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Glenn Greenwald on How to Be a Terror “Expert”: Ignore Facts, Blame Muslims, Trumpet U.S. Propaganda

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Who are the so-called terrorism experts? In the wake of the Paris attacks, the corporate media has once again flooded its news programs with pundits claiming authority on terrorism, foreign policy and world events. We discuss the growing and questionable field of “terrorism experts” with three guests: Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and co-founder of The Intercept; Lisa Stampnitzky, social studies lecturer at Harvard University and author of “Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented 'Terrorism'”; and Luc Mathieu, foreign affairs reporter for the French newspaper Libération.

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

AARON MATÉ: As we continue to cover the fallout from last week’s attacks in Paris, we turn now to look at the growing field of so-called terrorism experts.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Back with me is NBC News terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann.

EVAN KOHLMANN: The cleavages that exist in French society between Muslims and non-Muslims are far more severe than they exist here in the United States.

BROOKE BALDWIN: He is Samuel Laurent, live from Paris. He is the author of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in France.

SAMUEL LAURENT: The landscape of jihadism and terrorism is deeply changing, and it’s proving to be a much harder task than it used to be for the intelligence service, because it’s very, very difficult now to spot and to stop the threats.

SEAN HANNITY: Joining me now, terrorism expert Steve Emerson.

STEVE EMERSON: Throughout Europe, Sean, you have no-go zones. When I was in Brussels a year ago, when I asked the police to take me to the Islamic zone or the Islamic community area, they refused. They say, “We don’t go there.” This goes on in Belgium. This goes on in Sweden, in the Netherlands, in France. It goes on in Italy. I mean, it goes on throughout Europe. So, there are no-go zones.

AARON MATÉ: A few of the so-called terrorism experts who have appeared on television over the past week. That last voice was Steven Emerson, who made international headlines this weekend after this appearance on Jeanine Pirro’s show on Fox News.

JEANINE PIRRO: Developing tonight, new reports that terrorist sleeper cells may have been activated in France. This as we’re learning new details about hundreds of no-go zones across France and other countries that are off-limits to non-Muslims. Steve Emerson, founder of the Investigative Project, joins us.

STEVE EMERSON: These no-go zones exist not only in France, but they exist throughout Europe. They’re sort of amorphous. They’re not contiguous, necessarily, but they’re sort of safe havens. And they’re places where the governments, like France, Britain, Sweden, Germany, they don’t exercise any sovereignty. So, you basically have zones where Sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where the police don’t go in, and where it’s basically a separate country almost, a country within a country. And—

JEANINE PIRRO: You know what it sounds like to me, Steve? It sounds like a caliphate within a particular country.

STEVE EMERSON: It certainly does sound like that. … And in Britain, it’s not just no-go zones; there are actual cities, like Birmingham, that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.

AMY GOODMAN: While Steve Emerson claimed the British city of Birmingham was totally Muslim, it’s in fact a predominantly Christian city. Emerson, who describes himself as, quote, “one of the leading authorities” on Islamic extremist networks, appeared on the BBC Monday and apologized.

STEVE EMERSON: I relied on incorrect research. It was totally irresponsible for me not to have fact-checked the information that I obtained. And it was not done out of any malice, but out of a total irresponsible journalistic practice, which I usually and uniformly don’t practice.

NICK OWEN: Are you aware that our prime minister has called you a complete idiot?

STEVE EMERSON: Yes, I’m aware.

NICK OWEN: What does that make you feel?

STEVE EMERSON: Not great. You know, mistakes are made. What can I tell you?

AMY GOODMAN: While Steve Emerson is making headlines today, many questions have been raised about the entire field of so-called terrorism experts. Another so-called expert, Evan Kohlmann, has been described as “the Doogie Howser of terrorism” for building a career based on essays he wrote on al-Qaeda as an undergrad.

We’re joined now by two guests who have closely analyzed this issue. Joining us from Boston is Lisa Stampnitzky. She’s a lecturer on social studies at Harvard University and author of the book Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” And from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept and author of No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Glenn, let’s begin with you. The terror attacks, the Paris attacks took place last week, and the so-called terror experts are in—very prominent all over the networks. Can you talk about who we are hearing from?

GLENN GREENWALD: The concept of terrorism is a very widely debated concept all over the world, and there are incredibly divergent opinions, even about what terrorism is, about who it is who’s perpetrating it, about how it is that you define it and understand it, and whether or not there’s even a meaningful definition of the term at all. And yet you have all of these so-called terrorism experts employed by leading American television networks—all of them, really—and on whom most establishment newspapers rely, who are called terrorism experts and yet who are incredibly homogenous in their views, because they spout the very homogenized American conception of all of those questions.

It’s an incredibly propagandized term. It’s an incredibly propagandistic set of theories that they have. And that’s really what these media outlets are doing, is they’re masquerading pro-U.S. propaganda, pro-U.S. government propaganda, as expertise, when it’s really anything but. These are incredibly ideological people. They’re very loyal to the view of the U.S. government about very controversial questions. They certainly have the right to express their opinions, but the pretense to expertise is incredibly fraudulent. And that’s why they have not just Steve Emerson, the Fox News strain, but really all of them who are held up as the most prominent terrorism experts in the U.S. have a really shameful history of incredible error and all sorts of just very dubious claims, because they’re really just rank propagandists.

AARON MATÉ: And so, Glenn, what allows them to continue perpetuating these myths that you describe? What is the dynamic that allows this expert industry to keep going?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there are several aspects to it. I mean, one is the United States government obviously has an interest in making people believe that its very particular and self-serving views of terrorism are not subjective or debatable, but are in fact just objective expertise, and so they do all sorts of things to prop these people up. They give them contracts. They pay them lots of money to teach people inside the government about terrorism. Really most disturbingly of all, they continuously call them as, quote-unquote, “experts” at terrorism trials. And all of these experts then dutifully march forth and say whatever the government wants about the Muslim defendants who are on trial, and help the government obtain conviction after conviction, and get a lot of money in the process.

Part of it is just the role that think tanks play in Washington, which is to lend this kind of intellectual artifice to whatever the government’s policy is or whatever the government wants. And so you have a lot of them who work at think tanks, like Brookings Institute, which employs Will McCants, who misled American media outlets into believing for a full day and then telling the world that the Anders Breivik attack in Norway was actually the work of a jihadist group. Even the more respectable ones are people who generally spout the conventional orthodoxies of the American government about terrorism, and therefore it’s very much in the interest of the U.S. government and these media outlets to continue to depict them not as polemicists and highly opinionated, you know, just participants in debates, but as actual academic experts. And that’s where the fraudulent aspect comes in.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Professor Lisa Stampnitzky. Again, your book is called Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” What do you mean by “disciplining terror”? You carried out one of the first empirical studies of these so-called terror experts on television.

LISA STAMPNITZKY: That’s right. So, “disciplining terror” has a dual meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the attempts of states to get control over the problem of terrorism. On the other hand, it refers to the attempt to develop a discipline of terrorism studies. And that problematic field is the story that I’m telling in the book.

AARON MATÉ: What’s your assessment of the merits of this field in terms of its level of expertise and its seriousness?

LISA STAMPNITZKY: I mean, one of the conclusions I draw is that it’s a very peculiar field in terms of fields of expertise, because there is no strict boundary around it, there is no control according to who can be an expert. There’s no credentialing. And so, you have people coming on TV who are just sort of spouting hysteria and not drawing on any real expert knowledge. And even those who are more serious in the field have no ability to regulate who gets called an expert.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, self-described “terrorism consultant” Evan Kohlmann was interviewed on the public radio newshour The Takeway. Host John Hockenberry challenged Kohlmann on his level of expertise.

EVAN KOHLMANN: This is a far-ranging international conspiracy that began, you know, as many as two decades ago, involves hundreds of different people spread around, you know, various different places in the world, and it’s also based in a language and a culture that, you know, to be honest with you, very few Americans are familiar with.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Right, and in speaking of that, do you think, now that the movie has been played in open court, and, you know, you’ve achieved a certain amount of notoriety, that it might be time to learn Arabic, maybe go to Afghanistan or Pakistan—

EVAN KOHLMANN: Well, I mean, I—I mean, I—

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: —or familiarize yourself with the culture?

EVAN KOHLMANN: Well, I have a degree in Islam. And, I mean, I do speak some Arabic; I’m not fluent. But, you know, in terms of traveling to Pakistan, trying to do this research right now in Pakistan is extremely difficult. Trying to even get into Pakistan right now to do this is extremely difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News analyst. Glenn Greenwald, your comment?

GLENN GREENWALD: And there are so many of them like that. I mean, he’s one of the people called by the U.S. government in these prosecutions, these really dubious prosecutions, of American Muslims for really remote charges of material support for terrorism. And his expertise is basically just that he gets called an expert by the U.S. government. And the more he gets called to testify, the more that expertise builds. That’s really the only foundation for it, is that some people call him an expert because it’s in their interest to do so. There’s another one like him, Matthew Levitt, who was profiled in Harper’s, who has a long history of unbelievably erroneous claims that he makes in service of this agenda. They get paid a lot of money, too. I mean, he goes on—they go on NBC News. They get held up as a terrorism analyst. They get paid for that. They get called as an expert in court. And yet, as that tape said and as Lisa said, there’s really no foundation for the expertise. There’s no Ph.D.s that they have in terrorism studies.

There’s not even agreement about what the word “terrorism” means, which is why the old cliché that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist is, though clichéd, is so resoundingly true. You can have debates about what terrorism is, about who perpetrates it, and yet all of these so-called experts simply assume the answers to those questions, because if they were, for example, to say that the U.S. government is a state sponsor of terrorism by virtue of its support for death squads in El Salvador or the Contras in Nicaragua or any of the other groups across the United States—across the world that the United States continues to support that engages in violence against civilians for political ends, you would immediately have them eliminated. No major network like CNN or MSNBC or NBC would ever call somebody like that a terrorism expert, even though that’s a very plausible claim to make. It’s an extremely ideological and politicized view that gets called expertise. And they don’t even have the basic attributes of what we generally consider that makes somebody an expert.

AARON MATÉ: Glenn, do you personally use the word “terror,” or do you avoid it entirely?

GLENN GREENWALD: I generally avoid it. I mean, you could probably find instances in my writing where I’ve invoked the term, usually just ironically or to refer to the fact that somebody else is using it. But I do think that until we have an understanding of what the term means, it really is a term that ought to be avoided.

There is some amazingly great scholarly research by Rémi Brulin, who was at the Sorbonne and then NYU, where he traces, essentially, the history of this term in political discourse. And what he has described, in a very scholarly way, is that the term “terrorism” really entered and became prevalent in the discourse of international affairs in the late '60s and the early ’70s, when the Israelis sought to use the term to universalize their disputes with their neighbors, so they could say, “We're not fighting the Palestinians and we’re not bombing Lebanon over just some land disputes. We’re fighting this concept that is of great—a grave menace to the world, called 'terrorism.' And it’s not only our fight, it’s your fight in the United States, and it’s your fight in Europe, and it’s your fight around the world.”

And there are all these conferences in the late '60s and early ’70s and into the 1980s even, where Israelis and Americans and neocons are attempting to come up with a definition of the term “terrorism” that includes the violence that they want to delegitimize, meaning the violence by their adversaries, while legitimizing—excluding the violence they want to legitimize, namely our violence, the violence of Israel, the violence of our allies. And it was virtually impossible to come up with a definition, and that's why there really is no agreed-upon definition. The term is incredibly malleable, because it’s typically just meant as a term that says any violence we don’t like is something we’re going to call terrorism. And at this point it really just means violence engaged in by Muslims against the West. That’s really the definition of the term “terrorism,” the functional definition. It has no fixed definition.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, I remember at the beginning, at the Oklahoma City bombing attack, when two names of Arab men were floated. It turned out they were New York taxi drivers who had gone to Oklahoma City to renew their licenses. But those names were put out by the media, and then there was the question: Was this a terrorist attack? When it turned out it was Timothy McVeigh—Timothy McVeigh, who worked with other people, had all the—you know, all the definition of a terrorist attack—then it wasn’t. “Oh, no, it was Timothy McVeigh, and he did this, a white Christian man.” No longer did we refer to it as a terrorist attack.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. I mean, that happens all the time. First of all, it was Steve Emerson, the very same Steve Emerson who just said that Birmingham was an all-Muslim city that no non-Muslims can enter, who was working at the time—either at the time for CNN or just afterwards, who went on, on the air, and was the most influential comment shaping what you just described. And he said the attempt here was to kill as many people as possible, which is a Middle East attribute, and therefore we should assume or highly speculate that this is likely an attack perpetrated by someone from the Middle East, someone who is Muslim. That’s how that narrative actually started. Steve Emerson’s career didn’t suffer at all from that.

But, you know, if you watch how these attacks are discussed, every time there’s an attack where the assailant or the perpetrator is unknown, the media will say it’s unknown whether or not terrorism is involved. And what they really mean by that is: It’s unknown whether or not the perpetrator is Muslim. And as soon as they discover that the perpetrator is a Christian or is American, a white American, they’ll say, “We now have confirmation that this is not a terrorist attack.” It’s something else—someone who’s mentally unstable, some extremist, something like that. It really is a term that functionally now means nothing other than Muslims who engage in violence against the West.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we have a perfect example right now in Colorado Springs. There was a bomb that was affixed that blew up outside the NAACP. The media is not saying right now, as the man is looked for, there is a search for a terrorist going on right now on our own soil in Colorado.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I remember there was an individual named Joseph Stack who flew an airplane into a government building in Texas, into the side of the IRS, actually. And for the first several hours of the reporting, it was said that the suspicion is that this is a terrorist attack, because it was on a government facility. And then when it was discovered that he was actually a right-wing, anti-tax, anti-government American, they said, actually, this isn’t a terrorist attack, this is just kind of this crazy person who did this for political ends.

You know, I was in Canada about two months ago when those two attacks happened, first one in Quebec and then the other one at the Parliament in Ottawa. And the first one, in the outskirts of Quebec, was somebody—two people who had waited two hours in a car to see a soldier, a Canadian soldier, and then targeted him and ran him over. And that was instantly branded a terrorist attack, even though they purposefully avoided targeting civilians and targeted a soldier of a country that is at war. It really is a term that is so muddled and confused in terms of how it’s used, and it is used for very specific agendas and very ideological purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We are talking to Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept. We’re also speaking with Lisa Stampnitzky. She is a lecturer at Harvard University, author of Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Our guests are Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Lisa Stampnitzky of Harvard University, who wrote the book Disciplining Terror. And we’re joined from Paris by Luc Mathieu, the foreign affairs reporter for the French newspaper Libération, who has written critically of so-called terrorism expert Samuel Laurent. He appeared on CNN last week with host Brooke Baldwin. This is Samuel Laurent.

BROOKE BALDWIN: He is Samuel Laurent, live from Paris. He is the author of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in France. Samuel, nice to see you, sir. Here’s my question. You know, Fareed was making the point about how this totally seems to be changing the game, the face of terror. These are, you know, seemingly local, perhaps French natives from perhaps a much larger organization. When you watch the video, very trained. What’s your read on this?

SAMUEL LAURENT: Mm-hmm. Well, basically, what you have to understand is that the situation has changed a lot from the time of al-Qaeda. Basically, Qaeda was operating cells. They were breeding them, and they were targeting a specific objective. Nowadays with the Islamic State, what has changed is that the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is supposed to be the leader of the believers, so therefore he issues some orders at wide. And basically, some of his orders in October and November has been to kill the French, by any possible means. That was his words.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Samuel Laurent, often seen on CNN. Luc Mathieu, you’re with the French newspaper Libération. You have written about who Samuel Laurent is. Can you talk about him?

LUC MATHIEU: Well, it’s difficult to talk about him, because he is not a journalist. He is not an analyst. He is not a former diplomat. He is not a former member of an intelligence community. I mean, he’s describing himself as an international consultant, which doesn’t mean any—which doesn’t mean nothing. So, he wrote like three books, and one was culturally interesting, which was Al-Qaeda in France. So I investigate on that book, and basically nothing is holding together. I mean, facts are not matching. Places he’s supposed to go are not matching. So, there are a lot of mistakes and a lot of approximations and a lot of nonsense in his books.

AARON MATÉ: Lisa Stampnitzky, I want to ask you, what do you think the experts are missing? What issues should they be looking at that these so-called experts are not?

LISA STAMPNITZKY: I mean, I think one of the key difficulties is, A, as Glenn mentioned, that there is no settled definition of what terrorism is, and that insofar as there is a common understanding of what terrorism is, it tends to be that it’s violence that we don’t like. And one of the most interesting things that I show in my book is that that wasn’t always the case. I look at debates on terrorism from the 1970s until 2001. And if you look at when people were first starting to talk about terrorism in the early 1970s, they were talking about it in a very different way.

So, Glenn mentioned this cliché: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And that seems almost obvious today, that these are opposed, that you can’t be a terrorist and a freedom fighter. But if you look at the way that people were talking about terrorism or political violence of this sort in the late '60s and early 1970s, this wasn't considered to be in opposition. There wasn’t this assumption that acts of terror as a tactic were necessarily something that was done by people who we think are evil. There was not this moral overlay over it. And this has come to be understood as so basic to understanding of terrorism now that it really clouds any attempt to understand the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me go back to Luc in Paris—first of all, our condolences—and what you’re writing about right now in Libération, what you feel these terrorism experts do not bring us that we should understand about what’s happening in France.

LUC MATHIEU: It’s perhaps too early to say and to be sure of it. We have to look back at al-Qaeda history, because it comes from al-Qaeda in Yemen. We have to look deeply into Islamic State, because one of the three assailants said he was from Islamic State. So, it’s a lot—it’s very messy right now in France, because a lot of people are trying to know exactly where those guys come from, where they went, what they wanted to do exactly. So it’s a bit early to say. I think we are missing. We are missing that. We are still searching a lot.

AARON MATÉ: I want to go back to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a former prosecutor. This is from her show on Saturday.

JEANINE PIRRO: We need to kill them. We need to kill them, the radical Muslim terrorists hell-bent on killing us. You’re in danger. I’m in danger. We’re at war, and this is not going to stop. After this week’s brutal terror attacks in France, hopefully everybody now gets it. And there’s only one group that can stop this war: the Muslims themselves. Our job is to arm those Muslims to the teeth, give them everything they need to take out these Islamic fanatics. Let them do the job. Let them have at it. And as they do, we need to simply look the other way.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Jeanine Pirro of Fox News, a former prosecutor in Westchester, also a former judge. Glenn Greenwald, it’s easy to make fun of Fox News, but your response to this? And how does—how do attitudes like these play out in the corporate media, generally?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, you know, if you listen to her, Jeanine Pirro, that clip you just played, I mean, she’s obviously psychotic. I mean, that’s just like bloodthirsty fascism in its purest, you know, expression. But I don’t really think that the substance of what she’s saying, to the extent one can attribute substance to those comments, is really all that rare or even controversial in the U.S. I mean, we have been a country that has declared ourselves at war with some formulation of Islam, radical Muslims, whatever you want to call it, something that John Kerry actually just affirmed a few days ago, that the French president and others have embraced, as well, over the last week.

And I think this is one of the most pernicious aspects of these so-called terrorism experts and terrorism expertise, which is, if you are an American citizen or if you’re a French citizen or if you’re a British citizen, you have a greater chance of being killed by slipping in the bathtub tonight and hitting your head on the ceramic tile, or being struck by lightning—literally—than you do dying in a terrorist attack. And yet these terrorism experts have it in their interest to constantly hype and exaggerate the threat and fearmonger over it, because that’s how they become relevant. They become relevant in terms of their work. They become relevant in terms of their government contracts and in terms of the money that they make. And it really has infected large parts of Western thinking to view terrorism as a much, much greater threat than just rationally and statistically it really is. And I think that’s—a big part of that is at the feet of these so-called terrorism experts.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank Luc Mathieu, speaking to us from Paris, from Libération. I also want to thank Lisa Stampnitzky, who wrote Disciplining Terror, speaking to us from Boston, Harvard lecturer.

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