By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Excerpts from America This Week, October 7, 2022, with Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi. To hear the full audio of the podcast, click here. What follows are transcript excerpts of yesterday’s show:
On U.S. officials blaming Ukraine for the assassination of Russian nationalist Daria Dugina:
Matt Taibbi: There was a New York Times story that came out this week that by any definition was a blockbuster: “U.S Believes Ukrainians Were Behind An Assassination in Russia.” Essentially the Times quoted a group of unnamed officials blaming the assassination of Russian Nationalist Daria Dugina on Ukraine. The big question was, why? We both independently we’re struck about this issue. Walter, what were your thoughts?
Walter Kirn: It was a befuddling article. One first wondered why it was even published. If the US intelligence community is concerned about Ukraine going overboard with actions within Russia, committing assassinations and so on, it could have warned them privately. Instead, it chastised them publicly. And it also suggested that it was only “parts” of the Ukrainian government, not Zelensky himself, that did it.
The officials seemed to go to pains to disabuse us of the notion that Ukrainian involvement was necessarily monolithic. This was a little troubling, because for all the money we’ve given them, and now we know we have a lot of special operators on the ground, the thought that they might be operating in a fractured way, out of control, was news. But as I read the piece and wondered about its motives, one of those doubts concerned whether or not the US was trying to get ahead of being accused itself of having some role in the assassination, that that couldn’t be ruled out.
As I went through this mental process, I thought: this is an article which gets no closer to solving the mystery, but does send a lot of messages between the US government and the Ukrainian forces. And though I as a reader feel excluded from any answers about what’s going on, it does seem that the New York Times has become a medium for the transfer of coded communication between us and our allies.
Matt Taibbi: Or our enemies maybe? I remembered the stories that came out at the beginning of the war, where we had unnamed sources talking about these new “tiger teams” of National Security Council officials in the White House who were tasked specifically with leaking news or planting stories for some strategic purpose. One of the stories that came out was in The Guardian, and they had the amazingly named character John Sipher come out and say – he says openly – that “It’s what we used to call, when the Russians did it, information warfare.” And sometimes, he said, “it’s meant for one consumer, Vladimir Putin.” So, in other words, sometimes when we’re reading the news, now we’re reading something that’s not intended for a mass audience. It’s not necessarily for us, and previously we were always the primary and only consumer of the news or were supposed to be. We may be second, third, fourth in line now.
Walter Kirn: You feel like you’re a kid, hearing the adults talk at a cocktail party in code. You feel both excluded and intrigued at the same time. Having to do criminological readings of the New York Times as an American or as a subscriber to the New York Times is a strange feeling. Now that this “information warfare” model has been accepted as the reigning paradigm for the distribution of information, we don’t know when we read the paper whether we’re pawns in the game, onlookers in an intrigue that we can’t penetrate, or be informed of something. In this case, I did not feel informed at the end of the article. I had more questions going out than I did going in, which isn’t supposed to be the way the news works.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly, and the language internally in the article was incredibly confusing. To read just a couple of passages, for instance:
“Still, American officials in recent days have taken pains to insist that relations between the two governments remain strong. US concerns about Ukraine’s aggressive covert operations inside Russia have not prompted any known changes in the provision of intelligence, military and diplomatic support to Mr. Zelensky’s government.”
That’s a paragraph where they’re telling you, according to the American officials, that we’re talking to Zelensky’s government, and even if we might be upset, we’re going to continue delivering weapons and support. Normal news stuff, with an attribution. Then, a couple of paragraphs down, there’s another passage:
“The war Ukraine is at an especially dangerous moment. The United States has tried carefully to avoid unnecessary escalation with Moscow throughout the conflict, in part by telling Kyiv not to use American equipment or intelligence to conduct attacks inside of Russia.”
Here they leave out the “American officials say” part. It’s presented as the New York Times saying this in their own words, which is confusing. Are they attributing that to somebody? There’s reported information in there. When they say the U.S. has tried to avoid escalation by telling Kyiv “not to use American equipment or intelligence to conduct attacks inside of Russia,” that’s reporting, I would think, normally.
Walter Kirn: One would assume that it’s reporting and not the voice of some editorial omniscient New York Times committee. But when you read those two fragments together, I do get the sense that Russia is the audience. They seem to be saying, “Listen, we didn’t authorize this. They did it. Maybe even a part of their government or their armed forces that we don’t control did it. We’ve been trying to keep things cool with you guys. Don’t get any madder about this than you have to.” Something seems to have forced these intelligence officials to transmit this message publicly or to want everyone to see it, because as I said before, there’s nothing about it that couldn’t have been done in private.
I wonder what that urgency comes from. This assassination happened a while ago. At the time it happened, it was suggested by many that it was a false flag by the Russians — that they had blown up the daughter of their own idealogue, in order to blame it on someone, and then presumably to take some kind of direct, assassination-style action against Ukraine, or the West. There was something that changed between now and then that caused our people to want to put this out very conspicuously in a newspaper. I can only guess what that is.
Matt Taibbi: Well, there’s one passage in there where they’re saying, “The killing of Ms. Dugina, however, would be one of the boldest operations to date, showing Ukraine can get very close to prominent Russians.” You could take it as a message to the world, as in, “We can get you anywhere.” It’s straight out of a hood movie or, or The Godfather Part II: “If history’s taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” But that one line doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the text.
Walter Kirn: But that’s a tell. I had an old girlfriend once. When she called, if we spoke for a half an hour, I knew not to listen for the first 20 minutes, because the first 20 minutes were all camouflage for a very specific message that she usually wanted to give me. If there’s a message in this piece that looks like it’s masked or trying to blend in, it’s that [Dugina] deserved it, and we can do anything at anytime, anywhere, because they also took pains in the piece to say that that the daughter shared her father’s “ultranationalist beliefs.” I thought, what a strange dig, even though the presumed target was the father. The daughter is also guilty of dangerous thinking. I thought, “Are they trying to brag, justify, or chastise?” I couldn’t decide.
On reports that U.S. military and CIA troops are fighting in the Ukraine-Russia theater:
Matt Taibbi: There was a story that came out this week that seemed amazing, that got almost no press. It was an Intercept story and the gist was that when the American intelligence community looked at the invasion at the beginning of the conflict, they were so convinced that Russia would win that they withdrew any forces that we had in Ukraine. Now that the conflict has been drawn out, we’re now returning what they’re describing as both CIA and “US special operations, personnel and resources” in Ukraine. This is dovetailing with reports of American bodies popping up in the Ukrainian theater. This seemed like a big story. In the past, the idea that that that either CIA personnel or military personnel had been found in the middle of a hot war would get more ink. Or would it?
Walter Kirn: The way the Vietnam War started was, we began inserting all sorts of CIA and irregular troops into the countryside. Finally, we went public with it, so to speak. When I read the Intercept piece, I once again wondered why I was reading it. It seemed that maybe some disappointed or adversarial intelligence community types wanted it out there that we were more involved than we were letting on. It seemed there was some advocacy for a finding from the administration that would legalize our presence there. Someone in that article essentially said, “We’re there under a covert action finding that goes back to the Obama administration, but our presence is so great now that we need a new one.”
Is part of the intelligence community talking to the Times and part to the Intercept?Because both pieces actually seem somewhat critical of our intelligence. The Timespiece said it implicitly, because we couldn’t control rogue Ukrainian assassination teams. The Intercept piece argued we weren’t being candid about the depth of our involvement. As you say, you’d think that would be big news. In fact, you’d think that would be in the New York Times, not The Intercept. Right?
Matt Taibbi: Right. Why, and even the Intercept story, the big reveal wasn’t the headline. The headline was “The CIA Thought Putin Would Quickly Conquer Ukraine. How did they get it so wrong?” Talk about burying the lede! The notion that we’re reinserting American forces seems more consequential. I did talk to one person this week who’s from that world, and he said these are “Special Activities Division” officers of the CIA over there… It should be a headline in leading newspapers that we have people who are — well, certainly the Russians are going to consider them American troops.
Walter Kirn: I consider them American troops!
Matt Taibbi: Right. (laughs)
Walter Kirn: They’re Americans, they’re armed, and they are there at the behest of our Commander-in-Chief at some level. So, they’re not poets on a cultural exchange who happen to have rifles with them.
Matt Taibbi: That might have been the cover.
Walter Kirn: The final question is, “Are we at war with Russia or not?” If we are, should we declare it as such? I’m starting to get this sense that we don’t ever really have to own this conflict until we put GI Joe on the ground, as in, regular army troops. Until then, we can massage the definition of war or “involved” endlessly. But my definition of war is whether or not we’re doing something that would warrant a warlike response. And Biden this week used the word Armageddon at a fundraising event. Now, if I was fundraising, and I said Armageddon loomed, I would not expect to get funds from people. I would expect them to hold the funds in case the world ended.
Matt Taibbi: To buy powdered eggs.
Walter Kirn: If I was sitting at one of the tables, I’d have said, “I’ll fund your campaign if and when there’s still a planet Earth three months from now.” But is the government really being candid with America about the risks we face?
On the U.S. purchase of anti-radiation medicine, and the blacklist era:
Walter Kirn: We saw another story this week that, that anti-nuclear medications were being bought up in large quantities by the government.
Matt Taibbi: I didn’t see that!
Walter Kirn: I read also that New York City has openly started running public service announcements about what to do in case of nuclear war and so on. We’re sharing some pretty great risks now, as this conflict continues. I’m about ready for some open talk about that from the people in charge.
Matt Taibbi: You’re right, here it is. The Department of Health and Human Services is « using its authority provided under the 2004 Project Bio Shield Act » and spending $290 million on the drug nPlate from Amgen, which is used to treat “blood cell injuries that accompany acute radiation syndrome in adult and pediatric patients.”
Walter Kirn: It’s good news and bad news. The good news is we have drugs and we’re buying them up right now to treat you in case of radiation poisoning. The bad news is you might all get radiation poisoning soon. It’s reaching a point at which I think a little frank talk from the people at the top is warranted. Or, are they just going to smuggle these pills into the mailboxes of Americans with a little note saying, “You know, just in case something bad happens, take this stuff”?
Matt Taibbi: Right. “They’re vitamins.”
Walter Kirn: In the same fundraising speech, Biden apparently said we are at a similar juncture to what Kennedy went through in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And my Dad, who was alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was in Washington in law school, talks about that incredible tense moment. The world waited day by day. We are expected to be concerned with things like Kanye West at a fashion show in Paris, and other pop culture matters. If there is a Cuban missile crisis going on behind the scenes, I’d like us all to be at attention, frankly.
Matt Taibbi: Where’s the international “What The Fuck Summit”? There should be one somewhere in Brussels, or maybe on a neutral territory. I don’t even know where that would be… Mumbai? Just to answer the question, as you say, “Are are we at war or not?” If we are, um, then I think we have to accelerate the process of trying to figure out a way to not have it. There are no good end games with that scenario. Elon Musk came out this week and suggested a potential peace deal, and was immediately tabbed a foreign nation for doing that.
On one level, I understand why people responded that way, because he was proposing Ukraine surrender the Crimea. But in general, the notion of, “How do we get out of this mess?” is also a forbidden question. We’re not allowed to entertain the question. The only allowable outcome is conquest of Russia that ends with removal of Putin, which doesn’t seem extremely likely. Other than that, how does this end?
Walter Kirn: To his credit, I think Biden was reported to have said at this fundraiser that he was wondering, and that the government is wondering what off-ramp there might be for Putin. But in terms of public rhetoric, we never talk about “off-ramps.” We talk only about, “Putin has to go and there is no compromise.” Zelensky responded. I don’t know if it was directly to the Musk, but in general that there can be no negotiations whatsoever. In fact, uh, Zelensky even said last week that the way we should deal with the apparent threat from Russia to use tactical nukes in some situations is to have some kind of intervention in advance, against their ability to launch nukes. It was unclear whether he meant we should do that just before they push the button, or now. But we get only escalatory and adamant rhetoric out of the government. Biden is at least semi-privately exploring the notion that Putin should be given an out.
Also, where are the John Lennons? I mean, is there a peace movement at all left in America…? They have absolutely nipped that in the bud. There are no marches. There are no public voices, there are no movie stars. There are no Jane Fondas, et cetera…
Matt Taibbi: There’s not even Jane Fonda in the sense of somebody who plays the role of a traitor to national objectives. Those people aren’t even out there. I guess maybe we’re in that camp, or Tucker Carlson, or Glenn, or people like that.
Walter Kirn: I was interested to see that in the Brookings Institute [which denounced podcasters who were “Kremlin messengers” for theorizing U.S. involvement in the Nord Stream blasts]. Maybe it was in our correspondence, you suggested to me that there is a list of suspect journalists and figures that are thought to be soft on Russia. And one of them was Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd.
Walter Kirn: And I thought, well, you know, that’s my sense of normalcy about life, that some rock star at least should be pretending to speak truth to power, or act the dissident. But it’s this really old dude who’s not even in the band anymore. That he should be a high threat figure in society kind of amused me. It seems that there are also a lot of journalists that they’re worried about.
Matt Taibbi: That’s a real thing.
Walter Kirn: Who made it?
Matt Taibbi: It’s actually a fascinating story, and this brings things full circle back to the New York Times, because it’s a subtext to the article about Dugina’s assassination. There is a group called the Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation that is funded at least in part by USAID, which as we all know is a American taxpayer funded organization. It put up a list earlier this year basically of people who are collaborators with Russia or who are — loosely speaking it was an enemies list. And that list included people like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the aforementioned Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett, Glenn Greenwald, and Dugina was, I believe, one of the people on the list.
It was taken off the web, but it reappeared on a Ukrainian website, called Myrotvorets, which translates as “The peacemaker.” It’s bizarre — it bills itself as a CIA project website.
I haven’t looked through the whole list but it’s pretty substantial. The idea that a US taxpayer funded organization created an enemies list, and one of those people ended up getting assassinated is a little bit unsettling. And one of the people on the list, Ritter, wrote an article on Consortium about how he’s looking outside the door when when he leaves in the morning and checking under his car. Maybe that’s crazy, but I get it, too.
But that’s what we have for a “peace movement,” people running for cover — not millions on the march.