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Glenn Greenwald on Iran, Tea Party Candidates, Jon Stewart and Obama’s Assassination Policy

StorySeptember 21, 2010
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We speak with Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and the political and legal blogger for Greenwald discusses White House rhetoric toward Iran; Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s planned rallies in Washington, DC; the Obama administration’s assassination policy that includes targeting US citizens; tea party candidates in the November midterm elections; and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: World leaders have gathered in New York this week for a series of high-level meetings at the United Nations. Among them, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s already attracted a range of critics protesting his presence outside the UN building.

On Monday, President Obama told a town hall meeting a military attack on Iran would not be the ideal solution to the “serious problem” of Iran’s nuclear program, he said, but that he’s not taking that option off the table.

For more on how the Obama administration is handling Iran, as well as other matters — for example, here at home, particularly looking at the tea party — we’re joined by Glenn Greenwald. He’s a constitutional law attorney and political/legal blogger for

Welcome to Democracy Now!

Let’s start with Iran, and then we’ll move here to domestic politics. What about what President Obama said about Ahmadinejad and the nuclear program?

GLENN GREENWALD: There’s a great irony, because every time President Ahmadinejad comes to the United States, the same media commentary decrees him as some kind of crazy, threatening figure. The same set of two or three comments that he made that are of dubious translation are continuously repeated, much the way that Saddam Hussein, the fear mongering around him, was based on two or three assertions repeated over and over. And yet, what you have is evidence about what real aggression is, which is the President of the United States is always insinuating that we reserve the right, at any moment, at any time, at our will, to go on to military attack on Iran, even if they don’t attack us. Yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham was at a luncheon at the American Enterprise Institute and said that we need to start finalizing plans for an attack on Iran that would not just be about striking at their nuclear facilities, but removing the regime, as well, though he said we shouldn’t do that with ground troops, but only with air and sea strikes, which would entail massive devastation of that country, huge numbers of civilian deaths. The very idea is monstrous. And you see these proposals talked about on an almost daily basis in leading American, and obviously Israeli, journals, as well. So when it comes to who threatens whom and crazy and deranged ideas, it is true that parties to this dispute are engaging in those kinds of actions, and sometimes Iran does, but far more often it’s not Iran who’s doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s look here at home at this election year, the midterm elections, and the significance of the tea party.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the significance, principally, of the tea party for the Democrat Party is that they don’t really have much to talk about in terms of why voters and supporters ought to go out and keep the Democrats in power. And so, what you see from the Democratic Party is this fixation on the tea party as a means of ratcheting up fear levels among Democrats and others, in order to encourage them to go to the polls. I mean, every pollster has said that the huge threat to the Democratic — the Democrats maintaining their power is this enthusiasm gap, the fact that Democratic supporters don’t perceive any reason to go to the polls. And so, in the absence of any reason to give them, all that you hear is a lot of focus on individual candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, these tea party candidates, to try and highlight their extremism, make people afraid of who they are, all as a means of encouraging people who don’t see any reason to go vote for the Democrats to do so. And I think that’s extremely telling, that two years into this administration, that that’s all the Democrats have is a fear campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Sharron Angle and Harry Reid’s chances. He was just here in New York last night at a Democratic fundraiser.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, I mean, there was an incident yesterday that really illustrates why anyone has a very difficult time supporting Harry Reid. He was at a fundraiser on the Upper West Side for very wealthy Democratic Party donors, which is where these candidates spend most of their time. And the New York — New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, was present, and he was talking about her and introducing her, and he said, “And Kirsten Gillibrand is here, or, as we refer to her in the Senate, the hottest member of the United States Senate” — you know, an absolutely revolting remark, sexist in every single possible way and offensive. And so, when you hear things like that — and Harry Reid has been, you know, saying things like this. He came out and said that the Park51 community center ought to move. He said, “We don’t want any people in Guantánamo anywhere near the United States.” And so, when you hear this series of remarks from the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, you can show people all you want the craziness of Sharron Angle, but it’s very difficult to get people to be motivated to go out and care whether or not Harry Reid, someone like Harry Reid, remains in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time, he’s battling to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At the Netroots Nation conference, he hugged Dan Choi and said he, you know, promised to give him his ring back when they overturned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” though it’s not clear he will beat McCain on this.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it’s incredibly cynical. I mean, you see this flurry of activity over the last four weeks from President Obama and from Democratic leaders suddenly trying to don once again their progressive masks to convince people that they ought to go to the polls. And they know that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be repealed. They know the DREAM Act is not actually going to be enacted. All of these measures that they’re talking about to stimulate the economy and create jobs are things that they know won’t happen, and that’s why they’re able to advocate them. You even saw, with the cynical appointment of Elizabeth Warren, who probably will do some good being able to create this agency to police Wall Street abuses, nonetheless they stayed away from the fight to actually appoint her as the director of this agency, so that once the election is over, they can find somebody more pleasing to Wall Street. So you —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, what they actually did.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there’s this -— one of the best parts about the financial regulation bill, maybe the only truly meaningful part, is the creation of this agency, which is the idea of Professor Elizabeth Warren at Harvard to essentially police the ability of Wall Street to put fine print into mortgage and credit applications that lure the consumer into extremely one-sided and imbalanced transactions that they don’t know about, because they lack the sophistication, they don’t have lawyers to do it. And the idea of the progressive base was that she is the person who ought to be heading this agency, because she is genuinely committed to the idea of limiting Wall Street abuses. She’s a crusader for economic justice and for protection of consumers, exactly the kind of person that this administration needs but doesn’t have in important financial positions.

And the problem was, progressives were demanding it, but their real constituency, which is Wall Street and business, are horrified by the idea of Elizabeth Warren, and they needed to find some solution, because if they didn’t nominate her, progressives would be in revolt before the election. And so, what they did was they created this hybrid solution, where they pretended that they were going to appoint her, even though she has no real authority — she’s just an adviser to the President — to set up the agency, but not to run it, and meanwhile they’re telling Wall Street, “Oh, don’t worry, she’s not really going to have any authority. She’s not going to be the person who’s running it.” And it’s these kind of symbolic gestures in the last several weeks that I think are almost more offensive, as they try and pretend that they are something that for the last two years they haven’t been.

AMY GOODMAN: And Christine O’Donnell, her significance?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, if you were a Martian who came down from — to Planet Earth in the last week and just turned on television news and watched, you would think that Christine O’Donnell was by far the most powerful person in the world, because, especially on stations devoted to maintaining Democratic power, like MSNBC and other cable shows, it’s twenty-four hours nonstop about Christine O’Donnell, because that way, if you’re on one of these stations, you don’t have to talk about the things that Tariq Ali was here just talking about, about what we’re doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the continuation of Bush-Cheney terrorism policies. You get to talk about Christine O’Donnell and comments she made fifteen years ago on some late night television show as a way of mocking her and deriding her and distracting people’s attention from what a failure this administration has been. That’s why she serves such an important role. It’s a way of manipulating and distracting the voting base.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another subject you’ve taken on, and that is Jon Stewart making his announcement that he’s going to be holding a protest in Washington to — what was it? — counter what he identified as extremists on both sides. Let’s go to a clip.

    JON STEWART: I see you’re intrigued, but there’s something still bothering you. “As a reasonable, busy person, I’d love to come, Jon. But I really don’t have time to handcraft a message or some signage.” Not to worry. That’s where we come in. We’re going to have signs for you down there, if you don’t have time. Of course, you can bring your own, but here’s a quick one: “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”

    You may be asking yourself right now, sitting at home, “But am I the right type of person to go to this rally?” The fact that you would even stop to ask yourself that question, as opposed to just, let’s say, jumping up, grabbing the nearest stack of burnable holy books, strapping on a diaper, and just pointing your car towards DC, that means, I think, you just might be right for it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. You wrote a piece about this called “The Perils of False Equivalencies and Self-Proclaimed Centrism.” Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, I was somewhat ambivalent about this rally, because, on the one hand, I think everybody agrees that we need more rationality and substantive examination in our political discourse, and so, to the extent that he’s calling for that, that’s a perfectly fine and uncontroversial idea. And, as well, he reaches a demographic group, young people, who tend to be politically disengaged, and he draws them into the political process, which I think is a very commendable thing to do.

The problem that I had with how it was structured and what it is that he’s saying — and he’s far more than a comedian; I mean, he’s a very influential voice among progressives and in the media narratives — is that, for one thing, I don’t think the problem with our politics is tone. I think the problem is content. There are all kinds of people who advocate extremely heinous ideas, but do so in a very soft-spoken and civil manner. Bill Kristol comes to mind, John Yoo, as well. These are people who can go on and be extremely polite in conversation and have done that on his show. So I think the problem, in terms of extremism, is not about tone, but about content, and to talk about tone, I think, distracts from the issue.

I also think that we don’t really have a problem with excess activism in the United States, as he seems to suggest — we need to stand up for the virtuous people who don’t go to rallies. I think going to rallies and being politically engaged and even passionate is actually a virtue and something that ought to be encouraged.

But the real problem I had with it is that, in order to appear as though he was being more evenhanded, he didn’t depict the extremism as being a problem on the right, which is the reality. These extremist ideas are really quite pervasive on the right. And so, what he did was he tried to create an equivalency by saying, well, it’s — the problem is on the left, as well. And he picked out 9/11 Truthers and a CodePink rally and suggested that people who call Bush a war criminal are every bit as inflammatory and extremist and to be condemned as, say, people who say the President was not born in the United States. And that’s an extraordinary false equivalency, because these extremist ideas are pervasive on the right. People who go to CodePink rallies are a tiny minority, for better or for worse, among Democrats. But more so, the fact that Bush is a war criminal happens to be true, and there’s ample evidence for it, including, as I cited, the report by the four-star general, Antonio Taguba, who is in charge of investigating detainee abuse, who concluded that George Bush and top administration officials committed war crimes. And so, I think what he was trying to do was to show how fair-minded he was by condemning both the left and the right. This is a common disease in our media, even though left and right are not equal.

AMY GOODMAN: And the competing rally of Stephen Colbert?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, that, I think, is actually something that I found incredibly encouraging, because the rally there is “to keep fear alive.” And, of course, the American right is dependent, more than anything else, on fear. And as we talked about earlier, Democrats use fear, as well, to motive their base. And so, the role that fear plays in our political culture and the way in which politicians exploit that, I think, is one of the most central issues. And to the extent this rally is designed to mock that, I think that’s a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your post, “Obama in Wonderland,” at, where you talk about assassinations.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there’s this scene in Alice in Wonderland in which the Red Queen is sitting with the King, and Alice is in front of them, and they are condemning one convict after the next. And the King keeps saying, “Call in the accused. Let’s have the verdict and then the sentence.” And then, at one point, the Red Queen says, “No! I don’t want it that way. I want first the sentence and then the verdict.” And Alice objects, and the Queen threatens to execute her.

Well, if you look at what the President is doing with presidential assassinations, it’s almost exactly the same thing. Eight months ago, we learned that there’s a list that President Obama maintains with at least four Americans on it, one of whom is Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric in Yemen, of individuals who President Obama, with no criminal charges, no trial, no due process, has ordered assassinated, to be killed anywhere they’re found, far away from a battlefield, no matter what they’re doing at the time, on the grounds — the accusation, unproven accusation — that they’re involved in terrorism. Well, that’s the sentence. The President has imposed the death penalty on these individuals. But two weeks ago, it was reported in the New York Times that the administration is now considering bringing an indictment against Awlaki in response to a lawsuit brought on his behalf and other — for other considerations, in order to bring him into a court and charge him with a crime, finally, in order to prove that he’s guilty — not in lieu of trying to kill him. They’re still trying to kill him, but just in case we don’t find him to kill him, at least we want to indict him. And the equivalence, how identical that was, was so striking. This was essentially Obama saying, “I, the President, hereby impose the death penalty on this American citizen with no trial,” and then eight months later he says, “Well, now it’s time to get around to charging him with a crime.” It’s sentence first, verdict after, just like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland decreed.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, the racial and ethnic exploitation of economic insecurity?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think, you know, one of the real dangers in terms of political extremism is when there are people who are suffering economically. And we have pervasive economic suffering in the United States. And one of the problems has been is that the Democratic Party has offered people who are truly angry and scared about their futures very few solutions, because they’ve been perceived accurately as standing for public —- for corporate interests and lobbyists. And so, the void that has been left has been filled by these extremists on the right who use, traditionally and right now, economic, racial and other forms of culturally divisive tactics in order to exploit this economic anxiety. You see that with Islamophobia. You see that with fear mongering over immigration. And I think that’s when it becomes quite dangerous, when you combine that kind of demagoguery with economic exploitation, like the right is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you’re here in New York to participate in an event sponsored by Brooklyn Law School on the Mavi Marmara, on the Gaza aid flotilla. It’s an issue that you have taken on in a big way.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, it’s Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. It’s at Brooklyn Law School. It’s open to the public. There’s a dinner served with it. And I think, you know, one of the real challenges that we have is to go back and look at how the American media depicted that incident, because the level of propaganda that shaped American discourse around that event, I think, was unlike any other. And it’s very -—

AMY GOODMAN: This was the Memorial Day weekend in the United States, but it was when the Israeli commandos opened up fire on the Mavi Marvara and killed nine — eight Turks, one American citizen — onboard.

GLENN GREENWALD: Precisely. And if you go back and do a dissection, you know, kind of a post-mortem, about how the American media behaved and how the American people were misled about that incident, while it took place and in the weeks after, I think it’s incredibly instructive. And that’s what this event is intended to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Glenn Greenwald.

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