John and the Giant Impeachment

Reporter Spencer Ackerman and writer Sarah Lazare are this week’s guests.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Images: Getty Images (2)

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Former national security adviser John Bolton has never had more people interested in listening to him in his life. This week on Intercepted: Donald Trump’s legal team, including Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, argue that the president cannot be impeached for abusing his power. As the battle over Bolton testifying before the Senate intensifies, The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman discusses the long-term impact of the trial on extreme executive power. He also describes his report that Saudi Arabia plotted to kidnap a critic of the regime on U.S. soil and the Cold War rhetoric deployed by the House managers. While Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are often portrayed in the media as being kindred political souls with identical and similar positions, there are some important differences, particularly on foreign policy. Sarah Lazare, a writer at In These Times, discusses Warren’s hawkish side, her team of advisers, and her evolving position on Israel.

Alan Dershowitz: Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense.

Jay Sekulow: You cannot impeach a president on an unsourced manuscript that maybe some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says. 

Ted Cruz: Listen, I don’t know what John Bolton’s book says or doesn’t say. 

Adam Schiff: Are we really going to require the country to wait until his book comes out to find out information that senators could have used?

Mitt Romney: I’d like to hear from John Bolton.

Chuck Schumer: President Trump and Ambassador Bolton said diametrically opposed things. Only one of them is willing to testify under oath. Who do you believe?

Robert Redford as Bob Woodward: I wouldn’t quote you even as an anonymous source. I mean, you’d be on deep background. Can you tell me what you know?

John Bolton: We are the great satan, lord of the underworld, master of the raging inferno.

RR: Listen, I’m tired of your chicken-shit games. I don’t want hints. I need to know what you know.

JB: If you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes there will indeed be hell to pay. The worst in American history. 

Donald J. Trump: I have Article Two, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president, whatever I want as president. 

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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

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JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 114 of Intercepted. 

Ken Starr: Impeachment is hell. Or at least, presidential impeachment is hell.

JS: Throughout modern U.S. history, there’s been a rather insidious plot involving both Democratic and Republican administrations to expand the powers of the executive branch. It’s based on a view of government and separation of powers inspired by the theory of the unitary executive, the notion that in my reading, ultimately views the executive branch as a sort of dictatorship or monarchy when it comes to what is loosely called national security policy.

People like Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were radical executive power extremists. So too is the current Attorney General William Barr. Dick Cheney believed that Iran-Contra was not a scandal but actually a model for how national security policy should function. Congress in this view, is just a funding mechanism. It has no business getting involved with the details, much less exerting oversight. 

Dick Cheney: The Tower Commission made a number of recommendations, series of findings, but also, I think in one of its most significant sections, argued rather persuasively, in my opinion against the notion that somehow these events require us now to legislate new restrictions on presidential power and authority.

JS: When Barack Obama campaigned for president, he openly telegraphed that he wanted to alter this path. He wanted to be the most transparent administration in history. 

Barack Obama: The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all. And that’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president of the United States of America.

JS: But from Obama’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for CIA torture, to his expansion of drone strikes and dirty wars, to his use of secret kill lists and a dubious parallel justice system — that by the way, regularly sentenced people to death without charge or trial, including U.S. citizens — Obama actually expanded executive power. And he did it with widespread support from liberals, something that Dick Cheney must have been privately pretty psyched about even as he pretended to despise Obama.

And then we get to Trump. There is a temptation to portray Trump’s activities as simply Iran-Contra for really, really dumb people, and there certainly are many examples to offer up to support this line of thinking. But what I want to focus on today is the long-term impact of what Donald Trump’s lawyers are arguing in his Senate trial and also the impact of the case that the Democrats have made against him. 

Alan Dershowitz: For the Senate to remove a duly elected president on vague non-constitutional grounds, such as abuse of power, obstruction of Congress would create a dangerous precedent.

JS: What Alan Dershowitz did in his primetime address on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday night was to advocate for one of the most dangerous and far-reaching justifications for the abuse of power by a president that has ever been offered in this country’s history. In fact, at the heart of Dershowitz’s theory was the idea that you cannot remove a president for abuse of power, you cannot remove a president for obstructing the lawful rights of Congress even if we all agree that the president did those things. Dershowitz and Ken Starr both invoked Iran-Contra apparently to suggest that it was the right decision not to attempt to remove Reagan for abuse of power or even that there were grounds to do so. The proper remedy in the eyes of Trump’s lawyers for these crimes, is to just verbally attack the president on the campaign trail. Case closed.

AD: That’s how abuse of power should be used, as campaign rhetoric. It should be in statements issued by one political party against the other. That’s the nature of the term. Abuse of power is a political weapon. And it should be leveled against political opponents. Let the public decide.

JS: I have a lot of issues with how the Democrats have chosen to go after Trump in this impeachment effort, especially the Cold War redux that Adam Schiff is subjecting all of us to with his warnings that the Russians are a-coming so we better fight them over there first. 

Adam Schiff: Moreover, as one witness put it during our impeachment inquiry, the United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.

JS: At the same time that this throwback to the Cold War is happening, there is an abundance of evidence that what Trump did regarding Ukraine, involving the Bidens, that it is an abuse of power. It’s an abuse of power of the office of the presidency by weaponizing your official position as president to attack political opponents domestically by using a bribed foreign government as a weapon. I also think that it is undeniable that Hunter Biden improperly benefitted from his father’s position as vice president and this is a scandal that unfortunately is more or less business as usual in U.S. politics.

At the same time, if what former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his forthcoming book about his time in the White House, if it’s being accurately reported by The New York Times, then we absolutely need to hear from John Bolton.

Ari Shapiro [on NPR]: A potential bombshell —

Poppy Harlow [on CNN]: The New York Times tonight reporting that according to an unpublished draft manuscript —

Mika Brzezinski [on MSNBC]: From former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s upcoming book —

Juan Williams [on Fox News]: Alleges that President Trump tied aid to Ukraine to the investigation into the Bidens.

JS: By the way, I never thought I would say, “I wonder what John Bolton says about literally anything,” but here we are. We should hear it, particularly if he has evidence of Trump using the office of the presidency to wage domestic political battles or to prop up dictators. And by the way, we should also be looking at what Attorney General Barr knew, what he said and to whom he said it and when he said it.

Spencer Ackerman on Impeachment, Executive Power, and His Recent Reporting

To cut through all of this and look at how this impacts the power of the Executive Branch — I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor — so, I’m joined now by Spencer Ackerman. He’s a senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast. He is former U.S. national security editor at the Guardian U.S., he was also part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team reporting on Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations.

Spencer Ackerman, welcome back to Intercepted. 

Spencer Ackerman: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

JS: Let’s start with what’s going on with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump and what’s your assessment of what we’ve seen in terms of executive power and the thrust of the argument that the Trump lawyers including Dershowitz are making?

SA: Very conspicuous in Dershowitz’s argument is the conflation between what a president does in his official capacity and what a president does as a private goal. And that distinction is, I think, central for assessing what brought Trump to the point of impeachment. Trump was not conditioning aid to Ukraine that Congress had already appropriated for the point of some other aspect of what American policy needed to accomplish, right. He’s conditioning aid to Ukraine on private goals on things that help him in a purely domestic political context, things that I think we can pretty easily distinguish, at least intellectually from the presidency, from official acts. And that’s really where Dershowitz’s argument, in my opinion, lurches toward complete absurdity. What limited circumstances must exist in order to impeach any president ever. There’s really nothing between the person inhabiting the office and anything that might benefit that person, particularly and the office itself. 

JS: I think that one of the things that’s bothered me about the Democrats’ narrow argument in this impeachment process, is the way that particularly Adam Schiff is using this Cold War imagery and argument that they’re making Ukraine’s political position in the world vis-à-vis Russia, and the necessity for them to have these lethal weapons so central to it when it’s irrelevant. What is relevant here is what you were just mentioning before, did Trump engage in an attempt to force a foreign power as a condition of receiving their already authorized aid to participate in a smear or attack campaign against one of the president’s political rivals? For the life of me, I don’t understand why the Democrats want to make this Cold War politicking about Trump was holding up this lethal aid that poor little Ukraine needed. It’s irrelevant to the crime they’re alleging.

SA: No, it’s only relevant if you view foreign policy as some kind of Wagnerian struggle. One of the things that Schiff said that I think didn’t get remotely the attention that it deserved in his opening argument last week was that —

AS: America has an abiding interest in stemming Russian expansionism and resisting any nations efforts to remake the map of Europe by dint of military force even as we have tens of thousands of troops stationed there. Moreover, as one witness put it during our impeachment inquiry, the United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.

SA: Russia is not going to invade the United States. They even said during Vietnam, we’re fighting in Saigon so we don’t have to fight in San Francisco. We certainly heard it a lot during the war on terror and particularly the Iraq war. And I think there are lots of people who recognize the constitutional precipice that Trump and this bribery scheme pose, who want nothing to do with the idea of Russia as an eternal American enemy, let alone a conflict with Russia that can spiral out of control, even if it just remains a geopolitical struggle.

JS: Yeah, I mean, it seems like just such an own goal to have doubled and tripled down on this notion that we’re in a new Cold War, rather than just looking at the facts are bad enough as they can be proven of what this guy is doing. And I really think the Democrats have just completely blown their opportunity to show a spine in part because they’ve relied on the crutch of new Cold War politics and rhetoric.

SA: Partisan commitment is a hell of a drug. And it seems not long from now the United States will need to renegotiate a nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. If you want to have any hope of stopping an accidental nuclear detonation, you have to negotiate with Russia. You don’t have to like Russia. You don’t have to acclimate to Russian geopolitics. But what you have to do is get your diplomats across the table from one another and come up with a way of limiting both deployed and non-deployed nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s not dangerous, just from the fact that, you know, you saw Russian intrusion in an American election in 2016 and who knows what’s going to happen going forward? But, you know, if there is an existential danger from Russia, it’s an arms control danger, and it has to be dealt with diplomatically because there’s no other way of doing it, and rhetoric that I think, often without really meaning or thinking that they have meant it that the Democratic Party has adopted, that goal gets set back and that’s to no one’s benefit.

JS: Let’s talk about what some of what has been reported in this manuscript from John Bolton. According to The New York Times reporting in the manuscript, Bolton writes about his conversations with Attorney General William Barr, where Barr was worried that Trump in his relationships with Xi Jinping of China, of Turkish President Erdogan, he worried that because there were ongoing Justice Department investigations, it seemed that Trump was actively undermining them. Barr’s saying he was, “worried that Trump had created the appearance that he had undue influence over what would typically be independent inquiries from the Justice Department.”

SA: So, that seems to me from everything we know about Bill Barr, pure reputational protection, right? It seems that Trump is worried that the Justice Department inspector general (IG) didn’t go as far as he would have wanted. You know, obviously the IG in the Justice Department criticized the FBI but also said that the Russia investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, into Trump and Russia in 2016 was lawfully predicated. That it wouldn’t have gone as far as what’s necessary to appease Trump. Barr is surely very cognizant that the reason why he has the attorney general-ship in the first place is because Trump grew furious at of all people, Jeff Sessions for not being sufficiently toadyish to Trump. And now, Barr has John Durham who I’m sure you and I remember as the person who let CIA torture off the hook.

JS: The special prosecutor who was investigating the CIA torture program and basically whitewashed the whole thing and covered it up.

SA: That’s correct and also framed it in such a way that none of the architects of the torture program were ever going to face any scrutiny. It was only the people who as disgusting as it is, implemented that torture. Now, Durham on behalf of Barr is investigating the intelligence agencies for their investigation of Trump and that is also a precipice that we haven’t you know, really seen before. And it sounded from what Bolton’s writing about Barr that Barr is concerned that Durham is not going to deliver, I guess investigation number three into this. The kind of vindication that Trump wants to see in the extirpation of his perceived enemies within the intelligence agencies. 

JS: Part of this I think is kind of good for Hunter Biden because my read on it, I’m not in the weeds on the Burisma-Hunter Biden stuff, but it reeks of corruption to me. It reeks of making a lot of money based on who your father is, at a time when your father is in charge, largely speaking of the policy on that country, and he’s the Vice President of the United States. And because Trump is such a pathological liar, there’s not much discussion among normal intelligent people who are not Trump sycophants about what actually this scandal was about. Because I think Hunter Biden should be investigated not by Barr, not by the Trump administration, by people who actually are interested in the facts. This looks to me like garden variety cashing in on daddy’s name.

SA: I mean, one of the things that’s been so astonishing and revealing I think about the Trump era is the degree to which you get institutional Washington, distinguishing Trump’s very baroque corruption from the kind of everyday corruption that we experience. My favorite example of this is Gordon Sondland being an ambassador to anything because he gives a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. I don’t really see how there’s any kind of expertise given for why Hunter Biden should be on the board of a foreign natural gas concern. The only reason that exists is for the selling of influence. There’s just really no defending this practice. And as we see from authoritarians throughout history, and certainly in this contemporary moment, the spread of institutional corruption, the existence of it and the manipulation of it is the petri dish in which they grow. Like if none of this stuff had happened, if the United States hadn’t been suffering from this rot by degree for so long, there wouldn’t be a President Trump in the first place. There would be different circumstances certainly in which, you know, Trump could exploit in order to achieve power. I’m writing a book about one of them. But you know, all of these things that have made the United States the province of the rich and powerful, you know, those were just sort of things that were waiting for a Trump-like figure to exploit in order to pole vault into power.

JS: You published a piece at The Daily Beast on January 23. I just want to share with people the headline “Saudis tried to kidnap me on U.S. soil, regime critic says.” This is, if people have not read this, do that right now. What on earth is this story about? That Saudi Arabia essentially plotted its own extraordinary rendition inside the borders of the United States?

SA: Yes. A Saudi student named Abdulrahman Almutairi was studying at the University of San Diego in 2018 and he was like a lot of people also focused on you know, building up his social media brand. He was getting an increasingly large following. He was a huge fan of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. He considered, as we call him MBS, a reformer, someone who was finally in an overdue sense going to drag Saudi Arabia from what he saw as backwardness. Then in early October of 2018, as the CIA has assessed MBS sent agents to brutally murder and dismember the journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. At first Almutairi did not believe that his hero MBS would have done something like this, but then, you know, the evidence, as reported just became overwhelming. 

And finally he starts speaking out on his Snapchat and on his Twitter, he denounced MBS and this all came from a place of you know, I am convinced, genuine pain. And then what happened is Almutairi started getting relentless death threats, some of them would feature severed heads, some of them would feature, you know, headless bodies. It was real disturbing stuff. This culminated, he found out after the fact from an FBI agent, after he had called the police ultimately about a threat he had heard from someone he describes only as a source within Saudi Arabia, that the Saudis were coming to bring him back and that being in the United States was not a guarantee of his safety. He finds out after the fact that a plane to LAX carried both his father who he believes would never of his own free will gone to California to bring his son home, particularly at a time like this and a Saudi man he does not know and could not identify when shown a picture who he believes — and it’s worth stating you can’t, he’s not in any position to prove this; I’m not in any position to prove this — was an agent of the Saudi state. 

And what happened was, the FBI knew about this ahead of time, and intercepted them in the Los Angeles International Airport and put them on another plane going back. He firmly believes and this I think, from what we’ve seen with Khashoggi is plausible, that if they had succeeded in bringing him back to Saudi Arabia, he would have been killed. It’s a really disturbing story. And it says a lot about something that you’ve written about very well, the increased intimacy of — now personal intimacy — between the Trump administration and this new faction led by MBS of the Saudi royal family feeling so comfortable that they would face no reprisals from the United States of doing something that in U.S.-Saudi history is unprecedented, trying to get a regime critic on American soil out of the country for something bad.

JS: I wanted to ask you about a report from last week that the retired Salvadoran general Juan Rafael Bustillo confirmed for the first time that the Salvadoran Armed Forces carried out the 1981 massacre at El Mozote. The reporter Ray Bonner, and others shed light on this massacre of over 1,000 people but that work on exposing the slaughter was condemned by Reagan administration officials. My colleague Jon Schwartz said, “In 1993, when a United Nations truth commission found that 95 percent of the acts of violence that had taken place in El Salvador since 1980 had been committed by Abrams’s friends in the Salvadoran government, he called what he and his colleagues in the Reagan administration had done a ‘fabulous achievement.” There are some lessons to be learned from this story looking at the times in which we live, Spencer.

SA: Certainly, among them, impunity is wildfire. Impunity never stays in one place. One of the reasons impunity occurs, we’ve seen this throughout the war on terror certainly, is that powerful people see an overall necessary objective that an atrocity can be siloed from or explained away in the service of. And it never stays that way. All we see is that the people who commit these sorts of atrocities and the people who apologize for them, if it is in the service of a powerful U.S. interest can continue on in public life unimpeded. A second lesson that we should also apply is that when journalists like Ray Bonner, who go to the scenes of these kinds of crimes, when they report what happened, believe them. The inherent value of journalism is about uncovering and exposing things like this, unspeakable atrocities of men, women and children being slaughtered by U.S.-trained militias. And we see right now the main apologist for this atrocity 40 years ago is now the special envoy to Venezuela, who takes umbrage at Ilhan Omar for pointing out his role 40 years ago —

JS: You’re talking about Elliott Abrams.

SA: Elliott Abrams, of course.

Ilhan Omar: On February 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador. In that hearing you dismissed as communist propaganda report about the massacre of El Mozote, in which more than 800 civilians, including children as young as two years old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops. You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement.” Yes or no? Do you still think so?

Elliott Abrams: From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election, to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.

SA: We ought to remember this, as we’ve seen, for the course of an 18-year and counting war, atrocity after atrocity. These things don’t stay in the past, unless something politically, legally, whatever stops impunity. They will continue, they will compound. That is one of the reasons why independent journalism is vital to any free society. And it’s not coincidentally why one of the first things that happens again and again and again throughout American history, not just at El Mozote, when these atrocities occur is for people with power to attack the journalists who present truthful accounts of them.

JS: I’m very excited to report that you are working on a book. The title as I understand it right now is “Reign of Terror.”

SA: “Reign of Terror,” yes. 

JS: Give people just a preview and when is it going to be out? 

SA: Thank you very much for asking. “Reign of Terror” is the story of how the War on Terror destabilized America politically. We tend to think of the War on Terror as something that happens over there, as something that happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, all of the places that a very good author once described as the world being a battlefield. But it’s not just that. It’s something that happens here in the United States. It’s something that created a political style that unleashed a constituency for increasing brutality and the erosion of the rule of law at home, and it’s something that forces that ought to have been opposed to that, on the center left and amongst American liberalism, coddled, accommodated and thought they could come to a modus vivendi with by establishing what I would call a cordon or a belt of law-like features around it. 

Instead what happened, as we have seen — and this is the story that the book is laboring to tell — those become pathways for atavistic forces, particularly white supremacy, to create a way in which a Trump-like figure was not just possible, but I will argue in this book inevitable. And that the longer the War on Terror persists, there will be more and worse Trumps. We should not believe for a moment that the War on Terror, a thing that by design is amorphous has reached its final form. And that’ll be out in spring 2021 by Viking.

JS: All right, looking forward to that. Spencer Ackerman, thanks again for being with us.

SA: Thanks so much for having me, Jeremy. 

JS: Spencer Ackerman is a senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast. He’s currently writing a book, “Reign of Terror.” Spencer’s on Twitter at @attackerman.

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Sarah Lazare Discusses Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Foreign Policy Positions

JS: Throughout the Democratic primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been hailed alongside Bernie Sanders as one of the most progressive candidates and the candidate with a plan for nearly everything. Much of the coverage during this primary campaign season sort of lumps Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren together and it can give you the sense that they are more or less on the same exact page when it comes to many policies, many ideas. Of course their campaigns are now doing everything they can to highlight distinctions, but that’s been the general thrust of the media narrative on these two candidates. But when it comes to foreign policy, there’s actually quite a bit of difference between these two. For one, Elizabeth Warren was not in the Congress for a long time, does not have a decades-long voting record. She was a Republican for many years, until 1996. But even though it’s nowhere near as long as Joe Biden’s or Bernie Sanders’ records — these guys have been in public office for much of their lives — Warren does actually have a legislative record and, as she’s prepared to run for president, she had to start staking out clear positions on a range of world issues.

Among Warren’s positions are some indisputably progressive ones. Last year, Senator Warren introduced a no-first-use of nuclear weapons bill and has made cutting the Pentagon budget a central piece of her foreign policy platform. She has advocated for taking $800 billion dollars of military funding over 10 years and allocating it to Medicare for all instead. And she has supported efforts to stop U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s scorched earth bombing of Yemen.

But she also has a hawkish side. Elizabeth Warren has supported sanctions against Venezuela, the attempted coup against President Nicolas Maduro. She’s championed the self-declared president of Venezuela Juan Guaido. And when it comes to Israel Warren has a record of reciting standard pro-Israel hawkish talking points, though there are some signs that her position has been shifting. She also has this idea about investing more money into making military bases zero-carbon and better for the environment without mentioning the notion of actually shutting these bases down for the good of the planet. Sort of like, let’s tinker with imperialism a bit to make it more green.

Anyway, last week on the show, we looked at the records of both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as it relates to 29 straight years of the U.S. bombing Iraq. And today we’re going to take a look at Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy record and who some of her advisers are. I’m joined now by Sarah Lazare. She’s a writer for In These Times magazine, and her work has also recently appeared in Jacobin and The Intercept. She co-edited the book, “About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.” 

Sarah Lazare, welcome to Intercepted. 

Sarah Lazare: Thanks so much for having me on.

JS: We discussed Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden last week and their Iraq War history. What differentiates Elizabeth Warren from Bernie Sanders on foreign policy?

SL: Today’s Democratic Party is really skewed so far to the right on war and militarism that it doesn’t take much to distinguish yourself from the pack. But I would argue that unfortunately, Elizabeth Warren really does not meet this low bar. While she’s certainly not the worst, she’s far from the best and there’s really no reason to think she’d be very different from an Obama administration, no reason to think that she would veer very far.

While Warren has voted for military de-escalation on some issues, including the war in Yemen, for example. She hasn’t in any way been a leader. And she has gone along with some of the most belligerent acts that have really occurred on her watch. She cheer-leaded Israel’s devastating 2014 war in Gaza.

Elizabeth Warren: America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world and a part of the world where there aren’t any liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.

SL: She’s vocalized her support for sanctions against Venezuela.

EW: Economic sanctions? Yeah, I support economic sanctions. But, now we’re going to start, we got to turn the dial some here. We have to offer humanitarian help at the same time.

SL: The summer of 2017, voted for a bill that bundles sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea together. Sanders did not vote for that bill. He was actually the only person who caucuses with the Democrats in both the House and the Senate to vote no on that bill. To be fair, he did say that he supports sanctions against Russia and North Korea and said the reason he voted no was because of the sanctions on Iran. 

So you know, another big difference, Warren backed the 2018 NDAA, the massive war budget, while Sanders didn’t. Warren is co-sponsoring pending Senate resolutions against, you know, unauthorized force on Venezuela and Iran, but with each of these bills, she signed on as a co-sponsor significantly later than Sanders did. And you know, for anyone who’s sort of been on the ground trying to agitate for peace measures, when someone signs on it’s really important, it’s really helpful to be someone who comes out early in support of something.

So, I don’t want to make it sound like Sanders was perfect. He supported sanctions against Iraq. He voted for the Afghanistan war, the latter of which he apologized for, or rather acknowledged that he was wrong. But there are areas where he has been willing to strongly challenge the status quo. He called for peace and diplomacy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War at a time that that was a really unpopular thing to do. He didn’t just oppose U.S. dirty wars in Latin America, he actively supported the Sandinistas. In 2016, he really started a trend by skipping the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] conference and then giving his own speech.

Bernie Sanders: Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence and terrorism. But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people.

SL: And I really want to emphasize that, you know, skipping the AIPAC conference and saying Palestinians deserve human rights should not be controversial. It should not be radical. That’s just basic human decency, but unfortunately, in our political system, that was really seen at the time as bucking the status quo. The other thing I want to say is that he’s been more of a leader on ending the Yemen war. And if you talk to activists who’ve been working on that, they’ll tell you that. I talked to Jehan Hakim, who’s a leader with the Yemeni Alliance Committee, and she told me she feels that Sanders has been much more of a leader.

JS: You’ve pointed out that Elizabeth Warren has been very close to AIPAC, the powerful right-wing pro-Israel lobbying entity. You cite Nathan Guttman pointing out in his 2016 Forward piece about how Warren “has attended the annual dinners hosted by the AIPAC Boston chapter and counts among her supporters some mainstream pro-Israel backers, including Steve Grossman, a former Massachusetts treasurer who was also president of AIPAC.”

And you point out that in 2016, in advance of the U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli settlements, and by the way, this was the U.N. Security Council resolution that Trump and Michael Flynn were supposedly making this deal with Israel to undermine Obama on, Warren signed an AIPAC-sponsored letter urging Obama to veto one sided resolutions. Bernie Sanders did not vote for that. Explain the context of Warren signing on to this AIPAC sponsored letter.

SL: So, one thing that’s important to say about AIPAC is it’s a pro-Israel lobby outfit, but it also lobbies against a whole host of other measures. You know, it has advocated belligerent neoconservative policies, you know, it supported the Iraq War in 2003. AIPAC tried to undermine the Iran deal. And so this was an example of, you know, just another effort to try to sort of, shut down and a meaningful debate about Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians.

JS: Who right now has Elizabeth Warren’s ear and who was working with her on her foreign policy?

SL: Elizabeth Warren’s key national security advisor is Sasha Baker. Until 2017, Baker was the deputy chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Ashton Carter: I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice. And I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice.

SL: Carter oversaw the U.S. war on ISIS, the, you know, highly lethal bombing campaign against Iraq and Syria, as well as U.S. military buildup in the Asia Pacific. The so-called Asia Pacific pivot, which is, you know, aimed at hedging against China. You know, in contrast, Sanders’ top foreign policy guy is Matt Duss. Matt Duss used to work at the Center of American Progress but actually left because his views were to the left of CAP. Matt Duss is not perfect, but it is definitely accurate to say that he is on the left of the sort of, you know, foreign policy debate in Washington, and that he has been a thorn in the side of CAP and others who are sort of very influential in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

But I want to say a little bit more about who else is advising the Warren campaign. So, we also have Robert Ford. Ford was the former ambassador under Obama who actually quit in protest after Obama’s refusal to bomb Syria in 2013.

Robert Ford: It is a question of whether or not there’s will to actually help people whose agenda is compatible with our national security interests, and then to make a decision and push forward. And that really is the question before the administration.

SL: There’s another advisor who is even more sort of eyebrow raising. So David Rank, he is principal at the Cohen Group. The Cohen Group is a sort of mercenary international global consultancy firm, kind of like McKinsey and Company. Like McKinsey and Company, Buttigieg actually also worked at Cohen Group. You know, and they have plenty of clients in sort of defense and aerospace.

JS: This is the firm named after and run by William Cohen, the former Secretary of Defense.

SL: Right. Rank wrote this sort of self-serving parting essay for the Washington Post about how he was winning the State Department’s Foreign Service after 27 years, and he did that when Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. And that’s a pretty rich thing for him to say, because Cohen Group actually advises oil and gas clients, including, according to them, a Saudi petrochemical firm. 

I think it’s really important to pay attention to who candidates are surrounding themselves with and I think this is especially important at a time that every candidate in the Democratic field is calling for an end to endless wars, but then often there’s an asterisk, and you have to sort of look at the fine print. You know, even Biden likes saying that he wants an end to endless wars and of course, he doesn’t mention that he’s played a non-insignificant role sort of starting those wars.

And I just want to say one thing, Sanders recently hired longtime peace activist Keane Bhatt as a communications director and policy advisor for his senate office, and stuff like that is just really important to pay attention to, you know, are people hiring from the DOD, from think tanks funded by weapons manufacturers or defense contractors, or are they hiring from movements?

JS: Back in 2013, Elizabeth Warren supported John Brennan’s nomination to be Obama’s CIA Director. Brennan, of course, had a long history at the CIA and was very close to Saudi Arabia. John Brennan was among the people who pushed propaganda that the CIA’s torture program worked and was effective, and actually the first time that Obama tried to nominate Brennan as CIA director, many more Democrats found their spines and voted against him. And then John Brennan would go on to be the sort of drone king of the Obama administration. He also was the CIA director who oversaw the spying on the Senate staffers’ computers who are investigating the CIA torture program. So, you know, you can say oh, this was just one nomination. But the fact is that John Brennan represents a really dangerous, lethal aspect of the Democratic foreign policy establishment and she voted for him.

SL: I feel like there’s always been this line that, you know, she’s progressive on domestic stuff, and those are her issues, and she should just fight on her issues. But the problem is that war and militarism are the areas where presidents have the most power to do harm against the 96 percent of the world that doesn’t get to vote in U.S. elections but is impacted by drones and base expansions and proxy wars and direct invasion. And so, if someone is running to head the most powerful military empire that has ever existed, we should absolutely scrutinize their records. And we should especially scrutinize their foreign policy records because in the United States domestic progressivism has at times come with this horrible baggage where progressive wins are gained on the backs of other people in other parts of the world.

And we really saw this with Lyndon B. Johnson. You know, when he declared his war on poverty, he also greenlit tens of thousands of more U.S. troops into Vietnam. You know, there were times that he actually said that he was exporting his great society to Vietnam. He gave this one really chilling 1965 speech where he laid out plans for economic development in Vietnam, including a Mekong River Delta project, inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Lyndon B. Johnson: The task is nothing less than to enrich the hopes and the existence of more than 100 million people and there is much to be done. The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own TVA.

SL: Three years later, that’s the same delta where the U.S. carried out the horrible attack Operation Speedy Express, which killed more than 10,000 Vietnamese people.

You know, if we champion someone’s progressive credentials, but then saying foreign policy doesn’t matter as much, or we’re just not going to look at that, or even have a throwaway line in an article where we say, oh, she’s weak on foreign policy, but let’s pay attention to all her strengths. That’s really dangerous given this baggage and I think that you know, we’re living in a time where there’s a left resurgence, socialism is no longer a dirty word, and we have to say that we absolutely want a Green New Deal and Medicare for all and bold left programs with real teeth, but that they should not be built on the backs of anyone else, so we also want solidarity and internationalism with people impacted by U.S. military empire.

JS: Elizabeth Warren has a piece out this week in The Atlantic with the title “We can end our endless wars. America should end its military involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and bring our troops home.” In reading Elizabeth Warren’s piece, you don’t really get a sense that she is against militarism. It’s sort of akin to Obama’s speech before he really launched his political career where, you know, he carefully couched his opposition to the Iraq War as —

BO: I don’t oppose war in all circumstances. And when I look out over this crowd today, I know there is no shortage of patriots or patriotism. What I do oppose is a dumb war.

JS: Obama of course then when I’m to start his own wars and expand drone wars. And with Elizabeth Warren, you know, she says we’re going to return to diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Okay, that all sounds good. And then to prevent terrorism, we’re going to be working with intelligence and law enforcement. You don’t get a sense here that Warren is willing to take on the humanitarian bombings of the Clinton era where they claimed that they were doing diplomacy around the world backed by the iron fist of U.S. militarism and the occasional bombings of several countries and the regular bombing of Iraq. And you also don’t get a sense that she wants to talk about the systematic abuses by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in their so-called pursuit to keep the homeland safe.

SL: It’s my position that campaign rhetoric, especially when it’s slippery, and ill-defined is not the best way to measure what someone would actually do as president. You should look at their concrete records. So how have they materially impacted the lives of people? And then also who are they surrounding themselves with? Because you know, her article in The Atlantic used really fuzzy language that could be interpreted a variety of different ways. You know, I read it a few times. And my first takeaway is that it doesn’t really sound very different from what anyone is saying right now, you know.

It is quite popular to sort of say you’re going to end endless wars, but then at the same time signal to the corporate Democrat establishment that we’re not going to end them too much, we’re not going to to dramatically break from the status quo. 

I think one thing that’s been notable about Warren, she’s really centered sort of the anti-corruption language. Using the word corruption can be a way to sort of say that the problem is that rules aren’t being followed and that we need tweaks. We need people to be better behaved rather than closely examining the staggering violence of a system of U.S. military empire that’s predicated on violent domination, about 800 military bases around the world and it can be a way to sort of dodge moral condemnation.

JS: What are the major differences between Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden?

SL: The biggest difference between them that I can see is that she came out a little earlier than he did opposing the Yemen war. She voted the right way before he had made a public statement saying that the U.S. war in Yemen should end.

EW: Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Millions of people are on the brink of starvation. It is the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Thousands of civilians have been killed, thousands more wounded. Children have starved to death. Neither side is winning this proxy war and the Yemeni people are suffering.

JS: I think it also is important to never forget that it was the Obama-Biden administration that began heavily supporting Saudi Arabia in their scorched earth, genocidal campaign in Yemen and that Yemen had only been bombed by the U.S. once when Obama and Biden took office. It was bombed in November of 2002. And then in December of 2009, the Obama-Biden administration begins a secret bombing campaign in Yemen that then dovetails into this scorched earth Saudi campaign. So, we have to remember it’s not just Biden was like kind of hemming and hawing, do I think this is a good idea? He was an active part of the policy that started this whole genocidal war in Yemen.

SL: We should also know that the Center for American Progress has been soft pedaling the war in Yemen for years. And there are people from the Center for American Progress who are listed as Warren advisors. 

I do think we need to be real about Bernie Sanders’ shortcomings in the realm of foreign policy. He has inconsistency that I named and I think that he needs to really account for those. Talking about the mistake he made with the 2001 AUMF was a good start, but I think that he should really come clean on everything. At the same time, I think that by far looking at the Democratic field, his platform would be night and day compared to everyone else’s.

JS: People really underestimate the value of debate among people that you generally support. And I think people like you and what we’re trying to do, it’s important that Sanders’ answer to some of his policies in the 90s and not just pooh-pooh it because as he says, you know, in his campaign, it’s not me, us. Well, then we need to be able to talk about when it was you, you know, and when you were making these decisions.

There’s a lot in the 90s that can be a window into what potentially could go wrong in a Sanders administration on foreign policy. And I think it’s healthy for that campaign and for our society to debate these issues and not be afraid, oh my God, we’re going to hand the election to Trump. That was a bankrupt theory when Hillary Clinton floated it and it’s a bankrupt theory if anyone tries to apply it now.

SL: When you are buying to be the most powerful person in the world, your record should be scrutinized. And the top question on our minds should be how would your potential administration impact the world? 

Along those same lines, I think there are things that Warren should really answer for. You know, she said she supports economic sanctions on Venezuela. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, sanctions are estimated to have killed 40,000 people between 2017 and 2018. 

We’re living in a time where Democrats instead of attacking Trump from the left which there are many opportunities to do so, are actually more often than not attacking him from the right actually goading him into being more tough on North Korea, for example. Trump is someone who casually threatened nuclear annihilation against North Korea. The idea that you would want to tell Trump that he should prove that he’s tough on North Korea is very, very dangerous. It’s also sort of bucking the desires and demands of dynamic and strong, you know, South Korean left and anti-militarist movements that have long been calling for an end to the Korean War to which the U.S. is still officially a party. Yet Warren has given numerous hawkish quotes. It’s notable that Sanders rhetoric has been really different and that he’s been really supporting the Korean peace process breaking from Democrats in doing so.

JS: Sarah Lazare, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

SL: Yeah, thank you so much.

JS: Sarah Lazare is a web editor and writer for In These Times magazine, and her work has also recently appeared in Jacobin, The Intercept and other publications. She also co-edited the book, “About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.” She’s a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. You can find her on Twitter @sarahlazare. 

[Music interlude.]

JS: Before we go, just a quick heads up, if you are a fan of my colleague Mehdi Hasan’s podcast Deconstructed and you’re going to be in Los Angeles on Monday, February 10th, Mehdi is going to be recording a special live episode of Deconstructed focusing on criminal justice reform, in front of a live audience, with special guests John Legend and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Go to the Intercept website or Twitter feed for details on how to buy tickets and attend.

[Music interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted as well as on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. If you like what we do, you can 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 our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Next week, my colleague Ryan Grim is going to be hosting the show, focusing on what happens at the Iowa Caucus. So, I’ll see you in two weeks. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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