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After the 2016 general election, which saw Hillary Clinton defeated by Donald Trump, Democrats scrambled for someone to blame other than themselves. Rather than reflect on their many betrayals of the working class that once made up the core of their voting base, Democrats and their most fervent media allies quickly pointed the finger at an old enemy: Russia. What became known as the “Steele dossier,” which MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow breathlessly claimed was based on “deep cover sources inside Russia,” was widely reported in mass media. It now turns out, according to the Justice Department indictment released this week, the contents of the dossier were in fact a deliberately concocted lie now denounced as a fraud by the FBI.
The Justice Department has charged Igor Danchenko, the prime intelligence source for the Steele dossier, with making false statements to the FBI. The indictment documents that there were no such deep cover sources in Russia. Rather, it was all a politically convenient fantasy concocted by Danchenko, a former Brookings Institute hawk, and his Russian emigree drinking buddies telling the Democratic financiers of the Steele dossier what they wanted to hear.
It was not only Maddow who uncritically hyped this fabrication. As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple writes: “The Danchenko indictment doubles as a critique of several media outlets that covered Steele’s reports in 2016 and after its publication by BuzzFeed in January 2017…CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the McClatchy newspaper chain and various pundits showered credibility upon the dossier without corroboration—and found other topics to cover when a forceful debunking arrived in December 2019 via a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.”
Many journalists who rushed to promote the most lurid Russiagate claims were equally zealous in their scorn for others in the press who resisted the call for a new Cold War with Russia and were particularly venomous in attacking journalist Aaron Maté. His was one of the few voices who emerged on the left to decry the dangers of this new brinkmanship with a fellow nuclear power. Maté joins Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss “Russiagate” and the latest developments in what the two call an outright conspiracy theory.
Maté, who worked for DemocracyNow! and is a regular contributor to The Nation, makes the case that while many progressives and liberals were drawn into believing the Russian intervention allegations as an easy way to condemn Trump’s vile presidency, doing so backfired spectacularly in a number of ways. The Canadian journalist argues that the Russiagate obsession, which not only let Democrats but the corporate media off the hook for the roles they played in Trump’s election, actually allowed the Republican to get away with many other heinous acts that went under-reported.
For the small band of dissenters to the Russiagate fiasco, it is a bitter vindication now, nearly five years since Russiagate began, that numerous damning revelations have come to light about the Steele dossier, and that two people have been charged by John Durham, the Special Counsel in charge of the Russia investigation, including a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer. Listen to the full discussion between Maté and Scheer as they examine how, as Maté wrote in a recent piece, “the Russiagate scam is now indicted” and what the episode says about the state of U.S. politics and journalism.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case it’s Aaron Maté, originally a Canadian journalist, now well known to U.S. audiences through his program called Pushback with Aaron Maté on Grayzone. He’s written for Grayzone; he won the Izzie Award writing about Russiagate for The Nation magazine two years ago.
And I wanted Aaron on because he’s taken a lot of heat for challenging the Democratic Party narrative on Russiagate; in fact, originally the FBI narrative on Russiagate. And you know, assaulted verbally by everybody and their brother for daring to take a contrarian view, one of a small group of journalists who have. And now we’re at a point where people are being served, threatened, or arrested and so forth, who concocted this whole scheme.
And so I really want to do this almost as an obit on Russiagate, and how did this happen, and what does it mean? There was a lot at stake; you know, Russia remains a nuclear armed power; we have a lot of foreign policy conflict, potential for working together and so forth. We had a whole McCarthyite red scare about this, people’s reputations ruined. So why don’t I just turn it over to you, Aaron Maté? And tell me, you know, your connection with it. This goes back I guess five years now; it started in 2016. And you know, give us a primer.
AM: Bob, thanks for having me. It’s a real honor to be with you. And I also want to just say hi to my Uncle Yanosh, who I know will be listening, because he’s a regular listener of yours, and I know will be thrilled to hear me join your show.
RS: It’s the big time for you. [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. Go ahead.
AM: So I became aware, like everyone else, of this in the summer of 2016 when the Russia thing started. And I just remember being struck by how much it sounded like the Cold War. You know, this idea that Russians were invading our democracy, and Trump was compromised. And the evidence, when I looked at it, there was just nothing there.
And it just struck me as encouraging this really dangerous current in U.S. politics of, like, encouraging hawkishness towards Russia. Because for all the things to oppose Trump on–I mean, the racism, the misogyny, just what a scam he was—the fact that he occasionally said nice things about Vladimir Putin and talked even about the necessity of U.S. and Russia getting along, you know, that did not rate for me as one of the reasons to oppose him.
And I also saw that his campaign was interesting because on the campaign trail, he would rhetorically present himself not just as a working-class champion, which was a scam, but he also presented himself as being anti-intervention. He would criticize Hillary Clinton for her record in Iraq and Libya, and he was not respectful of John McCain, and he also insulted the Bush family. And I would see in response to that that there was this effort to sort of attribute that outlook of his to Russia, as if somehow this was like, he was doing—he was spewing Russian propaganda.
So—now, of course, everything he said was completely disingenuous; I don’t think he’s obviously genuinely anti-war. But what I think he was doing is I think he recognized that out there in the U.S. public there was anger about the wars, and anger about the cost of them to the U.S. And I think he was, much like he falsely portrayed himself to be a working-class champion, he was tapping into that.
And so when Hillary Clinton lost, you know, all this just accelerated. I mean, we know now from the book Shattered, which is an inside account of the Clinton campaign from two Capitol Hill reporters, that…Hillary Clinton and her advisors came together and decided that they were not going to take responsibility for losing to a clown, Trump, but that they were going to blame Russia, and blame Comey. And that grew into this giant, all-consuming scandal. And it was apparent to me all along that the evidence for it was not there; the evidence for collusion was not there, the evidence that we were being victimized [inaudible].
And what was there, though, was a very clear agenda that all of this was serving. It was sort of a convergence [inaudible] for the Clinton campaign; they could deflect responsibility for their loss, and for the rejection of their liberal legacy, and their interventionism abroad. There was clearly a rejection of that in the 2016 election, because it shouldn’t have been even close. For the national security state, you know, Trump was an unsuitable steward of the U.S. war machine. It’s not as if they cared that Trump was a racist, but he was an embarrassment. He wasn’t a part of the club, and sometimes he was too honest; sometimes he blurted out the truth, like he criticized the wars in Libya and Iraq; he told the truth about the U.S. involvement in Syria, where the U.S. was essentially allied with Al-Qaeda. And he was not—that just was not a good thing for a national security state that needs a sort of kinder face, a better salesperson, like someone like Barack Obama, rather than this erratic person like Trump.
For the U.S. media it was great for ratings to latch onto this, this real-life spy thriller. And to avoid their own role in giving rise to Trump, giving them those billions of dollars’ worth of airtime. And also, you know, for everyone involved, what better way to avoid looking at the unique American dysfunctions that gave rise to someone like Trump, and allowed him to become president, than to instead blame it all on Vladimir Putin and some devious plot?
So from the start, you had a convergence of really powerful interests, and when that happens, you’re naturally going to have adverse consequences. So while liberals were being told to fixate on this conspiracy theory and that Robert Mueller was going to save the day, we were all distracted from Trump’s actual policies and the damage that they were doing to the country and to the world. And the example I give often is that what this meant politically, in terms of the energy of the liberal movement, was that there were bigger protests to save Jeff Sessions’ job from liberals than there were to oppose Trump’s tax heist. You know, the scam he pulled giving a massive tax cut to the wealthy. Or to save the Iran nuclear deal, or to save Obamacare. All these critical issues were sidelined because we were told that the answer to Trump was to put our faith in Robert Mueller and the intelligence agencies, and that was another byproduct. That all of a sudden the left, after being under attack by the FBI and the CIA for decades, all of a sudden now we had to bow down and worship Jim Comey and James Clapper and John Brennan.
So I thought it was a disaster for the left, and just a disaster for the country overall. Because one other consequence was that while the neocons around Trump were ratcheting up tensions with Russia—you know, tearing up the INF treaty, sabotaging the New START treaty, which thankfully Biden saved at the last minute when he came into office—people, liberals were instead calling Trump a Putin puppet. So to me, it was just a huge gift to the right wing, and it required journalistically a complete bankrupt set of journalism standards. And that’s what I spend a lot of time doing, is just showing what the actual evidence showed, and how it undermined the prevailing narrative that we were given.
RS: Well, you know, but—I kind of think you’re burying the lede here. In that what—you know, because the news developed, is that, you know, now we have this indictment of Igor Danchenko. And he was sort of the tech for the Steele dossier, you know, Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy, intelligence person. And it is very clear that it was—you know, it’s funny. People who challenge the Russian conspiracy were thought to be conspiracy theorists. But what we really have here is a genuine conspiracy. And we have—I mean, let’s just cut to the chase here. We have a conspiracy concocted by people working for the Clinton campaign, who had experience in the Justice Department, the FBI, they had contacts and everything else. And they found the guy at the Brookings Institute who had no real connections any longer; he was an émigré, but in the old Soviet Union, in Russia. There was no there there from day one.
And they—and this is the material that the ex-British spy Christopher Steele used—there was no information, there were no real sources, nothing added up. That’s what you mean by a conspiracy. And the fact of the matter is, they dragged the FBI into this. And there’s a lot of anger now in this indictment of Igor Danchenko, basically that the FBI fell for this, and maybe there were people in the FBI who thought, well, that’s a convenient truth we can go for. But this is really Orwellian in the sense that you invent an enemy, you attribute all kinds of power to the enemy—in this case, Putin—and you’re willing to risk a great deal: the breakup of foreign relations, you can’t cooperate in all sorts of things. And you get into a McCarthyite campaign and actually in some ways, from my view—and I know this sounds like an editorial—but when I read this charge against Igor Danchenko, they were able to do something that McCarthy wasn’t able to do. He found resistance with the FBI. He found resistance in the highest levels of government.
And here was a case where they were like cutting through a piece of cake with a sharp knife. There wasn’t resistance. And this fake information was used to get the FISA courts, the highest secret court’s permission to wiretap and actually end up trying to destroy people. That’s really the issue, that McCarthyism came back to us as liberal democracy, using the power of the states to intimidate people and drive a narrative about the enemy that was fake, but convenient to them. Isn’t that really what happened here?
AM: That is really what happened, yeah. And the use of the Steele dossier by the FBI is a major scandal. They concealed from the court that it was being paid for by the Clinton campaign. They even concealed, after they spoke to the Steele dossier’s main source, this guy Danchenko, the FBI concealed that he told them that there was no corroboration for what he was saying, and that he was just passing on hearsay that was developed over drinks with his friends. So they defrauded the FISA court. And the question is, why? Why did they do it? I don’t think it’s a question of them being fooled by Steele or the Clinton campaign. They couldn’t have been that stupid. I think for their own reasons, they felt they wanted to go after Trump, whether it’s for—maybe they were on Hillary Clinton’s side, or it speaks to what I was getting to before, where they just did not see Trump as a suitable steward of the U.S. empire, and they needed to undermine him. And to that effect it was very successful, because it did constrain him in some pretty serious ways.
RS: Oh—look, come on, there’s been so much dangerous mischief about our relation to Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, beginning with our violating the very clear understanding that Ronald Reagan had that NATO should not be expanded, you’re not going to threaten Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, let alone what comes after. And we have all the stuff with the Ukraine. It’s this really dangerous, big-time movement towards war, towards having an enemy.
And you have people who all along had to know better, like Adam Schiff on the House intelligence committee, and Dianne Feinstein on the Democratic side and all that—they all had access to briefings, they could have all asked the right questions, and they didn’t want to know, because it was a convenient truth. You know, Putin messed it all up, he messed it up for the Democrats, Putin’s behind the WikiLeaks, Putin, Putin, Putin—you got the enemy that Orwell was predicting, and it lets you off the hook for your abysmal failure to be able to defeat Trump fairly. That really was the issue here.
But I want to ask you—clearly, as a journalist, because you hobnob with all these folks now; I don’t do it quite as much as I used to—but aren’t they embarrassed? I mean, this thing has just exploded. There is no there there. There was not a Russiagate, OK? You cannot read these indictments—and we should familiarize people with what is being said. But you know, the FBI and the Justice Department is now saying this is a totally made-up fraud. Totally. This is a conspiracy of people who don’t respect democracy in any way. Is it not?
AM: I mean, absolutely. And look, I mean, to your question, if people in the media are embarrassed or not, no. Because the media rewards failure. It rewards servitude to whatever the prevailing narrative. And Russiagate was such an important narrative to powerful sectors of this country, in media and Congress and in the intelligence community. So the journalists who propagated it have—no one’s been held to account, everyone’s being rewarded, everyone’s gotten promoted. Rachel Maddow recently got signed to a $30 million-a-year contract, and what she was doing every night was just no different than Alex Jones; it was deranged.
And what they do—it’s interesting, I mean you mentioned how the real conspiracy here is the one that came up with the conspiracy theory. And the same goes when you come to the question of disinformation. All these people who claim that we were being subjected to this sweeping Russian disinformation campaign were in fact subjecting the U.S. public to a massive Russiagate disinformation campaign, which said that Trump was a Russian agent, and all the various conspiracy theories that went with that, which said that Russia was attacking us with a sophisticated social media operation and brainwashing millions of Americans to vote for Trump and to turn against each other. And they did that by just being completely dishonest in their reporting.
So, look, to take one example, Luke Harding is a British journalist with The Guardian. And he wrote a whole book called Collusion; it was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. And it’s based around Christopher Steele’s fabrications, but it presents him as this noble hero who came across the truth and tried to warn America about the Russian asset in the Oval Office. And he still continues to write for The Guardian. Two years ago, he wrote a literal piece of fiction in The Guardian about how Julian Assange and Paul Manafort held secret meetings in the Ecuadorian embassy, the most surveilled place on the planet. It’s a complete fabrication.
And it was done, by the way, to basically drum up support for the then-developing U.S. campaign to prosecute Assange. And he’s faced no consequences. He’s still writing about Steele and Russia now. And in his article on the Danchenko indictment, he tries to save face by saying that Mueller uncovered contacts between Trump and Russian spies. Well, Mueller never said anything about Trump people meeting with Russian spies, because there were no Russian spies. So it’s just an example of how the disinformation campaign continues with no consequence.
And you look at the corporate media, you can see someone like Eric Wemple at the Washington Post—he’s their media columnist—he’s been holding people to account on the Steele dossier. So that’s one example, but you know, the Steele dossier is just one element of this; there’s many other aspects of this that were disinformation. But otherwise, Rachel Maddow’s still doing the same thing. And look, even progressive media, a lot of people in progressive media–you know, friends of mine, old colleagues at places like Democracy Now!, where I worked for 10 years—they got duped by it too. And it just, it was so alluring at the time. And I guess for some people, especially on the progressive left, Trump was such a nightmare—it was so upsetting to see that guy in the Oval Office—that they were willing to go along with something that, if anyone were to do some minimal journalism about, would see was completely baseless.
RS: Well, but this is what Orwell warned us against. Whether it comes from the left or the right, it’s the convenient enemy that causes you to abandon reason, or the search for fact, OK. So McCarthy went against the communists in the State Department and so forth; now, you know—and it’s ironic, I keep bringing this up, that Putin of course was the anti-communist. You know, yes, originally he was on the other side, as were most people out of force or opportunism in the old Soviet Union. But the fact is the U.S. backed Putin, as it had backed Yeltsin, and Putin defeated the Communist Party candidate. So you have a red menace without reds, really.
But what is so amazing—I defy anyone—I have it in front of me here, in the United States district. Court for the Eastern district of Virginia—Google it, get it, you know. United States vs. Igor Danchenko, an indictment. And it talks about Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI—this is, you know, a U.S. government filing. And it talks about Crossfire Hurricane [unclear] coordinating activities with the Russian government, OK? Now, whatever you think about the Russian government, the fact is they weren’t coordinating. So we have really, historically, one of the major, major swindles—hoaxes—of American foreign policy. And it’s not a question of individual careers, but the fact is we need arms control with the Russians; they still have these weapons; you’ve got to get Syria right, you’ve got to figure out, with China as well, how to deal with global warming. This is not a time for insanity.
And the point I’m trying to make—which really has been quite shocking to me; I grew up with the whole idea thinking the people who were going to do irrational red-baiting and so forth were going to be on the right. And these people, without any hesitation—you mentioned Rachel Maddow, you can mention Adam Schiff, all of them—consider themselves enlightened, reasonable, responsible people. And they were willing—really, there never was any serious evidence. But even now that it has been made very clear this is a hoax, on every single level at every single aspect, there is no accountability.
And the point I’m trying to make is, this is the beginning of profound danger and irrationality in this world. Because now there are people who want to do this with China. You know? They’ll do it with any government that seems somehow an economic competitor, or anything else. And they have not learned the lessons that this is how large numbers of people end up getting killed. That wars occur. That’s the lesson of human history, these manufactured crises cause far more destruction of human beings than, you know, maybe some legitimate wars between good and evil. This whole thing was concocted, you know? I don’t know, maybe you’re too close to it to feel the anger that I do. But you know, having read these court filings, I’m wondering, I mean, how do these people sleep at night? Do you ever talk to Rachel Maddow?
AM: [Laughs] We haven’t, ah, met, no. And I—I, look, for them, for that crowd, this was insanely profitable. For MSNBC’s ratings, this was great for them. It was a racket; it was just a racket. It was profitable for powerful people who could play on people’s fears about Trump and give them this real-life spy thriller where Robert Mueller was going to solve the case. It was good for their ratings. And it was also good for their sort of liberal conscience to not have to look at their own role in the U.S. economic system that gives them power and privilege, but that is so dysfunctional that someone like Donald Trump could become president. It was convenient for them. Instead of looking—you know, it’s just a human thing—
RS: I know, but saying things like that–there has to be a limit to opportunism, to careerism—
AM: There’s no limit.
RS: No, there has to—
AM: Bob, you’ve worked in media for a long time. I mean, do you think there’s a limit to opportunism and careerism and people’s willingness to abandon all standards? I mean, come on. You’ve seen it.
RS: OK, OK. So I’m reading item 8 in this indictment, OK? In the context of these efforts, the FBI learned that the UK person, right—that’s [Steele]—relied primarily on a U.S.-based Russian national, Igor Danchenko, the defendant herein, to collect the information that ultimately formed the core of the allegations found in the reports. And the FBI then tells us—they didn’t look right away, carefully; they didn’t do their due diligence. But now—now that all the facts are in—this guy Danchenko had no information, no sources. There are a couple of friends that he was getting drunk with in some, you know, bar. I mean, if you think of a conspiracy, there was not a shred of a there there. So the people who embraced it willingly, knowingly went along with leading the United States government into a witch hunt against its own citizens, including a presidential candidate, and then against the president—like him or not, you’re going to savage a president, a sitting president with absolutely false information. No case, no evidence.
Now, there may be a part of this that I’m missing. You know, I haven’t been writing a lot about this issue, and just when these indictments came down I started reading them very carefully. And I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything like this. You know? This was something they had to know in real time was a fraud. That’s my point. How could any of them that had access to—the intelligence committee people all had access. They all knew there was a counter-story. They’re not geniuses over at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who probably did a better job of exposing this than the so-called liberal or left press. But it was there. You know, they just—I mean, we’re not talking about some hidden documents, the Gulf of Tonkin or something. We’re talking about a fraud in full daylight. And yet the people that wrote about it, you know—I guess we all know there’s like five or six of you characters that dared to take it on—and that there’s no—that’s the part I’m trying to get at. Take a publication like BuzzFeed. I think, did they win a Pulitzer for this or something? People have won prizes for this stuff.
AM: The New York Times and the Washington Post won Pulitzers, yeah.
RS: For this.
AM: Yeah, for this, yeah.
RS: So what does that mean? You know, and BuzzFeed was the first one to print, right, the Steele dossier. And where is their accountability? I mean, it’s really—I keep looking for this. If you don’t have—I mean, you can tell me all you want about, yes, it’s nice, clearly it must be nice to make $30 million in one year, I don’t know. But the fact of the matter is, we’re talking about the fate of humanity. We’re talking about war and peace. We’re talking about people being bombed in unnecessary wars and battles. We’re talking about enormous waste of resources. This is not some minor little gangster operation somewhere.
AM: Yeah. You know, and look how this was used to stifle dissent. So, you know, it’s helped, this fearmongering about Russian disinformation has given rise to this whole industry now of so-called disinformation experts. They all happen, though, to be tied to the State Department, to Google, to powerful think tanks like the Atlantic Council, that are now literally policing the internet and taking down inconvenient speech. I mean, recently in Nicaragua, in the runup to the elections there, Facebook just, working with this guy Ben Nimmo, who used to work for NATO, just took down a whole bunch of people’s accounts and called them Nicaraguan bots, when actually they’re all real people who just happened to support the governing Sandinista movement.
And Russiagate legitimated all of this, and I think that was the point. The point was to stigmatize dissent toward the national security state. Like the fact that Trump found some success in appealing to anti-war sentiment—even though it was completely disingenuous on his part; he had no intention, I think, to actually end U.S. wars, and you look at his record, he’s lucky he didn’t start a war with Iran, based on what he did. But rhetorically, his anti-war comments on the campaign trail had some appeal. He really embarrassed the Clintons and the McCains and the Bushes with his criticisms of the Iraq War and Libya. And so calling him a Russian agent was a good way to stigmatize that kind of dissent toward the prevailing bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
And you know, a good example of how that worked was look what they did to Bernie Sanders in 2020. So Bernie Sanders was a good Democrat after 2016. Even though the Hillary Clinton emails that were blamed on Russia showed that Hillary Clinton and her allies were biased against Bernie, and even though Hillary Clinton lost to Trump—so there was no more reason to defend her—Bernie kind of went along with the whole Russiagate narrative. He propped it up, he talked about the danger of Russian interference, he proposed some measure to combat Russian interference in our democracy, he talked about how Trump might be compromised. He basically repeated all the talking points that the Hillary Clinton wing—the same wing that had tried to destroy him—he repeated the talking points that they came up with about Trump, and that they used to preserve their own power and privilege. Look what happened in the primaries of 2020. On the eve of the Nevada caucus, there was this leak to the Washington Post from the U.S. intelligence community saying that Putin was interfering to help Bernie win. You know, so Bernie got Russiagated too. And of course he did, because Russiagate was not just a fake way to resist Trump, it was also a way to crush the left and to preserve the power of the sort of bipartisan, neoliberal establishment.
And it was, you know, in terms of the danger that this fueled, I would write regularly on this for The Nation magazine; I do a column once or twice a month. And what I do is I just go through whatever the prevailing narrative of that moment was, whatever conspiracy theory the media was fixated on and was telling us was finally going to uncover collusion, and I would look at the available evidence, the available documents, and show why there was nothing there. And at the end, I would try to mention whatever huge crises all this buzz and hype about Russiagate was overshadowing. And so many times it was serious developments, like the ones you mentioned on the nuclear front. You know, Trump tearing up the INF treaty; Trump sabotaging the New Start treaty; Trump increasing U.S. war games on Russia’s borders. I mean, all these really dangerous things that were not just being sidelined by Russiagate, but that Russiagate was actually fueling because it was encouraging a hawkish posture towards Russia. You know, to show that he wasn’t a Putin puppet, Trump was incentivized to bomb Syria and to stand up, quote unquote, to Russia. So it really was a disaster, and it was very lonely to point it out, but I think now there’s more of an awareness of how baseless it was and how dangerous it was. A little bit. At least on the left.
RS: Well, I think that’s being a bit optimistic. Because you put your finger on a very important threat, really, which is the rise of this fake news charge. Now, the fake news—the big fake news, let’s just be clear about this—is this Russiagate. This is fake news. Otherwise, the words have no meaning. Total fabrication; fake news, OK. Not with bots, not with gaming systems. And by the way, let me say categorically, every government in the world does a lot of stuff, bad stuff, and I’m not going to defend Putin or anybody else; that’s the disclaimer you have to offer. But there’s no question that in terms of manipulating elections and manipulating things on the internet, we are the best in class, you know, the U.S. government. We have the best technology, the most effective, and we’ve been doing it forever.
But the idea that somehow this should become now not a reason for soul-searching, for thinking about what went wrong, how could we have accepted all these lies and everything about this, how can we be on guard against the government lying and people manipulating the government—it has been turned actually into an excuse for censorship, which is what you’re talking about. That basically we’ve said these large corporations should be criticized because they printed all sorts of things, and now they should act as government censors. And what’s more, you should hire people who’ve worked for the government to be your censors. And that’s extremely dangerous. And in fact, you got—let’s talk about your small band of critics who dared to take this on, the Matt Taibbis I guess, and you and Glenn Greenwald—you probably know all the people, it’s not a whole lot. But the way things are going, you guys are not going to be able to get a following or a hearing. Because that’s going to be all censored.
And you have—I keep bringing up Orwell. And you know, Orwell started out trying to warn us about communism, communist totalitarianism, because you know, he’d been on the left and felt betrayed by it. But the fact is, he was really talking ultimately about power in any society, and the invention of the enemy. And this is a classic case of what Orwell was warning about. Whatever you think of Putin, whatever you think of anybody, you know, the fact of the matter is this was invented. Now I know somebody listening to this is going to think, wait, Bob, you’re going too far. You know? But what the FBI is now saying what the government is, the U.S. government is now saying, whether President Biden knows it or not, but in these indictments, they’re saying that we were systematically lied to by a group of conspirators who were connected with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, being paid—paid—by Hillary Clinton, OK, and the Democratic Party, and they deliberately deceived our government security agencies to then threaten people with jail time, to arrest them, to investigate, and to unleash the full power of the state to destroy their enemies. And just because the enemy might be people who like Trump, or Trump himself, that doesn’t make that kind of, dare I say it, fascistic behavior proper.
AM: I totally agree. And look at some examples. So, a very good one when it comes to censorship is look what happened before the 2020 election when you had these revelations coming out about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. Which to me actually weren’t all that explosive; I mean, we knew that Hunter Biden had already traded on his family name and gotten this ridiculous appointment to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, shortly after his father had helped engineer a coup there. And that was, you know, obviously just blatant corruption, and he got paid something like $80,000 per month, and we knew that already. And I don’t think there was anything more explosive than that on the laptop.
But to me the real scandal there is how the media responded to that story, where literally people refused to report on it because some anonymous intelligence officials declared that it could be Russian disinformation. And on Twitter and Facebook, people were banned from sharing the New York Post stories. It was insane. It was pure censorship. And a lot of people just looked the other way because it was before the election, and people wanted to defeat Trump. And OK, but look at the playbook you’re normalizing there. You’re giving Silicon Valley and intelligence officials unprecedented power.
RS: Oh, you’re worse than giving. You’re demanding.
AM: You’re demanding, yes.
RS: You’re attacking—you know, there was resistance in Silicon Valley, because there’s a kind of a libertarian respect for freedom, maybe, or fear of government. After all, that’s part of the American tradition, and even conservatives can believe that, right? And here the war cry became: oh, no, Facebook and Google, they’re the ones that are responsible, because they’re not being vigorous enough in policing the internet. It was a call for private sector censorship, but backed up by the government stick: you don’t do it, we’ll make you do it, we’ll break you up, we’ll destroy your profits. This is something the Chinese government would do. I mean, really, if you think about the model, China has private companies. And yet the Communist Party-led government lets them know, if they get out of line, if they don’t police the internet, if they don’t control things, they’re going to be broken up, and there goes your money, OK.
And that’s really what happened here. People having the power of government—being in the government, now they’re in Congress, in the presidency. And they’re saying that if Google and Facebook and so forth, and Apple, don’t act as the role of censors, and police the internet, they’re going to break them up. They’re going to punish them. So the government is asking the private sector to do its dirty work for it.
AM: Yeah, and that’s why this so-called Facebook whistleblower, the one that has been in the media recently, got such a warm reception. Because she was basically—she was not calling for Facebook to be broken up. She was calling for Facebook to just be increasingly controlled, and to do the bidding even more of the U.S. government. She talked especially about countering people, actors like Iran. It was obvious that she was advocating a deeper role for the national security state in managing Facebook, and that’s why she got such a warm welcome by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
And I think also another example is Tulsi Gabbard. I mean, whatever you think of her—and I don’t like the things she’s been saying recently, about immigration especially. But if you look back to her trajectory, she was a rising star in the Democratic Party, then in 2016 she broke with the Clintons and she resigned even as a DNC vice-chair so she could endorse Bernie. And that earned her the hatred of the Clinton wing of the party, who then proceeded to vilify her when also she was trying to bring some oversight to the U.S. dirty war on Syria. She introduced some measures that would basically stop funding for the so-called moderate rebels, which in reality were sectarian death squads. And she became—you know, for those reasons—vilified by the Clinton wing of the party, to the point where Hillary Clinton just started calling her an outright Russian asset. And nobody batted an eye. That sort of tactic was completely normalized. And I’m worried about the long-term impact of that, normalizing this red-baiting McCarthyism, and normalizing censorship.
RS: Well, you know, and this is—we could go on a few more minutes here. It’s an interesting question, because the lesser-evil argument–which has sort of dominated my life; you know, around election time I always get guilted into voting for the Democrats. But the fact of the matter is, the most effective lying really has come from Democrats. Because intervention, unnecessary wars and so forth, fought in the name of liberating people, democracy—after all, that’s what the communists did also. You know, the whole claim of Chinese communists certainly is that any oppression they do is to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary people, and free them and what have you.
And so the fact is, the main pushback we’ve had on privacy, on individual freedom, has come—I don’t want to defend everything about libertarians. But it’s come from people who actually fear government. They’re not—most libertarians are not consistent; they want government to increase profits, I’m not going to get into all that. But when I want to get information about what’s going on in our society, I turn more to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and people like that, because they’re afraid of big government, legitimately. And this is really quite interesting in terms of the revelations of Snowden. The danger to our freedom really did not come from the private sector, it came from government grabbing all of that information the private sector was getting on us to sell us stuff and everything, taking, stealing, commanding that material, and using it to develop the most efficient police state.
And so the idea that somehow big government and Democrats who support big government is always going to be the lesser evil is not the case. And most of all wars—I don’t know, this is going to probably provide some awkwardness in the conversation—but our main lying about war, and certainly in the postwar period, actually even before, came more from Democrats than Republicans. This is not to excuse, you know, the mad bombers on the Republican side or anything. But the lesser-evil argument is a dangerous excuse for ignoring danger from both parties.
AM: Yeah. I agree with you that the Democrats are the more effective liars. That doesn’t necessarily then translate to a rejection of the lesser-evil argument, because there are other factors to consider, you know. You know, Gore versus Bush—I don’t know if Gore would have invaded Iraq. I’m not positive he would have. He probably would have continued Clinton’s murderous sanctions and occasional airstrikes, but the outright invasion, I’m not convinced he would have done that. And then you look at—you know, I think of this often: could McCain have gotten away with both Libya and the Syria dirty war, and the coup in Honduras? I mean, maybe, if Democrats were out of power then. Maybe Democrats would have been more encouraged to curb those things, I don’t know.
RS: I know, but that’s not the point I’m trying to get at, is an even more fundamental challenge to folks like us on the left. And that is, whether you fear the private sector or the government sector more. And we basically—that’s the whole essence of kind of liberalism, is to see government as a savior. And what scares me about these indictments that’s what we’re here to talk about, right, is that in fact the government had to do it. The private sector wasn’t going to do it. Until they could go—and these were veterans of the government, right? The people who are now being indicted, some of them. They used their contact in the FBI and in the government agencies to do their dirty work.
And this was the warning of both, certainly of Orwell; governments have a power that the private sectors don’t have. Governments can arrest you, they can order war, they can get away with legally killing you. And I think maybe it’s time—this may not be the way we want to go in this discussion—but reading these indictments, the scary thing is, these people can use government. And whatever their motives, they can control it, they can frame people. You know, and we’re witnessing here the power of government. They’re always the good guys, they can always define the narrative. And when they get the media to support them—my god, there’s no limit.
AM: It is scary. And what I kept warning about during the height of Russiagate was that even if you somehow think this is curbing Trump, that this is like undermining him—which I was arguing the opposite; I think it was actually helping Trump. I mean, what bigger gift to Trump to have his opposition focused on dumb conspiracy theories as opposed to his actual policies, like his tax scam. But even if you think that this was necessary because Trump was such a unique danger, you’re legitimizing a playbook that could be used in 20 years against a progressive candidate. I mean, what if there’s a progressive candidate who says, you know, he or she wants to abolish nuclear weapons, and make peace in the Middle East? I mean, we’ll see the same playbook probably being used, because it was used to such great effect when it comes to Russiagate.
And it’s interesting; now we are seeing some accountability. I mean, people are being charged. But the reason why is because this was one faction of the elite going after another faction of the elite. And that’s not tolerable. Kind of like Watergate; there was some accountability for Watergate because that, again, was an inter-elite battle, and some elites didn’t like being challenged. And I think we’re seeing a repeat here. But I do think still the accountability will be a good thing, and the fact that this is exposing the national security state as being unlawful, as being dishonest, deceitful, that’s a good thing. I mean, it’s positive that some indictments are coming out now.
And there’s a lot more to learn about Russiagate. I mean, we haven’t talked about it, but on top of Steele, the Steele dossier, which was paid for by the Clinton campaign, another Clinton contractor was just as important, and that’s CrowdStrike. They’re the private firm that came up with the allegation that Russia hacked the DNC, which basically kicked off the entirety of Russiagate. And CrowdStrike was hired and overseen by Michael Sussmann, who was a Clinton campaign lawyer who was just indicted last month by Durham for lying to the FBI while he was trying to push another Trump-Russia conspiracy theory. So there’s a lot of moving parts here, and a lot more information to come.
RS: Let’s take that moving part, because it was a mistake in my neglecting it, that connection with Sussmann. Take us through that in the closing minutes here, because that’s really important.
AM: All right, so basically, in the spring of 2016, the Clinton campaign made two hiring decisions that would change U.S. history. They hired Fusion GPS, and Fusion GPS then produced the Steele dossier, and the Steele dossier was used by the FBI, as we’ve discussed, for the collusion allegation—so let’s say, basically generated the collusion allegation. And at the same time, the Clinton campaign also hired CrowdStrike to investigate what they claimed was a hacking of their servers. And CrowdStrike, within days of Steele’s first report in mid-June, CrowdStrike came out publicly and said that Russia had—
RS: This was 2016.
AM: 2016, yeah. CrowdStrike came out publicly and said that Russia had hacked the DNC. And that became the basis for this foundational claim that Russia was behind the fact that the Democratic Party emails that WikiLeaks released. So you have two Clinton campaign contractors generating the core allegations at the heart of Russiagate: Fusion GPS generates collusion with the Steele dossier, and the FBI uses their so-called intelligence reports for surveillance warrants and investigative leads; and CrowdStrike generates the Russian hacking allegation, and just as the FBI did with Fusion GPS, the FBI relies on CrowdStrike’s forensics. The FBI never independently investigated the DNC servers.
And so you have two Clinton contractors playing this pivotal role. CrowdStrike is hired by a lawyer who just got indicted by Durham for lying to the FBI about another matter, this theory that Alpha Bank was secretly communicating with Donald Trump via a computer server, which was concocted as well. And you have the entire media going along with it and not raising any questions about it. I mean, imagine if Trump had hired contractors that generated consequential allegations against Clinton, and the FBI was then relying on those contractors’ claims. I mean, it just, it wouldn’t fly. And then, you know, as was the case so often with Russiagate, long after the fact, we got evidence that completely undermined what CrowdStrike was saying, so just in May 2020, some testimony was declassified from a series of depositions that were given—a series of interviews that happened with the House intelligence committee in December 2017. And one of those declassified transcripts showed that the head of CrowdStrike, this guy named Shawn Henry, had told the House intelligence committee under oath, in December 2017, that CrowdStrike had no evidence that these alleged Russian hackers actually stole anything from the DNC servers. He said, we have no evidence at all; we have indicators that this data might have been taken, but we have no concrete evidence of it. And we only found that out in May 2020, one year after the Mueller report, and nearly three years after Sean Henry had admitted this.
And if you read the Mueller report closely—and I identified this long before this admission from CrowdStrike came out—if you read the Mueller report closely, you’ll see that they have qualifiers when they talk about the attribution to Russia of these hacking allegations. They use words like: Russia appeared to have stolen emails, likely stolen emails; everything is qualified. And that to me reflects the lack of concrete evidence at the heart of this whole thing. But all that got ignored, because the media refused to report it. And even when CrowdStrike came out with this admission, you won’t find that admission reported on in the media. I mean, I did at the Grayzone and at Real Clear Investigations, but otherwise it’s just been buried. Because again, it was just, that was the modus operandi for Russiagate: the conspiracy theories get promoted relentlessly, and all the countervailing facts get ignored.
RS: And so finally, where does this leave Julian Assange? Because he is the inconvenient publisher here of information that was embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, embarrassing to the DNC, showed that Hillary Clinton was hardly a reformer on banking issues, tells the people on Wall Street that she’s going to bring them to Washington to straighten it all out. In fact, it was her husband as president who opened the door for Wall Street greed with his deregulation. And it was also Julian Assange who could reveal the Podesta files, and how they were out to, the Democratic National Committee was undermining Bernie Sanders and so forth.
Now this guy is sitting there in jail. You know, and he was in a much stronger position not to be jailed in free speech than, say, Daniel Ellsberg, because he wasn’t working for government; he’s not a U.S. citizen, and he was publishing material. The only reason they can rally the liberal community to be either silent—which is what most of the human rights groups do, or not talk too much about it, or actually be anti-Julian Assange, want to keep him forever in prison or worse—is that somehow he was acting as a Putin agent. Again, the foreign enemy. Because otherwise, you know, why are you jailing a publisher, right?
And that somehow gets lost in this. But these people play hardball. And they’re quite willing to use their access to government, and government power. And now in fact they’re running the U.S. government, many of them. And if that means, again, taking the Orwellian image of keeping a lone voice person like Julian Assange locked up, and maybe killed, ah, OK.
AM: One of the key revelations of the Mueller report was that the FBI, Mueller—they have no idea how WikiLeaks actually got the emails. They suggested that Julian Assange got them from a Russian intelligence cutout, but they acknowledge that they don’t have the concrete evidence; they couldn’t rule out that Assange actually got them through intermediaries, as opposed to being sent hacked email over the internet by this Russian cutout. And that tracks with what Julian Assange has said; he’s always said his source was not Russia.
Now, he’s never presented the public with the evidence that could help us determine that. There was some talk between Julian Assange and the U.S. government about providing some information that could rule out certain state parties, i.e. Russia. But Jim Comey actually intervened to stop that negotiation. And that was—and then now, of course, Assange is caged in Belmarsh and unable to speak even about his own case. So, but Russiagate was used, yes, as you said, to stigmatize him as a Russian asset. And it’s one of the many ways in which Russiagate engendered the chauvinist attitude that treats conspiracy theories as, like the whole Trump-Russia thing, as legitimate. And truth-tellers like Julian Assange, it treats them as, you know, enemies of the state, and Russian assets, and all of that stuff.
RS: Right. So last point—and I’m an old codger and you’re a young guy—it’s about, again, the lesser evil. Last point. But really, we were—I was certainly raised on a great fear of right-wing Republicans, McCarthy, the whole thing. But looking back at it historically, and maybe thanks to Eisenhower being president, and he was quite committed against McCarthy, and there were moderates still in the party, I don’t think one can argue that whatever McCarthy and the red-baiters and the right wing—and by the way, some of them were Democrats—of this whole McCarthy period rose to the power to define the agenda and to go after people that we’ve seen with the thing that we came here to talk about today, this Russiagate. That never did they have, as far as I know, and I have no love for J. Edgar Hoover, but I don’t know of any example that they were able to just walk into the FBI, walk into other security agencies, say hi, guys, look at what we got here, and policy—they would act on it. They would then go to the FISA court, the most important secret court here, and say we need to go after these folks because we got this material. I don’t think Joe McCarthy even had that power.
AM: I would put to you—and I’m curious what you think of this—that it’s a mixed bag. Because when it comes to, for example, killing people, that’s less possible today. Whereas, you know, the FBI helped kill Fred Hampton. I don’t think the FBI could get away with—
RS: Well, I think the FBI helped—and I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory—they certainly either looked the other way, or they tried to get Martin Luther King to kill himself. That part is documented record.
AM: Of course, yes. So when you see that there’s at least one element of progress there, that the FBI probably couldn’t—
RS: But that didn’t come from the private sector, that didn’t come from an alternative political party. It didn’t come from the Republican Party trying to defeat the Democrats. That came from the madness of J.Edgar Hoover and Sullivan and the people in the FBI and their own racism and what have you. I’m raising a very different point. I’m talking about being able to use the state power, of the most powerful state in the history of humanity, to destroy your political opponents even if they happen to be in the opposition party. Even a sitting president. After all, they were going after Trump and he was the elected president of the United States. You know? Come on. This is not going after the Black Panthers. This is going after somebody who, whether you like it or not, got elected president. And you’re still pushing the idea of prostitutes peeing on beds in Moscow, which you know is a concocted lie. Totally. There’s no evidence, right?
AM: Ah, yeah.
RS: So you’re willing to destroy the president of the United States, OK, like him or not, you’re willing to destroy him based on fake news, fake evidence—right? I don’t think we have an example like that in American history. I know that some people are going to think I’m exaggerating, but when I read these indictments that’s what they’re saying. They’re saying people who have been working for the Hillary Clinton campaign took it past the campaign when she’s lost, and they’re still after this guy Trump, and they’re still concocting these stories, and they work with their friends in the media. They even read some of their stories; my god, was it the Slate story, they get to read the first 2,500 words before it’s printed?
AM: Yeah. [Laughs]
RS: What are we talking about here, right? We’re talking about people in one political party or on one side of the thing being able to go and destroy a sitting president, or at least try to. You know, if that would—if this had gone the other way, my god, all my liberal friends certainly would think this was a major attack on our republic.
AM: Yep. And you have—it’s the corruption of many different sort of foundations of our society, because it’s not just the national security state being used, but the media too—the media completely acting as an accomplice in this. And look, I think the person who phrased the dynamic you’re talking about, who phrased it best, was Chuck Schumer. I don’t know if you’ve seen the clip of him on Rachel Maddow’s show, shortly before Trump was inaugurated; this was January 2017. And Trump at the time was making fun of the Russian interference claims, he was pushing back on it. And Schumer said to Maddow that Trump is playing with fire here. And he said, quote, “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.” Unquote.
So Schumer, this top Senate Democrat, was basically saying that it’s the intelligence community has the right, and can undermine an elected president. That they can retaliate against the president any way they want, they can undermine him. And that’s exactly what they did. And he was celebrating that, he was happy about it. So it is unprecedented, what happened, that this happened to an elected president, as awful as he was. And, yeah, it’s—the playbook has been completely legitimized. Hopefully if they don’t shut down the Durham investigation, which I think is a possibility worth considering because it’s too embarrassing—but if they don’t manage to shut it down, if it does continue, hopefully there will be some accountability and some lessons learned.
RS: So that’s an important and disturbing last point. Durham was actually appointed before, under Trump, right?
RS: And he continued on. And you’re saying that President Biden can just kick him out?
AM: Well, if you remember all the fear-mongering about whether Trump was going to fire Mueller, and this was treated as like the most existential issue the U.S. has ever faced. Biden could fire Durham if he wanted to, but of course by the regulation, someone else would be replaced by him. But you know, maybe they’d bring in someone who’s more compliant. It’s certainly—I wouldn’t put it—look, given everything we’ve talked about, the lengths that these people went to undermine an elected president with insane conspiracy theory, subject him and his campaign to this investigation—I mean, I wouldn’t rule out the fact that people who are naturally very embarrassed by this, and maybe even criminally liable, would want to do things to shut it down. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
RS: All right. Well, that’s a depressing note on which to end, and let me tell you, I’m embarrassed that I now have to rely more on the Wall Street Journal editorial page than just about any of the other major outlets, for getting documents about this thing, or getting a story about it. You know, it’s the oldest point made about democracy and freedom: if you’re not consistent, you’re not consistent about the guardrails, if you’re not consistent about fairness, accuracy, real news, and so forth, and you are willing to break all the rules to get your enemy, and you develop that the enemy is just the worst thing that ever happened, Donald Trump’s the worst thing that ever happened, and then the ends justify the means—then your principles mean nothing. It’s only when you’re out to protect the freedom of the people you loathe, because they have rights too, that it has any cutting edge. But, on that note, we’ve had enough depressing talk. I want to thank you, Aaron Maté, and people can read you. When is your show on?
AM: Ah, there’s no regular schedule, it just comes out whenever I manage to make it.
RS: Oh, I like that kind of luxury. But I do this every week [Laughs], so maybe you’ll be back with something else. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for doing the [transcription], and the JWK Foundation in memory of a terrifically independent writer, Jean Stein, for helping fund these podcasts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.