Glenn Greenwald on Afghanistan, the CIA and Corruption

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In this web exclusive interview, Bill Moyers sits down with the renowned and controversial journalist Glenn Greenwald to discuss the war in Afghanistan, the CIA and corruption.

Glenn Greenwald

(Photo: Robin Holland)


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to The Journal. I’m Bill Moyers and it’s time now for a web exclusive conversation with Glenn Greenwald whose reputation for sharp analysis and insight into current affairs keeps spreading across the web. You may have read best-selling books, HOW WOULD A PATRIOT ACT? and A TRAGIC LEGACY. Or his most recent, GREAT AMERICAN HYPOCRITES.

His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, both liberal and conservative and earlier this year, Glenn Greenwald received the first annual “Izzy Award,” named for I.F. Stone, from the Park Center for Independent Media, which saluted his “path-breaking journalistic courage and persistence in confronting conventional wisdom, official deception, and controversial issues.” You’ll find his blog on SALON.COM. It’s good to see you again.

GLENN GREENWALD: Great to see you, too.

BILL MOYERS: The story this week I want to ask you about: it turns out that the brother of the Afghanistan president has been receiving regular payments from the C.I.A. for as many as seven or eight years now. What does that tell you about our mission in Afghanistan?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, several things. First of all, I think it underscores that the propaganda that governments typically generate about wars very rarely reflect reality. One of the prime arguments as to why we ought to remain in Afghanistan is to create a kind of system of government there that will enable us to stay secure, which means eradicating the influence of drug lords, first and foremost, that spread pervasive corruption in that country.

And yet, here we are, while insisting that that’s one of our goals in Afghanistan, at the same time, keeping on our payroll one of the most corrupt of drug lords in Afghanistan. Not just somebody who is engaged in the drug trade, but also somebody who played a major role in the overwhelming fraud that marred the democratic election that we claim is so central to our role there.

I think the other aspect is that, what it illustrates is that it is very difficult for the United States, even with the best of intentions, even if our intentions were really what we say they are, to actually manage and construct other countries, other cultures, other societies. The only way that there’s any chance that it can be done is if we make common cause with some truly awful people, like the president’s brother.

And once we make common cause with awful people, we’re doing exactly the reverse of that which everybody agrees we need to do to stay safe, which is reduce anti-American sentiment. If we’re propping up drug lords in Afghanistan, we’re obviously going to be generating hostility, more hostility towards us.

BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable, in your mind, that the president of Afghanistan would not know that his brother was on the payroll of the C.I.A.?

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s absolutely inconceivable, I think. And one reason I think that that’s the case is because — although there’s no direct evidence that President Karzai himself, for example, is involved directly in the drug trade — the relationship that he has with his brother is extremely close. And the influence that his brother has is due, in large part, to President Karzai’s status and position.

And so, we’ve been working hand in hand with Karzai from the beginning. We’ve seen him as our man in Kabul, as central to everything that we’re doing. And so, the idea that somehow he’s been kept in the dark, both by his brother and his handlers in the United States about this relationship is highly unrealistic.

BILL MOYERS: Of course, some people will say, “This is not a neat and clean world, Greenwald, Moyers. I mean, let’s score one for the C.I.A. for getting us an inside ear, right at the brother’s desk.”

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, the whole reason, ostensibly, that we are so concerned with the drug trade in Afghanistan is because according to the government, it’s the drug trade that funds the Taliban and the insurgency against the United States. Apparently, or allegedly, what’s happening is that the drug trade generates money for drug lords who then give money to the Taliban.

So, if we are funding drug lords, like the President’s brother, what we’re doing, by our own reasoning, is we’re essentially indirectly funding the Taliban. Funding the insurgency against which we are now fighting. We’re basically funding our enemies. And the other aspect of it that I would add is that it may be true that you cannot avoid ending up in bed with some truly heinous and corrupt and violent people when you try to manage and control the internal affairs of other countries.

BILL MOYERS: Nothing —

GLENN GREENWALD: That, I would suggest, is a reason not to do that.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but nothing new about that. Whether it’s the Shah of Iran and his enforcers, or Diem in South Vietnam — who we ultimately, the United States Government ultimately had to get rid of — or any one of them. You spend a lot of time in Latin America, you know that we don’t run around with the nicest guys in town.

GLENN GREENWALD: But isn’t that the issue? Because what happened in the wake of September 11th was when we were attacked so traumatically and so violently was it spawned the cliché question of why do they hate us? And many Americans wandered around sort of dazed and confused and confounded that there were people in the Muslim world who hated us so much they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to inflict some minimal damage on the United States. Minimal, relative to the damage that’s inflicted on the world.

And I think it’s become quite apparent that the answer to that is because we have been involving ourselves in the Muslim world to their detriment in so many ways. I mean, you just mentioned the overthrow of the Iranian Government in 1953, engineered by the C.I.A., which was then followed by decades of propping up one of the most brutal tyrants the Muslim world has ever known, which is the Shah of Iran.

And, of course, we fund and we fuel the Israelis to do all kinds of mischief in the Muslim world, including bombing lots of countries or bombing lots of countries ourselves. So, if we’re going to continue to engage ourselves in other countries’ businesses this way and end up doing the sorts of things that you just described we’ve been doing for decades, it’s not just probable, but inevitable that there will be lots of people who are adversely affected by what we’re doing in their world, who will want to bring similar violence and similar destruction to our world. And the question is, do we really want to continue to invite that?

BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised when you read that story about the brother?

GLENN GREENWALD: No, I was completely unsurprised. I mean, one of the interesting things was if you look, for example, at Iraq and what’s happening in Iraq, the mythology that’s being disseminated is that the surge was a great success. And we were able to — through added troops and a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy — finally bring peace and security to that country, after failing for several years to do so.

The reality, though, is that there was a group of people in Iraq, the Sunnis, who for years were called terrorists by the United States government and by the Bush administration for committing the crime of attacking us after we invaded their country. And what we essentially ended up doing was bribing them into passivity. We just paid them enough money —

BILL MOYERS: “The Awakening” they called it.

GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly. “The Awakening” was accomplished by big briefcases full of cash. And so, we ended up paying the very people who for years were called the terrorists, that we needed to stay in order to fight. So, the idea that we’re paying off people who we claim are the enemy, in order to do the things we want, is one of the least surprising things one can imagine. War is a very dirty business. And you can look at it and say, “Well, that means that you just have to accept it.” Or you can look at it and say, “That’s a good reason not to fight them.”

BILL MOYERS: Better to buy them than bomb them, though, right? And in fact, I hear — read — just this week that we’re thinking about — we’re considering, seriously, buying off the Taliban. You know, just follow the money, and you’ll see the Taliban coming over to our side, as happened in Iraq.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. And I mean, of course, but one of the problems that happens is that in order to justify war, you need to demonize a large group of people, because that’s what ends up justifying the war. And so, how now, after eight years of telling the American people that the Taliban are terrorist enablers, and themselves terrorists — who we need to risk enormous amounts of American lives in order to defeat, that we need to spend billions and billions of dollars in order to vanquish.

Now, suddenly the solution is that we’re going to pay them off and make them our partners. And bring them into the fold in order to govern Afghanistan. Of course, that’s vastly preferable to continuing to occupy their country forever, bankrupting ourselves in the process, killing all sorts of civilians there and ourselves. But the problem politically is how, after propagandizing the population for eight years about the evil Taliban, do you now suddenly turn around and as your solution to leaving the country decide that you’re going to negotiate with them and accommodate them? And I think that’s the problem that the political establishment faces.

BILL MOYERS: As you know, the President, our President is about to announce his decisions on Afghanistan and all the reporting is to expect that he will give General McChrystal some, if not all, of the 44,000 new troops that he wants. The astonishing thing to me is there’s been — the only debate about this for all practical purposes has been among beltway elites. Where is the public on this?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that’s one of the most crucial questions. Of course, if you poll Americans on Afghanistan, you find the type of divisions that became apparent with Iraq. Where lots and lots of people were really questioning what it is that we’re doing there and why we need to — our treasury and risk American lives in order to occupy the country. There’s clearly that question being asked among Americans.

The endless efforts on our part to interfere in and control and occupy other countries is something that Americans don’t accept nearly as much as they did say, when 9/11 was much closer. The problem, however, is that because we don’t have a draft, because we have an all-volunteer military, only a tiny sliver of the population actually bears the burden of war. For everybody else it’s actually just an abstract game that can be played.

And on top of that, you know, George Orwell talked about how the modern airplane in warfare was going to be one of the best things that could ever happen, because now people who sent their armies off to war and hid in the capitals would no longer be able to hide, because modern warfare would be fought by airplanes, which means their cities would be bombed as well, and that would reduce the incentive to war.

But we only attack countries that can’t actually inflict that kind of a damage on us. And so, I think that’s the reason. People can question intellectually why a war is being fought. They can even offer justification, but they’re not paying any price for it. They’re not bearing any burden for it. And so, they don’t really care that it continues, as long as the effects are kept away from them.

BILL MOYERS: You quoted from Adam Smith, the great economist, the Scottish economist, in one of your recent columns. I was struck with it and wrote it down. Smith said, “In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies…”

Now, right after you’d written that column, I ran into some people in Washington, who were talking about this. And one of them asked me, “Well, you had Greenwald on your show, doesn’t he live on Capital Hill?” And I smile, because I know you don’t live on Capital Hill or in the capital. And yet you write as if you are there. I mean, as if you had been listening to yesterday’s cocktail parties or reading the documents that I.F. Stone used to read. How do you do that? How do you get inside the elites of the beltway, the way that you do?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think a couple of things, one is technology. The technology of the internet, for example, enables constant interaction and examination of what’s taking place in the beltway without being physically present there. It’s amazing the kind of access that you can actually obtain through that technology. Virtually all the communications that the political and media elite have is now available online. The documents that they produce, the policies that they espouse, the debates that they engage in, the type of thinking that controls and shapes what it is they do can be examined much more effectively, including from afar, than ever before. And the other aspect of it that I would add is that if you live inside Washington, as is true for any culture — the culture starts shaping your own thinking. It starts infecting the way it is that you think. Everybody you speak to is infected by it. Everybody that you know is a part of it. And it’s very difficult to step back and to look at it and examine it when you’re too enmeshed in it.

On top of that, people who live in the beltway are invested in the people who are there. They are their friends, those are their colleagues. The people on whom they rely for their next job. And for their support. And so, if you’re actually removed from it. If you stay far away from it and outside of it, I think you can actually understand it better than if you’re enmeshed in it and sort of subsumed by it. And the less invested you are in that culture, I think, the freer you are to think about it and critique it and understand it, without any fear of repercussions.

BILL MOYERS: Are you ever surprised by whom you see or what you see on the Sunday morning talk shows inside the beltway?

GLENN GREENWALD: The pattern of who goes on those shows is so constricted and so formulaic that you can almost predict who’s going to be on, based on the news events, without any fail. There is an effort underway, because they’ve been pressured so much to start including fresher voices, different voices—

BILL MOYERS: Rachel Maddow has been showing up from time to time, for example, on MEET THE PRESS.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. And I think one of the reasons for that is because MEET THE PRESS is an NBC program. And Rachel Maddow is an MSNBC personality. And there’s some pressure to promote her for that reason. But it’s still an important and different kind of voice to be included. And just this weekend, on MEET THE PRESS — Jane Mayer the superb journalist who did so much excellent work on the Bush torture regime was on MEET THE PRESS, as well. And I was noticing that she seems almost like an animal from outer space who couldn’t quite fit into the mores and conventions of —

BILL MOYERS: It is weird.

GLENN GREENWALD: — of the conversation. You really notice it when there’s a real journalist or a different voice that’s part of the conversation. And we talked about this before. But there’s a very concrete set of beliefs. And a concrete way of conducting political debates that these shows are structured around. And so, anybody who speaks about things or thinks about things outside of those conventions has a very difficult time participating in the discussion. It’s almost as though they’re speaking a different language. And these shows are therefore incentivized to only have on people who are already embracing the orthodoxies on which the show is — in which the show is grounded.

BILL MOYERS: You recently took on one of the biggest players in Washington, THE WASHINGTON POST — the editorial team at THE WASHINGTON POST — for demanding that Obama’s health care plan not be paid for with borrowed money. While, as you said, at the same time, supporting escalating the war in Afghanistan without specifying how it should be paid for. What struck you about that?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that was actually one of the most illustrative and meaningful editorials, because it reflects how Washington thinks. There really is this sense that it would be a luxury, something nice to do, if we could do it, to provide American citizens, the millions and millions of Americans without it with health care coverage. That would be a nice thing to do, but it’s not really urgent. It’s not really necessary. And so, we can’t do it until we can afford it. Until we don’t have to borrow money in order to do it.

That’s what this editorial explicitly argued. By contrast, said the Washington Post editors, the war in Afghanistan is an absolute urgent necessity. There’s no choice to it. It’s something that we have to do. Apparently our country will implode if we don’t continue to control and occupy that country.

And so, therefore, it doesn’t matter whether we’re paying for our foreign adventures generally in our occupation of Afghanistan specifically with that, because there there’s no choice. And to me, it just illustrates how warped and backwards the priorities are of the ruling class. Because what we’re actually allegedly doing in Afghanistan, if you look at counterinsurgency doctrine — the idea of counterinsurgency doctrine is that we’re going to not only protect the population of these foreign countries. But we’re going to nation-build. We’re going to provide all sorts of services to them. Schools and roads and infrastructure and health care.

BILL MOYERS: Acknowledging that that will take a very long time.

GLENN GREENWALD: Decades. And extraordinary amounts of money. And so, what people like the Washington Post editors and really the political elite, generally, are saying is that it’s more important for us to go into debt to provide services to other nations, so that we can control them, than it is to provide services to our own citizens who lack those same services.

And I think the reason for that is clear: That because the people who are saying that — the people at THE WASHINGTON POST editorial board — already have access to those services. They already have health care coverage. And so, to them it’s just a purely abstract issue. It’s a purely abstract question whether Americans who don’t have health care coverage can have it. But I think that they’re reflecting what the priorities are. That it doesn’t matter what our foreign adventures and foreign domination costs, we do it no matter what. But everyone inside the United States, ordinary Americans, have to wait, and can’t get basic services from the government, as long as we have to go into debt in order to pay for it.

BILL MOYERS: The editorial did say that wars come to an end, entitlements never do. Right? It did say that.

GLENN GREENWALD: It did. It made that claim. But if you — first of all, if you look at the way in which we have been fighting wars since the end of World War II, it’s very hard to say that wars come to an end. It may be true that individual specific wars come to an end. But the idea of the United States fighting wars is something that seems to exist no matter what. We constantly find new enemies, we constantly find reasons to fight war. We’re basically a nation perpetually at war.

I mean, the ’90s were supposedly the time of peace. The time that we went into a peace posture. Enjoyed a peace dividend after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet, even throughout the ’90s, we continued to engage in military actions inside other countries, far more than any other country. In fact, all the other countries in the world combined. And certainly in this last decade, we’ve been nothing but an occupier and a bomber and an invader of foreign countries with no end in sight.

I mean, if you listen to government officials, they don’t talk about the war ending any time soon. They call it the long war in government documents. And they talk about it lasting decades, at least. So, I think the idea that, “Oh, the war, the end of the war is around the corner and therefore it can be distinguished from entitlements” is a fantasy.

BILL MOYERS: Andrew J. Bacevich — whom you know and have quoted; was at this table — wrote the book, THE LIMITS OF POWER, and has recently said, and reiterated the fact, that war is a permanent condition in American society today. Not only because there might be ready, steady fighting, but because of the accumulated cost. And all the money that’s being spent on preparing for the next episode. And he said that war has become a permanent condition of America. Do you agree with that?

GLENN GREENWALD: I absolutely agree with that. And I think it’s really the central political fact that Americans need to reexamine. And the reason for that is because it’s not just that wars cost an enormous amount of money and drain our resources. I mean, they do. I mean, the wars that we fight are being paid for by money that we borrow from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and a variety of other countries.

It’s not just that in enormous numbers of people are killed — both our own citizens and the citizens of the country that we attack. That’s also true. But if you look at countries throughout history that can be described — as ours should be described — as permanent war-fighting states, then you see that the character of the country changes in all sorts of radical and fundamental ways.

When you’re fighting a war, it means that the government has claims to far more power than it does when wars aren’t being fought. The executive branch has all kinds of claims to unfettered and unchecked power. There are secrecy justifications that are made constantly and are accepted in the name of war that allow the government to exist in a very opaque fashion.

So, beyond all the moral cost and the financial cost and the human cost of endless war — which are, by themselves, sufficient to make this endless war posture something that’s horrible — it changes the nature of what kind of country we are. And I think more than anything that’s the debate that’s missing. What is it doing to the United States to say that we’re going to devote as our primary activity our resources to being a warrior state. A state that fights wars permanently?

BILL MOYERS: But the Washington Post editorial went on to say that our national security is involved in what is happening in Afghanistan. It was a base for the attacks of 9/11. It is right there in a very sensitive area of the world where there are a lot of potential if not immediate adversaries and enemies of the United States. And that you have to clean the swamp, so to speak, of those potential threats to America before you can have a healthy society with everybody enjoying universal health care.

And that’s the point at which, if you read their website, so many other denizens of Washington responded. Said, “Yes, we have to keep in mind, this is an issue of national security. Not just of national quality of life.”

GLENN GREENWALD: Here’s what amazes me about that point, which I think is the conventional wisdom in Washington culture. In 2004, the Pentagon commissioned a study that was— Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are the policies that we’re pursuing — namely, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq — helping the problem of terrorism or worsening the problem of terrorism?”

And what this study concluded — and it was a Pentagon study — was that the crucial threat, the central threat to American national security comes in the form of anti-American sentiment. The only reason why people are going to strap on bombs to their waists or give their lives up to drive airplanes, to steer airplanes into our buildings is because they’re so consumed with hatred towards the United States that they’re willing to give up their own lives just to inflict some minor tragedy, some minor harm on the empire.

That’s the central national security threat. And this study concluded what ought to have been obvious, which is that the more we invade and occupy other countries in the Muslim world, the more we kill Muslim civilians, the more imagery that we create of prisons being created, where we put Muslims without any charges of any kind, the more hatred there is towards the United States, and therefore the greater the terrorist threat is.

And so, you know, to me, what I wrote about recently is I think the central problem is a lack of empathy. And my biggest wish is that if Americans — that every American in sort of a national collective exercise would spend just ten minutes thinking about the following question, which is:

Suppose there was a Muslim country that invaded the United States with 150,000 troops, and proceeded to occupy our country for the next eight years: dropped bombs on wedding parties, slaughtered men, women, and children who were innocent. Created prisons in our country, where they arrested American citizens and put us for years without charges. Created an overseas island prison where they shipped some of us to without any recourse whatsoever. And at the same time, were threatening to do that to several other Western countries. How much rage and anger and a desire for vengeance and violence would we feel towards that country that was doing that to us?

I mean, just look at what the singular one-day attack of 9/11, the kind of anger and rage it unleashed. And I think if Americans were to think about how we would react towards other countries, and what we would want to do to them, if they were doing to us what we are now doing to them, I think a lot of light would be shined on what it is that we’re really achieving in terms of our national security.

BILL MOYERS: No one wrote earlier or more powerfully about the claims, the extra legal claims that the Bush and Cheney Administration made after 9/11. Doing many of the things you just described, because they invoked national security and the fact that to fight terrorism you often have to use the terrorists own tactics.

To what extent has President Obama begun to deconstruct that extra-legal apparatus, the excessive secrecy, the use of extra-constitutional means of interrogation? To what extent is he undoing the infrastructure of excessive government claims that you wrote about during those last eight years?

GLENN GREENWALD: Very little. And not only is it the case that he is deconstructing that framework in only symbolic and inconsequential ways, but he’s doing the reverse. Which is he is finding new and often more effective ways to embrace many of those same instruments, and to institutionalize them further. It’s not the case that Obama is the equivalent of Bush and Cheney, in this regard —

BILL MOYERS: Like you, he was trained as a constitutional lawyer. You were too, right?


BILL MOYERS: And he prides himself and often refers to the fact. “I’m a con— I studied the constitution. I’m a constitutional lawyer.” So, it can’t be a matter of personal predilection, can it be?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it means, obviously the architects of the Bush/Cheney lawlessness were themselves very smart lawyers. I mean, David Addington and John Yoo, were all smart. I mean, they’re all trained as lawyers. They understand the Constitution. And they use that knowledge and that intelligence to subvert the Constitution. Rather than to uphold it, as they swore to do.

So, the mere fact that somebody is a constitutional scholar and has knowledge of the Constitution doesn’t mean that they are any more inclined to abide by it. In fact, they may understand better how to circumvent it. And I think, you know, the theory of political science for centuries has long when that power corrupts. And so, somebody gets into office as President and sees all these shining jewels of executive power. And either because they’re convinced that they’re good and won’t abuse them, or will put them to good ends, or because they think there’s political cost to reducing them — there’s an obvious strong incentive to preserve them and expand them rather than to reduce and discard them. And I think you see Obama doing that on many, many fronts.

BILL MOYERS: For example?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, one of the principle controversies of the Bush Administration, one of the defining aspects of their radicalism, was the idea that we can take human beings who we don’t capture on a battlefield, who we simply abduct and pick up, who we suspect of engaging in terrorism and put them into cages for years or decades without having to charge them with any crime.

That — simply based on executive authority — the ability to point to someone and say, “This is a terrorist,” then justifies the elimination of all due process and putting them into prison forever. Obama, several months ago, said that he not only believes in that power, but wanted Congress to enact a statute that would permanently enshrine this theory of law into Presidential power.

He gave up on that because there was going to be difficulty in terms of getting the bill that he wanted passed through the Congress. So, instead what he did was he embraced the Bush/Cheney justification as to why the President can do that, which is that the Congress implicitly authorized it.

And so, we’re continuing our scheme of indefinite lawless detention, free of due process, free of any charges of any kind. Where we can pick up people anywhere around the world and put them into cages. He’s actively defending that power in Afghanistan, by saying that people who we abduct far away from the battlefield, far away from Afghanistan, and then ship to Afghanistan and imprison at Bagram have no rights even to habeas corpus, which the Supreme Court said at least that Guantanamo detainees have.

And so, that’s just one example where for years liberals yelled and screamed vehemently that Bush was subverting the Constitution and degrading the American culture, political culture, by asserting this power. And yet, here you have Barack Obama not just refusing or taking his time undoing it, but himself actively defending and advocating it. And there’s very little outcry. And that repeats itself in terms of the state secrets privilege. And the effort to block accountability for torture victims. And a whole variety of other powers that Bush and Cheney asserted to great controversy.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve been very concerned about the fact that they’re trying to block the access to the freedom of information process. They’re not making it easier for journalists or scholars or citizens to get the documents that have been often excessively classified as secret.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, look at what just happened with the photographs that are in the Pentagon’s possession showing that detainees were tortured, not just at Abu Graib, but throughout the entire detention system. A very crucial point to have disclosed, because the excuse of Abu Ghraib was that these were just some rogue officers and enlisted people, who were sadistic and psychotic and you couldn’t control them.

What these photographs show is that the abuse was actually throughout the entire detention system. A byproduct of the policies, the war crimes that Bush and Cheney authorized. And two federal courts, a district court in New York and an appellate court, unanimously, in the second circuit, ruled that under the Freedom of Information Act, the government has no justification whatsoever to withhold these photographs.

And at first, Obama said that he was going to abide by the court’s decision to release them. And then he changed his mind two weeks later and said that, actually, he was going to defy the court ruling and appeal it. And once they realized that they would probably lose again in the Supreme Court, because the Freedom of Information Act is so clear, they decided they were going to change the Freedom of Information Act.

And he used Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator, and Joe Lieberman to lead the way. And they just wrote an exemption into the Freedom of Information Act that allows the Defense Secretary in his own sole discretion to keep concealed photographs of America’s torture regime. He’s essentially covering up for Bush’s war crimes. And he’s writing an exemption into the Freedom of Information Act. I interviewed the Congresswoman Louise Slaughter who said that the Freedom of Information Act is the crown jewel of the Democratic Party. They fought with the Johnson Administration and—

BILL MOYERS: I remember.

GLENN GREENWALD: I’m sure you do. And she said that that was as important as social security and Medicare in terms of the Democratic Party values. And here’s a Democratic Congress with a Democratic President rewriting it to allow evidence of war crimes to be suppressed. And I think that’s illustrative of what you just suggested.

BILL MOYERS: I talked last weekend, briefly with a top ranking military officer at the Pentagon who is concerned about what you just said, but she also said that they were torn by their concern for what would happen to American prisoners captive in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter, but particularly in Afghanistan, if those pictures were once again prominently displayed throughout the Muslim world. And she said, “I really had a difficult time with that decision. I understand about the Freedom of Information Act, but as an officer, I’m concerned about what those pictures do to make vulnerable our soldiers in Afghanistan.”

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, the claim of the Obama Administration as to why these photographs could be suppressed was that they, according to government officials, don’t provide anything new. That they’re not very graphic. That they don’t actually convey anything that isn’t already known.

So, if that’s the case it’s very difficult to understand why they would have the negative impact on our troops. And inflaming the Muslim world that the claim is being made as to why they need to be suppressed. I think the real issue is that what would have happened if these photographs had been released is the impact would not have been on the Muslim world, which already knows that we maintain a worldwide torture regime, they’re well aware of that.

The real impact would have been on the American domestic debate. It would have refocused attention on the fact that our government systematically committed war crimes. And it would have re-raised the question that the Obama administration is desperate to avoid, which is how is it that we can possibly justify continuing to ignore these past crimes and immunize the people who were responsible?

I mean, of course, every government would like to keep hidden evidence of wrongdoing on the ground that if it gets released then it will increase hostility toward that government. That’s a justification for keeping everything concealed. I mean, that would be like saying, “If we drop a bomb on an Afghan village and kill lots of women and children shouldn’t we lie about what we did and hide evidence that we did it? Because otherwise it will inflame the Muslim world.” The solution to that sort of concern is not to cover up evidence of wrongdoing. It’s to avoid doing the wrong doing in the first place. And we made the decision 40 years ago that transparency is more important.

BILL MOYERS: This brings me back to what we were discussing much earlier. Whether it’s constitutional liberties and rights or threats, or whether it’s escalating the number of troops in Afghanistan and prolonging the war: Where is the public in all these debates? I mean, some of these issues I would think would drive people to the Bastille, you know? Or to the kind of outpourings in the Vietnam War. Even the Iraq war, there were several hundred thousand people together. But we seem strangely mute today.

GLENN GREENWALD: I agree. I mean, if you look at what happened with the financial crisis, and the way in which Wall Street was — through its own recklessness — the principle cause of what became a virtual worldwide economic collapse and, to this day, continues to result in mass joblessness and misery and suffering on the part of the American people.

And to realize that not only have they been greatly enriched on the way to causing that crisis, but continue to exert principle control over the government and to have laws written designed to benefit only them, while the masses in the United States continue to suffer financially. I mean, that is the sort of thing that has caused great backlash in the past. And, for example, Simon Johnson, who I know you’ve had on your show several times before —

BILL MOYERS: The economist —

GLENN GREENWALD: And former I.M.F. official, talks about how what has typically happened in more unstable countries, and countries we think about as being the third world and developing countries and under-developed countries, is that the oligarchs and the financial elite will cause the sort of financial crisis through their own corruption and the government will then step in and try and help and aid the very oligarchs who caused it, at the expense of the citizenry. And that will continue until the riots grow too large. That’s what he wrote in an article in THE ATLANTIC. And that typically happens. But in the United States, that doesn’t seem to be happening.


GLENN GREENWALD: There is no end to that. And —

BILL MOYERS: You look at our culture, you study our culture, you write about it. What’s your theory, at least?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think there’s several aspects to it. But I think the principle one is — and interestingly, Barack Obama actually talked about this in his Presidential campaign, quite eloquently and insightfully — that there gets to be a point where citizens look at the government, and they look at both political parties, and they conclude that the system itself is so radically corrupt and the political parties are so fundamentally nonresponsive that no matter what it is that they do, they aren’t going to be able to achieve any change. They feel a sense of learned helplessness. And they essentially accept whatever it is that’s done to them and simply hope that it’s not too bad. And I think that’s the population. It’s not that they’re apathetic. It’s that they’ve come to believe in their own impotence. And I think that’s actually sadder and more dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: I’m going to test your patriotism now.

GLENN GREENWALD: Okay. I love patriotism tests.

BILL MOYERS: Were you in Brazil when the announcement was made about the Olympics?

GLENN GREENWALD: About the Rio De Janeiro Olympics. I was in Brazil when that happened.

BILL MOYERS: And so, what were your feelings?

GLENN GREENWALD: I was actually ambivalent. And I don’t know that any of them were noble. In one sense I was —

BILL MOYERS: You weren’t rooting for Chicago?

GLENN GREENWALD: I was torn. And in one sense, I was rooting against the Olympics coming to Rio De Janeiro, because I know it’s going to flood the city in which, at least at the moment, I live most of the time with all sorts of annoyances and inconvenience. On the other hand, Brazil is an amazingly fascinating country that I think it would be incredibly beneficial for the world to get to know. They have extraordinary poverty there. Which I think the Olympics, in many ways, is going to help alleviate.

And so, I think that was a good thing. And I think the most important thing was that the country itself was desperate to have it. Because it was a source of great pride. And Americans were for a variety of reasons quite ambivalent, including people in Chicago themselves. And so, I think given that Brazilians were eager to have it, I think it ended up being a just result.

BILL MOYERS: So, are they still ebullient?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, the celebration has not even remotely died down. It has, you know, I think one of the things that people in the United States typically forget. Is why — it’s interesting. We talk often about the international community does this. The international community does that. And what we mean by that is United States, Britain, and France. And maybe a couple other Western European countries.

There’s actually an entire rest of the world that is having an increasingly large impact on international affairs. And so, for Latin America to be finally recognized as a place that warrants this sort of sporting event, and for Brazil specifically, which, you know, is going to only grow in economic strength and political importance, to be recognized that way, is a source of enormous pride for the people of that country.

BILL MOYERS: Do they sometimes think they’re not even on the same map that we Americans look at? I mean, as you say, it must be France, Britain, the United States, Mexico, you know, because of obvious reasons. And then maybe China. But do the South Americans think they’re even on this same —

GLENN GREENWALD: No, and it’s actually it’s a source of resentment. And understandably so. Now, I’ll tell you what was interesting. Recently when the facility in Iran, at Qom, was revealed by the Iranians and the presidents of Britain, France, and United States had a press conference to condemn —

BILL MOYERS: This was the revelation that there was a nuclear facility there.

GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly. The American media talked about this. And this is what I was just referencing in part as the, “International community” unified together in order to condemn what had happened. The reality is that enormous parts of what’s called the non-aligned world — countries in Africa, poorer countries in Asia, and certainly Latin America — actually are on Iran’s side in this dispute, because they think it’s critically important that countries maintain the right which the Western world has reserved for itself, not to have nuclear weapons, but to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

And there’s an extraordinary hypocrisy they see with countries that possess huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and that allow countries like Israel and India and Pakistan to have nuclear weapons without any sanction, trying to bully the entire rest of the world out of having this right.

And so, there’s this imbalance in international relations that Western Europe doesn’t see, because they benefit from it. But almost all of Latin America sees. And a similar incident happened with the U.S. trying to put military bases in Colombia. And all Latin American leaders from Chavez to the President of Argentina and Brazil banded together to object. There’s clearly a sense, historically, that they’ve been maltreated by Western Europe and the United States, especially.

And they see that the center of power is shifting. It’s more diffuse now and dispersed than it ever was before. And an important part of what they want to achieve is to prevent that kind of domination from continuing. And I think the United States ought to be a little bit more aware that that’s happening.

BILL MOYERS: This is a conversation to be continued. Glenn Greenwald, thanks for being back with me on THE JOURNAL.

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s always a pleasure.

This transcript was entered on July 8, 2015. It was originally posted at the archived Bill Moyers Journal website.

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