Subscribe to the Intercepted podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Radio Public, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.
As Washington waits for the Mueller report, the goal posts are shifting fast. This week on Intercepted: Many Democrats are starting to grapple with the possibility that the special counsel’s Russia investigation may not back up their over-arching allegation that Trump conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 elections. Journalist and Russiagate critic Aaron Maté presents his dissenting analysis, what he believes is behind the investigation, and how the scandal has distracted from other urgent issues. We hear a new speech from professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.”As the Trump administration intensifies its air war in Somalia, journalist Harun Maruf, co-author of “Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally,” discusses the war in Somalia and the seldom-mentioned history of how, in 2006, the George W. Bush administration helped overthrow the only force that had brought peace to Somalia since the early 1990s. Those actions helped give rise to al-Shabab.
Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke: Terrible gibberish. Splintered memories looming up out of the time fog. Just press play.
Announcer: Welcome to the CPAC stage, Donald Trump!
JD: I remember thinking Jesus, what a terrible thing to lay on somebody with a head full of acid.
Donald J. Trump: Thank you very much.
JD: I knew I was fucked.
DJT: And I’m in the White House and I was lonely. I said let’s go to Iraq.
JD: Terrible things were happening all around us.
DJT: But they are on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
JD: There is no way to explain the terror that I felt. I was pouring sweat.
DJT: He’s bad!
JD: Get a grip.
DJT: He’s a bad, bad —
JD: Pretend it’s not happening.
DJT: The attorney general says I’m going to recuse myself.
DJT: He asked Russia to go get the emails. You know I’m totally off-script right now.
JD: How many nights and weird mornings has this shit been going on?
DJT: God bless you. God bless the United States of America.
JD: Madness. It made no sense at all.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 85 of Intercepted.
DJT: So everybody’s having a good time. I’m laughing. We’re all having fun and then that fake CNN and others say “He asked Russia to go get the emails.” Horrible.
JS: For more than two years, many major U.S. media outlets have been prioritizing one story above all others. It’s the same story that has also consumed massive amounts of Congressional resources and time and has consistently been a central issue pushed by leading Democrats in Congress. I am, of course, talking about the investigations into whether Donald Trump, his campaign, his family members, his staffers, associates conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. And once again this week, news outlets are reporting that the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is wrapping up. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it does have to end at some point.
Now, what we have seen happen, particularly since the Democrats retook the House of Representatives and have assumed control of the committees responsible for the Congressional side of this investigation, is that the focus has shifted. You don’t hear as many sweeping declarations about Trump being compromised by Vladimir Putin. You don’t hear the breathless predictions that Robert Mueller might frog march Trump out of the White House for treason. Instead, the goalposts have been slowly but surely widened about why this investigation matters. And many Democrats are clearly preparing for a scenario in which the Mueller report does not support the overarching allegation that Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government regarding the 2016 election.
On Sunday, Rep. Jerry Nadler, he’s the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, spoke to George Stephanopoulos on ABC.
George Stephanopoulos: How about if Robert Mueller comes back and says definitively we find no collusion by President Trump? Is that a conclusion you’ll accept?
Jerry Nadler: Well, we’d want to see the evidence behind that and see the validity of that and we could agree or disagree. But this investigation goes far beyond collusion. We’ve seen all the democratic norms that we depend on for a democratic government attacked by the administration. We’ve seen attacks on freedom of the press. The press called the “enemy of the people.” We’ve seen attacks on the department of justice, attacks of the FBI, attacks on judges — all of these are very corrosive to liberty, and to the proper functioning of government, and to our constitutional system. All this has to be looked at.
JS: Now, Jerry Nadler is right about Trump here. All of that is very disturbing and it should be investigated. But that’s not a convincing answer to the question that Nadler was asked: What it would mean if Mueller does conclude there was not criminal activity or even “collusion” regarding Russia and the election on the part of Trump or his surrogates?
Over on CBS, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrat Adam Schiff, was asked to point to the strongest evidence of such collusion.
Adam Schiff: Well I think there is direct evidence in the emails from the Russians, through their intermediary, offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of what is described in writing as “the Russian government effort to help elect Donald Trump.” They offer that dirt, there is an acceptance of that offer in writing from the president’s son Don Jr. And there’s overt acts in furtherance of that, that is the meeting at Trump tower and all the lies to cover up that meeting at Trump tower and apparently lies that the president participated in.
JS: The chair of the House Intelligence Committee is asking us to believe that this still unproven direct link between Wikileaks and the Russian government is Exhibit One? Now, maybe he has much more information than the public has been given. He is the chair of the intelligence committee. But this is pretty weak sauce after two years of telling us that Trump likely worked actively with Vladimir Putin or the Russian government to steal the election. Interestingly, on that same program, where Adam Schiff appeared, CBS News correspondent Paula Reid pushed back against his characterization.
Paula Reid: I also take issue with his claim that he has evidence of collusion. He seemed to be conflating ‘contact’ with ‘collusion.’ He says what happened at Trump tower was collusion — he’s pointing to emails — nothing was exchanged there. So we certainly have evidence of contact but a criminal conspiracy, so far, there has not been sufficient proof for anyone to be charged in that.
JS: For all of the focus on former Trump fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen’s appearances in Congress last week, some of the most interesting aspects of his testimony that are relevant to Russiagate, have not been highlighted or mentioned by the most vocal proponents of the theory that Trump conspired with the Russian government. For one, Michael Cohen maintained that he has never been to Prague. That was one of the most specific allegations in the so-called Steele dossier. Cohen also said that he was not aware of the existence of any blackmail materials that Russia may have on Donald Trump.
Jamie Raskin: Are you aware of anything the president has done at home, or abroad that may have subjected him to, or may subject him to extortion or blackmail?
Michael Cohen: I’m not, no.
JS: And Cohen said that he had seen no evidence of a conspiracy involving Trump and Russia and the 2016 election. Now maybe Cohen is withholding. Maybe he’s lying again. Or maybe, Occam’s razor here, he was telling the truth about this aspect of the allegations against his former boss Trump, who, by the way, clearly wants to destroy Michael Cohen. It’s hard to have it all ways. If you believe Cohen is blowing the whistle on potentially criminal conduct by Donald Trump, but you then ignore or dismiss the potentially exculpatory statements that Cohen made under oath about Trump, then you’re engaged in quite the logical gymnastics. So, many of the loudest voices have just pretended that Cohen didn’t say any of those things and instead they focused on the parts of Cohen’s testimony that bolster their narrative.
Now, none of this is to say that we know Mueller has nothing. He may well have it all. We may find out that the most passionate promoters of the allegation that there was a vast conspiracy involving Trump, Russia in 2016 were right. But that seems increasingly unlikely.
At present, Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 34 people as well as three companies. Not a single one — not one — Trump official or any U.S. citizen has been indicted or plead guilty to anything about conspiring with Russian officials in relation to 2016. None. There have been indictments of alleged Russian GRU intelligence officers in relation to the DNC/Clinton campaign emails. But there have not been any indictments or pleas that have linked that effort to the Trump campaign. So what Adam Schiff and others are saying is that we know Wikileaks got those emails from the Russian government. And actually, we don’t know that. It might be true, but there has been no actual concrete evidence of that. And in order to make that connection, you would have to prove that Wikileaks knew that these were Russian government-obtained documents and that the Trump campaign knew that. That’s what this Roger Stone indictment is all about. But that is far from a slam dunk case. Here’s what Julian Assange said when I interviewed him back in April of 2017.
Julian Assange: There’s no allegation, even from U.S. intelligence, even from Democratic-aligned members of the intelligence services, that WikiLeaks dealt with the Russians, conspired with the Russians, etc., etc. The allegation is, from them, which we don’t accept, is that we received material that was given to us indirectly and that they don’t have an understanding of how we got our material, the timing, etc. That’s said in Congress under oath.
JS: Now, what is clear is that Donald Trump is surrounded by a whole lot of shady people. People who lie. People who engaged in criminal activity. People who should never have been in any position of authority in this country. We know Trump lies constantly. It seems pretty clear that he’s tampered with this investigation, publicly and privately and it seems clear that Trump is using the office of the president to promote himself, his family and his businesses. I agree with Rep. Nadler that all of this should be investigated. But that’s different from the major league conclusion that many Democrats and news outlets want people to reach: That Russia controls Trump and that Russia stopped Hillary Clinton from assuming her rightful place as president.
The pattern with major U.S. news outlets on this story has been to leave the questioning of the investigation into Trump/Russia to Republicans and Trump surrogates some of whom are cartoon characters. This lends credence to the idea that only rabid Trump partisans would cast doubt on the officially-established narrative about Russiagate. But it also undermines our relationship with the truth and with facts. Our job as journalists is to parse through what we can prove and what we can’t. And on this story, a lot of that has gone out the window in favor of promoting the most salacious, unproven allegations in this story.
I believe that there is a reasonable critique of the Trump-Russia investigation and the way that it’s been covered in the broader U.S. media that deserves a public hearing. And it’s not the critique offered up by Trump’s loyal defenders and partisans. It is, in fact, a critique from people who are not pro-Trump, who have consistently attacked Trump’s positions on climate change, on regime change, family separations, the racism, the xenophobia, Israel, the attempted coup in Venezuela, many other issues. And I think that this deserves to be heard.
It’s in this spirit that I invited my guest today to join us. Aaron Maté was a longtime producer at Democracy Now! He’s been writing on Russiagate for The Nation magazine and, until recently, he was regularly covering this story for the Real News Network. He is now an independent journalist. And for the past two years, Maté has reported critically on every new aspect of this investigation. He’s engaged in regular debates with people who claim he’s wrong or some that say “you’re stupid,” or that he’s somehow a Trump defender. Aaron has also been a critic of some of The Intercept’s reporting on this issue. I’ve had my own disagreements with him, but I believe that Aaron is operating in good faith and that he’s diligently followed this story. So with that, Aaron Maté, I welcome you to Intercepted.
Aaron Maté: Thanks for having me.
JS: I first just want to talk to you about your assessment of Trump as a president. How do you view this administration in terms of its foreign policy, its domestic policy, what Trump represents in American politics?
AM: I’ve always said that I think it’s one of the most dangerous administration’s in history starting with its assault on, its denial of climate change, its pulling out of the Paris Accords to its pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and its constant anti-Iran hawkishness. It’s being filled with neocons like John Bolton. And here at home, it’s class war on the poor, especially through the further decimation of Obamacare and the tax heist — the, if not, the largest upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in U.S. history. So, I think Trump has been a huge danger.
JS: Let’s start from the beginning. How did the whole Trump “Russia Scandal,” how did it start in your view?
AM: I mean some say that it really was the Steele dossier. The sort of official version from the FBI is that they were tipped off to Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos being told by a potential Russian intermediary that the Russians had stolen emails about Hillary Clinton and that led to the official opening of the FBI’s investigation Crossfire Hurricane. I suspect it might have started earlier than that. There’s reports that Comey and Brennan were alarmed by some of the people that Trump had on his campaign team and they were alarmed by Trump saying nice things about Vladimir Putin and talking about better relations with Vladimir Putin. I suspect these factors played a role in raising internal national security state suspicion before they even opened the investigation based on the Papadopoulos pretext, but of course, I can’t prove that.
JS: First just explain how Fusion GPS ends up working with Christopher Steele and who at the beginning was the client?
AM: Fusion GPS’s initial client was actually people in Republican circles, but after Trump —
JS: Who were doing like oppo research on Trump?
AM: Yeah who wanted to take down Trump and when that didn’t work out and Trump won the nomination, Simpson basically got picked up by a law firm that was working for the DNC and funded by the Clinton campaign, Perkins Coie. And Christopher Steele, this former British spy who had spent many years in Russia was brought on and started looking into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and started writing a series of reports — the first of them in June of 2016 — alleging a high-level Trump-Russia conspiracy going back many years and with many elements. On the one hand, there was like this high-level conspiracy. On the other hand, also, they said that the Russians had blackmail which they used over Trump, but then it also said that the Russians were offering Trump real estate deals that he hadn’t yet taken advantage of. So it was like this is very like complex tale of just a very entrenched Trump-Russia relationship.
JS: Let’s run through some of these figures. What was George Papadopoulos — what did he plead guilty to?
AM: Papadopoulos is a campaign volunteer who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a man named Joseph Mifsud — who he met in the spring of 2016. And when Mifsud according to Papadopoulos told him that Russians have compromising material on Hillary Clinton, Papadopoulos then shared this over drinks with an Australian diplomat. That diplomat’s information made its way to the FBI and that’s what supposedly sparked the opening of the initial FBI Trump-Russia investigation.
JS: But the allegation or the suspicion that’s been repeatedly floated is that Joseph Mifsud was acting informally as a liaison between the Trump campaign and Russia.
AM: The language that Mueller uses in his indictment of Papadopoulos is that Papadopoulos understood Mifsud to have connections to the Russian government, right? So the idea here is that Mifsud was a possible Russian government intermediary. And yeah, he was trying to reach out to the Trump campaign on behalf of Russia. But one glaring, I think, reason to doubt that is because after Papadopoulos was arrested in January 2017, a few weeks later Mifsud came to the U.S. at the invitation of the state department as a speaker at a conference and he was interviewed by the FBI who then let him go and he hasn’t been charged since. There’s no Interpol warrant for his arrest, as I know. So I somehow doubt that he was a Russian agent.
JS: As I say, we’ll see. Paul Manafort, perhaps next to Michael Flynn the biggest enchilada in terms of power within the Trump campaign that’s been indicted.
What was Manafort indicted for?
AM: Manafort was indicted for crimes that both judges in his case acknowledged have nothing to do with Mueller’s mandate. They have to do with his work in Ukraine dating back to 2005 and they’re mostly basically what Mueller calls garden variety and esoteric financial crimes and lobbying crimes because Manafort was lobbying for the Ukrainian government and he was not reporting his taxes properly and he was fudging applications for bank loans, which is, you know, plenty of evidence he carried out criminal activity. But none of it showing anything to do with the Trump-Russia conspiracy.
JS: Let’s talk about General Michael Flynn and what happened with him. You know, of course, what I’ve been saying about Michael Flynn for a long time is like everyone is missing the narrative here. Michael Flynn was the intelligence chief for JSOC, was running assassination operations, was a disastrous character at the defense intelligence agency when he was the head there, but he signs on really early to Trump’s campaign.
Michael Flynn: We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.
JS: Clearly Michael Flynn for all of his work in intelligence is not that intelligent when it comes to this stuff because he’s on an open phone line with Sergey Kislyak, the then Russian ambassador to the United States. What do we know about what they discussed in those calls?
AM: The first topic that they discussed if the reporting is correct, was Flynn trying to lobby Kislyak to undermine the outgoing administration at the United Nations because Obama was going to let pass at the security council a measure criticizing Israeli settlement activity.
JS: Obama’s position was that the U.S. would abstain in that vote and what Flynn was doing, reportedly, was trying to get Russia to join in an effort to defeat that resolution.
AM: Yeah, because Obama was going to abstain or Trump needed someone to veto it because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally asked the campaign and I believe Sheldon Adelson had as well. So this is very important to them. This is actually their first order of business with the Russians.
JS: There is collusion going on and it does involve Russia, but it’s the Trump campaign colluding with Israel in an effort to kill a measure that would have condemned Israel that Obama wanted to abstain on and they were trying to get Russia to come around to the Israeli position.
AM: Exactly right.
JS: What was Flynn indicted for?
AM: Well, so Flynn then shortly after also spoke to Kislyak about retaliating to new punitive measures taken by Obama in response to Obama accusing Russia of being behind the hacking of DNC emails. So Flynn according to the accounts called Kislyak and asked him not to retaliate or not to escalate the situation after Obama kicked out diplomats and imposed new sanctions. And I believe Flynn suggested that after we come into office things are going to change.
JS: Hold on a second here. That doesn’t strike you as super shady that Flynn is having this discussion saying “Don’t worry. We’re going to undermine what the current president the United States is doing and we’re going to —” Why offer to help Moscow in that way?
AM: The Israel thing seems shady to me.
JS: No, Aaron, we’re a hundred percent on the same team, but —
AM: I’ll be honest the Russia part doesn’t.
JS: Why? No, this is why I wanted to talk to you.
AM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JS: To me, it seems really —
AM: Well, first of all —
JS: — Shady.
AM: Putting aside the shady question for a second. First of all, it’s not unprecedented. I mean, we know that Kissinger and Nixon helped destroy a peace deal in Vietnam. We know that Reagan was doing some shady stuff up with the Iran, you know, so this stuff has happened.
JS: Yeah, it doesn’t make it right.
AM: It doesn’t make it right.
JS: We’ve made all those points but I’m asking you directly about this. Why on earth do you say that’s not shady?
AM: Because if you’re the Trump campaign and you see an effort already by the Democratic — from your point of view, the Democratic establishment is already blaming Russia for the fact that they lost. They’re painting Trump’s victory not on Trump winning votes, but on Russia doing it. And so, I think the Trump campaign took this move by Obama as a dig against them. Trump had campaigned [on] better relations with Russia.
DJT: Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing frankly if we actually got along with Russia?
Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia? Wouldn’t that be good?
AM: This was something that threatened to impede that and so what Flynn asked for I don’t think is that radical. He just said however you respond, don’t escalate the situation which is the kind of diplomacy and the kind of exchanges that go on constantly. I mean —
JS: I mean, this is a very risky thing to do. It must have been really important to them and that’s what I’m getting at here. Like what is the actual motive? Because I don’t buy the idea that Trump is a dove who just wants us to make peace with Russia. I mean, this guy’s entire career just reeks of corruption and backroom deals and shady shit and I’m just like, why would they take that risk to do that?
AM: I don’t think there’s anything illegal about saying to —
JS: I’m not asking about illegal. I’m saying what do you think politically is their motive? They want peace with Russia?
AM: If you’re about to come into office, the outgoing administration is taking what you perceive as a shot at you by sanctioning Russia and sort of pinning the blame on Russia for Trump’s election and they’re doing something that’s escalatory. You’re just saying to them whatever you do don’t escalate the situation. Don’t respond with more sanctions because you know, we’re about to come in anyway. And that part to me is just not, it’s not unprecedented. I mean, when Obama —
JS: I know it’s not unprecedented. I agree with you a hundred percent on that. Trump seems to be entirely motivated by the preservation of himself and promotion of himself. So, I’m trying to get from you, knowing that you follow international relations closely, what the possible motive would have been other than Trump just wanted it to be done for whatever reasons were floating through his head. I don’t buy that it’s about him wanting peace with Russia. I think that we don’t know why Trump would have directed that.
AM: How do we know about those calls? We know about those calls because they were wiretapped.
JS: No, not the wiretaps, Aaron. I’m talking —
AM: But those calls with Kislyak —
JS: What conversations happened between Trump and Flynn prior to those conversations? You’re not interested in knowing that?
AM: Oh, of course, I’m interested. I mean, sure but the thing is like I don’t — The act of telling a government whatever you do, don’t escalate the situation. I just don’t think that is that — I don’t think it’s that shady. I just think it’s like “we’re coming in anyway.”
JS: Well, if you segregate it from the rest of it: Yes, I agree with you. I’m not saying that I know that anything happened. I’m saying we don’t know what the point was of that because we don’t know what Trump told Flynn.
AM: It’s a fair line of inquiry. I’ve laid out my speculation, but I just want to stress that those calls were all wiretapped. That’s why we know about them.
JS: Absolutely, yeah.
AM: If you read the transcripts of the agents who interviewed Flynn, their 302s, I mean, it’s even murky what exactly he lied to them about. He basically didn’t recall certain details and I think the reason Flynn got indicted is because if you look at his original indictment, Mueller mentions but doesn’t charge him for Flynn’s lobbying for Turkey and that could have subjected him to far worse punishment than lying to the FBI. So, I just don’t think when it comes to Flynn and Russia, there’s anything that sketchy there. At least when it comes to the actual Russia part. The Israel part, as I mentioned, is the sketchy part.
JS: Let’s talk about the now famous, infamous Trump Tower meeting. Who were the participants of that meeting and what was the official purpose of it according to Trump world?
AM: The guy who set up the meeting is this music publicist Rob Goldstone who was close with the Agalarov family, which is a wealthy Russian tycoon and his pop star son. So, the meeting Donald Jr. was there and so was Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort from the Trump campaign. On the Russian/Goldstone side, you have Rob Goldstone, the attorney he worked for, Natalya Veselnitskaya, and some of her associates. And Veselnitskaya worked for a company called Prevezon Holdings, which was fighting U.S. sanctions on Russia through this law called the Magnitsky Act. And according to all participants, that’s what Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss.
She didn’t actually have any dirt on Hillary Clinton, but she tried to lobby them to be sympathetic to her case against the sanctions. Now, the Trump team made things harder for itself because it initially played down that sanctions part and said the meeting was mostly about Russian adoptions, right, which it then had to change. But you know, the speculation here is that like well, since Rob Goldstone wrote that this dirt on Hillary Clinton is a part of the Russian government support for Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. accepted it, that that then led to this or that kicked off or helped further this Trump-Russia conspiracy.
JS: But why — how do you explain then the kind of lies that were told around that by the Trump campaign?
AM: Their statements did change in terms of the purpose and the content of the meeting. It’s true. They hid the fact that Donald Trump Jr. had welcomed this offer —
JS: You won’t use — you don’t think they were lying about it?
AM: Sure, I mean, yeah, it looks like Donald Trump Jr. lied. I mean, although, if you again, if you carefully parse their statement, then you get into questions of OK, does omission amount to lying?
JS: Okay, but the point of that though, so, their story is, let’s say, evolving on that.
AM: But politicians lie and the fact is this came out in the midst of this like, you know, huge speculation about Trump being a Russian conspirator and these people are liars. I mean, there’s no question there that like Trump runs a mendacious camp when you look at who Rob Goldstone is, I mean and by his own account, he’s testified now to Congress. He’s written a book about it. He says “I had no idea what I was talking about” and he explained how he made up certain things. And he calls it publicist puff and his intent was to get a meeting for his client. And so he talked about the crown prosecutor which isn’t even a real title in Russia. And he now says that was based on the fact that in Britain you have the crown which is the government. So that’s what he’s referring to there and all that is plausible to me. Rob Goldstone even checked in on Facebook at Trump Tower that day. He wrote, “Preparing for a meeting.” So it’s much more plausible to me that this publicist free-styled something, came up with a story he thought would win the meeting, they got the meeting. It was a dud. He was embarrassed about it. He apologized to Don Jr. and then moved on. And then, of course, it’s become great fodder for the conspiracy theory. But it’s like, I think when you look at the actual details, I don’t see what’s there.
JS: There are 12 Russian GRU agents that were indicted on charges relating to probing U.S. electoral systems, but also to hacking of DNC communications. Do you think that that is all bullshit?
AM: No, no, no. Now, my position has always been I think it’s actually the first time that we’ve seen something that can be called evidence because here we have a detailed indictment that lays out a story in which Russian military intelligence officers steal the Democratic party emails. And it claims to have very in-depth details of this. It appears to be based on surveillance of actually seeing the Russians type in certain keywords and carry out the acts. And it names even specific agents and so for that to be wrong, I mean then Mueller would have to either be lying or relying on faulty information. So, I have no reason to say that I don’t believe it because I don’t have all the evidence. I do think that we should see the underlying evidence that it’s based on. I do think it’s possible that Mueller was given faulty information here. I mean, we saw during the Iraq War where European intelligence agencies were sort of outsourced to feedback bad intel to the U.S. like, you know, including meetings of Mohammed Atta and Iraqi agents in Prague.
So, that happens and I wouldn’t rule that out here. So, I think it’s possible that Mueller’s indictment of these Russian agents is correct, but I’m also not going to automatically believe it just because he asserts it. I still take — we should see underlying evidence.
JS: What almost never gets mentioned in this context is that this wasn’t just some stealth surgical probe into the DNC. The same fingerprints of whoever was behind what they’re alleging here were also all over a much wider swath of Americans of influence. They were targeting the families of military officers, influential business people of various political institutions not just the Democratic party. I find it intellectually dishonest that we say “These twelve GRU officers are going to be indicted because of this DNC thing,” when we all know including from people that passionately disagree with you, Aaron, that this was much wider. This was not some stealth operation against Hillary Clinton. This was classic spycraft going after influential people in an adversarial nation-state. That’s what it seems like to me.
AM: Yeah, yeah, I’ll also say I wouldn’t be surprised if the hack was carried out from Russia. That doesn’t mean to me that it necessarily came from the Russian government. I think it’s possible also they were non-state actors.
JS: I think it’s really despicable the way that Wikileaks has been handled here where it’s just stated as established fact that Julian Assange got these documents from the Russian government. That may be true and you know, it could be that Assange knowingly got these documents from a Russian agent. It could be that he unknowingly got them through an intermediary and that this source was Russia. It could be that there are multiple channels here, but it’s really, really unjust to just declare that as a fact. I have not seen any hard evidence that proves that Assange knowingly received those documents from the Russian government, and I’ve asked him directly about it as well.
JS [during Assange interview]: Are you confident as a publisher of a very influential organization, are you confident that you were not given these documents by a foreign government for their own purposes?
JA: I’m confident in what we have already stated that our source is not part of the government.
JS: What is their best case that Wikileaks receive these from the Russian government?
AM: I mean Assange himself denies receiving this from Russia, but he also, I believe, once when he was asked whether he would not accept documents from a state actor, I believe he wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, I think the Wikileaks aspect, it’s been used as part of the broader efforts to discredit it.
JS: It’s also the Trump people are much more aggressive toward Assange. The Obama people basically decided by the end, we’re not going to go after Julian Assange. What we’re told is that Wikileaks colluded with the Trump campaign to try to damage Hillary Clinton and were giving them advanced knowledge which they still have not proven that that was the case. And then at the same time, you have Mike Pompeo who was Trump’s original CIA director declaring them essentially a non-state hostile intelligence entity.
Mike Pompeo: It’s time to call out Wikileaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.
JS: And potentially indicting and seeking the extradition of Julian Assange.
AM: That’s right.
JS: But take that a step further. Let’s say they get Assange. Let’s say they put him in a U.S. courtroom. If Trump actually colluded with Assange and Wikileaks, you don’t think that’s going to come out.
AM: But what’s crazy here is seeing Democrats, as you say go, along with it and co-signing now these attacks on Wikileaks accusing it of being a wing of Russian intelligence. And it’s a part of this sort of like McCarthy-ite mania that Russiagate has unfortunately engendered.
JS: Now looking back over these last two-plus years, what is your thesis about this moment and this line of inquiry against Trump?
AM: I think we have Russiagate because we have a convergence of privileged interests. We have the failed Democratic elites who lost to a reality TV show host. Everybody thought that they would win, including me. And they didn’t know what to do and instead of meaningful self-reflection — and this is a point that Glenn Greenwald has made tirelessly — they decided on this conspiracy theory and the strategy of blaming Russia. And prioritizing that above all else, above actually becoming an actual real resistance — a real opposition party — that presents meaningful policy challenges to Trump and actually takes them on. This allows them not just to avoid blame for their own failures, but also helps them sustain their privileged position. Because if Democrats and also their media partisans were to really present an actual challenge to Trump, they’d be presenting alternatives that take on the power systems in this country that Trump and his camp represent.
That dovetails with elements of the national security state who, I think, loathe Trump’s calls for better ties with Russia, whatever motivated them — and again, I do think that Trump was motivated by just wanting to build this brand everywhere he could. But they loathed Trump’s call because the Cold War is profitable for them. The Cold War justifies huge weapons contracts, it justifies, you know, sweeping surveillance capabilities, it keeps the U.S. on this permanent war footing when you have this external enemy. And that’s why everything from like Russian social media posts to Russian emails have been turned into this new version of Pearl Harbor. We often hear comparisons of the email hacking and social media post to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.
Rep. Jerry Nadler: Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react. That’s the equivalent.
Chris Hayes: Well, it’s a bit of a different thing. I mean —
JN: No, it’s not.
CH: They didn’t kill anyone.
AM: And that also converges with media interests that it’s been great for ratings to make turn this saga, this Trump presidency into a Tom Clancy thriller. And again, that’s a case where if you talk about Russia, it’s a great way for media, prominent media voices to pose as being, you know, cantankerous searches for the truth and opponents of this possibly compromised president while avoiding people who have real power in this country, including powerful corporate interests that control the media. And then for the broader public, I think part of the reason why it’s caught on is because well, A, it’s been fed down our throats. All we’ve heard about for two plus years is Russia, but also it offers a sort of comforting appeal. I mean, for many people Trump’s victory was traumatizing and shocking. And so, if we’re presented with this narrative that the reason is not because of our own society, our own government, but because of Russia, then all we have to do is put our faith in Robert Mueller and he’ll make all our problems go away.
So, it’s been comforting but I think it’s been extremely dangerous because again, it’s taken our eye off of resisting Trump’s actual policies, his actual damage to the country. It’s promoted this weird McCarthy-ite atmosphere where people who criticize the U.S. government or question U.S. foreign policy are deemed to be Russian dupes and useful idiots. It’s turned our resistance into basically a giant conspiracy theory forum where we’re constantly searching for developments that can substantiate this underlying belief that Trump and Russia are in cahoots. And I think with Mueller’s pending report, we’re in for a disappointment, but on the plus side that will be a good opportunity for us to move on and to become a real opposition and a real resistance.
JS: Aaron Maté, thanks very much for joining us here on Intercepted.
AM: Thanks for having me.
JS: Aaron Maté is an independent journalist. He was formerly at the Real News Network and Democracy Now! He currently writes for The Nation magazine. You can find him on Twitter at @aaronmate.
JS: This week, recent Intercepted guest and New York Times reporter, Charlie Savage, reported that the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance program of the private communications of American citizens has been “quietly shut down.” Savage cited the remarks of a top GOP aid over the weekend who said that the Trump administration may not even seek to renew the program.
This mass surveillance, born out of the 9/11 attacks and formalized through the Patriot Act, resulted in the accumulation of billions upon billions of Americans’ private text messages and calls. It wasn’t until 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the true extent of this domestic spy program and the involvement of major telecom companies that Congress reconsidered the seemingly unlimited powers that it had handed over to the NSA.
And so a slightly more restricted program took its place. The ironically named Freedom Act was signed into law by Barack Obama in 2015. The Freedom Act is set to expire in December. And, apparently, not only has it ceased to officially operate in recent months, but Congress at present has no known plans to renew it — that’s according to comments made by Luke Murray, the House minority leader’s national security adviser. He spoke over the weekend on the podcast Lawfare.
Luke Murray: Maybe must pass may actually not be must pass, Section 215 of USA Freedom Act where you have this bulk collection of basically, metadata on telephone conversations. Not the actual content of the conversations but we’re talking about length of call, time of call, who’s calling. And that expires at the end of this year. But the administration actually hasn’t been using it for the past six months because of problems with the way that information was collected and possibly collecting on U.S. citizens in the way that was transferred from private companies to the administration after they got FISA Court approval.
JS: Now, whether or not what Murray’s saying is true, we’ll see. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who Murray works for, said that Murray “was not speaking on behalf of administration policy or what Congress intends to do on this issue.” But what we know is true is that there is absolutely no proof that this surreptitious records collections ever prevented a terrorist attack. Edward Snowden’s revelations brought incredible detail and specificity to what we’ve long known: that governments lie all the time with impunity. And Snowden brought the receipts.
As the NSA expanded its invasion of the privacy of American citizens, there has been a parallel type of digital surveillance that has now become all encompassing in our society and all across the world. And it’s one that occurs — for the most part — with our consent or because our perceived need to use Google and Facebook and Twitter outweighs privacy concerns. That is: surveillance capitalism.
The apps we use, the websites we visit, the social media sites we log onto — they all monitor our behavior, our most private communications in a campaign aimed at understanding and manipulating our actual selves, our motivations, and our propensity to consume and spend money through the context of the data we produce. And for the average citizen of the world, these companies pose a far greater danger to them than any government intelligence agency ever will. And many of us willfully engage in it.
The author and Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has written a new book exploring this phenomenon. It’s called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.”
Mark Zuckerberg: There have to be ads either way because we have to make money. We have 400 employees. We have to support all that and make a profit.
Shoshana Zuboff: In our era, in our time, these titanic struggles of capital are not just bearing down on the economic domain. They bear down fully on society, on the social domain, on our bodies, on our everyday lives, in our homes, in our cars, on our streets, in our cities. They’re part of the fabric of our everyday life out of the economic domain, into the social domain, bearing down on our very bodies and our lives. They call us users. What does that even mean?
Announcer: In our world, the speed and tempo of modern living are increasing at an ever-accelerating rate. Without organization, without system, the result would be chaos. Our control over a bewildering environment has been facilitated by new techniques of handling vast amounts of data at incredible speeds.
SZ: We are not users. I say we are bound in new psychological, social, political, as well as, economic interests. That we have not yet invented the words to describe the ways that we are bound. We have not yet invented the forms of collective action to express the interests that bind us. And that that is a big part of the work that must follow in this year and the next year and the year after that, if we are to ultimately interrupt and outlaw what I view as a pernicious rogue capitalism that has no business dominating our society.
Announcer: It is the fast, reliable, and tireless performance of a variety of arithmetic and logical operations that gives the computer its great utility and power. But merely looking at a computer won’t tell us very much about what it actually is doing. Neither will this tell us anything about the revolutionary material and intellectual effects of such machines.
SZ: What is surveillance capitalism? Throughout capitalism, as historians have observed, capitalism claims things that live outside the market dynamic and it brings them into the market dynamics so that they can become commodities to be sold and purchased. Industrial capitalism claimed nature for the market dynamic that it could be reborn as real estate, as land to be sold, to be purchased. It claimed work for the market dynamic that it could be reclaimed as labor to be sold and purchased. Surveillance capitalism follows in this pathway, but with a dark and strange twist.
Surveillance capitalism went in search of the last virgin wood and what it found was private human experience. And what it does is to unilaterally claim private human experience for the market dynamic that it can be reborn as behavioral data. In the logic of surveillance capitalism, these behavioral data are sent into its production processes — elaborate supply chains that capture these behavioral data from every aspect of our lives and activities, channel these data into new production processes that are called — what? Artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, all of that. And out of this black box emerges surveillance capitalism’s products. Its products are predictions. They are predictions of our behavior, predictions of what we will do now, soon, and later. Turns out many many businesses have an interest in this knowledge and these new businesses form a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in these predictions.
We thought that they were free that their products and services were free for us. But all the time that we’re thinking that they’re free, they’re thinking that we’re free. We’re the free raw material. Get them engaged, get them engaged, get them engaged. Keep that data flowing, keep it flowing. Get them engaged anywhere and everywhere. It doesn’t matter. Call it a digital assistant. Call it a thermostat. Call it a search engine. It doesn’t matter. Call it social media. It doesn’t matter. Get them engaged. Keep the data flowing. Complex supply chains flowing to production.
We thought we were using social media. But social media was using us. We thought that these companies had privacy policies. But, in fact, these companies have surveillance policies. And we became all too vulnerable to something that they told us over and over and over again. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. When the fact is that if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing. Because everything that you are, the place inside you, your inner resources from which you draw your sense of identity, your sense of voice, your sense of autonomy and moral judgment, your ability to think critically, to resist, even to revolt, these are the capabilities that can only be grown within. Jean-Paul Sartre calls it the will to will. And that will to will grows from within and you should hide it and you should cherish it and it should be private and it should be yours.
It’s not that there are all bad people in these companies. These imperatives compel these corporations to enter a collision course with democracy. Surveillance capitalists discovered in the heat of competition that the most powerful predictive data come from actually influencing our behavior towards its preferred outcomes. In order to fulfill its own economic imperatives, surveillance capitalism must undermine human autonomy. It must rob us of decision rights over our own private experience, its boundaries, its inwardness. I call these the right to the future tense and the right to sanctuary. These are being eroded from below. And without these, a flourishing democratic society is impossible.
Surveillance capitalism means that we enter the 21st century with a wholly new axis of social inequality imposed upon us. And this is the inequality of knowledge. They know so much about us. We know so little about them. We do not know about us what they know about us. They have so much knowledge that is from us, but that knowledge is not for us. These asymmetries of knowledge produce equally pernicious asymmetries of power. The power that accrues from this knowledge to command this capitally intensive ubiquitous digital infrastructure that now saturates our lives. To command that in order to not only know us, track us, monitor us from where we are and where we go to our posture and our gait and the muscles that express themselves in our faces and give away our emotions, but they go beyond that to influence and modify our behavior at the scale of populations.
What is this power, this power to actually influence populations, unauthorized, self-regulated, without democracy’s oversight, without democracy’s participation, without our knowledge? Systems that are specifically engineered to keep us in ignorance. Systems that are specifically engineered and celebrated for their ability to bypass our awareness. Ergo, my friends, surveillance capitalism.
JS: Shoshana Zuboff is the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.” Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson professor emerita at Harvard Business School and the author of “In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power.” She spoke to my colleague Naomi Klein, senior correspondent at The Intercept and the inaugural Gloria Steinem endowed chair of media, culture, and feminist studies at Rutgers University.
Victoria Gatenby: Rescue workers pull a body out of the rubble after a car bomb attack in the Somali capital Mogadishu. The explosives were planted near a shopping center in a busy market.
JS: Last Thursday, the al Shabab militant group in Somalia claimed responsibility for a day-long siege in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. At least 25 were killed in twin suicide bombings. This siege saw the militants storm through hotels, shops, and restaurants, finally taking over control of an entire building.
Now, back in 2017 when Trump first came to office, he intensified the drone strikes in Somalia that were originally initiated by President Obama back in 2011. And Trump also expanded the rules for the strikes, allowing for many more attacks against basic foot soldiers within al Shabab.
Don Dahler: President Trump declared parts of Somalia a war zone. Since then the U.S. has conducted dozens of drone strikes trying to stop a ruthless terrorist group that’s killed hundreds.
JS: Since Trump took office, the United States has ratcheted up the strikes in Somalia, at least 46 of them occurred in 2018, and that beat the prior year’s record-breaking total. The official count already, and we’re only a couple of months into 2019, is already at 24 strikes.
Investigating the impact of the U.S. air campaign in Somalia, journalist Amanda Sperber found that strikes that went unreported until they were raised with U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM. According to Sperber, the Pentagon policy under Trump its that AFRICOM will only confirm certain airstrikes if they are asked about them by reporters or non-governmental organizations. Here is Amanda Sperber explaining her findings on Democracy Now! on Tuesday.
Amanda Sperber: I came across strikes that were unaccounted for, both from leaked internal security reports from NGOs, that noted, you know, a strike happening in a certain place. I also came upon strikes that I would RTQ — responses to queries — a date. They would acknowledge they conducted a strike on that date, and yet it would not match with an internal report.
JS: Sperber’s reporting raises questions about the Trump administration’s counterterrorism campaign in Somalia, including the number of civilian deaths and whether the CIA is also conducting strikes inside Somalia. The U.S. claims that only 0-5 civilians were killed in airstrikes in Somalia for the entire year of 2018. They’re acknowledging a range of the total killed as 238 to 242. The U.S. claims no children were killed.
Sperber’s reporting included Somalis who told her they survived these strikes and that children were in fact killed. The story of what is actually happening in Somalia is almost never discussed in the U.S. media. And when it is, it’s always about counter-terrorism or terrorism and is often reported without any historical context. The Pentagon largely sets the narrative that is then repeated in the U.S. press. It’s just, the U.S. struck terrorists and killed them. And Somalia, well, it’s Somalia. Black Hawk Down. End of story.
But there is actually a truly incredible part of this history that seldom gets told. It is the story of how the George W. Bush administration — working clandestinely with the dictator of Ethiopia — crushed the best hope that Somalia had to bring peace and stability back to the country while simultaneously stopping al-Qaeda and al-Shabab from rising in Somalia. It is, in some ways, a story of regime change. But the regime in question had barely taken power in Mogadishu before being brought down after just six months. It was this campaign that began in late 2006, spearheaded by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, that would ultimately remove the moderate forces known as the Islamic Courts Union and give rise to al-Shabab.
To understand the intensification of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and to discuss this historical context that is almost never discussed, I’m joined by Harun Maruf. He is author of the book “Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally.” Harun is also a journalist at Voice of America, which is controlled and financed by the U.S. government. But he is not representing VOA or the government. Harun Maruf, welcome to Intercepted.
Harun Maruf: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Let’s begin with the battle of Mogadishu. Just explain to people what was going on in Somalia at the time that its government was falling apart and the United States, United Nations, other forces were on the ground there. What was happening in the early 1990s in Somalia?
HM: The proper Somali government collapsed in January 1991, then the country fell into a civil war between factions and later on between clans and this has resulted [in] the massive hunger and famine that was killing about 1,000 people — Somali civilians — every day. This is what attracted or convinced former U.S. president, late George H.W. Bush to send American soldiers into Somalia in December 1992.
George H.W. Bush: It’s now clear that military support is necessary to ensure the safe delivery of the food Somalis need to survive. It was this situation which led us to tell the United Nations that the United States would be willing to provide more help to enable relief to be delivered.
HM: At that time, the country was divided into different fiefdoms ruled by clan warlords who were impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid into Somalia and that’s what was told, the international community that the United States soldiers will go into Somalia to deliver aid. But Somalia was a lawless country and what was not known to many people was that [the] Salafi group by the name al-Ittihad al-Islamiya also had military bases in Somalia where they trained militants and armed wings. A small group within the al-Itihaad, very ideologically driven unit, were bringing foreign jihadists to help and train Somali jihadist. Also, other al-Qaeda figures came to Somalia and trained this wing within al-Itihaad. This group split from al-Itihaad in 1995.
Then they started sending more Somali jihadists to Afghanistan to get training. So they emerge, [ultimately the] emergence of al-Shabab was not accidental. It was very much the work and the mentorship and the support and the training that’s Somali jihadists were getting from al Qaeda, in the run-up to the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the Black Hawk Down attack.
ABC: Forty-eight hours of massive violence in Mogadishu is continuing tonight as American forces tried to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid and destroy his operation. In addition to the 12 American soldiers who were killed in the fighting, 78 others were wounded. Three U.S. helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades.
HM: Which later on where claimed officially by people who belonged to that ideologically-driven wing within al-Itihaad who later on became members of al-Shabab.
JS: After the United States pulls out of Somalia and basically most international forces step away, you then had the kind of factionalization occur in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia where what are traditionally called warlords start to take over. And a number of countries Eritrea, Ethiopia, certainly the United States begin kind of funding or arming various factions. Describe that period when the United States sort of pulled away from an overt military campaign in Somalia and began secretly aiding or working with warlords.
HM: The warlords have tried to reconcile, have tried to form some kind of government for Somalia. There were a number of Somali reconciliation conferences. They failed to come together and form a government. Finally, in 2004, they met in Kenya and they formed the Transitional Federal Government. Although this government was formed, the country was still ruled by warlords. There was hopelessness among the civilians. Then, in parts of Mogadishu, emerged Islamic Courts, which were primarily funded and supported by businessmen and the main intention to support this Islamic Courts was to get peace and some sense of stability in parts of Mogadishu. It starts with parts of Mogadishu, then it slowly expanded.
JS: Just so people understand, you had about a half a dozen representatives of various groups or clans or political centers of power that were trying to come together and unite under a government of Islamic Sharia law with the intention of expelling the warlords, including CIA warlords, from Mogadishu — basically just stabilizing the country. I mean, Somalia is basically a hundred percent Muslim country. It doesn’t mean there’s not diversity of political thought but the idea that if you unite behind Islamic Sharia law and you expel the gangsters, the warlords, the criminals that you can stabilize this actually very important African country. Somalia has the largest coastal territory of any country in Africa. I mean, it could be a phenomenally successful country and it’s important you point out, it was business leaders that really wanted this stability to come. So, they organize these Islamic Courts, but really what you’re talking about is a kind of coalition government under the banner of establishing Islamic Sharia law.
HM: At the beginning, these courts were run by a Sufi moderate individuals whose, their main goal was to restore some sense of stability in their neighborhoods, in their districts, in Mogadishu and what they used to do was take disputes over land, fight against the thieves and criminal gangs, solve disputes between clans. This is what they were doing. They were not imposing themselves on other Somalis. They were not dictating people on what to do and how they, people want to live their own life is or socialize or that was never the case. The primary objective was to get that sense of support and stability and the people who were behind it were moderate religious individuals and business people.
JS: This is a very, very important point you’re making here. These were not al-Qaeda friendly individuals. There certainly were people who were operating with a kind of more radical Islamist agenda, but they were not the most powerful people within the courts. What happened in Mogadishu during that very brief period when these moderate figures were able to expel the warlords and kind of start governing in a way?
HM: People were able to go out and run their business. The seaport and the airport was opened. The rubbish was cleaned from the streets. There were no fear of warlords, no fear of criminals. This time period which was from June 2006 until December 2006, six months, that is the period which many people regard as the golden age after the state collapsed in 1991.
JS: This sounds great for Somalis. You have this constant bloodshed, criminal gangs, warlords, the CIA, Ethiopia, Eritrea, all, you know, with their dirty hands in Somalia and you have the Bush administration with its declaration of the so-called war on terror that supposedly was about destroying al-Qaeda and bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. In Somalia, you have these moderate Islamic figures with actual credibility in different parts of the country come in and essentially make al-Qaeda obsolete because they were working through the Somali clan system and also through Islamic Sharia courts. So, certainly Harun, the Bush administration, welcomed this, right? Because this would have been a very effective Somali solution to the problem of al Qaeda or terrorism. So Bush supported this, right? He thought this was great that the Islamic Courts Union had finally stabilized Mogadishu?
HM: No, Bush did not support. The Bush administration, the U.S. under-secretary to Africa painted them all as extremists, terrorists. The fact is that the individuals, that some of them came from Afghanistan, some of them were harboring individuals who were wanted by the United States, but they were a small minority. And at the time, [the] Islamic Courts were too powerful for them. And if they were given an opportunity or if the international community engaged the Islamic Courts leadership against these elements, I don’t think the international community would have failed to achieve its target through diplomacy and engaging with the leadership of the Islamic Courts. And the Islamic Courts never rejected engagement from the rest of the international community.
JS: Then you have the series of secret meetings between Bush administration officials and the longtime dictator of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi and the Bush administration wink-wink, nudge-nudge encourages Ethiopia to invade Somalia. And Ethiopia does that and then simultaneously you have United States special operations forces, JSOC — the Joint Special Operations Command — begins striking inside of Somalia, attacking individuals that they say were terrorists or al-Qaeda supporters. The CIA also engaging in that. They were doing kidnap operations, snatching people, and rendering them. They were paying their warlords to go out and kill people post-9/11. But talk about that crucial moment in 2006 when the Bush administration effectively gives the green light to Ethiopia and Meles Zenawi to invade Somalia. What happens?
HM: What was said in private and in public might have been conflicting. There might have been conflicting messages by the United States officials because the impression and the statements they were giving to the media was very much the dismissal of the Islamic Courts. Ethiopia already sent soldiers into Somalia. So, the United States [was] very much in support of that, to paint Islamic Courts as a terrorist organization, as an entity that’s hostile to the federal government of Somalia. But then eventually, the individuals within the Islamic Courts also fell into that trap and directly threatened the Transitional Federal Government, fighting broke out between the Islamic Courts and Ethiopia and then the Islamic Courts were defeated.
Nazanine Moshiri: Most Somalis will tell you things were better in 2006. That’s when the city enjoyed a brief period of stability under the Islamic Courts Union. But then Ethiopia invaded Somalia backed by Washington.
HM: From there on, the United States was also involved in conducting airstrikes against the Islamic Courts.
JS: So, you have this moderate Islamist movement or groups of movements, the Islamic Courts Union, they are shattered and spread out and destroyed or imprisoned or killed by the Ethiopian forces and at times by the United States. Then Ethiopia effectively or not effectively does occupy large sections of Mogadishu and commits widespread human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, rapes, murders. Talk about that period when the Ethiopians with the support of the United States effectively occupy parts of Somalia.
HM: That’s right. Ethiopia never admitted officially the number of soldiers it sent to Somalia, but there were thousands of soldiers into Mogadishu and in other parts of the country, in Kismayo, in Baidoa. Then there was an emergence of the Moqawama or the resistance which was an armed wing of the Islamic Courts. That’s when al Shabab became very well known to many Somalis, to many in the international community. They were also returned to Mogadishu to mobilize themselves and to attack and fight against the Ethiopians. There were heavy battles between the Moqawama and the Ethiopian soldiers.
BBC: The allied Somali Ethiopian forces are using artillery and tanks. The insurgents respond with mortar fire. Caught in the middle are thousands of civilians.
HM: And at that time, very interestingly, I was in Mogadishu and I was [a] researcher for [a] human rights organization. And what we documented was that Mogadishu was destroyed, that period in 2007, more than any other time in the history of the Civil War in Somalia.
HM: There were entire neighborhoods where Ethiopian soldiers marked them as areas, or bases for the Moqawama and the other opposing militias and entirely bombed them using Katyusha rockets, artillery, tank fire. Thousands of people were killed, probably hundreds still missing.
JS: That crucial period 2006 and 2007, you had an actual chance to not only stabilize one of the most volatile, deadly countries in the world but to actually have a government in power in Mogadishu that would have been able to credibly, with its own people, battle against the ideology of al-Qaeda. And the United States for its own reasons — one of which is their complete lack of understanding that the word Islamic in Islamic Courts Union does not equal al-Qaeda — that you had the United States, effectively with its policy and the backing of the Ethiopians, give rise to a group of very militant, violent individuals whose thinking was aligned with Osama Bin Laden, put them then at the vanguard of what was a struggle against Ethiopian or foreign occupation. In other words, what I’m saying is that the United States played a central role — and certainly, Ethiopia was at the forefront of that — in giving rise to what we now know as al-Shabab.
HM: That was a big, big opportunity that was missed by the international community, by the regional governments, by everybody. And we talked about just before the war or the fighting with Ethiopia, the fact that the international community did not invest or engage or even try to bring the two sides together to find common ground was an opportunity that was lost. But the fighting that ensued in Mogadishu radicalized so many people, [a] large number of [the] young generation who lost relatives, who lost fathers, who lost brothers and sisters into that war, joined that fighting against Ethiopia and very likely became extremist individuals. And that is the period that al-Shabab has benefited from that chaos and strengthened and trained it and produced it and expanded its ideology. It was playing to the concern and the [inaudible] of Somali people that they were wrongly treated by the international community, that nobody listened to their leaders, that nobody wanted or cared about what they wanted. And there’s still, [a] large number of people who believe that that was an example that the international community doesn’t want, or would never accept an Islamic government in Somali regardless of who runs that leadership.
JS: How would you describe the difference in policy from the Obama administration to the Trump administration when it comes to Somalia?
HM: So Obama was the architect of the start of the current drone strikes. The intensity was lower, but nonetheless, [the] Obama administration was largely targeting key individuals, al Shabab leaders, top-tier individuals. Under Trump, the airstrikes initially started with targeting top-tier individuals, but immediately it expanded to foot soldiers, mid-level al Shabab individuals, training camps. Now, it’s almost 99 percent, almost a hundred percent of the airstrikes target foot soldiers whether that’s to disrupt possible al Shabab gathering, possible al Shabab attacks against military base or whether that is just to reduce and severely limit the number of al Shabab or both, we will learn more in the coming months and years.
JS: Harun Maruf, thank you so much for the research, the work, the journalism and also for joining us here on Intercepted.
HM: Thank you very much. I really appreciate your invitation to me to talk about this issue.
JS: Harun Maruf is the author of “Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally.” You can follow him on Twitter @HarunMaruf.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, you can log onto TheIntercept.com/join to join the more than 3,000 other people who have already are sustaining members of this show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. You can find us on Twitter @intercepted. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.