Article by Peter Maass

Trump’s Military Parade Is Ridiculous—but He’s Not the First Politician to Use Soldiers as Props

The Intercept  |  February 7, 2018

Oh no, there he goes again.

That’s the reaction, generally speaking, to the news that Donald Trump wants the Pentagon to arrange a glitzy military parade. Trump is breaking yet another piece of china in the shop of American democracy, glamorizing the armed forces in the type of martial spectacle that, until now, was the authoritarian privilege of countries like North Korea and Russia. Once more, Trump in his singular way is disrupting and demeaning our politics.

That’s all true, but only to a point. While the Washington Post says the parade “might be the most thoroughly Trump idea of his presidency … upending decades of American political tradition,” the military has been used as a prop for a long time by Democrats, as well as Republicans. Just think of the countless times you’ve seen politicians give speeches in front of perfectly positioned Humvees and fighter jets. The difference between the two parties might just be that Republicans are better at it. Witness the adulation that greeted George W. Bush landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and compare it to the immediate laughs provoked by Michael Dukakis riding on a tank during the presidential campaign of 1988.

But it’s not just political parties that for decades have used the military as a red-white-and-blue backdrop. The military has also been its own willing impresario. Think of the Super Bowl flyovers and the halftime ceremonies for soldiers — and the fact that rather than the military being dragged into these spectacles, it has paid its way into many of them. In 2015, a congressional report revealed that the Pentagon spent $53 million on sports marketing and advertising contracts in just a three-year period. About $10 million of that was paid directly to professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. “These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops,” noted the report, which was titled, “Tackling Paid Patriotism.”

The spectacle of military spectacle was even the focal point of a scathing 2016 film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” in which an exalted platoon is brought home from Iraq for a halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. (It’s an intended echo of a famous tour in 1945 for three survivors of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.) The soldiers are amused and disgusted by the whole spectacle, and generally relieved when it’s all over and they can get out of their insane homeland and return to Iraq.

These critiques have not slowed down the marketing of the military. The traditional flyover at last Sunday’s Super Bowl (the first was in 1968) was preceded by a Pentagon publicity blitz that included one of the F-16 pilots giving a ride to actress Elizabeth Banks (of “Wet Hot American Summer” fame) a day ahead of the game. A video of that flight was posted onto the Facebook page of the F-16 Viper Demo Team and on YouTube.

It’s unknown whether the Pentagon brass is unhappy with Trump’s idea for a parade, but lots of veterans have spoken out against it, especially on Twitter. They’re up against a lot — we’re up against a lot — because it’s not just the military that has been turned into a product placement for our political culture. To push his hardline policy against North Korea, Trump used several human props in his State of the Union address — the North Korean refugee Ji Seong-ho, and the parents of the late Otto Warmbier. This wasn’t a new method of making a statement, of course. Long before Trump launched his improbable campaign for the White House, presidents have been singling out their State of the Union guests to underscore political points. Every policy needs a prop, whether it’s a Humvee or a defector.

It’s too easy to make this about Trump, whose insincerity and phoniness are legendary. The president who wants a military parade is the same guy who evaded the draft five times with bone spurs for which there is no medical evidence, just the Donald’s word. The president who wants a military parade is also the same guy who pledged to give $1 million to veterans in 2016, but failed to do so until the media pointed out that he was not honoring his promise.

Trump deserves the criticism he’s getting, and let’s hope his parade never happens. But he’s not the originator of this madness. We have spent decades preparing the slippery slope he is gleefully pushing us down.

It’s Time to Wage War Against War Movies That Glorify Outdated Models of Masculinity

The Intercept  |  January 27, 2018

The Hollywood Reporter published a surprising story earlier this month about film studios turning away from movies about sex. A biopic about Hugh Hefner is stalled, gone for the moment is a James Franco film about a 15-year-old Russian prostitute, and a remake of “A Star Is Born” is being re-thought, too.

“As Hollywood begins to navigate the #MeToo landscape,” Tatiana Siegel reported, “one of the first casualties appears to be big-screen erotica. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, studios are steering clear of sex.” Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, hopes that Hollywood’s embarrassed executives are navigating “the end of a very narrow way of thinking about what’s alluring.” Instead of movies that objectify women, she suggests more films that portray sex and sexuality in intelligent ways.

This reckoning is long overdue. And it can be extended to another genre that has distorted how men behave: war movies. Hollywood has shown itself capable of making excellent war movies (think “Three Kings,” “Paths of Glory,” and “The Best Years of Our Lives”), but most are problematic. Some of the biggest war movies of the post-9/11 era don’t just show violence in ways that are often gratuitous and occasionally racist. They model a cliched form of masculinity that veers from simplistic to monstrous.

For instance, you can see Rambo and John Wayne return to life in the latest war blockbuster, “12 Strong,” which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also brought us “Black Hawk Down.” “12 Strong” is an extravaganza about a Special Forces team that fought the Taliban in Afghanistan in the weeks and months after 9/11. During the movie’s pivotal scene, the leader of the Green Berets, played by Chris Hemsworth (the grievously handsome star of the Thor franchise), decimates a hive of Taliban fighters with his rifle ablaze as he gallops ahead on his fearless horse (yes, he’s riding a horse). In the same way that Hemsworth’s assault weapon goes rat-tat-tat and the bad guys fall like bulleted dominoes, the scene itself checks off one born-in-Hollywood cliché after another: of the rugged gunslinger, the warrior in camo, good versus evil, the modern vanquishing the profane, a man at his fullest.

Whenever I write about the real-world impact of war movies – and I’ve gone to bat against “American Sniper,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “13 Hours” — I always get responses along the lines of “Relax, these are just movies. Don’t take them so seriously. They’re harmless.” That’s when it becomes necessary to say that movies can create or reinforce narratives of history and gender that influence what people think and what they do. Boys and men develop their notions of masculinity from a variety of sources that include the films they watch (the extent to which this is true is, of course, open to debate). The time has come for Hollywood to turn away from war movies that, while satisfying to both a studio’s bottom line and a flag-waving concept of patriotism, perpetuate a model of masculinity that does violence to us all.

Don’t get me wrong, soldiers often do brave things and shouldn’t be denied credit for it. I’ve reported on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia, so I’ve seen heroism from soldiers of many nationalities, as well as cowardice and abuse. That’s not the issue. What matters is that well into the second decade of our forever war, the combat movies that populate our multiplexes and our minds are devoted to a martial narrative of men-as-terminators that should have been strangled at its birth a long time ago.

While “12 Strong” is marketed as a true story based on a nonfiction book by Doug Stanton, there is nothing in Stanton’s book that resembles the climactic scene of Hemsworth bravely shooting his way on horseback through a gauntlet of waiting-for-paradise Talibs. There is one passage in the book in which the Special Forces soldier played by Hemsworth rides his horse into the corpse-strewn aftermath of a battle, but the fighting and dying are over by then. When I asked the film’s public relations team about this difference, they sent me the following statement from Stanton: “This scene is an amalgamation of the horse charges that the [Afghan] Northern Alliance made against the Taliban, and which the [American] horse soldiers themselves observed and assisted in. But as it appears in the movie, the same scene does not appear in my book.”

Inventions are what Hollywood does best, of course, but it’s hard to know whether to chuckle or cry about the grafting of this magical practice onto a film that purports to show the heroism of U.S. soldiers; their actual bravery was not good enough for a film-whisperer like Bruckheimer, apparently. They called in airstrikes against Taliban positions while riding horses through frigid mountain passes, getting sniped at by the enemy and taking shelter in ancient caves with guerrilla fighters subsisting on nuts and stale bread? How can I make a movie about that, get me someone from rewrite! So in the rewrite, the riding-and-shooting-into-a-hail-of-bullets courage of Afghan fighters is transposed onto American soldiers (hence the promotional still from “12 Strong” that is published with this story). It’s a sort of cinematic stolen valor.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The best war film of the last year, “Thank You for Your Service,” based on the nonfiction book by David Finkel, quietly focuses on the troubles of a group of soldiers after they come home from a deployment in Iraq. The film has only two battle scenes, and both are excruciating to watch because their violence is frightening rather than glorious – the opposite of Bruckheimer’s feel-good shoot-’em-ups. The men in “Thank You for Your Service” are struggling with PTSD, painfully coming to the awareness that the combat that gave them such purpose in Iraq has injured their psyches. Nobody looks like Thor in this movie, nobody behaves like Thor, and the John Wayne style of masculinity that these men might have aspired to emulate is shown to be an artificial and harmful construct.

You know what’s coming next.

“12 Strong” earned nearly twice as much in three days as “Thank You for Your Service” has earned in three months. And the numbers – more than $15 million in ticket sales for “12 Strong” in its first week – are Venmo pennies compared to the box office take of “American Sniper,” the macho movie about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle that has earned more than half a billion dollars since 2014. Who is at fault for the lucrative war chum that Hollywood tosses into our Saturday nights – the movie studios or the movie-goers who love to consume this masculine nonsense?

I’ll gladly answer that question: both. But first let’s examine the greater power of producers, directors, and actors, because their choices are so influential. It’s not a matter of deciding to zone out for 90 minutes in front of a screen, but of investing large amounts of time and resources into making distorted movies about men at war (such movies are almost never about women). I realize it might be absurd to think that somehow these filmmakers (surprise — they’re mostly men) can be persuaded to reconsider before doing it again. The only thing that might be more ridiculous to imagine is the movie industry turning away from films that objectify women – which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is apparently happening.

So yes, there is hope.

Enough About Steve Bannon. Rupert Murdoch’s Influence on Donald Trump Is More Dangerous

The Intercept  |  January 6, 2018

For quite a while, there has been a bull market in stories about Steve Bannon calling the shots in the incorrigible tangle of neurons that passes for Donald Trump’s brain. Michael Wolff’s new book about the dysfunctional White House, “Fire and Fury,” adds a marvelous coda to this narrative, with Bannon, in his waning days in the West Wing, telling the insane truth about the most ridiculous and frightening presidency ever.

Bannon deserves every bit of attention and disgust that has come his way in recent times. His racism, laundered through Breitbart News and the White House, has fueled the far right and fanned Trump’s enfeebled instincts. Bannon’s hatred of immigration and Muslims is so fierce that he even concocted a tale about seeing the dangers of Islam firsthand when a Navy vessel he had served aboard in 1979 stopped in Pakistan – except, as it turns out, the vessel did not stop in Pakistan.

But the attention Bannon demands of us should not obscure the rival media impresario with truly Manchurian levels of influence over the president: Rupert Murdoch. One of the less-noted passages in Wolff’s book explains that the president reveres Murdoch, regularly seeking advice from the founder of the Fox empire, a condition that made Bannon jealous of Murdoch’s power over Trump. The book quotes Roger Ailes, who ran Fox News for Murdoch until being dismissed for sexual harassment, as noting that “Trump would jump through hoops for Rupert.”

Wolff’s book may not be the whole truth, but its account of Trump’s infatuation with Murdoch is consistent with reports elsewhere. Murdoch and Trump speak frequently – “Murdoch here,” their phone calls begin, according to the New York Times, which reports that Trump counts Murdoch “as one of his closest confidants.” The men have known each other for decades, since the days when Murdoch owned the New York Post and Trump was one of its fawning obsessions (“Best Sex I’ve Ever Had,” read a famous Post headline from 1990, referring to an apparent remark from Trump’s then-mistress and future short-term wife, Marla Maples).

Murdoch’s conservative ideas have never been in the shadows, and his media empire’s embrace of dirty tricks has been evident since it was revealed that one of his papers hacked the phones of a murder victim and the relatives of deceased soldiers. But the ethical brutality of the Trump era has seemed to relieve Murdoch of the burden of dressing up his views and morals. Murdoch had delayed his dismissal of Ailes in 2016 (with a $40 million severance package), after which he denied there was a culture of abuse at Fox, despite several male hosts and executives resigning or getting fired for harassing women. “It’s all nonsense,” he said last month.

We don’t know the instructions given to Trump in his “Murdoch here” conversations, but we do know the instructions the president gets from Fox News. There’s a cottage industry, in which the Kremlinologists of social media correlate Trump’s statements and tweets to what he has apparently just watched on Fox and, in particular, his favorite show on the network, Fox & Friends. Of course, it’s distressing that a president spends as much time as Trump does watching television (while eating cheeseburgers in bed, according to Wolff), but the fact that he mimics what he hears on a cable channel that promotes conspiracy theories and racists is … oh God, it would be a pleasure to conjure something more absurd and less chilling.

Fox News is not on autopilot. Its unhinged condition is not a consequence of its anchors and producers deciding, autonomously, that they would like to take the network where no network has gone before. This is Murdoch’s doing. After Ailes left, Murdoch assumed the position of the network’s executive chair and led its swan dive into the far-right gutter. “Rupert Murdoch is in charge,” noted Fox anchor Bill Hemmer a year after Ailes’s departure. According to the Daily Beast, Murdoch often presides over the morning news meetings; Vanity Fair quotes a former Fox executive as saying Murdoch “is having the time of his life running” the network.

Fox was never balanced or fair, and Ailes was not a nice guy. But according to Tamara Holder, a lawyer and former Fox contributor, Ailes at least made sure the network didn’t totally lose it. Holder, who left the network at the end of 2016 after accusing a senior executive of sexual misconduct (the executive was fired and Holder received a settlement), views Ailes’s dismissal and death a year later as key factors. According to Holder, Ailes required at least a bit of balance, if only a fig leaf, in the network’s coverage. “The one thing they’re missing is the Roger Ailes control button,” Holder told me. “Roger was good at overseeing things and calling it when he saw it was a little out of control.”

In the wake of Wolff’s book, there is no shortage of headlines about Bannon’s quotes and their fallout. The wealthy Mercer family, in response to Trump banishing Bannon from his set – er, his presidency – is distancing itself from Bannon’s projects. But Bannon’s malevolent influence on Trump and America is slighter than that of Murdoch and Fox. While the reach of Bannon’s Breitbart News is large in relation to its modest size – it is headquartered in the basement of a three-story townhouse in Washington, D.C. — Fox News is a globe-spanning entity with more than 1,000 employees and 90 million subscribers, including a particularly avid one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The power behind the throne of the xenophobic right in the United States is not the millionaire banker from Goldman Sachs, but the billionaire immigrant from Australia.

Interrogation of Reality Winner Reveals Deceptive Tactics of “Exceedingly Friendly” FBI Agents

The Intercept  |  Dec. 28, 2017

In late January, George Papadopoulos did what a lot of Americans do when FBI agents ask for a few minutes of their time — he agreed to talk. It’s a decision he likely regrets, because in October the former adviser to President Donald Trump’s election campaign pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. He is now a key figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The court files in the Papadopoulos case say little about the conditions of his chat with the two FBI agents. We don’t know how long it lasted, where in Chicago it took place, what its tenor was, or whether Papadopoulos was aware the agents probably knew the answers to most questions they asked. One thing, though, is clear: Papadopoulos engaged in a form of self-harming behavior that defense lawyers always advise against — saying “yes” when a pair of friendly FBI agents knock on your door and ask to chat.
His interrogation was recorded but the transcript has not been released, so it’s impossible to know precisely what the FBI agents might have said that gave Papadopoulos the impression it would be in his interests to talk and to lie. But in another high-profile case, involving former NSA contractor Reality Winner, the government released a transcript of the interrogation. It provides a verbatim example — and a rare example — of how FBI agents ingratiate themselves with unsuspecting suspects and intimidate them into saying things that bring doom upon them.
The interrogations of Winner and Papadopoulos were what the FBI likes to call “noncustodial,” so they were not read their Miranda rights — because, the FBI claims, they were not arrested or detained at the time of the interrogation. (Winner’s lawyers have argued in court filings that she was effectively detained and should have been Mirandized.) By avoiding the obligation to inform suspects of their right to a lawyer and the right to stay silent, the FBI makes it easier to get Americans to say things — whether truths or lies — that will be used against them. The Fifth Amendment protects people from testifying against themselves, of course, and the Sixth Amendment provides the right to legal counsel, but law enforcement authorities get around these constitutional protections by contending that some interrogations are noncustodial. The result is that suspects are enticed into talking before they realize the jeopardy they face and the rights they possess.
“Because warnings are only required prior to custodial interrogation, one way to minimize the impact of Miranda on investigations is to try to conduct interrogations whenever possible in noncustodial settings (such as the suspect’s home or on the street, without arrest-like restraints),” notes an article in Police Magazine, which caters to the law enforcement community. The article bore the headline “How to talk to suspects without Mirandizing.”
There’s a problem with that kind of advice — the presence of law enforcement officers can turn homes and sidewalks into coercive environments, making the distinction between “custodial” and “noncustodial” a murky if not artificial one. The Winner transcript, which was released in September, offers an unusual look inside one of these home interrogations. In its early we’re-on-your-side phase, the interrogation pivoted on Winner’s love of dogs and her CrossFit workouts.

About a dozen FBI agents arrived at Winner’s rented house in Augusta, Georgia, on the afternoon of June 3, as she returned from grocery shopping.
“The reason we’re here today is that we have a search warrant for your house,” one of the agents told her, according to the transcript.
“OK,” she replied.
“All right,” Special Agent Justin Garrick said. “Do you know what this might be about?”
“I have no idea,” Winner replied.
“OK, this is about possible mishandling of classified information.”
“Oh my goodness,” Winner responded.
The agents soft-pedalled the reason for their visit. It can be relatively innocuous, in the eyes of the law, to mishandle classified information — it might not even be a crime, if the information is not too serious and the reasons for mishandling it not too nefarious. But this wasn’t, in the eyes of the FBI, an innocuous case. Garrick, who asked most of the questions, is a specialist in espionage and counterintelligence, according to court documents. The government’s charging documents make clear that at the time of her interrogation, Winner was suspected of what the government was treating (probably cynically) as a very serious offense that jeopardized national security. The interrogation ended with Winner being arrested and charged under the draconian 1917 Espionage Act.
The agents did not mention the Espionage Act while they talked with her. And they did not hint at the possible prison-for-a-decade consequences of what they suspected she had done: mail a classified NSA document to a media outlet. On June 5, the day Winner’s arrest was belatedly announced, The Intercept published a story based on a leaked NSA document detailing Russian attempts at cyberattacks against the U.S. election infrastructure. Though The Intercept has no knowledge of who sent the document, several publications reported that Winner mailed it to The Intercept, which has published a statement about its role in the case.
Her interrogation on June 3 began innocently enough. The first few minutes revolved around making her house safe for agents who would search it, which meant making sure her dog wouldn’t bite anyone, and making sure her guns (she had three) were secured. The conversation then took a decidedly casual turn.
“How long have you had your dog?” Garrick asked.
“She’s actually a foster,” Winner replied. “I’m rehabilitating her so hopefully she can get adopted later on.”
“How old is she?”
“Oh, we don’t really know. She’s one of those.”
“Yeah,” Garrick said. “One of my dogs was a rescue and when I got him … I was the only guy who could touch him.” He later added, “If you can tell, we’re all dog people.”
Garrick mentioned that his dog urinated “all over the place” at the outset, but eventually got used to its new home and started licking all visitors. Winner replied that her dog had been kept in a kennel and neglected her whole life. As they chatted, the other FBI agent, Wallace Taylor, offered to put her groceries into her refrigerator.
The conversation turned to her service in the Air Force. Once more, the agents employed convivial banter. When Winner mentioned that she was stuck for four years in a Maryland posting, one of the FBI agents said, “I can beat you. You know where my first Air Force assignment was?”
“What?” Winner asked.
“Minot, North Dakota.”
They made jokes about the cold weather — the transcript is interspersed with parenthetical descriptions of laughter — and then Garrick spoke about one of his FBI postings.
“I was seven years in D.C., and that was about six and a half too long,” he cracked.
“Oh yeah, D.C.,” Winner said.
“They keep asking if I want to go up there,” Garrick said. “I’m like, ‘Uh, no. No. No thank you.’ I’m done with that.”
Garrick inquired about her CrossFit workout routine.
“I did it for like six months, and I hurt myself,” Garrick offered. “Just every single day was pain.”
The transcript of their CrossFit conversation goes on for more than two pages, with idle chat about box jumps and stress fractures and bench pressing (“So power lifting … what’s your favorite stuff?”). It’s a classic tactic of softening up a target, creating a false sense that the agents are your friends rather than, as often turns out to be the case, soon-to-be witnesses against you in court.
“You’re trying to get information from somebody, so being confrontational, bellicose, threatening — for the most part is counterproductive,” notes Jeffrey Danik, a retired FBI agent who spent nearly three decades investigating white-collar crimes, violent crimes, and terrorism. “You can’t let them start thinking that this is some kind of confrontational, confinement-ending interview.” That goes for all types of suspects, he said, whether a bank teller who purloined $100, or a serial rapist with a dozen victims. “It’s how 99 percent of them go,” Danik told me. In an email, he added, “When they are friendly, which they usually are, it really defuses people’s anxiety.”
The feigned friendliness of FBI agents is not just a matter of getting people to loosen up. One of the government’s briefs in the Winner case argues that by being “exceedingly friendly” and always keeping their voices at a “conversational level” and carrying “no visible weapons,” the agents acted in a way that created a noncustodial environment. It’s a law enforcement twofer: By acting polite, law enforcement agents persuade people to talk and lift from themselves the obligation to inform people of their right not to talk. In a way, FBI interrogations are akin to con games, with the mark played by ordinary citizens whose interests are not actually served by chatting with law enforcement agents pretending they’d just like to clear up a minor misunderstanding.
“Good interviewers have an instinct to find some connection with the person you are interviewing and try to make them comfortable,” said Mike German, a retired FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “You want to have the person you’re interviewing in a cooperative mood. People tend to cooperate with people they have some positive feeling for. The ability to make a personal connection in a short period of time is a valuable talent.”
Much of the time, it’s a strategy devised in advance by agents who know what topics will appeal to the suspect they are trying to loosen up.
“The advantage for an FBI investigator is that you have a tremendous amount of information available to you, much more than the person you’re talking to,” German said. “I’m sure they knew a tremendous amount about her and what those areas of commonality were.” He added, “A good interviewer is an interviewer who has done his homework.”

The tactic of disarming a suspect during a “noncustodial” interrogation was used in another prominent leak case a few years ago. In 2015, I wrote about the interrogation and imprisonment of Stephen Kim, a State Department official who was accused of talking about a classified report on North Korea with a journalist from Fox News. Kim told me that the FBI agents were friendly when they arrived at his State Department office. In his job as a North Korea analyst, he had lots of contact with intelligence and law enforcement officials, so the visit wasn’t unusual. “It wasn’t like suddenly they came in and, boom, laid it on me,” Kim explained. “They did not say, ‘We are investigating a leak.’ They did not say, ‘We are investigating you.’ … I didn’t know why they were there.”
Kim had met and talked with James Rosen, the Fox reporter, but he lied to the FBI agents when they finally got around to asking about it. The agents did not indicate they knew of the contacts, so Kim thought he could get away with a fib — why draw attention to what he thought was an everyday infraction that the agents didn’t appear to be aware of? It was a mistake. Kim would later be charged not only with a violation of the Espionage Act, but also with lying to the FBI. The lawyer Kim hired once he realized he was in trouble, Abbe Lowell, was distressingly familiar with the FBI’s tactics of using noncustodial interrogations to get people to say things that no lawyer would let them say.
“He was asked questions that were, for all intents and purposes, a setup,” Lowell told me for the 2015 story. “The government already knew that Stephen had had a conversation with the media. They already knew that he had had access to the information that they believed to have been classified. They were basically setting him up.”
Lowell, a high-profile attorney in Washington who now represents Jared Kushner, mentioned an old adage about criminal defense attorneys. “Many of them have a fish that they mount on the wall,” he said. “These lawyers put a plaque under the fish, and in words or effect that plaque will say, ‘If I hadn’t opened my mouth, I wouldn’t be hanging here today.’”
When I mentioned this to German, the former FBI agent, he told me about the “five words” motto he learned when he worked cases against neo-Nazis. Members of the neo-Nazi movement were instructed by their leaders to only say five words to law enforcement: “I have nothing to say.” They rarely followed the instruction, however.
“They all had plenty to say,” German said. “I think it’s just human nature to feel like you can talk your way out of it or minimize your conduct in a way that can help you. What any lawyer will tell you is, ‘No you can’t. There’s nothing positive you can do for yourself in that interaction, and in fact, that’s why you need to get legal representation before talking with law enforcement.’”
It might seem there is no harm done when FBI agents persuade or cajole people to confess to crimes. But there is a long record of law enforcement officers coaxing false confessions out of people. A study of exonerations in the United States between 1989 and 2004 found that 15 percent of the people who were exonerated had confessed to crimes they did not actually commit. And there is an equally long and disreputable record of the government incarcerating people for a far longer time than their confessions would justify.

The exact methods of the FBI’s preliminary interrogations are somewhat mysterious, because the bureau’s agents are not required to record them. In the Obama era, the Department of Justice issued a new policy that required agents to record custodial interrogations, and transcripts of them have been introduced as evidence, but the guidelines do not cover noncustodial questioning. The combination of recording one and releasing the transcript, as was done in the Winner case, is extremely unusual, according to the FBI agents I talked with.
The transcript of Winner’s interrogation reveals the hot-cold nature of these conversations. After the relationship-enhancing questions about her workout routine, the agents got around to her job as an NSA contractor in Augusta. They asked whether she would access a document she didn’t need to access for her job. She said she wouldn’t.
“OK,” Agent Garrick said. “Reality, what if I said that I have the information to suggest that you did print out stuff that was outside of that scope?”
“OK,” Winner replied. “I would have to try to remember.”
“Reality,” the other FBI agent said, “you know, we obviously know a lot more than what we’re telling you at this point. And I think you know a lot more than what you’re telling us at this point. I don’t want you to go down the wrong road. I think you need to stop and think about what you’re saying and what you’re doing. You know, I think it’s an opportunity to maybe tell the truth. Because telling a lie to an FBI agent is not going to be the right thing.”
Winner then said she had printed a document, but put it in her office’s “burn bag,” where classified material is placed to be securely destroyed.
“OK,” Garrick replied. “What if I tell you that that document, folded in half, made its way outside of NSA? It made its way out in an envelope, postmarked Augusta, Georgia. See, things are starting to get a little specific.”
Winner was cornered, literally. The agents were interrogating her in a small room at the back of her house and were blocking the exit, according to a statement Winner made to the court in late August (the government claims the exit was not blocked). She did not feel free to leave the room or stop the interrogation. The scenario — of being apparently trapped — is familiar to Kim, who eventually pleaded guilty and served 11 months in prison. Kim told me that he was disoriented during his interrogations. He had never been the target of an investigation and didn’t know what to do — he didn’t realize, for instance, that he should stop the questioning and ask for a lawyer. His experience, and Winner’s, demonstrate how a coercive environment can be created without handcuffs or prison bars.
“It was surreal,” Kim told me. “What are you supposed to feel? You don’t feel anything. You’re dumbfounded. Have you ever been hit really hard, like playing sports, or you ran into a pole, or somebody hit you? At first you don’t know what hit you. You’re kind of stunned. … I didn’t know what was happening.”
Winner, in her August 29 statement, was even more direct.
“During the entirety of my encounter with law enforcement on June 3, 2017,” she stated, “I was never told I was free to leave and, in fact, given the circumstances, I never felt free to terminate the interrogation or leave my home.”

The transcript shows the agents, as they coaxed Winner into purportedly confessing a crime, suggesting that the matter wasn’t all that serious.  “I don’t think you make it a habit,” Garrick told her, referring to leaking documents. “You just messed up.” Taylor downplayed it further. “What we both think is that maybe you made a mistake,” he said. “Maybe you weren’t thinking for a minute. Maybe you got angry. … If that’s the case, then that makes us feel a little better, knowing that we don’t have a real serious problem here.”
As the government’s filings in the case make clear, however, they are contending that Winner knew she could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security by leaking the classified document. Winner’s lawyers have noted that the government’s contention is dubious because so much of what is classified is actually innocuous and should not be classified in the first place; it appears the government is cynically exaggerating the potential impact of Winner’s alleged crime, to make an example out of her and intimidate other would-be leakers. Once Winner was arrested, the government even argued against her being released on bail, because she might flee the country and spill more secrets. “The defendant has shown an aptitude for deception and concealment, and she has the capacity to cause further harm to U.S. national security if released,” the prosecution argued, so far successfully.
Contrary to what the FBI told Winner, she was facing an enormous amount of trouble. The irony and unfairness is that FBI agents are not prosecuted for making false or misleading statements to the unaware citizens they interrogate.
Editor’s note: The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, has taken steps to provide independent support to Winner’s legal defense through the Press Freedom Defense Fund. First Look also contributed $50,000 in matching funds to the Stand With Reality campaign.

Ratko Mladic Was Convicted of Seige Warfare in Bosnia. Will U.S.-Backed Siege in Yemen Face Justice?

The Intercept  |  Nov. 22, 2017

Ratko Mladic got what he deserved, which is the beginning of the story.

Forget, for a moment, the legal jargon that defines what are known as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Think, instead, of this simpler thing: siege warfare. In plain language, that’s one of the many outrages Mladic, a former general, presided over during the war in Bosnia — for which an international war crimes tribunal has just condemned him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Think of the hideousness of what siege warfare consists of — establishing military control of the territory and waterways around cities, choking off the supply of food and water to people who die without enough of it. Keep in mind that the weakest suffer first, the children, the sick, the old, the pregnant. A siege is not passive; to hasten its consequences, attacks against the vulnerable population are conducted with whatever instruments are available. That is what happened in one form or the other in the Middle Ages, when storybooks tell us siege warfare became a viable military product, and it happened in the 1990s, when as a young reporter, I was naive enough to be shocked that the so-called international community would allow Bosnian Serb forces led by Mladic to suffocate Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Gorazde, Zepa, and other cities that the United Nations laughingly and toothlessly declared as “safe areas.”

Mladic’s conviction offers a moment of joyless satisfaction for the victims and survivors of his carnage, which was mostly directed against Muslims. A generation has passed, but various authors of the Balkan wars of the 1990s have eventually received the only reward they merited: a prison cell. Last year, the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadžic was convicted of war crimes. The Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic was in jail preparing for his trial when he died of a heart attack. A handful of others, including Croats and Kosovars, have been brought to trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as the body that convicted Mladic is known. Many more war criminals escaped prosecution and some, like Croat leader Franjo Tudman, lived in peace and died as heroes, but a measure of justice has been done.

Whatever congratulations anyone might feel about this news should be tempered with shame. Siege warfare is happening at this very moment in Yemen, where whole cities and regions have been cut off by a Saudi-led military alliance. The generation-ago crimes for which Mladic has been justly condemned are happening again right now. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, so you will not hear the State Department calling for a war crimes tribunal to deal with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — good friends of President Donald Trump and his crown prince, Jared Kushner. The real twist, of course, is that the siege warfare for which Mladic has been vilified is, in its Yemeni iteration, actively facilitated by the U.S., which provides munitions, targeting intelligence, and mid-air refueling to Saudi bomber jets.

The International Criminal Court might seem the best forum for investigating what’s happening in Yemen, but as Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch notes, there are only two pathways for that to happen. If the U.N. Security Council refers the matter to the ICC, or if one of the ICC member states involved in the conflict demands an investigation. On the first, the U.S. would likely block the Security Council from acting against its Saudi ally (and itself). On the second, neither Yemen nor Saudi Arabia are members of the ICC. However, the Commissions of Inquiry at the U.N. Human Rights Council can recommend that the Security Council take measures to sanction Saudi Arabia, according to Whitson, as was the case with Iran. But because Saudi Arabia is strongly supported by and aligned with the U.S., sanctions are unlikely.

The most vivid critique of the ICC and other U.S.-supported war crimes tribunals of recent decades is that they are victor’s justice of a sort. The foreigners who face trial tend to be ones who made the mistake of committing their crimes without the backing of the U.S., or against the interests of the United States. The critique goes further than that — if you happen to be from a powerful country that committed war crimes that the U.S. did not support — let’s say, Russian forces in Chechnya — you will not face an international court because your leaders have enough clout to stifle the residual moral reflexes of Washington and Brussels at the United Nations. It is only small countries that have to hand over their thugs.

The critique goes deeper still. What of the war crimes — for the sake of nonjudgmental argument, let’s call them potential war crimes — directly committed by the United States itself in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan? U.S. courts have convicted a handful of mostly low-level soldiers and contractors for only a smattering of offenses, but their main crime was to be noticed. If it were not for the efforts of journalists who exposed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiyah, Nisour Square, and other versions of My Lai, you probably would not have heard of these places, and nobody would have been punished. Exposure is not always a precursor for justice, however — nobody has been jailed for what a lengthy congressional report determined to be torture at the CIA’s “black sites.” George Tenet, the CIA director who presided over it, received a presidential medal of freedom.

Today, there is a president of the United States who has pronounced himself nostalgic for the use of torture techniques that even the Pentagon has belatedly and officially condemned. His government has launched more drone strikes, happening under looser guidelines, than ever before. At the moment, it seems hopeless to dream of a future in which consistency will be the hallmark of war crimes tribunals. That’s why the Mladic verdict is so important, not just for the victims of his injustices, but for the injustices committed now.

A generation ago, when I met the men and women — OK one woman: Biljana Plavšic — who gave the orders that killed so many innocents in Bosnia, it was pretty much unthinkable that their crimes would catch up with them. Miloševic extradited? Mladic humbled? Karadžic found after years of living under an assumed name as a New Age healer in Belgrade with his graying hair in a ponytail? This was no less hallucinatory than a low-IQ reality television star boasting of assaulting women and getting elected president. The trial of Ratko Mladic is a necessary reminder that our imaginations are no match for what the future may bring.

North Korea Is the Most Predictable Regime on Earth. The Real Threat Is the Erratic U.S. Government.

The Intercept  |  September 26, 2017

The nuclear shouting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un often seems like a maddening version of whack-a-crazy-mole, in which an unhinged comment by one of them is hastily followed by a lunatic retort from the other. Trump calls Kim “rocket man,” Kim calls Trump a “dotard,” Trump tweets that Kim “won’t be around much longer,” and on and on it goes.

This raises a serious question: Which of these awesomely flawed men is the most volatile and dangerous? The trail to an answer begins with an article that Evan Osnos wrote for the New Yorker about his recent journey to totalitarian North Korea. His “Letter from Pyongyang” reached 14,000 words and was praised as a marvel of reporting that revealed the stark yet impenetrable contours of the world’s most famous nuclear-armed nightmare.

Osnos described how he was met at the Pyongyang airport by a polite government minder who never left his side. He stayed at a special hotel for foreigners that was isolated from the general population. He visited a school where the students made statements that were programmatic. He was taken into Pyongyang’s subway and told that its deep tunnels would be fallout shelters in the event of nuclear war with America. He was not allowed to make a spontaneous visit to anyone’s home.

I was struck by these things because I had the exact same experiences when I made a trip to North Korea — in 1989. Same type of minder, hotel, and school, same prohibition on popping into anyone’s apartment, even the same remark from my minder that the subway would double as a fallout shelter if America attacked. Osnos and I were taken to the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, and we made the same futile requests to interview the country’s supreme leader. We even reached the same conclusion that a nearly occult haze made it hard to know what was really going on in the country.

I was based in South Korea for the Washington Post in the late 1980s and got lucky when I applied for a North Korean visa. The headline for a front-page story I wrote from there 28 years ago could have worked for Osnos’s article: “North Korea Maintains Orwellian System.” I do not mean to criticize anyone’s reporting – there is little room for narrative imagination when you are fed the same gruel that everyone else has been fed for a half century.

Indeed, if you are a regular reader of Western reporting from North Korea, you notice a pattern that is so unerring it nearly screams at you. For an excruciatingly long stretch of time, the North Korean regime has been saying the same thing (sometimes crazy-sounding) and acting the same way (sometimes firing missiles or detonating nuclear devices) and generally doing a bang-up job of going to the brink but never over it. North Korea has had just three leaders in its entire existence: Kim Il-sung, then his son, Kim Jong-il, then his son, Kim Jong-un. It’s crucial to understand that rather than being a wild card, North Korea is perhaps the most predictable regime in the world; they are not the X-factor in today’s unnerving game.

This point was recently acknowledged in a notable series of comments from Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence and admiral who once commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“The overall consistency of North Korean policy has been pretty remarkable over, I’d say, 50 years or so, and [Kim Jong-un] is basically carrying on that policy, which is to provoke, take outrageous actions below the level of triggering a major conflict with the United States and South Korea,” Blair told Politico’s Susan Glasser. A few days before Trump, speaking at the United Nations, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea – not just its leader but, apparently, the entire country – Glasser observed that the United States had become the author of, as she delicately put it, “unorthodox approaches.”

“We used to be the strong, silent type on all of this crazy rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang … and that’s not the style of this president,” Blair replied. “Now we have this rhetorical stream going back at North Korea itself. So that is different.”

Blair gives too much credit to a stoic Gary Cooper ideal of the United States. Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. stationed its own nuclear weapons in South Korea even though North Korea, at the time, had none of its own. Almost 65 years after the Korean War ended in 1953, the U.S. continues to station tens of thousands of its soldiers in South Korea (North Korea has no foreign soldiers on its territory) and holds regular military exercises there (and just flew B1 bombers close to North Korean airspace).

But the dynamics have changed, and it’s not due to the Dennis Rodman-loving Kim Jong-un or the nuclear weapons he is fond of detonating (as was his father, who created North Korea’s nuclear program and oversaw its first detonations – the family’s consistency is as crushing as its brutality). We now have Donald Trump and cable news, playing the 24/7 jester on his West Wing wall. Hyping war has always sold newspapers, but the competition for eyeballs and profits is particularly keen these days. And while CNN and MSNBC are terrible enough, Fox News is probably the worst offender in the ratings-driven effort to summon Armageddon. Unfortunately, Fox happens to be the preferred network of the six-times-bankrupt reality television star who somehow gathered enough electoral votes to place him in charge of the U.S. arsenal.

Trump and cable news are the feedback loop from nuclear hell. In a narrow way, this is good for American journalists who wish to write about political insanity. They do not need to travel thousands of miles to visit ground zero of crazy and dangerous.

Bannon Said He Learned to Fear Muslims When He Visited Pakistan. But He Was Probably in Hong Kong.

The Intercept  |  August 11, 2017

If you ask Steve Bannon how he got the idea that Muslims in the Middle East are a civilizational threat to America, he will say that his eyes were first opened when he served on a Navy destroyer in the Arabian Sea. At least that’s what he told the journalist Joshua Green, whose new book about President Donald Trump’s senior counselor is a best-seller.

“It was not hard to see, as a junior officer, sitting there, that [the threat] was just going to be huge,” Bannon said. He went on:

We’d pull into a place like Karachi, Pakistan – this is 1979, and I’ll never forget it – the British guys came on board, because they still ran the port. The city had 10 million people at the time. We’d get out there, and 8 million of them had to be below the age of fifteen. It was an eye-opener. We’d been other places like the Philippines where there was mass poverty. But it was nothing like the Middle East. It was just a complete eye-opener. It was the other end of the earth.

That’s Bannon’s version. There are a few problems with it, however.

The port of Karachi was not run by the British in 1979. Karachi, which is the commercial hub of Pakistan, had a population that was well short of 10 million (it was about half that) and is not usually considered part of the Middle East. But the biggest problem is that the destroyer Bannon served on, the USS Paul F. Foster, never visited Karachi while Bannon was aboard.

Six sailors who served on the Foster with Bannon told The Intercept that the vessel did not stop at Karachi during its 1979-1980 deployment. The recollections of these enlisted men and officers are supported by the ship’s deck logs, which show no stop on the way to the Arabian Sea and are available to the public at the National Archives. And a map of the Foster’s port calls that was published in its “cruisebook” shows stops in Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Christmas Island, Hong Kong, and Singapore — but not Karachi.

It turns out that Bannon, who has drawn a large amount of criticism for his exclusionary stances on race, religion, and immigration, has also inaccurately described his military service, simultaneously creating an erroneous narrative of how he came to an incendiary anti-Muslim worldview that helps shape White House policy.

It’s not clear whether Bannon’s account of visiting Karachi is an intentional fabrication or a false memory that reflects his subconscious fears, or something else entirely. Whatever the reason, it raises a lot of questions. Bannon did not respond to several inquiries from The Intercept. A close friend of Bannon’s who is in regular contact with him, and spoke on the condition of not being named, said Bannon had not read Green’s book and that the quotes attributed to him had not been checked with him. Green, the author, told The Intercept that the interview with Bannon occurred in 2015 and was recorded and transcribed.

The news of Bannon’s problematic narrative comes at a delicate time for the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, which under his leadership produced incessant streams of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stories. Bannon’s Navy service has always been deeply relevant to his work at the White House because it has been used as a reason for giving him influence on military affairs that his critics believe he does not merit. Bannon reportedly has a tense relationship with the retired generals who occupy key positions in the Trump administration – Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and particularly National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that McMaster has been waging a campaign to cleanse the National Security Council of Bannon’s allies, and that the two men have argued about Afghanistan policy.

In January, when a controversial presidential order gave Bannon a full seat on the principals committee of the NSC, the White House cited his service in the Navy, where he was a junior officer for seven years with two deployments, first to the Pacific in 1978, the second to the Pacific and the Arabian Sea in 1979-1980. “He is a former naval officer,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer at the time. “He’s got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape. … Having the chief strategist for the president in those meetings who has a significant military background to help make — guide — what the president’s final analysis is going to be, is crucial.” In April, after being heavily criticized for putting Bannon on the NSC, Trump withdrew the full seat, though Bannon reportedly continues to attend meetings as a visitor.

The falsehood about Karachi is not the only questionable statement Bannon made to Green about his military service. Bannon may have exaggerated his active-duty encounters with Iran. In the early months of 1980, Bannon was on board the Foster when, for about a month or less, it patrolled in the Gulf of Oman in the military run-up to the botched effort to rescue the American hostages who had been seized at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. A portion of Iran’s coastline is on the Gulf of Oman.

“The only way I can describe Iran,” Bannon told Green, “is that it looked like the moon. You’re literally months away from home, steaming across the ocean, these vast expanses, you get to this place and it was like you’d landed on the moon. It was like the fifth century – completely primeval.”

There are two apparent problems with Bannon’s description of Iran.

The first is that Iran in 1980 was anything but fifth-century primeval. Its per capita income was about $2,500, making it a mid-ranking country at the time, thanks to its oil reserves. Iran’s major cities were fairly well developed. Although it had large stretches of lightly populated territory and still does, Iran wasn’t the moon or even Mongolia. Lots of developed countries have large stretches of empty land — people tend to cluster in urban areas that occupy relatively little national territory.

But another potential problem with Bannon’s Iran story is that from the bridge of the Foster, where he served as a navigator, it would have been difficult at most times to see Iran with any clarity, according to several officers who served on the ship. The Foster cruised in international waters as an escort to the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, usually at least a dozen miles away from Iran, the officers said, and that was too far away to see anything with ordinary binoculars.

The Foster was equipped with what’s known as “Big Eyes” on the signals deck above the bridge — high-powered binoculars that are so big they are physically mounted on a ship, usually on a tripod. It was not part of a navigator’s job to use the Big Eyes, according to the officers, but even if a navigator ascended to the signals deck to take a leisurely look, not much could be seen from such a distance.

Bannon’s own narrative about how he came to fear Muslims is politically important. He is one of the most openly anti-Muslim officials in Trump’s chaotic entourage and is reported to have overseen the drafting of the controversial Muslim travel bans that Trump issued in his first weeks in office. The fact that a key part of Bannon’s narrative is invented would seem to suggest that his anti-Muslim views come from a different place that is perhaps darker than what he is comfortable sharing with the public.

In fact, there is an embarrassing hint, in what Bannon told Green, that he wittingly or unwittingly transferred to Karachi a crowded scene he had witnessed in an entirely different port while he served on the Foster: Hong Kong. Bannon told Green that he vividly recalled how “the British guys came on board, because they still ran the port” — which wasn’t true for Karachi at the time but was true for Hong Kong, which was under British rule when Bannon visited it.

According to two officers who spoke to The Intercept, it was ordinary during port visits to Hong Kong for a British official, or several of them, to come aboard to inform the ship of the logistics of the port, or as a social courtesy. As an above-deck officer, Bannon would have been in the areas where the visiting British officials were welcomed, and probably would have seen them.

If this is the case, Bannon’s narrative of seeing a vast Muslim crowd in the Middle East and sensing the threat these people and their religion would pose to America falls apart in a different and perhaps more embarrassing way than sheer fabrication. The crowds he would have seen in Hong Kong — which, according to crew members I talked with, was indeed overflowing with Chinese at the time, many of them quite poor — were overwhelmingly not Muslim (only a small number of Chinese are Muslim), and certainly not Middle Eastern.

It seems possible that Bannon may have consciously or subconsciously transposed the non-Muslim crowd he saw in Hong Kong and turned it into a Muslim crowd he did not see in Karachi. This raises the question of whether Bannon’s underlying anxiety arises less from a threat purportedly presented by Muslims and more from a general anxiety about non-white foreigners, whether Muslim or Buddhist or any religion.

How Donald Trump Could Destroy the Global Fight Against Kleptocracy

The Intercept  |  June 30, 2017

An incredible event is taking place in Paris. The playboy son of a wealthy dictator is on trial for stealing more than $100 million from his oil-rich and poverty-plagued homeland.

Authorities in Europe have already seized a glitzy assortment of the allegedly ill-gotten possessions of Teodorin Obiang, whose father is nearing four decades of dictatorial rule in Equatorial Guinea. Gone is Obiang’s 250-foot yacht with a helipad and jacuzzi, as well as nine of his luxury cars (two Bugattis, two Bentleys, a Ferrari, Rolls Royce, Maserati, Porsche Carrerra and Mercedes Maybach), 300 bottles of Chateau Petrus (at more than $2,500 a bottle, one of the world’s most expensive wines), an art collection that includes works by Degas and Rodin, and his 101-room mansion on Avenue Foch in Paris.

Two dynamics make this trial remarkable. The first is that, while it is not unusual for ousted kleptocrats and their children to face trial for corruption, it is nearly unprecedented for a ruling family to be hauled before a court. Teodorin Obiang currently bears the title of vice president of Equatorial Guinea, and his father, Teodoro, is the unloved president who, in the six times he has organized facsimiles of elections since taking power in a 1979 coup, never received less than 93 percent of the votes. The trial came about due to an unusual facet of French law: Civic groups can file criminal complaints against foreign officials. Prosecutors were all but forced to take the case.

Another layer of remarkableness — this one the opposite of encouraging — is that we might not see another spectacle of this sort for a long time. That’s because the Trump family, which has shown a limited regard for separating politics from business, has fully installed itself and its ethics in the White House. The consequences reach beyond American shores. A foundation for the trial in France was laid many years ago in the United States by activist organizations, congressional investigators and, later on, federal law enforcement. In 2011 Barack Obama’s Department of Justice filed its own civil charges against Teodorin Obiang under its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, and Obiang settled that case by forfeiting his $30 million Malibu mansion, a Ferrari, and several items of Michael Jackson memorabilia.

But what are the odds that President Donald Trump and his family will criticize, let alone prosecute, a style of rule they emulate? What standing does the United States have to argue against nepotism and kleptocracy when its own government has the aroma of both?

Last week, the preeminent anti-corruption group Global Witness issued a remarkably blunt statement that zeroed in on the Trump problem. “The importance of continuing this fight against kleptocracy around the world cannot be overstated,” said Zorka Milin, a senior legal advisor to Global Witness.  She went on:

America has long played a leading role in this global fight, but the future of that leadership is now coming into question, as the Trump Administration disengages from a number of important international initiatives and works with Congress to dismantle critical transparency and public interest regulations at an unprecedented pace. Moreover, the moral authority of the U.S. to lead this fight is also in question, as President Trump continues to be plagued by allegations of violating an anti-corruption provision of the U.S. Constitution through his business dealings with foreign governments.

Kleptocracy has many forms. The most common is an ethics-challenged family holding key positions in a nation’s leadership, exercising their power and influence in ways that enhance their business interests. Trump and his family members, especially his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have offices in the West Wing, have been criticized for nurturing their business activities while possessing public power. The president spends his leisure days at Trump-branded properties and is being sued for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits U.S. officials from receiving payments from foreign governments. There are regular reminders of the apparent shadiness of the family’s business habits: Ivanka Trump faces a deposition for stealing a shoe design; her father recently paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit over the fraudulent Trump University; and Kushner’s family-controlled real estate company had to back out of an unethical tax loophole it had tried to exploit in New Jersey.

The Trump family has inadvertently shed light on the naked schizophrenia behind the United States position on kleptocracy. While offering perpetual lip service to the perils of ruling families that insinuate themselves into power and become all the richer for it, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have nonetheless supported kleptocracies that are geo-politically useful to support. An example is Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally that has the world’s largest oil reserves and is ruled by a monarchy with vast private wealth and an abysmal human rights record.

On occasion the U.S. does the right thing, or tries to balance a lot of the wrong thing with a bit of the right — and Equatorial Guinea is a perfect example. The Obiang regime has friendly relations with the U.S. government despite the Justice Department’s corruption case against Teodorin. Moreover, the companies — ExxonMobil and Marathon Oil — that extract Equatoguinean oil and gas, enriching the Obiang regime, are American.

Yet, for what seems to be the first time in recent memory, the president of the United States is officially hostile to the modest efforts that have been taken to crack down on global corruption. In an interview on CNBC, Trump called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act a “horrible law” because it prevents U.S. companies from making secret payments to foreign officials. “It puts us at a huge disadvantage,” Trump told the business network in 2012. On this, he is a man of his word: His administration appears to have begun withdrawing the U.S. from a key global effort to thwart corruption, known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. And it’s not just a matter of the Trump administration adopting a critical stance on EITI and the FCPA. An investigation by the New Yorker earlier this year raised the prospect that Trump himself, through his Trump Organization, violated the FCPA in a hotel deal in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The well-being of ordinary Americans might not be greatly harmed by the Trump family trying to use its political power to raise the occupancy rates at its hotels and golf resorts, but kleptocracy has real impacts in other countries. Equatorial Guinea’s population is about a million and most of them live in poverty despite the country’s oil revenues (I saw this poverty first-hand when I reported from the country a number of years ago, until I was expelled for being a spy). As the Washington Post noted, the value of Teodorin Obiang’s multiple yachts is $250 million, about twice his country’s budget for education in recent years. His now-seized mansion in Paris is valued at $200 million — two times the government’s spending on healthcare. That’s just the son’s personal wealth. President Obiang, according to a congressional investigation more than a decade ago, personally controlled bank accounts in the United States worth between $300 million and $500 million; his wealth has been estimated at $600 million.

Teodorin Obiang has not attended the court proceedings in Paris. Even if he is convicted and receives the maximum sentence, which is 10 years in jail, the victory will be limited. Obiang has claimed diplomatic immunity and is steering clear of the territorial reach of French authorities. Equatorial Guinea’s government — where Teodorin Obiang is, again, second-in-command — is not exactly being shunned, either. Earlier this month, it signed a new oil contract with ExxonMobil.

Brad Pitt’s “War Machine” Offers an Absurd and Scathing Critique of America’s Generals

The Intercept  |  June 17, 2017

How do military leaders persuade their soldiers to fight an insane war?

Here’s one way. The setting is a bitter outpost of the American war in Afghanistan. The years-long nightmare has no prospect of ending so long as American troops stay in a country that has a nearly unblemished record of grinding foreign armies to ashes. A bullish general is trying to generate a dose of enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of his unenthusiastic men.

“You boys,” the general says, “are the only things that count. If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen. End of story.”
“What doesn’t happen, sir?” a Marine asks.
“It, son,” the general responds.
The Marine knows it would be unwise to demand a full explanation.
“Okay, thank you sir.”
The general, who doesn’t know better, bulls ahead.
“Does anyone here know what it is?” he asks.
“Anyone? Anyone?”

This scene is familiar to me — I heard similar calls and responses while covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and at the same time this scene is utterly invented. It comes from the just-released “War Machine,” which is one of the best war movies of the post-9/11 era, yet has been panned by movie critics who know everything about basic cable and nothing about basic training. While the movie is uneven in content and performances (let us resolve that Brad Pitt will never again play a general), it achieves greatness in the way it uses absurdity to assassinate the logic and reality of counterinsurgency warfare.

But you wouldn’t know the movie’s strengths if you read the reviews. “War Machine” has a 56 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been largely dismissed by film critics whose closest encounter with a warzone is the bar at Balthazar on a Saturday night. They don’t like it because, as one wrote, there is an “absence of intimacy, of psychology, of characters’ self-revelation in thought and desire.” Yes, that particular reviewer graduated from Princeton with a degree in comparative literature, so there you go.

There is one particular group of people who love the film, and we should pay more attention to them, because in the matter of war movies they are the experts who matter the most: soldiers. They now have more skin in the game than usual, after President Trump gave Secretary of Defense James Mattis a green light to send more soldiers into Afghanistan. Helene Cooper, a military correspondent for The New York Times, noted in a podcast the other day that “everybody at the Pentagon is talking about” the movie, and she added, “the guys who you think would be offended by it, love it.” Retired Gen. David Barno wrote with co-author Nora Bensahel that it “should be must-see TV for our current generals and all those who aspire to wear stars.” And there’s this kind of reaction all over Twitter:

Watching War Machine and, having served in Afghanistan, not sure whether to laugh or cry
  — RJ Stenson (@WestRivergrl) June 4, 2017

“War Machine” is directed by David Michod and stars Brad Pitt as a thinly-veiled version of Stanley McChrystal, the gung-ho general who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan until he was fired when a Rolling Stone journalist wrote a revealing article about him and his slightly out-of-control staff. The movie, released by Netflix, is based on the article and book by the late Michael Hastings. What Hastings and the film got precisely right is the impossible strategy behind America’s never-ending ground wars. There is no hero in this movie, and if there’s an anti-hero, it’s the war itself, which is profane, vicious, complex, and a bit naïve. By what I think is design, the war has more character than any characters in the film (attention critics: sometimes it’s not about actors and their self-revelations).

The scene in the desert, with Pitt’s character trying to encourage his unencouragable men, doesn’t end with the initial silence that greets his appeal for someone to explain what “it” is. Pitt goes on to provide a summary that his troops know to be ridiculous: they must protect civilians while killing the enemy. The skeptical corporal who spoke out at first, played brilliantly by Lakeith Stanfield, responds by pointing out the fallacy embedded in the general’s nonsense.

“I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy,” Stanfield says. “They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.”

“I don’t know, sir,” he continues. “It seems to me that we’re all here with our guns and shit trying to convince these people that deep down we’re actually really nice guys. And I don’t know how to do that, sir. I don’t know how to do that when every second one of them or every third one of them or every tenth one of them is trying to fucking kill me, sir.”

I’m not going to argue that “War Machine” is the “Battle of Algiers” of our time. There is too much exposition, the movie tries to touch too many bases, and did I mention that Pitt is unimpressive? But the film is reminiscent, in its satirical marksmanship, of one of the best war movies of the late American empire: “Three Kings,” directed by David O. Russell and starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as three U.S. soldiers during the Persian Gulf War who steal a secret cache of gold. “Three Kings,” like “War Machine,” was cinematically insane with moments of superhuman lucidity.

“War Machine” isn’t anti-war as much as it’s anti-general. Pitt’s character manifests the willing delusion of senior officers whose egos and ambitions are the pillars of perpetual warfare. He seems to really believe that he can defeat the Taliban. The skewering of this type of general is a timely corrective, because we live in an era of general worship, thanks in part to our general-loving president. We have a retired general as the secretary of defense, another as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, yet another as the president’s national security advisor (actually two — the current one, H.R. McMaster, and his fired predecessor, Michael Flynn, who also happens to be the basis for one of the mad characters in “War Machine”).

One of the movie’s best scenes takes place in a conference hall in Germany, where Pitt is trying to drum up support for more allied troops to fight in Afghanistan. He comes armed with a whiteboard, and he deploys a bewildering flow chart about the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency, but Tilda Swinton, playing a German member of parliament, blows it all to hell. She points out that the reason for invading Afghanistan was to crush Al Qaeda, which was based there with Osama bin Laden, and was pretty much chased out of the country in the first months of the invasion. After so many years of stalemate against the Taliban, what is the purpose of continuing to fight?

“As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check,” Swinton says. “You have devoted your entire life, general, to the fighting of war, and this situation in Afghanistan for you is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life. It is understandable to me that you should have therefor a fetish for completion, to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.”

It might sound like a lecture that only an anti-war leftie could write or appreciate, and it might sound unfair to the now-we-know-what-to-do generals who command, with square-jawed authority, the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, but remember where the movie’s biggest fans are located — in the Pentagon. I met the kinds of officers and diplomats depicted so scathingly in “War Machine,” and while exaggerated in the movie, they are real. They probably mean well but they fail or refuse to see what everyone around them can see, and must pay for in blood. Our delusional leaders finally have the movie their insanity deserves.

Donald Trump’s War on Journalism Has Begun. But Journalists Are Not His Main Target.

The Intercept  |  May 28, 2017

Wars are rarely announced in advance, but President Trump provided an abundance of warning about his intention to wage an assault on journalism. During the election campaign, he called journalists an “enemy of the people” and described media organizations he didn’t like as “fake news.” You can pretty much draw a direct line between his words and the actions we’ve seen lately — which include journalists physically prevented from asking questions of officials, arrested when trying to do so, and in a now-famous example from Montana, body-slammed to the ground by a Republican candidate who didn’t want to discuss his party’s position on healthcare.

This is most likely a prelude. From virtually the moment Trump took the oath of office, a deluge of irritating leaks has poured forth about, for instance, his private complaints against senior aides and his late night habits when he is upstairs at the White House without a tweet-blocking retinue of aides. Matters of crucial substance have also been leaked, such as his own disclosure of highly classified information to Russia’s foreign minister, and his obstruction-of-justice-worthy request to James Comey that the FBI restrain its investigation of Michael Flynn. Just a few days ago, there was another leak that wasn’t even Trump-centric, disclosing information about the British investigation into the suicide bombing in Manchester.

“These leaks have been going on for a long time, and my administration will get to the bottom of this,” Trump warned in a statement on Thursday. “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security. I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Trump is known for his post-thinking bluster but here he means what he suggests about indictments. Of course he’s using national security as a fig leaf to obscure his principal concern about the damage to his own image, which is being shredded. He is taking advantage of the unfortunate groundwork laid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who oversaw an unprecedented crackdown on the press by deploying the draconian Espionage Act against leakers. Far worse is almost certainly coming from Trump. One of the recent leaks that embarrassed him revealed, ironically, his demand to Comey that the FBI put journalists in jail if they refuse to disclose their sources.

Journalists are not the real target of Trump’s war on journalism, however. We are the highly-visible collateral damage, the broken glasses on the bruised body of free expression. The true targets – the people whom the Trump administration most wants to punish and silence – are the government officials who provide us with the news for our stories. The First Amendment protects journalists but not their sources; there is no constitutional right to tell journalists the truth.

These people, our sources, are incredibly vulnerable, lacking in most cases the financial and legal resources that are available to most journalists. When journalists are threatened by the government, there is a ready-made community to defend them, including advocacy groups that will rise to their aid, and a social network of colleagues who will stand by their side. A government official who leaks to a journalist has almost none of that. Instead of gaining the support of co-workers when punishment is threatened, the likeliest outcome is ostracism, because everyone else fears for their job. If you are a journalist and the government goes after you, the odds are quite good that your employer will strongly support you, but a government leaker faces the opposite predicament – their employer is the one attacking them.

Financial ruin usually comes next. I have written about several of the most notable Espionage Act prosecutions in recent years, including the case of Stephen Kim, a State Department diplomat accused of disclosing classified information to a journalist. (The information about North Korea, according to a State Department official quoted in court documents, was “a nothing burger.”) Facing the possibility of more than a decade in prison if he was convicted by a jury, Kim agreed to a plea deal and a sentence of 13 months. The case drained his finances as well as his relatives’, and he often considered killing himself. “Everything was just a blur,” he told me. “I compare it to losing all five senses at the same time. You don’t see anything, you don’t smell anything, you don’t hear anything. Nothing. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

Here’s a bit of what I wrote about his ordeal:

After devoting more than a decade of his life to preventing North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal, he was now accused of helping Pyongyang. How could he live with the stain of what his government accused him of doing? Espionage. What could he say to his young son? To his elderly parents? “Every single day, I thought about killing myself,” Kim said. He went online to find out how many sleeping pills or Tylenol he would need to swallow to end his life. He considered jumping in front of a train, because that would be quick. He made plans for letting people know he had committed suicide, deciding that he would send a note to a friend and explain that it should be opened on a certain day; inside he would place his house and car keys. “It’s a ruthless calculus — you don’t think like a normal person,” Kim told me. “I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Why should I be? Have you gone through what I have?”

Outcomes vary, but none are enviable. Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of documents from the National Security Agency, has been able to avoid prison by gaining political refuge in Russia. He fled because if you are indicted under the Espionage Act, as he was, you are not allowed to present a public-interest defense — meaning, you are not allowed to justify the crime of leaking by arguing it was done to disclose to the public even greater crimes the government was committing. Chelsea Manning, who as an Army soldier leaked thousands of documents that disclosed U.S. war crimes, was sentenced to 35 years in prison, though she is now free after serving seven years and receiving a pardon from Obama as he left office.

Today’s leakers can expect no mercy from the incensed Trump administration, which is stacked, no surprise, with a murderers’ row of First Amendment antagonists, leading off with Trump. Next to him, there is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said, when asked in March if there would be indictments, “We’ve never seen this kind of leaking. It’s almost as if people think they have a right to violate the law, and this has got to end, and probably it will take some convictions to put an end to it.”

His number two at the Department of Justice, Rod Rosenstein, was the driving force behind the prosecution last year of Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about leaking to reporters (Cartwright was later pardoned by Obama and did not go to prison). In a sentencing memo, Rosenstein painted a stark picture, writing that “the need for deterrence is strong. Every day across the United States government, individuals are entrusted with highly sensitive classified information. They must understand that disclosing such information to persons not authorized to receive it has severe consequences.”

For Trump, who himself has disclosed a surprising amount of sensitive intelligence, the national security argument is window dressing. The leaks he truly despises are the ones that embarrass him personally. This points to a key problem of leak crackdowns: a large amount of information is classified mainly because it would embarrass the government if made public. Senior officials routinely exaggerate the national security repercussions and brush aside the benefits to our society. But even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged, for instance, that the consequences of Manning’s leak were “fairly modest.”

Nonetheless, Trump’s war on journalism is moving ahead. The resistance to it should not be modest.

White Fear in the White House: Young Bannon Disciple Julia Hahn Is a Case Study in Extremism

The Intercept  |  May 7, 2017

Steve Bannon, who is no stranger to controversy, faced a torrent of reproval when it was revealed not long ago that he had praised a detestable novel envisioning France invaded by an armada of brown-skinned migrants from India. The French novel is called “The Camp of the Saints,” and Bannon recommended it on several occasions when he was executive chairman of Breitbart News, to justify what he perceived as a mortal threat that whites face from immigration.

The book, published in the 1970s, had existed for decades as an obscure cornerstone of the utmost fringes of white racism. The Indian children in the novel were referred to as “little monsters,” and the adults were described as sexual maniacs who filled their ships with “rivers of sperm, streaming over bodies, oozing between breasts, and buttocks, and thighs, and lips, and fingers.” The novel ended with hundreds of thousands of them taking over France and, by extension, the West. When it came out in the United States, Kirkus Reviews noted that “the publishers are presenting ‘The Camp of the Saints’ as a major event, and it probably is, in much the same sense that Mein Kampf was a major event.”

Bannon, now a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, made his glowing comments during radio programs he hosted in 2015 and 2016. But his comments were brief and in passing. The most enthusiastic endorsement of the book from anyone at Breitbart, and certainly the longest endorsement, came from a young reporter who wrote a gushing 4,000-word article that said “all around the world, events seem to be lining up with the predictions of the book.” The article, which neglected to mention that “The Camp of the Saints” is widely regarded as utterly racist, merely described it as controversial, and made conspiratorial parallels between its fictional characters and Pope Francis, Marco Rubio, and even Glenn Beck.

The Breitbart reporter was Julia Hahn, a Bannon protégé who followed him into the White House as a special assistant to President Trump. Bannon and other alt-right figures in the West Wing, including Sebastian Gorka, have received enormous amounts of criticism for espousing ideas that are seen as racist or ridiculous. Gorka is reported to be leaving the White House, and there have been reports that Bannon might be edged out, too. But Hahn has gotten almost no notice for writing what appears to be the longest and most laudatory article about “The Camp of the Saints” that has appeared in the American media in recent years. The few in-depth stories about her getting a job at the White House have mostly focused on her lashing criticism of Paul Ryan, the House speaker whose conservative positions on immigration were far too permissive for Bannon, Hahn, and the rest of Breitbart.

At a glance, Hahn is an outlier among outliers. She was raised in Beverly Hills, attended a private high school, and the only wisp of political activity in her adolescence was a decidedly liberal, pro-immigration gesture: She raised money for a group that brought foreign orphans to the United States. She majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and the sole public trace of her time there is a video of a panel discussion in which she discussed Michel Foucault’s idea that psychoanalysis stigmatizes human sexuality.

Not long after she was appointed to the White House at the age of just 25, one of her college friends reacted by writing on Facebook, “It’s weird because she was always very nice and it’s disappointing when seemingly nice people turn out to be Nazis/Nazi-adjacent.” Another friend asked, “WTF happened???”

The question of what happened offers an opportunity of sorts. There has been a lot of discussion about countering extremism and identifying extremists before they do something that harms themselves or the nation. How do young people become radicalized? The preferred means for answering these questions are not mysterious — find out the ideas that young people are exposed to, find out the social environment they are raised in, and work from there. This framework has been applied mostly to Islamic extremism, with the goal of figuring out why some Muslims become terrorists.

But the tools of “countering violent extremism,” as it’s known, work extremely well for figuring out the riddle of rich white kids who turn to the fringes of the right. How does someone who raised money for foreign orphans write, a few years later, a screed for Breitbart headlined “Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation”? One of the first things you would seek to do, in the effort to understand the creation of this extremist, is to investigate the place where she was raised. It turned out that I didn’t need to search far, because I grew up less than a mile from Hahn’s home, and attended the same high school.

In a way, Julia Hahn is the Patty Hearst of the far right, a daughter of privilege who veered wildly off the expected course. While she has said almost nothing about her journey to the virulent corners of white nationalism, and has not granted any interviews since starting in the White House (she turned down a request from The Intercept), the puzzle of her journey to the alt right can be assembled.

Hahn comes from fabulous wealth. Her grandfather Harold Honickman presided over a soft-drink bottling company that became one of the largest in the nation; in 2002, his net worth was estimated at $850 million. Honickman has used his wealth to support liberal causes, including organizations that help the homeless and efforts to tighten gun control. His family foundation has even provided funding for a poetry prize, and his wife wrote a genteel letter on the foundation website that said, “Our personal belief, at the end of the day, is that we are here to take care of one another.”

One of the Honickman children, Shirley, is the mother of Hahn, who was born on April Fools’ Day in 1991. Hahn was raised in a house that’s not far from Rodeo Drive and is valued at more than $5 million by Zillow. (Hahn’s White House financial disclosure form shows she owns bank and stock funds worth as much as $2 million.) The private school she attended (as I did, a generation earlier) is Harvard-Westlake. It’s hard to imagine a class of people who benefit more from immigrant and undocumented workers — who clean their homes, mow their lawns, maintain their pools, and cook their meals — than Hahn and other children of privilege in Los Angeles. The comfortable life she enjoyed was due, in no small part, to the immigrants she demeaned as a writer for Breitbart.

The dissonance appears to widen when you look at her secondary education. Harvard-Westlake is a model of West Coast liberalism. It is generally regarded as the most competitive school in Los Angeles, its student body drawing on the city’s entertainment and business worlds. When Hahn was named to the White House, the flummoxed student newspaper at Harvard-Westlake published a story in which her history teacher wondered aloud, “She was rather soft-spoken as I recall, so I guess no, I didn’t really see her headed to work for an organization like Breitbart or a person like Bannon.

Paradoxically, a clue to Hahn’s radicalization is located at Harvard-Westlake. The school has a surplus of famous alumni, from Shirley Temple to Sally Ride, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Matthew Weiner (the creator of “Mad Men” who named one of his show’s characters for a popular teacher at Harvard). But the school has another alum who is more infamous than famous: Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart.

Marlow graduated from Harvard-Westlake in 2004, before Hahn, and for a long time nobody at the school seemed to know or care where he had ended up. The school took notice in 2016, when Marlow was quoted in a New York Times profile of Bannon. A school official posted the story on Facebook. Parents and alumni of Harvard-Westlake were aghast. “This is an embarrassment to our school, and to our fantastic community,” read one of the comments on the post.

The controversy was duly reported by the school’s student newspaper, which published a story on Marlow and quoted some of his teachers who remembered him as a smart and polite student — just like Hahn. “I would never have imagined that he would get involved with an organization as deplorable as Breitbart News,” said his history teacher Dave Waterhouse.

The upshot is that a single school in Los Angeles was the breeding ground for two of the youngest and most vehement stars of the Trump movement. This raises the prospect of what is known, among experts who study extremism, as a cluster. It goes beyond Hahn and Marlow.

Where do America’s far-right leaders come from? Hahn and Marlow, who grew up 5 miles apart, are clues to an intriguing fact of political epidemiology. A surprising number of alt-right leaders come from a single wealthy liberal enclave: the west side of Los Angeles.

Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site that bears his name, was raised in Brentwood, at the center of the west side, and was living there when he died in 2012. Bannon, before becoming famous as the chairman of Breitbart and then Trump’s ideologue, was a Hollywood producer who sent his daughters to a private school in Brentwood. Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old presidential adviser who has been wildly provocative on immigration issues, was raised in neighboring Santa Monica, also known as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica because of its liberal politics.

This might seem weird. California voted in a landslide for Hillary Clinton. All of the state’s elected officials are Democrats, from the governor on down. Since 1961, only one Republican has been elected mayor of Los Angeles. But look again. While Trump got far fewer votes than Clinton, California’s population is so large that the only other state where Trump got more votes was Texas (which he won). According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, California has more far-right conspiratorial “Patriot” groups, 81, than any other state in the country (Texas, the runner-up, has 79). California may be the “Left Coast,” but it is also the beating heart of the far-right coast.

This is not an accident. People don’t like to be told what to think, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that an atmosphere of doctrinaire liberalism might produce reactionaries who delight in defying the dogmas that seemed so repressive when they were growing up. For instance, Miller, a key advocate of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, chafed at the multiculturalism of his high school and its tolerance of gays.

Social progress always seems to trigger a backlash. It’s a paradox that makes sense — environments that are constructed to stop extremism can, instead, provoke it. Trump’s whole rise cannot be viewed through this single lens, of course. But the dynamic is crucial to understanding how and where some extremists are born: when people feel the privileges of their race, gender, language, or religion are threatened.

In the popular telling, a common scenario of Muslim extremism occurs when a susceptible mind falls under the spell of a charismatic leader at a mosque or madrassa, though sometimes the contact occurs online (this happened with followers of Anwar al-Awlaki, for instance). I have reported on this dynamic in Pakistan, Iraq, and other countries that were like emotional depots for the unformed zeal of drifting youths. The spiritual leaders were spellbinding, their warnings were often apocalyptic, and the devotion of their youthful followers was complete, even if the logic of their maximalist ideologies was flawed and inhuman. Young minds, unshaped, were tinder for an ideological spark.

This scenario isn’t true only for Islamic extremists. When Hahn arrived in Washington, D.C., as another just-out-of-college aspirant, she was not political, according to every account of her that I’ve read and heard (I talked with more than a half dozen people who knew her at the University of Chicago). According to the Washington Post, Hahn jolted to ideological life in the first job she landed — as a producer for right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham. “It sparked her evolution,” the Post stated. “She moved quickly to the right.” A short article in the New Yorker reported much the same, that an apolitical Hahn moved to Washington to get a media job and turned to the far right after she started working for Ingraham. The Post quoted a former Ingraham employee as saying, “Laura will do that to people. She can be very convincing.”

This evokes a strange parallel between far-right radio and television empires presided over by the likes of Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Steve Bannon, and fundamentalist mosques and madrassas that manufacture the extremists of the Islamic world. Radical ideologies presented to impressionable minds in these locations are totalistic and comforting in an unsteady world. They offer simplistic antagonists — such as the infidels and the immigrants — and provide simplistic answers to social or economic problems (shut down immigration, eliminate education for girls, and so on). These spellbinding leaders, and the infrastructures around them, are vectors of youthful extremism.

Hahn worked for Ingraham for about a year, then became a spokesperson for David Brat, an insurgent Republican who used the issue of immigration to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Brat, a total outsider, raised just $200,000 for his challenge to Cantor, and part of his upset victory was due to strong support from Ingraham as well as other right-wing media figures, including Mark Levin and Ann Coulter. Whether by design or chance, Hahn was at the center of the alt-right rebellion against not just the Democratic Party but the Republican establishment, too

Her next step took her to the forefront — as one of the most prolific and strident reporters for the norm-pulverizing machine at Breitbart. Bannon was the dominant figure at Breitbart at the time, “prone to surrounding himself with like-minded young acolytes,” as the New York Times later noted. In an unusual look inside Bannon’s life before he joined Trump’s campaign, a Bloomberg reporter visited Bannon’s townhouse-turned-newsroom and wrote that he had a “group of young, female Breitbart News reporters whom he’s dubbed the Valkyries.” The Bloomberg story had a photo of Bannon at his Capitol Hill home with nine young reporters, including Hahn. After Politico published a story that criticized Bannon, Hahn rose to his defense and described him as “one of the most supportive, kind, inspiring and selfless bosses a reporter could ask for.”

Under Bannon, Hahn produced a torrent of articles that mimicked his incendiary ideas on immigration, Muslims, and Democrats. Her stories were perfectly attuned to the extremist ideas for which Bannon has become celebrated and despised; Bannon and Hahn even co-wrote a story that flayed Paul Ryan. One of Hahn’s stories accused Hillary Clinton of planning to resettle a million Muslims in America, and another article warned ominously that under Clinton the number of Muslims in America would exceed the number in Germany — an irrelevant comparison because Germany’s population is several times smaller. One of Hahn’s anti-immigration articles was headlined “Clinton Releases Plan to Dissolve U.S. Border Within 100 Days.”

That was the usual alt-right noise from Breitbart. But in 2015, when Bannon started talking about “The Camp of the Saints,” Hahn wrote about it too. Her story argued that the book was prophetic because it warned that “the liberalism of the West would cause Western nations to throw open their doors to so many migrants that it would spell the doom of liberal society itself.” Hahn’s story used the book to warn that, as she wrote, immigrants from failed countries will “remake the West in the image of those failed countries.” The book, however, is widely regarded as a racist fever dream. One of its most enthusiastic supporters is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front in France, who has a copy of it in her office and has tweeted out her endorsement of it.

Even in the conservative world, Hahn went too far for the comfort of some people. At the end of 2015, when she asked a panel of Republican legislators to raise their hands to indicate whether they would suspend or reduce Muslim immigration, Rep. Raul Labrador, a conservative from Idaho, lashed out at her. “I don’t answer questions from you,” he told Hahn, “because you are not a truthful reporter.”

The handful of published stories about Hahn have tended to focus on a seeming paucity of information that would explain who she is or how she ended up on the far right. “Hahn’s increasingly watched byline was all the more extraordinary for her utter anonymity,” the Washington Post reported. “Not only did she never appear on TV, she had no public social media presence whatsoever. Photos of her were hard to come by — and conspiracy theories about her true identity were beginning to circulate.” This makes for a good mystery story, but it misses the point. It took little effort for The Intercept to find photos of Hahn (there are some on Facebook, and Bloomberg had published a series of photos that included Hahn and listed her by name). While she does not appear to have been on television, Hahn was frequently on Breitbart radio and other right-wing radio shows.

The mysterious thing about Julia Hahn is that there is any mystery at all. Washington is bursting with strivers in their 20s just like her, eager to find their spot on the terrain of political power, while unsure of what their own attitudes about power really are. The lack of a political center in the young creatures of Washington is the stuff of parody; just watch an episode of “Veep.” Long ago, I was one of these creatures — as a student at Georgetown University, I applied for internships on Capitol Hill and took the first one I was offered, from a Republican representative famous for one thing — his father was Barry Goldwater, the iconic senator from Arizona. The son had little of his father’s charisma and his politics were vague, though he was kind to me and let me drive his Aston Martin. He was no Laura Ingraham.

Karachi and Kabul are a long ways from Capitol Hill but the hydraulics of youthful extremism are remarkably similar in all of them. Julia Hahn’s opposites are not the young and impressionable Muslims who adopt hate-filled ideas about infidels. They are her mirror image.

For Donald Trump, a Terror Attack Will Be an Opportunity, Not a Curse

The Intercept  |  March 19, 2017

Can we breathe a sigh of relief after federal judges blocked President Donald Trump’s discriminatory executive orders? For a moment we can, but we are just a terrorism attack away from the White House gaining a new pretext for its wrathful crackdown against Muslims and immigrants.

Among the alterations in American politics since Trump’s inauguration, this may be the most frightening one: a terror attack on U.S. soil will be used by the White House as an excuse for implementing an extra-legal agenda that could only be pushed through in a time of crisis. What the courts will not allow today, what protesters will hit the streets to defend tomorrow, what even the pliant Congress would have a hard time backing — the White House is almost certainly counting on all of this changing in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack.

This macabre turn, in which terrorism becomes an opportunity rather than a curse, has ample precedents that tell us one thing: be prepared.

It wasn’t long ago that 9/11 was used as a pretext for invading Iraq. Although it was almost immediately clear that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told President George W. Bush on the evening of September 11, “Part of our response maybe should be attacking Iraq. It’s an opportunity.” Just a few years earlier, Rumsfeld, along with Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, had signed a now-infamous letter calling for the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The with-us-or-against-us atmosphere after 9/11 enabled them to carry out the task.

It has happened overseas, too. Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in Russia was accelerated by a series of mysterious bombings against apartment buildings across the country, and the bombings were so essential to consolidating Putin’s rule that he was suspected of organizing them. There was also, most famously, the Reichstag fire in 1933, in which the German Parliament burned to the ground, leading Adolf Hitler, the new chancellor, to warn that “there will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”

The Trump administration has already begun laying the groundwork for extreme initiatives if — or more likely when — a terror attack occurs on U.S. soil and is tied to ISIS, al Qaeda or another Muslim group, according to civil liberties lawyers and activists. Under the guise of protecting national security, a blitz of presidential actions could target not just immigrants and Muslims but other minority groups as well as the media and the judiciary. These initiatives will be “more dire and much more severe” than Trump’s first executive order in late January against the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, according to Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

While the bad news is stark — expect the worst from Trump when an attack happens on U.S. soil — the better news is that people are already organizing to prevent the worst from happening. There is, it turns out, quite a bit that can be done to prepare for the nearly inevitable moment when the Trump administration tries to take advantage of the tragedy of a man or a woman using a bomb, a gun, a knife or a truck to kill Americans in the name of an Islamic terror group.

The first thing to understand is that attacks by foreign-born terrorists are rare. From 1975 through 2015, a total of 3,024 Americans were killed in such attacks, with most of those occurring on 9/11, according to a recent Cato Institute report. In other words, the annual odds of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist are 1 in 3,609,709. Each of these deaths is a tragedy, of course, but they represent a fraction of the preventable fatalities from any number of causes, including spouse-on-spouse violence, traffic accidents, and even toddlers with unsecured guns.

Trump’s eagerness to exploit only a particular type of terror attack — by Muslims — was reflected in his selective reaction to two incidents in his first month in office. In late January, he remained silent when a white Christian shot dead six Muslims in a Canadian mosque. A few days later, an Egyptian with a machete attacked French soldiers at the Louvre while shouting “Allahu Akhbar.” Nobody was killed, not even the attacker — one soldier was slightly injured before the Egyptian was shot four times. Yet within hours, Trump tweeted, “A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum in Paris. Tourists were locked down. France on edge again. GET SMART U.S.”

His disingenuity exposes a glaring fallacy in his executive orders. The handful of Muslim-majority countries named in the orders represent a negligible threat for domestic terrorism. The few attacks in America that have involved Muslims, including 9/11, drew largely on people from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt — but those countries were not included in either order from the Oval Office. A ruling by Judge Theodore Chuang that blocked the second order noted “strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose of the travel ban.”

The unique dynamic is that the White House has made clear its wish to impose an array of extreme and unconstitutional policies that are nearly impossible to carry out in ordinary times. Trump has previously said, for instance, that he wants to ban all Muslim immigration — “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” as he famously stated during the presidential campaign. His top adviser, Steve Bannon, has even complained about the proportion of legal immigrants already in America — which he described as 20 percent of the population, though it’s actually just over 13 percent. “Isn’t the beating heart of this problem, the real beating heart of it, of what we gotta get sorted here, not illegal immigration?” Bannon asked on a radio show in 2016. “We’ve looked the other way on this legal immigration that’s kinda overwhelmed the country.”

In a way, the White House is like a pistol cocked to go off at the first touch. Warren, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, described the president’s early use of anti-Muslim executive orders as “a precursor, a mirror into what we’re going to be looking at” after a significant terror attack. Warren added, “I think the Trump administration will move by executive fiat for everything. It will create what’s essentially a constitutional crisis in the country.”

But Trump is not the pre-ordained winner of the crisis he will initiate.

Michael Walzer, a political theorist who has been around long enough to have chronicled, in real time, the social movements of the 1960s, wrote in an essay earlier this month that there are two types of necessary politics against Trump. “Resistance is defensive politics, but we also need a politics of offense — a politics aimed at winning elections and, as we used to say, seizing power,” Walzer wrote. He pointed to a particularly hopeful development that others have also noted after Trump’s inauguration: local organizing against the federal government.

The women’s march the day after the inauguration was a nearly immediate example. In cities across the country, large crowds turned out to protest the new president and his far-right agenda. The sanctuary city movement has also taken root, with local leaders vowing to oppose federal orders that are unconstitutional or immoral, especially ones that involve undocumented immigrants. And key legal challenges to Trump’s executive orders have come from attorneys’ general in a variety of states who have vowed to continue their war of legal writs.

Warren describes the popular reaction to a post-terrorism crackdown as an “X factor.” In the wake of the president’s first executive order, which led to Muslims being turned away at America’s borders, airports across the country were besieged by spontaneous protests that involved thousands of people and a small army of lawyers to help immigrants and refugees who were detained by customs authorities. Boots on the ground will be crucial after the next attack, argues Ben Wizner, a prominent ACLU lawyer who earlier this month tweeted, “If/when there is an attack, we’ll need millions in the streets with a message of courage and resilience.”

Another X factor is the judiciary, which bears a larger share of responsibility than usual because both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republican Party and have shied away from fulfilling their constitutional role as a check on the executive branch. So far, federal courts have stood up to the White House. Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, believes the judicial response to Trump’s executive orders marks a notable break from the post 9/11 era, when courts generally did not support legal challenges to government policies on terrorism, torture, surveillance and drone warfare.

“I’m a real critic of how the courts handled national security,” Greenberg said. “I think they punted entirely. But if you look at the immigration ban and some of the pushback from the courts on ISIS prosecutions and how they are being handled, the courts have woken up from their ‘I want to be asleep on national security’ stage. I think the courts may rise to the occasion.”

Trump has provided confirmation, via Twitter, of the judicial branch’s new spine and key role. After the courts shot down his first executive order, he lashed out in a series of tweets against federal Judge James Robart. The sharpest one, tweeted by Trump from his Mar A Lago estate, warned: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

The writer Mark Danner noted in a recent essay that the controversy over the first executive order may have served “the desire of the president and his advisers to stage a fight with a major institutional force not yet recumbent before him: the judiciary.” As Danner went on to explain, “the president’s assertion of his ‘unreviewable’ powers in the face of ‘so-called’ judges was not just absurd or ignorant but a bit of bait, establishing the basis for blaming the judiciary for any terrorist attack that was to come. On this he tweeted indefatigably and repeatedly.”

Another X factor is the media, which Trump has defined as a public enemy (though of course he means only the outlets that criticize him). Portions of the media, such as Breitbart, Infowars and probably Fox News, will likely support whatever crackdown the president proposes in the wake of a terrorist attack. Other parts of the media will hopefully do the work they are supposed to do. As Greenberg notes, the press will “need to be on the ground and report information before it is misrepresented.” That work can begin now, before an attack, with reporting that explains the rarity of Muslim-related terrorism in the United States and the constitutional as well as moral pitfalls of letting a demagogue turn tragedy to his own advantage.

Trump Official Obsessed Over Nuclear Apocalypse, Men’s Style in 40,000 Posts on Fashion Site

The Intercept  |  February 16, 2017

A senior official on President Trump’s embattled National Security Council warned in previously unreported comments that it is “inevitable” an Islamic terrorist group will carry out a successful nuclear attack against the United States, and that in its aftermath, the world “will regress hundreds of years politically.” The official, Michael Anton, laid out a dire scenario of multiple nuclear detonations on American soil, saying that terrorists “will, I think, wait until they can hit us with several blows at once, followed by a number of follow-on blows.”

Anton, appointed as the Trump administration’s senior director of strategic communications on the NSC, wrote in 2009 that he was “surprised it hasn’t happened yet” and predicted that once the attacks occur, “economies will collapse … the world will revert to a kind of localsim [sic] and warlordism.” He added, “If Chicago wakes up one morning and NY is simply not there any more, and some dude on Al Jazeera is saying, ‘Chicago you are next!’ I don’t see order lasting long.”

New York, he added, seems to be the most likely first target.

I think you do not fully grasp what New York represents to the Islamist Terrorist mind. It is not simply the financial capital of the US, or even of the world. It is quite simply the capital of the western world and of all modernity. It is the center and chief creator and exporter of decadence and corruption. It is quite simply, to them, the most hated place on the planet, and the most important, outside the holy cities.

Anton, who previously served in a mid-level position on the NSC in the Bush era, published a string of attention-getting essays last year that attempted to make a conservative intellectual argument for supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy. Those essays, while provocative, do not seem to be nearly as controversial or apocalyptic as the comments The Intercept unearthed after receiving a tip from a reader. The comments were made on an obscure website devoted to men’s fashion,, which also hosts wide-ranging discussions among its members on a variety of political topics. Anton, who previously wrote a book titled “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style,” posted on under the username “Manton,” and his user profile listed his usual shoe width as D medium. He was exceptionally prolific: Since joining the site in 2002, he has posted more than 40,000 comments.

“An all out nuclear war is not inevitable, or even likely,” he wrote in a discussion thread he started about nuclear terrorism. “A regional nuclear exchange between two regional powers is more likely, but still not inevitable. A nuclear detonation in a major US or European city (or Moscow) is inevitable.” He added, “Let’s just say the event is overdue. People have been wanting to do it for a long time, and trying to do it for a long time. … As a general matter, anything that human beings have wanted to do badly enough, that it is physically possible to do, they have eventually found a way to do.”

His concerns were so severe that he provided advice to people thinking of building their own fallout shelters.

“They could be worth a great deal,” Anton wrote. “If they are not underground at all, they are not worth much. [If] they are underground on even one side, their usefullness goes up by a lot. If they are surrounded by at least five feet of earth on four sides, then you are pretty much invulnerable from initial fallout — as long as you can hold out down there. … You would [be] better off having stored water. You never know about a water supply, it might be affected, might not. Best thing to do is to have some means of testing the water on hand. Buy it in advance and put it in the shelter.”

Asked by another commenter when he thought the nuclear attack would occur, Anton responded, “Any day now.”

Anton also made provocative comments about diversity and affirmative action, saying they were harmful or unfair. Writing about university affirmative action programs in the humanities and social sciences, he stated, “What actually happens today is a total, consuming obsession with ‘diversity’ defined solely by skin color (and to a lesser extent national origin) coupled with an even more consuming obsession with ideology.” He also argued for the superiority of homogenous societies in which the population has common attributes, such as a shared language and ethnicity.

“The homogenous ones have higher trust levels, greater levels of cross family cooperation, more public spiritedness, higher levels of volunteering, charity donations, etc.,” he wrote. “They are also more able and more willing to support safety nets — formal and informal — that benefit non-family members. Heterogenous societys have lower trust levels, people ‘hunker down’ and avoid contact with neighbors not just of other races/groups but of their own. They are more likely to concentrate solely on taking care of their own and to see taxation and other attempts to fund public goods as robbing Peter (themselves) to pay Paul (the other). Ordinary stuff does not get done or done as well. The state, with all its inefficiencies, has to be larger and more intrusive in order to make up for the lack of a thriving civil society.”

The detail and apparent extremism of Anton’s comments appear to go even further than much of what has already emerged from the Trump White House. The comments provide what seems to be the darkest of contexts for understanding the Trump administration’s desire for radical crackdowns on immigration and Muslims in general: a fervent conviction that a civilizational apocalypse caused by Muslims is coming soon.

“I look at the world and I see a whole movement of people who want to kill me, destroy my country, and end my civilization,” Anton wrote to a commenter who in his view had downplayed the threat posed by Muslims. “You either don’t see any of these people or you just think they are a joke. The bombs and the propaganda you alternate between taking in stride, finding pathetic, or dismissing any connection to Islam.” He also told the commenter, “Entirely absent from your analysis is even the possibility that there really is an enemy that wants to do terrible things to us and change us in fundamental, illiberal ways.”

Contacted for comment about his posts, Anton told The Intercept yesterday that they were akin to casual talk in a bar among friends and should not be taken as seriously as the articles he has written for real publications, which include the Weekly Standard and the Claremont Review of Books. He said is “like a dorm room environment where even people like me, who are old, can feel 19 again … that’s part of the fun of it, everybody speaks in a kind of lighthearted way.” He added that he knows many of the other commenters with whom he exchanged thoughts and barbs on the site, and that on the site “you don’t want to sound like a Brookings Institute report every time you open your mouth.”

Anton, referring to a previous story The Intercept published about him on Sunday, began the phone interview by saying, “Why are you trying to kill me?” He added, “I know it’s fair game, it’s out there and stuff, but it’s your second hit piece on me. I’ll talk to you because I think everything I’ve written I can defend but the fact of the matter is [I’ve] become some sort of Hitler figure who it’s important to discredit. But you know, I’m just a mild-mannered intellectual dork.” When it was noted that he is more than a dork, in fact a senior official on the National Security Council, he responded by saying there are many senior officials on the NSC. “I don’t know, at least 20,” he said.

The essays Anton published over the past year — one of them was titled “The Flight 93 Election” — marked him as a fervent Trump supporter with an intellectual’s pedigree and an argument to go with it. Anton has a master’s degree in political science from Claremont Graduate University, an incubator of conservative thought, and he provided an intellectual framework and justification for the extreme policies the new administration is trying to put into place. While there was more sweep as well as specificity in those essays than anything Trump or his adviser Steven Bannon have said or written, the 41,561 comments by Anton on Styleforum appear to provide even more details on the ideas and fears that motivate the Trump White House.

The comments also offer a jarring contrast between the protect-the-ordinary-people rhetoric of the Trump administration and the backgrounds and interests of the officials who are professing those ideas. Anton argued in his Flight 93 essay that although the “Davos class” has reaped enormous profits from the modern economic order, it was disastrous for others. But he did not put much of an emphasis on the extent to which he had personally profited: After leaving the NSC, he went into the private sector and eventually became a managing director of BlackRock, the asset management firm. Most of his posts on revolve around fine clothing and fine wines.

“Greysac used to be a light style, mild fruit, more velvet, perfume & spice that was designed for early maturation (10 years max) and that mimicked the flavors of great bordeaux at its plateau,” he wrote. “It was a wine that showed many of the traits of perfectly rounded and aged Bord without any of the profundity. But sinice I love those particular aging traits, to me it was a go-to.”

In another post, Anton complained about an unfortunate theft of his favorite bottles: “I realize that the baby sitter who stole two bottles of wine from me, one of the bottles was my last 1986 Mondavi, from the very first stash of wine I ever bought about 2 weeks after I turned 21. Bitch.”

In the interview with The Intercept, Anton acknowledged the contrast between his social class and the people on whose behalf he is now arguing. He said that after many years as a classic conservative, he had woken up to the fact the system wasn’t working for lots of people. Rather than stay on the sidelines and do nothing, he had decided to talk and write about those problems, placing at risk “the livelihood that keeps me funded with all these things I love.” As he put it, “At least I’m a self-aware hypocrite.”

While not leading the kind of hard-scrabble life that he was defending in his ideologically charged work, Anton clearly feels strongly about the structural problems of the modern economy, and his critiques of it contain elements that are shared by people on the left as well as right. In one thread he started in 2011, titled “Capitalism Sucks,” he even approvingly cites Marx for identifying the negatively disruptive impacts of capitalism. While saying that Marx “has blood on his hands” for the misery that has been committed in his name, he wrote that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that in his analysis of the consequences of capitalism, he was on to something.” Anton went on to write that “capitalism on the aggregate creates more wealth than any alternative hitherto tried, and perhaps than any alternative that can ever be devised,” but he sharply added that “the dislocations and human pain and societal upheaval that Marx diagnosed as inevitable consequences of capitalism turned out to be quite real.”

He continues:

It’s not obvious that wealth is better than the things capitalism has undermined. If I were to say to you “money isn’t everything” you would of course agree. And if I were to make a Christian statement of the importance of virtue and the soul over wealth you would at least profess to agree. But when you post it’s all about aggregate wealth, living standards, opportunity, etc. These are not bad things. But it seems as though we can’t have them to the degree that we do without giving up other stuff which might have been just as valuable and maybe more.

On Sunday, after The Intercept published its story about Anton’s essays on Trump, he emailed a response that included this explanation of his evolution from conventional conservative thinking to something quite different, at least on economic issues: “The fact is that my journey toward Trumpism was in many ways a journey (on my part) leftward, toward the center. I have jettisoned a lot of conservative orthodoxy precisely because I think it was not working for the bottom half, or even the bottom two thirds. It’s ironic or odd or something that in moving to the left, I get called a fascist and such. It shows how screwed up our discourse is. People just want to smear and destroy me.”

Earlier this month, a Politico article stated that Anton got his job at the NSC “thanks to an entrée from Thiel,” referring to Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire who is one of Trump’s few supporters among the elite of Silicon Valley. Both Thiel and Anton are avowed enthusiasts of the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, and both have ties to Claremont, where Anton received his master’s degree and Thiel has donated, through one of his philanthropies, at least $200,000, as well as appearing at speaking events. But their ties go even further back, Anton told The Intercept. He knows Thiel from when Thiel was a student at Stanford and Anton was nearby at the University of California at Berkeley, and through a mutual friend they got to know each other.

The National Security Council is now beset by a historic degree of turmoil — retired Gen. Michael Flynn, appointed to head the NSC last month, was forced out earlier this week because he had lied to Vice President Pence about phone calls he made to the Russian ambassador shortly after the election. It seems quite possible, if not likely, that the next head of the NSC (reportedly the job has been offered to retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward) will ask for the resignations of senior officials appointed by Gen. Flynn, and that would include Anton. Asked about his likely fate, Anton said, “I don’t know … I won’t know for a while, until the new person gets in.”

Anton’s comments on nuclear issues might not bolster his case for staying on. In a thread titled “Ask Manton About Nuclear War,” he sketched a scenario involving a terrorist group that would “ship the weapon in a cargo container to a US port, where it will be loaded on a truck and driven to its destination. The motive will be kill Americans, to force our withdrawal from the Middle East, and to break our society in half.”

He provided surprisingly precise information about how a terrorist group would go about acquiring the nuclear material it needed. Anton told The Intercept he did not deal with classified proliferation issues when he was at the NSC during the Bush administration, and that he is “self-taught” through voluminous readings of books. Back in 2009, he was answering a member of who posed the following question: “manton hao 2 makez a nuclar bomb?”

First, you will need fissile material. This has to be made, as it only occurs in nature in trace amounts. It is very hard to make, takes a long time, costs a lot of money, and requires a significant amount of land. You will need either a centrifuge cascade or a breeder reactor. These are probably beyond your reach.
So the other option is to aquire the stuff, that is, buy it or steal it. You will want either plutonium 239 or uranium 235. Or, to be a little more precise, uranium enriched to 90% or more u 235 (the rest u 238). (Lower enrichment levels can still make bombs, but the amount of fuel you need rises dramatically as enrichment drops, to the point where making a bomb becomes a practical impossibilty.)
It is a lot harder to make a plutonium bomb than an HEU bomb, for reasons I need not go into here. Also, HEU is more stable, and less likely to undergo spontenous fission. It also makes a far more reliable bomb, especially when built by amateurs. The downsides are, it is less powerful, and you need a lot more of it, which means your bomb will be bigger and heavier, and the yield to weight ratio will be lower. Life is full of trade-offs.
You will need about 110 pounds. DON’T keep it all in one place. 110 pounds just slightly exceeds critical mass, that is, the amount sufficent to start a chain reaction. If you keep it all in one lump, it will unleash a torrent of radiation that will kill you — at a minimum. It might also blow up — not in a big nuclear fireball, but with enough force to take out a city block or two. Say, 10 Oklahoma City bombs.
So, keep it in two pieces, neither half close to critical mass.
Uranium comes in many forms. In the enrichment process, it is gaseous and powdered. You want it to be metallic. If you don’t get it in that form, you will need a metalurgist. You will actually need one in any case to shape the two sides of the core. One is called the “bullet” the other the “target”. The should be designed and shaped to fit together very neatly and tightly. But DON’T actually test with both halves! Test the shape with lead dummies. Important!

Anton’s directions continued, and his comments make clear that he believes an attack with the acquired devices would succeed in its destroy-the-West aims.

We are talking about whole cities being wiped out [at] a stroke, and the surrounding area being unihabitable for the next 200 years. The night of 9/11, most of Manhattan slept in their beds. … I think once it became clear to everyone that their government cannot protect them from capricious extermination, governing the country would become impossible. … I believe that people will lose all semblance of orderliness. They will panic and loot and riot and try to dig in [and] defend themselves from all kinds of perceived threats. They will overwhelm the capacity of the system to impose any semblance of order. Many of those supposed to impose order will also have the same reaction, and not do their jobs but look out for their own. … I hope I am wrong. … But I am fairly confident that economic activity would grind to a halt, or continue at some fraction of what it is today.

His exchanges with other commenters on include questions that were posed in what clearly seems an absurd tone, to which Anton responded in a deadpan manner. For instance, there was this query from a user with the name of mafoofan: “Manton, I assume if they set off a 10kt bomb in the middle of Manhattan, the UWS is royally f*cked, right?

Anton’s reply was concise.

No, the shockwave will not reach that far. Structural damage is likely to be light. Fires may rage out of control in any and all directions, however. And fallout will depend on the weather. Thin[g]s will likely be bad, but not so bad as people assume.

Mafoofan’s response was, “Zabar’s survives!”

Not really, Anton pointed out.

The problem is that midtown will be A) erased and B) irradiated. Fallout may not hit the UWS (though it probably will) but it will contaminate much of the surrounding area. Manhattan will be useless as a cultural and business center. No one will want to live here, nor could anyone live anywhere near the contaminated areas. Human nature being what it is, even the outlying areas that are still safe, no one will want to live in. The value of the whole metro area will fall to zero, both because its center and hear[t] is literally gone, and because people simply will not want to be anywhere near it.

The playfulness that might be inferred in this particular exchange contrasts with Anton’s stone-cold theorizing about how or whether the United States might try to respond to an attack of this sort. Would the U.S. launch a nuclear counterstrike against the people who had attacked it with nuclear weapons? These sorts of questions are played out in war game scenarios, and Anton appears, in the virtual pages of’s discussion forums, to be indulging in precisely that sort of planning-for-the-worst.

For instance, a commenter named montecristo#4 suggests that in order to deter the kind of attack that Anton fears, the United States would make the following threat: “You blow up a Western city, and we will turn certain Muslim holy cities to glass. We give people who live there plenty of time to evacuate, but the cities and everything in them are gone for good, and uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Surely an Islamic fundy wouldn’t want that.”

Anton responded by saying that “this has been considered, but there is presicely zero chance of it ever becoming policy, or acted upon. It would be impossible even to have the public debate necessary to make such a threat credible.”

He went on to explain his reasoning in greater detail:

The most likely scenario is the following. 10Kt bomb goes off in Times Square (or at Grand Central) around 8 am on a midweek day. We will do the “nuclear forensics” to try to get a signature from the radiation. It will prove inconclusive. At best, we can narrow the source to a handful of states. Are we going to nuke them all? Two certain innocents and one “maybe”? No way.
Let’s say we get lucky and are nearly certain we know where the fuel came from. What if it’s Russian? Are we going to risk a full exchange with Russia? No effing way. What if it is Pakistan? In all likelihood, if it is, it will not be decision made by the top but a rougue element of the ISI. Islamabad will plead for mercy. They will say — truthfully, in all likelihood — that they never meant for this to happen, and that they will in reposnse go and steamroll the NWFPs. Will we have the stomach to nuke them? No way.
What if it is Iran? They will deny it. At least half the world will believe them. Who knows how many Americans will believe them too. Some other huge % of people will say, “In the absense of proof, we can’t retaliate.” Iran will likely also say, through back channels, “This was not us, but had it been us, it would have been some rougue element, not sanctioned by the Supreme Leader. It is very terrible what happened to you, and we will do anything we can to help. But if you think of retaliating, well, we have some unpleasant surprizes for you in the form of Hezbollah sleeper cells. Oh, and forget about Israel if that happens. So just cool off and listen to reason. Let us address this problem together and put the past behind us.”
Then you will have another gigantic segment of public opinion which will say that nuclear attacks are so terrible that under no circumstances should we ever engage in them. And another big segment will say that we should not do anything that will increase the chances of another attack, and retaliation will be held up as just such a response. And, indeed, many hostile nuclear powers will tell us the same thing: Don’t do anything rash, or you may have to deal with us one way or another. And that is IF we can come up with a plausible case that one nation is responsible. The chances of that are in fact low.
No, we will not do anything.

It makes for depressing reading, as many of the members of complained. “Do your friends invite you to parties anymore or do you just bum everyone out too much?” asked one. “Manton, you must be a hoot at cocktail parties, I do mean that,” wrote another. In response, Anton gave a bit of ground, writing, “I admit that it’s possible that I have too dim a view of human nature.” However, when asked by The Intercept whether he was as dark as his nuclear comments had been interpreted on the site, he replied that while he does have provisions for a nuclear attack stored in his basement, “I’m pretty happy. I like my life.”

His last post on the site was in late January, before it was publicly known that he had been named to a top spot on the National Security Council. “I had a 1981 Tondonia white last week that was great,” he wrote. “Perfect bottle.”

His profile on the site lists his current location as “In Hiding.”

Update: Feb. 17, 2017

After this story was published, Styleforum changed the settings on its Current Events forum so that only Styleforum members can view the postings on it. As a result, some of the links in this story no longer work, such as the ones to Michael Anton’s comments on nuclear terrorism, Islam, and diversity. According to Fokyan Leung, who said he is a co-owner of Styleforum, about a dozen Styleforum members contacted him after the story appeared and requested that the Current Events forum be closed to the public.


Dark Essays By White House Staffer Are the Intellectual Source Code of Trumpism

The Intercept  |  February 12, 2017

Let’s say you are a top official on the National Security Council and Donald Trump requests a memo explaining the purpose of his chaotic presidency. What are the odds you would draft a 4,000-word essay arguing that America is like a doomed aircraft that’s been hijacked by terrorists in which Trump has madly rushed the cockpit and seized the controls but we still might die because he doesn’t know how to fly the plane?
That would be an unusual memo, even if its first paragraph didn’t actually evoke the tragedy of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 after its passengers tried to wrest control of the jet from its al Qaeda hijackers. Yet a senior member of the NSC named Michael Anton has written precisely that justification of the Trump presidency — not as an NSC memo, but as an anonymous article for an arch-conservative website, published two months before the election, when Anton was still a private citizen.
The article, headlined “The Flight 93 Election,” caused a minor stir when it came out. Conservatives who didn’t like Trump were aghast at its strange endorsement of the brutish candidate, while liberals thought it showed the crackpot essence of the conservative case for the reality TV star. There was also the buzz of a guessing game: Who wrote this incredible thing? Here’s how the article began:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

On February 2, the guessing ended when the Weekly Standard revealed Anton as the author. More crucially, the magazine also revealed that Anton had just been hired as the senior director of strategic communications at the NSC and accurately described him as “the leading conservative intellectual to argue for the election of Donald Trump.” This cast Anton’s five-month-old essay, as well as other articles he has written, in a new light — they are virtually the only attempt by a Trump insider to present a holistic explanation of what his presidency stands for and seeks to accomplish. The outing of Anton has inadvertently exposed the intellectual source code of Trumpism.
Of course, Trump and his senior aides have issued a steady outpouring of startling statements and tweets about the administration’s ideas and plans. There’s also been a flurry of radical executive orders and appointments of cabinet officers whose backgrounds — as billionaires or Christian warriors or civil rights opponents — provide alarming data points. A number of officials have written crude and inflammatory books in years past, such as Michael Flynn, the retired general who heads the NSC. And, yes, there’s the case of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive who is Trump’s senior adviser. But nobody in the administration has drawn up a real-time ideological blueprint to explain the intentional chaos of what’s happening under Trump — except, as it now turns out, Michael Anton, whose radical theories have been compared to those of a German philosopher named Carl Schmitt, who helped lay the legal foundations of the Nazi Party.

In the beginning, Anton attended Claremont Graduate College, an incubator for conservative thinkers. He became a speechwriter and press secretary for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then took a mid-level job at the NSC in the George W. Bush administration. As the Weekly Standard reported, he was part of the team that pushed for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Anton left the government in 2005 and became a speechwriter for Rupert Murdoch at News Corp., followed by several years in the communications shop at Citigroup, then a year and a half as a managing director at BlackRock, the asset management firm.
In September, using the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, a Roman consul who died on the battlefield, Anton published his Flight 93 essay at the Claremont Review of Books and followed it up with additional posts responding to his critics. While those got noticed, he had actually written a far longer article in March that few people had read, and its edges were even sharper. Bearing the title “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism,” it began by noting that “Trump himself — no man of ideas, to say the least — is unsuited to the task of thinking through what his popularity means or how to build on it. Others will have to do the real work.” In an effort to justify the “America First” slogan that Trump was beginning to use, the article argued that the anti-Semitic “America First Committee” of the early 1940s, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II and was supported by Charles Lindbergh, had been “unfairly maligned” and was just an “alleged stain” on U.S. history. Anton described diversity as “a source of weakness” and one of the “ridiculous lies” that have been foisted on America by its liberal overlords.
The essays had two targets: the liberals who had so deeply degraded America that it might never recover unless there was an insurrection, and the complacent conservatives who abetted it all. (Ironically, Anton was fiercely critical of what he described as “the Davos overclass,” though BlackRock, his employer at the time, was a cornerstone of it.) The liberal establishment didn’t get terribly upset, but some conservatives turned livid over these impolite rants from an anonymous writer hiding behind the 3,000-year-old robes of a Roman consul. This is how Anton described the generation of conservatives whom he deemed insufficiently radical and energetic:

The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation. Conservative intellectuals never tire of praising “entrepreneurs” and “creative destruction.” Dare to fail! they exhort businessmen. Let the market decide! Except, um, not with respect to us. Or is their true market not the political arena, but the fundraising circuit?

One conservative retort, from the writer Ben Shapiro, was bluntly headlined, “The Widely Praised ‘Flight 93 Election’ Essay Is Dishonest and Stupid.” Shapiro described Anton’s essay as “incoherent, mind-numbing horseshit,” faulting him for repeating his noxious points “like a dog licking its own vomit.” Another conservative critique, from Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, described the essay as “a master class in overwriting,” and added, “seldom has a pseudonym been more needful to protect an author’s reputation.”
Gerson’s critique was not all jokiness. One of the most disturbing elements of Anton’s writings is the racism deeply baked into them. In the Flight 93 essay, Anton described the Black Lives Matter movement as one of many “inanities” of America. The election of Hillary Clinton, he warned, could mean “a million more Syrians” getting into the country. (In 2016, the United States accepted 12,587 Syrian refugees, and Clinton proposed raising the number to 65,000.) Muslims who come to America “change us — and not for the better,” Anton wrote. (Anton did not respond to a request for comment.)
The dark value of Anton’s work is that it makes plain the bigotry of Trumpism before Trump and his supporters won the election and became a bit more careful about what they said. There’s nothing that Steve Bannon has written or said in recent years that comes close to the clarifying sweep of Anton’s essays, which are not just a product of racism but an argument for it. Gerson put his finger on this:

When you shift through all the hyperbole and insults of “The Flight 93 Election,” you are left with a residue of prejudice. The author refers to “tribal, sub-Third-World foes” and “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” who are making America “less traditionally American with every cycle.” Immigrants are typically guilty of “rape, shooting, bombing or machete attack.” Their importation is the sign of “a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.” Trump, in contrast, would say, “I want my people to live.” Just think on that. Who exactly is “my people”?

To save America, Anton proposes a blitz of desperate actions. The point, he argues, is to take exceptional and potentially suicidal steps (the rushing-the-cockpit scenario) because the America that conservatives aspire to preserve faces total elimination. He reveals this in a section of his essay that looks at the intentions of “the Left.” Some of the Left regard conservatives as Nazis, he writes: “How does one deal with a Nazi — that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”
The flip side of believing your enemies want to crush you because you are a Nazi is the belief that you must crush them first. “So what do we have to lose by fighting back?” Anton asks. “The Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.” Anton’s ideology has a temporal as well as political edge: It is now-or-neverism.

When the news broke that Anton had been appointed to the NSC, William Kristol posted an acid tweet connecting him to a legal theorist who provided intellectual cover for the Nazi Party: “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.” Kristol is the godfather of contemporary neoconservatism and a leader of the Never Trump movement, so part of Anton’s rant was directed at mandarins of the right like him. Kristol didn’t take it well.
Carl Schmitt was a highly regarded intellectual in Weimar Germany when he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became a prominent and enthusiastic supporter of the worst anti-Jewish laws that were soon enacted. His detractors have referred to him as “Hitler’s Crown Jurist,” and after World War II he was held for more than a year at an allied internment camp for Nazis. His intellectual legacy is complicated, and his ideas, which retain influence today, have taken hold on the anti-liberal extremes of both the left and the right.
Schmitt despised liberalism and, as Michael Lind explained in an incisive article two years ago, made a philosophical argument for a type of populism led by “a charismatic leader who saves the people from danger by acting decisively, outside of the law if necessary.” This is sometimes referred to as “decisionism,” in which authority is derived from taking action, strong action, without necessarily having a plan or needing to show positive results or following the law. The opening line of Schmitt’s 1922 book, “Political Theology,” gets at some of this: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” One of the most important tasks of leadership, according to Schmitt, is to identify and fight against a common enemy. As he put it in one of his most-cited lines, “The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete reality, recognized as the enemy.” Lind described Schmitt’s view of the political world in this way: “The exception is the rule. The emergency is the norm. The nation is constantly on the verge of collapse and threatened by enemies without and within.”
Sound familiar?
The echoes between Schmitt’s ideas and Trump’s presidency have been the subject of academic murmurings for a number of months. Quinta Jurecic, an associate editor of the blog Lawfare, noted in an essay a few weeks before Trump took the oath of office that he “has given us genuine reason for concern that he may actually represent the Schmittian nightmare feared by many on the left and in the civil libertarian community after 9/11.” A few weeks later, after Trump had issued his sweeping anti-Muslim travel ban, a professor at George Mason University, Mark Koyama, described the 45th president as “a perfect Schmittian. With the stroke of a pen, he has drawn an arbitrary distinction between friends and enemies of the United States.”
The outing of Anton in the Weekly Standard was accompanied with a picture of him on the sidelines of a press briefing at the White House. He doesn’t look fearsome. He is thin, with large glasses, unfashionably wide tie, and he is holding a green notebook in one hand and two pens in the other. He looks a bit uncertain, very much the image of a middle-aged white intellectual who is more comfortable with books than the spotlight or actual struggle. His mild manner in that picture contrasts with the unforgiving belligerence of his ideas.
In his inaugural address, Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to describe the way things are now. Trump was wrong about the state of our nation, which is not a wasteland from coast to coast. But if Anton’s deadly Flight 93 vision comes true, carnage may well describe our future.

What Slobodan Milosevic Taught Me About Donald Trump

The Intercept  |  February 7, 2017

During his inaugural address, Donald Trump deployed rhetoric that was familiar to anyone who spent time in the Balkans in the 1990s. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump thundered, with Congress as his backdrop. He expanded on the idea a few days later, during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security, where he said, “To all of those hurting out there, I repeat to you these words, we hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again.”

Trump’s message was a variation, directed at his largely white constituency, of the you-shall-not-be-beaten-again rhetoric used with malignant effect by Slobodan Milošević during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Trump is not Milošević and the United States is not Yugoslavia, of course, but the echoes between these paragons of national shamelessness reveal the underlying methods and weaknesses of what Trump is trying to pull off.

In 1987, Milošević was sent to Kosovo to soothe angry Serbs who felt threatened by Albanians who dominated the province. A low-profile communist official at the time, Milošević visited a municipal office and spoke to a crowd of unhappy Serbs who had gathered outside. Milošević was uncertain as he addressed them, but everything changed when he voiced a nationalist message they had never heard before: “No one will be allowed to beat the Serbs again, no one!” he said.

The crowd began to chant his name. Even though he remained cold (he had almost no charisma), it was a decisive moment in which he realized the political usefulness of tapping into the resentments of Serbs who felt slighted by other identity groups in Yugoslavia. This had been a taboo, and he broke it. When Milošević returned to Belgrade, he took up the banner of Serb nationalism and ousted his low-energy mentor, Ivan Stambolić. He provoked other republics to secede from Yugoslavia, and this led to years of warfare and war crimes.

Milošević created his own reality. I have never interviewed Trump but I have an unforgettable memory of what it’s like to sit in a room with a gaslighter-in-chief and try to pin him down. I was one of the few American journalists whom Milošević spoke with before he was overthrown and extradited to a war crimes trial in The Hague, where he died of a heart attack in 2006.

I visited Milošević on a bright spring day when he was in the full bloom of power. His office was in the center of Belgrade in a former palace that had been chiseled with the less-than-joyous touch of Austro-Hungarian architecture. Plainclothes guards asked me to walk through a metal detector that beeped loudly, prompting one of the guards to ask with a laugh, “Any guns?” He waved me through. A woman then led me through empty hallways to a waiting room. Sit here, she said.

She returned in a minute and opened a set of double doors into an office that had a long row of windows letting in the day’s sunshine. The office was empty except for Slobodan Milošević, who was standing by the windows. His first words were, “Why do you write lies about my country?” I now realize these words could just as easily come out of Trump’s mouth, or his Twitter account, when he discusses media organizations he does not like, which is most of them.

Milošević was shameless in lying about obvious truths. “We are blamed for a nationalistic policy but I don’t believe that our policy is nationalistic,” he said. “If we don’t have national equality and equality of people, we cannot be, how to say, a civilized and prosperous country in the future.” As we spoke, the military forces he had organized were continuing to lay waste to Bosnia, encircling Sarajevo and other major cities with medieval-style sieges.

We sat together for 90 minutes, with nobody else in the room. Though he didn’t have the bluster of Trump — Milošević was a quiet and controlled speaker, with just occasional flashes of anger that were tactical, not impulsive — he was a master of the alternative fact, even in the face of someone who knew they were lies, because I had reported from Bosnia on the crimes perpetrated by military forces under his control. When I later wrote a book about all this, I described Milošević’s relationship to the truth in a way that I now realize fits Trump, too.

I would have had better luck trying to land a punch on a hologram. Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts. He had spent his entire life in the world of communism, and he had become a master, an absolute master, at fabrication. Of course my verbal punches went right through him. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked. He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight. I knew the wall was black. I could see the wall. I had touched the wall. I had watched the workmen paint it black.

Comparisons of political leaders are of limited usefulness, because no two are exactly alike — they bring to mind Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, each is unhappy in its own way. Milošević was whip smart, disciplined, and he wasn’t a narcissist in the way of Trump. He didn’t have a lot of public meetings, his face wasn’t plastered on Serbian media, and he spent most evenings at home with his wife, a hard-line professor named Mira Marković who was also his principal confidante. And no matter what Trump does, I don’t believe the United States is heading for the kind of violence that Milošević knowingly steered Yugoslavia toward.

Trump’s buffoonery was present, however, in another protagonist of the Balkan carnage — Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader who got his start as Milošević’s puppet. Karadžić’s fabulism was more brazen than his fellow Serb’s, if only because like Trump he adored the spotlight and talked so much. Karadžić was a night owl, and one evening I attended a press conference that began after midnight in his small-town headquarters outside besieged Sarajevo. The Muslims were bombing themselves, Karadžić said. The media invented the tales of Serb mistreatment of detainees. There was no ethnic cleansing — Muslims left their homes voluntarily.

Karadžić’s performance was Trumpian in its audacious make-believe, and it conveyed a lesson that’s useful to us today. Tyrants don’t care if you believe them, they just want you to succumb to doubt. “His ideas were so grotesque,” I later wrote of Karadžić, “his version of reality so twisted, that I was tempted to conclude he was on drugs, or that I was. I knew Bosnia well, and I knew that the things Karadžić said were lies, and that these lies were being broadcast worldwide, every day, several times a day, and they were being taken seriously. I am not saying that his lies were accepted as the truth, but I sensed they were obscuring the truth, causing outsiders to stay on the sidelines, and this of course was a great triumph for Karadžić. He didn’t need to make outsiders believe his version of events; he just needed to make them doubt the truth and sit on their hands.”

The terrible experience of the Balkans offers a slit of hope, however: Milošević was overthrown. His world of alternative facts led to a disaster that involved Weimar levels of hyperinflation that sapped his regime of popular support. During one of my stays at the Hyatt Hotel in Belgrade, the nightly rate exceeded 4 million dinars, taxes not included. The defining moment of his overthrow occurred when bulldozers from the working-class town of Čačak smashed into Belgrade at the head of a column of blue-collar workers who realized their hero had conned them.

It wasn’t inertia that caught up with Milošević, nor the liberals and students who opposed him from almost the first day. Well-behaved democrats played important and necessary roles, laying the groundwork for Milošević’s removal, but it was his core constituencies, the working class and the security services, that delivered the decisive blows. The role of Brutus is often taken by insiders who have finally had enough of a failed demagogue. These are early days in the Trump era, but if Milošević’s fate is as much of a guide as his rhetoric, Trump will be undone when the democratic resistance deepens and the voters and party that brought him to power turn on him.


In Just 10 Days, President Trump Has Split the Government Into Warring Factions

The Intercept  |  January 31, 2017

War has broken out, not on foreign territory or on our streets, but in the offices and hallways of the departments and agencies that create and execute the laws, policies, and regulations of the United States. Its sights and sounds are those of a bureaucracy in crisis: drafts of a dissent cable that are circulated, letters of resignation that are drawn up, whispered complaints to journalists, and even tears.

The immediate trigger was an executive order signed last week by President Trump that banned entry visas for refugees from seven Muslim-dominated countries. The order, which did not go through a normal review process, caused chaos and heartbreak at airports in the United States and around the world, where refugees with valid visas were turned back without warning, and even holders of green cards were detained.

The ensuing protests by thousands of people were the first signs of something going terribly wrong in America, like a body jerking when a foreign substance is injected into its veins. More symptoms of rejection soon emerged. Hundreds of diplomats at the State Department are signing an unusual dissent cable that gravely warns of political blowback, saying the ban will “alienate entire societies” and serve as a “tipping point towards radicalization.” And on Monday night, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Department of Justice would not defend the ban in court because “I am not convinced … that the executive order is lawful.” Within hours, Yates was fired, accused in a venomous White House statement of betrayal and weakness.

As the now-familiar saying goes, this is not normal. On their own, none of these events would have been unprecedented. Just last year, 51 diplomats at the State Department filed a dissent memo over the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The replacement of agency heads, sometimes in unhappy circumstances, is a feature of every democracy. But these events have occurred in such a short period of time that the script of the first 10 days of the Trump Administration reads like the work of Le Carré come to America.

Perhaps most strikingly, bureaucracies appear to be taking sides and feuding with a sharpness that is characteristic of fractured and dysfunctional governments.

Before the election, the FBI publicly released far more information that was damaging to Hillary Clinton than to Donald Trump, and as a result many people concluded that the FBI and its director, James Comey, were pro-Trump. It was the opposite with the CIA, which appeared to be intentionally leaking information that was damaging to Trump’s campaign — and Trump himself lashed out at the CIA for doing so.

In another major schism – this one spanning two branches of the government — several federal judges issued stays against the immigration ban, finding it likely illegal, but some border agents refused to let their detainees speak to lawyers despite being presented with court orders instructing them to. Meanwhile, the bans were celebrated by unions representing more than 21,000 immigration officers. The unions, in a joint statement, congratulated the president for his “swift and decisive action” to keep America safe.

Over at the EPA, scientists say they are afraid to talk to journalists after the Trump administration demanded to know the names of officials who participated in climate-change negotiations. The newly installed head of the Department of Homeland Security clashed with the White House over its desire to appoint an anti-immigration extremist as his deputy. Congressional aides disclosed that they had secretly helped the White House draft the immigration ban and signed non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from telling their own bosses about it. And Trump’s senior political adviser, Steve Bannon, a white nationalist whose ex-wife accused him of domestic violence and anti-semitism, is orchestrating the White House’s executive orders in secretive ways that cut out most of the National Security Council staff and leave no paper trail that shows what happened.

Although this is all new to Americans, there is ample precedent overseas. I spent most of my life reporting on the breakdown of process and laws in foreign countries. The origin of the chaos is the assumption to power of a vastly inexperienced leader who is fantastically rich, psychologically unstable, unusually bombastic and trusts only a few people, mostly family members. This profile has elements of former and current rulers of Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev), the Democratic Republic of Congo (Mobutu Sese Seko), Venezuela (Hugo Chavez), Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Equatorial Guinea (Teodoro Obiang), to name just a few.

One of the things I learned while reporting from some of these countries is that when a war of bureaucracies breaks out, some bureaucracies are far more equal than others — in the sense of truly mattering in determining a nation’s fate. The dissent from within the State Department is significant, but when the normal inter-agency process of modern states breaks down, foreign ministries tend to be left in the cold, carrying out whatever policies are determined by the places where the real power resides: the security ministries and the presidential palace.

The rebellion at the Justice Department by Sally Yates is a type that will likely be short-lived; she was a holdover from the Obama administration, and Trump has already replaced her with a compliant prosecutor. Political positions of that sort, which fill the top tiers of most agencies, will soon be filled by Trump vassals. The fight within bureaucracies will shift to being between those loyalists and the career civil servants who compose the bulk of the federal workforce, which totals about 2.1 million people, plus 3.7 million who work as contractors.

An unusual appeal went out to federal workers on Monday from a former National Security Council staffer, Laura Rosenberger, who wrote to her former colleagues, “In many ways, you are the last line of defense against illegal, unethical, or reckless actions — which the first week of this administration confirm will abound.” Rosenberger added, “History has shown us that implementation of such policies depends on a compliant bureaucracy of obedient individuals who look the other way do as they are told. Do what bureaucracy does well: slow-roll, obstruct, and constrain. Resist. Refuse to implement anything illegal, unethical, or unconstitutional.

It is a stirring plea but there are many reasons why it might not ignite a rebellion among the legions of bureaucrats who make the government run from day to day. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked to respond to the dissent from the State Department officials on Monday, made it clear what the administration thinks of disloyalty. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” he said. “I think they should get with the program or go.” I have heard these sorts of threats before, though not on American soil.

Where this goes from here is impossible to say. It’s as if we were caught in a rogue wave that has crashed down upon us, turning us head over heels, crushing our heads under its pressure, filling our lungs with water, breaking our bones with its power. And somehow we still expect to fully understand what is happening to us, where the wave will take us, and what condition we will be in when the waters recede.

Should Officials Resign When the Government Goes Crazy?

The Intercept  |  January 29, 2017

You are a dedicated civil servant and you have loyally performed your job for years, but suddenly you are confronted with tasks and policies that horrify you. Should you carry on, or should you quit?

This unusual question is presenting itself with urgent regularity as President Trump tries to overturn a wide array of sensible policies in his drive to implement a far-right agenda, including a chaotic travel ban aimed at Muslim immigrants. Yet it’s a familiar question to a particular species of government official: those who have resigned to protest deplorable initiatives they disagreed with. The last time it happened on a significant scale was in the early 1990s, and George Kenney was at the epicenter.

Kenney joined the State Department in 1988, and after serving overseas, he took a post in Washington as the deputy chief of Yugoslav affairs. He managed day-to-day policy on the region and pored over intelligence reports as well as news articles. He disagreed with the U.S. policy of standing aside as Serbian fighters seized large parts of Bosnia in a conflict that involved ethnic cleansing and siege warfare. As the author of the first drafts of State Department position papers, Kenney saw his strong language watered down by layers of higher officials who sought to minimize the justification for U.S. intervention. Six months after the war began in 1992, he quit.

“I can no longer in clear conscience support the administration’s ineffective, indeed, counterproductive handling of the Yugoslav crisis,” he wrote in his letter of resignation, which was front-page news.

Four State Department officials quit over Bosnia policy in the early 1990s, and their actions are newly relevant as the Trump era gets underway. “All over the nation’s capital, panicked job searches are underway,” noted a Washington Post story about bureaucrats looking for escape hatches in advance of what they fear will be a reversal of key policies on law enforcement, reproductive rights, and national security. The Environmental Protection Agency is on a virtual lockdown, with a freeze in its grant programs and a gag order on any of its employees talking with outsiders about what’s going on. A temporary ban has been instituted that prohibits a broad swath of refugees and green card holders from entering the United States. And there’s even a war over things that in ordinary times would be innocuous, such as social media postings by national parks.

What should a frustrated civil servant do? In recent weeks, The Intercept interviewed Kenney and the other officials who quit over Bosnia, and to a surprising degree, they generally agreed that dissenting officials should stay in their jobs as long as possible in the Trump administration, working inside the always-powerful machinery of bureaucracy to keep destructive policies from being implemented.

“My advice would be to throw sand in the gears,” said Kenney, who was the first State Department official to resign over Bosnia. “You’re not going to do anybody any good by leaving. Nobody is going to listen to you. If you work in the EPA and think the Trump people are the devil, you and every mid-level person who can, mount an internal resistance. There should be opportunities for people who are smart to act in a classic bureaucratic passive-aggressive manner and just be obstructionist. It’s a situation that lends itself to creative opposition from within.”

Kenney’s advice tracks the parting words of at least one of the Obama-era political appointees who had to step down in recent weeks — Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which is expected to follow a discernably different agenda in the Trump era. “My ask of you today is that I need you to keep pushing,” Gupta told her career staff on her last day at work. “Even when it’s hard, I need every single one of you to keep pushing, because there are too many people in this country who are depending on us.”

Kenney’s public resignation shocked Washington, as did the ones that followed. Marshall Harris was next, then Jon Western, then Stephen Walker — all of them 30-something diplomats who publicly turned their backs on secure lives working for the U.S. government. The unique “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 notwithstanding — when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, was dismissed after President Richard Nixon demanded they fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox — the last wave of resignations-in-principle was among officials who opposed the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. But those resignations, in 1970, were quiet and unnoticed. When Anthony Lake and three other mid-level aides quit the staff of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, they did not publicize their reasons.

“We never should have heard of them,” noted a 1993 story in the Washington Post about the Bosnia dissenters. “They were mid-level bureaucrats, dots in the State Department matrix. But they’ve gone and done something extraordinary in Washington: They quit their jobs on moral grounds.”

Kenney said his views were shaped by a seminal text he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Written by economist Albert Hirschman, the book was called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States,” and it examined the choices that confronted dissatisfied consumers and officials. “Exit” was a euphemism for going elsewhere, “Voice” meant speaking up from the inside, and “Loyalty” meant staying silent. Hirschman, whose work is regarded as path-breaking, explained in a later essay that his original analysis of the efficacy of voice had been “too timid.” He noted the candidacies of George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — outsiders within their respective parties who rather than quitting or staying silent kept fighting and eventually won their parties’ presidential nominations.

“My point,” Hirschman wrote, “was of course that power grows not only out of the ability to exit, but also out of voice, and that voice will be wielded with special energy and dedication by those who have nowhere to exit to.”

Hirschman, who died in 2012, was speaking directly to the dilemma of federal workers who at this moment might feel a bit like Hamlet — “to resign or not to resign?” For Hirschman, doubt was not paralyzing but liberating, leading to action of some sort — he described it as proving Hamlet wrong. Hirschman’s own life was an example. Before becoming an academic, he fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco, with the French in their (very short) battle against invading Germans at the start of World War II, and he stayed in France during the German occupation and perilously helped several thousand refugees escape, including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall.

But how much can an oppositional bureaucrat accomplish in the Trump era? One of the State Department officials who resigned in 1993, Jon Western, noted that particularly in the first months of a new administration, bureaucrats possess an unusual amount of influence because many appointees who are supposed to call the policy shots have not started their jobs. Political appointees are not just the brand names who lead the various agencies and departments of government. In every one of them, there are as many as five layers of political appointees, and it can be months or more before they are in place. Many of them have to be confirmed by Congress and obtain security clearances, some haven’t lived in Washington D.C. and must arrange to move there, while others are so new to their jobs that they don’t yet know enough to question the civil servants under them.

Western, now a professor of international relations and dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke College, recalled that when Bill Clinton took office in early 1993, an immediate policy review was ordered for Bosnia. Clinton became president after four years of George H.W. Bush and eight years of Ronald Reagan, so the exodus of political appointees was particularly deep — few Republicans wanted to stay on to help the other side, and the other side didn’t want them to stay. “None of the third, fourth or fifth layer people were in place,” Western recalled. The review was largely carried out by career civil servants who had helped design and execute the do-nothing policy that was under review. The White House “was left with a report that said there’s not a whole lot you can do,” Western recalled. “The bureaucracy can really slow things down. At the end of the day, policy has to be implemented by people on the ground, and for people on the ground to get their instructions, it has to go through a pretty cumbersome process.”

The number of federal career employees is 2.1 million, which is separate from the 3.7 million people who work as federal contractors. The growth of the government workforce since World War II has inevitably spawned a cascade of academic studies of bureaucratic politics, with a foundational text written by a Harvard professor, Graham Allison, whose 1971 book on the Cuban missile crisis examined three models for understanding how and why the crisis unfolded the way it did. Allison drew attention to what at the time was a relatively new model for making sense of how a state acts: the behind-the-scenes struggles of bureaucrats and bureaucracies. Allison compared it to a chess match in which the moves of one side are determined not by a single player (the president) or by a predictable strategy that is planned in advance, but by several bureaucratic players with distinct interests and strategies who battle each other over each move.

Even in the age of Twitter and stream-of-consciousness edicts from the commander-in-chief, “It’s not as though the president picks up the phone and says ‘This has to be done,’ and immediately things will be done,” Western said.

On January 24, 1993, the New York Times published a story based on a leaked intelligence assessment that Serbian forces operated 135 prison camps, months after they had promised to shut down all of their camps. Western, who was an intelligence analyst at the State Department at the time, was surprised to read about it in the Times because he had written the classified assessment just a day earlier. Someone else had slipped it to the Times — “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable” disclosing it, Western said — but he was glad it had been done.

Leaking to journalists is another way that civil servants can perform their jobs in the public interest, Western and the other Bosnia dissenters agreed. With Congress and the White House controlled by a political party that prefers “alternative facts,” the truth of what the government knows is less likely to see the light of day unless it is leaked. Even Western, who describes himself as “not a big fan” of the massive leaks of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, notes that without leaks the American public wouldn’t know about the Pentagon Papers and other truths the government did not want to share with the American public. “Leaking is part of the process of making sure information gets out,” he said.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, when senior officials in the George W. Bush administration falsely claimed that intelligence assessments confirmed Saddam Hussein’s regime was building weapons of mass destruction, the messier truth made its way into the public realm only because mid-level officials talked to journalists about the absence of hard evidence to back up the administration’s erroneous claims. By staying on the inside, midlevel bureaucrats can function as the fact-checkers of senior-level spin.

Stephen Walker, who was the fourth and final State Department official to resign over Bosnia, recalled in an interview that after Secretary of State Warren Christopher refused to say in 1993 that Serbian forces were systemically killing Muslims in Bosnia, somebody leaked a classified State Department memo that said the exact opposite. This was an example, Walker said, of a leak being the best and perhaps only way to present evidence that a senior official was lying about what the government knew. “While I never would have leaked myself, I’m glad people did it,” said Walker. “I’m glad that the things that got leaked at that time got leaked, because they were important documents that needed to be in the public domain and didn’t involve sources and methods.”

Of course a key difference between then and now is that unauthorized leaks are investigated far more aggressively than before, and the consequences of being caught are more severe. The Obama administration prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, and the Trump administration, with its ingrained hostility toward the major media, is expected to continue the crackdown, if not intensify it.

When Marshall Harris began working at the State Department in 1985, he had to attend a six-week orientation course known as A-100, the department’s version of basic training. There were about 60 youthful diplomats in the course, and each day they received instruction in everything they would need to know as they started their careers — such as security protocols, how to write cables, the structure of the department, the do’s and don’ts of public speaking and negotiating.

One day, a lecturer told a story about a diplomat who disagreed with U.S. policy and resigned on principle. The punch line was that the righteous diplomat couldn’t find a job on the outside — his skills were so impractical that he ended up pumping gas in northern Virginia. The story might sound a bit apocryphal but the point it conveyed to Harris and his young colleagues-in-diplomacy was clear — if you resign, you will forever lose the prestige and security you enjoyed as a Foreign Service Officer. Don’t do it.

Just a few years later, Harris ignored that advice. He was a Bosnia specialist in the State Department and disagreed with the U.S. policy of looking the other way as genocide occurred. In 1993, after failing to change the policy, Harris decided to resign. “I can no longer serve in a Department of State that accepts the forceful dismemberment of a European state and that will not act against genocide and the Serbian officials who perpetrate it,” he wrote in his resignation letter, which quickly got into the hands of reporters.

For him and the three other Bosnia dissenters, resignation was a last resort that for each of them turned out to attract far more attention than they expected. Kenney, the first to quit, became an influential voice at the outset of the Bosnian conflict (though his views changed after a few years and he eventually expressed doubts about the scale of killings in Bosnia). Harris, after leaving the State Department, worked for a congressman, the late Frank McCloskey, who was a leading figure on Bosnia, and then he helped form a pro-Bosnia advocacy group with Walker. Western took a slightly different path, speaking out less than the others and going into the academic world (Walker is now a high school teacher, while Western is a professor).

The Bosnia dissenters, while not regretting their choices, recognize that the media landscape has shifted since their resignations catapulted them to durable perches in the public eye. When they resigned, the web was just a few years old, not much of a platform for public debate. The velocity of today’s news cycle is radically quicker. Harris recalled that when he resigned, “everyone wanted to talk to me,” so he did frequent television interviews that were serious and respectful. When I spoke with Harris on the phone earlier this month, he mentioned that on the previous night he had watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper show and the panel discussion included eight participants who competed for precious airtime for their seconds-long sound bites.

“Back in my day, you had a one-on-one interview,” Harris said. “But in a heartbeat today, you can get 50 people on a panel.”

The warning Harris received as a diplomat-in-training remains painfully relevant. Although some things have changed in a good way — Harris notes there are now more career opportunities outside government for people who resign — in general, leakers and whistleblowers tend to be shunned and punished by the institutions they leak against, even if the public welcomes their disclosures. While there is little hard data, a 1975 study looked at the resignations of high-level officials between 1900 and 1970. Only 34 of those resignations involved a public protest of some sort, and only one of the officials who resigned in public eventually returned to an equivalent or higher post in government.

“If you want somebody to stand up and say no and be noticed, you can’t have somebody like me, who was midlevel,” Kenny said. “You have to have someone quite senior to throw themselves on the barbed wire. But I’m not sure anyone who is in a position to be listened to would want to do it.”

Obama’s Pardon of Gen. James Cartwright Is a New Twist in the War on Leaks

The Intercept  |  Jan. 18, 2017

The celebrations over President Barack Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence have overshadowed what might be a more consequential development in the government’s long-running war against leakers and whistleblowers: Obama’s pardon of Marine General James Cartwright.

Late last year, Cartwright pled guilty to lying to the FBI about disclosing classified information on the Stuxnet computer virus to reporters from The New York Times and Newsweek. The former general, a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was known as Obama’s “favorite general,” was due to be sentenced this month on felony charges. Prosecutors were seeking a two-year prison term.

Obama pardoned him yesterday, which means Cartwright will not go to prison.

“It seems to me that the far bigger news from the perspective of policy and precedent-setting is the pardon of General James Cartwright,” wrote Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor who specializes on national security law. Vladeck described the Cartwright pardon as “an interesting denouement” to the controversy over the Obama administration’s war on leakers. While Vladeck stated that he doubted it was the beginning of a trend, he asked, “Is it possible, then, that the Cartwright pardon is a tacit admission on the government’s part that it has been a bit too hard on leakers and those, like General Cartwright, who have interfered with leak investigations?”

The Cartwright pardon constitutes a new precedent in which a well-connected leaker of classified information who lied to the FBI has been spared jail time. In 2015, former general David Petraeus admitted to sharing top secret information with his biographer and girlfriend, Paula Broadwell, and lying to the FBI about it. Petraeus, who resigned from his job as CIA director when the scandal broke, negotiated a deal to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor count, accepted 18 months of probation, and avoided a prison sentence. [In another era, during the George W. Bush presidency, Scooter Libby, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, received a presidential commutation for a 30-month sentence for leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.]

The Manning case is different from Cartwright’s in significant ways, including the amount of material leaked. Manning leaked a large cache of secret military and diplomatic documents, while Cartwright talked about a single top-secret program to undermine Iran’s nuclear industry (and his conversations with reporters from the New York Times and Newsweek were in the context of making the Obama administration look good, whereas Manning’s leak to Wikileaks exposed government wrongdoing). While Cartwright received a full pardon, Manning only had her sentence commuted, to seven years from the staggering 35 years she received at trial.

At the time of the Petraeus plea deal, lawyers for several convicted leakers expressed outrage that Petraeus was permitted to avoid incarceration for crimes that were arguably far worse than their clients were incarcerated for. Abbe Lowell, the lawyer for Stephen Kim, a State Department official who received a 13-month sentence for talking to a journalist about a single classified report on North Korea, said at the time, “The issue is not whether General Petraeus was dealt with too leniently … The issue is whether others are dealt with far too severely for conduct that is no different. This underscores the random, disparate and often unfair application of the national security laws where higher-ups are treated better than lower-downs.”

The Petraeus deal was cited in pleadings that Lowell and lawyers for another convicted leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, made to their respective judges, arguing that justice had to be meted out equally, and that their clients had received far harsher treatment (the appeals were unsuccessful, though). The Cartwright case adds another data point for future leak cases. There is not just the Petraeus plea deal that can be cited, but the Cartwright pardon, too.

“The clemency and pardons today underscore the uneven enforcement and completely unequal treatment of people accused of leaking classified information,” Lowell told The Intercept after the Cartwright and Manning decisions were announced.

One of the Obama-era leakers who did not receive the generous treatment showered on Cartwright and Petraeus is John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who pled guilty to sharing the name of a covert operative with a reporter. Even though the operative’s name was never published, Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

“Now we’ve seen it twice,” said Kiriakou, who was released from prison in 2015. “It’s not just the pardon, it’s the sweetheart deal Petraeus got as well. How can a prosecutor prosecute a leak case and with a straight face ask a judge to sentence somebody to 24 years [this is what Sterling faced] when Petraeus got 18 months of unsupervised probation and Cartwright just sat at home and waited for his pardon to come through?”

The contrast was noted by national security reporter Michael Isikoff in a dispatch for Yahoo News yesterday.

Still, the pardon is likely to prove controversial in light of the prison terms — in one case as long as three and a half years — given to other, much lower level government officials prosecuted by the Justice Department in leak-related cases. If nothing else, the move appears to undercut a significant argument made by the office of U.S. attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein in a court filing last week, that “when an individual is found to have made unauthorized disclosures, particularly one serving in a senior position, it is critically important” to hold that person accountable.

Of course the Department of Justice under Donald Trump will pursue whatever cases it wants to pursue, and if the latest twists with Cartwright and Manning are politically inconvenient, lawyers for the new administration will try to downplay them. Pardons and commutations do not have the same legal standing as court rulings, and can be portrayed as discretionary and inherently political moves by an outgoing president.

“It’s hard to know the precedental value this will have,” said Jesselyn Raddack, who has represented several prominent leakers and whistleblowers. “Both of these cases were very politicized, for better or worse. We are also moving into a presidency that promises greater secrecy and doesn’t necessarily think secrecy is a bad thing and is reflexively anti-leak when it’s against [Trump], and pro-leak when it serves to smear his enemies.” Referring to the commutation of Manning’s sentence, Raddack added, “I hope it would be encouraging for whistleblowers, but encouraging for what? They could only be put in jail for seven years, and then someone will have mercy on them? It’s hard to read a lot of encouragement in that, because we’re still in such a chilling environment.”

Why Obama Should Pardon All Whistleblowers and Leakers—Not Just Edward Snowden

The Intercept  |  Sept. 19, 2016

Of course President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden — and Chelsea Manning, too.

But this story is not about the excellent reasons for thanking rather than locking up the two most famous whistleblowers of the post-9/11 era. Plenty of people are already calling for that in powerful ways. A new petition on Snowden’s behalf has been signed by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as Steve Wozniak, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aragorn (also known as Viggo Mortensen). Organizations coming out in support of a pardon for Snowden, who is currently a political refugee in Moscow, include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. And Oliver Stone has just released “Snowden,” a movie that emphasizes his good and patriotic intentions.

But the unfortunate truth of our times is that Obama is not going to pardon Snowden and Manning. His administration has invested too much capital in demonizing them to turn back now. However, there are other leakers and whistleblowers for whom the arguments in favor of pardons are not only compelling but politically palatable, too. Their names are Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and Thomas Drake. All of them were government officials who talked with journalists and were charged under the Espionage Act for disclosures of information that were far less consequential than the classified emails that Hillary Clinton stored on her server at home or the top secret war diaries that David Petraeus shared with his biographer and girlfriend. Petraeus, a former general and CIA director, got a fine for his transgressions. Clinton got a presidential nomination.

Consider this: Kiriakou, a CIA agent who criticized the agency’s use of torture, was thrown into prison because he provided a journalist with the name of one covert officer, although the name was never published. Kim, a State Department official, pleaded guilty to talking to Fox News reporter James Rosen about a single classified report on North Korea that an official later described as a “nothing burger.” Sterling, a CIA officer, talked to New York Times reporter James Risen about a botched operation against Iran that went wrong because of bungling by the agency. Drake, who worked at the NSA, faced multiple felony charges after he talked to a Baltimore Sun reporter about fraud and abuse in a bloated surveillance program. All of them went to prison except Drake, who was able, in the end, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, though he lost his job and security clearance and now works at an Apple store.

There is an imperative to apologize to Kim, Sterling, Kiriakou and Drake that has nothing to do with justice (though justice should be sufficient incentive). It is possible that a crackpot grifter will be elected president of the United States in seven weeks time. Obama needs to start dramatically disavowing the excesses of his presidency, so that Donald Trump, if he wins in November, will not be able to use the continuity card to do even worse things with the excessive powers that Obama was able to arrogate for the Oval Office. (Trump would still do terrible things, of course, but he would at least have a harder time citing Obama as precedent.) One of the most insidious domestic legacies of Obama’s presidency is his unprecedented crackdown on officials who talked to journalists about embarrassing issues or policies the government wanted to keep secret — and this needs to be forsaken, now.

It wouldn’t be that out of character. The Obama administration has been admirable in the use of its powers to reverse or stop wrongful actions by state and municipal authorities. Earlier this month, the administration suspended construction on the North Dakota Access Pipeline because it violated the rights of Native Americans. In recent years, the Department of Justice has conducted scathing investigations into civil rights abuses by a number of police departments, and has extracted meaningful changes from many of them. Fairness for all has been a hallmark of these laudable moves, and the same standard should be applied to leakers and whistleblowers. If Petraeus and Clinton are allowed to get away with unauthorized sharing of classified information, it should be okay for lesser officials too, especially when their actions involved the exposure of government wrongdoing.

Instead of just correcting the errors of other branches of government, Obama should admit that his own administration made a terrible mistake by prosecuting good people who helped, rather than harmed, the cause of democracy. If pardoning Snowden and Manning requires more courage than the president possesses, he can at least show clemency for Kim, Kiriakou, Drake and Sterling, who have suffered catastrophically. Pardons would clear their names and release Sterling from prison (he remains behind bars to this day). The fact that Trump has the instincts of a dictator makes it all the more crucial that Obama not hand him the powers and policies of one.

He Was a Hacker for the NSA and He Was Willing to Talk. I Was Willing to Listen.

The Intercept  |  June 28, 2016

The message arrived at night and consisted of three words: “Good evening sir!”

The sender was a hacker who had written a series of provocative memos at the National Security Agency. His secret memos had explained — with an earthy use of slang and emojis that was unusual for an operative of the largest eavesdropping organization in the world — how the NSA breaks into the digital accounts of people who manage computer networks, and how it tries to unmask people who use Tor to browse the web anonymously. Outlining some of the NSA’s most sensitive activities, the memos were leaked by Edward Snowden, and I had written about a few of them for The Intercept.

There is no Miss Manners for exchanging pleasantries with a man the government has trained to be the digital equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Though I had initiated the contact, I was wary of how he might respond. The hacker had publicly expressed a visceral dislike for Snowden and had accused The Intercept of jeopardizing lives by publishing classified information. One of his memos outlined the ways the NSA reroutes (or “shapes”) the internet traffic of entire countries, and another memo was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins.” I felt sure he could hack anyone’s computer, including mine.

Good evening sir!

The only NSA workers the agency has permitted me to talk with are the ones in its public affairs office who tell me I cannot talk with anyone else. Thanks to the documents leaked by Snowden, however, I have been able to write about a few characters at the NSA.

There was, for instance, a novelist-turned-linguist who penned an ethics column for the NSA’s in-house newsletter, and there was a mid-level manager who wrote an often zany advice column called “Ask Zelda!” But their classified writings, while revealing, could not tell me everything I wanted to know about the mindset of the men and women who spy on the world for the U.S. government.

I got lucky with the hacker, because he recently left the agency for the cybersecurity industry; it would be his choice to talk, not the NSA’s. Fortunately, speaking out is his second nature. While working for the NSA, he had publicly written about his religious beliefs, and he was active on social media. So I replied to his greeting and we began an exchange of cordial messages. He agreed to a video chat that turned into a three-hour discussion sprawling from the ethics of surveillance to the downsides of home improvements and the difficulty of securing your laptop. “I suppose why I talk is partially a personal compulsion to not necessarily reconcile two sides or different viewpoints but to just try to be honest about the way things are,” he told me. “Does that make sense?”

The hacker was at his home, wearing a dark hoodie that bore the name of one of his favorite heavy metal bands, Lamb of God. I agreed not to use his name in my story, so I’ll just refer to him as the Lamb. I could see a dime-store bubble-gum machine behind him, a cat-scratching tree, and attractive wood beams in the ceiling. But his home was not a tranquil place. Workmen were doing renovations, so the noise of a buzz saw and hammering intruded, his wife called him on the phone, and I could hear the sound of barking. “Sorry, my cats are taunting my dog,” he said, and later the animal in question, a black-and-white pit bull, jumped onto his lap and licked his face.

The Lamb wore a T-shirt under his hoodie and florid tattoos on his arms and smiled when I said, mostly in jest, that his unruly black beard made him look like a member of the Taliban, though without a turban. He looked very hacker, not very government.

When most of us think of hackers, we probably don’t think of government hackers. It might even seem odd that hackers would want to work for the NSA — and that the NSA would want to employ them. But the NSA employs legions of hackers, as do other agencies, including the FBI, CIA, DEA, DHS, and Department of Defense. Additionally, there are large numbers of hackers in the corporate world, working for military contractors like Booz Allen, SAIC, and Palantir. The reason is elegantly simple: You cannot hack the world without hackers.

In popular shows and movies such as “Mr. Robot” and “The Matrix,” hackers tend to be presented as unshaven geeks loosely connected to collectives like Anonymous, or to Romanian crime syndicates that steal credit cards by the millions, or they are teenagers who don’t realize their online mischief will get them into a boatload of trouble when Mom finds out.

The stereotypes differ in many ways but share a trait: They are transgressive anti-authoritarians with low regard for social norms and laws. You would not expect these people to work for The Man, but they do, in droves. If you could poll every hacker in the U.S. and ask whe­­­ther they practice their trade in dark basements or on official payrolls, a large number would likely admit to having pension plans. Who knows, it could be the majority.

This may qualify as one of the quietest triumphs for the U.S. government since 9/11: It has co-opted the skills and ideals of a group of outsiders whose anti-establishment tilt was expressed two decades ago by Matt Damon during a famous scene in Good Will Hunting. Damon, playing a math genius being recruited by the NSA, launches into a scathing riff about the agency serving the interests of government and corporate evil rather than ordinary people. Sure, he could break a code for the NSA and reveal the location of a rebel group in North Africa or the Middle East, but the result would be a U.S. bombing attack in which “1,500 people that I never met, never had a problem with, get killed.” He turns down the offer.

In recent years, two developments have helped make hacking for the government a lot more attractive than hacking for yourself. First, the Department of Justice has cracked down on freelance hacking, whether it be altruistic or malignant. If the DOJ doesn’t like the way you hack, you are going to jail. Meanwhile, hackers have been warmly invited to deploy their transgressive impulses in service to the homeland, because the NSA and other federal agencies have turned themselves into licensed hives of breaking into other people’s computers. For many, it’s a techno sandbox of irresistible delights, according to Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who studies hackers. “The NSA is a very exciting place for hackers because you have unlimited resources, you have some of the best talent in the world, whether it’s cryptographers or mathematicians or hackers,” she said. “It is just too intellectually exciting not to go there.”

Revealingly, one of the documents leaked by Snowden and published by The Intercept last year was a classified interview with a top NSA hacker (not the Lamb) who exulted that his job was awesome because “we do things that you can’t do anywhere else in the country … at least not legally. We are gainfully employed to hack computers owned by al-Qa’ida!” Asked about the kind of people he works with at the NSA, he replied, “Hackers, geeks, nerds … There’s an annual event for hackers in Las Vegas called DEF CON, and many of us attend. When there, we feel as though we are among our bretheren! [sic] We all have a similar mindset of wanting to tear things apart, to dig in, to see how things work.”

In 2012, Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director at the time, even attended DEF CON wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt that bore the logo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an anti-surveillance organization that is beloved by hackers and other good citizens of the world. To coincide with Alexander’s visit, the NSA had created a special webpage to recruit the hackers at DEF CON. “If you have a few, shall we say, indiscretions in your past, don’t be alarmed,” the webpage stated. “You shouldn’t automatically assume you won’t be hired.” Alexander’s personal pitch was even more direct: “In this room right here is the talent we need.”

If you are willing to become a patriot hacker, Uncle Sam wants you.

As a teenager, the Lamb was a devout Christian who attended church two or three times a week, yet he also participated in online forums for Satanists and atheists. He wanted to learn what others believed and why they believed it, and he wanted to hear their responses to questions he raised. If his beliefs could not withstand challenges from opposing ones, they might not be worth keeping.

“As a Christian, I believe the Bible, and one of the things it says is if you seek the truth, you should find it,” he told me. “If I started to come across facts that contradicted what I believed and contradicted the way that I thought about things, I had to be open to confronting them and determining how I would integrate them into my life and my thought system.”

Before he became a hacker, the Lamb had the restless spirit of one. After high school, he attended a Christian university for a year but dropped out and joined the military as a linguist. He was assigned to the NSA, and although he told me his computer skills were modest at the time, he was intrigued by the mysteries inside the machines. “I started doing some basic computer training, like ‘Oh, here’s how computers talk to each other and network’ and that sort of stuff,” he said. “I enjoyed that far more than trying to maintain a language that I rarely used.”

He devoured books on computers and experimented on his own time, using an application called Wireshark to see how network data was moving to and from his own computer. He picked up a bit of programming knowledge, and he asked agency veterans for tips. As he wrote in one of his memos, “If you want to learn crazy new things … why not walk around NSA, find people in offices that do things you find interesting, and talk to them about how they do what they do.”

Like Snowden, he did not need a formal education to succeed. Snowden, after all, dropped out of high school and mastered computers through self-education. As an NSA contractor, he rose to a position that gave him access to broad swaths of the agency’s networks. While Snowden was a systems administrator, the Lamb became an expert in network analysis and was well-versed in the crucial trick of shaping traffic from one place to another — for instance, sending it from an ISP in a foreign country to an NSA server.

The Lamb’s work was important, but his memos are remarkably irreverent, even cocky. I’ve read a fair number of NSA documents, and not one contains as much hacker and internet lingo as his; he used words like “skillz” and “internetz” and “ZOMG!” and phrases like “pwn the network” and “Dude! Map all the networks!!!” Some of what he wrote is just cheerily impudent, like the opening line of one memo: “Happy Friday my esteemed and valued intelligence Community colleagues!” Another memo began, “Welcome back, comrade!”

While poking gentle fun at the government hackers he worked with, the Lamb dismissed the amateur hackers on the outside. He identified himself and his highly trained colleagues at the NSA as a breed apart — a superior breed, much in the way that soldiers look down on weekend paintballers. Perhaps this shouldn’t be altogether surprising, because arrogance is one of the unfortunate hallmarks of the male-dominated hacker culture. At the NSA, this hubris can perhaps serve as an ethical lubricant that eases the task of hacking other people: They are not as special as you are, they do not have the magical powers you possess, they are targets first and humans second.

As the Lamb wrote in one of his memos, “When I first went to Blackhat/Defcon, it was with the wide-eyed anticipation of ‘I’m going to go listen to all of the talks that I can, soak up all of the information possible, and become a supar-1337-haxxor.’ What a let-down of an experience that was. You find the most interesting topics and briefings, wait in lines to get a seat, and find yourself straining your ears to listen to someone that has basically nothing new to say. Most of the talks get hyped up exponentially past any amount of substance they actually provide.”

When I asked the Lamb where he was in the hierarchy of hackers at the NSA, he just smiled and said, “I got to the point where more people would ask me questions than I asked other people questions.” He would not delve into the classified specifics of his job — he despises Snowden for leaking classified information — but I knew a lot through his memos.

Although network analysis, the Lamb’s area of expertise, is interesting from a technical perspective, he was one step removed from the most challenging and menacing type of government hacking — executing finely tuned attacks that infiltrate individual computers. Nonetheless, he offered this characterization of his NSA work: “They were just ridiculously cool projects that I’ll never forget.” One of the quandaries of technology is that “cool” does not necessarily mean “ethical.” Surveillance tools that are regarded as breakthroughs can be used to spy on innocent people as well as terrorists. This is a key part of the debate on the NSA, the concern that its formidable powers are being used, or can be used, to undermine privacy, freedom, and democracy.

The Lamb’s memos on cool ways to hunt sysadmins triggered a strong reaction when I wrote about them in 2014 with my colleague Ryan Gallagher. The memos explained how the NSA tracks down the email and Facebook accounts of systems administrators who oversee computer networks. After plundering their accounts, the NSA can impersonate the admins to get into their computer networks and pilfer the data flowing through them. As the Lamb wrote, “sys admins generally are not my end target. My end target is the extremist/terrorist or government official that happens to be using the network … who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?”

Another of his NSA memos, “Network Shaping 101,” used Yemen as a theoretical case study for secretly redirecting the entirety of a country’s internet traffic to NSA servers. The presentation, consisting of a PowerPoint slideshow, was offbeat at times, with a reference to throwing confetti in the air when a hack worked and jokey lines like, “The following section could also be renamed the ‘I’m pulling my hair out in the fetal position while screaming “Why didn’t it work?!”’ section.” The Lamb also scribbled a hand-drawn diagram about network shaping that included a smiley face in the middle next to the phrase, “YEAH!!! MAKE DATA HAPPEN!” The diagram and slideshow were both classified as top secret.

His memos are boastful, even cackling. At the end of one of the sysadmin memos, the Lamb wrote, “Current mood: scheming,” and at the end of another, “Current mood: devious.” He also listed “juche-licious” as one of his moods, ironically referring to the official ideology of North Korea. Another memo he wrote, “Tracking Targets Through Proxies & Anonymizers,” impishly noted that the use of identity-obscuring tools like Tor “generally makes for sad analysts” in the intelligence community; this was followed by a sad face emoji. The tone of his classified writing was consistent with some of his social media posts — the Lamb’s attitude, in public as well as in private, was often outspoken and brash.

What if the shoe was on the other foot, however? When I wrote about the sysadmin memos in 2014, I wondered how their author would feel if someone used the same devious rationale to hack his computer and his life. Nearly two years later, I had the chance to find out.

“If I turn the tables on you,” I asked the Lamb, “and say, OK, you’re a target for all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. How do you feel about being a target and that kind of justification being used to justify getting all of your credentials and the keys to your kingdom?”

The Lamb smiled. “There is no real safe, sacred ground on the internet,” he replied. “Whatever you do on the internet is an attack surface of some sort and is just something that you live with. Any time that I do something on the internet, yeah, that is on the back of my mind. Anyone from a script kiddie to some random hacker to some other foreign intelligence service, each with their different capabilities — what could they be doing to me?”

He seemed to be putting the blame for NSA attacks on the victims — if they were too dimwitted to protect themselves from hunters like him, it was their fault. “People don’t want to think about being targets on the internet, in spite of the fact that at this point in the game, everybody is,” he added. “Every country spies.”

He was dead serious, no smiles any longer. “As much as we’d like to say we will all beat our swords into plowshares and become a peaceful people, it’s not going to happen,” he continued. “Intelligence agencies around the world are being asked questions by their governments, and government officials don’t want to hear, ‘That’s hard to solve.’ They just say, ‘Can you solve this and can you get me the intel I’m asking for?’ Which is nation agnostic, whether that’s the NSA, the FSB, the PLA or whoever.”

The Lamb’s political ideology evoked the cold-blooded realpolitik of Henry Kissinger. There is the idyllic digital world we would like to live in, there is the dog-eat-dog digital world we actually live in — and the Lamb, as I understood it, was intensely focused on winning in the latter.

“You know, the situation is what it is,” he said. “There are protocols that were designed years ago before anybody had any care about security, because when they were developed, nobody was foreseeing that they would be taken advantage of. … A lot of people on the internet seem to approach the problem [with the attitude of] ‘I’m just going to walk naked outside of my house and hope that nobody looks at me.’ From a security perspective, is that a good way to go about thinking? No, horrible … There are good ways to be more secure on the internet. But do most people use Tor? No. Do most people use Signal? No. Do most people use insecure things that most people can hack? Yes. Is that a bash against the intelligence community that people use stuff that’s easily exploitable? That’s a hard argument for me to make.”

But it wasn’t a hard argument for me to make, so I tried. Back in the 1990s, in the early days of the web, the uses and hopes for the internet were thought to be joyous and non-commercial. The web would let us talk to one another and would decentralize power and revolutionize the world in good ways. Those were the years when the Lamb spent hours and hours in chatrooms with Satanists and atheists — just the sort of connect-us-to-each-other activity that made everyone so excited about the future. At the time, few people thought the internet would become, as Bruce Schneier describes it, a surveillance platform. So I asked whether the Lamb felt conflicted, as Snowden did, working for an organization that turned the web further and further away from its original potential as a global platform for speaking and thinking freely.

He responded by noting that he is, by nature, a defiant type and attracted to hard problems. That’s how, without a lot of formal instruction, he became an NSA hacker — he was curious about how computers worked and he wanted to figure them out. “Technically challenging things are just inherently interesting to me,” he said. “If you tell me, ‘This can’t be done,’ I’m going to try and find a way to do it.”

I mentioned that lots of people, including Snowden, are now working on the problem of how to make the internet more secure, yet he seemed to do the opposite at the NSA by trying to find ways to track and identify people who use Tor and other anonymizers. Would he consider working on the other side of things? He wouldn’t rule it out, he said, but dismally suggested the game was over as far as having a liberating and safe internet, because our laptops and smartphones will betray us no matter what we do with them.

“There’s the old adage that the only secure computer is one that is turned off, buried in a box ten feet underground, and never turned on,” he said. “From a user perspective, someone trying to find holes by day and then just live on the internet by night, there’s the expectation [that] if somebody wants to have access to your computer bad enough, they’re going to get it. Whether that’s an intelligence agency or a cybercrimes syndicate, whoever that is, it’s probably going to happen.”

The Lamb was comfortable with the side he joined in the surveillance wars, and this sets him apart from the most common stereotypes of the men and women who devote their lives to spying on others.

Spies who do nothing but eavesdrop, slipping into computers and conversations without a trace, have a reputation in popular culture of being troubled in ways that conventional spies are not. Think of Gene Hackman in The Conversation, or Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others — these surveillers are haunted, as it seems they should be. Conventional spies are seen as journeying into hostile lands and committing heroic or devious acts; they are men and women of action, not thought. But the people who watch, listen, or hack are not as distracted by danger or adrenaline. They mostly labor in tranquility, in temperature-controlled offices without windows, risking bodily harm no worse than carpal tunnel syndrome, and they have an abundance of time to think about the lurking that is their occupation and the people on whom they practice it.

I have a bias against the watchers, I suppose. I have been concerned about the bureaucracies of surveillance since the 1980s, when I was a student in the Soviet Union and felt like hunted prey. The telephone in the dreary lobby of my dormitory on the banks of the Neva River in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was assumed to be bugged, and if the KGB’s devices weren’t working, the dezhurnaya who sat nearby was sure to be listening. This was my anti-surveillance Rosebud, I guess. When I visited Russian friends, I stayed silent as I walked in their ill-lit stairwells, so that the accent of my Russian would not give away the fact a foreigner was visiting them. The walls had ears. This was one of the great contrasts between the Soviet Union and America, where I could speak to my friends without worrying about the government listening.

The Soviet Union is long gone, but in 2016 we live under the specter of far more surveillance than anything the KGB could have dreamed of with its rudimentary bugs and fearful informers. Not just government surveillance — law enforcement can easily obtain our phone and internet records with a warrant from the nearly always compliant courts — but corporate surveillance, too. It’s not just Google and Facebook that might know more details about our lives and friends than the KGB could have imagined in its most feverish dreams of information dominance, but even Zipcar and Amazon.

There are precautions one can take, and I did that with the Lamb. When we had our video chat, I used a computer that had been wiped clean of everything except its operating system and essential applications. Afterward, it was wiped clean again. My concern was that the Lamb might use the session to obtain data from or about the computer I was using; there are a lot of things he might have tried, if he was in a scheming mood. At the end of our three hours together, I mentioned to him that I had taken these precautions—and he approved.

“That’s fair,” he said. “I’m glad you have that appreciation. … From a perspective of a journalist who has access to classified information, it would be remiss to think you’re not a target of foreign intelligence services.”

He was telling me the U.S. government should be the least of my worries. He was trying to help me.

Documents published with this article:

  Tracking Targets Through Proxies & Anonymizers
  Network Shaping 101
  Shaping Diagram
  I Hunt Sys Admins (first published in 2014)


What It’s Like to Read the NSA’s Newspaper for Spies

The Intercept  |  May 9, 2016

The men and women who work at the National Security Agency were greeted, on March 31, 2003, with a cheery notice on their office computers. “Welcome to SIDtoday,” a new internal website announced, explaining that the communications team in the Signals Intelligence Directorate, the heart of the NSA, was launching the publication to keep employees abreast of what was happening inside the spy agency.

The website, SIDtoday, started modestly. Its inaugural article blandly described what it called “the analyst cockpit,” a portal for intelligence experts to access their data. The following day, which was April Fools’, SIDtoday posted an offbeat story about practical jokes, recounting how the Germans in World War II built a decoy air base, complete with planes, out of wood; the kicker, according to SIDtoday, was that the British realized the base was a decoy and dropped a wooden bomb on it. (Online fact-checkers have since declared the story a “well-traveled anecdote” of dubious accuracy.)

The April Fools’ article was at the frivolous end of the SIDtoday spectrum. Because it trafficked in “top-secret” information, SIDtoday lived in a classified environment that, over the years, allowed the agency’s spies to explain to each other, in a non-technical way, a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why. In the first nine years of SIDtoday’s life, more than 4,500 stories were posted on the website, a gold mine of often mundane, occasionally revealing articles that made the agency human and comprehensible in a way that technical documents could not.

Functioning like a small-town newspaper, the staff of SIDtoday published question-and-answer articles with senior and mid-level officials who described their jobs and their motivations for doing them. Some articles were firsthand descriptions of important missions, as in the case of an NSA employee who went to Baghdad right after the Iraqi capital came under American control. “I rode the whole way in a five-ton truck, with easy access to thermite grenades that could be used to destroy our classified cargo in the event of an ambush,” he wrote at the end of 2003. Another story, by SID’s chief of staff, described how the agency helped with the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch during the invasion (his article is included in the first batch of SIDtoday articles).

SIDtoday even assembled a stable of columnists over the course of its first nine years, contributors who wrote as a sideline to their day jobs at the agency. One column, called “Ask Zelda!,” was akin to “Dear Abby” for the intelligence community, written by a mid-level supervisor at the NSA who answered questions from readers, including one about what should be worn to the office on hot summer days. “Shorts and flip-flops don’t exactly convey the image of a fierce SIGINT warrior,” Zelda noted. Another column, “SIGINT Philosopher,” delved into the ethics of surveillance (reliably coming out on the favorable side) and was written by a language analyst who described a personal epiphany that came during a polygraph exam. “Signal v. Noise” explored the difficulties involved in collecting large amounts of data, while “SIGINT Curmudgeon” was written by a longtimer who waxed nostalgic about the good old days of eavesdropping. (None of these columns were up and running in the initial batch of SIDtoday just released by The Intercept, but I have written previously about “Ask Zelda!” and the “SIGINT Philosopher.” In both cases, The Intercept simultaneously published copies of the original columns.)

One of the cultural revelations in the archives of SIDtoday is the corporate language that was routinely used. Intelligence reports delivered to other government agencies were described as “products,” and there was a category called the “Counterterrorism Product Line.” Government agencies that received these reports were known as “customers,” and the NSA has an entire division called the “Customer Relationship Directorate.” One of the SIDtoday articles published today was titled “Dynamic Methods of Interaction With New and Existing Customers,” and it referred to “product line leaders” at the agency who created “customer support plans” that included details on what “each customer needs.” The customers mentioned in the article included the Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service, Missile Defense Agency, and Federal Reserve. The article was written by an official whose title was “acting chief, customer gateway.”

The SIDtoday articles also convey what officials at the agency were reading in their off-hours. Some articles included references to popular authors like the travel writer Bill Bryson, the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, and mid-century economist Herbert Simon. One of the articles released today was an enthusiastic review of the Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Cryptonomicon, which was described in the article (written by a member of the communications team in the Signals Intelligence Directorate) as “an enthralling work that proves to be as much of a history lesson as an eye-opening thriller.”

The articles, almost uniformly glowing about the NSA, serve as reminders that the men and women who surveil the world are not machines; they have good days and bad days, jokes and tears, and strange tales about their lives. A two-part article from 2005, “‘Odd Jobs’ Before NSA,” listed unconventional occupations that some employees had before joining the world’s largest electronic spying organization. The prior jobs included being a craps dealer in Las Vegas, a developer of crossword puzzles for the New York Times, a professional baseball player in the Atlanta Braves farm system, a nanny for the daughter of Sunny von Bülow’s first husband, and a “mosquito bite test count subject” who was paid to visit forests and swamps to take off his shirt for a minute to assess the local mosquito population.

SIDtoday even offers a window into the hopes and wide-eyed wonder of the agency’s youngest workers, its summer interns. The title of one intern’s article for SIDtoday in 2004 was “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” while another article in 2011 recounted that on their first day of work, a boisterous group of interns stepped into an elevator and got a quick and stern lecture from “an older gentleman” who warned that “the only thing you need to know is that we don’t talk in the elevators, and the extroverts look at other people’s shoes.” The interns silently shared the same reaction — “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Obama’s Gift to Trump: A Policy of Cracking Down on Journalists and Their Sources

The Intercept  |  April 6, 2016

ONE OF THE intellectual gargoyles that has crawled out of Donald Trump’s brain is the idea that we should “open up” libel laws to make it easier to punish the media for negative or unfair stories. Trump also wants top officials to sign nondisclosure agreements, so they never write memoirs that upset the boss. Trump is so disdainful of free speech that he has even vowed to use the Espionage Act to imprison anyone who says or leaks anything to the media that displeases him.

Actually, that last bit is made up; Trump hasn’t talked about the Espionage Act. Instead, the Obama administration has used the draconian 1917 law to prosecute more leakers and whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Under the cover of the Espionage Act and other laws, the administration has secretly obtained the emails and phone records of various reporters, and declared one of them — James Rosen of Fox News — a potential “co-conspirator” with his government source. Another reporter, James Risen of the New York Times, faced a jail sentence unless he revealed a government source (which he refused to do).

Obama has warned of the imminent perils of a Trump presidency, but on the key issue of freedom of the press, which is intimately tied to the ability of officials to talk to journalists, his own administration has established a dangerous precedent for Trump — or any future occupant of the Oval Office — to use one of the most punitive laws of the land against some of the most courageous and necessary people we have. One section of the Espionage Act even allows for the death penalty.

Obama’s gift to Trump was unintentionally highlighted in a speech the president delivered last week at a ceremony to honor the winner of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Journalism. Obama lamented the financial challenges facing the journalism industry and lauded the assembled reporters and editors for the hard and vital work they do. He made no mention of the ways in which his administration is making that job even harder, however, and that omission prompted the winner of the prize, ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, to gently note, “That does not get him off the hook for his administration taking so long to respond to our FOIAs.”

Two years ago, Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, gave a series of lectures in which he discussed the idea of “fastening the procedures of totalitarianism on the substance of democratic society.” Moglen’s lectures were mostly concerned with surveillance by the National Security Agency — the title of his talks was “Snowden and the Future” — but his idea applies to other procedures the U.S. government has recently become fond of. Few are more important than targeting whistleblowers and journalists, and Obama has begun the fastening process.

It’s a maddening situation that becomes all the more maddening when you think of the lives of the leakers and whistleblowers the Department of Justice has ruined. I have previously written at length about two of them, Jeffrey Sterling of the CIA and Stephen Kim of the State Department. A new documentary about Kim, directed by Steve Maing and released this week by Field of Vision, the film division of The Intercept, powerfully shows the personal hell of living under Obama’s crackdown. After serving a prison sentence for discussing a classified report on North Korea with Fox’s James Rosen, Kim now finds it impossible to return to his old life. Although he has advanced degrees from Harvard and Yale, he cannot get a foreign policy job because of the taint of being a convicted leaker. Kim now describes himself as “homeless, penniless, family-less,” and adds, “I cannot go back to what I was. That person is gone.”

Leakers and whistleblowers are not just categories of people — they are actual people with names and careers and children and lives that have been unjustly crushed. David Petraeus, the former four-star general and CIA director, leaked far more classified data to his biographer-girlfriend than Sterling or Kim or John Kiriakou, and lied to the FBI about it. Petraeus, however, was let off with a misdemeanor plea bargain, because if you are powerful you can do as you like. That deal is another gift to Trump or any menace-in-waiting. The president has set a precedent that says it’s okay to literally give a get-out-of-jail card to your friends.

Now that we live in the shadow of a political era that goes by two words — President Trump — it’s time for Obama to disavow the precedent he has set. The next time he gives a speech on the importance of journalism and free speech, he should admit he has made a terrible mistake and pardon the people who were wrongly prosecuted, including Manning, Kim, Sterling, Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake. He should ask their forgiveness. Obama does not have the power to stop us from electing a terrible president, but he can limit the damage that one can do.

What the Guilty Verdict of Radovan Karadzic Tells Us About War Crimes After 9/11

The Intercept  |  March 24, 2016

WHEN I FIRST MET RADOVAN KARADZIC, he seemed more of a well-dressed buffoon than a major war criminal. Tall and blustery, with wavy hair and double-breasted suits, he made outlandish statements that few people took at face value. His prior achievements, such as they were, did not suggest a history-making future — he had been a writer of bad poetry, a psychiatrist to losing soccer teams, a small-time embezzler of public funds.

Karadzic became the leader of Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s and made history in dark ways, but the latest twist, which occurred today, is unexpectedly bright — he has been convicted, after a long and open trial in the Hague, of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. This outcome is bright for reasons beyond the satisfaction of justice in the Balkans. At the moment, it might seem far-fetched to imagine that U.S. political and military officials will be held to account for torture and other war crimes they approved, condoned, or bore command responsibility for in the post-9/11 era. But it was even more unlikely in the 1990s to think that the hand of justice — the justice of a fair trial, not a mob’s noose or a precision-guided missile — would get close to Karadzic and his prime collaborators.

Guess what? Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader who masterminded the carnage in the Balkans, was ousted from power in 2000 and extradited to an international tribunal at the Hague. His trial was under way in 2006 when he died of a heart attack. Ratko Mladic, the military leader of Bosnian Serb forces, was extradited to the Hague in 2011 and a verdict in his case is expected soon. The unthinkable happened to the untouchable. And it has happened to others who were brought to the Hague for trial, including, just a few days ago, the leader of a Congolese rebel group that carried out a campaign of murder and pillage in the Central African Republic.

Many valid criticisms can be made of the war-crimes trials that have been conducted in the Netherlands and elsewhere. They provide victor’s justice with an international fig leaf; they are often weighted against malefactors whose skin colors are not white; they have passed over guilty parties from countries of geopolitical import. These are all true. Yet these trials and others have shown that in some cases — and it bears repeating, in cases that meet the particular requirements of the imperial age in which we live — the impossible can be accomplished.

FROM 1992 UNTIL 1995, Karadzic led the Bosnian Serbs who introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” into the lexicon of modern Europe, murderously pushing non-Serbs out of large swathes of Bosnia and besieging Sarajevo and other cities. At the time of his crimes and even afterward, he seemed immune to punishment — because he possessed bodyguards and protectors in Belgrade, and because the fabled international community didn’t care that much about bringing him to justice. Yet years later, justice caught up with him.

In 2014, President Obama made the headline-grabbing admission, “We tortured some folks.” Yet his long-overdue statement was not followed by the kind of legal consequences that have been required of other states and individuals that violated the laws of war. After all, it would not have been enough for the successors of Karadzic or Milosevic to simply admit that war crimes were committed and move on without trials. While a handful of low-level violators have been punished in the United States— some soldiers involved in abuses at Abu Ghraib have gone to prison, for instance — their commanders, whether with stars on their shoulders or tassles on their loafers, have lived unmolested by U.S. courts. And, for the most part, they have been honored for their service. (Here’s a video of President George W. Bush awarding a Medal of Freedom to, among others, CIA director George Tenet, who oversaw the agency’s black sites and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”)

Many of the people who survived Karadzic’s crimes are long dead, as are many of the people who wrote about them. With this timeline in mind, it could well be a quarter century or more before a legal reckoning occurs for everything the U.S. government has done since Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four civilian jetliners on September 11, 2001.  Today, for instance, Henry Kissinger enjoys the company and adulation of mainstream politicians and journalists, even as we continue to learn more about the graveyards filled a half century ago by his words and winks over Cambodia, Argentina, and Bangladesh. Kissinger is in his nineties and too hallowed in America to be affronted by a trial, so the best we can hope for might be the lacerating words of Bernie Sanders, who said in a debate with Hillary Clinton last month, “Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”

Of course those were just the words of a presidential candidate, not the verdict of a court or of history, but it was something. The people who believed that Karadzic would never face justice now have something to celebrate, too. We should keep that in mind when we are told that we tortured some folks but nobody should be held responsible for it.

‘13 Hours’ Splashes Blood Across the Screen and Misses the Real Story of Benghazi

The Intercept  |  January 14, 2016

Would you give the story of Benghazi to the producer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Someone did. The result is the new film directed by Michael Bay, 13 Hours, which makes Rambo look like War and Peace.

In 13 Hours, Bay displays a fetish for fake blood and heads that explode like watermelons when waves of bad guys are given the tap-tap of eternal sleep from the hot barrels of American assault rifles. Are the repetitive scenes of mowed-down attackers a job-creation program for the hundreds of dark-haired extras dressed as ready-for-paradise militiamen? Was Bay suffering from the delusion that every attacker killed on screen would translate into a vote for an Oscar? The true story of 13 Hours, in Bay-worthy broad strokes, is this: Six private military contractors who work for the CIA try to stave off attacks by Libyan militants on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi in 2012. Yet Bay’s movie feels like a hybrid war/zombie film, The Green Berets meets Night of the Living Dead.

I went into the screening with the distinct premonition that I would emerge in anger after seeing another maddeningly effective piece of Hollywood war propaganda. That’s how I felt last year after seeing American Sniper, a surprise blockbuster directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper in the role of Navy sniper Chris Kyle. In American Sniper, no one asked why Iraqis were shooting at Kyle and the rest of the U.S. military in the first place (hint: we invaded and occupied their country and tortured some of them at prisons like Abu Ghraib). Despite such errors of context, American Sniper was a formidable movie. It was really human and stuck with the audience. Much credit goes to Eastwood, a skilled director, and Cooper, a charismatic actor. His thespian counterpart in 13 Hours is John Krasinski, the nice guy from The Office. As it turns out, Krasinski wields a stapler and a pun far more convincingly than an M-4.

As far as propaganda goes, 13 Hours is mercifully thin. If we are lucky, it will fade away as quickly as the fake smoke from one of its many explosions. But the film is getting a big publicity push and might accidentally be taken seriously. Bay’s team is trying to work the behind-the-scenes alchemy that makes reviews by recovering war correspondents like me utterly irrelevant, not to mention film critics who don’t know an IED from LAX. 13 Hours is lining up endorsements from the taste-makers who really count, celebrities like Carmelo Anthony and Tiger Woods, who are among the sports figures who have attended advance screenings and tweeted about it. (Take that, Pauline Kael.)

13 Hours has a number of political problems that go beyond the one most people are likely to notice — the question of whether Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time, should be blamed for what happened in Benghazi. The film doesn’t actually mention Clinton by name. The short answer to the Clinton question is that everyone in the government should be blamed for what happened, including the Republicans who for years have bled the State Department of the funds it needs to provide proper security for its overseas facilities.

13 Hours, like American Sniper, is allergic to context. American Sniper presented Iraqis as sub-human, and that’s pretty much the same treatment Libyans get in 13 Hours, which includes the now-obligatory shot of Muslim fighters praying next to their AK-47s. Yet Bay’s film makes an additional error — it depicts private military contractors as heroes. In the very particular case of what happened in Benghazi in 2012 on September 11 and 12, that’s correct — the men who fought to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in the attacks along with a mid-level State Department employee, were brave. Two of the military contractors died in combat that night.

The deeper truth — which doesn’t diminish the real-life efforts of the men portrayed in the film — is that private military contractors have been a pox on America’s post-9/11 warfare. Particularly in Iraq, mercenaries hired by the U.S. government operated with near impunity, shooting and killing civilians, and engendered hatred on all sides. Even U.S. troops were fed up with them. A number of times, when I was embedded in Iraq, U.S. soldiers criticized the highly paid mercenaries as irresponsible troublemakers whose excesses further diminished the reputation of all U.S. forces. The most notorious example was the killings at Nisour Square in 2007, when gunmen working for Blackwater killed 17 civilians and injured 24.

Outsourcing warfare to mercenaries leads to all kinds of perverse outcomes. This was true in Benghazi too, though that story is not told in 13 Hours or the book it’s based on. For instance, one of the contractors killed in Libya, Glen Doherty, was working for the CIA on a short-term contract as a “direct independent contractor.” He had formed his own company for this purpose, called Icarus, Inc., and had been required by the CIA to buy an insurance policy. But according to a lawsuit filed by his mother and other relatives (settled last year in a confidential agreement), the policy, bought from an insurer recommended by the CIA, was nearly worthless and the insurer refused to pay death benefits because Doherty had no children or spouse. Even the contractors are cheated in the new American way of war.

13 Hours also fails to mention one of the strange reasons why the CIA contractors in Benghazi were called into combat. The defense of a State Department diplomatic compound in the city had been outsourced to a little-known military contractor, Blue Mountain Group, which had hired a small number of underpaid and ill-trained Libyans. When the attack began, the Libyan contractors mostly disappeared, along with the local militia that was supposed to provide another layer of protection. The bizarre upshot: A group of contractors hired by the CIA was called in to save the day partly because a group of contractors hired by the State Department had run away. It’s a strange twist. Maybe someone will make a movie about it one day.

Homeland Goes Rogue Against the Espionage Act

The Intercept  |  November 10, 2015

On Sunday evening, at around 9:30, a senior CIA official committed an egregious violation of the Espionage Act, leaking a cache of secret cables to someone who did not have clearance to receive them. The official now stands in breach of a draconian law the Obama administration has used to win lengthy prison sentences against leakers and whistleblowers.

Of course the breach occurred in the latest episode of Homeland, so nobody is going to jail, unless manufacturing an implausible plotline is a federal crime. But the scenario that played out between Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison on Sunday constitutes a welcome repudiation in popular culture of an abusive law, because Saul and Carrie are the heroes in this show, and heroes don’t do things that merit a 35-year prison sentence. While Homeland tends to be as reactionary as it is enjoyable, the latest twist puts Saul and perhaps Carrie into the same Espionage Act box as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, Stephen Kim and John Kiriakou, all of whom have been charged under the law.

Yes, that means Saul Berenson is our new Edward Snowden, with the caveat that a compliant Saul was taken into custody in Berlin at the end of the episode, while the usually long arm of American law enforcement has not been able to touch Snowden, who lives in Russia. I wouldn’t be surprised if the show’s producers and writers, whose prior work is not infused with enthusiasm for left or libertarian causes, make the argument in a future episode that leaking classified documents for noble reasons is laudable only if you face the music like Saul. But let’s put that aside, because according to the Department of Justice, whether or not you surrender doesn’t lessen the impact of the dastardly things you have done to shred national security.

Although Sunday’s episode did not mention the Espionage Act, here’s how it comes into play. As the episode neared its end, Saul became convinced by Carrie, who herself is something of a fugitive, that the Russians had infiltrated the CIA. Carrie told Saul that she needs to see a cache of secret files that will give her the clues to expose the Kremlin’s perfidy. Carrie is of course no longer at the CIA, but once Saul came under suspicion as a turncoat for the Israelis and was abruptly deprived of his clearance, he surreptitiously accessed the agency’s computer system, downloaded the files, and then gave them to Carrie via the dashing billionaire she works for.

(Don’t blame me if you’re having a hard time following the plot, and please be thankful I haven’t mentioned the story line that involves a bullet-riddled Quinn trying to kill himself to save Carrie and being rescued at the last second by a Good Samaritan who takes him home and gives him a transfusion of his own blood but unfortunately does so at the Berlin apartment building where a just-released-from-prison Islamic radical is planning a series of bomb plots that Quinn overhears, leading Quinn to kill the radical while groaning and staggering from the septic bullet wound in his side. This is Homeland at its terrible best.)

It’s going to be instructive to see how the rest of the season deals with what Saul and Carrie have just done. I think it’s safe to assume they will be exonerated for exposing, through the leaked files, the Russian mole (or moles) — one of whom, as we already know, is the head of station in Berlin. But the fact is that Saul and Carrie have potentially violated a couple of sections of the Espionage Act, which does not allow for good intentions as an excuse for leaking classified documents. Carrie might be on the hook, in addition to Saul, because the U.S. government has intimated that it might be illegal to ask someone to leak classified documents.

Of course the law is one thing and its application by the Obama administration is another. David Petraeus, the former general and CIA director, shared with his biographer (and then-girlfriend) several diaries filled with secret information, but he got just a slap on the wrist, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material. Will Saul and Carrie receive the Petraeus treatment from the Homeland equivalent of the Department of Justice — that is, the writers’ room? I hope so, if only to demonstrate that leaking secret documents in the public interest is an act that deserves the gratitude of society. Or an Emmy

Firing Blind: Flawed Intelligence and the Limits of Drone Technology

The Intercept  |  Oct. 15, 2015

This article was co-authored with Cora Currier and is part of a series of stories, The Drone Papers, that The Intercept published based on secret military documents. For a version of this story with links to the source documents, please click here.

The Obama administration has portrayed drones as an effective and efficient weapon in the ongoing war with al Qaeda and other radical groups. Yet classified Pentagon documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the U.S. military has faced “critical shortfalls” in the technology and intelligence it uses to find and kill suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.
Those shortfalls stem from the remote geography of Yemen and Somalia and the limited American presence there. As a result, the U.S. military has been overly reliant on signals intelligence from computers and cellphones, and the quality of those intercepts has been limited by constraints on surveillance flights in the region.
The documents are part of a study by a Pentagon Task Force on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. They provide details about how targets were tracked for lethal missions carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, in Yemen and Somalia between January 2011 and summer 2012. When the study was circulated in 2013, the Obama administration was publicly floating the idea of moving the bulk of its drone program to the Pentagon from the CIA, and the military was eager to make the case for more bases, more drones, higher video quality, and better eavesdropping equipment.
Yet by identifying the challenges and limitations facing the military’s “find, fix, finish” operations in Somalia and Yemen — the cycle of gathering intelligence, locating, and attacking a target — the conclusions of the ISR study would seem to undermine the Obama administration’s claims of a precise and effective campaign, and lend support to critics who have questioned the quality of intelligence used in drone strikes.
The study made specific recommendations for improving operations in the Horn of Africa, but a Pentagon spokesperson, Cmdr. Linda Rojas, declined to explain what, if any, measures had been taken in response to the study’s findings, saying only that “as a matter of policy we don’t comment on the details of classified reports.”

Tyranny of Distance
One of the most glaring problems identified in the ISR study was the U.S. military’s inability to carry out full-time surveillance of its targets in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Behind this problem lies the “tyranny of distance” — a reference to the great lengths that aircraft must fly to their targets from the main U.S. air base in Djibouti, the small East African nation that borders Somalia and sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen.
Surveillance flights are limited by fuel — and, in the case of manned aircraft, the endurance of pilots. In contrast with Iraq, where more than 80 percent of “finishing operations” were conducted within 150 kilometers of an air base, the study notes that “most objectives in Yemen are ~ 500 km away” from Djibouti and “Somalia can be over 1,000 km.” The result is that drones and planes can spend half their air time in transit, and not enough time conducting actual surveillance.
Compounding the tyranny of distance, the ISR study complained, was the fact that JSOC had too few drones in the region to meet the requirements mandated for carrying out a finishing operation. The military measures surveillance flights in orbits — meaning continuous, unbroken coverage of a target — and JSOC chronically failed to meet “minimum requirements” for orbits over Yemen, and in the case of Somalia had never met the minimum standards. On average, 15 flights a day, by multiple aircraft relieving or complementing one another, were needed to complete three orbits over Yemen.
The “sparse” available resources meant that aircraft had to “cover more potential leads — stretching coverage and leading to [surveillance] ‘blinks.’” Because multiple aircraft needed to be “massed” over one target before a strike, surveillance of other targets temporarily ceased, thus breaking the military’s ideal of a “persistent stare” or the “unblinking eye” of around-the-clock tracking.
JSOC relied on manned spy planes to fill the orbit gap over Yemen. In June 2012 there were six U-28 spy planes in operation in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as several other types of manned aircraft. The U-28s in Djibouti were “referred to as the ‘Chiclet line,’” according to the ISR study, and “compounded Djiboutian air control issues” because of their frequent flights.
Only in the summer of 2012, with the addition of contractor-operated drones based in Ethiopia and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, did Somalia have the minimum number of drones commanders wanted. The number of Predator drones stationed in Djibouti doubled over the course of the study, and in 2013, the fleet was moved from the main U.S. air base, Camp Lemonnier, to another Djibouti airstrip because of overcrowding and a string of crashes.
“Blinking” remained a concern, however, and the study recommended adding even more aircraft to the area of operations. Noting that political and developmental issues hampered the military’s ability to build new bases, it suggested expanding the use of aircraft launched from ships. JSOC already made use of Fire Scout helicopter drones and small Scan Eagle drones off the coast of Somalia, as well as “Armada Sweep,” which a 2011 document from the National Security Agency, provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, describes as a “ship-based collection system” for electronic communications data. (The NSA declined to comment on Armada Sweep.)
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from July 2012 to August 2014, told The Intercept that the surveillance requirements he outlined for tracking al Qaeda while in office had never been met. “We end up spending money on other stupid things instead of actually the capabilities that we need,” he said. “This is not just about buying more drones, it’s a whole system that’s required.”
According to Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has closely studied the drone war, resource constraints in Africa “mean less time for the persistent stare that counterterrorism analysts and commanders want, and got used to in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.”

Find, Fix, Finish
The find, fix, finish cycle is known in the military as FFF, or F3. But just as critical are two other letters: E and A, for “exploit and analyze,” referring to the use of materials collected on the ground and in detainee interrogations.
F3EA became doctrine in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s. Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his memoir that the simplicity of those “five words in a line … belied how profoundly it would drive our mission.” In 2008, Flynn, who worked closely with McChrystal before becoming head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote that “Exploit-Analyze starts the cycle over again by providing leads, or start points, into the network that could be observed and tracked using airborne ISR.”
Deadly strikes thus truncate the find, fix, finish cycle without exploitation and analysis — precisely the components that were lacking in the drone campaign waged in East Africa and Yemen. That shortfall points to one of the contradictions at the heart of the drone program in general: Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.
The ISR study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.
Stating that 75 percent of operations in the region were strikes, and noting that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material,” the study recommended an expansion of “capture finishes via host-nation partners for more ‘finish-derived’ intelligence.” One of the problems with that scenario, however, is that security forces in host nations like Yemen and Somalia are profoundly unreliable and have been linked to a wide variety of abuses, including the torture of prisoners.
A report last year by retired Gen. John Abizaid and former Defense Department official Rosa Brooks noted that the “enormous uncertainties” of drone warfare are “multiplied further when the United States relies on intelligence and other targeting information provided by a host nation government: How can we be sure we are not being drawn into a civil war or being used to target the domestic political enemies of the host state leadership?”
In 2011, for example, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had killed a local governor because Yemeni officials didn’t tell them he was present at a gathering of al Qaeda figures. “We think we got played,” one official said. (The Yemeni government disputed the report.)
Despite such warnings, the drone program has relied heavily on intelligence from other countries. One slide describes signals intelligence, or SIGINT, as coming “often from foreign partners,” and another, titled “Alternatives to Exploit/Analyze,” states that “in the reduced access environment, national intelligence partners often have the best information and access.”
One way to increase the reliability of host-nation intelligence is to be directly involved in its collection — but this can be risky for soldiers on the ground. The study called for “advance force operations,” including “small teams of special force advisors,” to work with foreign forces to capture combatants, interrogate them, and seize any written material or electronic devices they possess. According to public Special Operations guidelines, advance force operations “prepare for near-term” actions by planting tracking devices, conducting reconnaissance missions, and staging for attacks. The documents obtained by The Intercept did not specify an optimum number of advisors or where they should be based or how exactly they should be involved in capture or interrogation operations.
Although the study dates from 2013, current Special Operations Commander Joseph Votel echoed its findings in July 2015. Votel noted that his troops were working closely with African Union forces and the Somali government to battle al Shabaab. He added, “We get a lot more … when we actually capture somebody or we capture material than we do when we kill someone.”

The Poverty of Signals Intelligence
With limited ability to conduct raids or seize materials from targeted individuals in Yemen and Somalia, JSOC relied overwhelmingly on monitoring electronic communications to discover and ultimately locate targets.
The documents state bluntly that SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence. Yet signals accounted for more than half the intelligence collected on targets, with much of it coming from foreign partners. The rest originated with human intelligence, primarily obtained by the CIA. “These sources,” the study notes, “are neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence” from interrogations or seized materials.
Making matters worse, the documents refer to “poor” and “limited” capabilities for collecting SIGINT, implying a double bind in which kill operations were reliant on sparse amounts of inferior intelligence.
The disparity with other areas of operation was stark, as a chart contrasting cell data makes clear: In Afghanistan there were 8,900 cell data reports each month, versus 50 for Yemen and 160 for Somalia. Despite that, another chart shows SIGINT comprised more than half the data sources that went into developing targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.
Flynn told The Intercept there was “way too much reliance on technical aspects [of intelligence], like signals intelligence, or even just looking at somebody with unmanned aerial vehicles.”
“I could get on the telephone from somewhere in Somalia, and I know I’m a high-value target, and say in some coded language, ‘The wedding is about to occur in the next 24 hours,’” Flynn said. “That could put all of Europe and the United States on a high-level alert, and it may be just total bullshit. SIGINT is an easy system to fool and that’s why it has to be validated by other INTs — like HUMINT. You have to ensure that the person is actually there at that location because what you really intercepted was the phone.”
In addition to using SIGINT to identify and find new targets, the documents detail how military analysts also relied on such intelligence to make sure that they had the correct person in their sights and to estimate the harm to civilians before a strike. After locating a target, usually by his cellphone or other electronics, analysts would study video feeds from surveillance aircraft “to build near-certainty via identification of distinguishing physical characteristics.”
A British intelligence document on targeted killing in Afghanistan, which was among the Snowden files, describes a similar process of “monitoring a fixed location, and tracking any persons moving away from that location, and identifying if a similar pattern is experienced through SIGINT collect.” The document explains that “other visual indicators may be used to aid the establishment of [positive identification]” including “description of clothing” or “gait.” After a shot, according to the British document and case studies in the Pentagon’s ISR report, drones would hover to determine if their target had been hit, collecting video and evidence of whether the cellphone had been eliminated. (The British intelligence agency, GCHQ, declined to comment on the document.)
Yet according to the ISR study, the military faced “critical shortfalls of capabilities” in the technologies enabling that kind of precise surveillance and post-strike assessment. At the time of the study, only some of the Reaper drones had high-definition video, and most of the aircraft over the region lacked the ability to collect “dial number recognition” data.
The study cites these shortcomings as an explanation for the low rate of successful strikes against the targets on the military’s kill list in Yemen and Somalia, especially in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan. It presents the failings primarily as an issue of efficiency, with little mention of the possible consequence of bad intelligence leading to killing the wrong people.

How the Makers of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Seduced the CIA with Fake Earrings

The Intercept  |  September 9, 2015

The plot behind the plot of Zero Dark Thirty just gets better and better.

From the moment it premiered in 2012, the film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been criticized as pro-torture propaganda. According to its many detractors, the film embraced the discredited notion that torture by CIA interrogators made Al Qaeda members talk about the whereabouts of their leader. It subsequently was revealed that Bigelow and Boal had received an unusual amount of access to CIA officials who had a keen interest in peddling the virtues of waterboarding, and this spawned a cottage industry of investigations and articles.

Vice News has added to the spicy pile with a 5,000-word article by Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson that draws on more than 100 pages of internal CIA documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. According to the documents, at least 10 CIA officers met Bigelow and Boal at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as well as at hotels and restaurants in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. In addition, the CIA director at the time, Leon Panetta, met Bigelow at a dinner in Washington and, soon after that, shared a table with her and Boal at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. It also turns out that Boal read his script over the phone to CIA public affairs officials on four separate days in the fall of 2011.

But the biggest takeaway from these documents is that even as the CIA turned Bigelow and Boal into its willing propagandists, the filmmakers were turning the CIA into star-gazing dupes; the seduction went both ways. Bigelow and Boal emerge in these documents as excellent co-opters of the nation’s toughest spies — and it didn’t take much for them to do that.

Bigelow and Boal visited CIA headquarters (an officer recalled having to cover up classified material on one occasion), but the meetings soon moved off campus to “avoid jealousy” about who was getting “face time” with the famous duo, according to the CIA documents obtained by Vice. For instance, one CIA officer met Boal at his suite in the luxury Jefferson Hotel in Washington D.C. and dined with him at the hotel as well as at a nearby restaurant, Citronelle, where a slab of ribeye cost $39. Not long afterwards, Bigelow met that same officer in her accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown.

The seduction was bi-coastal. A CIA officer met Boal in Hollywood for a meal and then drove to a beach house in Malibu to talk with Bigelow. Boal gave the officer a bottle of Tequila and boasted it was worth “several hundred dollars” (although when someone at the CIA checked, the highest listed price was $169.99). The officer who had met Boal at the Jefferson Hotel also had dinner with him and Bigelow at the members-only Soho House in L.A. and later told investigators she had “developed a friendship” with the filmmakers. It had not been terribly expensive for Bigelow and Boal to develop these friendships, however — Bigelow had given the officer a set of what the director described as “black Tahitian pearl earrings” that, it turned out, were painted black and were so cheap they weren’t worth the cost of an appraisal.

The documents show that auditors at the CIA referred the matter to the Department of Justice for possible criminal action against Boal and Bigelow for bribing public officials. Prosecutors took no action. To date, Zero Dark Thirty has earned more than $130 million in worldwide ticket sales.

The Philosopher of Surveillance

The Intercept  |  August 11, 2015
What Happens When a Failed Writer Becomes a Loyal Spy?

ARE YOU THE SOCRATES of the National Security Agency?

That was the question the NSA asked its workforce in a memo soliciting applications for an in-house ethicist who would write a philosophically minded column about signals intelligence. The column, which would be posted on a classified network at the NSA, should be absorbing and original, the memo said, asking applicants to submit a sample to show they had what it takes to be the “Socrates of SIGINT.”

In 2012, the column was given to an analyst in the Signals Intelligence Directorate who wrote that initially he opposed the government watching everyone but came around to total surveillance after a polygraph exam did not go well. In a turn of events that was half-Sartre and half-Blade Runner, he explained that he was sure he failed the polygraph because the examiner did not know enough about his life to understand why at times the needle jumped.

“One of the many thoughts that continually went through my mind was that if I had to reveal part of my personal life to my employer, I’d really rather reveal all of it,” he wrote. “Partial revelation, such as the fact that answering question X made my pulse quicken, led to misunderstandings.”

He was fully aware of his statement’s implications.

“I found myself wishing that my life would be constantly and completely monitored,” he continued. “It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself, but here was my rationale: If people knew a few things about me, I might seem suspicious. But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear. This is the attitude I have brought to SIGINT work since then.”

When intelligence officials justify surveillance, they tend to use the stilted language of national security, and we typically hear only from senior officials who stick to their platitudes. It is rare for mid-level experts — the ones conducting the actual surveillance — to frankly explain what they do and why. And in this case, the candid confessions come from the NSA’s own surveillance philosopher. The columns answer a sociological curiosity: How does working at an intelligence agency turn a privacy hawk into a prophet of eavesdropping?

Not long after joining the NSA, Socrates was assigned a diplomatic target. He knew the saying by Henry Stimson that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” and he felt uncomfortable doing the digital equivalent of it. As he wrote, “If there were any place in the world that idealism should rule and we should show voluntary restraint in our intelligence work, diplomacy was that place. Terrorists who meant harm to children and puppies were one thing, but civil servants talking about work while schlepping their kids to soccer practice seemed a little too close to home.”

His polygraph was an epiphany, however.

“We tend to mistrust what we do not understand well,” he noted. “A target that has no ill will to the U.S., but which is being monitored, needs better and more monitoring, not less. So if we’re in for a penny, we need to be in for a pound.”

I wanted to know more about Socrates, but one of the asymmetric oddities of the NSA is that the agency permits itself to know whatever it wants to know about any of us, yet does everything it can to prevent us from knowing anything about the men and women who surveil us, aside from a handful of senior officials who function as the agency’s public face. An NSA spokesperson refused to confirm that Socrates even worked there. “I don’t have anything to provide for your research,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The “SIGINT Philosopher” columns, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, gave me the opportunity to learn more without the agency’s assistance, because they included his name. Heading down the path of collecting information about Socrates (whose name we are not publishing — more on that later), I was in the odd position of conducting surveillance on a proponent of surveillance, so I had a get-out-of-guilt-free card.

Unlike the paranoid eavesdropper played by Gene Hackman in The Conversation, or the quiet Stasi agent at the center of The Lives of Others, Socrates lives in the age of Google and data-mining. Like the rest of us, he cannot remain invisible. Socrates was an evangelical Christian for seven years, got married at 19, divorced at 27 and remarried not long after. He is now a registered Democrat and lives in a Maryland suburb with his son and wife, a public school teacher. I’ve seen the inside of their house, thanks to a real estate listing; the home, on a cul de sac, has four bedrooms, is more than 2,000 square feet, and has a nice wooden deck. I’ve also seen pictures of their son, because Socrates and his wife posted family snapshots on their Facebook accounts. His wife was on Twitter.

Conducting surveillance can be a creepily invasive procedure, as Socrates discovered while peering into the digital life of his first diplomatic target, and as I discovered while collecting information about him. In the abstract, surveillance might seem an antiseptic activity — just a matter of figuring out whether a valid security reason exists to surveil a target and then executing a computer command and letting the algorithms do the rest. But it’s not always that clinical. Sheelagh McNeill, the research editor with whom I worked on this story, was able to find Socrates’ phone number, and although he did not respond to voicemails, he eventually got on the line when I called at night.

His young son answered and fetched his father. Socrates was not pleased. He asked that I not disclose his identity, which was ironic because his columns praised the virtues of total transparency as a way to build trust. Why shouldn’t the public know about him? What’s wrong with a bit of well-intentioned surveillance among fellow Americans? I was not able to ask these questions, however.

“I can’t say anything,” he said, not long before he hung up. “You can’t use my name.”

He didn’t need to say anything, because his NSA columns explained a lot, as did the online databases McNeill and I consulted, though all of it paled in comparison to the motherlode of his blog.


The name on Socrates’ columns was not, it turned out, his full legal name; he used an abbreviated form of his first name. His last name is an ordinary one that yields a large number of search results. McNeill and I had a bit of luck, though — his columns included a user ID with his middle initial. McNeill needed a day to comb the web and examine public as well as proprietary databases before finding a person she believed was Socrates. He resided in the Washington area, was married to a woman who had worked in Korea (Socrates is a Korean language analyst), and he had lived in a variety of places that correlated with biographical hints in the columns.

But there wasn’t a lot of flesh on the digital bones we had found; Socrates was correct when he said it’s easy to misunderstand someone if you know only a bit. McNeill and I, though fairly certain that we had located the right person, still didn’t know much about his life or who, in an existential sense, he was. That changed when McNeill typed his name into Google and the name of a world event that one of his columns had mentioned.

She walked to my desk with her laptop open and pointed to a blog on her screen.

“This is him,” she said.

The blog consists of more than 20,000 words Socrates wrote about his failed effort, before joining the NSA, to earn a living as a writer. As he explained in often bitter and personal detail, he reluctantly went from starving writer to salaried spy. Instead of creating fictional characters, he spied on real ones. It dawned on me: coming from the world of books and words rather than technology and code, Socrates represented a post-modern version of the literary eavesdropper.

In his twenties, according to his blog, he wrote a personal mission statement, in the style of Jerry Maguire, in which he described the creation of literature as a higher calling than raising a child, proclaiming it nobler to live as a penniless writer than a parent. He took subsistence jobs to pay the bills and relied on financial support from family members as he tried to become the next Jonathan Franzen. He loved the great authors he read and studied — Melville, Cervantes, Borges, Vonnegut, and others. He wanted to produce great works that would persuade people to love and care about the world as much as he did.

It didn’t work out, and ironically the turning point was a graduate writing program he enrolled in at a Midwestern university in 2002. The program used the workshop method of putting students into a group and having them read and critique one another’s work. His experience amounted to a year and a half of getting bad advice from bad writers working part-time jobs to put themselves through a middling school. Nearly every professor was a dick, he wrote, and he mused that writing had turned them into dicks.

The worst part of the experience was the financial side, because he went into debt (annual tuition and living costs at his university can exceed $25,000). Tired of asking for handouts and getting rejection letters, he wrote in his blog that the nobility of writing was a lie. He was so angry with himself and his writing that he deleted everything he had written, even throwing away hard copies of his stories, and stopped reading literature altogether. He decided to look for real work.

Socrates was able to land a job at the NSA. He had a background in Korean, which is of great interest in the intelligence world. He worked hard, had a son, owned a house, did volunteer work with refugees. He was living the American dream. In 2012, he began the “SIGINT Philosopher” columns, and this seems to have reminded him of the joys and rewards of writing for an audience. The next year, according to his blog, he thought he might lose his day job and this crisis made him ask what he most wanted to do in life. The answer surprised him: He wanted to write.

He was having, as he frankly admitted, a mid-life crisis that turned into a writing experiment. After 10 years of ignoring literature, he set a goal — he would write a collection of stories for an annual competition organized by the University of Iowa Press. He had a bit less than a year to write the stories, while keeping his position at the NSA. In the summer of 2014, a month before the Iowa deadline and just before one of his stories was published in a small literary review, he started blogging, without mentioning that he was a spy.

The surveillance archetypes that dominate popular culture are different from Socrates because they eventually see evil in the systems of surveillance that employ them. There is Winston Smith in 1984, who works at the Ministry of Truth and despises everything it does. Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others turns insubordinate after he receives an assignment to surveil a well-known writer and his girlfriend. And Harry Caul in The Conversation comes to fear that he is being played by the business executive who hired him.

Socrates, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault. One of his columns made a point of saying that even if an NSA employee disagrees with a policy, and even if the policy is wrong, she should stay the course. “We probably all have something we know a lot about that is being handled at a higher level in a manner we’re not entirely happy about,” he wrote. “This can cause great cognitive dissonance for us, because we may feel our work is being used to help the government follow a policy we feel is bad.” Socrates advised modesty. Maybe the policy is actually correct — or perhaps it is wrong but will work out in the end. “I try,” he explained, “to be a good lieutenant and good civil servant of even the policies I think are misguided.”

Socrates does not have a quiet psyche, however. While his blog and columns do not question the NSA, he struggled to live meaningfully. He returned to creative writing to make a lasting and worthwhile mark, so that his time on earth would not be wasted. Unfortunately, his second effort to become a successful writer did not turn out any better than the first. He reached out to two writing groups but never heard back. He paid for an editor to review one of his stories, disagreed with the editor’s comments, and accused the editor of trying to drum up additional fees for more work — and blogged about all of this in excruciating detail. The story, about a man whose ex-girlfriend gives him herpes, was called “Infection.”

Socrates sent his stories to literary reviews and got rejection after rejection. Late last year, he wrote that he felt empty and low. His blogging platform allows for tags for each post, and the tags he used included “rejection,” “rejection notes,” “giving up” and “why write?” Even worse was the silence that greeted the one story he had gotten published after he started blogging. He heard nothing from readers, and he wondered whether anyone other than family members and friends were aware of it.

THE INTERCEPT HAS A POLICY of not publishing the names of non-public intelligence officials unless there is a compelling reason, as with our naming of Alfreda Bikowsky, who oversaw key aspects of the CIA’s torture program. Withholding Socrates’ identity presents certain problems in the age of Google, however. If I quote from his blog, or give its name, or provide other search-enhancing morsels, like the name or location of his graduate writing program or where he was born, I might provide the sort of data that could instantly reveal his name with a few keystrokes.

So I am more or less trying to do what the NSA and a large number of agencies and corporations do with the personal data they possess — stripping away names and other identifying information to “anonymize” the data before sharing it. The beauty of anonymizing data, according to the (very many) entities that do it, is that nobody can be identified — citizens and consumers do not have to worry that their privacy is violated when petabytes of data are collected about what they do, where they go, what they read, where they eat and what they buy, because their names are not attached to it. The conceit is that our data does not betray us.

Anonymization is problematic, however, because it doesn’t always work. It is entirely possible that a reader of this story could make a few lucky or smart guesses and data-mine their way to Socrates’ name. There is a whole area of data research that’s known as re-identification, which consists of matching anonymized data with actual names. Even if anonymization did work, there’s a creepiness to knowing everything about a person even if you don’t know their name. Look at this story — it’s invasive without disclosing Socrates’ name, isn’t it? I could dial up the invasiveness, too. Would you like to know the asking price of the house he lives in? Would you like to know the names of the schools where his wife has worked? Would you like to see the pictures of their son or their house? Know the name of their dog? Their dates of birth? The branch of the military Socrates served in and his dates of service? There is so much I can tell you about Socrates without telling you his name. You don’t need to code if you want to hack into someone’s life. We are all hackers now.

If the original Socrates of ancient Greece were still around, he would probably suggest that it is morally compromising to conduct surveillance on people who have done no harm — no matter whether the surveillance is carried out by a philosopher in a robe, a journalist with a laptop, or an intelligence agency with a $10 billion budget. Surveillance, as a word, is a cleaned-up version of voyeurism, and whether state-sponsored or editor-approved, it’s creepy to carry out, and probably futile in most cases. Socrates (the columnist) insisted that total surveillance would allow the NSA to understand us and not mistake our intentions. His inaugural column even suggested that the NSA’s slogan could be “building informed decision makers — so that targets do not suffer our nation’s wrath unless they really deserve it — by exercising deity-like monitoring of the target.” Yet Socrates probably knows, as most writers do, that what we say does not necessarily reflect what is in our minds.

Here’s an example. I told Socrates, in our phone call, that I had read his blog. I assumed that once our conversation was finished he would go online and take down the blog, scrupulously doing what a smart surveiller would do once he realized he was the target rather than targeter — try to scrub the public domain of his existence to inhibit surveillance of him.

Yet the blog stayed up. In fact, he continued posting — once about a blockbuster movie series he disliked, another time about a short story he generally liked. I asked McNeill, the research editor, what she made of this, and she was surprised, too. Although I could not spy on Socrates in the way the NSA spies on its targets, I had done a lot and thought I understood him. In addition to the biographical and financial data I had mined, Socrates and I have an intellectual kinship as writers. After all, editors have killed stories I have written. I have friends who have gone through graduate writing programs. I have taught in one. I have the same hope (probably futile) that my writing will do some good in this world and somebody in Hollywood will make a movie.

Yet I had misunderstood him. I’m not sure I can ever understand him, even if he were strapped into a polygraph and had all the time in the world to answer my questions. If it is true that we are mysteries even to ourselves — as the original Socrates suggested — the eavesdroppers at the NSA invade our privacy without learning who we really are.

Benghazi Film by Michael Bay Could Be Next ‘American Sniper’ but Let’s Hope Not

The Intercept  |  July 30, 2015

Hollywood surprised itself earlier this year by producing an Iraq war movie that was a blockbuster—American Sniper has earned more than half a billion dollars so far, starring Bradley Cooper in the role of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. The film also produced intense cultural criticism about the way it narrowly represented the war, portraying Iraqis as little more than turbaned bullseyes for American valor.

Now comes the trailer for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an action film about the attempt by military contractors working for the CIA to rescue two diplomats from an extremist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The film, directed by Michael Bay, is being touted as a cross between Black Hawk Down and American Sniper. The early reviews—I mean the early tweets—are highly favorable. If the trailer is an accurate indicator, or the director’s filmography (Bay also brought us Pearl Harbor and Transformers), the star-spangled hype is probably on the money, and we will be the poorer for it.

I haven’t seen the film yet—it comes out in January, so press screenings are months away. I contacted Mitchell Zuckoff, who wrote the nonfiction book on which the film is based, as well as a publicist for the studio that is producing the film, but they declined to say what’s in the movie. The main hints are the attention-getting trailer (please take a look) and the cast of characters on the IMDB site. There is apparently no Libyan character who merits a last name—there is just a “Fareed” and “Fareed’s wife.” The other apparently Libyan characters have no names at all; one of them is described as “Bandolier Militiaman” and another is “Camo Headwrap.” Who knows, perhaps 13 Hours will be loaded with rich historical context, but Bay, whose films have grossed $6.4 billion, according to his Twitter bio, is known for other things.

One of the problems with Hollywood war movies is that they rarely tell us what we need to know about the wars we engage in. It’s certainly true that American soldiers often perform heroically in the wars they fight—I have reported from Iraq as well as Afghanistan and have seen it first-hand. It is also true that American soldiers don’t always behave honorably (I have seen this too), but Hollywood doesn’t often shine a light on it. Studio executives prefer to back movies we are willing to buy tickets for, and crowd-pleasers tend to have heroic narratives in the John Wayne mold, which is why for every Apocalypse Now or Three Kings there seem to be a dozen American Snipers or Lone Survivors.

Yet the real problem with conventional war movies is their historically negligent portrayal of the people Americans fight against. The Iraqis or Afghans or Somalis or Vietnamese in our most popular war movies tend to be stick figures at best, snarling animals at worst. This is not only epically unfair to the people upon whose lands we have chosen to fight our wars, it hurts us as well, because we just consume more of the intellectual junk that leads us to believe we are always the good guys and they are always the bad guys and the people we kill always deserve it.

And there’s a genre twist in the trailer for 13 Hours, which portrays military contractors as heroes. It’s true that some contractors have acted bravely in the warzones where they were lucratively employed to fight, and some have been killed (including two in Benghazi), but their overall record is terrible. Military contractors—traditionally referred to as mercenaries—are one of the poxes of the new American way of warfare. When I was in Baghdad in the early years of the occupation, military contractors were among the greatest perils to human life, because they were all but unaccountable and acted like it. Driving around Baghdad in an unmarked civilian vehicle, I worried more about being shot by one of the Blackwater cowboys than being blown up by a car bomb. Yet now they are being packaged as a new type of American war hero, a sort of mercenary chic.

Yes, it’s only a movie, and one we’re not able to see until January. But movies seem to do more to shape our understanding of warfare, valor and foreigners than any other form of popular culture, and it seems we are heading toward another feel-good brainwash.

How Jeffrey Sterling Took On the CIA—and Lost Everything

The Intercept  |  June 18, 2015

THIS IS HOW it ended for Jeffrey Sterling.

A former covert officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, Sterling sat down in a federal courtroom with a lawyer on either side, looking up at a judge who would announce in a few moments whether he would go to prison for the next 20 years. A few feet away, three prosecutors waited expectantly, hoping that more than a decade of investigation by the FBI would conclude with a severe sentence for a man who committed an “unconscionable” crime, as one of them told the judge.

In Sterling’s blind spot, behind his left shoulder, his wife tried not to sob so loudly that the judge would hear. A social worker, she had been interrogated by FBI agents, her modest home was searched, she had been made to testify before a grand jury, and she had given up her hopes for an ordinary life — a child or two rather than the miscarriages she had, a husband who could hold a job, a life that was not under surveillance, and friends who were free of harassment from government agents asking for information about her and her husband.

One of Sterling’s lawyers stood up to ask for leniency. Sterling was a good person, the lawyer said, not a traitor. He was the first in his family to graduate from college. After leaving the CIA, he worked as a healthcare investigator and won awards for uncovering millions of dollars in fraud. He loved his wife. He did not cause any harm and did not deserve to be locked up until he was an old man for talking to a New York Times reporter about a classified program that he believed had gone awry. Please let the sentence be fair, the lawyer said.

It was time for Sterling to say a few words. His lawyers followed him to the lectern, standing a half step behind, as though to steady him if he wavered. A tall man with a low voice, Sterling thanked the court for its efforts to conduct the trial and thanked the judge for delaying its start so he could attend the funeral of one of his brothers. He did not say whether, as the jury had decided, he was guilty of what they had convicted him for — violating the Espionage Act and other laws related to disclosing classified information.

Sterling’s battle against the government had begun more than 15 years earlier, when he was still at the CIA. After he lodged a racial discrimination complaint, he was fired by the agency and filed two federal lawsuits against it, one for retaliation and discrimination, another for obstructing the publication of his autobiography. He also spoke as a whistleblower to Congress. Soon, his savings ran out and he became all but homeless, driving around the country, lost in despair. He eventually returned to his hometown near St. Louis and rebuilt his life, finding the woman who became his wife and landing a job he thrived at.

His new life was torn apart when FBI agents came to his workplace in 2011, placing him in handcuffs and parading him past his colleagues. A few days later, still in jail, he was fired because he had not shown up for work. The drama ended in a wood-paneled courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia on a warm afternoon in May, after Sterling finished his brief statement to the judge.

Sterling’s case has drawn attention primarily for two reasons: it was part of the Obama Administration’s controversial crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers, and prosecutors had tried to force the Times reporter, James Risen, to divulge the name of his source, whom the government believed was Sterling. The case, known as United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, was treated mainly as a freedom-of-the-press issue, with Risen as the heroic centerpiece. Lost in the judicial briefs about the First Amendment was the black man in the middle.

This is Sterling’s story.

DURING HIS LAST year of law school in St. Louis, Sterling was reading a newspaper between classes. He noticed an advertisement that showed a man standing at the edge of a body of water and looking at the horizon in an inspirational way. See the world, the ad said. Serve your country. Join the CIA.

It got him.

As a teenager, Sterling had become fascinated with the rest of the world. When he arrived home from high school, he would watch the MacNeil/Lehrer report on PBS. Attending a racially mixed high school, he didn’t fit in. He remembers being called an Oreo, black on the outside and white on the inside, because his interests didn’t coincide with some people’s concept of what a black kid should do or think or say. Within hours of reading the CIA ad he began working on his application.

His first day at Langley — what people at the agency call their “EOD,” or Entrance On Duty — was May 13, 1993. He was told to park behind the main building and enter through the back doors used by most employees. But Sterling made a detour around the long sides of the building to walk through the grand entrance — the one with the shiny CIA emblem on the marble floor, where you walk by a wall that has stars for each CIA officer killed in the line of duty.

“That was a thrill,” he told me. “I actually did that for the first few days. It meant that much to me, to be able to walk in that front door knowing that I was part of something special. I was so proud of it.”

I met Sterling in April, at his home in O’Fallon, on the outskirts of St. Louis. It had been three months since the jury convicted him, and he was waiting for the hearing at which he would find out whether he would receive the term recommended under federal sentencing guidelines — between 19 to 24 years in prison. He was surprisingly tranquil, occasionally stroking his gray-flecked goatee as he talked about his long fight with the government. Other than discussing his case in a short documentary directed by Judith Ehrlich and produced by Norman Solomon, Sterling has not talked publicly about it. The Justice Department, asked to respond to his account, refused to provide any comment.

IT DID NOT take long, apparently, for the color of Sterling’s skin to set him apart at the CIA.

Once he had completed the agency’s version of basic spy training, Sterling was assigned to the Iran Task Force and dispatched to language school to learn Farsi. In 1997, just before he was to leave for his first overseas post in Germany, he was told that somebody else was going instead.

“We’re concerned that you would stick out as a big black guy speaking Farsi,” Sterling recalls his supervisor saying.

Shocked, he responded, “Well, when did you figure out I was black?”

The agency did not have a good record on diversity. At the time, all of its directors, deputy directors and chiefs of espionage operations had been white men. In 1995, the agency had agreed to pay $990,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by female case officers who accused the agency of sex discrimination. The agency promised to do better on both racial and gender diversity — but it wasn’t, as far as Sterling could tell.

“I seriously considered leaving the agency,” he told me. “But I believed in what I would be able to do. I believed in the career I could have there.”

A few months later, he accepted a different overseas assignment. Shortly before he was to leave, a supervisor said he would instead go to the position in Germany that he had previously been turned down for, because the officer they were planning to send had pulled out. Sterling, a proud man, said he didn’t want to take a position for which he had been deemed second-best.

“You either go where we want or you’re going nowhere,” Sterling says he was told.

He went.

“I was like, OK, I can deal with this, I at least have an assignment,” Sterling told me. “I’ll prove to them how I’m a great case officer.”

Sterling recalls being the only black officer at the agency’s station in Bonn. His cover was as an Army logistics officer rather than a State Department officer, and he says this made it more difficult to gain entry to the social and political circles where foreign spies are recruited; doors that open for diplomats are closed to logistics officers. He believes his bosses thought the color of his skin meant he wouldn’t do as well as other officers, so they didn’t bother giving him a good cover.

“I couldn’t get into a janitor’s convention,” he said.

Sterling returned to the U.S. and was assigned to the counter-proliferation division at the agency’s headquarters before being dispatched to the New York station, where he says that once again he was the only black officer. Things did not go smoothly. He was given an unusual ultimatum — start recruiting three new spies, hold three meetings with each of them, or leave New York. He felt singled out, asked to do more than other officers while lacking the cover they had.

“That was the last I could take of it,” Sterling recalled. “I just said ‘No, I don’t accept this and I’m going to file a complaint.’”

He was transferred back to Langley, where he was given a closet-sized office that he and the co-worker he shared it with jokingly called “the penalty box.” He filed an internal racial discrimination complaint that didn’t succeed, and soon he was fired. John Brennan, who at the time was the agency’s deputy executive director and is currently its director, told the New York Times that “it was an unfortunate situation because Jeffrey was a talented officer and had a lot of skills we are looking for, and we wanted him to succeed. We were quite pleased with Jeffrey’s performance in a number of areas. Unfortunately, there were some areas of his work and development that needed some improvement.”

In O’Fallon, Sterling and I met at the single-story home he shares with his wife and two cats in a community of nearly identical red-and-white houses. “We’re really outside the beltway here,” he joked at one point. He has a voice that’s made for radio — deep and fluid, a bass that usually stays in the same comfortable register. He was dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, with sandals on his feet. On the wall, there was a print by Salvador Dali of two butterflies dancing in the air. His tone varied only once or twice, when his steady voice sharpened into a knife.

“I had dedicated myself to that agency,” he said, when I asked why he chose to confront the CIA rather than, as many people might have done, carry on quietly or resign without filing a lawsuit. “I couldn’t just walk away from something that was so vital to me and that I knew I was good at, proved I was good at. That was it for me … No, you are not going to treat me that way.”

IN 1972, JIM CROCE came out with a hit song, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” that had several lines about the things a sensible person never does, such as spitting into the wind, pulling off the mask of the Lone Ranger, and tugging on Superman’s cape. Sterling pointed to that last bit of advice — not tugging on Superman’s cape — to describe the path he took. He challenged the CIA, and it probably wasn’t a sensible choice.

In 2001, as he was leaving the agency, he filed a federal lawsuit that said the CIA retaliated against him for making an internal discrimination complaint, and that he had indeed faced a pattern of discrimination there. The suit was dismissed by a judge after the CIA successfully argued in pre-trial motions that a trial would expose state secrets by disclosing sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. An appeals court upheld that ruling, though it noted that the dismissal “places, on behalf of the entire country, a burden on Sterling that he alone must bear” by being deprived of his right to a trial. The dismissal spared Sterling’s supervisors from testifying about their interactions with him. The government has not provided specific responses, in court or to the media, about his accusations of racial discrimination, other than to generally state that he faced none.

He tugged on the CIA’s cape in other ways. He wrote a memoir, tentatively titled Spook: An American Journey Through Black and White, and submitted chapters for pre-publication review. According to a lawsuit Sterling filed in 2003, the CIA determined that his manuscript contained classified information that should not be published, and demanded that he add information that, his suit said, was “blatantly false.” Facing a tough legal battle with a presiding judge who seemed sympathetic to the CIA, Sterling eventually agreed to drop the suit. His manuscript has not been published.

Also in 2003, Sterling met staffers from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to let them know his concerns about the mismanagement of a classified program he worked on at the agency. Merlin, as the program was called, involved the CIA giving Iran faulty nuclear blueprints. If the blueprints were used, Iran’s nuclear program would be delayed. The blueprints were given to the Iranians by a Russian scientist who lived in the United States, and Sterling was his CIA handler. The CIA has said the program worked well, but Sterling told the committee staffers it was botched and that the Iranians learned the blueprints were flawed; the Iranians might have gained nuclear insights from the accurate parts.

By the time he talked to the Senate staffers, Sterling had become radioactive by Washington standards. This is the usual whistleblower’s fate. He applied for jobs with the private-sector contractors that tend to eagerly recruit experts like him, and they initially seemed quite interested, Sterling recalls, but their attention vanished suddenly, presumably when they learned about his disputes with the CIA. His descent began in full. Running out of money, he sold his belongings on Craigslist, gave his cats to a woman who had a farm, and packed a few things into his car and took off.

The idea was to drive to his mother’s house in Missouri, but he wandered, parking at truck stops at night and sleeping in his car. “I had nowhere to go,” he recalled. “I had worked hard and it all fell apart.” He eventually visited friends in St. Louis who had a newborn and they made a deal — Sterling cared for their baby and lived rent-free in their house. “It was very humbling to go from being a case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency to now I’m a manny,” Sterling noted.

Then, as things do, his life turned around. In 2004 he landed a job as a healthcare investigator at WellPoint, and he also met a woman, Holly Brooke, and after a few months moved into her house. He now had a job, a life partner, a home. Everything was great until, on the morning of New Year’s Eve in 2005, the CIA’s top lawyer, John Rizzo, was woken up at home by a phone call on his secure line.

RIZZO GROGGILY ANSWERED the phone and was told by an official at the National Security Council that a book was about to be published that disclosed one of the CIA’s most sensitive intelligence programs. The book, by James Risen, was called State of War, and it described the Merlin program as perhaps “one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.” Risen’s book did not identify who his source, or sources, were.

Rizzo, who described the day’s events in his memoir, threw on his clothes and drove into town to get the book from the NSC official, then drove to Langley to share it with senior officials who had been dragged from their homes to figure out what to do. The White House wanted to take the extraordinary step of stopping the book from being published. President Bush’s top lawyer, Harriet Miers, asked Rizzo to call Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, which owned Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher. In the end, Rizzo didn’t call Redstone, but he made a mental note to file a crimes report with the Department of Justice; the leaker had to be found.

Within a month, two FBI agents were at Sterling’s house outside St. Louis. They claimed they were concerned that an Iranian was on the loose who might do harm to him. Sterling sensed it was a ruse; he told the FBI agents he’d be able to spot someone following him, particularly an Iranian because there were no Iranians where he lived. The agents then asked if they could come inside and Sterling refused. They had a copy of Risen’s book and asked if he knew about it.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about that book. That was the first I had ever seen of that,’” Sterling told me.

This wasn’t the first time Sterling was questioned by the FBI. Risen had interviewed Sterling in 2002 and published a story about his discrimination lawsuit. The next year, Risen reported a story about the Merlin program, but it wasn’t published. Risen asked the CIA for pre-publication comment on the story and was soon summoned to the White House, along with his editor. They were told by then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice that the story, if published, would reveal a valuable covert program and could cost lives. The Times decided to kill it.

The Justice Department launched a criminal investigation in 2003 and FBI agents questioned Sterling that year. However, until the agents showed up at his doorstep in 2006 with Risen’s book, Sterling thought his struggles with the government were behind him.

After that visit, Holly was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. She was questioned for seven hours at FBI headquarters in Washington and, she told me, the next day she spent three hours before the grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. When she returned to St. Louis, she got a call from her lawyer, who said the FBI was coming to search her home. More than a dozen agents soon showed up to confiscate some of the couple’s belongings.

“They left and I had a meltdown,” Holly said during lunch at a pub near her home, as easy-listening rock music played in the background. “I was sobbing and crying and couldn’t understand this. I attempted to go to work the next day and I just lost it. My boss came to me and she said, ‘You need to leave. I think you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’”

Then, as mysteriously as it had intruded into their lives, the FBI’s investigation seemed to dissipate. In the fall of 2010, Sterling’s lawyer called him to say the case appeared to be winding down.

ON JANUARY 6, 2011, Sterling was asked to attend a meeting at his office. He was on medical leave after a knee-replacement operation, so he hobbled into work with a cane, and after checking on the mail that had piled up on his desk, a colleague told him the security staff needed to see him because there was a problem with his badge. It was urgent, Sterling was told. When he visited the security staff he was confronted, he says, by several FBI agents and police officers who placed him under arrest. His cane was taken away, his arms were handcuffed behind his back, and he was marched out of the building, limping, as his co-workers gaped. The indictment accused him of leaking to Risen out of “anger and resentment” at the CIA.

The timing of his arrest was unusual. The exchanges between Sterling and Risen began in 2001 and finished in 2005, according to records of their phone calls and emails that were listed in the indictment. Why was Sterling arrested six years after he last communicated with Risen and five years after his home was searched by the FBI? If, as the government claimed, he had caused so much harm, why did prosecutors wait so long to press charges?

The answers appear to be political. Until Barack Obama was elected president, the Department of Justice rarely prosecuted leakers. Obama promised, as a candidate, to create the most transparent administration ever, but he has presided over more leak prosecutions under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence during Obama’s first term, told the Times that a decision was made in 2009 to “hang an admiral once in a while,” as Blair put it, to show would-be leakers they should not talk to the press. The Justice Department did not charge high-level officials, however; mid-level officials were the principal targets, and it appears that Sterling’s all-but-shut case was brought back to life as part of the crackdown.

Sterling, detained for weeks, became despondent.

“All of it came crashing down on me, sitting in that jail cell,” he said. “So many years, so many struggles, and I had gotten to a point where I had picked myself up and was just moving on. But this behemoth of anger, of retaliation, was having its way. It was an extremely low feeling that I was going through, disbelief, shock.”

He stopped eating until Holly was allowed to visit.

“Just seeing her face shocked me back into knowing that here’s this woman who loves me and she’s been with me through thick and thin,” he said. “I made a promise to her that I would stay alive, I won’t try to hurt myself.”

RELEASED FROM JAIL, Sterling no longer had a job and could not find a new one, due to the taint of an Espionage Act indictment, and he had to wait four years for his trial to begin. A large part of the delay was due to a legal battle between the prosecution and Risen — the prosecution wanted Risen to name his source, whom the government believed was Sterling, but Risen refused to cooperate, raising the prospect of a journalist going to jail for defying the government. The Obama administration, criticized for violating First Amendment protections, backed off just before the trial began.

On January 13, the trial opened with the lead prosecutor, James Trump, telling the jury that Sterling was a traitor.

“The defendant betrayed his country,” Trump said. “He betrayed his colleagues. He betrayed the CIA and compromised its mission. And most importantly, he betrayed the Russian asset, a man who literally placed his trust and his life into the defendant’s hands.”

Trump addressed the question of motive.

“And why?” he asked. “Anger, bitterness, selfishness. The defendant struck back at the CIA because he thought he had been treated unfairly. He had sued the agency for discrimination and demanded that they pay him $200,000 to settle his claim. When the agency refused, he struck back with the only weapon he had: secrets, the agency’s secrets.”

The government’s case consisted mostly of records of emails and phone calls between Sterling and Risen that began in 2001 and continued into 2005. The emails were very short, just a line or so, and did not reference any CIA programs. The phone calls were mostly short too, some just a few seconds, and the government did not introduce recordings or transcripts of any of them.

Sterling was represented by two lawyers, Edward MacMahon Jr. and Barry Pollack. In his opening statement, MacMahon pointed to the lack of hard evidence against his client.

“Mr. Trump is a fine lawyer,” MacMahon said. “If he had an email with details of these programs or a phone call, you would have heard it, and you’re not going to hear it in this case .… Mr. Trump told you that [Sterling] spoke to Risen. Did you hear where, when, or anything about what happened? No. That’s because there isn’t any such evidence of it whatsoever .… You don’t see a written communication to Mr. Risen from Mr. Sterling about the program at all, no evidence they even met in person.”

After a two-week trial that included some CIA witnesses testifying from behind a screen, so that their identities would not be revealed, the jury convicted Sterling, based on what the judge, Leonie Brinkema, described at the sentencing as “very powerful circumstantial evidence.” She added, “In a perfect world, you’d only have direct evidence, but many times that’s not the case in a criminal case.”

Sterling sat motionless as she explained the reasoning behind the sentence that she was about to announce. I had asked Sterling, when we met in St. Louis, what he expected would happen.

“This process has destroyed a lot of me,” he began, his voice shifting in the halting way that means anguish has broken loose. “The thought that I’m going to be sent to prison, I can’t and haven’t been able to deal with that. I don’t know where to put it or how to deal with it because it doesn’t make any sense. I’m dreading going to jail. Maybe some miracle will happen and I won’t. But I still have to be realistic and prepare for the worst.”

A few minutes before three in the afternoon, Judge Brinkema said that Sterling would go to prison for three and a half years. This was far below the sentencing guidelines — and was seen as a rebuke of the prosecution’s portrayal of Sterling as a traitor who had to be locked away for a long time. But that wasn’t much comfort for Sterling or his wife, because he would nonetheless be locked away. After the hearing ended, Sterling walked to the front row of seats to console his sobbing wife. You could hear her wails in the courtroom.

His lawyers requested that he be allowed to serve his sentence in his home state of Missouri, so that his wife and other family members could easily visit him. Earlier this week, Sterling reported to the prison that was selected for him. It is in Colorado.

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