Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi discusses the progress (or lack thereof) in the 11-year old war on terrorism; how Dick Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” continues to define US foreign policy; the defeat of Mitt Romney and his neoconservative advisors; and why Chas Freeman would be a great replacement for Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
Scott Horton: All right. You guys don’t want to talk about the election. Neither do I. Let’s talk about something important, something that as best I can tell will be unchanged by the election, no matter which way it went, and that’s the permanent war on terror, “Cheney’s grim vision,” as I think it was the Seattle Times called it back in 2001 [ed: San Francisco Chronicle, James Sterngold, January 15, 2004]. Our guest is Philip Giraldi, also from the American Conservative magazine like our previous guest, Bill Lind. He’s the executive director of the Council for the National Interest, which sponsors this show, and of course he writes a regular column for Antiwar.com. Welcome back, Phil. How’s it going?
Philip Giraldi: I’m fine, Scott. How about you?
Horton: I’m doing good. Appreciate you joining us today. So, you know, what I want to ask you about, since I don’t want to talk about really Barack Obama or Mitt Romney necessarily, but I do kind of want to take the occasion of the presidential election yesterday and the reelection of President Obama to kind of do a little bit of a review of the terror war so far, 11 years in, and where we’re headed, that kind of thing. I posted on my Facebook page “Obama-Karzai 2024,” because that’s the deal that they signed, and I just wonder, you know, I don’t know, what’s a former CIA officer, counterterrorism officer like yourself, think of all this? Didn’t you tell me you were at CIA headquarters on September 11th?
Giraldi: Yeah, I was. Right. Right. And there was a panic like you wouldn’t have believed. (laughs) Everybody –
Horton: America’s finest and bravest, right?
Giraldi: Yeah, everybody was pouring out of the building to get into the parking lot, so it was fun to watch.
Horton: (laughs) All right. So, and now – look, I’m living in this same world as you, and I’m pretty sure you’ve been looking at this slowest motionest train wreck ever unfolding before your very eyes pretty much the same way I have this whole time. I mean, it was just – it was that night really that they announced that, “Yeah, never mind Al Qaeda, we’re going to use this opportunity to go to war with whoever we feel like. World, watch out.”
Giraldi: Yeah. Yeah. Well that eventually evolved into the Cheney, you know, 1% solution, which was that any threat out there that’s even 1% credible had to be met with a military response, and that’s where we’ve (laughs) – basically, that where we’ve gotten where we are today.
Horton: Yeah. All right, well, so, now as far as the war in Afghanistan – you know, I don’t know, say somebody reasonable had been in power (laughs), you know, magically, and they had hired someone like you or someone else reasonable to advise them on what actually ought to be done. How different would that thing have worked? I mean, would you still have gone for regime change in Kabul against the Taliban? Or would you have just limited the war to Zawahiri and bin Laden? Or what’s the deal there?
Giraldi: Well, you know, it’s again one of these things that’s kind of complicated and there are a lot of what ifs. There clearly is evidence from the Swiss embassy that the Taliban were making overtures to the United States to come up with some kind of evidence that Osama bin Laden had actually been behind 9/11, that they were willing to give him up. And of course the United States has never been able to make any kind of reasonable case that he was involved with it. So, you know, if we had somehow managed to cobble together even a vaguely plausible case, probably none of the invasion or the consequences would have happened.
Now, you know, ratcheting ahead, in terms of what happened and didn’t happen, clearly we had an interest in using military force in Afghanistan to remove Al Qaeda. There’s no question about it. But, the problem becomes with, you know, the aftermath of that. The aftermath of that, there was no plan, there was no end game, there was no way to get out of this thing, and instead of doing anything sensible, all they’ve done is stay there for an extra 11 years. And we gained nothing whatsoever out of it.
Horton: Yeah. And of course, and you know I got the very best version of this audio that I think anybody’s ever gotten – it was on TV just the other night. It’s a clip of Richard Clarke. He’s told the same story many, many times, but this is the clearest version of it ever where, the day of September 11th, before anyone in America could have really been 100% certain the attack was even over, right?, the guys on the National Security Council and throughout the White House and the Pentagon were talking about Iraq, and we got to figure out a way to blame Saddam Hussein for this – and they weren’t even interested even in going to Afghanistan at all. Apparently Colin Powell had to cry and beg them to, “Come on, you got to at least hit Afghanistan first or the world just isn’t going to understand (laughs) what the hell you’re doing,” you know?
Giraldi: Yeah, that’s right. Well, you know, obviously the whole discussion of doing something about Iraq started as soon as the Bush administration came in, way before 9/11. So this was kind of on the back burner. This was a neocon policy right from the beginning because Iraq was seen as a destabilizing force in the region, as a country that was supporting the Palestinians, that was supporting – quote, “supporting” terrorism. You know, that kind of thing. It was the usual rhetoric that we are now hearing about Iran. And it’s – I don’t know, somehow these things never go away.
I mean, one thing that came out of yesterday’s election is I am amazingly relieved that the neocons hopefully are gone forever now. I mean, I assume they’re still going to be hanging around the fringes of the Republican party, but the fact is what they represent and everything has finally been, I think, put to rest.
Horton: Well, I sure hope that’s right. I mean, they’re discrediting (laughs) – these are the people who denounce Ronald Reagan for surrendering to the Commies in 1989! I mean, they’re undiscreditable, I’m pretty sure.
Giraldi: Yeah, yeah. Well, they’re getting older now, so maybe they’ll just (laughs) disappear one at a time. I mean, it’s really, you know, scary stuff.
I thought I’d feel a lot better today with Mitt Romney losing, but actually I don’t because I’ve started thinking again about all the terrible things that Obama’s been doing. And I think that we in the antiwar community have to really focus on keeping, you know, keeping the light on these issues, and things like targeted killing, and assassination of American citizens, the use of drones in general, the hostility that we’ve been cranking up against countries like Russia and China and Iran. I mean, there are so many issues that Obama could have been a lot better, and we have to hope that now that he’s not worried about being reelected he actually will do some things that are good for the country.
Horton: Yeah, well, you know (laughs), who was it just a minute ago was saying, “Well, you know, there’s the midterms of 2006.”
Giraldi: Yeah, you’re right.
Horton: (laughs) There’s always an excuse. Yeah, I think it was Bill Lind said that at the beginning of the show. They’ll always have an excuse.
But, yeah, you know, I mean, look at right now in Iraq, you have, what, Sunni Iraqistan or whatever it’s called now that the country’s more or less been divided. I mean, don’t the Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq sort of have autonomy the same way the Kurds do at this point from the Shiite government that rules between Baghdad and Basra? And then aren’t they now just exporting jihadists to fight on the same side as America and the same side as Zawahiri against Bashar al-Assad in Syria?
I mean, what in the hell – this is where my imagination of how power works in DC starts breaking down a little bit. Usually I’m pretty good at imagining a conversation at the National Security Council or something. But how in the hell do they fight a war directly for Al Qaeda in Syria and then even discuss it among themselves? I mean, somebody’s got to be keeping a record of some of these conversations, right? How are they doing this?
Giraldi: Yeah, I agree with you 100%. And what astonishes me is that probably if you look back on the archives of your show, we were probably talking about these issues five and six months ago, and why does it take the National Security Council, with a whole lot more information and a whole lot of really smart people – self-defined, of course – why can’t they come up with this stuff that you and I could figure out a long time ago, that this is the way it was going to go? And yet they don’t seem to get the message. And it’s just absolutely astonishing that this can happen over and over and over again.
And the one, again, ray of light I see on this, it’s clear, I think, that from Hillary Clinton’s idiotic comments last weekend and also from some of the stuff coming out of the White House, that they’ve gotten very goosy about Syria. They realize it’s going south already. And maybe, you know, maybe after Libya and after Syria and after maybe another horrible example, God knows where, Mali, they’ll start to figure these things out. But there’s no room for optimism on this because they don’t seem to have a learning curve.
Horton: Yeah, I mean – you know, I’ve got to say. I’m disappointed, really. I mean, I never trusted Hillary Clinton’s motives ever or her judgment really at all. But she seems like a smart lady. I can’t but help but think back to, you know, at least how well briefed she was and how well she understood her briefings before her Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of State. I mean, she’s one really sharp broad. She knows a whole lot about a whole lot of stuff. And then she does things like fight against Khamis Gaddafi for the jihadists in Libya! What?
Horton: And then as soon as they’re done winning, she exports some of them to go fight a jihad in Syria. I mean, okay, I know you like Benjamin Netanyahu a lot and so therefore you dislike Bashar al-Assad, but come on, man! I mean, this is going to be a real problem, this whole, you know, deliberately importing jihadists from Iraq into Syria especially, and from Saudi Arabia.
Giraldi: Yeah, well, I mean, like the whole suggestion last week that the political council that runs the Syrian Free Army, or Free Syrian Army, should be revamped, and we America kids will pick out the people to replace them. You know, that was going to go over well with the Russians and with everybody else? It’s just that, you know, we seem to live in a cocoon that’s shaped by our own hubris about what we think we can get away with. But, you know, this window’s been closing for a long time, and nobody’s buying into this stuff anymore.
Horton: Yeah, well, on the other hand, though, they don’t really need to, right? I mean, they can just keep failing and following their failure hither and yon. I mean, it really does work perfectly.
Giraldi: Yeah, it’s like 1984, you know. They can always claim that f-n defeat is victory and there’s no lie that’s too big for them to be able to exploit.
Horton: Right. Yeah, I mean it’s just like saying, “Hey, if we don’t bail out the banks, the economy will suffer.” But wait, the economy is suffering because you bailed out the banks last time! I mean, that’s where the bubble came from, all that new funny money to prop up all these ailing old institutions, that’s what created the bubble that created the crisis this time. But, oh well, doesn’t matter, history began yesterday, we got to do it or else something bad will happen.
Giraldi: Well, we need the Bain Capital solution, which is basically to put everybody out of business and give money directly to the people that are running the government.
Horton: Right. And then, you know, who needs trade? We’ll just all get food and water from the National Guard when they come by our neighborhood watch, you know, every evening or whatever. You know, rations.
Giraldi: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s a strange world, I tell you. When you think about the choices that Americans have in terms of their political leadership and how the system has evolved into a virtual oligarchy which is controlled by a group of insiders who basically transcend the two major political parties. They are the ones that are important. And these people keep getting richer and richer and more and more powerful and creating laws and systems that benefit themselves, and the rest of the people get screwed. But the American people can’t quite figure it out yet. Maybe it’ll happen in our lifetimes. I hope so.
Horton: Now, here’s the thing. This whole policy has been so counterproductive, you know, compared to the American people’s goals anyway, who – you know, the American people did give permission to George Bush to go kill bin Laden and his friends, please, or whatever. You know, that was the one mandate that they did have, and the whole everything else they’ve been up to has been so contrary to that.
And yet, I thought the New York Times actually, and for the first time ever as far as I know, did a really good job on this issue the other day where they said, you know, there’s more and more movements around the world, especially of course in Africa and in the Middle East where people sort of believe like bin Laden do. But the one thing that they don’t have in common, the one thing that really made bin Laden and Zawahiri’s project unique, was that they wanted to attack the United States, because they say we’re not going to be able to win any of our local revolutions until we win the big one against the empire that’s propping up all of our local kings, and that kind of thing. And so, but none of the rest of them ever believed that. You know, the rest of them all just still wanted to fight the King of Jordan or fight Hosni Mubarak or fight Saleh in Yemen, or fight whatever whatever. So, in other words, it was the New York Times was actually sort of saying, well, jeez, it really doesn’t matter to us if Al Qaeda-ish dudes take over North Mali because so what? Like, Mali has direct access to New York City or something.
Giraldi: Right. That’s exactly right. That’s the key to this whole thing, this whole war on terror, it’s basically what you have, even though they would deny it, is you’ve had the United States government since 2001 declaring war on all Islamists. I mean, Islamist is a very, you know, elastic definition. It’s basically someone who is a religious Muslim and who is involved in local politics. So that’s an Islamist.
But the reality is that, you know, all Islamists are not basically radicals. I mean, they’re just believers in many cases. And even the ones that are radicals, very, very few of them are actually something like terrorists that threaten the United States. So, here we’ve declared war on a whole huge category of people and really there’s only a tiny sliver of this within this category that are people that really we should be worrying about.
Horton: Yeah, well, and you know if our government really did have the motive of trying to defuse all this sentiment against us, it would seem like they would want to stop setting people on fire and then screaming at their dying corpses that this is the American way. You know?
Giraldi: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, they really don’t have a clue. And that’s what bothers me about all this. I don’t know whether it’s just hubris, or if it’s just – are they getting such bad advice? I mean, you know, I – I can’t even figure it out. I mean, why are these decisions and why are these thought processes always so bad and always so wrong? It’s just, it’s a mystery. You know, you and I could sit down and figure out these things a lot faster than they can.
Horton: I think a big part of it just would be having to admit how full of it they’ve been all this time. You know? I mean, when you –
Giraldi: Well, yeah, yeah, I could see that if I were a Republican, but I mean, Obama – well, of course Obama has adopted the Republican agenda, and he had a chance to break from it but he, I guess he didn’t have the nerve, or he didn’t, wasn’t convinced enough that he could do it – I don’t know what it was, but now with his second term, you know, you’re right, he’s going to be looking over his shoulder for midterms, no question about it. But, you know, he certainly is in a position to maybe take some even baby steps in the right direction. I saw – I don’t know if you saw it. There was an article, somewhat joking, the other day where somebody suggested that when Hillary Clinton leaves as Secretary of State, the great move would be to Barack Obama to immediately appoint Chas Freeman as Secretary of State.
Horton: Oh, man, wouldn’t that be great?
Giraldi: (laughing) I thought that was tremendous.
Horton: For people who aren’t aware, this guy Freeman, he was sort of a civil servant intelligence officer type. Phil, you may know his bio exactly. But he was nominated to be the chair of the National Intelligence Council, which is very important. This is where all the intelligence agencies come together to agree to lie us into war or not to, I guess, and he was going to tell the truth, and so the neocons sabotaged the hell out of him and Obama with– or, you know, basically forced him to withdraw his own nomination, right? A couple years back.
Giraldi: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, this guy was as experienced a diplomat and intelligence expert as you’re ever going to find. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He’s an expert on China. He speaks a number of languages. I mean, the guy’s brilliant. And if you’ve ever heard him speak, he’s compelling even as a speaker. And, you know, he was basically torpedoed because they didn’t want an independent voice or somebody who would speak the truth in the corridors of power.
Horton: Yeah, well, you know, I am not expecting Obama to do anything brave. And in fact, even as far as these talks with – they’ve announced they want to have talks and resolve the pretended Iranian issue – I don’t expect things to change from, you know, the fall of ’09 or the spring of ‘010 where they pretended like they wanted to make a deal, but they didn’t want to make a deal, they were just pretending, and they – in fact, the Iranians are like, “Okay, we’ll do it.” And then Obama’s like, “No, I refuse to accept your acceptance of my offer. Get out of my face.”
Giraldi: Yeah. That’s exactly what happened.
Horton: It’s amazing, isn’t it? But, hey, they’re getting right away with it. But, you know, I don’t know. I mean I guess I hold out some hope. At least it ain’t Romney. You know, that’s all I can say. I’m not the slightest bit pleased that it’s Obama, but, like you were saying, the neoconservatives, not only did they take a hit in this thing, they – it’s really, more than that, they didn’t get the massive promotion that they were possibly going to get. I mean, just imagine to have the next Doug Feith as the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy and repeating the whole first four years of George Bush Jr. kind of a thing. I prefer the stale old crew that nobody likes anymore to a fresh-faced team of neoconservative lunatics in charge.
Giraldi: Yeah, and plus there are some interesting signs within the Obama administration in terms of how they have more or less figured out that the humanitarian interventionism is not working quite the way it should be working, so some of the voices in the administration that have been supporting that kind of thing have been somewhat muted. And, you know, I think there is a reluctance on the part of Obama to get into these things, to a certain extent, because they don’t work, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. So hopefully there are some little shifts that are going to take place, and I would like to see some big shifts, but I guess we’ll just have to hope for that.
Horton: Yeah. All right now, as far as, you know, somebody’s willing to blow himself up in a truck bomb here in the States, we have seen, eh, sort of a half-assed attempt in the Detroit attack and again in Faisal Shahzad in 2010, he tried to blow up Times Square.
I think that one especially was just a matter of luck, right? That whoever it was trained him how to make that bomb, they just didn’t do a good enough job, he wasn’t capable of pulling it off. But if we just imagine and pretend it had been a decent enough, you know, decently made thing, it could have killed, I don’t know, tens or hundreds of people. It would have been a history-changing thing, not necessarily September 11th size, but it would have, could have been huge for, you know, further effects on our liberty, that kind of thing here at home, or even, you know, maybe justifying a strike against Iran or whoever they want to point their finger at, you know, if they can frame up whichever enemy they feel like attacking best or whatever.
So I wonder, you know, what you think is the danger. After all, the U.S. has been killing people nonstop in the Middle East for a long time now and making more and more enemies. That’s what even McChrystal says, every time we kill somebody we create ten more enemies. How many of these guys are actually going to be willing to come to the United States and, you know, try again to do September 11th type attacks against American civilians, do you think?
Giraldi: Well, I mean, that’s a tough one to answer, of course. I mean, there will always be people that are willing to do that, but I would argue that there are very few of them, and even fewer of them that have any capability actually to do it. And bear in mind, I mean, the attack at Times Square, what did he say? He said he was doing it out of revenge for the fact that his family was being attacked by drones in Pakistan. So, you always have to look to the ultimate cause, when you’re being attacked, when you’re being victimized in a way – how did this start? Where does it come from?
And the United States basically is in a position now where it is, as you note, creating more enemies than it’s succeeding in killing, and it’s doing that because it’s, you know, discovered the wrong solution to the problem. The solution to the problem is not, you know, drone warfare, is not supporting corrupt regimes in various places. You know, there are other ways for the United States to deal with these issues, and we’ve never even tried them, in the last 10 years certainly.
Horton: Right. Yeah, I’m trying to kind of skate this fine line where these guys in, you know, Syria or Libya, down in Mali, maybe they’re Al Qaeda enough where I can accuse Obama and Clinton of backing these Al Qaeda-like guys, but then again they’re not Al Qaeda enough that I think that’s an excuse to war against them either? You know, is that possible? Can I have that? That it’s horrible and hypocritical that they support the mujahideen but I’m not saying they should fight them, I’m just saying call it off.
Giraldi: Well, Mitt Romney was claiming that Obama was supporting terrorists. I mean, you know, it’s like all this stuff is a question of how you want to distort the reality of what you’re seeing, and in Syria –
Horton: Well, I mean, in Syria, we’re on the side of the suicide bombers there, right?
Giraldi: Yeah, absolutely. That must be the case. I mean, it’s just absolutely crazy. I mean, Mitt Rom– we weren’t going to talk about the election, but Mitt Romney was so ignorant of anything having to do with anything in the world that it was astonishing that he could even pretend. I mean, he couldn’t even get the words right when he was trying to explain things or even get the geography right of places that he was talking about. I mean, this is – are we doomed, you know, to have nothing but idiots running for president? You know, what has happened to this country?
Horton: Yeah, that was really something, especially watching Romney. And, you know, even the New York Times called him out for this, were like, “Yeah, Romney mentioned Mali three times in the debate last night. We’re pretty sure that that was just something big and bold in a heading in his morning briefing that he still has no idea where it is, doesn’t know the first thing about it, and his criticism of Obama on Mali is that he’s backing Sunni radicals there but that, in the same breath, he’s not doing enough to back the Sunni radicals in Syria. And in fact, the same breath, he’s allowed the Sunni radicals that he fought for in Libya to attack him in Libya.
Giraldi: Yeah, well, that’s it. I mean, you know, it’s a case of if you assume that every Muslim in the world is out to get us, then you can make a case for anything you want.
Horton: Yeah, exactly. All right, hey, thanks, Phil, I really appreciate talking with you, as always.
Giraldi: Okay, Scott. Take care.
Horton: All right, everybody, that’s Phil Giraldi from the Council for the National Interest, councilforthenationalinterest.org, the American Conservative magazine, and Antiwar.com. See y’all Friday.