There has been a lot of action the past two weeks relating to the Trump-Russia saga, but does any of it matter? This week on Intercepted: Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen analyzes the fallout from the Trump-Putin summit, what Putin actually wants from Trump, and the indictment of 12 Russian GRU officers. The Intercept’s Micah Lee offers a technical analysis of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Russian intelligence operatives who the U.S. Justice Department alleges cyberattacked the Democrats and election software providers. Jeremy argues that Trump is sort of right about stripping security clearances from former senior CIA officials, but for all the wrong reasons. NYU professor Nikhil Pal Singh talks about the ahistorical analogies used to describe Trump and l’affaire Russia, the “far more consequential threats to U.S. democracy” than what is on cable news 24/7. Experimental electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never discusses his Russian roots, Steve Bannon’s favorite book, and the inspiration for his cinematically dystopian album, “Age Of.”
Khigh Dhiegh as Dr. Yen Lo (in The Manchurian Candidate): Normally conditioned American, brain is not only being washed, as they say, it has been dry-cleaned. He cannot possibly feel guilt. He cannot possibly give himself away. If we may proceed with the demonstration.
Reuters Reporter: President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Who do you believe?
President Donald J. Trump: President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this — I don’t see any reason why it would be.
KD: [He laughs.] Now then, comrade. What will be the first duty you will undertake?
DJT: President Putin was extremely strong and powerful. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer, OK. Thank you.
KD: Ah, da, da. Now you just sit there quietly and cooperate.
Reuters Reporter: President Putin, thank you. Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?
Albert Paulsen as Zilkov (in The Manchurian Candidate): I being personally responsible for Soviet Security, in the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States, refused to turn him over to his operator. You say that the man has been built as an assassin. Very well then. Let him assassinate someone.
DJT: And I have to say, if they have it, it would’ve been out long ago. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.
James Gregory as Senator John Yerkes Iselin (in the Manchurian Candidate): I now charge this man with high treason. And I you assure, the moment the senate reconvenes, I shall move for this man’s impeachment. And after that, a civil trial!
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from The Intercept, and this is episode 64 of Intercepted.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Not only is the President looking to take away Brennan’s security clearance, he’s also looking into the clearances of Comey, Clapper, Hayden, Rice and McCabe ––
DJT: Before we get into the show, I just want to make a few quick points. As I’ve said before, Donald Trump sometimes does the right thing or says the right thing for the wrong reasons. And the case specifically that I’m talking about right now is this threat that he made to strip some of these cable news pundits and national security robber barons of their security clearances. I’m, of course, talking about so-called former intelligence officials, former CIA directors and senior CIA officers and FBI personnel and DNI officials and generals and national security advisors — these are among the worst class of people in American politics. Not just today, but always. The overwhelming majority of them use their previous posts to rake in huge amounts of corporate cash for influence peddling or to profit from wars that they helped sell that just happened to benefit the war corporations on whose boards they sit. Now, it’s not all of them, but it’s a lot of them.
And in this current moment, many of these former senior intelligence officials have basically taken up residency in the studios of cable news channels and on cable news sets. And they are constantly pushing a propaganda campaign disguised as opposition to Trump that really is about grooming the public to embrace the most authoritarian and secretive institutions in the United States government as somehow being the protectors of our democracy.
Last year, I raised this issue, which by the way was the very last time I was allowed on CNN’s airwaves. Here it is:
Jeremy Scahill: Alright, how about this Brian, when you have these retired generals and colonels on, let’s hear what defense companies they’re on the boards of. Let’s hear how they have their own private companies that benefited off of the Iraq war like Spider Marks.
Brian Stelter: I think CNN is quite careful about those disclosures, but I agree it’s important to have those disclosures.
Jeremy Scahill: Well, I mean, look: The fact is that when you talk about famous generals, and this is a different network, but Barry McCaffrey, you have your own Spider Marks, I think that the American people deserve to know what was the private sector record of these individuals when it came to the weapons industry or profiting in the private sector off of the proliferation of U.S. wars that happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere there is not the kind of transparency that is required of a truly democratic process when you’re not revealing the extent to which these people have benefited in the private sector from these wars.
JS: Privatizing your supposedly national service, service that is constantly held up with no sense of irony or hypocrisy as evidence of the impeccable character of the pundit or corporate board member who is running their mouth off, that’s legalized corruption and it should be abolished — not for political reasons, not because these people are speaking publicly about Donald Trump, but because they are using their previous positions for private agendas, whether that be lucrative consulting gigs or to engage in historical revisionism in an effort to mislead the public into trusting the most dangerous institutions in our society. Or worse: viewing these people, because they were former senior CIA people, as above criticism or that they represent the very definition of patriotism and to oppose them makes you a traitor. It would be one thing if these people were being challenged when they go on TV or investigated, called out, exposed as part of their cushy lives in the private sector. But that never happens — ever. Instead, this has been a literal and political cash cow, for people, some of whom are responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in the name of the United States when they were doing their official jobs. Allowing these people now to engage in what amounts to insider trading with the most sensitive information possessed by the United States while never holding them accountable for their tenure while they were in office is undemocratic and worse.
Now, it’s clear that Trump wants his political opponents stripped of their clearances. We get that and that is a sophomoric reason to do this. But it does raise a real issue: Why do we as a society accept this monetization and politicization of so-called public service? Why should these private citizens be able to privatize intelligence for their own personal and political benefit, or the benefit of their former employers at the CIA, NSA, FBI, DNI, on and on and on? The answer is: They shouldn’t be able to.
Most of Congress is also wrapped up in this racket; so don’t expect them to get around to addressing this any time soon. But it is something that all of us should be aware of when we watch these former spooks selling their goods on the public airwaves.
JS: California Democrat Representative Ro Khanna says he is drafting a bill that would prohibit any U.S. taxpayer money from being used to “interfere in a democratic election of a foreign country, including by engaging in the hacking of foreign political parties, engaging in the hacking or manipulation of foreign electoral systems or sponsoring or promoting media outside the United States that favors one candidate or party over another.”
In an interview with The Nation magazine, Khanna said: “We are deeply offended that Russia interfered in our election and we should make it clear to the Russians that we will not tolerate it in the future.” But, he added: “We should proactively take a position to not do the same to other countries. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard even if we are victims of Russia’s harmful action. We should treat other countries the way we want to be treated. By taking this bold stand we would send a message to the world that this is the gold standard and America does not interfere in other countries’ elections.” He also said: “Adopting this policy would make our outrage of Russian interference more credible because we could not be called hypocrites.”
Representative Khanna offered his plan as an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Bill this year, but, surprise! It didn’t garner much support at all. He says he’s now going to work on getting a standalone bill together and he’s going to reach out to the Progressive and Freedom Caucuses in the Congress for sponsorship. Once that bill is introduced, it would be really interesting for all of us — for people to call up their representatives and ask them if they support it, and if not, why?
After all, we’re constantly told: No, the U.S. doesn’t interfere in elections, not like evil Russia. OK, so if that’s true, why not set it in stone and make it the law of the land. Let us know what you hear, if you do end up doing that.
And of course, there’s been a lot of action the past two weeks relating to the Trump-Russia saga. Donald Trump is clearly concerned about the situation with his former consigliore Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort’s trial is gearing up. There was this indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officers and this bizarre case of Maria Butina, the young woman that the U.S. has arrested and accused of being an agent for Russia who cultivated relationships with Republican politicians and officials and the National Rifle Association. And, of course, there was the Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin.
The past week has seen a desperate Trump White House walking back the president’s various blunders, unhinged comments after that train wreck in Helsinki, the press conference with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. You have to respect Vladimir Putin’s troll game that was on display at this event.
Reporter: Did you want President Trump to win the election, and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
President Vladimir Putin: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.
JS: In another moment during that event Trump, said this of allegations that Russia was behind the cyber operations surrounding the 2016 election campaign.
DJT: People came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it’s Russian. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be —
JS: So he says that, and then the very next day he actually had the hilarious audacity to claim that it was just a minor slip of the tongue.
DJT: I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t.” The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t, or why it wouldn’t be Russia. So, just to repeat it, I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t.” And the sentence should’ve been, and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video, the sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.
JS: Now Trump got hit from many sides over his Helsinki performance: Democrats, Republicans, cable news. Even state TV Fox News had trouble mustering up a defense for Donald Trump.
Neil Cavuto: And that’s what made it disgusting. That’s what made his performance disgusting. I’m sorry, it’s the only way I feel. It’s not a right or left thing to me. It’s just wrong. A U.S. president on foreign soil talking to our biggest enemy or adversary or competitor –– I don’t know how we define them these days, is essentially letting the guy get away with this and not even, you know, offering, a mild, a mild criticism. That sets us back a lot.
JS: At the same time, the U.S. public was also subjected to the most jingoistic, crass form of plastic nationalism and revisionism that our society has to offer, as pundits and politicians compared Trump’s meeting with Putin to Pearl Harbor or Kristallnacht or other outrageously inaccurate, ahistorical nonsense.
To break all of this down we are joined now by Masha Gessen. She is a Russian-American journalist and activist. She’s been a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin. She wrote the book “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” She is currently a columnist at The New Yorker magazine.
Masha Gessen, welcome back to Intercepted.
Masha Gessen: Great to be here.
JS: Let’s just start big picture: The aftermath of the Trump-Putin-Helsinki summit. Now that we’re like a week removed from it or so, what are your thoughts on what actually went down there and its significance?
MG: My primary thought is obvious. We don’t know what went down there, right?
It’s the perfect symbol of so many things. It’s the perfect symbol of the Putin government, in the Putin way of governing which is basically creating a closed system, that’s a black box and you can project anything you want to onto it. And he can claim that anything he wants took place inside.
It’s also a really good illustration of how their different sort of ways of being incompetent function and how Putin’s incompetence takes precedence over Trump’s incompetence.
I mean, I think they both went in with the desire simply to have a meeting. For Trump I think it’s a sincere desire to be friends with, you know, the bad boy whom he admires so much. On Putin’s part, it’s more complicated. It’s something that he has been trying to accomplish through his entire tenure, this kind of meeting with an American president, right? That really is intended to demonstrate that he has made Russia great again. So the very fact of the meeting for Putin and sort of the pomp and circumstance around it were a victory in themselves. That’s all he wanted to accomplish. He doesn’t need, he doesn’t want, you know, sanctions lifted. He certainly had no hope of seeing the U.S. recognize the Russian occupation of Crimea.
VP: President Trump, and, the posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known, and he stands firmly by it. He continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different. We held a referendum, in strict compliance, with the UN charter and the international legislation.
MG: But an added bonus is that he now can say that things happened in the meeting, and Trump who appears to have no grasp of what’s going on and, you know, the memory of a cat can’t really make any counter-claims, not that he would know why he should make counter-claims.
JS: So how is it covered in the Russian News Service then?
MG: It’s a complicated thing to describe, not because the Russian media aren’t a monolith, which there are, you know a minute almost the entirety of Russian media are controlled by the state. Broadcast messages that are literally written in the Kremlin, and passed down to the news services, which is how most Russians get their news.
But that’s not the hard part to explain. The hard part to explain is why we would see, for example, in a news entertainment programs actually comment that Trump appears to be Putin’s agent. I’m having a hard time sort of trying to figure out how to explain it to an American audience, because there’s a kind of postmodern propaganda twist to it. Right? It’s like we are laughing about this because it is absurd on the face of it, and yet we are rebroadcasting it because it’s so incredibly flattering. And no, we don’t expect you to believe it, but still it’s the only available reality so you do believe it. That kind of thing. Right? But it’s, you know, it’s a message of power. It’s like Russia has never been more powerful, not even during the Soviet period did it have an American president in his pocket.
JS: Why would the Kremlin want that to be the message for domestic consumption? Basically, taking the same line that many leading Democrats are taking?
MG: Because Putin’s regime is essentially post-ideological. It’s all about raw power and how do you create a picture of maximum power other than by claiming Putin controls not only Russia but also the United States and in fact the American president personally, so that makes Putin the most powerful man in the world.
JS: If it’s true that Trump is in Putin’s pocket, why would it benefit Putin if he wants to keep Trump in his pocket or is it just the act of having gotten an American president in the pocket. Like, if what the Democrats and the investigation seem to be indicating that Trump is compromised by Putin, that Putin does have this influence over him, wouldn’t that sort of sabotage Putin’s ability to keep doing that if in fact it’s proven that it’s true?
MG: Well, but it’s not proven, right? And there’s always implausible deniability, which is that it was a joke. We were just broadcasting what the American media seemed to be saying, that sort of thing. Putin has pioneered post-truth politics in a really profound way. It’s an entire post-truth country, and that has to do with the legacy of totalitarianism, right? Where nothing is true and anything is possible. But now that gets turned into a sort of daily play, where you can have all sorts of truths preformed simultaneously and the fact that they are contradictory only serves to affirm Putin’s power, right? I mean, because ultimately he asserts his power and in this way he and Trump are similar except the Putin is much more skilled at it, right? He sources power by basically constantly claiming the right to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants to.
JS: What do you make of the most recent events circulating around both the special counsel investigation? Just beginning, first, with the indictment of these 12 Russian intelligence officers that then was the subject of: Is Trump going to make a deal with Putin so that they can be questioned in Russia?
DJT: He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.
JS: Then Trump said one thing, came back and said another. But is that anything significant in your view this indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers?
MG: Well yeah, it would seem significant because this is really where sort of the Mueller team is claiming to have proven the connection between the hackers, you know, who we thought or I thought, you know may have been freelancers, they’re claiming that they have actually proven a connection to Russian intelligence. I think that that does change, at least, sort of the formal appearance of the thing.
As for the conversation about who’s going to be interrogated by whom, I mean, I wish we were capable right now of talking about it more meaningfully and actually sort of parsing it out. Because there’s a lot of complicated stuff to talk about, right?
Brian Williams: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not rule out the possibility of somehow letting Russian officials question American citizens, including, most notably, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
MG: Michael McFaul was the American ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration. His tenure was hugely controversial, not just from the point of view of Russians. I mean it was a pretty significant departure sort of from standard American diplomacy anywhere in the world, especially in Moscow. He was sort of an activist-diplomat. One of his first statement acts when he got to Moscow was meeting with civil society leaders in Russia, but really meeting with anti-Putin activists. He was the first significant, certainly, but possibly the first American diplomat to be using social media actively. He was constantly tweeting. He was tweeting on the subjects of Russian politics. He made it very clear that he was there to serve promote democracy and very much meddle in Russian politics. Putin really believes that that is the functional equivalent of the Russian hacking.
And I wish that we weren’t treating that as an evidently absurd assertion. Right? I wish that we were treating it as a meaningfully absurd assertion, which is a little different, right? But that would require us to actually talk about the distinctions between diplomats and spies.
JS: Yeah. And I think what you’re getting at, I mean there is this perspective that Russia certainly has that institutions like USAID or the American embassy or any sort of quote-unquote civil society initiative is ultimately a CIA ploy or an intelligence operation and that may be part of the historical context or the political context of why Putin would respond without batting an eye and say: Yeah, and of course McFaul and these GRU officers, it’s the same issue.
MG: Right, I mean, just for the record, it’s not like the idea that American aid to Russian civil society is funded by the CIA, it’s not like that is an unfounded idea. I mean that has a basis in fact, right?
JS: Of course. But that’s what I’m saying that is the political context of why Putin would respond in that way, if we want to give credence to it, it’s because there is this history of the United States using its diplomats, using its so-called civil society aid as a vehicle to conduct intelligence operations or to try to implement its own agenda in Russia, an agenda that the Russian state or the Russian government certainly does not welcome.
MG: Right. It’s easy for Putin because we’re no longer framing it in sort of ideological terms, it’s actually very easy for Putin to claim that there’s an equivalency. Right? And the way to argue with it would be not legalistic, because legalistically it’s really difficult to parse out, you know, where diplomacy ends and intelligence-gathering begins. And it’s really difficult to parse out where sort of aid to civil society ends and election meddling begins. Right? We have to talk about it in sort of political terms and moral terms and which country has a stake in what happens in the other country and how it’s justifiable and all that sort of thing. So that’s the conversation we’re not having, and it’s really unfortunate. We’re acting as though there were clear distinctions between those categories, and that’s a fiction.
JS: You know, I think on the one hand there’s the tick-tock of what’s happening in these investigations and then on the other hand there’s sort of this new rule that we’re not allowed to talk about the political context of U.S. actions that are directly related to all these other things that we’re talking about Russia doing or not doing or alleged to have done.
MG: To me, it’s quite reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11, when we weren’t allowed, as you put it, to talk about the political context of terrorism. It’s like the United States had never done anything to make these people hate our democracy.
JS: You know the Democrats want to talk about lifting of sanctions and sort of Trump giving in to Putin, but if you strip away the kind of rhetoric about all of this and you look at it just on a policy level, has Trump’s presidency, beyond the propaganda value that you talked about earlier, has it benefited Putin’s government or administration rule? Has it been beneficial? Has Putin gotten a lot that he’s wanted out of Trump?
MG: Well the thing is that I don’t think the Putin wants that much out of Trump. I think Putin is perfectly happy with sanctions. Sanctions create a kind of mobilizing point for him and his administration. it bolsters the state of constant war that is essential for the kind of presidency that that he has, right? The kind of regime that has built is very dependent on a sense of being constantly under siege. So sanctions help perpetrate that.
The particular set of sanctions that are imposed as part of the Magnitsky Act are painful for him because they target his power directly. That’s a small subset. The basic state of affairs between the United States and Russia actually works just fine for Putin, because, you know, the average Russian watches the Russian-American war on television every day. That’s what Russia’s finding in Ukraine, that’s what Russia’s fighting in Syria. Putin’s regime is dependent on the image of the great and potent enemy and the only enemy that can be is the United States.
At the same time, Trump personally, and sort of Putin’s performance of control over Trump, makes Putin seem like the most powerful man in the world. So in that sense, in terms of propaganda, yeah he’s getting a lot of Trump, but that’s all he wants. He wants that image of, you know unlimited world power, which again bolsters his legitimacy in his own country.
JS: You know, Masha, one of my biggest fears when I sort of try to step back which I feel like we all need to do pretty regularly in this context and look at like what are the big ramifications of the way we are talking about the Trump presidency, and Trump-Russia so to speak in this moment in time? And I think that the liberal kind of lionization of the FBI, the CIA, the valiant intelligence community, it’s like the Support the Troops line on, you know, massive steroids. And I think it’s going to have far-reaching implications because so many prominent liberals, Democrats and others have gone all in with endorsing the FBI/CIA/NSA as sort of the front that’s keeping us safe from the Soviets taking over America. And I am concerned that that is an on ramp to embracing a much more authoritarian state in the United States.
MG: I agree with you. I mean I think there’s sort of the rhetorical aspect of it, which is creepy enough. And, you know, the spectacle of the Democrats chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” on the Senate floor last week was just absolutely terrifying to me!
[Senate chanting: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!]
MG: And there’s also just a very real effect of empowering these closed, secretive agencies who are without a strong check on their powers, sort of inherently a threat to any democracy.
JS: I wonder, I wonder when we look back at this moment if we’ll see it as a crossroads or you know Trump will end up being you know some kind of a footnote joke to history. I don’t know. But I am concerned that normally thinking people seem to have just completely willingly jumped off the cliff and are embracing people and ideas and institutions that should be the center of nothing but scrutiny and aggressive investigation in our society and we’re sort of moving in the opposite direction with some of these people and institutions. And I mean, that to me is much more of an interesting track to investigate then the relationship between Trump and Putin, but there’s no room for that discussion right now.
MG: Absolutely I do, I agree with you. I mean I think there’s, it’s sort of gets us back to what we started with which is, which is a conversation that we’re having with sort of an extreme lack of subtlety. It is as though the entire political conversation just has turned into these like three or four moving blocks that we can’t in any way examine or discuss without suddenly crossing over into the other camp.
JS: Well, Masha Gessen, I want to really thank you for all the great work that you have been doing for a long time but particularly since Donald Trump’s election. I think you’ve been one of the sanest voices we’ve had in the media landscape in the United States. So, thank you very much for that and for joining us again on Intercepted.
MG: It’s wonderful to talk to you.
JS: Marsha Gessen is a columnist at The New Yorker magazine and author of several books, among them, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”
JS: As we were just discussing earlier, a grand jury in D.C. has returned an indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office charging 12 Russian military intelligence officers by name. They allege that they were conspiring to interfere in 2016 presidential election.
Rod Rosenstein: The defendants worked for two units of the main intelligence directorate of the Russian general staff known as the GRU. Units engaged in active cyber-operations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. These Russian stand accused of conducting cyber-attacks on various elements within the U.S. electoral system and democratic party institutions and individuals, and the indictment charges that Russian GRU officers targeted the DCC, that’s the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, a state board of elections and the company VR Systems. But for now, these allegations are just that and the burden of proof is now on the U.S. government and the prosecutors.
JS: My colleague at The Intercept, Micah Lee, who is a renowned computer security engineer reviewed the indictment and its technical information, and he takes a look at these allegations against these GRU officers.
Micah Lee: It’s quite compelling, I think, that the GRU actually was behind this attack.
The first thing to consider is that there were several different operations.
There was the DCLeaks website which claimed to be run by American activists. There was the Guccifer 2.0 persona who claimed to be a Romanian lone hacker. There was a spear-phishing campaign against John Podesta and also against other Democrats. There was the hacking of the DCCC and the DNC servers.
The first thing is that all of these different operations shared hacking infrastructure. Whoever conducted this hack had a bunch of, you know, servers on the Internet. They had Bitcoin wallets where they paid for stuff. They had VPN accounts and e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts, and it turns out that they were kind of sloppy with some of this.
The spear-phishing emails that were sent to Podesta and also sent to members of the DCCC used these links using a URL shortener called bit.ly, and the bit.ly account that was used to create these lengths was associated with this e-mail address, and that same e-mail address was also used with a crypto-currency payment processor, I think it was probably BitPayto pay for some stuff, like including paying for the domain name dcleaks.com. So they’re able to figure out that whoever actually did the spear-phishing attack also controls DCLeaks.
At one point a VPN account that they knew was associated with DCLeaks, whoever controlled the Guccifer 2.0 Twitter account logged into it using that IP address. And so they were able to basically match up these disparate operations were all controlled by the same people. The Daily Beast in March reported that only one time the Guccifer 2.0 Twitter account, someone logged into it without using their VPN, and the IP address ended up being a building in Moscow.
You know, the investigators started researching that and figured out who works in that building and ended up pinning the person who is running the Guccifer 2.0 Twitter account on one specific G.R.U. officer there. For it not to be Russia, lot of this information would have to just be straight up fabricated.
I think that the U.S. intelligence community definitely has some vested interests in blaming Russia but that doesn’t really appear to be the case here. They would have to like and invent some huge conspiracy and tamper with a lot of this evidence or something in order to make a false case against Russia. U.S. prosecutors aren’t the most reliable people and, you know, it’s totally possible that things aren’t completely honest in all of these details, but a lot of the evidence is actually publicly confirmable. Like, all of the spear-phishing e-mail links with bit.ly, that stuff was available on the Internet for anybody to check out and to confirm who the target list was.
Here’s how the DNC and DCCC hacks started. First, there was a spear-phishing campaign. Someone who works for the DCCC fell for it, they got an e-mail, they clicked on the link and typed their password, and so then their credentials were stolen by the attackers. The attackers used those credentials to log into the DCCC network and infected that person’s computer with X-Agent. And so the way that X-Agent works is it’s a remote control tool and it has two features. It can log keystrokes and it can take screenshots. In order for remote control hacking tools to work, there needs to be something called a command and control server. And so the command and control server was actually the leased server in Arizona. And so the like specific information, like specific things that were on people’s screens and the specific keystrokes and stuff were laid out in the indictment.
This means that definitely the investigators must have been like watching the command and control server in order for them to have this information.
Shortly after Guccifer 2.0 sent WikiLeaks a copy of all of the DNC e-mails, and WikiLeaks responded saying: I got it, we’re going to publish this week and then they published this week, Julian Assange went on TV and started amplifying the Seth Rich conspiracy.
Julian Assange: A whistleblower is going to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks. As a 27-year-old, who works for the DNC, was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington.
Nieuwsuur Reporter: That was just a robbery, I believe. Wasn’t it?
JA: No. There’s no finding. So —
Nieuwsuur Reporter: What are you suggesting?
JA: I’m suggesting that our sources take risks, and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.
Nieuwsuur Reporter: Was he one of your sources, then?
JA: We don’t comment on who our sources are.
Nieuwsuur Reporter: Why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?
JA: Because we have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States, and that our sources are, you know, our sources face serious risks. That’s why the come to us. So we can protect their anonymity.
ML: We conclusively know who the source is, the source of WikiLeaks was Guccifer 2.0, which actually was a team of GRU agents. You know, it’s not actually clear that Julian Assange realized that Guccifer 2.0 was Russians. I think that’s entirely possibly that he just thought this was a Romanian lone hacker, and he’s trying to protect his source, pushing the Seth Rich conspiracy in order to like, misdirect people, even though his source was the same source as everyone else’s source, and that was GRU.
Reality Winner is accused of leaking a document to a media organization, which is widely believed to be The Intercept that basically showed that the NSA had a pretty solid evidence that GRU officers had hacked this American election vendor called VR Systems.
After they hacked VR Systems, they sent a spear-phishing e-mail pretending to be VR Systems to all the local election officials around the country that included a Word document that had malware in it. So, like if one of these election officials opened up their inbox, saw this e-mail that looks like it’s from VR Systems, and they opened the Word Document, they would’ve gotten hacked and the GRU would have access to their computer, and everything that their computer has access to, like their email and like their local election networks.
For this, she just pled in a plea deal to serve over five years in prison and then two or three years the supervised release. This exact same information about this attack on VR Systems and on the local election officials now being used in the Mueller indictment to indict twelve like named GRU officers.
She’s the only one in prison about this entire hack, is someone who, you know, was informing the public and in fact at least the states of North Carolina and Virginia heard about this from the news. They didn’t hear about it from the federal government. They realized that GRU was trying to hack them and actually was sending the like them specifically spear-phishing e-mails because of what Reality Winner exposed.
JS: Micah Lee is a computer security engineer and journalist for The Intercept. He spoke to my colleague Elise Swain. You can check out Micah’s article on what Mueller’s latest indictment reveals about Russian and U.S. spy craft in full at theintercept.com.
JS: As regular listeners know, on this show we try to take stock of the bigger picture and not just get stuck in the tick-tock, tick-tock of every new development—Trump’s lies, his tweets, the day-to-day, minute-to-minute coverage of the minutia of incompetence and criminality. It’s all really overwhelming and frankly it’s often a distraction from very serious issues and developments that we should be paying attention to. The U.S. for instance is engaged in multiple wars across the world, regular bombings. Israel is massacring Palestinians on a regular basis. Yemen is suffering a heinous fate wrought by a U.S.-fueled genocide. We have ICE goons acting like storm troopers, we have children being put in detention and stripped from their parents.
The overwhelming majority of Americans are not obsessed with Trump and Russia like cable news and the D.C. media culture. They’re actually concerned about their economic situation, about health care, about skyrocketing education costs, about debt, about racism, workers’ rights, about hopelessness. We’re living in a time where the obsessions of the broader corporate news media are totally out of sync with the most grave threats facing our society. And sometimes we just have to hit pause. We have to look at how we got here and what it means for the future.
Earlier this year, we had Professor Nikhil Pal Singh on this show and we had a really great reaction from our listeners, and as this is the season finale of Intercepted we thought we’d bring them back for another big-picture discussion. Singh has spent years studying trends in U.S. policies throughout history, domestically and internationally. He is professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University and his latest book is “Race and America’s Long War.” And he joins me now. Nikhil, welcome back to Intercepted.
Nikhil Pal Singh: Thanks Jeremy. It’s great to be here.
JS: You’ve been engaged in a kind of protracted critique of what the Trump-Russia scandal so to speak has sort of done to the United States as a country or has revealed about the political dynamic in our country and I’m hoping you can just kind of riff on that and explain what your thoughts are right now on Trump-Russia and what it’s done to the discourse in the United States.
NPS: It’s never seemed to me hugely controversial to recognize that Russia was involved in hacking the election, that this is a problem, that that’s something that should be addressed, there should be countermeasures, it should be recognized for what it is. But the way that it has become inflated is something that we need to take the measure of and we need to think about, because I think that there are at least three contexts in which this operates as far as I can see.
The first context is the kind of long arc of the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, probably going back to 1996 when the U.S. intervened in Russia’s election —
President William J. Clinton: President Yeltsin, he really supported the Constitution, he supported the institution of the electoral process and he wanted Russia to be a free country to pick his leaders by elections. He’s got two reasons to be happy today.
NPS: — in the context of advocating for NATO expansion, neoliberal austerity and all kinds of other things. So the first arc it seems to me that we don’t pay any attention to at all, is the blowback from American actions overseas including meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.
The second context I think about is the degraded information ecology that has emerged around American politics that culminates in the 2016 election, which has to do with certainly the Russian interference but also with the influence of dark money, the crackpot billionaires who are intervening in American politics right and left, we’ve slowly lost control over the capacity to adjudicate our politics in a way that is free of a variety of different kinds of agendas and interferences that are not transparent and are not visible to voting publics.
And then I think the third context is probably the most troubling to me because I think about this issue a lot, is the intra-party war within the Democratic Party right now, in so far as some centrist Democrats have seized upon the Russia issue as the issue they want to inflate and to make the main issue of the moment, is less really about the Russia hacking in some ways than about the proxy war that’s going on and has been going on ever since the 2016 primaries. Centrists want to run on Russia, they don’t want to run on economic inequality, they don’t want to run on radically overhauling and reforming the party, they’re concerned about the move to the left that’s happening in various places around the country, and the use of Russia becomes a kind of way of deflecting from some of those kinds of challenges.
JS: You also the other day were quoting William Appleman Williams from “Empire as a Way of Life,” talking about this phenomenon of externalizing evil, and one of the citations you offered here was “empire turns a cultural way from its own life as a society or community.” When I read that it really resonated with me because, my God, Trump has us engaged in the same wars that Obama did and is escalating some of those, as in Yemen, for instance. He started off the week by doing an all-caps screaming tweet that appeared to threaten nuclear annihilation of Iran, and yet a lot of the commentary about this is that it must be that he’s serving Putin’s agenda. It’s like people are so mono-focused on this idea that Putin is calling every shot, even when Trump does something that is antithetical to Putin and Russia’s interest, it still is seen as: Well, Putin must be behind this.
NPS: There’s an old joke that we play better with better players, you know, it’s not really a joke, it’s kind of a truism I guess. We play better with better players, and we’re playing with some of the worst players that we’ve ever seen on the political stage. I mean, not only is Trump an extraordinarily poor imperial manager, there’s not a lot of coherence, there’s not a lot of clarity, there’s not a lot of strategic thinking. And you have to imagine that Putin himself must be feeling some buyer’s remorse to the extent to which he’s watching this and seeing someone who actually can’t deliver on the agenda, if Putin has an agenda—the lifting of sanctions, the bending of American policy towards Russian interests. I mean, it’s not really happening.
So in concrete terms we can’t say that there has been a victory here for Putin’s national security agenda for Russia through the manipulation of Trump. If there’s anything that Putin has gained in sort of taking sides in the American election and having the outcome that they clearly wanted it’s that there’s more chaos, there’s more division, there’s more confusion in American politics than there ever has been before, but that’s not something that’s been caused by Russia. That’s something that we can trace back with the year 2000 when the Supreme Court decided a U.S. election and the Republican Party under George W. Bush decided that adventurous war in the Middle East was going to be the first piece of a strategy of rebuilding kind of 21st century American century. And of course, all of that came to tears.
That’s followed by Obama, who, in some ways, I think had a more realistic view of American imperial decline and had some sense of both a kind of inclusive strengthening of American democracy at home, in some ways, by making the government more responsive in some limited ways particularly on the issue of kind of the health of the population and saw a kind of a longer-range project of strengthening the global, neoliberal architecture so not changing that much in terms of the status quo. Obviously, Obama continues the wars while sort of lowering their volume. It’s all strikingly unambitious and it fails to take the measure of the depth of the crisis that had come out of that Bush administration period.
And, obviously, the financial crisis is the capstone of that, right? And it’s the moment in which I think Americans begin to dramatically realize that they’re becoming poorer on aggregate and that there’s no signs of a future in which the next generation is going to be better off, is going to have less economic insecurity. And, in that context really, we get the possibility of someone like Trump coming along and saying, you know, make America great again, and really what he offers, I think, is a continuation of plutocratic politics on the one hand combined with a kind of nationalist emphasis that’s really oriented towards a more exclusive notion of citizenship — so, punishing and eliminating people who are seen as foreign threats within the body politic. And there is no coherent, I think, foreign policy anymore that the United States actually is pursuing.
JS: Well and you then also have this very authoritarian wing of the Democratic Party that’s, you know, fully embracing the CIA, the NSA, the FBI. James Comey tweeting over the weekend, and I’m quoting: “Democrats, please, please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left. This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that. America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.”
NPS: Yeah, it’s hilarious to get strategic advice from someone like James Comey, who clearly, you know, has shown himself to be a man of probity and wisdom in his own management of the security apparatus. It’s really bizarre this sort of way in which in American politics, these second acts, you know, people think they can always have a second act, and they think they can always fail upwards and it does seem to be borne out.
I mean look at the people out here who are taken as serious commentators, these sort of centrists, either Never-Trump Republicans or national security Democrats. I mean people like William Kristol and Max Boot and James Comey, either on MSNBC, or in the Washington Post, or being re-Tweeted by tens of thousands of people. I mean, these are the people who in many respects produce the kind of disasters in American politics over the last 20 years. I mean they advocated for the Iraq invasion, they supported the mass surveillance of the American population.
JS: They also wanted Iran to be obliterated. I mean, you would think the never-Trumpers, quote-unquote, like Kristol would be celebrating Trump screaming caps tweet implying nuclear annihilation is on the horizon if Iran so much as says another thing that he doesn’t like.
NPS: Well, honestly, this is the thing that is really scary for many of us or for me. You know, I think that when Trump is finally out of the picture, what will the realignment look like? I think we do so much revolving around what Trump does, what Trump does, what Trump does, and what Trump says and I think we all are deranged by that. And, of course, Trump is self-contradictory and he’s shooting from the hip and he’s not well informed; he operates on impulse and a few basic principles — you know, the basic principle of kind of survival of the fittest and that the nation-state is like a corporation involved in a kind of a struggle with various other kinds of competitors and every relationship is transactional every agreement is temporary and provisional.
You know, I felt watching the press conference with Putin that a lot of what was going on there it was just that Trump’s kind of crushing on Putin you know he’s it’s sort of one of those moments when he’s a bit like I wish I could be more like this guy, you know, I wish I could execute journalists, I wish I could be sort of commanding this kind of apparatus and have this sort of jackbooted persona. But the truth is he can’t and he’s flailing about, he’s being propped up by the GOP and Fox News, he’s locked in his own echo chamber, so what’s going to happen when this guy is no longer being propped up? What’s going to happen when he leaves the scene?
And I think the worrying thing is that this kind of anti-Iran politics, this politics that’s aligned to Israeli interests, to Saudi interests, that essentially does see the world in kind of starkly competitive terms, all of this could very easily become central to a revamped GOP, to a revamped Democratic Party, to a new war party. There’s nothing to prevent this kind of national security discourse that’s predicated upon the externalization of evil and the idea that most of the threats to American livelihood and American democracy come from the outside. There’s nothing to prevent that from becoming reconstituted as a common sense.
That’s what really worries me because I think, for the most part, the United States needs to take an approach to the world where it looks at itself and says, “Physician, heal thyself.” There are the resources in this country to actually solve many of the kinds of problems that ordinary people are facing and that’s the kind of conversation that we need to be having. We need to be having a conversation that’s really kind of realist in that sense, you know? A lot of the ways in which Americans like to talk about what is wrong really have the most fanciful aspects to them. They’re almost completely abstract — the idea that somehow the problem is the border, you know, the porous border or the problem is Russia and Russian interference. These don’t connect really to any concrete analysis of what is actually going on in the world or what is actually going on in the country. As long as that’s true, we’re always going to be flailing about and casting about for explanations for what ails us that don’t really match up with reality.
JS: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about language and words and the way that words are used on television right now, on Twitter, by prominent people, by serious people. I’m talking about words like treason:
Douglas Brinkley: You know, we’ve been using words like impeachment and treason, obstruction of justice. Those are words that are being used that there’s something off ––
Michelle Goldberg: Unfit and potentially treasonous, this president is.
Donny Deutsch: I don’t think it’s extreme to use that treason word. You know, adhering to their enemies —
Jill-Wine Banks: As soon as people started saying this was treason, and indeed it is.
JS: — or historical references like Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer: Bombing Pearl Harbor was an attack on our country.
Jill-Wine Banks: I would say that his performance today will live in infamy as much as the Pearl Harbor attack or Kristallnacht.
CS: 9/11 was an attack on our country.
Joyce Vance: Russia attacked this country as certainly as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
CS: When Russia interfered with our elections, that was an attack on our country.
JS: Garry Kasparov, who has tweeted a lot in the United States, an anti-Putin famous Russian, said that the Helsinki summit was a new low in the history, in the history of the U.S. Presidency. How is this going to affect us as a society when these words and these phrases and these historical references have essentially been stripped of their actual meaning or their real historical context, not to mention this Kasparov quote is just ridiculous — just think of the fact that the United States bombed Japan twice with a nuclear bomb in a matter of days.
I mean it really is concerning to me though how this will impact our political intelligence going forward, but also our ability to actually keep a grasp on historical context.
NPS: These kinds of remarks just illustrate the lack of knowledge of U.S. history and how profound that is among many of these commentators. How do we attain political intelligence? How do we attain the kind of understanding and ability to make assessments in an information environment that’s filled with uncertainty and that’s always going to have dimensions of uncertainty in it? How do we create the basis for common action in a period in which many of the most powerful forces in the world are actually invested in the fragmentation of communities, of the fragmentation of people’s ability to think clearly and act collectively? How do we build up or rebuild collective capacities because I think the best information comes from people being able to reason in common in a context in which they can inform each other and seek out new information if they don’t have adequate information and I think the timeframe of a lot of what happens also makes that very, very difficult to do?
As a historian, you know, when I read those kinds of comments, I always, I try not to despair because I look at it and I think this is just silly to compare this summit to the worst moments in American history in a country that essentially committed genocide against an Indigenous people, dropped atomic bombs on Asia, killed three million people in Southeast Asia, has barely been a liberal democracy for fifty years having lived its entire career as a country built upon white supremacy. I mean these are sort of the broad basic facts of American history that I think actually a lot of people understand now, a lot more people understand them and a lot more people I think are thinking about what it might mean to try to make the United States into a decent place. But obviously the forces that are right against us in doing that, most of all the Trumpists and the white supremacists, but then also the centrist Democrats who really would like all of this to go away so they can get back to business as usual, are kind of in the way of that of that broader popular recognition of the need for us to look at our own country and to think about what it means to heal ourselves, to really correct the course we’ve taken in foreign affairs and domestically at the same time.
JS: OK, comrade Nikhil Pal Singh, how much is Putin paying you for that What-Aboutism that you’re pretending is actually history?
NPS: I’ve said this before, and I don’t think it’s What-Aboutism to say that the biggest threats to our democracy in the United States come from decisions that have been taken legally in full transparency within our own system. Citizens United. Shelby v. Holder. One unleashes the power of corporate money and dark money into our politics with no limit and the other guts the Voting Rights Act in a country that has been built on racial segregation and racial violence. How both those things happen in this moment I think is very, very significant in understanding where we found ourselves in 2016, and you didn’t need the Russian intervention for those things to happen. Those things were driven internally, they were driven by the plutocratic insurgency, on the one hand that equates money and speech, and they were driven by the longer legacy of divisive racial white supremacist politics which has never been content with the idea of the United States being a democracy that actually included the diverse people who have been part of building this country over 200 years, many of whom were brought here involuntarily.
So we haven’t made our peace as a country with that history. At the end of his life, you know, Martin Luther King, Jr., I think outlined the problems we faced in in becoming what he called a “beloved community,” a community that actually was able to act in concert and think of itself as such. And he called them the interrelated evils of racism, materialism and militarism; racism, materialism and militarism are still really what bedevil us. Neither the Republican Party, which I think is certainly more culpable for the situation we find ourselves in, nor the Democratic Party which is certainly equally beholden to materialism and militarism at the very least, want to deal with these issues neither really wants to address with how we’ve lost the ability to function in some ways as a polity, addressing the things that are most urgently at stake for most people. You know, and I think that that is the thing that concerns me and I don’t think it’s What-Aboutism to talk about those things.
JS: I agree completely — Nikhil Pal Singh, as always, thank you so much for your insight and your willingness to always think critically.
NPS: Thanks for having me. It’s always great to talk to you, Jeremy.
JS: Nikhil Pal Singh is professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His latest book is “Race and America’s Long War.”
Just one note: I am going to be doing an event on Wednesday, September 26 in New Mexico with Nikhil Pal Singh. We’re going to be doing an event for the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You’ll be able to find more information about that at lannan.org. Again, that is Wednesday, September 26 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.
JS: Last summer, the experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, better known as Oneohtrix Point Never, rented an odd-looking house on Airbnb. There, he decided he’d record his next album.
The Massachusetts House was shaped like an alien egg on top of a hill and surrounded by houses below, some of which may have had Trump signs planted in their yards. Lopatin felt isolated. And one night, alone in the egg house he began watching Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Keir Dullea as Dr. Dave Bowman (in 2001: A Space Odyssey): Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
Hal: I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.
KD: What’s the problem?
Hal: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
KD: What are you talking about, Hal?
Hal: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
JS: And then he got an idea — what if, instead of a future alien race bestowing knowledge and language to humans, it was the inverse situation. At the end of the universe, all that’s left are AI gods, aspiring to be as dumb, delusional and infallible as human beings.
Then, Lopatin thought: What if you could turn that into an opera? And he did — sort of.
The end result is his new album, Age Of, an ambitious collection of songs, broken into four epochs, spanning the entire existence of this imagined universe.
[The Station by Oneohtrix Point Never plays.]
JS: Lopatin spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro about his family’s Soviet immigration, radioactive cats and how Steve Bannon influenced his new album.
[Chrome Country by Oneohtrix Point Never plays.]
Daniel Lopatin: I’m Oneohtrix Point Never, born-name Daniel Lopatin.
I was born in a hospital in Boston in 1982. My parents are Russian immigrants, you know what’s considered refuseniks.
George H.W. Bush: And now Mr. Gorbachev’s embarked on this policy of Glasnost, or openness, but openness begins at the borders. Let’s see not five or six or ten or twenty refuseniks released at a time, but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, all those who want to go.
DL: So they had to come up with very sneaky tactics to get out of the country. My dad was from a small town in the Ukraine, dirt-floor, shtetl roots. My mom had a little bit easier: She was a city girl, Jewish family in Leningrad. Basically they eloped, they got hitched and my dad moved to Leningrad to study engineering and while my mom was at the conservatory studying piano, my dad was in a group of some repute called the Flying Dutchman. There wasn’t really an infrastructure for that kind of thing, there was only like state-mandated music and what they were doing was actually truly antagonistic because they were playing music from the West.
[Hubble Bubble by Manfred Mann plays.]
So a friend of a friend might know somebody in the Navy or whatever that was going around and bringing back records, they were dubbing records on to x-ray sheets. They needed microphones so they traded with a trolley operator who has a microphone to announce the stops. They gave him all this liquor or something, and he just snipped the cord and gave it to them and then told his boss, “Yeah, I got robbed.”
Life in the Soviet Union for them was no different than it was for a lot of people. They were oppressed. On top of being in this totalitarian environment, they’re Jewish so they got fed up with it and really imagined a better life for themselves.
Ronald Reagan: Two of the most basic rights that we called on the Soviets to comply with under the Helsinki Accords are the right to emigrate, and the right to travel. How can we help a doubted government that mistrusts his own people and holds them against their will.
[Replica by Oneohtrix Point Never playing]
DL: My parents discouraged our Russianness, so it wasn’t like, once we got over to the States it was like, assimilate. I mean my first language was Russian, but they were happy for me to be American at that time. I know my sister was like nine when she comes over, is dealing literally with a sort of residual like Cold War atmosphere of kids at school calling her a Russian spy. And our family picked up on being American really fast. And I think it was such an insane relief for them, and it was a typical immigrant upbringing — there was no time to reflect.
There were no institutions to admire. There was no God, there was no state, there was no president that we cared about, there was nothing, there was just literally like this tunnel vision of we’re this family, we’re this engine that just needs to survive. And that was it. And I think it was all due to this enormous stress of having just left everything they knew behind, come here with empty pockets. Like it’s just — will just totally traumatize you.
And so you spend the rest of your life really just trying to secure a safe passage through it. And I would notice that sometimes when I was like over my friends’ houses or whatever, and there just seemed to this comfort level. Families felt different. They were like friends, whereas our family was like Battlestar Galactica, it was like every 12 hours, someone’s going to shoot through the window.
[Battlestar Galactica plays]
Everything that I am is essentially some sort of weird composite of my parents’ circumstances and like, late ’80s, early ’90s New England, route 128 was a sort of east coast Silicon Valley. And so we always had these computers in the house. We had the NEXT computer that’s like Steve Jobs’ pet project, this like crazy, slick box. We had one. We had one right away.
Steve Jobs: Hi, I’m Steve Jobs and I make computers. What you’re about to hear is synthesized from pure mathematics. This is from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Concerto in A Minor.”
DL: I was on the internet and I remember getting an .mp3 — it wasn’t an .mp3, it was some other proprietary file, and it was like, “Spring Heel Jack” — it was some like insanely bad techno song.
[Spring Heel Jack plays]
I downloaded that shit. I was always just messing around with computers and my dad had the synthesizer that he purchased for his gigs to play his old Russian songs, so he really built all these organ sounds and accordion sounds and I wiped all those and was just like making weird noises and so I had all this tech that was fun from the get-go.
I get obsessed with Pet Sounds.
[God Only Knows by the Beach Boys plays]
And I think hearing Pet Sounds was actually weirdly really important. Video game music was really important, and a lot of computer games. Like, text games that you would just spend like an inordinate amount of time just trying to figure some dumb thing out. And just this like, single monotonous tone is just playing, looping in the background. That’s definitely like how I spent most of my time.
I was just trying to figure it out. Playing shows, like improvising with loopers and it was sort of about sound, itself. You know for most of my life I couldn’t just walk into Guitar Center and say, “Yeah, I’ll take the Marty McFly 3000,” or whatever. I had what I had, and I wanted to make as much crazy shit with it as possible.
Sampling is revolutionary. It’s a contemporary folk practice. It’s a way of dealing with your environment and sort of reclaiming it and sort of abolishing the things you don’t like about it. It’s a Dadaist referendum on the textures of reality. You can just grab things and design them in the way that you want them, and what brings real joy to people is when those things that are in the atmosphere become personal, they become part of a weave of someone’s story of what they’re about.
There was a sort of period of time about a year and a half ago or so where like me and my friends formed this sort of incubator, this sort of think tank. It was Jon Rafman, James Ferraro, the Safdie Brothers; we’re all just sitting around like freaking out, like we can’t believe this Trump shit is going on, we’re trying to figure out like what’s going on. We’re like, looking at 4chan/pol, like looking at all of this insane sort of chaos mythologies that are coming to surface that may or may not have impacted the election. Like there’s all this confusion about what role the alt-right played and all this shit.
And so we decided to do like a book club, and we’re going to read “The Fourth Turning” that both Al Gore and Steve Bannon swear by. So we’re like, “OK, what the fuck is going on here? This is insane.”
So I read this is book and basically it’s trash, but the one thing I get from it is that the authors are insane, like they truly believe there’s like a repeating and there’s recursion in history, and that they can actually block it out sort of temporally, like it has to do with time, it really has to do with a century and centuries can be broken up in into these epochs, these quarters and it reads like the Bible. It just has this sort of insane kind of, there’s like commandeering this kind of quasi scientific information. I mean it, it was art. It was pure art. It had nothing to do with reality.
Neil Howe: What we argue in our book is that in many respects, history does repeat itself. We take a close look at the rhythms of American history and in our book we make the following big prediction that beginning about 10 years from now, America is due to enter an era of crisis, an era of political and social upheaval that will last around 20 years or so until the late 2020s. We call this era a fourth turning, and we think it’s going to be a big threshold for the history of our nation. It’s going to be something on par ––
DL: And so I wanted to borrow that structure because I thought it was so deeply cold and cynical and bizarre way of dealing with reality, and I thought well, this is probably how an AI would think about things. This is like these weird sort of averages – well, let’s see what happens every 100 years or 500 years, and how this all links to “2001” is really simple.
[2001: A Space Odyssey plays]
The first time I realized, and I’ve watched it many times, but the first time I realized that it’s weirdly like this Judeo-Christian kind of thing where this super, highly evolved ultimate state of us is trying to like trigger an evolutionary explosion or let expedite this idiotic apes’ evolution, so they kind of like bequeath them with this knowledge. But that knowledge is actually violent, the knowledge of violence and the knowledge of technology and its inherent violence and then the rest of the film is essentially them becoming their ultimate state.
For me, though, that was like: Good, yeah, I love it. This is incredible but what’s the OPN (Oneohtrix Point Never) version of that — it’s definitely inverted. It would be aliens that are like these loitering high school kids at the end of time that are being bratty, that essentially don’t want to create a new universe, that don’t want to like believe that entropy has like eliminated their sort of existence and that they just want to like dwell on this idea of what it might have been like to be us, their ancestors, who were dumb and didn’t understand the universe, so that would fascinate them, the way that we’re fascinated by this sort of Kantian outside or whatever.
[Manifold by Oneohtrix Point Never plays]
And so having the Bannon book club, the scary house, “2001,” it all came together in this perfect storm. I had the four epochs, that was my like, Vivaldi-style movement, the epochs represent the sort of, some average of this like typical mistakes and idiotic moves that homo sapiens seem to gravitate towards making all the time, and instead of the story of the striving towards excellence, it’s really going to be about these AI that are weirdly kind of sentimental.
“Black Snow” is about a few different things that are sort of parallel tracks that get sort of interwoven. Those parallel tracks are as following: The, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Ray Cat Solution?
[Ray Cats by Oneohtrix Point Never plays]
These semioticians got together to pose this question to each other, I don’t know when, maybe the 1980s? Basically, they said: Let’s imagine a scenario in which language is no longer relevant, we’re many thousands of years in the future and we have these menacing earth works is what they call them, these areas of earth that are contaminated, which we have currently. How do you warn and protect future inhabitants of Earth, visitors to earth, creatures that we don’t totally yet understand or whatever, how do you warn them that what we did here, and keep them away from this the menacing earthworks? And so they stipulate all these different possibilities. You know, sculptural things that imply like stay away, like cartoons, like all this ridiculous stuff and then one of the suggestions was to genetically modify cats starting now to glow when they’re near radiation.
If we do this now, and enough people sort of folklorically engage with this idea, right? Then thousands of years into the future it will just be intrinsic to our understanding: Oh, those glowing cats. Don’t. We should not be here.
And “Black Snow” is like the fuzz that you see on TV when there’s like a UHF TV, and it’s like a dial. And it’s just fuzzy. But it’s also, to me, like the sort of color of destruction, of nothing, of evisceration. And I liked that because I thought it was probably that something more likely like how shit goes down, is you’re just like sitting on the bus reading some random BuzzFeed article.
[Black Snow by Oneohtrix Point Never plays]
I think history is like extremely frustrating and it becomes more and more complex as we layer it with all of our shit. The human creature is like this weird tribe that covets their objects more and more and more. We’re really, really consuming who we are and abjectly vomiting it back into our infrastructure. Trump is such a blatant harbinger, perfect result of our chaos incubator, of our like, total lack of tethered to reality to our lack of community, to our lack of understanding ourselves through our neighbors or through our jobs or through. And basically he’s like the sentinel of everything that we are that went wrong that’s truly, that we’ve been building up to. I think he’s perfectly American.
Despite all of that stuff I still feel like there is this incredible tenor of expression where, like, in this age of expression, we might be turbulently like getting through some shit right now, but I feel so lucky to have so many interesting and varied voices on a daily basis of intelligent people expressing themselves to each other and creating new ideas of community and new ideas of social change. We can’t just like give up on that and just say it’s like some barren wasteland where everyone’s just shouting into a well — that is definitely out there but I think we can figure it out.
[Babylon by Oneohtrix Point Never plays]
JS: That was Oneohtrix Point Never. His album “Age Of” is out now.
JS: That does it for this week’s show and this season of Intercepted. We’re going to be back again with a new season on September 12th.
If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto theintercept.com/join. You can also check out the archive of all 64 of the intercepted episodes that we’ve produced to date.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are 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. We had engineering help from Rino Dunic.
Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next season, I’m Jeremy Scahill.