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U.S. Intel Chiefs Alleging Russian Threat Have History of Deceiving the Public


Journalist Glenn Greenwald examines the track record of intelligence chiefs, including CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who are meeting today with President-elect Donald Trump to give him a classified briefing on alleged Russian cyberthreats.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Glenn, on Friday, President-elect Trump is meeting with CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and the DNI’s, the director of national intelligence’s, James Clapper, as they brief him, summarize what the 17 intelligence agencies say. Tell us who these three men are.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, interestingly, James Comey has become, after Vladimir Putin, probably the most despised villain in the Democratic narrative about what happened in the election. In fact, after the election, Hillary Clinton blamed not Putin or WikiLeaks, but Comey, for why she lost, because of the letter that he wrote shortly before the election, in which he said that he—the FBI was essentially reopening the investigation into whether she broke the law through the use of her emails. Comey was a Bush administration Justice Department official who was appointed not by George Bush, but by Barack Obama, to be the FBI director.

John Brennan was also a Bush-era CIA official, who is a supporter not of all aspects of the Bush torture program, but some aspects of it, including rendition and other interrogation techniques that are widely regarded as torture. And he was made the national security adviser in the Obama White House after Obama tried to make him CIA director in the beginning, and liberals objected and blocked his nomination, but he ultimately became CIA director. So these are Obama appointees who are running these agencies, even though they were high-level Bush officials in the middle of important, controversial war on terror policies. And they have a long history—not just their agencies, but they themselves—of approving legally dubious, if not outright illegal, programs and lying to and deceiving the public. And so, there are no angels in any of these machinations that are taking place as these various factions vie for power in this new scheme in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: But who Donald Trump should find a lot of common ground with, who also wants to expand torture techniques, as he said, expand Guantánamo, his own appointees.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, I think, in fairness to people like James Comey and John Brennan and other people in the CIA and in the Pentagon, a lot of those people who became either actively involved in or in a more passively complicit way part of some of the more extreme war on terror programs actually did come to regret it, either on moral and legal grounds or just pragmatic grounds, that they realized that the U.S.—that U.S. interests are undermined if they’re doing things like operating black sites and torture camps all over the world. And, in fact, Brennan and other leading members of the CIA have even said, including Michael Hayden, that some of the things Donald Trump has said he wants to do, like murder the families of terror suspects or reintroduce even more extreme forms of torture, are such forms of war criminality that the CIA and the military would refuse to follow those orders. So there is a significant part of that world that thinks that Trump has gone too far or will go too far. But there are also—and that includes, actually, the person that he wants to make his defense secretary, which is General Mattis, who is a pretty outspoken opponent, actually, of the reintroduction of torture. But there are also some really unhinged extremists in that world, like Michael Flynn, obviously John Bolton, others who may end up with influence within the Trump administration who want to do all of that and even worse. And so, there is this jockeying for power over who it is who’s going to have what levels of influence in what the U.S. government and the Trump administration does. And we still simply don’t know who’s going to prevail among these factions.

AMY GOODMAN: And what role do movements play in this now, Glenn?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I think that—I think the most important thing is that, you know, you have things like the Constitution that are supposed to impose limits on what even a deranged leader can do. You have courts that are supposed to check that and Congress that is supposed to check that and the media that is supposed to check that—all of which have failed. And I think the only truly effective check against true abuse of power is popular revolt, popular protest. But in order for that to work, it can’t just be confined to some sort of partisan movement. Remember, you had huge marches against the Iraq War in cities like San Francisco and New York and Washington and Los Angeles in 2003 that were ignored because they were viewed mostly as just liberal or Democratic supporters, and therefore viewed through a partisan prism. It has to be a kind of transpartisan movement, where the American population really stands up and says, “This is not about ideology. This is about the choice between democracy and authoritarianism. And we choose democracy.” And I do think that, ultimately, only popular movements are the kinds of force that can really put a meaningful check on things Trump wants to do.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founding editor of The Intercept. I spoke with him on Thursday with Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to an op-ed published last week in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Fable of Edward Snowden.” It was written by journalist Edward Jay Epstein, whose upcoming book, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, it will be published later this month. In the article, Epstein writes, quote, “It was not the quantity of Mr. Snowden’s theft but the quality that was most telling. Mr. Snowden’s theft put documents at risk that could reveal the NSA’s Level 3 tool kit—a reference to documents containing the NSA’s most-important sources and methods. Since the agency was created in 1952, Russia and other adversary nations had been trying to penetrate its Level-3 secrets without great success. Yet it was precisely these secrets that Mr. Snowden changed jobs to steal.” Now, that’s what Edward Jay Epstein wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

In response to the article, journalist Barton Gellman issued several tweets discrediting the piece, including writing, quote, “Snowden, Epstein book says, reached unreachable ‘Level 3’ secrets that only a spy could want.” But “[t]here’s no such category at the NSA.” So, Glenn Greenwald, could you talk about that? And respond to this forthcoming book on Snowden.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, it’s a huge irony, because, as we just discussed, Democratic partisans spent the last week trying to turn me into a Breitbart admirer, and at the same time many of these same Democratic partisans were heralding this attack on Snowden by Edward Jay Epstein. Who is Edward Jay Epstein? He is a longtime neocon who’s written forever for The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, probably the most right-wing organ within the mainstream American media outlet. But he’s also a writer for Breitbart. He has written multiple articles for Breitbart. And so, at the same time that these Democrats are accusing me of being a Breitbart supporter, they’re heralding an article, a smear, by a Breitbart writer.

Beyond that, the theme of this article and the theme of his book—and, obviously, we can’t detail all the falsehoods here. I encourage you to go look at what Bart Gellman posted online, who said there’s so many falsehoods that he doesn’t even have time to discredit them all. But the central theme is essentially to insinuate that, all along, Edward Snowden was an operative of Russia, that he was really just a Russian spy, he wasn’t a whistleblower, he wasn’t acting out of conscience or anything else. And I just want to say two things about that. Number one, even CIA and NSA officials, who hate Edward Snowden with a burning passion, have publicly repudiated this theory over and over. They have said, “We have no evidence to believe that Snowden ever worked with the Russian government, either before he leaked these secrets or after.” And, in fact, the former CIA chief, Mike Morell, said, “I believe that both the Chinese and the Russians tried to get Snowden to share information with them, and Snowden said, ‘I absolutely will not share anything with you,’ because of his disdain for intelligence agencies in general.” So, if you are going even more extreme than both the NSA and CIA in saying bad things about Edward Snowden, that shows how far off the rails you actually have gone.

The other thing that I would say is that what is being done to Edward Snowden by The Wall Street Journal and Breitbart, these sort of far-right organs that Democratic Party partisans are now cheering, is exactly what it’s done to all whistleblowers, beginning with Daniel Ellsberg. If you go back and look at what The New York Times was reporting in 1971 about Daniel Ellsberg after he leaked the Pentagon Papers, John Ehrlichman, one of the top domestic policy aides to Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon’s national security adviser, continually said that they believed that Daniel Ellsberg was a Soviet spy, that before giving the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times he had given them to the Kremlin. Exactly the same playbook was used against Ellsberg that is now being used against Snowden, which is to say, “Don’t listen to these disclosures. Don’t regard this person as a hero for exposing our corruption and lawbreaking. Focus instead on the fact that these are traitors working with our enemies.” And just as it was completely false in the case of Ellsberg, so too is it completely false in the case of Snowden.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think will happen with Edward Snowden under a Donald Trump administration? And then, what do you think will happen with Julian Assange, who’s being cited now by Trump as having the accurate information all of the—over all of the 17 intelligence agencies?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I think, certainly, it’s unclear. I mean, I think there’s this assumption that because Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have been saying positive things about one another, and there’s connections between the Trump campaign and various Russian interests, that that means there’s going to be this flowering détente between the two countries, and this great relationship is going to emerge, and they’re going to become allies. And that’s certainly possible. It may be that there is an alliance between the U.S. and Russia against China as a struggle for power and imperialism ensues. It’s also the case—and as part of that, if that really does happen, one of the fears that some people have is that, as part of the kind of coming together of the U.S. and Russia, that Trump will be able to persuade Putin to hand Snowden over as kind of a gift, as something that Trump can show to the American people: “Look, I got my hands on Snowden, when Obama was unable to do so.” And that certainly is a concern.

But I think that’s a little bit of a superficial view, because the animosity between the American political class and intelligence community, on the one hand, and the Russian political class and intelligence community, on the other, is very ingrained. It has existed for decades. It is entrenched and systemic and cultural. And I think there is a very good likelihood that those entities, which most certainly do not want détente between Russia and the United States, will find ways to undermine and subvert this agenda. And it’s very easy to see that the U.S. and the Soviet—and Russia can once again sort of become at loggerheads and resume this animosity. So I don’t think we know what’s going to happen with Snowden.

As for Assange, I mean, remember, the reason he’s in the Ecuadorean Embassy is not, in the first instance, because the U.S. is trying to get their hands on him. It’s because Sweden has these pending charges against him, that various courts in the U.K. and the EU have upheld the validity of. And so, I don’t really see how Trump can alter that, can change that dynamic. That’s one of the tragedies, is I don’t see an exit for Julian Assange exiting the Ecuadorean Embassy without facing those charges in Sweden. What the position of Assange and Ecuador has always been was that if the U.S. or Sweden agree that his going to Sweden won’t result in his extradition to the U.S., he will go on the next flight and face those charges. So, if the Trump administration says, “We have no interest in extraditing Julian Assange,” if they end the grand jury that’s been pending against WikiLeaks, that I could see as a potential resolution. He goes to Sweden. He faces the charges against him. If he’s convicted, he gets imprisoned. If he’s acquitted, he’s free.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to another recent piece of yours on Assange headlined “The Guardian’s Summary of Julian Assange’s Interview Went Viral and Was Completely False.” In the piece, you cite a passage from a recent interview with Julian Assange conducted by Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi. You then point out the distortion of Assange’s words in the account given by Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs.

Assange’s precise words in the interview are worth citing at length. When asked about his response to Trump’s election, he said in the interview, quote, “Hillary Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States. Donald Trump is not a D.C. insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities. They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilizing the pre-existing central power network within D.C. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better,” end-quote.

So, could you explain, Glenn Greenwald, how Assange’s response was conveyed in the Guardian article, the Guardian article which was headlined “Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview”? Of course, The Guardian subsequently posted a correction to the piece.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. So let me just take a step back. I mean, I obviously worked at The Guardian when I did the Snowden reporting. I have a lot of respect for the reporters and editors there. They do a lot of great reporting. But one of their big flaws as an institution is they develop personal feuds with people they cover. And when that happens, they dispense with all journalistic standards. So, one of the people who they have particular hatred for is Jeremy Corbyn. And over and over, they have produced journalistic garbage about Corbyn in pursuit of their feud. The other—probably the only person they despise more than Jeremy Corbyn is Julian Assange, with whom they had once worked and then had a huge falling out with. It’s very personal and acrimonious. And whenever The Guardian reports on Julian Assange, all journalistic standards get thrown out of the window.

And this article was a perfect example. There’s not just a correction; there’s actually a retraction at the bottom of that article now, because they claimed, with zero evidence, that WikiLeaks has had a long-standing, close relationship with the Putin regime, as they called it. That has now been deleted from the story. They also claimed that Julian Assange praised Russia for having a free and vibrant press, and that therefore there was no need for whistleblowing, when in fact he said nothing of the sort. He simply said that the reason why Russian leakers don’t go to WikiLeaks, as opposed to other outlets in Russia, is because WikiLeaks doesn’t speak Russian and has no presence in the Russian media landscape, and therefore isn’t viewed as a good option for a Russian whistleblower. They also corrected their total distortion of what he said.

What they also said, which is what you just asked me about, was they tried to make it seem like Julian Assange was a fan of Donald Trump, that he was praising Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton. And as the quote that you just read proves, he wasn’t praising Trump at all. He was simply neutrally describing what he thought would be the consequence, the fallout, of the Trump presidency—namely, that Trump isn’t a part of the traditional power structure in Washington, which is why the traditional power structure in Washington is so horrified at his victory and why they’re so disoriented and scared, that instead he’s creating a new power structure filled with rich people who are corrupt, but that because it’s new, it’s going to take some time to become entrenched. And in that process, there will be instability. And that instability will enable some positive outcomes and also some very negative ones. He was just describing his predictions for what the fallout would be of a Trump presidency, by no means praising Trump. But The Guardian was trying to feed this narrative that Assange is a Trump fan, that he loves Russia, that he serves Putin. That was the whole point of the article. This was another article that really went viral all over the internet, and the key claims ended up collapsing. They had to retract and correct several of the key claims. And, of course, none of those corrections or retractions went anywhere near as far as the original false claims themselves did.

AMY GOODMAN: During his Fox News interview, Julian Assange said the Obama administration is implicating Russia in the leaks to delegitimize Trump.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Our publications had wide uptake by the American people. They’re all true. But that’s not the allegation that has been presented by the Obama White House. So, why such a dramatic response? Well, the reason is obvious. They’re trying to delegitimize a Trump administration as it goes into the White House. They’re going to try—they are trying to say that President-elect Trump is not a legitimate president.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on this, Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I do think there’s an element of truth to this, which is that if you look, for example, at the agency that has led the way in pushing these allegations about Russia, which is the CIA, there is no question that the CIA—the community of the CIA was vehemently in support of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and, with equal vehemence, opposed to Donald Trump. The two leading members of the CIA community, former CIA Director Michael Morell, who served under President Obama, and former CIA Director General Hayden, who served under President Bush, both endorsed Hillary Clinton, one in The Washington Post, the other in The New York Times. And when they did so, they both attacked Donald Trump with a viciousness that is very rare, claiming that he essentially had been turned into, converted and recruited into a tool of Putin. The CIA was very aggressively in favor of Hillary Clinton’s victory. And there’s a lot of different reasons for that, but I think the primary one is that the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that Hillary Clinton had promised not just to support, but to escalate. She was very critical of Obama for restraining the CIA’s effort to support these rebels and to remove Assad, while Trump took the exact opposite position, saying, “We have no business trying to change the government of Syria. We ought to let Russia run free in Syria, kill ISIS, kill whoever else they want to kill, because we have no interest. We should keep Assad and Russia in charge of Syria.” There were other reasons, as well. So there’s no question the CIA was a political actor behind the Hillary Clinton presidency and against Donald Trump’s.

And since then, Trump has attacked the CIA. He’s pointed out that they’re unreliable, that they lied about WMDs. And just yesterday, Chuck Schumer went on The Rachel Maddow Show, and she asked him about this conflict between the CIA and Trump. And he said something incredibly important and very revealing. He said, “It is really stupid of Trump, just from a perspective of self-interest, to go to war with the intelligence community, because they have six different ways to Sunday to destroy you if you stand up to them,” which is something that people have known forever, that the deep state can destroy even politicians who are supposed to be more powerful than they are. So I think a lot of this is exactly what Julian said, which is the CIA is attempting to undermine and subvert Trump because they never wanted him to be president in the first place, and they’re now trying to weaken and subvert his agenda, that they oppose.

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