’re contemplating a policy, we’re contemplating a policy of separating children.” And that was back in October November and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, “Well, they’re not doing it yet.” But the truth is we found out they were doing it, they just weren’t calling it a formal policy.
So I found out about this woman, I went out to visit her and she was in, you know, a detention camp in San Diego and she had lost, you know tons and tons of weight, she wasn’t sleeping, she was distraught, and she told me the story of how she had come from the Congo fleeing death and made it to this country through 10 countries, on her own, with her six-year-old daughter. Finally got to the U.S. border and explained in broken Spanish because she, you know, she learned Spanish a little bit on the trip that they were seeking protection.
So this is a woman who went to a port of entry and legally presented herself — not someone who tried to cross illegally. And said I’d like to apply for asylum and they said, “OK!” So they put her in some makeshift motel with her daughter, and four days later they said, “We would like to see your daughter alone for a second.” And so they took the daughter into the other room, they handcuffed the mom and said, “You’re going to be going to essentially a prison here in San Diego. You can try and apply for asylum from there.” And then a minute later she heard her daughter in the next room screaming, “Mommy! Don’t let them take me away! Don’t let them take me away!”
The daughter was whisked away to Chicago. The mother was not told where she was for four days. She was never told why they took her daughter away. She spoke to her for about 10 minutes every 10 days and they basically assumed they would never see each other again. The little daughter celebrated her seventh birthday by herself in a government facility and we decided that before we just put together a national class action which would take a little time, we needed to go in immediately for this woman. And so we went in and we filed a suit and we said, “This little girl has been taken away.”
The government walked in, and even though everyone knew that they were separating children as what they believed would be a deterrent for future people coming, they came in and said, “Well we took the little girl away for her best interests.” And we said, “Really? Why is that? Why is it in the best interest this child to be whisked away.” And they said, “Well, by the time the mother got here from the Congo, she no longer had all her papers, so we couldn’t be sure it was actually the mother.”
And, you know, anybody who’s ever done asylum work knows that a parent often doesn’t have their papers by the time they get here, because they’re stolen or lost. And we said, “Well, what wasn’t obvious it was the mother? The little girl is begging and screaming, please don’t take me.” And they said, “Well, it could have been anything.” And the judge finally said, “Well, what about a simple DNA test.” So of course they had to do the DNA test, and it turned out to be the actual mother, of course. You know?
What basically has happened is they’re using any excuse to rip the kids away rather than doing whatever steps they can take to verify and then they’re just trying to retroactively justify. And finally, they just basically have admitted it’s a policy and now there’s thousands of kids taken away.
And I go back to a point that Mariame — it’s exactly right. You know, we’ve dehumanized so many different segments of our society and that’s what’s happening with these immigrants. It finally took the pictures of these little kids, but basically it was just an abstraction to people. These people down at the border they had been dehumanized, and, you know, I always say that if the policy makers, you know maybe not the Trump core, but other policymakers could sit in that room for a whole day and watch these little kids being torn away and screaming for their lives, it would change this whole debate from just sort of this abstract policy question and a blur of aggregates statistics into seeing the real human dimension of little babies being torn away and screaming and the people are just taking them away. It’s, you know, it’s horrific.
JS: You know, we talk about Trump derangement syndrome, and it’s very fierce among a lot of liberals and very, you know, partisan establishment Democrats and when you raise historical context about wars, about immigration policy, it’s whataboutism. “Oh, are the Soviets are paying you to do this?”
The notion that Russia needed to come in to cause racial strife in this country? I mean, has anyone been paying attention to the police? The FBI? St. Jim Comey? Yeah. Jim Comey is COINTELPRO 2.0, and has an atrocious record at the FBI on these core issues.
And Mariame, you know, one of the reasons why I have incredible respect for you is that you have been fighting this exact fight, the destruction of families, the incarceration of people the profits being made off of this, with almost no attention being paid to it. Black lives in this country actually don’t matter as much as white peoples’ in the eyes of the systems that administer the prison punishment system in this country.
Share with all of us some stories from the frontlines of your fight against the prison industrial complex and how that has impacted black families and families of color and poor people in this country.
MK: Yeah. I want to say something — backtrack for a minute and say that one of the things that I find really sad about this country in the way that we think, and our inability to think historically but also our inability to — you know, oppression puts a ceiling on people’s imaginations. That’s a fact. And what we have are a bunch of people with stunted imaginations about what’s possible.
And what you end up seeing a lot is now people are making the call to abolish ICE. Right? Like all of a sudden! Abolish ICE, right? Years ago, when we would say, “You want to abolish the prison industrial complex?” people looked at you like you are a nut case. We have moved to the point where liberals can now see the imagining of the end of ICE which started in 2002, so like the fact that something is so brand new and people still can’t imagine the end of it makes me so — just, I can’t believe it.
And prisons are equally new in the invention of human history. So that the inability to see the end of that to me it’s just speaks to the fact that people can’t imagine a world without exploitation. They cannot imagine a world without slavery. These systems are like that. It’s not that the mass incarceration system is slavery, it’s that it’s built upon the afterlife of that.
So I have a young person who I’ve known for many, many years now. He started goming into juvenile detention because he was basically truant, out of school. First time that he was in juvenile detention was 10 years old. It is now 14 years later and he’s in adult prison. That pipeline is real, right? So the small things, you know, once you get involved in the system, it makes it easier for you to make it through that system. And he went in for petty things and it just escalated over time and found himself now in a position where he’s serving a 40-year sentence.
And I just keep reminding people that prisons aren’t doing the thing you say you want them to do. They make people worse. And they don’t make us safer. So if you know those two things to be true, why continue to advocate to put people through that system? When those people are going to come out worse, and when none of us are going to be made better? For me it’s been a struggle over time to get people to see the connections, even in, you know, 2006, when we were fighting around immigration at that point. That was the big kind of immigration. People were constantly saying what? What were they saying? They were saying, “We are not criminals.” And at that time, people like me and others were saying: Don’t use that as the frame. Because then the question is: Then who are the criminals? And if you start saying, “Define yourself through negation, you’re not going to be able to define yourself through affirmation. You’re already dehumanizing yourself in that story.” And people will look at you as a criminal and look at what we’re dealing with now.
The issue is: These are innocent children and the parents are the ones who are criminal. The parents came here “illegally”: Imagine a country where every single person on here is standing on stolen ground calling other people illegal! [Audience cheers and applauds.] Imagine. Imagine. And that people feel like completely comfortable being able to do that. This is all of a piece, Jeremy. It’s all one thing. And the fact that people don’t see that is why we’re in the position we’re in right now. Because we’re fighting, putting our fingers in the dyke everywhere when in fact it’s one big system of oppression harming all of us, including, by the way, poor white people. Poor white people who white supremacy does not mind making into collateral damage. That has always been true. So white folks have an interest in wanting to end this very same system and not just because they are being nice to black and brown people, but it’s in their self-interest, too.
So I think about that when I think about the stories we’re dealing with right now. And if people saw them, their humanity as interconnected and our liberation as interconnected, we’d be much better off, rather than the way that we’re doing things now. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
JS: Sy, one of your gateways into journalism was struggles for racial justice and you then have gone on to cover wars around the world where the United States is killing, overwhelmingly killing, non-white people. The situation in Honduras was one very much created by the United States. And post-9/11 we’ve seen this increased paramilitarization of all forms of law enforcement in this country. We see it in the streets facing down against young black people who have taken to the streets to oppose the killing of their friends, neighbors, family members. They are met with overwhelming force in the streets.
But it all stems from the same basic ideology that seems to permeate every administration: American exceptionalism, the notion that the badge or the military uniform places you on some level above all others.
How has this system evolved or developed from the time you first started reporting on these wars to what we’re seeing now under Trump?
SH: We’re basically a paramilitary country from top to bottom right now. And we, there was a study done at Brown University by the Watson Institute about two months ago that found, they looked around and they found 76 places in the world were we’re conducting war — many of them in Africa, because we do have a very paternal notion of what we can do there.
As you say, there’s nothing to say except: How do you stop this? And it’s not just Republicans. It’s happened with the Democrats, too. It’s gone a long way.
SH: That’s true.
And so somebody is going to have to — you know, you said what the facts are but I think politically in America we’re going to have to find some way for the rage that’s expressed here, the unbelievable stories we hear here from the practitioners, we’re going to have to find a way to communicate this and turn this into politics, turn this into votes and we haven’t done it yet but we’re getting on the edge.
Sanders came close. He didn’t want to do much on foreign policy, but he did a lot on economics. We don’t even get the press telling us how much money the billionaires are making. Warren Buffet announced that he saved $575 million last year. What about the rest of the guys? I mean we don’t know — the tax bill has just gone down. The abuse of that. So we really do need a radical change and I don’t, I’m not sure well. [Audience member woos.]
Well but, it’s not — it’s just a given. I mean somehow the people who have points of view that I think all of us share here, and I can tell you, I know a lot about prisons, because I wrote about Abu Ghraib prison, and I heard from so many American prisoners, articulate letters, you know that. These are not ignorant people.
SH: I heard from so many people saying: “Abu Ghraib was bad? Come down to Georgia and take a look at this prison here,” particularly the South and some of the super prisons. So I couldn’t, by the way, I was doing other stuff — it was a scandal that I couldn’t get somebody in that magazine to do the story. I had letters from wardens saying: “I’m ashamed of what we did.” We’re lost on the prison system. We’re just lost. It’s gone. It’s just a system of bestiality. I’m not kidding. There’s no — there’s no such thing as rehabilitation.
SH: Good word. Anyway, it’s going to have to be something very profound because there’s a voice that is being said here that is very powerful and it’s really there. And we saw it in what happened in the one part of the Democratic Party. I thought we wouldn’t keep the two-party system, I thought we’d would break apart. But we’re keeping. It it’s a lousy system; it doesn’t work. Somehow you guys have to figure out a way to take over this if you want to stay with the two-party system.
But the second part: The Democrats have got to be, they’ve got to stand for something. And I will say this: There’s been there’s been some very good stuff recently on children, teenagers being incarcerated, and there’s also some very good stuff being written being done about woman running for office. So here I am, as much of a sexist as anybody you know, saying, “We need a woman to take charge right now.” We’re going to need somebody to come and I think we’re ready to have some strong woman.
No, I mean it! I mean Hillary, wasn’t the right one. She wasn’t the right one. [Audience cheers and applauds.] She had too much baggage. You women have to — you guys have to start doing it, too.
JS: Lee, when the Trump administration and Trump supporters say that Congress is the one that needs to solve this, and we’re just doing what the law says, is that true?
LG: No. That’s absolutely false.
JS: What is true?
LG: This unprecedented and it’s a pure discretionary decision by the Trump administration to do it. And the easiest way to understand is not to get into the weeds of each statute. The laws they’re pointing to have been on the books for decades, so if it were really true that it required family separation, prior administrations would have had to do it, none of them did it. It’s purely a policy decision by the Trump administration. He could end it at any time. This executive order does not completely end it. So we have a hearing tomorrow and we intend to stop it fully.
MK: Can we also like do some things around language here? And frames that we use where we end up basically coming up with demands that are easily cooptable? The fact that everybody was “Keep families together,” so now they’re going to keep families together in new prisons. Like, just can we, can we like, you know, can we keep families together, no incarceration, no criminalization? Can those be part of like the conversation?
I think we are we are just – like we just allow ourselves to constantly be in these positions where we are asking for this small little thing rather than asking for the things we actually want. We need to ask for the things he actually wants and stop like already free-redacting ourselves so that we can be “heard” by these jackasses.
They’re never going to listen to us! You know, our job is to build power, to take what the fuck we want. That’s our job. So let’s do that. Let’s do that work. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
JS: Sy, as we wrap up here, what is your advice to young people in this country, those that want to be journalists or those that care about what happens, the stories that Mariame is sharing with us, that Lee is sharing with us?
SH: You really have to read before you write. That’s the big thing I think. You just have to, you have to get into it. You have to get into the history. You know, you have to get into the historical racism of America.
I actually said at one point that the remarkable thing for me about the Clinton administration was — I was being sarcastic, when Bill Clinton bombed Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 1999, he was the first American president to bomb white people since World War II. Because if you think about it, we always just roll over, in this case it was in Korea, it was in Vietnam, you know, the minorities. And we’ve always had a running war with the African-American people in terms of incarceration, the number of jails and the conditions of the jails. The real reality of the American prison system is as, as you put it, and you do know that it’s not just the white folks in this administration, it’s the people in all the administrations that don’t care.
MK: Absolutely. Yes.
SH: They don’t care. There’s no constituency for that and so that’s what you’re trying to build and it’s really hard because there isn’t any.
I asked you about fundraising. You are doing all right, aren’t you?
MK: Well, you know, we do what we can? But people aren’t like, dying to give money to prisoners.
JS: If people do want to support your work, Mariame, what should they do?
MK: Yeah, they go can go to survivedandpunished.org, and we have a donate link over there and they can give us money.
And I also want to say like: You’re all in New York and you’re all, in this room, most people here I would think identify more towards the left than to the right, and I’m going to say that you have a governor in office right now who is absolutely pathetic. [Audience applauds and cheers.] And horrible on criminal punishment issues. And you should be after him every single day on the fact that he has now blocked a bail bill that could decarcerate the hellhole prisons in this state. You don’t have to freakin’ look at Tijuana, and you don’t have to go to El Paso. The prisons where 51,000 people are in here, in our state, right in New York, are hellholes. Go visit. Go visit. Pay attention to your own backyard. Get rid of the friggin’ people here first, before we try to go an upfront other peoples’ people. Get rid of Cuomo. Get rid of Cuomo. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
JS: That is a great note to end on.
Mariame Kaba, thank you so much for being with us and for your work.
Lee Gelernt, thank you for being on the frontline of this struggle right now and all the work that the ACLU is doing.
And Sy Hersh, thank you for an entire life of investigative journalism and courage. Make sure to pick up Sy Hersh’s memoir, “Reporter.”
It’s been an honor to have all of you here. Thank you very much.
MK: Thank you.
[Narcy performs “Yemenade” live.]
JS: That was Yassin Alsalman, also known as Narcy, performing, for the first time publicly, his new track “Yemenade.”
JS: And that does it for this special live episode of Intercepted. Big thanks to the Music Hall of Williamsburg for hosting us and also thank you to their staff, their technicians and everyone for making it a really great evening. And most of all, thank you to the incredible audience that came out to spend that night with us.
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. Nathan Rosborough was our recording engineer. Rick Kwan mixes the show. Our music, as always, was composed by D.J. Spooky.
We’re off next week, but we will be back with a new show on July 11. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.