Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism

Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'

February 16, 2017 · 16 min read

Trump slapped more sanctions on Iran after a missile test, we’ve seen him slam down the phone on the Prime Minister of Australia but also strike up a relationship with Taiwan to the annoyance of China, is he looking for war?

I don’t think he’s looking for war. He actually ran on a platform of avoiding war and criticising Clinton and Obama for starting too many wars or participating in too many wars. I think that in his mind he thinks two things. One, that the way to get better deals between countries is by making them afraid of you because that gives you more leverage. So by threatening them and showing them you’re a little bit crazy you get better leverage and therefore better agreements, ones which are more advantageous to you. And that was a big part of his critique of Obama – [Trump said] he was terrible, his trade agreements were disadvantageous to the US and all that.

Then the other aspect is that I think they think that being tough and strong and showing that you’re willing to fight, that actually fosters more peace because when people fear you they are less likely to take provocative steps. The problem with that kind of thinking, a lot of wars often happen unintentionally because things escalate and spiral out of control in a framework where there is high tension which is what happens when you start threatening countries. And so I think that certainly when it comes to China and particularly when it comes to Iran, there is a serious danger that they could stumble themselves into a war even though they may not want one.

A few years ago former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the US and Russia to settle their differences over Ukraine and unite in a War on Terror. With early signs appearing to show Trump and Putin getting on rather well will Tony Blair’s wish now come to pass?

If you look at at the likely basis of war cooperation between the United States and Russia, it certainly begins with the threat they each perceive. I think a long time fixation of Putin and Russia, going back to the War on Chechnya, is this obsession with what they regard as Islamic radicalism. They are obviously both fighting in Syria and shared targets include Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even president Obama tried to create cooperative frameworks between the United States and Russia based on these shared enemies. I think Trump is seeing an opportunity as well. The question then becomes: will this detente between the US and Russia, if it happens, expand beyond just national security cooperation? Will they actually share this kind of internationalist right-wing agenda confronting China, uniting hard-right groups throughout Europe and even in other places? And will there be this broader coalition, this broader agenda which they can pursue?

Trump has said he will: ‘take the oil’, ‘bomb the hell out of isil’, ‘kill the families of terror suspects’, ‘bring back torture’. Some presidents have done these things, but few have spoken about them so crudely. Are we moving back to a more overt War on Terror like we saw under Bush?

I think Trump has demonstrated, contrary to what people thought or were hoping, a readiness to act on a lot of the more radical proposals he advocated during the election. There is this sense that people in the military or the intelligence community will somehow impede him from doing things like targeting the family members of terrorists or even potentially using tactical or regional nuclear weapons and I don’t think that’s a very realistic hope. But I think you’re already seeing, whether it’s the raid in Yemen that killed Anwar Al-Awlaki’s six-year-old daughter and this Muslim ban, you see government agents throughout these agencies obediently carrying out these orders with no resistance, no objection, no dissent. And so I think that he has the power to do the things that he talked about doing. More importantly and more troublingly, both Obama and George Bush worked vigorously to defend and expand the legal framework that Trump would be able to cite in order to justify doing the policies he has advocated. So there is this bipartisan framework in place that he can draw from in a very potent way.

Do you think the American public will allow Trump to, in his own words ‘load up’ Guantanamo with ‘bad dudes’?

I think that the American public has proven fairly reliable that as long as certain abuses are confined to foreign nationals – and in particular those they are told are terrorists – they are willing to tolerate virtually anything. There was very little public outcry when the Bush administration opened CIA black sites and when they tortured people. If they’ve become a little embarrassing or too public such as Abu Ghraib then maybe there will be some public backlash, but in general as long as you’re confining it to people that you’re able to convince the public are deserving or are terrorist or just Muslim radicals there’s not a lot of opposition coming from the public. And I think that a much broader concern is what happens if there’s a terrorist attack. The instinct of Trump and his advisers, what they’re waiting for is to be able to demagogue that attack to raise fear levels and justify even the most extreme policies that right now probably aren’t imaginable. I think if he’s able to successfully exploit the fear in those emotions surrounding an attack on that magnitude then I think there will be very little public resistance.

Trump has spoken about targeting CVE – the US’ counter-terrorism policy – solely at Muslims. How seriously should we be taking all of this?

I think we ought to take it very seriously both because it starts with Muslims being targeted and then also because it will inevitably expand beyond that. If you look at the history of, not just the US, but the West in the post 9-11 era, it’s one programme after another from law enforcement and government agencies in the name of stopping radical Islam or terrorist attacks or whatever the nomenclature is. And once those powers are vested they are almost expanded well beyond the original targeted groups. The Patriot Act is probably the best example. When it was enacted it was supposed to be temporary. We were told it was necessary because of the terror threat and it’s now 16 years old – it’s the opposite of temporary, it’s a permanent part of our fixture, and then I think 85% of the cases it’s used in are in non-terrorism settings for drug crimes, for financial crimes, completely unrelated to national security. These powers take root but nobody cares because everyone’s told it’s only going to be Muslims who are affected, then eventually it starts to erode all basic liberties for everybody.

You’re adamant that the CIA has in your own words ‘gone to war with Donald Trump’. Do you think they are opening a new front against right-leaning politicians similar to what we’ve seen in the past against left-leaning activists and civil rights leaders with COINTELPRO and more recently the targeting of Muslims as part of the War on Terror?

I think that they regard Trump as a particular threat to the the prevailing order. He’s questioned the kind of foundations of post-World War Two American power whether its commitment to NATO, or just a general position he has with regards to whether regime change wars are justifiable and in particular whether the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that ought to be expanded or continued. In pretty every one of those cases he’s either taken the position that’s the opposite of what the CIA wants for its own power or ideology or he’s asking serious questions about his commitment to continuing this bipartisan framework [between Democrats and Republicans]. And so I think they regard Trump in particular as a unique kind of threat, and I think they’re much more comfortable with a standard, right-wing politician. Some of it is about internal jockeying for power which you often see with governments. I think they also feel threatened by people like General Flynn who have a lot of hostility towards the intelligence community bureaucracy, and will be worrying about what their place is likely to be if he gains too much authority.

But the FBI has the exact opposite posture to the CIA in that they were very favourable to Trump, and so I think there is a very serious danger that Trump can and intends to empower the FBI and use it as his personal police force which I do think can then start to reintroduce dangers. I think we’re going to see a lot of dirty game playing whether it’s leaking or fabricating claims or just outright subversion – I think you’re going to see a lot of that from each side.

We’ve seen that courts have presented a road block to Trump’s Muslim ban. Are the US’s constitutional arrangements robust enough to stop someone like Trump from inflicting serious damage?

It helps. The idea of the constitution and of the courts and the reason why these judges have life tenures is because they’re supposed to be immune from political sentiment. No matter how popular a particular abuse is (because these judges can’t be removed from office, they don’t have to run for election), the idea is that they will defend these rights even when it’s really impossible to do so. But that’s the the theory! The reality is that these judges have been nominated by Republican Presidents and even under Democratic Presidents who knew that judges who were too pro-Liberty and anti-police state probably couldn’t get confirmed so you have years or even decades of judges who have been confirmed who have demonstrated a willingness to justify and defend really radical police power, especially ones that have been put in place in the name of national security. So the practical matter is that you will see some resistance, some push back, some limits imposed from the judiciary, but I certainly wouldn’t want to count on the judiciary saving the Republic from Trump’s abuses.

How then, can the Trump presidency be kept in check?

I think the best hope by far for imposing limits on Trump is citizen activism. And I think we’ve seen some encouraging signs so far in the form of the spontaneous protests that erupted at airports across the country where there were reports of Muslims even with green cards being detained and denied access to lawyers. The strikes that taxi drivers did in protest really created a lot of problems at the nation’s ports and airports. I think the Women’s march, although a little more organised, was also an impressive display of citizen activism. How far that can be sustained and how much risk it’s willing to incur is still an open question. But when I think about the meaningful limits that will likely be imposed on Trump, I think there will be some from the media, some from courts. I think there will be a very little bit from Congress but that the most impactful will be from whistleblowers, leaking things, and then also citizen protest.

One of the last acts of the Obama Presidency was to grant an amnesty to Chelsea Manning. Do you get any indication as to what will happen in terms of whistleblowing under Trump?

I think the Trump administration is going to be very interested in harshly punishing whistleblowers, people who expose secrets that make them look bad. And this is where I think Obama bears a huge amount of blame which is that his administration was more vindictive in punishing whistleblowers than any in American history. More leakers were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 during president Obama’s three years in office than had been prosecuted under all administrations, all presidents combined previously. He ended up prosecuting eleven people and there was a total of four cases in a hundred years before Obama took office. So they really were extremely aggressive in creating this legal landscape where sources and whistleblowers can be punished and I think what they did to Snowden, Manning and Drake has really laid the groundwork for Trump to be extremely vindictive as well in punishing people who leak.

Can the increased racism and xenophobia that has sprung since Brexit and Trump be stamped out?

I actually think the Trump presidency presents an opportunity to make progress on a lot of these areas. You couldn’t get a protest of 100 people organised when Obama was president to defend Muslim civil liberties even though he was bombing 5 out of the 7 countries that Trump is stopping visitors entering the United States from. And now you see these massive marches under Trump in defence of basic rights of Muslims which is really encouraging. I think the more Muslims are visible, the more active they are, the more vocal they are, the more people will get to know them as individuals and the harder the demonisation of them will become. So I think that is an important component of it. But I also think that it’s really critical to look at the roots of things like Brexit and Trump and understand that there has been this Neoliberal project for the last three decades throughout the West, of globalisation and free-trade, that has destroyed people’s economic security and ways of life by the tens of millions. These people have had their backs turned on them and have been scorned when they’ve complained and see very little hope for their future. It’s always easy to scapegoat people in order to raise fear levels when people feel anxious and victimised and angry. I think that in the US and UK and throughout mainland Europe you’re seeing that right now to a great extent.

You mentioned that Obama bombed five of the seven countries that are part of the Muslim ban yet people weren’t willing to come out on the streets as they are now doing for Trump. Why is that?

Before Obama was elected there was this CIA report which described worries the CIA had over what it said was this growing anti-war sentiment throughout Europe. I think by this point a government in Holland had fallen as a result of its participation in the War in Afghanistan. The CIA was worried that this anti-war sentiment was going to spread throughout Europe and that governments would be forced to withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the US with all the burden. What the CIA concluded ultimately was that the best way to solve this would be the election of Barack Obama because it would paint this pretty, progressive, fresh, face, and paste it over what had been George Bush’s face and he would become the face of these new wars and it would make people feel a lot better.

That’s essentially what happened. The anti-war movement disappeared. It was really amazing to watch, this last month, all these new anti-war liberals and democrats expressing such anger over the fact that Trump had killed civilians in Yemen, when the US under Obama has not only been killing civilians by the dozens in Yemen for many years but also arming and otherwise supporting the Saudis as they savage that country. There was barely anybody paying attention to that because it was President Obama doing it. On the one hand if I had to choose between indifference under Trump and anger over Trump, I would pick anger, but I know that it is grounded in partisan cynicism and not actual conviction. I don’t look at the people doing that as reliable allies.

You said that you’ve seen Trump and Brexit as the repudiation of the neo-liberal elite and the media establishment – do you think they will just bounce back at the next opportunity or are we looking at their ultimate demise?

I think this is a genuine history-shaping moment. I think there has been historical stagnation for the last 20-30 years, at least since the fall of the Soviet Union and with the US being the sole super-power and the EU kind of stabilising as a junior partner to the US, there’s been a kind of stability to the world order. And I think that this world order is actually unravelling. I think radical change is likely and that historians will talk about this as something really important.

How that plays out I think is still unclear. It could produce positive outcomes, it could produce negative outcomes – it’s the same as when you uproot any system and then there’s a battle over what you replace it with.

Do you have any comments on the state of the ‘special relationship’ between UK and Britain?

As somebody who spent a good year and a half reading through the most top-secret documents from both the US and UK governments, my impression of the relationship between the UK and US is like the US walks around with this rabid, drooling, insane dog on a leash and any time the US wants to engage in some extreme belligerence or threatening behaviour, it just unleashes its rabid, tiny, little, yapping dog which is the British government. And so obviously the British government is subservient to, and is a junior partner to what the US does, but it is also tries to demonstrate its importance and loyalty by always being the one willing to go that extra mile when it comes to radicalism, aggression or law-breaking, or just general disregarding of international law and that’s the relationship that Theresa May intends to have with Trump.

Can you elaborate further?

In the surveillance context, for example, GCHQ would always volunteer to do the most aggressive programmes, the ones that other governments felt they couldn’t do because of legal constraints or ethical quandaries. In the military context you see the same thing. British troops and British military units have often been deployed to the most troublesome areas because the US knows they will be willing to be a little more aggressive and take a little more risk to prove themselves and their importance. I think the US exploits their sense of inadequacy and weakness by daring them to prove that they’re willing to go a little bit further than everybody else. I think that’s become the security relationship between the two countries.

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