Shadow Players: Erik Prince, Julian Assange, and the Bizarre World of Trump

The Intercept’s Betsy Reed, Vanessa Gezari, and Matthew Cole along with lawyer James Goodale and reporter Dahr Jamail join this week.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images

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Prince of perjury? This week on Intercepted: Blackwater founder Erik Prince is facing a possible criminal probe into allegations that he lied in Congressional testimony about his trip as a Trump emissary to the Seychelles where he met with a powerful Russian tycoon close to Vladimir Putin. The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed, investigative journalist Matthew Cole, and national security editor Vanessa Gezari discuss how Prince went from exile in the United Arab Emirates to a shadow player in Trump world. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was snatched from the Ecuadorean embassy in London and now faces extradition to the U.S., as whistleblower Chelsea Manning finishes her second month in jail for refusing to testify before a Grand Jury. At the heart of this case is the bi-partisan weaponization of the Espionage Act in an effort to assault whistleblowers and journalism. Famed Pentagon Papers lawyer James Goodale, former counsel to the New York Times, discusses the dangerous precedent the prosecution of Assange would set and criticizes “establishment” media outlets for not speaking out. War reporter Dahr Jamail, who reported inside Fallujah during the first U.S. siege, has now deployed to the frontlines of the war to save the climate. He reads from his new book, ”The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption.”


Martin Sheen as Captain Willard: There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.

G.D. Spradlin as General R. Corman: Luke, would you play that tape to the captain, please?

Man on tape: October 9, 04:30 hours, Sector Peter, Victor, King.

Donald J. Trump: There’s just nothing going to stop us. No matter how you cut it. I know some of the people in this room. Nothing stops you. Nothing stops you. I can tell you. But we will succeed.

GDS: After that, his ideas, methods, became unsound.

Harrison Ford as Colonel Lucas: With this Montagnard army of his, that worship the man like a god, and follow every order, however ridiculous.

GDS: Very obviously, he has gone insane.

DJT: Unbelievable. Thank you. Hello, Green Bay. Thank you. I said how does this compare to those great dogs. Dogs. Dogs. Dog. If I told you how crazy it is, the web. It’s a web. I don’t know if you know it — law enforcement has become hot. They’re hot. Let’s execute the baby. I’m proud to tell you that was actually my sick idea.

MS: Who are all these people?

Dennis Hopper as Photojournalist: These are all his children, man, as far as you can see.

[Crowd chants.]

DH: He’s a poet-warrior in a classic sense. I’m a little man, I’m a little man. He’s a great man.

DJT: You have always been loyal to this nation. Now, you finally have a president who is loyal to you. It’s incredible what’s happened to the United States.

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 91 of Intercepted.

DJT: In the history of our country, there has never been a president that’s been more transparent than me or the Trump administration. There has never ever been transparency like this. So, just so you understand —

JS: And we are back after a two-week hiatus. And what a two weeks these have been. The situation in Venezuela is hitting another boiling point with the U.S.-backed self-declared president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, escalating his campaign to unseat Nicolás Maduro. We have seen the Maduro forces in the streets using brutality and force to try to stop what they call an ongoing coup effort. Guaidó is also calling for a military uprising within Venezuela. And you add into this mix now the story that Blackwater founder, Erik Prince, has been shopping around a plan to provide Guaidó with a mercenary force — 5,000 strong — to apparently participate in overthrowing the Venezuelan government. Reuters reports that for months, “Prince has sought investment and political support for such an operation from influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles.”

On Tuesday, we learned that House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff is referring Erik Prince’s testimony on the Trump Russia investigation to the Department of Justice for a possible criminal perjury investigation. That stems from the committee’s questioning of Erik Prince about the meeting he attended in the Seychelles in early 2017 where he met with the powerful Russian tycoon Kirill Dmitriev. In front of that committee and in media appearances, Prince has said that the meeting was a chance encounter, just over a beer, lasted 30 minutes or so. But according to the Mueller report, that appears to have been extremely misleading if not, false and was viewed as much more of an official discussion between an emissary of Donald Trump and a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Erik Prince has also returned to Iraq, or at least a company that he helped build up has. The last time Erik Prince had forces deployed in Iraq, a lot of civilians got killed. This time, the forces are those that Prince has developed with his Chinese government funded company.

The Intercept’s Betsy Reed, Vanessa Gezari, and Matthew Cole Discuss Erik Prince and the Mueller Report

The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency has resulted in a whole slew of new opportunities for Erik Prince. He was an early backer of Donald Trump. His sister is the education secretary. Along with his mother Elsa, the Prince’s were major donors to Trump’s campaign. Erik Prince has also had a long relationship with Mike Pence and when Pence was in Congress, he was one of Blackwater’s key allies. Now, Erik Prince is facing this possible criminal probe of his testimony before Congress. We are going to be publishing some new reporting on Erik Prince very soon at The Intercept and I can’t say more, just yet, about that. But to look at how we got to this point, with Erik Prince and the Trump administration and what we know at this moment about that trip to the Seychelles and what Robert Mueller revealed about Erik Prince, I’m joined now by three of my colleagues — Matthew Cole is an investigative reporter at The Intercept. Matthew, welcome back to the show.

Matthew Cole: Thanks.

JS: I’m also joined by Vanessa Gezari. She is our National Security Editor and by Betsy Reed the Editor in Chief of The Intercept. Thank you both for joining me as well.

Vanessa Gezari: Thanks for having me.

Betsy Reed: Thanks, Jeremy.

JS: Matthew, how did Erik Prince get here? Set the context for us.

MC: Prince has been understood — he’s always referred to, as he should be as the founder of Blackwater, but that’s really sort of act one of his professional career. And it’s now 10 years in the past and he was really essentially exiled from the U.S. during the Obama administration which wanted nothing to do with him. So, one surprise that came in the Mueller report was that Erik Prince had paid to get emails authenticated to see if they were the stolen or hacked Hillary Clinton 30,000 emails and they weren’t. But it was a taste of where he was, which was behind the scenes, using his money and his particular expertise which are related to you know, whether it’s a hard and actual conflict to more into the information war and conflict by other means.

JS: Since Trump took office, we have reported that he’s been pitching plans for privatized intelligence to counterbalance the deep state, that he’s continuing to work in China with the Chinese government, has his eyes on Africa, more recently now operating in Iraq. What was he doing or offering in support of the Trump campaign in terms of his services?

MC: You know, initially, I think what we know is that he was offering unsolicited ideas to Steve Bannon. What he really brought was, or what he thinks he brought, was this clout and experience with fighting terrorism from his years during the Bush administration and running Blackwater. And his vision of how to you know, to use some of his words “rid the world of the scourge of you know, Islamofascism.” He saw himself and sees himself as someone who is influential and can advise someone like Bannon or Trump or as it turns out, one of the important relationships that he’s fostered over the last couple years has been with Don Jr. And they have come to him at times because he does represent a connection to the older part of the GOP’s national security world. Oliver North, for instance, and we had previously reported that North because of his appearances and time on Fox News was influential to Trump because that’s where Trump gets his information.

JS: And Oliver North was at one of Erik Prince’s weddings.

MC: Right and the relationship between he and North goes into some of the business stuff that Eric was doing in previous years in Somalia and in the UAE. And one of the things that I think is so fascinating about Erik Prince is that there’s a myth that A, he’s incredibly wealthy. That he’s a billionaire. The truth is he’s not a billionaire. His mother is the billionaire and he lives essentially off of a trust fund. Now, he’s not poor by any definition, but he’s not wealthy enough to go and start a war on his own. He needs a benefactor. He needs someone to pay for it. And Trump was his best meal ticket in 2016. And that’s why he rode it hard and to that end, he was successful. He ends up being at the beginning of the administration, have carte blanche access to the White House. You know, meetings in the Seychelles with his previous benefactor, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the United Arab Emirates and then a serious player with China with the Communist party and their investment arm there because of the logistics company that he runs in Hong Kong.

So, he is this unique person who having had no real business — he’s kind of a failure business-wise — is able to find himself in the room with the people who do make actual decisions, who actually are powerful and the question is whether he sort of has earned that position or whether in the end, he’s sort of a great American snake oil salesman and in that way, I think he looks a lot like the current president.

BR: It does seem like Erik Prince has found a sort of perfect partner in Donald Trump. And I mean, it’s, I guess, a testament to something that he hasn’t managed to actually like land an official deal yet with Trump.

JS: That we know of.

BR: That we know of, right. We’ve reported on all of his attempts to do so and you know, you can see in the Mueller report that he was clearly in some pretty deep contact with Steve Bannon and he was an emissary in the Seychelles when he met with the Russian banker there to try to you know, set up a back-channel conversation with the Russians. But you know, it’s part of this whole picture that you get from reading the Mueller Report of this incredible constellation of these hustlers who are you know, the combination of utterly amoral or immoral, really concerned about making a buck in some way but really pretty incompetent. And it’s just incredible to me that he ends up continuing to get himself into these rooms with people. Now in the Trump administration, these people, these crazy people really do have power and it won’t be surprising if he does end up actually landing one of these contracts, but as far as we know, as Jeremy said, he hasn’t yet.

JS: And Vanessa, what we learned earlier this week is that the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff is saying —

Adam Schiff: I do believe that there is very strong evidence that he willingly misled the committee and made false statements to the committee and later today, we’ll be making a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

Mark Meadows: You’re going to make a criminal referral on Erik Prince?

AS: I think the evidence strongly suggests that he willingly misled our committee and the Justice Department needs to consider whether it can make a prosecutable case.

JS: What’s the significance of Schiff now in the aftermath of the Mueller report saying that he’s going to do this with Erik Prince and the stakes for the Trump administration if that goes forward?

VG: I think it’s a good thing that Schiff is doing this. I mean, I’m sort of, of the belief that the more hearings, the more questions to people who have said things around the whole Trump/Russia corruption investigation, the more of those people can be heard and questioned in Congress, the better. In the case of Prince, I mean, it’s a little unclear what this meeting was all about.

JS: You’re talking about the Seychelles meeting?

VG: The Seychelles meeting. I think the Mueller report, however, does make it clear that this wasn’t a chance meeting. Steve Bannon denies having had foreknowledge about this meeting and then sort of, says that if he had known he wouldn’t have wanted it to happen in the Mueller report. And I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t find it unbelievable that Prince using his connections to George Nader — who is described in the Mueller report as a senior advisor to Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, which is sort of a crazy thing in itself given who George Nader is — but you know, they had a connection and Dmitriev was clearly looking to meet with someone, really wanted to meet with someone from the Trump campaign. And that Prince took that meeting, you know, he may have been freelancing but it wasn’t by chance.

JS: Matthew, of course, Erik Prince has a long relationship with the UAE royals. So, on the one hand, it’s not so surprising that he would be going to meet with them in the Seychelles. The reason why this became so interesting to people is A, that he’s meeting with this extremely powerful financier banker from Russia with direct ties to not only, Vladimir Putin but the Kremlin in general, and then on the other hand that you have Erik Prince being perceived or telling people that he was representing Donald Trump or his incoming administration. What do you understand about what that meeting was all about and why Erik Prince flew to Seychelles for these meetings?

MC: It’s important to understand the context of what was going on in the Seychelles over those two days. And that was this was an inner sanctum meeting for Mohammed bin Zayed and the head of the UAE. It was a few of his brothers in the royal family and a very few group of advisers. As one person who is close to the royal family told me, this was not his Royal Court. This was his inner sanctum. It was even more important than the Royal Court and Erik Prince was invited to it. Now, was the purpose solely for the Russian, meeting with the Russian? I don’t believe so. Erik was formerly an unofficial adviser to MBZ after having helped build a military program for them and an anti-piracy unit in Somalia for the United Arab Emirates. And so, he with Trump’s ascension and win was back in the catbird seat.

JS: To what end though?

MC: It’s unclear. The Mueller report is not definitive. Dmitriev was tasked with trying to make inroads with the incoming administration to settle on normalizing relations, which is really code for finding sanctions relief and lifting the sanctions. As someone who has spent a lot of time reporting on Erik Prince, one of the things that was almost comical in the Mueller report was Dmitriev’s complaints to George Nader about his meeting with Erik Prince, his two meetings with Erik Prince. Dmitriev was annoyed that Nader had introduced him to someone who clearly didn’t have the gravitas within the Trump administration to say anything about what was, what they were thinking and what they were going to be doing next.

VG: Can I just — because I think one of the things I learned from the Mueller report about Prince and Dmitriev and their conversations was that you know, after the first meeting that they had, which we don’t really know much about what happened, Prince goes back to his room and he finds out that a Russian aircraft carrier has moved into the ocean around Libya and he immediately calls Nader and says get me another meeting with Dmitriev. And he goes and they meet in the bar at the Four Seasons in the Seychelles there and he says the Russians have to stay out of Libya. That’s not going to work. And like, you know, if I had to put money on what offended Dmitriev, it’s got to be that, right? But it’s also like, who the fuck is Erik Prince? You know, he tells Mueller that I did that based on my expertise as a naval, you know, in the Navy. So, anyway, I thought that was revealing.

BR: I think it’s important to keep in mind though that one of the biggest mysteries left by the Mueller report is what exactly transpired between Bannon and Prince because Mueller knows that they exchanged dozens of text messages, but somehow mysteriously these messages have disappeared from both of their devices.

JS: And remember, Prince would call in from wherever he was in the world regularly to Steve Bannon’s radio show before all of this started and among the topics that they discussed was that what we really need is a new Phoenix Program that we can use to go and assassinate Islamic terrorists around the globe. I mean, they were talking about some of these big ideas, you know bad ideas, but big ideas on Bannon’s show and then those conversations it seems just kind of took on a momentum of their own and then all of a sudden Trump may win and then Trump wins and it’s like at the early stages of this administration, it’s like Bannon and Don Jr. are enamored with Erik Prince. They think he’s like a second coming of Jason Bourne. And so, all this stuff at least in the early stages, was like, seemed like a real possibility for Erik Prince, right, Matthew?

MC: First of all, he was in the Seals for only two or three years. He had very little Navy experience. And in fact, for the years of reporting that I’ve done on the Navy Seals and Seal Team 6, Erik Prince is not considered in any way a serious military person at all and as a business person, he was successful almost despite himself. So, what’s been fascinating is that he comes in to associate himself with the Trump administration, but they love the myth of Erik Prince, the Navy Seal, of the former secret CIA agent. You know, he likes to tell the world that he was essentially a CIA asset, that he was a spy. He was not a spy at all. He definitely worked for the CIA. There’s no question about that but not in the capacity, you know, he conflates what he did. And you know, as I work through — this guy really has so much in common, aside from his military experience, so much in common with the president of the United States and I can see why someone like Don Jr. then, you know, they come from sort of a similar background in some ways of wealth and privilege, but this guy was willing to be a Navy SEAL and has done the dirty deeds and gotten his hands dirty. And in fact, that’s not really true.

BR: So, from Trump’s perspective, Prince was the perfect answer to its problem, which is that the so-called deep state had launched this investigation into you know, his campaign and its contacts with Russia. So, he didn’t trust his own CIA and he, you know, was very receptive, as we documented in our reporting, to a proposal from Prince that offered essentially a private CIA.

JS: Stepping back from Prince for a second, who would have thought like eight years ago or 12 years ago that you would constantly be hearing about the UAE influencing the U.S. government? I mean, Ryan Grim, our D.C. bureau chief, said a few weeks ago on the show that you know, one of the most important strands of inquiry to come out of this that we should be looking at is the extensive attempt to influence our politics by not just Russia, but by Israel, by Saudi Arabia, by the UAE, by Qatar.

VG: Yeah, I think that’s really true and I don’t know that there’s a tremendous amount about that in the Mueller report, but there are sort of these little moments. I mean, even the role of George Nader as a kind of go-between for Russia. You know, it also highlights Russia’s relationship with the UAE and with these Gulf States which has been long-standing and has involved a lot of economic and business exchange, as well as a sort of common idea about the importance of autocratic rulers in the world and how they should be supported and questioning any kind of dissident movements that come up against them. So I mean, I think these countries have really made common cause with each other and so, when you see that like in the case of that Seychelles meeting, it’s a clear line from Russia to the UAE to the incoming Trump administration. I mean, I think that in itself is sort of somewhat revelatory for people who may not be paying as close attention. We’ve certainly seen a tremendous amount of influence from Saudi Arabia as well in this administration, but I think the role of the UAE has been less obvious. And the fact is that the UAE is the puppet master behind Saudi Arabia in terms of everything that we see.

JS: You know, the UAE connections often come with Erik Prince attached to them in some way or another. I mean, that’s part of what’s going on here. But there was this other meeting at Trump Tower involving Erik Prince, Israelis offering services, all of these forces together and it does seem like a part of it is Iran.

BR: I think that has a lot to do that. I also think it makes kind of geopolitical sense for the UAE and Saudi Arabia and all these sort of authoritarian regimes to see a real opportunity to reset their relationship with the U.S. in the wake of the Obama administration because the Obama administration was really perceived in that region to be a serious problem because of its stance on the Arab Spring. And so, I think that you really saw when Trump was elected this desire to really seize the moment and to try to solidify this relationship with the U.S. and Trump is like, you know, totally receptive to that.

VG: I also think, you know, we’re speaking on a day when it’s being reported that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has asked Trump apparently to add the Muslim Brotherhood to the designated terrorism list that the State Department has. And you know, we recently the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards of Iran was added to that list. But you know, I mean the Muslim Brotherhood is a top enemy not just for Egypt, but for the UAE, for Saudi and so, this is again, sort of we’re seeing the profound influence of these countries in this administration.

JS: As we wrap up, I want to get from each of you your reflections now, a couple weeks removed from this redacted but fairly complete version of the Mueller report being released to the public, what we can learn from the way that the news media covered this over these couple of years. What was the most interesting or explosive thing in the Mueller report and how this impacts the question of potential impeachment of Donald Trump if criminal prosecution of him by the Justice Department is not on the table? Let’s begin with you, Betsy.

BR: I mean, I found the Mueller report to be fascinating reading in really sort of filling in a lot of detail, much of which had already been covered by a lot of very, you know, good journalistic work that [has] been done over the last two years. Of course, also the most incendiary claims, a lot of which derive from the Steele Dossier, did not bear out and this idea of like a conspiracy which Mueller defined narrowly and set a very high bar for as a tacit or express agreement with the Russians. I really think what the picture you get reading the report is that the Trump campaign was not sufficiently competent to execute an agreement like that, like it’s just a complete mess. But there are a zillion connections with the Russians and attempts to kind of work together in some loose way. So, I do think that, I think that there’s plenty of evidence of this kind of soft loose type of collusion in the report, but just not that, you know, high level of conspiracy.

And then, of course, the second volume to me makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that there was a massive attempt to obstruct justice. And that leaves the Democrats with a pretty difficult political problem because Congress does have a responsibility to act as a check on executive power and this is just unbelievable abuses of power documented in that report. But, you know, Americans I think have been tired by, they’re weary of all of the partisan bickering and you know, I think they are not quite ready for a massive impeachment process right now. So, Nancy Pelosi is taking and I think, made a reasonable call to continue the hearings and continue the investigative process, but not do a massive push right now for impeachment.

MC: There’s still some unanswered questions, especially related to Manafort.

JS: Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager who’s in prison and Trump clearly would like to pardon him but there’s also the issue of state charges, etcetera.

MC: And who a judge agreed with the Mueller team had violated his plea agreement on some, you know, potentially crucial matters. I think it’s clear that the Trump campaign and Trump himself are not capable of managing a complex conspiracy. So criminally, I don’t think the liability is there. I think politically, it was incredibly damaging or at least, in normal times, would be incredibly damaging because it was clear that they wanted the help. They would have taken it wherever they could get it and to the extent that it was done out in the open, they took advantage of it and that’s a political question. That is something that all political campaigns are going to have to address and voters are going to have to address. The second part on obstruction. Obviously, Mueller makes a pretty clear case that he obstructed in multiple cases. Whether there’s an impeachment process or not, I don’t know. I don’t have opinions on what I think they should or shouldn’t do.

It does seem that in the short amount of time left in this administration or at least, into the next election and his re-election campaign that the Mueller report becomes kind of a Rorschach test. I mean, he was elected because we have a very bifurcated political situation in the country and people — no one’s changing their mind based on this report. And I think that there’s a lot of credence that the media has put much more emphasis on this question of what happened in the 2016 campaign than the overall American public does. So, you know, I think that in normal times, this report would have taken down any president prior to this one, but in a sense the bar has been so lowered in terms of conduct both before coming into office and in office. To me, that’s actually, it’s not just fascinating, it’s incredibly dangerous that the criminal bar has been set higher because of how Trump’s behaved.

JS: What is the long-term impact of this moment right now? Because I have a sense that if you did this kind of multi-year scrutiny of how anyone becomes president of the United States and wins, you are going to find really unsavory aspects of how they did it, potentially illegal aspects. You’re going to have all sorts of foreign influence, corporate influence. The big difference is that Trump is like a garden-variety crook who did all of this. And so, it’s like my god, of course, we have to investigate him. The whole way you become president in this country involves epic corruption. So, I’m wondering are these lessons people have learned about how you view power and Trump just happened to be the spark that got people to open their eyes or is it going to continue to be viewed as whoa, that was an anomaly and fuck, I’m glad we’re done with that clown show?

VG: As people see more of what happens behind the scenes in a campaign the way we are able to in the Mueller report, I think there is a clarifying effect that it has. Because some of these things obviously happened with every campaign and I do think people are becoming more conscious of that and I think that’s one of the benefits of a report like this is that it really sheds light on things that even journalism can’t get to because we don’t have the investigatory resources of the Special Counsel’s Office. I mean, what I found really fascinating about the Russia part of the Mueller report, the first part of it, was just how many approaches the Russians made to —

JS: When you say the Russians, what do you mean?

VG: I mean, prominent Russians who had some connection to the Russian government. So, people in business, people in politics, people with positions, people without official positions. But the number of approaches that people with those connections and people with intelligence connections, honestly, made to people around and within the Trump campaign was really interesting to me. And I don’t know that it’s that unusual. But so, many sweetheart deals were dangled in front of so many people whether it was the Trump/Moscow project where Trump had this letter of intent that he signs on the eve of you know, going into this big election year saying that he’s going to have $4 million upfront to build this project with this connected Russian developer. Or whether it’s Carter Page being invited to give the commencement speech at this prominent, you know, Russian economic school. All these were things that people in the campaign or close to Trump really wanted.

MC: The last thing I’ll say on this Russia issue to Vanessa’s point is the one thing that people forget, and it’s really important to understand the historical context. At the time in which this election takes place, Russia and the United States are at war. It’s a financial and economic war. The economic sanctions had absolutely destroyed the budget in Russia. And so, they made some kind of normal and frankly logical and rational calculation that they were going to try to do whatever they can to push for whoever they thought was going to help get rid of that. And so, if you see it from that perspective, it’s less a conspiracy as it is just plain and straightforward self-preservation, which was if Donald Trump is making statements that you know, he likes Russia, he can deal with Russia, he’s trying to up Obama and because what we now know more than just his being a grifter, he is an autocrat. He would love to be a dictator. I mean, he loves autocrats and so, you can see that he thinks that someone like Putin has, you know, is a great leader, right? He said so. And so if you’re Russia, you hear that and that’s a signal that, you know, we can do business with you. There’s a way here, there’s a solution to the problem. And from that vantage point, it’s not necessarily a story about spies trying to make their way into the campaign as it is Russia doing everything it can to try to get rid of those sanctions which are still hurting them.

BR: Right, but it’s not actually about war, right? It’s about money from both sides, both the Russian side — you know, they’re concerned about the pressure sanctions are placing on their economy and from Trump’s side. He doesn’t think he’s going to win the election. He’s carrying on this Trump/Moscow thing because he you know, he thinks he’s going to use the election, the campaign to cash in.

MC: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it’s not about war because the sanctions come in response to the annexation of the Crimea —

BR: What I’m saying is that U.S. and Russia are not at war.

MC: No, no, no, but I think what is really most interesting and it plays itself out now with China too which is the United States doesn’t do hot wars with big countries. I think, I mean, obviously I can’t read the future but there’s clearly much less of it, right? We have in the past, with the exception of Iraq, it’s been almost exclusively small, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency wars around the world and no big wars. And so, against these major international competitors the war is financial, one way or another. And so, I think we’re redefining or we’re seeing a new definition of how big nation-states fight and the issue of sanctions with Russia, Russian sanctions are a good example of how, you know, Russia sees it as being at war.

BR: Yeah, I also think that what comes through to me from the picture of Trump in the Mueller report is that he is not a patriot. Fundamentally, he is a capitalist. He does not think twice about accepting help from the Russians. He has his eye on a prize that is about his own empire and capitalists, in general are not patriotic. And that is really what I think is the essence of the Mueller report and it’s what has so riled the kind of National Security establishment.

JS: Betsy, thank you very much for joining us.

BR: Great to be here, Jeremy.

JS: Vanessa, thank you, as well.

VG: Thanks a lot.

JS: Matthew, thanks for being here.

MC: Great to be on, Jeremy.

JS: Matthew Cole is an investigative journalist at The Intercept covering national security. Vanessa Gezari is The Intercept’s national security editor and Betsy Reed is our Editor in Chief.

[Music interlude.]

Famed Lawyer James Goodale Discusses the Arrest of Julian Assange

Julian Assange [during arrest]: We must resist! You can resist! You must resist!

JS: On April 11, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was dragged forcibly out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. After the Ecuador government revoked Assange’s asylum status, he was arrested for charges stemming from his 2012 failure to surrender to a court. Assange had sought political asylum in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault charges that have since been dropped. Assange has asserted from the beginning that all of this was about the United States wanting to go after him because he was publishing its secrets. London’s Metropolitan Police said that Assange’s arrest was also related to a U.S. extradition warrant.

The U.S. Justice Department indictment alleges that Julian Assange conspired with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, at the time, Bradley Manning, in 2010 to crack a password. It does not allege that they were successful or that it helped Assange gain access to documents from Manning. The indictment as written is not about the act of publishing the hundreds of thousands of documents on U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq that Manning leaked. Instead, it focuses narrowly on a computer crime law.

Many fearing First Amendment and freedom of the press threats were relieved that Assange was not charged under the Espionage Act, which prohibits the distribution of “national defense information.” But my next guest James Goodale says the indictment is a “snare and a delusion.” Goodale notes that while Assange wasn’t charged under the Espionage Act, the U.S. government has alleged conspiracy under that act.

Goodale has some experience in this arena. In 1971, the Nixon administration tried to block the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers and they use the same legal code of the Espionage Act detailed in the indictment against Assange. Goodale was the lead lawyer for the New York Times in that case. He wrote a book about it called “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers.” James Goodale is currently an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School.

I spoke to James Goodale about the implications for press freedom and the First Amendment that the whole Julian Assange case represents. One important note, during this interview Chelsea Manning’s case is discussed in both a historical and current context. She is at present, in jail for refusing to testify in a grand jury proceeding about Assange and Wikileaks and she’s been locked up since March 8th. At times during this interview, our guest uses incorrect pronouns for Chelsea Manning. On a personal note, I want to say that it’s important that we all strive to affirm the existence of trans people and that includes using appropriate pronouns. Here is my conversation with James Goodale.

JS: James, thanks for being with us.

JG: You’re entirely welcome.

JS: What is the U.S. currently alleging criminally about Julian Assange?

JG: Simple answer is they are saying please believe us, everybody — and I don’t — that Assange is just involved in a simple conspiracy in which he agreed with Manning to hack United States information. It is not asserting that he urged Manning to open up channels of classified information which then were delivered to Assange for publication. That never happened because this conspiracy never happened. In fact, what happened apparently is he asked Manning or Manning asked him to use a password which Manning would use to cover his tracks, but never used it to gather information as far as we know.

JS: The way that it’s being discussed in some quarters of this country is that Assange helped facilitate the hack of now it’s hundreds of thousands of classified or confidential U.S. documents and that Assange essentially conspired with then, Bradley Manning, now, Chelsea Manning to steal these secrets. If Assange had said something to the effect of “Here’s some malware that you can use and if you spread it around, it’s going to open these things. You can take them then to give to me,” that would have crossed a line journalistically, yes?

JG: That would cross the line but you did say that it is being discussed as a hack that resulted in the release of thousands, thousands of documents. That’s not true. That’s not what the government’s alleging, although the government wants you to believe that.

JS: This is my point. This is part of how this is being discussed in the broader public in part because of the political questions around Wikileaks, Trump/Russia. The whole thing is getting mixed together. And now, there’s a conflation, public conflation of the facts that’s occurring here. And that’s part of why I wanted to talk to you.

JG: I couldn’t agree more there’s a public conflation and I think this just delights the Justice Department with which this indictment was used as a PR device so that the public can say exactly what you’re saying, that the two of them hacked together and if they hacked together, what are we talking about Assange here for?

JS: Now, Chelsea Manning, of course, is incarcerated right now because of her refusal to testify in a grand jury proceeding. I assume you’re familiar with that situation.

JG: Yeah, I know and we ought to ask ourselves — Chelsea Manning before the indictment came out, was asked by the government to testify against Assange. So, he wouldn’t. So he’s in jail, but we might ask ourselves: What do you think you’re supposed to say? He was supposed to say, “Yeah, I hacked into all this stuff with Assange” because they need the extra evidence, which tells me a little bit that their case, there’s something funny about their case.

JS: Is it justifiable under the law to keep Chelsea Manning incarcerated because of the refusal to testify in the grand jury proceeding?

JG: Well, I would like to give you a finite legal opinion. My legal training tells me absolutely not. You can’t force somebody to talk under oath if he doesn’t want to.

JS: You and I have discussed now the technical charge that Assange is facing from the U.S. but it seems pretty likely, if not certain, that if Assange is extradited, a lot more charges could potentially be piled on him. How do you see that question right now? The strategy the U.S. is using?

JG: So, I’ve been thinking about this question for almost half a century because that question was involved in the Pentagon Papers. The question is can you criminally indict someone who receives classified information? The government has been trying to do that for years under the Espionage Act. Doesn’t sound like espionage to me. But that’s the espionage question. The espionage question immediately raises First Amendment because the Espionage Act should apply to espionage not reportage. Now, what the government has done, it’s quite confusing, in a way. The government has said “Hey, listen, he hacked into a password…Well, you can’t do that.” But when you read the indictment, there’s all sorts of language, which says that in so doing, he violated the Espionage Act.

JS: You’re, of course, very familiar with the Espionage Act specifically section 793(e). In 1971, the government used it to try to block the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Richard Nixon [on tape]: Well, look, as far as the Times is concerned, hell, they’re our enemies. I think we just ought to do it. And anyway, Henry, tell them what you just heard from Rostow.

Henry Kissinger [on tape]: Rostow called on behalf of Johnson and he said that it is Johnson’s strong view that this is an attack on the whole integrity of government that if whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore. And he said if the president defends the integrity, any action we take he will back publicly.

John Mitchell [on tape]: Well, I think that we should take this and do some undercover investigation and then open it up after your McGovern-Hatfield. We’ve got some information we’ve developed this to where these copies are and who they’re likely to have leaked them and the prime suspect according to your friend, Rostow, you’re quoting as a gentleman by the name of Ellsberg who is a left winger that’s now with the RAND Corporation who also have a set of these documents.

JS: At that time, and correct me if I’m wrong, you were vice president and general counsel of the New York Times.

JG: Yes.

JS: How did the government try to stop the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers?

JG: Let me just say first as a personal note, I am the first person who ever looked at 793 in the context of publishing because it sat out there, no one never thought it applied anything to espionage. It’s part of the Espionage Act. When I prepared myself for the government to come in, which I did a pre-publication review, I came across 793(e) and I said, well, that can’t possibly apply. It’s vague, so forth and so on. The government didn’t agree. It came in and said to the court we want to enjoin the New York Times under 793(e).

JS: Explain to people what 793(e) states.

JG: 793 — If I can remember what it says. It says, 793 says if you communicate information relating to national defense, you can be charged as a spy. My voice goes up because the New York Times a spy? But anyway, that’s what 793 is all about.

JS: And so the government’s position at the time on the Pentagon Papers was what?

JG: (e) was being violated by the New York Times publication of the Pentagon papers. Your honor, stop them. His honor, stopped us. He then wrote a decision three days later: Espionage Act doesn’t apply to publishing. And the government never talked about the Espionage Act again.

JS: When did it resurface then, this argument?

JG: What happened thereafter was the government knew it had something that was important and useful to it with respect to the leaks of classified information. So, gradually they use it to get leakers. And when Obama came in, they used it a lot.

Jake Tapper: The Obama Administration has used the Espionage Act to go after more leakers and whistleblowers than all previous presidential administrations combined.

JG: Perhaps as many as five times. And with the present administration, the use of it has gone to about four times for leaking. You know, no one ever thought it applied to leaking so the courts have made it apply to leaking. I would argue by conservative activist judges.

JS: This is weaponizing part of the law for an intent that clearly was not born in the original language of the act.

JG: I think that’s absolutely right. And when Clinton was in office, Clinton had brought on his desk a bill passed by Congress, which would fix that problem. The problem being 793(e) doesn’t apply, really. We all know it doesn’t. Here’s a law President Clinton that does apply, he vetoed it. So, we have 793 being used by conservative judges to get leakers who everyone knew didn’t fit there or otherwise Congress would never have passed a law to try to fix it.

JS: What are the the top-level real stakes here though if they go after Assange? Right now, yeah, they’re saying oh, it’s for this hacking assistance etcetera. But if they you know, we know what this is about. This is about going after this guy who published all these secrets.

JG: There’s two ways to answer that question. Let’s suppose they have a lot of evidence that he got Manning to hack a password and that’s all that’s involved in the case. You could say if that’s all involved in the case, there are no stakes. It’s still dealing with the gathering [of]  information. So, even if you think it’s just a hacking case, it will be a precedent for bringing criminal charges against those who gather information most of whom are reporters. Secondly, it criminalizes the techniques that reporters use today to get that information because it’s all part of the same megillah, as they say here in New York. They have criminalized the use of dropboxes, criminalized the use of encryption with respect to news gathering. So, that’s bad and then, whatever comes out of the case has got to involve the Espionage Act because he’s charged in a sense in connection with violating the Espionage Act. So, inevitably it seems to me there are lots of First Amendment issues involved and I don’t think the government can narrow it as I sort of said in my first example to something that doesn’t involve all the above.

JS: One of the aspects of this whole saga that I find most disturbing is that both in the case of Bradley Manning being arrested and then prosecuted in this military court, sentenced to 30 years in prison — ended up doing seven of them —  is that many of the news organizations that placed these stories on their front pages including the New York Times, The Guardian and others really failed to adequately report on the court martial — the trial of Chelsea Manning — and even now, are refusing to apparently stand up and say well, wait a minute if you’re going to prosecute Assange for all of this — We all benefited from it. We reported these stories. We sold our papers with these stories. We were happy to be in partnership with Wikileaks. But it just seems to me that they’ve all kind of like turn their backs and said, oh no, we’re not involved with this at all, but they were involved with it.

JG: Yeah, they were involved in it —

JS: Including officially involved in the case of the New York Times, Guardian, Der Spiegel and others —

JG: We go backward talking about something that happened 10 years ago. It was publication by Der Spiegel, Guardian, Le Monde and the New York Times. It was a great whistleblowing story.

CNN: According to the London newspaper, The Guardian, it reveals these cables including a grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, alleged links between the Russian government and organized crime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s activities under the Obama administration, as well as thousands of files from the George Bush presidency.

JG: The establishment press is not focused on the fact that the government has been trying for 50 years to criminalize the news gathering process by saying the person who receives classified information is in the same spot as the person who delivers it and there’s a conspiracy between the two of them.

JS: From a perspective that cares about precedence being set or this multi-decade war that you’re talking about to criminalize the reporting process, how do you think powerful establishment news organizations, particularly those that did work on this story with Wikileaks and Assange, how should they be responding?

JG: They should be responding the way I’ve been responding that even best case, this is a narrow little case of password hacking, involves so much news gathering activities that they should be saying it’s going to be a precedent no matter how good the government’s case is. They should know that in the Pentagon Papers case, after the decision in the Supreme Court, there was a grand jury put into place for the purpose of convicting Neil Sheehan exactly for the same generic facts for which Assange has been indicted. They should know that the Obama administration looked at it, from a government point of view and said this is a big First Amendment issue. The government did bring effectively a case on conspiracy against James Rosen who was the Fox News reporter who got a gentleman in the State Department, Defense Department to leak to him.

CBS: Fox News reporter James Rosen vowed Wednesday night to protect his source for a scoop he got back in 2009 reporting then that North Korea would respond to sanctions with more nuclear tests. But the information was classified and the FBI launched an investigation to uncover Rosen’s source that quickly focused on Rosen himself. The level of government surveillance over a reporter was unprecedented. Agents monitored Rosen’s movements in and out of the State Department. They searched his personal emails and combed through his cell phone records.

JG: When they open up an affidavit, which was used to get the emails of this gentleman, there it was, a whole big conspiracy case against Rosen. Hey, I’ve been following this for 50 years. Hey, Rosen, we got Neil Sheehan and now we got Assange. And it’s all generically, the same thing. Now, Assange has been on a public relations basis put off as a hacker but doesn’t take away the generic part of the problem. Very hard to tell journalists that the conspiracy theory is our big threat to the First Amendment and we have the conspiracy theory involved in this case just as I predicted.

JS: What are the steps that are going to follow from this? What are the battles that you see coming between Assange and the U.S. government?

JG: When the extradition process, which is the process in the U.K. in which a judge decides whether he’s going to send Assange over here or not, is going to tell us a lot. The government — that’s to say the United States government — has to deal with the issue as to whether the extradition is a political act or not. And we’ll see how that discussion goes. OK, so there’s two ways to look at it. One, it’s going to be a narrow, narrow thing, easy to get back. Two, it’s going to be more difficult because the lawyers for Assange want to appeal it to international courts. Some people said it might take five years for that battle to be resolved. If in fact, it is resolved at some point time when it comes back here, there is the possibility under the extradition treaty, that the government using the same facts can make more particular the Espionage Act part of the charge. The other thing that the Justice Department has been saying is they plan to sue Assange again or Wikileaks again. And one argument is well, they better do it pretty quickly because the hearing may come up as quickly as May 3rd. So, those are the sort of things that I see in my murky crystal ball.

JS: If you were officially representing Assange or Wikileaks, how would you handle the defense in this? What would the case be that you would make?

JG: I would try to open up the extradition hearing as much as I could to say what’s involved here is a political act and extradition treaties have exceptions for political acts because the idea is you don’t want to penalize someone for their political views. The second thing I would do is try to blow apart their case that they think that it only is simply hacking a password. I’ve been following this case, maybe not as closely Assange’s lawyer, but pretty closely — where the hell did this come from? You know, none of us who have been following it thought there was any hacking involved. So, boy the government better be able to prove that and I think they’re going to have a hard time proving it. So I would put a lot of effort trying to blow that part of their case apart.

JS: The threat to journalism right now posed by this particular administration, you mentioned earlier President Obama on numerous occasions, his administration used the Espionage Act. In fact, more times than his predecessors combined in terms of using it against whistleblowers, but Trump we know has suggested that he believes journalists should be arrested.

DJT [at rally]: The media bosses, bad people.

[Crowd boos.]

DJT: The crooked journalists.

JS: After the Mueller report came out, Trump views all this as illegal leaks. It’s clear that he wants to be able to or wants to order people to arrest journalists in some circumstances. How dangerous is this moment in your view versus other moments in U.S. history when it comes to press freedom?

JG: I think this is a very dangerous moment because even taking the best case for the government, it still amounts to a prosecution of someone who is gathering information like a journalist and if he hacked and that’s all he did, well still it’s a criminal suit for gathering the information. And once that gets on the books, even from the best-case point of view from the government, it’s there sitting as a precedent. And what you do is you create an Official Secrets Act because you’re now getting the leakers under 793(e), you’ll then be able to get leakees. And what’s left? Publishers. Well, you got two thirds of the triangle on Official Secrets Act which will never pass Congress, will never pass a veto but the judges are just throwing it in. So I think it’s a very dangerous moment.

JS: James Goodale, thanks very much for being with us.

JG: You’re entirely welcome.

JS: James Goodale is an adjunct professor of law at Fordham Law School. His 2013 book “Fighting for the Press” details the New York Times battle against the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers as well as the threats to freedom of the press that remain today. He was the lead lawyer for the New York Times during that case.

[Music interlude.]

Reporter Dahr Jamail Tells a Story From His New Book “The End of Ice”

JS: There is a life or death conversation happening around our ongoing climate crisis globally. We’ve seen teenage activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden launch a worldwide climate strike. More recently, we saw over 1,000 activists with Extinction Rebellion arrested in London, New York, and more cities as they demanded government take seriously the threat of extinction and declare a climate emergency. And we have first term Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fighting for a progressive program now known as the Green New Deal.

Alexandria Ocasion-Cortez: This is about our lives. This is about American lives and it shouldn’t not be partisan. Science should not be partisan. We are facing a national crisis.

JS: Right now, we have a full-blown climate change-denier in the White House, as headline after headline brings more urgent reports of climate catastrophe.

Amy Goodman: In Mozambique, at least five people were killed and thousands more fear trapped after the second major cyclone hit southeastern Africa within weeks —

Newscaster: By the end of the century, extreme temperature changes could cause more than 9,000 additional premature deaths every year.

Amy Goodman: Forty percent of insect species are in decline and could go extinct in the next few decades.

JS: The threat of all of this is deeply troubling. It’s panic-inducing. We’ve been left to feel helpless and grief-stricken over this all-encompassing environmental, economic, and you could say, spiritual problem. A new book by veteran reporter Dahr Jamail takes on the full weight of all of this. He has reported from the frontlines of the war in Iraq, including from inside Fallujah during the first U.S. siege there, and now he’s covering the frontlines of climate change. Dahr’s new book, “The End of Ice” is incredibly rich in both reporting and story-telling and we are going to hear some of that now. The story starts during a hiking trip on Earth Day in 2003. Here is Dahr Jamail.

Dahr Jamail: Less than a year before I went into Iraq to begin reporting on the U.S.-led occupation, I was very busy in Alaska spending time in the mountains doing mountain trips and volunteer rescue efforts with the park service on Denali— the highest peak in North America. And before that, I spent my entire summer climbing before becoming a journalist. I did a trip into the Chugach mountain range outside of Anchorage and things got interesting.

[Music plays.]

Nothing but blackness. I look at the wall of blue ice directly in front of me, take a deep breath and peer up into the tiny hole into which I’d fallen when I’d punch through the snow bridge spanning the crevasse. “You get to look down one more time, then that’s it,” I tell myself out loud. There’s only the black void yawning beneath me swallowing everything, even sound.

My stomach clenches. I remind myself to breathe. Time passes. The onset of hypothermia means I can’t control my body from periodically shaking. To ignore my fear of dying, I gaze meditatively at the ice a few feet in front of me as I dangle. The miniature air pockets found in the wider ice near the top of the glacier have long since been compressed producing the mesmerizing beauty of centuries-old turquoise ice. Slightly deeper into the crevasse is ice that has been there since long before the Neanderthals. Giving my full attention to the ice immediately within my vision, I focus on how the gently refracting light from above seems to penetrate and reflect off the perfectly smooth wall.

Staring into it, the blue seems infinite. Despite the danger of my situation, the glacier’s beauty calms me. Delicate snowflakes in their infinite possibilities of form land on mountainous terrain. Under its own weight, the snow is compressed into glaciers that scour and shape the face of the earth. Countless millions of tons of weight aided by the force of gravity push and pull these frozen rivers downhill carving out cirques and troughs from uplifted geologic plates and sculpting the majestic heights of mountains that I have been drawn to since I was young. Laboriously, my teammates begin to haul me up inches at a time out of what nearly became my tomb.

I continue to focus on the delicately shifting shades of blue in the ice as I draw closer to the surface, mesmerized by its raw beauty. My teammates pull me up to the lip of the crevasse. I repeatedly plunge the pick of my axe into the snow and haul myself out, never before as grateful for being on top of a glacier. I stand and gaze up at a mountain to the west, behind which the sun has just set. Snow plumes stream off one of its ridges turned into ready red ribbons by the setting sun. Snowflakes flicker as they float into space. Utterly overwhelmed by being alive and surrounded by the beauty of the mountain world, I hug each of my three climbing partners. Now safe, it sinks in just how close to death I’ve been.

That was Earth Day 2003. In hindsight, I believe the emotion I felt then stemmed in part from something else. A deeper consciousness that the ice that I had seen which had existed for eons was vanishing.

Each time another scientific study is released showing yet another acceleration of the loss of ice atop the Arctic Ocean or sea-level rise projections are stepped up yet again or news of another species that has gone extinct is announced, my heart breaks for what we have done and are doing to the planet.

I grieve yet this ongoing process has become more like peeling back the layers of an onion. There is always more work to do as the crisis we have created for ourselves continues to unfold and somewhere along the line, I surrendered my attachment to any result that might stem from my work.

A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest most mundane things. My acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself. The price of this opening is the repeated embracing of my own grief. Grief is something I move through, a territory on the other side. This means falling in love with the Earth in a way I never thought possible. It also means opening to the innate intelligence of the heart.

I am grieving and yet I have never felt more alive. I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.

Writing this book is my attempt to bear witness to what we have done to the earth. I want to make my own amends to the earth in the precious time we have left, however long that might be. I find my deepest conviction and connection to the earth by communing with the mountains. I moved to Colorado and lived among them when I was in my early 20s, and it was there I began to deepen my relationship with them and began to really listen to them. I would hike out and just sit among the peaks watching them for hours and write about them in my journal. Today, I know in my bones my job is to learn to listen to them even more deeply and share what they are telling us with those who are also listening. While Western colonialist culture believes in rights, indigenous cultures teach of obligations that we are born into, obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the earth itself. When I orient myself around the question “What are my obligations?”, the deeper question immediately arises “From this moment on knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?”

JS: That was reporter Dahr Jamail. His new book is called, “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption.” And I really encourage people to pick up a copy. Dahr spoke with our associate producer Elise Swain. She also talked to him in depth about his book “The End of Ice” for an article that is forthcoming at Be on the lookout for that piece.

And special thanks to DJ Spooky for some of the music that we just heard. DJ Spooky, on top of being an incredible composer, is a climate activist who traveled to Antarctica where he produced the album “OF WATER AND ICE.” It’s available online for free.

And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted. If you like what we do, support our show by going to to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is associate producer and graphic designer. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Betsy Reed is Editor in Chief. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program was done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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