Donald Trump is now in the dying days of his presidency and is spending those days promoting the myth that he actually won the November election in a landslide. This week on Intercepted: As the clock ticks toward Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump and Attorney General William Barr have been on a grotesque killing spree, green-lighting executions of federal prisoners at breakneck pace. The Intercept’s Senior Reporter Liliana Segura reports on how Trump is on pace to authorize more federal executions than in the past 67 years combined. She discusses several specific cases, including that of Brandon Bernard who is scheduled to die on Thursday. As Biden builds his Cabinet, his national security team is looking a lot like a replay of the Obama-Biden militarist coterie. Biden’s nominees include notorious hawks who were central to the genocidal war in Yemen, the weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the regime-change war in Libya, the war in Syria, the assassination and drone programs, and the use of economic sanctions as a deadly weapon. Several of Biden’s nominees, including his pick for defense secretary, have spent years on boards of defense corporations, profiting from military contractors and peddling influence in Washington, D.C. on behalf of the war industry. Kelley Vlahos of the American Conservative and the transpartisan Quincy Institute discusses Biden’s national security team and the largely continuous arc of U.S. policy through Republican and Democratic administrations.
Capt. Benjamin Willard [excerpt from Apocalypse Now]: Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. But the thing I felt the most was the desire to confront him.
DJT: We will never, ever surrender because we are Americans and our hearts bleed red, white and blue.
Capt. Benjamin Willard: Who are all these people?
Photographer: These are all his children, man, as far as you can see.
DJT: And they’re going to try and rig this election, too.
Chef: He’s gone crazy.
Photographer: Wrong! Wrong! If you could have heard the man just two days ago, you could’ve heard him then. God. You were going to call him crazy?
Chef: He’s worse than crazy, he’s evil! I mean, that’s what the man’s got set up here, man! It’s fucking pagan idolatry! Look around you!
DJT: And they even want to take away your beautiful Christmas that we just got back. I have to be very careful…
Capt. Benjamin Willard: It smelled like slow death in there. Malaria, nightmares. This was the end of the river, alright.
DJT: This may be the most important speech I’ve ever made.
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane.
DJT: This election was rigged. Everybody knows it. I don’t mind if I lose an election, but I want to lose an election …
The Doors: This is the end …
Willard: I had never seen a man so broken up, ripped apart.
DJT: … have it stolen from the America people.
The Doors: This is the end.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from New York City. And this is episode 141 of Intercepted.
DJT: If I lost, I would say, “I lost,” and I’d go to Florida and I’d take it easy and I’d go around and I’d say, “I did a good job.” But you can’t ever accept when they steal and rig and rob.
JS: Donald Trump is now in the dying days of his presidency and he is spending his time promoting the myth that he actually won the November election in a landslide. By all accounts, Trump is obsessively watching OAN and Newsmax and he’s frequently been glued to the live feeds of the legal carnivals organized by Rudy Giuliani in a farcical effort to overturn Trump’s defeats in several U.S. states.
Rudy Giuliani: It’s also a big surprise to me that our votes are counted by a foreign company. And it’s even a bigger surprise to me that if you do the slightest bit of due diligence, you will find out that this company has been in trouble many, many times; was just disqualified in the state of Texas; under another name was thrown out of Chicago; in its infancy had ties with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.
JS: At the same time, Donald Trump is trying to ram through a variety of policy initiatives that he hopes will sabotage President-elect Joe Biden’s early months in office. Trump retweeted an Israeli journalist who called the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran a few weeks ago a “major psychological and professional blow.”
Many observers believe that hit was an Israeli operation aimed at disrupting efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal. There are also major moves happening with Afghanistan, where Trump says he wants large numbers of U.S. troops out of the country before January 20. He also ordered the relatively small number of U.S. forces in Somalia to be repositioned in other African nations. Later on in this program, we are going to be taking an in-depth look at U.S. national security policy from Trump to Biden. And we’ll also look at the war team that Joe Biden has begun assembling for his cabinet. We’ll be talking to Kelley Vlahos, the executive editor of The American Conservative magazine.
Kelley Vlahos: When you have a mainstream media that is compliant, that is in awe of, you know, the power structure — and it’s usually a Democratic White House — you’re not getting the full story. And when it really matters, on national security and foreign policy, you get the watered down version.
JS: But we begin today with the grotesque killings spree that Trump and his Attorney General William Barr have been carrying out here inside the United States. In a pathological and deliberate manner, they have been greenlighting executions of federal prisoners at breakneck pace in the waning days of this administration.
Brandon Bernard: I would first want to tell the Bagleys that I am sorry. My actions at that time were not reflective of who I was. That wasn’t the person I was raised to be by my parents. I attended church every week, and that is the person that I should have been at that exact moment when they taught me to step up and do the right thing. And I didn’t do it, and I wish I did. And every day that goes on I wish I did.
JS: That’s Brandon Bernard speaking in his clemency video. As of this broadcast, he is scheduled to be the ninth federal execution under the Trump administration. His execution date has been set for this Thursday, December 10.
Brandon Bernard was sentenced to death in 2000 for his involvement in the murder of a young couple named Todd and Stacie Bagley. He was 18 years old when the tragic crime occurred. In a recent interview with CBS, Angela Moore, one of the prosecutors who originally defended Bernard’s death sentence, is now calling for clemency.
Angela Moore: The legal reasons, aside from my own personal beliefs, is the evidence and what we have found out since. Mr. Bernard did not shoot and kill the victims in this case. He was not the person who planned this robbery gone wrong.
JS: Five of the nine surviving jurors who originally sentenced Bernard to death also say his life should be spared, including Gary McClung.
Gary McClung: I feel bad for the Bagley family. I can’t imagine what they’ve gone through. I just would not want to see Mr. Bernard, who I don’t believe had any intention of killing anyone, have to die for this.
JS: After a 17-year hiatus in federal executions and in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, the Trump administration has proceeded to kill as many people possible on death row before leaving office.
Currently the Justice Department is on pace to execute 13 people — with executions planned up until about a week before Joe Biden’s inauguration day. And there could be more. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Bill Barr said he plans to schedule more executions and said Biden should keep it up.
As it stands now there will be more federal executions under the Trump administration than in the past 67 years combined. Despite this, there has been little national attention, even among Democrats — a point Chrisopher Vialva made in a video before he was executed in September.
Christopher Vialva: Now I’m making my plea to the American public to rethink the federal death penalty. The Democratic Party claims they want to abolish the death penalty, yet no politicians have said anything about federal death row.
JS: Joe Biden has said he would work to end the death penalty. But he also played an instrumental role in the 1994 crime bill which extended the death penalty to 60 new crimes.
Since last December, when Bill Barr announced resuming federal executions, The Intercept’s senior reporter Liliana Segura has been traveling to Terre Haute, Indiana — home to federal death row.
Liliana Segura: Terre Haute, you know, it’s sort of classic Indiana landscape — these beautiful sunsets, sprawling farmlands. But you can drive through town from one end to the other and never know that you’re so close to this massive, sprawling federal penitentiary. One of the residents I remember talking to early on talked about how it’s “behind the mall, it’s behind the mall.” There’s this mall that you pass as you’re driving north through town, the Honey Creek Mall, and the federal penitentiary is sort of on the other side of it, along the Wabash River. It’d be very easy to remain unaware that there’s this massive federal penitentiary, let alone the federal death chamber.
I’m Liliana Segura. I’m a senior reporter at The Intercept, covering prisons, criminal justice and, most recently, the death penalty.
DJT: When I was in China — and other places by the way — I said, “Mr. President, do you have a drug problem?” “No, no, no, we do not.”
I said, “Huh. Big country, 1.4 billion people, right? Not much of a drug problem.” I said, “What do you attribute that to?” “Well, ah, the death penalty.” It’s true!
LS: From the moment that Trump was elected and from the moment he was in a position to name his first attorney general, everybody who followed these issues, who followed the death penalty and the federal death penalty, had the same thought, which was: We’re going to see federal executions restart. It’s just a matter of when. It was surprising in the first couple of years of his administration that there was no action, there was no movement on this.
MSNBC: Some breaking news out of the justice department. The Attorney General William Barr now saying that the federal government will resume the death punishment.
Fox: First time since 2003, Barr directing prison officials to schedule the executions of five death row inmates. This is not common.
LS: It wasn’t actually until July of 2019 that Attorney General Bill Barr finally announced that the Trump administration was going to be restarting executions after more than 15 years. I just remember speaking to a couple of death penalty attorneys and they just described it as a gut punch. Now people are going to be scrambling to try to save the lives of their clients.
Christopher Vialva was the seventh person put to death since the beginning of these federal executions this year. He was also the first Black man put to death as part of Trump’s killing spree as I’ve come to refer to them.
Prison official: Due to the current Covid-19 conditions, media representatives must wear their face masks throughout the entire process. Additionally, upon arrival, you were screened, a temperature screen test was conducted. We’ve had you sign consent forms. There’s also additional P.P.E. gear available if you need it. Media must vacate the property an hour after the execution and only designated public information officers are to be approached.
LS: I went to Terre Haute for Christopher Vialva’s execution date. It was in late September and I had spent a lot of time talking to his mother. Christopher Vialva’s mom is a woman named Lisa Brown. On the morning of her son’s execution, she came and spoke at sort of a make-shift press conference that was organized by activists in a field across from the entrance of the federal penitentiary there in Terre Haute.
Abraham Bonowitz: We’re going to see the seventh execution in eleven…
LS: This is a place where we’ve ended up night after night after night on the nights of these federal executions. It’s actually a field that’s adjacent to the parking lot of a Dollar General. There’s this Dollar General that’s across the street from the federal penitentiary and that Dollar General has been the site of protests and vigils, a handful of press conferences. And the reason it’s this place, it’s really actually, the credit has to go to the activists, who not only sued for the right to stand in that field across from the prison — they sued the Indiana state police for that access to that space — but by their presence have created a space where families of the condemned can come and speak publicly, which is not an opportunity they’ve been given by the federal government. So Lisa Brown, on the morning of her son’s execution, came and spoke.
Lisa Brown: I’ve never done this before and I have not prepared anything. This is really hard. [Lisa Brown starts crying.] And I believe our faith will get us through this. This is the first venue that I’ve had in which I could say to Todd and Stacey’s family: I am so sorry for your loss. I’ve never been able to tell you that because I was told I could not have access to you.
LS: The system doesn’t really allow for those kinds of conversation. It doesn’t foster any sort of opportunity for forgiveness.
LB: My son has been renewed. He’s a new man. As he said in his own words, he has changed and he’s redeemed. And I believe that with all my heart. And that’s why I’m able to let him go today. I believe that the Father is taking him home and I’m OK with that. There’s a peace in knowing that I will see him again. Thank you.
LS: She talked about her final visit with Christopher. She and her son are both Messianic Jews and he had converted, I believe, about ten years before. They were incredibly devout and she felt that he was ready, that this was, you know, his execution was “in the hands of the Father,” is how she put it, and she felt that there was peace in knowing that and she felt like he was ready.
Christopher Vialva: My name is Christopher Andre Vialva and I’m currently an inmate on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. I’m scheduled to be executed on September 24, 2020. I’m speaking out now because the U.S. government is trying to execute me and many others using your tax dollar and there’s no substantial national media coverage of federal capital punishment. The death penalty has been used disproportionately against Black people for decades. People aren’t aware of the fact that many of us here were arrested before we were old enough to drink. I was 19 years old. People decided, though, that despite having our whole adult life ahead of us, that we were beyond redemption.
LS: Christopher Vialva was 19 years old when he and a group of about five teenagers carjacked and killed a couple named Stacey and Todd Bagley on the grounds of Fort Hood in Texas. They were affiliated with a local gang. They decided they wanted to try to get some money and sort of went around looking for targets and approached Todd Bagley at a payphone and asked him for a ride. Later, Christopher and another of the teenagers pull a gun on him. They direct him to drive to a secluded area. They force him and his wife into the trunk of their car and after driving around — taking their ATM card, their pen, their jewelry — end up driving them to a dirt road on the grounds of Fort Hood and Christopher Vialva ends up shooting them both in the head. And then they set the car on fire.
The victims were a young, white married couple. They were in their 20s and they didn’t actually live in Texas. They lived in Iowa and they were visiting. They were two, by all accounts, good Christians who were targeted by these teenagers in this incredibly cruel and callous crime.
When Christopher Vialva was executed, the mother of Todd Bagley, Georgia Bagley, gave a very lengthy statement. She wrote, you know, “We will never know how many people they could have influenced for good if they had been given the chance.” And she talked about how, you know, she took comfort in the fact that they were in heaven and she said, “I know without a doubt we will have a glorious reunion with them one day.”
CV: I’m not begging this plea as an innocent man, but I am a changed and redeemed man. I committed a great wrong when I was a lost kid and took two precious lives from this world. Now I’m on death row. Every day I wish I could right this wrong.
LS: The morning after her son was executed, Lisa Brown was preparing to leave to drive back to Texas when her son’s lawyers dropped off a box of his things. They included some clothing. Christopher’s friend on death row suggested that she might like to have some clothing because it would smell like him and she took comfort in that. But it also included a couple of letters and a CD. Before she went to sleep, she put it into her computer and it was him. It was her son reading this letter, and he wrote, “Now is the time to lay down your burden. No more money wasted on monthly allowances. No more long drives for prison visits. No more crying over the unknown. The deed is done and I am in the care of the Father.”
Then she had received another card. It was waiting in the mail when she returned from Terre Haute. He said, “I know this is hard for you. I would even go so far as to say that it’s harder on you than me. I just want you to stay strong. I need you to do that for me. If they do take me away [Liliana’s voice choked with emotion] if they do take me away, then you can let them know how much it hurts. Maybe one day your love will change things.”
When Bill Barr — Attorney General William Barr — announced in July of 2019 that the federal government was going to be resuming federal executions after more than 15 years, the initial dates that were set out were supposed to be in December of 2019 and they were all supposed to happen very close to one another. Those dates wouldn’t come to pass. There was a stay in place that kind of delayed those dates. But in the meantime, a number of activists, including Abe Bonowitz with Death Penalty Action, had started to organize on the ground in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is home to the federal penitentiary that houses federal death row and where all of these executions take place.
Abraham Bonowitz: All the way down this road, down at the end, right before you get to the prison, there’s a little supermarket, a Dollar General, and a few people got in ahead, right before they put up the roadblocks. And they’re down there saying, “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill.”
LS: Federal death penalty cases come from all over the country. In the 90s, in the mid- to late 90s, with the return of the federal death penalty and with the sort of ramping up of federal death row that they transferred everyone who was under a federal death sentence to this one place and built a brand new execution chamber, which I believe opened in ’95 or ’96, and unveiled it for the purpose of executing Timothy McVeigh in 2001.
Harley Lappin: I am Harley Lappin, the warden here at the United States Penitentiary Terre Haute. The U.S. Marshal is still on the execution facility completing his protocol responsibilities. The court order to execute inmate Timothy James McVeigh has been fulfilled.
LS: I’d never been before and now I’ve been many, many times. There’s this kind of perception, I’ve come to realize, among many Americans — even folks who pay attention to the death penalty at the state level — that federal death row is home to a lot of people who are there for terrorism offenses. And in fact that’s not true. As a matter of fact, currently, there’s no one on federal death row who’s there for a terrorist offense as defined by federal law. Tsarnaev was previously there — the Boston Marathon Bomber — but his death sentence was recently vacated, so the people who are there are largely people who were prosecuted after the 1994 crime bill and after the expansion of all of these federal crimes that now became death eligible.
Joe Biden: Crime bill that has 51 death penalties, 100,000 cops, tens of thousands of new prison cells and the list goes on.
LS: One of the common ones that we see involves carjacking, the kind of crime that comes with gang activity and that sort of thing. The reason that’s important is that, you know, in the sort of late 80s early 90s, with the ramping up of the war on drugs, there was a sort of movement to federalize a lot of crime, what was sort of previously known as “street crime” that would have traditionally been prosecuted at the state level increasingly was being handled at the federal level as part of the kind of the expansion of the war on drugs. One of the things that I learned while I was reporting some of these cases is that carjacking, as a crime that was commonly associated with those involved with drug crimes, became a federal crime in 1992. It stemmed from a really horrific high-profile crime. A woman who had been carjacked in Maryland, outside of D.C., and it involved just a grizzly dragging death that caused a lot of outrage in this particular era. And so in 1992, Congress passed the Anti-Car Theft Act which made carjacking a federal crime and that was followed shortly after by the 1994 crime bill.
Joe Biden: The mix of punishment and prevention is what the Democrats and the Republicans in the Senate voted for in then what was called the Biden crime bill.
LS: It meant that suddenly carjackings and kidnappings and these kinds of crimes that ended in a death, whether a defendant was personally responsible for the murder in that case, those became death eligible crimes. So, crimes involving multiple defendants, even if they weren’t necessarily the so-called “trigger man,” those defendants could face the death penalty. And we’ve seen a number of cases come up for execution where that’s been the case.
Christopher was the seventh person put to death. After his execution came Orlando Hall. And now, the next execution that’s coming is Brandon Bernard, who was Christopher Vialva’s co-defendant. That case is really tragic because he, compared to Christopher, had a pretty minor role in the murder of the Bagley’s and yet he faces an execution for their death. Five of the surviving jurors in Brandon Bernard’s case, who were also the jurors for Christopher Vialva, have said that they would support clemency for Brandon Bernard.
One of the more haunting things that I’ve read that Brandon has written was written to his supporters and published on the Facebook page where they put a lot of information and his own writing. And in it he talks about what it was like the night that they came to get Orlando Hall: “Footsteps came down the range and the air became heavy and I knew they were getting him. I just listened. The officer told them in a low voice to open the outer door. I hear the twinkling sound of the handcuffs and legcuffs being placed on his ankles.” And he describes how, through the bars of his cell, he told Orlando Hall that he loved him: “He told me in a low voice filled with all the emotion that one feels at that moment that he loved me too. And then he was gone.”
Americans really don’t know anything about federal executions. And why should then? They’ve been very, very rare for the most part in the sort of modern death penalty era as well know it. So in 2001, there was the very high-profile execution of Timothy McVeigh and then there were two more, and the last one had been in 2003. And after that, for a number of different reasons, these executions just stopped. So it’s not that the federal death penalty ever went away. It didn’t. But federal executions had not taken place since 2003. And so, suddenly, not only are we seeing their return, but we’re seeing this unbelievable execution spree. As much as we anticipated that they would likely resume federal executions, I don’t think anyone anticipated what we’re now seeing, especially in this lame-duck period.
My personal belief is that it’s actually less to do with Trump and everything to do with Bill Barr, who is a true believer — a death penalty true believer — and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he is trying to kill as many people as he can on his way out of office.
Between now and Joe Biden’s inauguration date, there are five scheduled executions in Terre Haute. Brandon Bernard is scheduled to be put to death on December 10, followed by Alfred Bourgeois. And those are back-to-back, one on the 10th, one on the 11th. After that, in January, we’re going to see three in a row. We’re going to see Lisa Montgomery on January 12 — Lisa Montgomery being the only woman under a federal death sentence. Then on the 14th Cory Johnson and then on the 15th Dustin Higgs. So those are three executions all the week before Inauguration Day.
There are guys I’m in touch with on death row now who believe that they might still try to squeeze in one or two more. It’s really pretty appalling and absolutely unprecedented. There hasn’t been a lame-duck execution in something like 100 years. The fact is that these executions are part of a legacy that was created largely by the Democrats and it’s a legacy that the Democrats have not yet grappled with in any meaningful way.
So now, with President-elect Biden claiming to oppose the death penalty, there’s a real question as to what, if anything, that’s going to mean for the people who may survive this current moment. Will Biden’s DOJ continue to seek federal death sentences as Obama did? Is he just going to pause executions until the next administration comes along? Or will he be willing to take a bigger step and commute these death sentences so that we don’t see more of this in the future?
JS: That’s my colleague, Liliana Segura, senior reporter at The Intercept. She spoke to our producer Laura Flynn.
The audio you heard of Christopher Vialva was a recording that his attorney, Susan Otto, took and it was provided by the ACLU.
Liliana’s latest story is on Brandon Bernard. He’s scheduled to be executed on Thursday, December 10. You can find that at TheIntercept.com, where you can also find all of Liliana’s excellent reporting on federal executions.
JS: One quick note before we continue on with the program, I would encourage everybody listening to make sure you are subscribed to our other podcast, Deconstructed, which is now hosted by our D.C. bureau chief, Ryan Grim. It’s really a fantastic look at the politics unfolding in Washington D.C., particularly at this crucial time. Give it a listen. Deconstructed. It comes out on Fridays.
CBS: Turning now to the Biden-Harris transition, CBS News confirms the President-elect has chosen retired general Lloyd Austin to be his Defense Secretary.
JS: President-elect Joe Biden is assembling his national security team. On Monday night reports emerged that he had selected former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary. Austin, who retired from the Pentagon in 2016, would need a waiver from Congress to serve in this civilian post because he has not been separated from the military for seven years. That’s required by U.S. law. In fact, that’s exactly what Trump did when he appointed Gen. James Mattis and it raises serious questions about the historical civilian oversight of the Pentagon.
But also, Austin is yet another potential nominee who has cashed in on his military tenure in retirement and embodies the revolving door between government and for-profit war corporations. He currently sits on the board of the giant defense firm Raytheon. He is also a D.C. partner in a capital investment firm that invests in defense contractors. But Gen. Austin is hardly the only example of these characters populating the incoming Biden administration, and the outgoing Trump administration. In fact, Biden’s national security team, much like Trump’s, is shaping up to be a corporate profiteer-filled venture that highlights some of the worst special interest facets of how legalized influence peddling is done in Washington D.C.
Fox: And Republicans and government watchdogs alike are calling for answers. Senator Cornyn tweeting: “I want to see what foreign countries, if any, they have worked for.” And the Project on Government Oversight’s Mandy Smithberger saying, “We want to make sure that they are not beholden to anyone else and that any decisions they would make would be beyond reproach.”
JS: Biden’s nominees include people who are notorious hawks, people who were central to the genocidal war in Yemen, the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the regime change war in Libya, the war in Syria, the assassination and drone programs, the use of economic sanctions as a deadly weapon. It is, in short, shaping up to be a kettle of hawks.
Biden is still in the midst of compiling his cabinet, but on national security it’s looking a lot like a replay of the Obama-Biden militarist coterie. There are undoubtedly foreign policy areas where the Biden administration will correct the egregious actions of Trump, particularly in the case of the Iran nuclear deal. But there are also areas where Biden could prove more hawkish than Trump, particularly on North Korea, Afghanistan and the question of troop deployments. In all the beltway scuttlebutt around Biden’s cabinet, there is no mention of open critics of U.S. warmaking being considered for any key national security positions. That’s not an oversight. That’s how the business of protecting the militarized myth of American exceptionalism is performed by the establishment Democratic Party.
Joining me now is Kelley Vlahos, the executive editor of the anti-war publication The American Conservative. She is also a senior advisor to the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. That’s a new transpartisan think-tank created by anti-war progressives, libertarians, and other advocates of military restraint. Kelly Vlahos, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Kelley Vlahos: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: What is the big picture, in your assessment, of Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.
KV: I find it very interesting and somewhat disappointing in many respects because I feel like the main takeaway from all of the remarks made in public by Biden’s transition team and the foreign policy and national security picks he’s made so far is oriented around this idea that the adults are back in the room.
Joe Biden: While this team has unmatched experience and accomplishments, they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits.
KV: We’re hearing a lot about outreach to partners and allies overseas. We’re getting our internationalist order back in check and we are now going to be leading the world the way we were supposed to do before Trump came along and cracked everything up.
Wolf Blitzer: We’re following breaking news. President-elect Joe Biden declaring, and I’m quoting now, “America is back,” as he formally introduced key cabinet picks. He said, “The team shows the country is ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”
JB: Experience and leadership. Fresh thinking and perspective. And an unrelenting belief in the promise of America. I’ve long said that America leads not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. And I’m proud to put forward this incredible team.
KV: To me that just says that we’re going back to the status quo. We’re talking about at least forty years, if not more, of failed policies, endless wars and overseas global primacy — some of these things that Trump had actually tried to address, believe it or not. Now that he has been sort of exposed as being little more than a disruptor and nothing else, there seems to be this blobby return to “normalcy” and you realize, Wow, we are probably going to go back another four years or more to the way it was in Washington.
Joy Reid: It’s also an attempt to bring back normalcy to what has been nothing but a clown show at 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza. Now, in case you forgot what normal sounds like, here it is.
Antony Blinken: America at its best still has a greater ability than any other country on Earth to bring others together to meet the challenges of our time.
Avril Haines: I know, Mr. President-elect and Madam Vice-president elect, that you’ve selected us not to serve you but to serve on behalf of the American people.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield: On this day I’m thinking about the American people, my fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you: America is back.
JB: America it back. We’re at the head of the table once again. I have spoken with over 20 world leaders.
JS: Set aside whatever anyone wants to allege about Trump’s motivations in the 11th hour, we need to get out of Afghanistan and we need to do it as quickly as possible. I think Trump is right about that, even if I think the guy is a totally insincere charlatan in so many ways. But I think it’s a useful exercise to sort of examine how the bi-partisan war party on Capitol Hill has responded to these inadvertently anti-interventionist moments of Trump, whether it’s overtures toward North Korea or, in the case of Afghanistan, saying let’s get out.
The Democrats simultaneously would tell the country that Donald Trump is the most dangerous ever to hold that office and then at the same time they would vote for record-shattering military expenditures and military budgets. They would vote for sweeping surveillance powers. And they’re sort of apoplectic right now at the thought that we might actually pull troops out of Afghanistan. Wrestle, Kelley, for a bit with that dynamic, that you have Trump who is kind of, you know, insincere, liar, charlatan, but occasionally seems to want to do what ultimately people like you and I would think is the right thing: to get out of U.S. wars.
KV: Yeah, I think “wrestle with it” is like the perfect description of what I, personally, have been doing in the last four years because I had worked most of that time as an editor at The American Conservative, which was founded in 2002 in opposition to the Iraq War policy. So we had been foursquare against these endless wars to begin with. So when President Trump or then-candidate Trump had come out and said, Iraq was a failure, we need to get out of these protracted occupations and interventions in the Middle East, it’s not doing anything for our country.
DJT: The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, alright? Now, you can take it anyway you want.
KV: And when he won we continued to champion any moves he made to get out of Afghanistan, to get out of Syria, to, you know, basically rein in some of the impulses by more hawkish members of his team and in Congress. But then he did a lot of things that, you know, we would not agree with, like getting out of the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as leaving a force in Syria to ostensibly protect oil, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. And so, it was a mixed bag. So, yeah, wrestling with Trump, as well as his behavior, as well as his approach, his lack of governance, you know, it was pretty tough for non-interventionists.
When you talk about Democrats, though, the fact that they could not get off their butts to get us out of Afghanistan for four years, to actually reset that policy, to get behind the negotiations in a way that would have been helpful. And then when Trump finally makes a stand to say, I want to reduce troops there, they partner with the Republican hawks to try to press legislation that would hold back funds to actually withdraw. So you have these Democrats, who supposedly are against endless wars, who are supposedly for the troops, would penalize the administration for trying to get out of war.
I do want to caveat that by saying there were some true attempts to get out of the war in Yemen. Both the House and the Senate passed votes that would end our assistance to Saudi Arabia in that war, and that is highly commendable. The President vetoed it, another thing that we, as conservative non-interventionists, were against. So, there were some good things that Congress did. But I entirely agree with you that Democrats, I guess, in their spite of Trump have actually kept up from getting out of that war in Afghanistan when the majority of Americans say, in polling after polling, that they want out.
JS: Kelley, on that front, give us an assessment of the kind of foreign policy ideology that Joe Biden represents.
KV: Well, I don’t really know what kind of foreign policy or ideology that Joe Biden represents other than what I would say is the internationalist approach of the last 70 years. You know, forward projecting military, global primacy, U.S. global primacy and hegemony in the world in order to “lead the liberal international order,” to protect, to promote democracy. But what I see in Joe Biden is that, you know, as a Senator he has made some good judgment. For example, on Afghanistan in 2009 he did not want to surge tens of thousands of new troops into the country. He was overruled. Most of the Obama inner circle had been for the surge. It was a big thing in this city at that time to do some sort of counterinsurgency to prove that we could rebuild that nation. Joe Biden was against that.
JS: You are absolutely correct that Biden was agitating against what ended up being this pretty dramatic surge of troops in Afghanistan that brought him derision from the likes of Stanley McChrystal, who was the person Obama chose to run the Afghan surge and war at the time. But Biden’s counter proposal was pretty similar to what Trump now is saying in Afghanistan. Let’s keep CIA and special operations forces on stand-by to do targeted strikes and to sort of lean more in the direction of surgical, covert operations rather than large-scale troop deployments.
KV: That’s right. And I get the sense that Biden, as opposed to having his own ideology that he is sort of acting from, he listens to people around him, and I feel like he’s listening quite a bit to military voices. And if you listen to anybody, particularly David Petraeus for example, he was on an event recently talking about how leaving a force of 2,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan would be quite appropriate and that we would be maintaining a footprint in that country to A, counter any terrorist flame-ups or to help continue this sort of institution building and not let our allies down. And I feel like that is the overriding approach from the military, that they are insisting that we have some sort of footprint there. And you’re hearing it echoed now within his small coterie of transition team members and nominees.
There are much smarter people here in this town than I who will tell you that having that force there is going to do nothing in terms of actually beating back all of the terrorists gains, but it will continue the agitation of the Taliban and the agitation of some of the other terrorist groups that are still operating there. And so this whole idea to maintain a footprint is really just the military not being willing to give up and admit “defeat” in this war, but it still maintains a huge forward operating presence because you have support and contractors which would still be in the country and it would still be stretching ourselves too thin with blood and treasure and keeping these deployments going as they have been for the last 20 years.
JS: Well I think one of the most remarkable aspects of the Trump era is just the sameness of U.S. policy when it comes to foreign entanglements, wars, militarism. I don’t think you can make a credible case that Donald Trump is somehow wildly outside the scope of normal imperial business under both Democrats and Republicans when you look at his scorched earth policies in Syria, when you look at his wielding of economic sanctions, when you look at his kill-them-all strategy in Afghanistan, as well as his support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. In fact Trump, himself, authorized, greenlit ground operations in Yemen. He’s dramatically expanded drone strikes and covert operations in Somalia. But that was kicked off by the Obama-Biden administration. I think that when you strip away the rhetoric, you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that when it comes to so-called national security policy, Donald Trump was some radical outlier in the scope, particularly the post-9/11 scope, of U.S. national security police. I’m curious your thoughts on that.
KV: Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with you and I don’t mean to sugarcoat Trump’s record, you know. I mean, you’re absolutely correct and I think one of the least reported elements of his national security policy has been not only the continuing of the drone war but accelerating it in Somalia. So you’re correct. It’s not like he went in like the bull in the china shop that they all talk about. I mean we all, we have the same policies, pretty much, in Syria, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Libya, even Iraq. You know, policy directives have changed, people have gone in and out but really, you know, it remains the same. I think what they just want is one of them, one of the elite establishment creatures that they are used to that make them feel good about themselves, good about our placement in the world, everything’s OK, get the weirdo out of the White House and that we can go on and restore business as usual.
JB: As Secretary of State I nominate Tony Blinken. He’s one of the better prepared for this job. No one’s better prepared in my view.
JS: Antony Blinken — Tony Blinken — is the nominee for secretary of state. He is a very well-known interventionist. He backed the regime change war in Libya. He wanted more military action in Syria. Blinken now sort of is trying to step away from the Saudi genocidal war in Yemen, but he was a crucial, key player during the Obama administration in advocating for increased sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. In fact, it was Blinken who went to Riyadh in 2015 as a representative of the Obama administration to announce that the U.S. was expediting its weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia and he actually said in a press conference that the Saudis were “sending a strong message” with their war in Yemen. Kelley, pick it up from there on Tony Blinken.
KV: He’s been behind every bad foreign policy decision in the Obama administration, whether it be Libya, Syria, Yemen, staying in Afghanistan and, you know, I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but he represents this elite Washington establishment, this sort of Washington creature who is very well-versed in international relations and political science. He went to Ivy League schools. He’s worked with Biden since his senatorial days. He went right from getting his Ph.D. right into Washington. And so he represents the status quo. And what is that status quo? We will continue to see the Pentagon budgets at a certain level. We will continue to be in Afghanistan. I have seen nothing from Antony Blinken about his position in Afghanistan being anything other than mirroring what Biden has said. And he has also talked pretty tough about China. And it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that he is going to be bringing in any new fresh thinking to the job.
JS: You know, Michèle Flournoy, I would describe her as a neo-conservative Democrat. During the Bush era, she actually joined with the actual neo-conservatives at the Project for a New American Century in signing a letter saying that the Bush administration was not being militaristic enough in the Middle East and they needed to actually expand the number of ground troops in Iraq and elsewhere. But I bring her up in the context of Blinken because she and Blinken in many ways are sort of the embodiment of this revolving door between the private sector and lobbying and military and intelligence contracting and then serving in powerful positions in Washington. These two, Flournoy and Blinken, when they left the Obama administration, founded a firm together called West Exec Advisors. This is a consulting firm that their entire purpose for being was to assist corporations in navigating the Pentagon and government contracting bureaucracy. Politico actually called West Exec “Biden’s cabinet in waiting.” But if you go to the website of this firm that Secretary of State nominee Blinken and Flournoy started, their own material describes themselves like this: “It is quite literally the road to the situation room, and it is the road everyone associated with West Exec Advisors has crossed many times en route to meetings of the highest national security consequences.”
KV: As you know, when you have a $700 billion budget, there’s a lot of money to be made there, in the private sector. And so Tony Blinken and Michèle Flournoy were enjoined by other former members of the Obama administration to start this consulting firm and they made hand over fist in helping top clients like Google and others and pairing them, you know, these clients with major programs like, you know, artificial intelligence and drones and other weapons systems programs in the Pentagon. And so they made a lot of money. I mean, when you talk about the millions of dollars that are funneling, billions of dollars, back and forth — I mean, the United States defense industry is the biggest arms dealer in the world. And they not only create and build and manufacture our weapons systems that our military is using overseas and need to keep doing that so they need us to still be overseas, but they’re selling all these weapons to foreign governments. It’s in their best interest to see somebody who understands their business, who will help their business, will continue to grease the skids for their business. And this is how the Pentagon works.
JS: I’ve long viewed, at least for the past couple of years since this became a reality, the issue of Saudi Arabia and the way that Democrats in particular talk about Saudi Arabia — you know, we have to remember Barack Obama initiated in December of 2009, less than a year into his administration, a secret air war in Yemen. They had initially tried to claim that it was the Yemeni government that was doing these bombings but then a very brave Yemeni journalist went to the scene and discovered U.S. clusterbomb munitions, which of course the Yemeni government was not in possession of. And that pretty quickly morphed into a drone war that was being run by the United States and then increasingly Saudi Arabia military action in Yemen. And then by the end of the Obama administration, you had an all-out genocidal war in [Yemen] — you know, all of these Democrats now are pretending as though this Saudi Arabia mess that’s going on in Yemen, this catastrophe there, We’re all against it, it needs to stop — while never recognizing that they started it. This was a Democrat-led policy that Trump then went beyond. You know, makes his first foreign trip Saudi Arabia and just lavishes them with military assistance and weapons deals. But the fact is that this started under Obama’s administration with several of these people that Biden is now putting in top posts being the drivers of the policy.
KV: They got us into the current skirmishes and the occupations and the interventions we’re in today and Trump has been pretty vocal about getting us out. Whether or not he is or whatever, that’s another question. But you look at not only Yemen, which is an unbelievable human catastrophe, but you also look at Syria because of Obama and he made some serious mistakes in arming “rebels” or “moderate rebels” there and then Libya. Libya is an absolute dumpster fire right now, with all sorts of proxy interests, including France and the UAE and Turkey and Russia, and Afghanistan was a huge fail. That surge that they promoted at the beginning of Obama’s administration was an absolute failure and resulted in more casualties for our U.S. men and women. And so they didn’t want to talk about any of this.
I wish that Trump had actually come through with his promises to get us out of there sooner but I feel like putting people like Antony Blinken, Michèle Flournoy, Avril Haines, Jake Sullivan — you know, these people were there, they were behind the president on all of these decisions and we’re still there now and so why should we expect anything different from them? Maybe they’ve had a change of heart, maybe they see that the zeitgeist is different, that the American people really want. If anything, I think two things might happen. They’ve talked about getting back into the Iran deal, which I feel is very positive and needs to happen and sanctions need to be lifted. And two, by all accounts, Antony Blinken and others, Biden included, they want to end that war in Yemen. And I do think that is probably one of the first actions, if any, that they do make in the right direction.
JS: You mentioned two other names that I think briefly we should just touch on. Jake Sullivan has been named the national security adviser and that’s one of these key positions that does not necessitate a Senate confirmation. It’s why John Bolton, for instance, was able to be the national security adviser under Trump. So it’s pretty clear that Jake Sullivan will in fact be the national security adviser. He comes out of the Hillary Clinton camp and is — was well-known for being a totally central player in the Obama Libya regime change war. He also was deeply involved with brokering the Iran nuclear deal, so that could be a positive in his camp. You know, Ben Rhodes, who’s now one of the Pod Save America guys, when he was Obama’s deputy national security adviser he was not known himself for being a very dovish character. But even he said about working with Jake Sullivan, and this is a quote: “On the spectrum of people in our administration, he tended to favor more assertive U.S. engagement on issues,” advocating “responses that would incorporate some military element.” Give just a brief overview of Jake Sullivan and what he represents.
KV: Even on the issues that we’re looking at today, like China, he wants to put China on notice. Now specifically he was talking about their, you know, initial Covid reaction and transparency. But you know, even when it came to Iran, he said something recently about pressing Iran to come back into compliance before they get into the deal. Now, that’s going to be a real sticking point for people who want to get back in the deal. Are we going to lose leverage, like the sanctions as leverage? He’s a hard book to read right now, but his complete support of Hillary Clinton in the Libya crisis I believe is a signifier of, you know, how he approaches using military power, American military power to solve our diplomatic problems and issues across the globe. But all of the, you know, national security policy is going to be emanating from the White House and it’ll be going through Jake Sullivan. They’re coming from the Hillary Clinton wing, which is all about using military force to solve our problems across the globe.
JS: I do want to make sure we talk about the nominee for the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines. She probably is someone that most people have not heard of. If you had, it may have been in recent years because she emerged as a prominent defender of Gina Haspel, who of course was a central player in the CIA’s kidnap and torture program — Gina Haspel was. Avril Haines supported her nomination by Trump to serve as CIA director. But what I knew her name for was that she was a key figure in the expansion of Obama’s drone wars, and so maybe you can just give a few points about her career and who she is.
KV: The most troublesome aspect of Avril Haines is the fact that she was right behind President Obama, along with John Brennan, at executing his drone war, Obama’s drone war, which we know had just basically escalated and doubled the, doubled maybe even tripled the number of airstrikes than even George Bush had during his tenure in the White House. So I find that troublesome. I also find it troublesome that she did defend the torture program. She did defend the CIA when it was accused of hacking Senate Democrats on the Senate committee that was investigating the torture program.
I feel like she’s a loyal soldier of the CIA, but not only that, of, you know, the national security positions that we know, now know, not only had failed, you know, the United States but were responsible for some of the worst human rights crimes during the global war on terror which you would include the black sites, the torture, the drone targeting that we all know had killed cilivians, an untold number of cilivians, children, wedding parties, you name it.
JS: One final name that I just want to bounce around with you, Kelley, is Mike Morell. He has been talked about as a potential CIA director, though in recent days it seems like there might be a rethinking of this going on in the Biden camp. But, you know, Morell, like Gina Haspel, was career CIA. He has defended the post-9/11 use of kidnapping and torture. He was George W. Bush’s national security briefer after 9/11. Just pick it up from there and your concerns if Mike Morell is named CIA director.
KV: Yeah, I really believe that Mike Morell comes from, and I just coined it, this Hillary Clinton national security wing and which he is very hawkish. And I believe that he would not only call for the execution of Ed Snowden, but Julian Assange. He advocated, openly, bombing Syria during the 2016 election campaign when I believe he was still advising Hillary Clinton at the time. You know, he’s defended torture. He defended Gina Haspel in, you know, destroying all the tapes that would be preserving the evidence for torture. And so I feel like there’s really no daylight between people like Michael Morell and the neo-cons who pursued the global war on terror in the early days of the Bush administration. It’s just that he has worked with Democrats and people like Liz Cheney are Republicans and Dick Cheney and others. And so I think there is probably enough opposition to Mike Morell at this point because of everything that we’ve mentioned, but you don’t know.
JS: Biden is sort of projecting this notion that he’s putting together a kind of national security cabal of woke nationalists. You know, they’re emphasizing “first woman at this, first woman at that.”
Joe Biden: We’re going to have the first woman lead the intelligence community, the first Latino, an immigrant, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and a groundbreaking diplomat at the United Nations.
JS: My question for Biden is, you have the first woman CIA director. She has the same basic politics as Mike Morell. In fact, she was a part of the torture, directly. Morell was an analyst. Why would Biden be so unwoke as to remove a woman torturer from the post of CIA and replace her with a man that didn’t even get involved directly with waterboarding, just celebrated it later?
KV: This is a car crash waiting to happen, or a collision waiting to happen, because on one hand you do have this pressure on Biden to appoint women, people of color, to have this diverse workforce, particularly in his upper echelons. But at the same time, you know, progressives and non-interventionists are saying, Well, we can’t have the same old voices and the same old perspectives and we particularly don’t want people who are responsible for failed wars and torture and all these other things in there. So I’ve seen some arguing back and forth, Well, should Biden appoint a woman or a person of color? What if that woman or person of color, you know, come with a boatload of baggage because of their past failures in policy or what they represent in Washington.
You know, another thing with Jake Sullivan, Antony Blinken and others is because they have all come from the Obama administration, they all worked together before. They’ve all been friends. This has been written about in mainstream newspapers and media like Politico and Axios. You know, this is kind of a club and when you have a club, you tend to have groupthink and you’re already seeing it in the media in which they’re treating these people as, you know, special but at the same time accessible to, you know, the sort of Washington clique. You know, I saw this piece in Politico on Jake Sullivan or no, it was Antony Blinken, and you know the first line describes him, you know, as a guitar-playing Beatles fanatic and how he sometimes plays guitar on the Zoom meetings. And I’m thinking, Wow, this is where things go off the rails in terms of reporting on foreign policy and national security. For the next four years, anything that these guys do, whether it’s starting a war, whether it’s selling arms to the UAE or Saudi Arabia or getting involved in some sort of democracy promotion in eastern Europe, this will be explained away by a compliant media that really wants to be part of this club. They didn’t want to be part of Trump’s club and they were really good about being real scrutinizing, you know, reporters when it came to Trump but I feel — and you know this, Jeremy — is that when you have a mainstream media that is compliant, that is in awe of, you know, the power structure — and it’s usually a Democratic White House — you’re not getting the full story. And when it really matters, on national security and foreign policy, you get the watered down version. So when you have a drone war that was escalated by an Obama administration, the mainstream media was soft-pedaling it, sugarcoating it. It was only when The Intercept, when the ACLU and private, you know, non-profit journalistic enterprises got involved that we really hear about those drone strikes. You know, it wasn’t your papers of record. And I’m afraid that’s going to happen during the Biden administration as well.
JS: Kelley Vlahos, thank you very much for your great work over the years, very provocative work at times as well. And thank you for being with us here on Intercepted.
KV: Thank you.
JS: Kelley Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. She is also a senior adviser to the newly formed think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. 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 Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.