As Ex-CIA Head Admits to U.S. Meddling in Elections, Is Outrage over Russian Interference Overblown?

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Former CIA Director James Woolsey recently admitted the U.S. meddles in overseas elections. During an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Woolsey laughed about it and said the U.S. takes such action “only for a very good cause.” Woolsey made the comments shortly after 13 Russians were indicted for interfering with the U.S. election. We speak to former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to go back to that clip we played earlier of former CIA Director James Woolsey speaking just a few weeks ago with Laura Ingraham on Fox News.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries’ elections?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Oh, probably. But it was for the good of the system, in order to avoid the communists from taking over.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Yeah.

JAMES WOOLSEY: For example, in Europe in ’47, ’48, ’49, the Greeks and the Italians, we—CIA—

LAURA INGRAHAM: We don’t do that now, though? We don’t mess around in other people’s elections, Jim?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, mmm, yum, yum, yum, never mind. Only for a very good cause.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Can you do that—let’s do a vine video and—as former CIA director. I love it.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Only for very good cause—

LAURA INGRAHAM: OK.

JAMES WOOLSEY: —in the interests of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: “Only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.” That’s former CIA Director James Woolsey. So, if you could respond to what he says today, Stephen Kinzer? We’re not talking about history right now. And also talk about the NED, the National Endowment for Democracy, and Trump’s proposal to cut it by something like two-thirds in the 2019 budget.

STEPHEN KINZER: Well, that was a great clip. And I think maybe Woolsey is thinking back to one of his predecessors, Richard Helms, who was convicted of lying in court for denying that the United States had tried to influence the election in Chile. He didn’t want to lie, so he just laughed. And I saw him really trying to—trying to tell the truth, not trying to lie. Yes, it’s true, we are still intervening in foreign elections. And I think the ones he’s been thinking about are recent elections in Bulgaria, in Mongolia, in Slovakia.

The National Endowment for Democracy, which you mentioned, has taken over many of these functions from the CIA. It’s a pretty unknown agency. But it was founded by President Reagan in the early '80s for a particular reason. You'll remember that at that time the CIA had been suffering from many scandals, and it couldn’t operate the way it used to. So, how are we going to influence foreign elections? Well, we established this National Endowment for Democracy, which is now funded at over $170 million a year. And that’s all it does. It interferes in the politics of other countries.

Much of its money goes through something called the International Republican Institute, headed by John McCain, and the National Democratic Institute, headed by Madeleine Albright. So you have these relentless interventionists working under a larger board that includes people like Victoria Nuland, who was in Ukraine as assistant secretary of state handing out chocolate chip cookies to protesters, urging them to overthrow their government; Elliott Abrams, who was involved in the interventions in Nicaragua and elsewhere during the 1980s.

So, the National Endowment for Democracy has now taken on the job of interfering in the politics of other countries, for what Mr. Woolsey called “very good reasons,” when there’s a “very good cause,” to “defend democracy.” So, I liked his phrase. He said something like, “We only do it for a very good cause.” Well, that’s a very flexible definition. Every country can define what a good cause is from its point of view. So if you feel that you have the right to intervene in the politics of another country and try to shape the results of its election because it’s a good cause, then you have to realize that other countries will make the same rational calculation. We cannot be outraged when other countries are doing on a smaller scale what we’ve taught the world how to do over more than a hundred years.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us, of course, to Russia and Russia’s intervention in the United States’ elections, the allegations of them and what they’re doing. So, take this to the modern era, when we’re talking about cybersecurity, when we’re talking about interfering with elections, other countries, and the response of the U.S. to Russia doing this.

STEPHEN KINZER: I think the outrage at Russian interference is a lot of crocodile tears. It’s not a good thing. It’s not good to intervene in the elections of other countries. But it’s not something that’s ever going to go away. It’s something the United States does relentlessly. And I would pull back a little and ask ourselves, “Do we really think that Russia shaped the outcome of this election? Did Russia tell us how to vote? Did Russia pour money into opposition groups or political groups, the way we do in other parts of the country?”

Democracy is under siege in this country. But when you make the list of who are the threats to democracy, Russia is about number 25 on the list. Higher on the list: U.S. Supreme Court, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Congress. All the institutions inside the United States, that are eating away at our democratic core, are doing much more to undermine the freedoms that we take for granted than any foreign intervention.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, Stephen Kinzer, the information about the methods that Russia may have used to try to influence the elections, we would be crazy not to think that the CIA and the U.S. government has not employed the same methods—use of social media—in other countries, no? I mean, in elections around the world?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, didn’t Woolsey make that very point?

STEPHEN KINZER: Actually, this is one of the main jobs of the National Endowment for Democracy. It sends money and advisers into other countries, and it teaches them: How do you make computer lists? How do you organize demonstrations? How do you make political meetings? How do you start a newspaper? These are all the building tools that we try to spread in other countries where there are governments of which we don’t approve.

Now, the National Endowment for Democracy published a report in 2013 in which they said, “Russia continues to be the priority country.” Soon after that, the Russians banned National Endowment from Democracy—for Democracy from working in Russia. Now we are—the NED is working in all the countries around Russia. It’s working in Kosovo, in Serbia. It’s working in Moldova. It’s working in Ukraine. It’s working in Belarus. So, we are trying to foment anti-Russia movements in countries all around Russia, with the aim, ultimately, of having the big prize of somehow being able to turn Russia into a country that would be subservient to our wishes.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen, we have less than a minute, but you recently wrote a piece about the U.S. political institutions—FBI, CIA, State Department—so often targets of progressives concerned about these institutions, now being targeted by Republicans. Can you talk about this shift, in the last 45 seconds?

STEPHEN KINZER: One of my professors in college was Howard Zinn. He was always telling us that the Justice Department and the FBI and the CIA were engaged in conspiracies against American freedom. Now I’m hearing this from right-wing Republicans. It’s an amazing role reversal. Now, those Republicans, who always wanted to defend the institutional strength of the United States, want to rip down the institutions that undergird American democracy. So we’re now seeing the wrecking crew from the group of political operatives who used to believe that upholding institutions was the ultimate goal of the United States. Devin Nunes is sounding more like Angela Davis every day. It’s really a remarkable change to see this coming out of a Republican White House and a Republican Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: What a way to end the show. Stephen Kinzer, I want to thank you for being with us, but we are going to do Part 2 of our conversation, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org, as we didn’t talk about some of the countries the U.S. overthrew their democratically elected leaders, from Chile to Guatemala to Iraq to back to the 19th century. That does it for our show. Stephen Kinzer, author of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, as well as the book Overthrow. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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