Flynn-Russia Leaks: Highly Illegal & Wholly Justified

While congressional Democrats and some Republicans are pushing for probes into President Trump’s ties to Russia, Trump has focused largely on going after those who have leaked information to the press. On Monday, Trump’s national security adviser was forced to resign after The Washington Post reported on leaks of classified intelligence revealing that Flynn had engaged in talks with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition period, while Barack Obama was still president. In a tweet this morning, Trump wrote, “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” On Wednesday, he wrote, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia.” We speak to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at the growing scandal over the Trump administration’s alleged dealings with Russia before and after the November election. There have been a number of developments in the past 24 hours. The Wall Street Journal is reporting U.S. intelligence officials are withholding sensitive intelligence from President Trump because they’re concerned it could be leaked or compromised. The New York Times is reporting Trump is considering ordering a review of the nation’s intelligence agencies led by Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire private equity executive who is close to Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner.

Meanwhile, Trump has publicly defended Michael Flynn, who resigned Monday as national security adviser after admitting he gave Vice President Mike Pence and others incomplete information about his calls with the Russian ambassador in December. Trump spoke about Flynn during his press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Michael Flynn, General Flynn, is a wonderful man. I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media—as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly. I think, in addition to that, from intelligence, papers are being leaked. Things are being leaked. It’s criminal action. Criminal act. And it’s been going on for a long time, before me. But now it’s really going on. And people are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton. I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated and the documents and papers that were illegally—I stress that—illegally leaked. Very, very unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s comments came just a day after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump had lost faith in General Flynn.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: This was an act of trust. Whether or not he actually misled the vice president was the issue. And that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn. That’s it, pure and simple. It was a matter of trust.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: While congressional Democrats and some Republicans are pushing for probes into Trump’s ties to Russia, Trump has focused largely on going after those who have leaked information to the press. In a tweet this morning, Trump wrote, quote, “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” On Wednesday, Trump indirectly accused the NSA and FBI of being behind the leaks. He wrote”:https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/831840306161123328, quote, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia.”

AMY GOODMAN: Some supporters of Trump, including Breitbart News, have accused the intelligence agencies of attempting to wage a “deep state coup” against the president. Meanwhile, some critics of Trump are openly embracing such activity. Bill Kristol, the prominent Republican analyst who founded The Weekly Standard, wrote on Twitter, “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state,” unquote.

To help make sense of what’s happening, we’re joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept. His most recent piece is headlined “The Leakers Who Exposed Gen. Flynn’s Lie Committed Serious—and Wholly Justified—Felonies.”

Glenn, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what you mean.

GLENN GREENWALD: There’s no question that whoever leaked the contents of General Flynn’s telephone calls with the Russian ambassador and other Russian diplomats committed what the law regards as extremely serious crimes. As we all know from the last eight years under President Obama, they—the U.S. government treats it as a criminal act, a felony, to leak information that is deemed classified. In the scheme of what is regarded as criminal in terms of leaks, the most serious or one of the most serious bits of information that can be leaked is what’s called signals intelligence, or information gathered by the NSA or the CIA or other intelligence agencies in terms of eavesdropping on foreign governments. And that’s exactly what got leaked, was information that the NSA and the CIA say that they gathered as a result of targeting Russian officials with eavesdropping. And along the course of that eavesdropping, they happened hear General Flynn’s conversations with those Russian officials. That’s what they claim. It’s possible they actually targeted General Flynn. We don’t know. That’s the claim. And if that is true, what they’re claiming, it means that the leaking of this information is considered a very serious felony. In fact, the law says that it’s not just whoever leaks signals intelligence is guilty of a felony, but anyone who publishes it, too. So, theoretically, it makes the journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, all of whom have leaked signals intelligence, guilty of felonies. My view is that the First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause would bar any such prosecutions, but at least under the statute it is a crime.

So then the question becomes: Well, if it’s criminal, is it justified? And my view is the same view that I had for the eight years under President Obama and for the years before that under President Bush, which is that people inside the government who leak classified information that the public has a right to know, even if they’re breaking the law, are acting commendably and justifiably and heroically, and that those people ought to be celebrated and treated as people defending democracy and transparency, and not be treated as criminals. Unfortunately, over the last eight years, Democrats have had a completely different view of people who leak classified information. And the tweet that you just read from President Trump, saying whoever leaked this information are low-life leakers who deserve to be punished, that sounds very, very, very similar to everything I’ve heard from most Democrats over the last eight years as they called for the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden and the long list of other whistleblowers and leakers that President Obama so aggressively and vindictively prosecuted. But, for me, my view has not changed, which is, when an official as senior as General Flynn lies to the public, which is what he did—he denied publicly that he discussed the issue of sanctions with the Russian ambassador in his December phone call—information that shows that he lied is information that the public has the right to know. And even though I think there are very grave dangers and grave concerns, that I hope we’ll discuss, in terms of what the deep state is doing in trying to destroy the Trump administration, that was duly elected, in this particular case, whoever leaked this information helped the public to understand and to learn exactly how General Flynn lied, and therefore, despite being illegal, highly illegal, I actually think it’s also wholly justified, as I wrote in that piece.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Glenn, I want to turn to something NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said to you nearly three years ago, when he first spoke out against NSA abuses.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Glenn, can you talk about that and the response that was received to the leaks of Edward Snowden compared to now, the leaks of intelligence officials now?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, on the question of the eavesdropping powers of the NSA as revealed by the intercepts of General Flynn’s communications, we don’t actually know for certain what the methodology was that was used to eavesdrop on him. Was the NSA legally, pursuant to a FISA warrant, targeting General Flynn as part of an investigation, either an intelligence investigation or a law enforcement investigation, conducted by the FBI? Were they, as they claim, only doing routine surveillance on officials of an adversary country—in this case, Russia—and just coincidentally and by accident happened to catch the conversation that General Flynn was having with those targets of the surveillance in Moscow? We don’t know.

But what this does illustrate is—let’s assume for the moment that the NSA and the CIA for once are actually telling the truth and that the way that they eavesdropped on General Flynn was not by targeting him, but by targeting the Russians with whom he was communicating. What this reveals is something very important, which is, when the Edward Snowden story first broke and the debate around the world was triggered, the U.S. government kept saying over and over, “If you’re an American citizen, we can’t listen in on your calls unless we first get a warrant from the court, and therefore there’s nothing you have to worry about.” Now, that was a very warped sort of thing to say, because that meant that for 95 percent of the world who are called non-Americans, what the government was saying: “Oh, for you, you have no protections. We can listen in on your calls at any time without getting a judge to approve,” which is actually true. And that’s one of the reasons why people all over the world outside of the United States were so horrified to learn of what the NSA was doing. But the broader and more important point is that what the U.S. government was saying was actually completely false. The U.S. government constantly eavesdrops on the telephone calls of American citizens without getting a warrant of any kind, despite what the Constitution requires. And that’s because the law that was enacted in 2008, called the FISA Amendments Act, with President Obama’s approval, with—he was a senator at the time, he voted for it—actually authorizes the U.S. government to listen in on Americans’ calls with no warrant, as long as they’re talking to someone outside of the United States who the government says they’re targeting. And that’s what this episode shows, is they were able to listen in on General Flynn’s calls, if you believe them, with no warrant, because they say that they were targeting someone with whom he was communicating.

As far as the reaction is concerned in terms of how Edward Snowden’s leaks were received versus this leak, it’s like night and day. I have not yet heard, literally, not one Democrat condemn the leakers inside the CIA or the intelligence community who leaked signals intelligence and, in the process, alerted these Russian officials to the fact that their communications have been compromised. That’s what these leaks did. They told these Russian officials with whom General Flynn was communicating, “We have successfully penetrated your communications systems.” And you can be sure that they are now, in response, fortifying the communications that they use and blocking out the NSA and CIA. There was probably harm done by whoever did this leak. I haven’t heard one Democrat condemn it on the grounds that it’s criminal. I haven’t heard one Democrat say that there should be an investigation to find these leakers and put them in prison for violating the law. And yet, all I heard from Democrats—not all I heard, because there were a lot of Democrats who supported Manning and Snowden and Drake—but certainly Democratic officials in D.C. were almost unanimous, under Obama, in saying that leaks—leakers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, that they’re traitors. Chelsea Manning just spent seven years in prison under harsh conditions for leaking information way less sensitive than what these leakers about General Flynn just leaked. And, yes, President Obama commuted her sentence, but only after his administration imprisoned her, under conditions that the U.N. said was basically torture, and kept her in prison for seven years, even though there was no harm demonstrated from anything she leaked. So what Democrats seem to think is, leaks under President Obama, even if they show that high-level officials are lying, as Edward Snowden showed James Clapper was, are evil, are criminal, and the whistleblowers should be thrown in jail; leaks under President Trump, by contrast, are heroic and noble, and we should celebrate the people who are doing it and oppose any effort to hunt them down and investigate them and find them and punish them, as President Trump is vowing to do. The reality is that whistleblowers are a very valuable part of our democracy. They should be cherished and heralded and protected, regardless of which party controls the White House.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Glenn, what about the Republican response? You’ve talked about the Democrat—Democratic Party response, but how did the Republican Party, for the most part, respond to the Snowden leaks versus what’s happened now?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, ironically, the Republican response is actually consistent—consistently heinous, but at least it’s consistent. There were a few Republicans, usually former officeholders or some outliers in the Republican Party, like Rand Paul or Justin Amash, people from the libertarian wing, who were somewhat supportive of the Snowden leaks. But, overall, the Republican establishment was contemptuous of Edward Snowden. In fact, Mike Pompeo, the former Republican congressman who is now Donald Trump’s chief at the CIA, called for Edward Snowden’s execution. Donald Trump himself called for Edward Snowden’s execution. Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Marco Rubio all called Edward Snowden a traitor. So, in some sense, the Republicans are being consistent, because they’re now saying the same thing, which is that whoever leaked this information ought to be investigated, hunted down and punished to the fullest extent of the law, which is more or less the same thing they said about leakers and whistleblowers under President Obama. It’s the Democrats who have completely switched their position, as they so often do, the minute that the party controlling the White House changed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, in January.

Some supporters of Trump, including Breitbart News, are now accusing the intelligence agencies of attempting to wage a “deep state coup” against the president. Meanwhile, some critics of Trump are openly embracing such activity, like Bill Kristol, the prominent Republican analyst who founded The Weekly Standard. He wrote on Twitter, “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”

So, still with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, speaking to us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Glenn, explain what the deep state is, and respond.

GLENN GREENWALD: The deep state, although there’s no precise or scientific definition, generally refers to the agencies in Washington that are permanent power factions. They stay and exercise power even as presidents who are elected come and go. They typically exercise their power in secret, in the dark, and so they’re barely subject to democratic accountability, if they’re subject to it at all. It’s agencies like the CIA, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies, that are essentially designed to disseminate disinformation and deceit and propaganda, and have a long history of doing not only that, but also have a long history of the world’s worst war crimes, atrocities and death squads. This is who not just people like Bill Kristol, but lots of Democrats are placing their faith in, are trying to empower, are cheering for as they exert power separate and apart from—in fact, in opposition to—the political officials to whom they’re supposed to be subordinate.

And you go—this is not just about Russia. You go all the way back to the campaign, and what you saw was that leading members of the intelligence community, including Mike Morell, who was the acting CIA chief under President Obama, and Michael Hayden, who ran both the CIA and the NSA under George W. Bush, were very outspoken supporters of Hillary Clinton. In fact, Michael Morell went to The New York Times, and Michael Hayden went to The Washington Post, during the campaign to praise Hillary Clinton and to say that Donald Trump had become a recruit of Russia. The CIA and the intelligence community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to Trump, from the beginning. And the reason was, was because they liked Hillary Clinton’s policies better than they liked Donald Trump’s. One of the main priorities of the CIA for the last five years has been a proxy war in Syria, designed to achieve regime change with the Assad regime. Hillary Clinton was not only for that, she was critical of Obama for not allowing it to go further, and wanted to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and confront the Russians. Donald Trump took exactly the opposite view. He said we shouldn’t care who rules Syria; we should allow the Russians, and even help the Russians, kill ISIS and al-Qaeda and other people in Syria. So, Trump’s agenda that he ran on was completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted. Clinton’s was exactly what the CIA wanted, and so they were behind her. And so, they’ve been trying to undermine Trump for many months throughout the election. And now that he won, they are not just undermining him with leaks, but actively subverting him. There’s claims that they’re withholding information from him, on the grounds that they don’t think he should have it and can be trusted with it. They are empowering themselves to enact policy.

Now, I happen to think that the Trump presidency is extremely dangerous. You just listed off in your news—in your newscast that led the show, many reasons. They want to dismantle the environment. They want to eliminate the safety net. They want to empower billionaires. They want to enact bigoted policies against Muslims and immigrants and so many others. And it is important to resist them. And there are lots of really great ways to resist them, such as getting courts to restrain them, citizen activism and, most important of all, having the Democratic Party engage in self-critique to ask itself how it can be a more effective political force in the United States after it has collapsed on all levels. That isn’t what this resistance is now doing. What they’re doing instead is trying to take maybe the only faction worse than Donald Trump, which is the deep state, the CIA, with its histories of atrocities, and say they ought to almost engage in like a soft coup, where they take the elected president and prevent him from enacting his policies. And I think it is extremely dangerous to do that. Even if you’re somebody who believes that both the CIA and the deep state, on the one hand, and the Trump presidency, on the other, are extremely dangerous, as I do, there’s a huge difference between the two, which is that Trump was democratically elected and is subject to democratic controls, as these courts just demonstrated and as the media is showing, as citizens are proving. But on the other hand, the CIA was elected by nobody. They’re barely subject to democratic controls at all. And so, to urge that the CIA and the intelligence community empower itself to undermine the elected branches of government is insanity. That is a prescription for destroying democracy overnight in the name of saving it. And yet that’s what so many, not just neocons, but the neocons’ allies in the Democratic Party, are now urging and cheering. And it’s incredibly warped and dangerous to watch them do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And The Wall Street Journal‘s report that says now intelligence officials are not giving President Trump all the information because they’re concerned about what he’ll do with it, not to mention intelligence agencies of other countries deeply concerned about what Trump will do with it, and particularly concerned about what he might share with Russia?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, so, first of all, there’s a media issue here, which is that if you look at The Wall Street Journal report, it’s pretty much exactly the same as every other significant report about Russia over the last six months, many of which have proven to be completely false. It’s based on anonymous officials making extremely vague claims. Even The Wall Street Journal says, “We don’t know who’s doing this, withholding information. We don’t know how much information is being withheld.”

Secondly, the idea that Donald Trump is some kind of an agent or a spy of Russia, or that he is being blackmailed by Russia and is going to pass secret information to the Kremlin and endanger American agents on purpose, is an incredibly crazy claim that has been nowhere proven to be true. It reminds me of the kind of things Glenn Beck used to say about Obama while he stood at his chalkboard and drew those—those unstable charts that he drew, these wild conspiracy theories that are without evidence.

We ought to have a serious, sober, structured investigation of the claims that Russia hacked the DNC and John Podesta’s emails and that there were improper ties between Donald Trump and the Russians, and that ought to be made public so that we can see the information. But this constant media obsession of leaking whatever someone whispers to them about Donald Trump and Russia, because they know it will get their reporters huge numbers of retweets on Twitter and tons of traffic by people who are being fed what they want to hear, is really feeding into the worst kind of hysteria and even fake news that the media says they’re trying to combat. These are really serious claims that merit serious investigation, and that’s exactly what we’re not getting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in a recent piece in The Intercept by one of your colleagues, they write, “If in fact all of this is ‘non-sense,’ Trump has the power as president to make that clear immediately—by declassifying all government intercepts of communications between Russian nationals and anyone in his orbit.” So, do you think, Glenn, that Trump ought to be doing that?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, it’s an interesting point, because, for example, there have been lots of claims made about the communications that General Flynn had with Russian diplomats and what these transcripts supposedly reflect, and yet nobody has seen the transcripts. We’ve seen little bits and pieces of them. We haven’t seen the whole transcript. We ought to see that whole transcript. And my colleague, Jon Schwarz, who wrote that piece, is absolutely right that it’s within President Trump’s power to order it instantly declassified. There’s no review of that decision, and then it could be made public.

On the other hand, it is really bizarre, just as a reporter who has been in the middle of a controversy for the last four years about the leaking of classified information, to hear people suggest that the president now ought to take the most sensitive intercepts that the government is capable of obtaining, which is how they eavesdrop on Russian officials inside the Kremlin, and just toss them to the public like there’s no problem at all with doing that. I think that what you’re seeing here is this really disturbing double standard, that all we’ve heard since the war on terror is that classified information is sacred and anybody who leaks it is treasonous and satanic and belongs in jail for a really long time, and now classified information seems to be something that’s just a plaything, like something that we just toss around for fun if it serves a certain agenda. And I think that that’s one of the issues that’s bothering me about the way this discourse is unfolding.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, President Donald Trump ended a long-standing U.S. commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, saying he had no preference for either a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s comment came during a news conference at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians—if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best. As far as the embassy moving to Jerusalem, I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care. Great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens. OK?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s President Trump speaking yesterday at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Glenn, could you respond to that and what the significance is of Trump suggesting a significant, massive change to many, many years of a U.S. policy on this?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I guess I question, first of all, the extent to which it really is such a massive change in U.S. policy. It is, of course, a huge departure rhetorically from what the U.S. government has said for decades, which is that their policy is there ought to be a two-state solution. The reality, though, as any honest person involved in this conflict or who watches it admits, is that the two-state solution has been dying, and, in fact, probably dead for many years. It’s just that nobody wants to admit it. If you look at a map, it’s almost impossible to see where a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank can be created, given the growth of settlements under Prime Minister Netanyahu, growth which, by the way, the United States not only didn’t stop, but abetted by shoveling Israel with money, with weapons, with all kinds of diplomatic support, as they were expanding those settlements. Yes, they objected occasionally, in rhetoric, but, in action, never did.

And so, I think the two-state solution is something that we’re all eager not to give up on, because the alternatives are both so bad. But the reality is that in Israel there is an erosion of support for the two-state solution. There are high-level members of President—Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet, high ministers, who explicitly oppose it. The reality is that because of the course Israel has taken, the only two options that are real—and it’s essentially what Donald Trump, in his own kind of stumbling, inept, ignorant way, was getting at, was the only two options are: have Israel become an apartheid state, where a minority of Jews have political rights and control a country in which a majority of citizens have no political rights, exactly like was true of apartheid South Africa, or have one state in which all citizens have political rights, in which case Israel would no longer exist as a Jewish state. Neither of those options are good ones, but that is the course that Israel is taking. And what Trump is saying is, essentially, if the Israelis and Palestinians want a certain solution, we, the United States, are not going to prevent them from doing that.

What is really worrying is that Donald Trump is empowering some of the worst extremists in the world when it comes to Israeli policy. His son-in-law, who’s in charge of it, is a supporter of some of the hardest-core settlements in the West Bank. And Congress is taking up this week his nomination of a hardcore pro-settlement lunatic to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Just this morning, five ambassadors, former ambassadors to Israel, of both parties, came out and opposed him on the grounds that he’s essentially insane. And so, I do think there’s a dangerous tilting toward extremists in Israel on the part of the Trump administration. But the two-state solution has really only existed in rhetoric for a long time. And on some level, a lot of supporters of Palestinian rights think it’s actually a good thing to finally have that candid admission that a two-state solution is not really possible anymore because of Israeli behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: We had just lost Glenn Greenwald. We were speaking to him in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But I think we got the connection back. Maybe he has his cellphone up to his ear. Glenn, we were just talking about what’s happening in Yemen right now and the latest news from AP that the main figure killed in last month’s U.S. raid targeting al-Qaeda was a tribal leader who was allied with the U.S./Saudi-backed president. We only have 30 seconds, but if you can summarize Yemen?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, what’s happened in Yemen is an absolute atrocity. It’s the poorest country in the region. The U.S. has constantly droned it. The Saudis, with U.S. and U.K. support, have bombed its civilians constantly. People are starving, including children. And the Trump administration seems to be committed to escalating the violence even worse. It’s a true tragedy, and we never talk about it in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue that Spicer raised, that anyone who criticizes the Yemen raid owes an apology to the Navy SEAL’s family who was killed? Ten seconds.

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s a resurrection of standard U.S. rhetoric that we heard in the Bush era, that if you criticize the war, then it means you’re disrespecting the troops. And it’s extra ironic, since Trump ran on a platform of opposing the wars in Iraq and Libya, and yet he doesn’t seem to apply that same standard to himself that it means he’s disrespecting the troops.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for the show. Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founding editor of The Intercept.

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