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Jeremy Scahill on Mistreatment of Whistleblowers & Uneven Enforcement of Laws over Classified Papers

Web ExclusiveJanuary 24, 2023
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The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill talks more about his latest article, “The Secrets Presidents Keep in Their Garages and Luxury Resorts: The ceaseless political scandals over classified documents point to deeper systemic problems with Washington’s obsession with secrecy.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We’re continuing our conversation with The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill. His latest article, “The Secrets Presidents Keep in Their Garages and Luxury Resorts: The ceaseless political scandals over classified documents point to deeper systemic problems with Washington's obsession with secrecy.”

Jeremy, it’s great to have you with us today from Zagreb, Croatia. I wanted to ask you — in Part 1 of our conversation, you talked about the documents that the Justice Department, the FBI has found in Biden’s garage and in the Biden Penn Center, etc., as well as, you know, the documents Trump took. But can you talk about, overall, in Part 2 of this conversation, about the issue of classification?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Well, you know, Joe Biden, who has been in public office for almost the entirety of his adult life, has really made cracking down on leaks, mishandling of classified information, going after whistleblowers, you know, a centerpiece of his political legacy, going back to his very, very early days as a U.S. senator in the ’70s. And, you know, Biden, at times, actually colluded with the CIA, with Republican lawmakers and others to try to stiffen or tighten the laws around the mishandling of classified information. And a lot of it has been about leaks and whistleblowers.

Donald Trump himself was just vicious toward leakers, and he, of course, wanted to wield the power of the executive branch against whistleblowers of any kind, because he wanted to stop the leaks against himself. And ironically, perhaps, Donald Trump, in 2018, signed into law a kind of escalation of the penalties that people can face for mishandling classified information, with the maximum sentence being extended from one year to five years in prison. And now he himself is under an investigation for mishandling classified information.

Biden was vice president of an administration that used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers more than all U.S. administrations in history combined. You had the prosecution of Chelsea Manning, of course, that took place. You had the efforts to try to criminalize journalism by going after James Risen, trying to force him, when he was at The New York Times, to out his sources who had given him classified information.

Under Donald Trump, it continued. You had Trump, actually — his Justice Department dug up cases that the Obama White House — or, Obama Justice Department had declined to prosecute, and then went after whistleblowers and gave them very, very long prison sentences. Two of the most high-profile cases under Donald Trump’s administration were Reality Winner, who was convicted of — I mean, the allegation was that she had leaked a top-secret document to The Intercept that showed Russian intelligence efforts to penetrate software used in some voting systems in the United States. They went after her with a vengeance, and she was sentenced to the longest prison term ever given to a whistleblower under the Espionage Act, five years in prison. Joe Biden has still refused to pardon her. That’s what she and her family are calling for right now. They also prosecuted Daniel Hale, who, of course, was accused of being the source for “The Drone Papers,” which was a project I was the lead reporter on. He also was convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 45 months in prison.

So, both of these men have track records of really going after whistleblowers, leakers, and saying that they want harsh penalties for government employees who mishandle classified information. And it really shows the sort of three worlds that exist in Washington when it comes to this issue. There’s the world of the elite politicians, where most of these people that take classified documents never get caught and never face any repercussions whatsoever, even on just a sort of, you know, talking with their friends basis, not to mention criminal prosecution. In the few cases where they get caught, the penalties are usually administrative in nature. Then you have like low-level government officials who get caught for a variety of reasons mishandling classified information, and they’re prosecuted pretty aggressively and often are sentenced to prison terms. And then you have whistleblowers, where all of the restraints of the system are off, and they just go after them with a vengeance.

So, you know, what this sort of — there’s a lot of issues here. There’s political issues. There’s legal issues. There’s questions about what is the nature of the documents. That’s going to be very important. What’s the nature of the documents Trump took? What is the nature of the documents Biden is possessing? Are they actually sensitive information? Is there something there that could actually harm the security of sources and methods? Is there an effort at blackmailing someone? Was there an effort to destroy documents to cover something up? Those are all very relevant questions.

But there’s also this sort of elephant in the room, which is that in the United States we have 4 million people with a security clearance. You have an overclassification regime, that even Nancy Pelosi recently talked about, joking, “Oh, they used to — we used to joke that they would stamp 'classified' on The Washington Post to keep us from reading it.” You had Obama, during the Hillary Clinton email scandal, saying, “There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” and that, you know, often things are classified just because you don’t necessarily want the public to see how the government is talking about something, rather than it contains sensitive information. So, you have that dynamic. And then you have the dynamic of really improperly using this law called the Espionage Act to try to just pummel and punish whistleblowers as a deterrent to keep other people from blowing the whistle on government misconduct.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeremy, I wanted to ask you — in terms of the nature of the documents, unfortunately, because they are classified, we may never know exactly what is in the documents, right? No matter what happens in the — 


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — in the investigative process. And there are issues, though, in terms of Joe Biden, in particular. Number one is, he had these documents for a long time, since he was —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — since his vice presidency. And there are concerns, because I’ve always felt that the Hunter Biden issue has been downplayed, unfortunately, by too many in the corporate press in terms of the monetizing by Hunter Biden of his father’s influence and power. But could you talk about the person who was responsible, potentially responsible, in Biden’s circle for—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — possibly dealing with these papers, and her connection to Hunter Biden?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, and, you know, Juan, this hasn’t really broken out, other than some passing mentions, you know, in the broader corporate media, but it’s becoming a very big story, for obvious reasons, in right-wing and conservative media.

Joe Biden’s executive assistant when he was vice president was a woman named Kathy Chung. And what we know from some of the emails that have now been made public from Hunter Biden’s laptop is that, going back to 2012, Hunter Biden tells Kathy Chung, who was a friend of his, that his father is going to need a new executive assistant. And she had been the assistant to the Colorado Senator Mark Udall for a number of years. And she writes back to Hunter Biden, according to these emails, very enthusiastically and asks what the job entails. “Oh my god! I can’t believe this. And do you know what the salary is?” And Hunter Biden is saying, you know, “I don’t know who else has applied for this position, but I could see you being a very strong candidate.”

And so, you know, the Republicans are going to seize on this. She’s already, by the way, Juan, been interviewed by investigators in this probe, but the next iteration of this is going to be when the House Republicans start using the power of subpoena. And I would imagine that they are going to zero in on the issue of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, who definitely had access to that garage, was around that Corvette, was, you know, spending extensive time there. Who did — you know, did Hunter Biden have access to these documents? These are all going to be questions.

And then, when it regards — regarding Kathy Chung, you know, she — her friends have been quoted in the press as saying that she’s like — you know, she’s horrified at this. You know, she is just, you know, devastated at the idea that she may have been inadvertently responsible for some of this. So, our understanding right now — and, by the way, she is still working for the U.S. government. She works under the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin. So she still is in Washington, still working around classified documents. But the the assertion right now is that — and what we know is that she was one of the people that was helping to oversee this process of getting Biden’s papers as vice president into a temporary space in Virginia that he had prior to the Penn Biden Center opening in 2018. But there’s definitely going to be questions asked by the Republicans, because we know that there are supposedly documents dealing with Iran, dealing with Ukraine.

Unfortunately — and I know you know this, Juan — there is so much to investigate with Biden, but the Republicans are the ultimate bad-faith actors. And, you know, all this talk of, “Oh, this is going to be the new Church Committee,” I mean, what a ridiculous joke. I mean, these people are — some of the things they’re going to investigate are going to be in the public interest, that is true. But the the sort of carnival of crazy that they are going to bring to town, the sort of partisan wielding of the power of the subpoena, the very narrow looking at only certain people’s actions when the entire system needs to be examined, is going to undermine the credibility of it. We absolutely need an investigation into what took place during Donald Trump’s administration and also what is going on with Joe Biden and these classified documents, not to mention other scandals, including Hunter Biden. The problem is that when the messengers are — or, in this case, the interrogators are not credible themselves, it ultimately does a favor to those who are being investigated. And I think that, unfortunately, is how the Democrats are going to rightly play this, that these people are nuts, and they’re engaged in a partisan witch hunt, versus a very serious probing of what the current president of the United States knew, when he knew it, what documents he had, how he came to have them, and who else had access to them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about in terms of the Trump documents? What do we know about so far, if anything, about the actual content of the documents that Trump —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — illegally walked away with?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, well, it’s an interesting question about legal, because it’s — you know, there’s going to be a political question here, you know, if they indict Trump on something and they don’t indict Biden, or if there even is something that they can indict Trump on. I mean, it seems pretty clear that the government believes they have an obstruction case against people in Trump’s orbit. I don’t know that they yet have been able to directly link Trump to directing them to mislead investigators, but that seems to be where this is heading.

But what we understand is that the first batch of documents that they got from Trump, quote-unquote, “voluntarily” — he had to basically be threatened to do it, but they handed them over — contained information that the investigators felt was sensitive enough that they were deeply concerned about what else he had. And, you know, it is possible — you know, when you look at some declassified documents, you often look at these things — or when you see they redacted this, and then later you see the unredacted version, it really is kind of nutty that some things are classified. But there are legitimate things that are classified for a variety of reasons. And some of them, you know, as critical as we all are of the empire, are with good reason, because they could result in people being killed. So, we don’t know exactly what Trump has. We know that there’s some — let’s call it memorabilia, like his letter from Barack Obama that was left for him in the White House. OK, that should be preserved by the National Archives. Is it a grave national security issue that he took it? I don’t think anyone could really make that case. But the people of the United States have a right to see that document, as they have with other letters. So, it’s possible he has documents that pertain to very sensitive programs.

There was a case of Alberto Gonzales, who was the former attorney general under George W. Bush. When he went from being White House counsel to being attorney general, he took documents that were top secret and code name classified, a very high level of classification. And he brought them to his house. And then he brought them back into the Justice Department, and he put them in a safe that was not for top-secret documents but was just for secret documents. And so, there was a whole investigation of Alberto Gonzales, and ultimately, he was cleared of any, you know, criminal or administrative wrongdoing. Democrats privately right now, Juan, are kind of pointing to that case and saying, “This is more like kind of like what Biden did.”

In the case of Trump, unfortunately, you have to wonder if he took any of these documents for nefarious purposes, other than just like, you know, fluffing his own ego or being able to show people at Mar-a-Lago, “Ooh, here’s a secret document.” It’s totally plausible, unfortunately, that Trump did take them for illicit purposes. But the problem that Democrats have is they’ve already told people that is what it is. And then their guy not only has documents from his time as vice president, but going back to his time as a senator.

And, you know, I think that the big public secret here is that — and I’m sure a lot of people in Washington are nervous — all these guys take classified documents. It’s just pervasive in Washington. So, you know, it does matter what the documents actually are. But when I talked to, you know, Ben Wizner, from the ACLU, who is Snowden’s legal counsel and has done a lot of litigation around these issues, Jameel Jaffer and others, they’re basically saying the overwhelming odds are that nothing either of these guys took could cause real harm. But we need to wait to see what the actual documents are, because that’ll be crucial to whether the Justice Department proceeds with a prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about Gonzales, what about the others, people like Petraeus, people like the former —


AMY GOODMAN: — Director of Central Intelligence Deutch, what they took? And then talk about people who deliberately leak for the security of the country, they feel. They feel it’s for patriotic reasons, whether we’re talking about Ed Snowden, whether we’re talking about Reality Winner, whether we’re talking about Daniel Hale.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Let’s even go back to something you didn’t mention that never even went with any charges whatsoever, not to — you know, we could talk about David Petraeus, which we did in Part 1, you know, where he took classified materials and showed it to a woman that he was having an affair with, who also was writing a biography of him, and that clearly was sort of a bravado enterprise on Petraeus’s part, and he just got a slap on the wrist in terms of any criminal penalties, or, let’s say, a light tap on the wrist, because, you know, he can make still a lot of money as a consultant, etc., etc.

But remember when the raid happened on Osama bin Laden in 2011. The Obama White House was leaking left and right about the details of that raid, all of which were at the highest level of classification. This isn’t about documents. This is about sharing classified information of one of the most sensitive military operations in the history of the republic. And nothing ever happened to them.

That is the general tone in Washington, the general posture, is that when you’re — you have official leaks, which is OK, and then you have WikiLeaks, which has to be criminalized. You have Edward Snowden, which has to be criminalized. You have Daniel Hale and “The Drone Papers,” showing that, at times, as many as nine out of 10 people killed in drone strikes were not the intended target; Daniel Hale, who was — who blew the whistle on the watchlisting program and the violations of civil liberties. The documents of WikiLeaks provided by Chelsea Manning, the documents of Daniel Hale on the drone program and the no-fly lists, the documents of Edward Snowden on warrantless wiretapping and surveillance, all of these resulted in concrete changes to laws or resulted in lawsuits going forward that resulted in Americans securing their rights. What did the leaks of John Brennan and others during the the Osama bin Laden raid achieve? Well, first of all, some of them weren’t even true. They were disinformation that was leaked.

You know, what is the difference between Joe Biden having a top-secret document in his garage, that plausibly foreign espionage agents from Russia or China or Israel or another major power that does surveillance in the U.S. — how do we know that they didn’t get into Joe Biden’s garage to look at these? How do we know that Trump didn’t have guests at his hotel that knew where these papers were, that got in? This is the real world. This is what the U.S. does around the world. They find ways to break secrets open. And when you take them out of secure facilities and you keep them on the floor of your garage next to a Corvette, that’s a serious issue, especially depending on what the document is.

So, you compare that risk that’s been opened by someone at the level of the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, and then you look at Reality Winner. Reality Winner was convicted of leaking one document, that revealed something that resulted in the United States trying to make its electoral voting system more secure. You can say, “Well, Reality Winner harmed the nation by doing this,” by blowing the whistle on Russian intelligence attempts to infiltrate software used in voting systems. And you can look at it and say, “How is she somehow more deserving of a prison sentence than the highest public officials in the land who leave classified documents in a box on the floor of their garage next to their Corvette?” You know, I mean, I don’t know what Biden’s document was. But just the fact that he did it is — should be contrasted with people like Reality Winner or Daniel Hale or Edward Snowden, whose motives —

AMY GOODMAN: Reality asking for a pardon from President Biden.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes, Reality Winner and her family. You know, she did her hard prison time. There’s a documentary film coming out about her. Her mother has just been so passionate in, first of all, trying to free her daughter, but, secondly, demanding that a pardon be issued. And Joe Biden thus far has failed to do that. Joe Biden’s Justice Department continued the prosecution of Daniel Hale that was initiated under Donald Trump, even though the Obama-Biden Justice Department had clearly decided they weren’t going to pursue that case.

And so, you know, what we’re looking at here is the White House and Biden strategists trying to explain this away: “Well, there’s a difference between what Biden did and what Trump did.” Yeah, there are differences, but there’s still a recklessness at the core of it. There’s still an arrogance at the core of it. There’s still a sloppiness at the core of it. And so, how are you going to be the person saying that someone like Reality Winner has to have the label of convict under the Espionage Act, but you can leave classified documents on the floor of your garage next to your Corvette? I mean, this is a totally disqualifying event to have any credibility to talk about other people mishandling classified info, especially because it extends to his time as a senator, as we understand.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, President Biden’s attack on Julian Assange. I’m not even particularly talking about —


AMY GOODMAN: — the continued prosecution and —

JEREMY SCAHILL: Effort to extradite, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — the efforts to extradite him, with the leading newspapers, New York Times, The Guardian, El País and others, Le Monde, saying that the charges —


AMY GOODMAN: — should be dropped. We’ll end there with that, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. And, I mean, look, Joe Biden also was one of the officials in the Obama-Biden administration designated to be a kind of, you know, attacker on whistleblowers, and specifically on Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. And so, you know, the fact that Assange is rotting away in a prison, fighting just to keep his health up to stay alive, and you have Joe Biden, who was a major figure in attempting to criminalize Julian Assange, in public opinion but also in support of the British incarceration of him, and is continuing to pursue the Trump-era effort at extradition, again, this incident should disqualify Biden from having much of anything to say about other people mishandling government documents.

You know, there is a logic to having secrets if you’re running a nation-state. I mean, I think any person with a brain in their head understands that there are certain things that can reasonably be classified. But so much of what’s classified in the United States shouldn’t even be secret. This is all a huge enterprise aimed at covering up embarrassing things the government doesn’t want people to know about. It’s easier to classify than not classify. No one is getting prosecuted for overclassifying a document. We don’t live in a transparent society. We don’t. And so, when you have the sitting president and the former president, both who we now know mishandled classified documents, it should spur a very serious debate about how far we’ve let this go over these decades, to the point where we are saying that people who blow the whistle are guilty of espionage. This is scandalous right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, we want to thank you so much for being with us, senior reporter and correspondent at The Intercept. We’ll link to your latest pieces, “The Secrets Presidents Keep in Their Garages and Luxury Resorts” and “The War Caucus Always Wins.” To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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