Today’s special episode of Stay Tuned is brought to you by the Amazon original motion picture, The Report. In addition to a fascinating interview with Pulitzer prize winning journalist Mark Mazzetti, you’ll hear from Daniel J. Jones, who’s extraordinary story of uncovering the truth about a CIA interrogation program is told in the film.
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned, I’m Preet Bharara.
Mark Mazzetti: The Senate intelligence report on the CIA program said that waterboarding was ineffective in getting accurate and timely information from the detainees it was used on. Coming to the conclusion that the waterboarding was not a reason for why they gave up any information. In some cases, they gave up misinformation after being waterboarded.
Preet Bharara: That’s Mark Mazzetti. He’s a Pulitzer prize winning New York times reporter and author who covered the CIA’s controversial detention and interrogation program authorized after 911 by the Bush administration. In 2007, Mazzetti broke the story of the CIA’s efforts to destroy tapes documenting enhanced interrogation tactics on suspected members of Al Qaeda, now understood to be torture. And Mazzetti’s coverage prompted investigations into the intelligence agencies treatment of detainees. Mazzetti tells me how he gets sources to talk to him, the most effective way to conduct interrogations, whether members of Congress were aware of the breadth of the CIA’s interrogation program, and what information, if any, should be withheld from national security reporting. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Today’s special episode of Stay Tuned is brought to you by the Amazon original motion picture, The Report. The Report is a thriller based on the real life investigation of the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program, which was created in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. Idealistic staffer, Daniel J. Jones is tasked by his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, to lead an investigation of the program and he uncovers the destruction of evidence, the brutal treatment of prisoners, and how the American public was misled. The report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, and features outstanding performances by Adam Driver, Annette Benning and John Hamm. As producer Steven Soderbergh notes, it’s a movie about accountability and adhering to the values that are in the constitution. It’s not a right or left movie, it’s a right or wrong movie.
Preet Bharara: In theaters, November 15th and on Prime Video, November 29th. I can tell you I’ve seen the film and it’s excellent. It’s not just well acted, it also has a lot of important themes that we should be thinking about today. If you want to learn about the rule of law and about the separation of powers, and about how the intelligence community has operated and how it should operate, there’s a lot to learn by watching this entertaining film.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from listener, Andrea Pitts, who emails, Preet, it’s my understanding of the data suggests enhanced interrogation techniques don’t work. Compassion, familiarity and relationships are going to produce more results. If this is the case, then why does a certain faction continue to push this narrative of enhanced torture when all data suggests it doesn’t work? Well, that’s an excellent question and one that lots of people have grappled with. Obviously Dan Jones grappled with, I grappled with in my book and in my work and others as well. And there’s no clear answer, but I think part of it is there’s a strain among people who think intuitively that brutality sometimes gets results. And by the way, we’re taught to think this way by a lot that comes out of Hollywood as I actually, I write in the beginning of my chapter in the book, Doing Justice, on interrogation.
Preet Bharara: We see image after image and scene after scene of the doomsday clock ticking and torture is the only way to get relevant and important actionable information. But then as I write in the real world where testosterone doesn’t flow in the streets like a river, people understand that there are better, more effective ways to get information, but you don’t have to take my word for it. If you listen to virtually every single expert and not just people who have studied the issue, but have actually done the hard work on the street and in interrogation rooms, and you talk to them and you ask them what their techniques are, some it was always the case, that rapport building and relationship building and research and homework does more than an intimidation technique.
Preet Bharara: I often talk about an officer who got a stunning bit of evidence in a case that I worked on, that was a really important case. And he said people have a misconception of how a police officer gets someone to talk to them. He says, people think it’s because I have a gun and I have a badge, and that’s actually not true. That’s the opposite of truth. He says, you know what I work really hard to do when I have someone that I want to question is I tried to get them to forget my badge and forget my gun because otherwise they won’t talk to me. And I think people also don’t understand how it might be that someone has committed a terrible act like terrorism. And I give these examples in the book as well. You think one minute they’re planning to kill hundreds or thousands of Americans and the only way to get them to talk is to be brutal back to them. And whether or not you think there’s any room for being nice to someone who’s tried to murder Americans, to me the bottom line is effectiveness.
Preet Bharara: And in case after case after case, including the time square bomber, Faisal Shazad after questioning began with respect to him when he was caught back in May of 2010 he talked for days and days and days. So the bottom line is people need to think a little bit more about the psychology of the people who are being questioned rather than their own psychology of being tough on crime, or the psychology that’s been fed to us by Hollywood cinema. So you might recall Donald Trump on the campaign trail back in 2015 who was the consummate example of a person who’s trying to pretend to be a tough guy. He said that if he became president, he’d approved more than waterboarding. Because for him waterboarding wasn’t enough. He’s going to be tougher than waterboarding even. And I think he said also, if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.
Trump: They asked me, why do you think about waterboarding, Mr. Trump? I said, “I love it, I love it.” And I said, “The only thing is we should make it much tougher than waterboarding, and if you don’t think it works folks, you’re wrong.”
Preet Bharara: So the bottom line is I think that in a lot of places there’s an emphasis on macho posturing and politics and putting out a particular point of view of the world rather than focusing on the hard and true facts on the ground, and the track record that has been proven over and over and over again, not just with respect to the post 911 detainees, but with criminals at large generally.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from Nicholas Roma who asks in an email, you write about interrogation techniques in your book. Can you share some that you found effective in the criminal law context? So I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, I’ll discuss a couple of others that have always stood out in my mind. There was a detective I used to work with Kenny Robins, who when he picked up a narcotics defendant and wanted that person to flip, meaning cooperate against other people in connection with the conspiracy. The way that you use that person for the purposes of law enforcement is you get them to confess what they did and you get them to tell you about what other people did. So it’s a method of interrogation that requires that person to make a particular decision. And what Kenny says and he’s about a tough a cop as I’ve met, was that bluster and yelling and screaming and intimidation, like every other cop who’s good at their job has said it doesn’t do the trick.
Preet Bharara: He says, look, I try to be honest and firm, and I tell them what the scoop is and I tell them what the landscape is. And so his method that he used to great success would be to sit the defendant in a room and if it was available, he would find a picture of his family, loved ones, and put the picture in front of the defendant who he wanted to flip. And he’d say, look. So the potential cooperator was alone with his own thoughts and a picture of his family. And then he would come back and then detective Kenny Robins would come back in and without yelling or screaming or threatening or finger-pointing, he would say, look, I know you have a choice here, you can be a man, because it’s a lot about macho and a lot about ego in these situations.
Preet Bharara: He says, you can be a man and decide to be quiet, you could be a man and take your time and go to jail. Or you could be a man and be there for your daughter when she graduates, be there for your mom if she get sick, be there for your wife, be there for their birthdays. So you need to decide what kind of man it is you want to be. And that was an effective way of getting people to tell him stuff. The other thing that’s important to remember, usually effective interrogation involves homework. Learning a lot about the person from whom you’re trying to get information. You don’t just blunder fourth Willy nilly. This is a technique that was used by Han Scharf, the Nazi interrogator that Errol Morris and I talked about in the episode last week.
Preet Bharara: There’s another example that I provide in the book of a detective who learned that there was a potential witness who might know a lot about a horrible homicide. And the detective rather than rushing to that witnesses door and asking a lot of questions and blundering forth, as I said, decided to research everything there was to be known about that person. And one of the things he found out, was this person was deeply religious. I don’t want to spoil the story in the book, but the detective knowing that person was religious, invoked religion and God a week before Christmas in a particular way that actually moved the heart of the witness and he provided critical information that helped us to solve the homicide. So it’s about rapport, it’s about being firm, it’s about being credible, it’s about doing your homework and doing your research. All those things in combination end up being effective.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from Christine who asks in an email, putting aside the legality, are there any circumstances whatsoever that would justify torture? You’re talking to a lawyer, former prosecutor, and when you begin to question with putting aside the legality, that’s a little bit tough for me to stomach. But look, there are two questions when it comes to any kind of law enforcement technique, right? One is, is it right, is it appropriate, is it lawful, is it ethical, is it moral? And the other, is it effective? I think largely the debate can be won on the second ground, is it effective? As you see, if you watch the movie, The Report, and if you read the parts of The Report that have been made public, and you study history, you realize that on occasions where quote unquote torture has been used, it almost never results in new information or real information or true information.
Preet Bharara: At some point, people are so under assault by the torture history tells us they’re prepared to say anything to get the torture to stop and sometimes they don’t even know what they’re saying. So I don’t think there are circumstances based on the evidence that I have seen justifying torture because it doesn’t work. It’s not effective. I think it would be a more interesting moral philosophical question if there was a particular technique that we could define as torture that was proven to be highly effective. Fortunately or not, I don’t think we actually have that dilemma.
Preet Bharara: This question from Damien in an email he asks, why should we ever trust the CIA given that they have breached public trust many, many times throughout history? Look, that’s a pretty tough question. There are other institutions as well. The FBI misbehave in a very bad way some decades ago, the CIA has, presidents of the United States have, some media outlets have. And when that happens, what’s incredibly important and necessary is whether the messages of our podcast and of the movie is you need aggressive congressional oversight, and you put into place reforms and controls and checks so it doesn’t happen again. And you make sure that you appoint good people to those positions. One of the people on whose podcast I’ve appeared and he was on ours too with Michael Morrell, former acting director of the CIA. And he makes the point very compellingly that the CIA is supposed to be accountable, should be accountable.
Preet Bharara: And I think it’s all right to be skeptical of things that law enforcement does, and the intelligence community does, and you have to see over time, have they built up trust? Have they shown themselves to be not only smart and wise about predicting things in other countries? I remember they fell down on the job a little bit on 911, but also whether they’re doing their jobs in a way that is consistent with American values, traditions, and constitutional principles. And when they veer far away from that, or they veer away from that at all, then it’s up to the public through Congress to hold them accountable. But I don’t think that it’s wise or even tenable to simply throw out anything that the CIA does going forward because there have been violations and misconduct in the past. Any institution is only as good as how it learns to deal with the demons of its past and gets beyond them.
Preet Bharara: Today’s episode is brought to you by the Amazon original motion picture, The Report. We spoke to Daniel J. Jones, whose story is told in the film. Jones spent years investigating the CIA’s or willing and enhanced interrogation techniques including torture that the agency deployed against detained terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. That investigation yielded a 6,700 page report, which concluded that the CIA’s program was ineffective at obtaining either intelligence or cooperation, and that the agency misled Congress and the public. I want to play a short clip from the movie featuring Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones and Annette Bening is Diane Feinstein. Daniel spent years investigating the CIA’s secret interrogation program created after the September 11th attacks.
Adam Driver: Everything they got from him was either a lie or something they already had.
Annette Bening: Well, okay, so my first question is if it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?
Adam Driver: Maybe when the report comes out, people will finally see that.
Annette Bening: Well, let’s worry about getting it right, getting it done. We can worry about changing the world later.
Preet Bharara: I asked Dan if it was difficult to relive such an intense period while making the film, and here’s what he said.
Daniel J. Jones: Well, this was an intense seven years of research and documenting what we had found. And then of course, the fight to release the report. And it was an intense seven years for myself and the staff that worked with me, and of course, the senators. Is it difficult to watch this story, on a personal level a bit, but it’s so much bigger than any one person, right? This is about our nation and it’s why the staff and the senators and the institution the Senate, works so hard to get this done. It’s bigger than any one person, and we need the world to know this story and most importantly, we need us citizens to know this story. This was done under their name with their dollars and it was grossly ineffective and it was contrary to our values.
Preet Bharara: For more of my conversation with Daniel, stay tuned after my interview with Mark Mazzetti and see The Report in theaters November 15th and on prime video November 29th.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Mark Mazzetti, he’s the Washington investigative correspondent for the New York times and a two time Pulitzer prize winner for his work with other Times, reporters and international and national reporting. Formerly the Times national security correspondent, Mazzetti extensively covered the CIA’s post 911 enhanced interrogation tactics, getting scoops and breaking stories about the agency’s secret program, including the destruction of videotapes that captured tactics like waterboarding determined to be torture. Mazzetti’s work sparked investigations by the justice department and Congress, culminating in the Senate intelligence committees, infamous review known as, The Torture Report, which delves into the CIA’s covert program concluding that the techniques did not yield effective information and that the techniques were torture.
Preet Bharara: Mazzetti and I dive into his blockbuster reporting, discuss whether reporters should have an emotional response to their work, assess Trump’s attitude towards intelligence agencies and I even asked him how phone transcripts are stored on secret White House servers. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Mark Mazzetti, welcome to the show.
Mark Mazzetti: Thanks for having me on.
Preet Bharara: So you are a national security reporter, am I right?
Mark Mazzetti: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: That’s kind of an interesting beat, not just today, but going back throughout the entire time you’d done it. Why that beat for you?
Mark Mazzetti: About March or April of 2001, I was a general assignment reporter in Washington and my editor asked if I was interested in covering the Pentagon and I said I have no background in this and would be in entirely over my head, maybe you want to find someone else. And he said, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing happening, you’ll be fine.” And then three or four months later, 911 happened, and then I was in Afghanistan a couple of months after that and yeah, it’s been busy since then.
Preet Bharara: So I want to get into some of the scoops, but you’re sort of Mr scoop. How do you get your scoops?
Mark Mazzetti: I mean, it’s getting people to trust you and open up to you. That takes in this world, a lot of time. It’s meeting people, it’s developing a track record of being fair with sources of your stories being accurate I guess. And then you build upon that and sometimes information comes to you, but more often than not you’ve got to seek it out. You’ve got to sort of look for places where people might want to talk about these subjects. But it’s difficult, it takes a lot of time and places like The Times and Washington Post and Wall Street journal, there are a handful of news organizations that will devote the resources to allow people time and money to travel to get these kinds of stories.
Preet Bharara: So you have over time had, fair to say, you’ve had sources in the intelligence community.
Mark Mazzetti: Yes.
Preet Bharara: So when you were trying to develop a source, you call them up the first time, they don’t talk to you, call them up a second time, they don’t talk to you. Is there some point where you give up with particular people or do you just keep bothering them until they want to scream at you?
Mark Mazzetti: It’s a little tricky. You have to sometimes go with a gut feeling if being persistent might eventually pay off. Basically, you can wear the person down over time. Then you keep going, if there is a feeling that it’s only going to backfire on you, that being persistent will mean the person will never talk to you, then you’ve got to find another way in. You probably try to have to find someone that person knows to vouch for you. There’s different approaches for different people.
Preet Bharara: Do you ever go to people’s homes? Bob Woodward likes to tell the story about how a great time to get someone to talk to you is to show up at their home just before supper. Do you ever do that?
Mark Mazzetti: I have showed up at people’s homes at different times with different levels of success. Had a few doors shut on my face, had a few doors opened up.
Preet Bharara: You ever get shot at?
Mark Mazzetti: No. Knock on wood. Not yet.
Preet Bharara: Given your overall experience in journalism, is there something different about trying to get information from folks in the intelligence community, the national security world or are they the same just human beings like everyone else?
Mark Mazzetti: No, it is very different. You have people who they’re active duty intelligence officers, these are people who would take polygraphs every five years. And one of the questions on a polygraph is have you had any unauthorized contact with the media? So most of these people would avoid you like the plague, they do avoid me like the plague. Contrast to another source in another part of Washington and another port of government where they’re not necessarily dealing with classified information, and they might be more willing to talk to you because when it boils down to it potentially breaking the law or significantly endangering their own careers. These are the risks that people take when they talk to national security reporters about mostly classified matters. It does take time and effort and a little bit of creativity, you might be able to find ways to talk to people, seek them out, use sources of yours currently to vouch for you to open up new doors.
Preet Bharara: Right. So let’s go back to 2001. You begin to cover the Pentagon, 911 happens. And I’m not going to ask you what you were doing on that particular day, but the thing I wanted to spend some time on, is what happened in the aftermath of 911 because you had some particular scoops with respect to that. And there’s a movie coming out that talks about some of what the CIA did in the aftermath of 911. So 911 happens, remind people with the mood was with respect to preventing another attack at that time.
Mark Mazzetti: Well, the country hadn’t experienced anything like it. So the attitude in the government was that they blew it, that there were mistakes that had been made that allowed this attack to happen. And so they were going to do whatever they could to prevent another attack from happening again. Of course, we first meant that with very little discussion, the United States started a war in Afghanistan because that was the obvious place that the United States felt we needed to go after Al-Qaeda. But there were a lot of other things that were undertaken that took a lot of time to ferret out. Things that the CIA began to take on very shortly after the September 11th attacks, but took a couple of years to really figure out the extent of what the CIA was doing, and it was something that I ended up writing a book about it, but the September 11 attacks and the decade after that really fundamentally changed the CIA from what was a primarily intelligence gathering and analysis clandestine service to a covert military service that was at the front lines of America’s Wars overseas.
Preet Bharara: And was that a good thing?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that the CIA had some real successes. The killing of some of Osama Bin Laden was a CIA operation that was carried out by Navy seals, but that was certainly a success. A lot of success has been attributed to the CIA going after Al-Qaeda as it existed on 911, and the use of the drone program has drawn a lot of criticism. It has drawn praise in some quarters for the use of a more limited form of warfare that does not have extensive civilian killings. Now of course the real dangers here is that having the CIA be in charge of so many Wars overseas is by its nature the CIA is going to try to keep things secret. And the more that Wars are prosecuted in secret, the greater potential for mistakes, greater potential for real excesses and abuses. So we’ve seen a mixed record since 911.
Preet Bharara: So when the CIA and the other agencies in the intelligence community saw what havoc and destruction was wrought on 911, they undertook some more aggressive stances and you said they sort of converted themselves a little bit into a sort of a paramilitary organization and we’ll talk about some of those things in a second. Was that done you think sort of very quickly and in a knee jerk reaction or was there appropriate and thoughtful deliberation before choosing to go down a more aggressive path in some ways?
Mark Mazzetti: It was done quickly, and I think in the earliest days after 911 there was this belief in the Bush administration that a great part of this war had to be carried out in secret and by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The places where the United States thought it had to go after Al-Qaeda were not places in a lot of cases where you could send in the hundred and first airborne division. So that would mean more clandestine activities, that would mean that the CIA would basically be the point on this global war. And this is something that George Tennant pushed for right after the September 11th attacks. And you see in the month after the attacks how not only is the CIA given authority by the Bush administration to carry out this war, but it starts building up an infrastructure to go around the world and capture and interrogate Al-Qaeda operatives.
Preet Bharara: So among other things, when the United States began capturing people that we thought were involved in some way, not in 911, they began using what some people call enhanced interrogation techniques and depending on what the technique was, other people might call, torture. And I’m going to fast forward a little bit to you and then we’ll come back again. In 2007, you broke a very important story about this activity by the CIA. What was that?
Mark Mazzetti: It was a story about how the CIA, a couple of years earlier had destroyed interrogation video tapes of the first two of its detainees that it captured under this program.
Preet Bharara: And those detainees were?
Mark Mazzetti: Abu Zubaydah and Abdu Nashiri, who had been involved in the USS Cole bombing. So these were the first two detainees, the CIA picked up and move them to Thailand, which was the first facility the CIA used for its interrogation. And when it started at that facility, they started taping the interrogations.
Preet Bharara: What was the basis and reason for taping this conduct?
Mark Mazzetti: We tried to talk to a lot of people about, why would you videotape these interrogations? And one reason was, and it’s a little ironic, is that they were set up to sort of ensure that the rules were followed, that there were a slate of interrogation techniques that were approved and it was videotaped to document that they were being done correctly, or at least within the boundaries of the department of justice guidelines that had been set. But then what happened is as the program became increasingly controversial, as it began being examined by Congress, examined by other parts of the government, including the CIA inspector general, it kind of became radioactive.
Mark Mazzetti: And so those tapes that were made early on became a liability. And they were sitting in a safe in CIA station and Thailand. And in 2005 as more details of the program were emerging, newspaper articles were being written about it, there was a decision made at the CIA, destroy the tapes because they are going to only do us more harm in the future.
Preet Bharara: But that decision to destroy the tapes was not coming from the White House, was it?
Mark Mazzetti: No. The decision was made by the head of the CIA’s clandestine service at the time, a man named Jose Rodriguez. Now Rodriguez had been trying for some time to get approval to destroy the tapes. Because as I said, as the program became increasingly controversial, Rodriguez realized that the tapes were a liability. And so he had asked basically permission from the White House, from his higher ups at the CIA to have them destroyed. He was told not to do it or it was punted down the road. And eventually he goes to lawyers working for the clandestine service and basically says, “Is it in my authority to order the destruction of the tapes?” And basically he’s told, “Broadly, it’s within your legal authority to do it,” and that’s all he needed. And he ordered them destroyed. And that was that until I did the story a couple of years later, revealing that the tapes had been destroyed.
Preet Bharara: Now not all detainees who are subject to this treatment had those things recorded, right? Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded, correct? How many times?
Mark Mazzetti: 183 times.
Preet Bharara: And was any of that recorded?
Mark Mazzetti: No, not to our knowledge. The taping stopped, we believe after the second detainee, Nashiri, and it was only carried out at this facility in Thailand. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was taken to a different facility.
Preet Bharara: Remind people what waterboarding is. It was a phrase that was much more prevalent some years ago when this was more actively in the news. What is waterboarding and is it torture?
Mark Mazzetti: Waterboarding is lying a detainee on his back, putting a hood over him, and then pouring water down his throat while keeping his mouth open. It is described as a quote, simulated drowning technique, but I mean in fact it really is a form of drowning. CIA started using it after a couple of psychologists had come to the CIA and said, American servicemen have things done to them as part of their own training. So American air force pilots are subjected to waterboarding as part of their training to sort of train them in case they are captured. So waterboarding is used on them as a way to sort of resist giving up information under interrogation. So they reverse engineered a program and then did it on the Al-Qaeda detainees. There was a big debate over whether the CIA program itself was a torture program, and there was a debate in the news media including the New York times about what to call it. From our news judgment, when you’re talking about waterboarding as a method, there’s no longer a debate for us that it is torture.
Preet Bharara: How effective is waterboarding in getting information that is accurate from detainees?
Mark Mazzetti: The Senate intelligence report on the CIA program said that waterboarding was ineffective in getting accurate and timely information from the detainees it was used on. The CIA and Bush administration officials had said that technique in itself was effective, but the Senate intelligence report is fairly persuasive in sort of documenting what detainees were saying before they were subjected to waterboarding, what they said after, matching it up and then coming to the conclusion that the waterboarding was not a reason for why they gave up any information. In some cases they gave up misinformation after being waterboarded.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. And one of those examples is Abdi Zubeida, right? Abdi Zubeida gave up actionable information before he was waterboarded and according to the report, nothing really new after that, right?
Mark Mazzetti: Yeah. I mean, there’s a whole interesting history of Abdi Zubeida’s interrogation. So when he’s picked up in the spring of 2002, he’s initially questioned by FBI interrogators. And they are using traditional FBI methods of questioning. One of them is called rapport building, where you are developing a relationship with the person you’re questioning, but it’s all toward an end of eliciting information from the detainee. And during this period of time, according to documentation and interviews, Zubeida was giving up information to the FBI. But then they were basically then told to stop. And as the CIA was getting approval for this whole new slate of interrogation methods, including waterboarding, and then once they get the approval, Abdi Zubeida is the first person that the methods were used on, and according to the Senate intelligence report he did not give up valuable information after that.
Preet Bharara: And one of those FBI agents was Ali Sufon, I believe, right?
Mark Mazzetti: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: I want to ask you a personal question. As you’re reporting on this, the conduct that was taped and then the tapes were destroyed and you’re hearing about the things that some of these detainees were subjected to, did you react in any personal way? How did you feel about it? Not just as a reporter, but as an American? Or are you not allowed to have those feelings?
Mark Mazzetti: No, I think it’s a good question. I’ve been doing this, as I said since, right before 911. So the September 11th attacks had a big impact on me and on my career. You know that some of these detainees were not good people, they were very bad people and you learn about them in that context. But then the more you learn about how the interrogation sessions happened, the more I think it did Personally lead me to question why the United States decided to go down this path. I think one of the things that was most striking to me about reading the voluminous Senate intelligence committee report was seeing the reactions of the CIA officers in the field watching the interrogations.
Mark Mazzetti: I think for all of the details in that report, to me watching the interrogators, some of them are describing kind of with horror what they are seeing in front of their eyes being done to these detainees, that their colleagues are doing, and they’re writing messages back to CA headquarters basically saying this isn’t working and we really think we should stop. And they’re basically told, don’t put this in writing, and basically what you say doesn’t matter. I think it was very stark for me to read the actual cables because these are people watching in real time what’s being done.
Preet Bharara: And presumably that’s why there was so much reporting about this, right? Because people who were within the intelligence community had an attack of conscience about this, right?
Mark Mazzetti: It was a controversial program inside the CIA. These things take time to figure out, to find out that, first of all, what is the scope of the program, and also to find out how it was approved by whom and who might’ve agreed and who might’ve disagreed with it. There are lots of CIA officers who served at that time who have told me how angry and horrified they were to learn that the agency was doing this. Now, I think a little bit of perspective is important because the CIA had basically been out of the interrogation and detention business for decades. They had done it during the Vietnam war. But then after that they had zero expertise, no approved guidelines to how to first capture prisoners and interrogate them. And so this was all done very quickly without a whole lot of considered thought, and done in this period after 911 when there was this concept that another attack was going to occur.
Mark Mazzetti: No, that’s not at all to explain away anything, but it was to say that the CIA was basically doing this by the seat of their pants. We interviewed one CIA officer when we were talking about the origins of the program and they said it was a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm. They knew nothing and yet knew they wanted to do something.
Preet Bharara: Was there anything that you read either in your reporting or in the report that shocked you the most?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that besides reading the actual cables of the officers who are watching these methods being used in real time, I think the stark descriptions of the conditions of some of the facilities how people set aside the interrogation methods, how they were detained, shackled to the ceiling naked with cold water doused at them in the middle of the winter in Afghanistan. These are extreme methods that even went beyond what had been approved by the justice department, and yet even for people who exceeded the boundaries of legality of the program, there really was never much accountability for them.
Preet Bharara: But do you think these people were acting, this may be an odd way to put it, were acting in good faith. In other words, you could disagree with what they did and you could think that it violated all sorts of norms and principles about how you treat other human beings no matter what they have done or that it was ineffective, but do you believe that the people who are engaging in this conduct, and we’ll get to the criminal investigation in a moment, is it your sense that these people misguided or not, were acting in good faith to further the national security of the United States?
Mark Mazzetti: I think I’m going to avoid painting with a broad brush. I think I’d actually pump that question.
Preet Bharara: Was it a mixture? I mean, do you think there was some people who…
Mark Mazzetti: Yeah, I think there was a mixture. I think that there were certainly those who were involved in the development of the program who said, we got stuck with this program, we didn’t want to do it, but we got stuck with it and we had to take these people on. Now, setting aside how the detention and the interrogation methods were handled and carried out, certainly there were a lot of people in the CIA and elsewhere who were very committed to making sure there was not another 911, and that was first and foremost in their mind.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. It’s interesting to me, and I talk about this a little bit in my book, the dimension in which you argue about this kind of interrogation technique, right? You can argue about it on a moral level, you can also argue about it on the basis of effectiveness. Do you think people make the mistake of arguing about it one way versus another, and is the best way to argue about it so that you don’t get into sort of a moral dialogue that some people will disagree with you on? The best way to talk about it is to say, look, it’s not effective. It doesn’t matter if it’s in humane or not, if it doesn’t work, why bother using it?
Mark Mazzetti: I mean that’s one level to argue. There is the infamous ticking time bomb scenario where it’s used in TV in Hollywood where someone has tortured and then with seconds before the bomb goes off, they give up the critical piece of information and the bomb is diffused and there’s a happy ending. And those who are in this business say, that just doesn’t happen. It’s a disingenuous argument to make that there’s a ticking time bomb scenario, and that those who with a real deep history in interrogation will say that these methods don’t reliably get good information. They are ineffective. That doesn’t mean they’re never effective, but more often than not, they are ineffective.
Mark Mazzetti: There is an enduring myth that it is, I think. And you saw it at the beginning of the Trump administration where president Trump said, I want to bring this back. I want to bring back torture, and he didn’t seem to have any bones about just calling it torture. He said, it’s torture and I think it works.
Preet Bharara: It’s beautiful torture, it’s perfect torture.
Mark Mazzetti: Yeah, that’s right. And you’ll recall that James Madison who was the defense secretary at the time, kind of one condition of him taking the job was that he was not going to bring these interrogation methods back. But there was this enduring sense that the United States had given up a critical tool in fighting terrorism when it abandoned the CIA program and if we only brought it back, we’d be far more effective.
Preet Bharara: Can I ask you a question about how you approach this from the position of a journalist who’s supposed to be neutral in some particular way? Although that’s a confusing concept. I mean, did you have a personal moral view of his conduct, and knowing that some people were in favor of these techniques, did you have to separate your personal view from your reporting on it? How did you handle that issue?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that there’s a lot of issues that as a reporter you have to, and you do separate any personal opinions or feelings from what your job is, which is to find out information that was not known before and put it in proper context and analysis and if it’s newsworthy to present it to readers. We found that it was an enormously newsworthy thing to learn details about how the CIA carried out this interrogation and detention program. It was, as I said at the beginning, one of the first things the Bush administration decided on that this was how they were going to prosecute the war on terror. So we needed to find out more and it took us some time, but not just the New York times, but others found out a whole lot of information about a program that there wasn’t newsworthy.
Mark Mazzetti: I think if you go back to I guess a week or so after 911, when Dick Cheney I think was on, Meet The Press and he basically said, this war is going to be carried out in the shadows and it’s going to maybe take decades. And I think for the media, the press, we could have said good luck with your decades long war. We’ll check in when it’s over, or we could go in to try to find out what’s happening as much in real time as possible and I think that’s what our job is.
Preet Bharara: So Congress and specifically the Senate intelligence committee that you’ve referenced a couple of times began to investigate the destruction of the tapes. Was that necessary?
Mark Mazzetti: Well, I certainly had no sense when I wrote that story. I mean knew it was going to have an impact because I thought it was an important story, but certainly had no sense that within first days and then within months that both the department of justice and then the Senate would investigate the destruction of tapes and the interrogation program writ large, that the story I wrote was kind of a match that lit this fire was certainly a bit of a shock to me. But I think the story that I wrote showed that a great deal more needed to be learned and there’s only so much that news organizations can find out. Sometimes it takes investigative bodies that the United States government has that have subpoenas, et cetera, to get more facts.
Preet Bharara: And how do you think Congress did in its oversight role on this issue?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that it took time for Congress to really properly execute its role as overseers of the intelligence world. And I would say the defense department for that matter too, in the years after 911. I mean, if you look at the intelligence committees, they were set up in the 70s as a result of the church and piking investigations that revealed all sorts of excesses carried out by the CIA, revealed a whole lot of the sort of dirty laundry of the agency in the earliest decades of its existence. So they basically set up committees in order to properly provide oversight of what the CIA and other intelligence agencies were doing. But I think that it took a few years after 911 for Congress to realize that their job is to approve activities and properly oversee American national security, but it’s also to hold accountable these agencies for any excesses and to be sure that if Congress is going to be approving money for secret programs, that Congress knows the breadth of these programs as they exist. And I think that it did take some time after 911 for Congress to play that role.
Preet Bharara: But how do you square the following that Congress, at least certain members of Congress need to be notified and advised of things that the intelligence community does in this case enhanced interrogation techniques. So simultaneously to have approved those things and then later decide to investigate them and expose misconduct? Or was it the case that Congress wasn’t really advised properly?
Mark Mazzetti: That’s still a matter that different people will disagree on depending on where you sit. We do know that Congress was briefed on interrogation techniques that the CIA had offered up and had been approved by the justice department. So we know that there was a briefing to the intelligence committee leadership about these methods. As you say, then the question is, well, if you’re in on the program, then how do you properly oversee it? And I think this is a fundamental tension that exists with the intelligence committees. You are let in on all the secrets and unlike your other colleagues in Congress, you know a great deal about the most classified programs that the American government runs.
Mark Mazzetti: And by being led into the club as it were, does it then color your judgment about the conduct of these programs? In a way, you could see it’s a little bit of a Stockholm syndrome that happens with-
Preet Bharara: Right. There’s some capture that goes on.
Mark Mazzetti: Yes, and I think there’s some of that that happened in the years after 911 where the CIA has to notify Congress about covert action, then the overseers become hamstrung. They see their role as changing.
Preet Bharara: It leads to a misimpression that some people have I think also fed by the movies that you have clandestined operations that go on, CIA has covert operations that go on and people assume they never want to tell Congress because they want to do all this stuff and go rogue. When the contrary is often true, which is they tell the Congress enough so that they have buy-in and they can say for all time thereafter that this wasn’t a CIA program, this was a U.S. government program. Mike Morrell came on the show and said exactly that in good faith. We did this program that relevant members of Congress knew about it, so it’s a U.S government program, not a CIA program. How far does that argument go?
Mark Mazzetti: It is certainly true that members of Congress were briefed on, I mean significant elements of the CIA program. And I think there was maybe some amnesia that happened among top Democrats when the program became more controversial, with them sort of saying that they really didn’t know much about this? It is true that if you look at the CIA’s history, far more often than not, it is a history of covert action, clandestined operations taken with the full blessing of the White House, and increasingly since the 70s with senior members of Congress as well. There’s not a whole lot of activities of CIA complete rogue operations, and there’s a lot of legal sign off as well. So once the program is approved by the White House, by lawyers, by members of Congress, then CICs it’s got this leash to go operate.
Preet Bharara: Do you have an overall view that you want to share about how the then Senate intelligence committee chair Diane Feinstein conducted herself in connection with this report and investigation?
Mark Mazzetti: I guess I’d hesitate to offer a personal view on her performance. I do think that what was striking is I was sort of covering the report in real time was that Feinstein did stick to her guns in the sense that she believed this was an important investigation and she took a lot of heat from her own party, including from the president who was from her own party. The White House was not a big fan of her investigation. I’m not going to say she never wavered because I think she did at times and I think she internalized some of the pressure that was put on her, but it never led her to say, you know what, maybe doing this is going to endanger national security or maybe it’s not that important. She did see it through to the end.
Mark Mazzetti: I think that’s one of the interesting parts and covering his story was in this current Washington where it’s so polarized and it’s just Republicans against Democrats and it’s sort of predictable in who’s going to believe what. What’s interesting in covering the report in real time was you had a democratic chair of a committee taking heat from the democratic president and…
Preet Bharara: Imagine that.
Mark Mazzetti: Exactly. And the national security establishment, I would say, which large parts of it had approved the program and had overseen it during the first few years after 911.
Preet Bharara: What’s interesting about that is by the time this is taking place and Senator Feinstein is a little bit going against a president of her own party, the program had been discontinued and could have been blamed on the prior president George W. Bush. Why was he Obama administration and the White House so not into this?
Mark Mazzetti: It’s a great question. I mean I think what made Obama interesting to cover from a national security point of view, he had criticized the Iraq war before it had even started. And he had criticized the excesses of the Bush administration, and criticized the excesses of the CIA interrogation and detention program. But he came in and I think some in his administration saw he was potentially vulnerable for criticism as basically potentially being soft on terrorism, that if there was an attack on his watch that he would never be re-elected, and so you saw attention going on in the first few years of the Obama administration that while one of his first acts was to end the detention interrogation program and say this will never happen again, he carried through on a campaign promise.
Mark Mazzetti: At the same time there was this concern in the White House that you can’t hang the CIA out to dry. That there were a lot of people at the CIA still including leadership who had been part of the program and if this report comes out and names are named and everyone is embarrassed and potentially exposed to legal jeopardy, then basically you’ve lost the CIA. And there was this feeling that if he’s lost the CIA, then that could be very politically risky. Now, I don’t want to boil everything down to raw politics, but I do think that even as he carried through campaign pledges, he also realized that he needed the CIA and there was an argument made that if you go too far down the road of like a truth and reconciliation commission on this, then it’s going to be bad for his presidency.
Preet Bharara: Does that seem quaint to you as you, as you sit and talk to me now, fall of 2019 when you had a president back then who for either political reasons or also maybe institutional reasons, didn’t want to slam the CIA, even though there are great arguments to be made that they deserve to be slammed for this conduct and this program, and now you have a president in Trump who doesn’t seem to care at all. Trashes the intelligence community, trashes their conclusions, trusts foreign dictators views of events, including the intrusion into the 2016 election over his own intelligence community. Do you think Obama worried too much?
Mark Mazzetti: Well, I don’t know if you worried too much, but he certainly, if you look at the history of the Obama administration, it is one where he saw the CIA as an important part of how he was going to prosecute these Wars, right? If he was going to get out of the Iraq war and he wanted to get out of the war in Afghanistan in the beginning of his presidency, he did the surge in Afghanistan, but he eventually wanted to end the war. He felt like he needed the CIA to carry out drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen and other places. And so he thought they were offering up, setting aside detention and interrogation, a type of war that he believed was necessary.
Mark Mazzetti: Now to Trump, I mean that’s been one of the most still shocking parts of the Trump presidency is you have a, let’s first establish a Republican president who every day it seems, criticizes the FBI, the justice department, and the CIA. These are kind of bedrock things for Republican politicians to sort of praise the national security agencies for keeping America safe. To have Trump slam them constantly is still something that I don’t think gets enough attention because of how extraordinary it is.
Preet Bharara: It’s like it’s kind of nuts. One final point on the destruction of the tapes. I feel a little bit, we’ve assumed in this conversation that was a bad thing to have done. But there are arguments to be made and arguments that were made in favor of the destruction of the tapes. You can have a view about whether or not the enhanced interrogation should have happened, but once it did happen and once it was taped, the CIA made some arguments that there would be a national security disaster if those tapes were seen by others, including potential harm to the officers who were engaging in the waterboarding, right?
Mark Mazzetti: Yes. That was the argument that was presented at the time by Jose Rodriguez, that if these tapes ever somehow went public, you would have officers shown waterboarding these detainees, and that those officers could be hunted down and captured, kidnapped, killed, what have you, and that would be the real national security risk. So that was the argument he made. And after my story ran that the tapes had been destroyed, that was the argument made by the CIA, that these presented a risk to the people who had carried out the interrogation, and more generally, if they were ever to become public, it could foment anti-American violence around the world.
Mark Mazzetti: Right. That if you keep the Abbott grade photos from surfacing, that will prevent further violence against, in particular American troops in Iraq.
Preet Bharara: I mean, it’s ultimately sort of a bankrupt argument, but it was an argument made and may have gone some way in the mind of a council that was put in place, a name that is now in the news again, the attorney general back then appointed John Durham to look into whether or not criminal charges should arise from the destruction of the tapes. And he made the determination after a good bit of investigation, the criminal charges were not warranted. Why do you think he made that determination?
Mark Mazzetti: I don’t know because we never found out. We never saw a report. All we know is that he declined to prosecute. We don’t know how the evidence was gathered, what evidence he came up with. And as you know, that’s common in how the justice department works. If they don’t prosecute, then they don’t have to really show their work. Durham’s methodology, what he found out, it’s still a great mystery for a very consequential subject.
Preet Bharara: So John Durham is in the news, again, as I mentioned, because he has been appointed by Bill Barr, the attorney general, to do what people call the investigation of the investigators I guess, the investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation. Is there anything that you know about John Durham from his prior experience that informs how you think he’s doing the current job?
Mark Mazzetti: Well, it’s a very unusual investigation because it really directly involves the president. Durham is looking into and Barr is assisting him in trying to get meetings with foreign officials to sort of see if there’s evidence to bolster this conspiracy theory that in essence the deep state and American allies had conspired in 2016 to keep Donald Trump from being elected. So really this is an investigation that could directly impact the president’s political fortunes in getting re-elected. If he finds evidence to support the conspiracy, then Trump will no doubt use that as aha, here the deep state did try to keep me from being elected, and this reputable U.S. attorney had evidence of it.
Mark Mazzetti: People who know Durham and have worked with him, they describe him as a straight shooter, someone who would be worried about conducting an investigation that is very overtly political, and this is a guy who’s taken down mafia bosses and done a lot of delicate investigations in the past. But by the nature of the investigation, and I think the unusual amount that the attorney general is playing a role in the investigation, whatever he finds out I think is going to be interpreted by different sides as political.
Preet Bharara: Do you find that given that context that it’s strange or weird or inappropriate, you pick your adjective if any, that Bill Barr, the attorney general is personally getting involved with the investigation? My understanding was the reason you appoint someone like Durham to a case is so that it is at some arms length from people who are close to the president, like the attorney general.
Mark Mazzetti: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so when they said that John Durham is going to be picking up this investigation, there’s nothing in itself that’s wrong with Durham doing the review. It’s not like we’ve gotten every single answer to what happened in 2016 and if Durham can investigate and look in it, even if to say, listen, this conspiracy theory has no merit, then I think a lot of people would think that’s a worthwhile endeavor. The strange thing, as you said, I think is what we’ve learned about how much Barr has taken an active role in this. He’s traveled with Durham to Italy to meet Italian officials to investigate one arm of this conspiracy. He’s pushed the president to ask help from the Australian prime minister.
Preet Bharara: Right. You broke that story.
Mark Mazzetti: Right. When you have the attorney general working with the president to help an investigation that ultimately will bear on the president, that’s certainly strange. And as a former justice department official, you would think that’s unusual.
Preet Bharara: To me, yes. I think it’s unusual. I think it’s ill-advised. You have sources within either the intelligence community or the justice department or law enforcement telling you that they’re looking askance at that also?
Mark Mazzetti: Yes, in both. I mean, there’s certainly a concern that I’ve heard about Barr’s role, also given his public statements about what happened in 2016. We already know a little bit about what his views are, right? He said earlier this year in public testimony he said there spying had occurred, he used the word spying had occurred on the Trump campaign, which he says is not a pejorative term, and it was just a very neutral term…
Preet Bharara: It’s a perfectly good English word, he said, I think.
Mark Mazzetti: That’s right. And a lot of people said he was kind of making a judgment that this was inappropriate. The intelligence and law enforcement arms of the American government were spying on a presidential campaign. He even raised some unseemly historical episodes, right? With the FBI spying on domestic activists in the 60s so by even using that analogy, it didn’t, I think in my mind and others, show his hand a little about what he thought about this.
Preet Bharara: Let me pick your brain on something else that’s currently in the news given how long you’ve been covering these issues. And that is the use of a quote unquote secret server where certain kinds of sensitive information is kept so it’s less easily accessible by other people within the government or outside government. And it has been reported that the White House has put some conversations between the president of the United States and other leaders, including the president of Ukraine onto a secret server. And I think you reported on that and you may have even broken that. Did you break that story?
Mark Mazzetti: We’ve done a couple of this server stories. We’ve broken up a couple of server stories. Yes. But no, I’m not sure if we broke the original one. I think that was not us.
Preet Bharara: You’re very modest. So how should we view that? How strange is that? How normal is that?
Mark Mazzetti: One thing about the Trump administration, we’re learning a lot more about presidential phone calls than we ever knew before. I think a lot of national security reporters didn’t really even know before a month ago just the mechanics of how transcripts of phone calls are handled, or how the calls themselves are handled in terms of people sitting in a room listening to the call, and who’s let in and who’s not let in. Yes, it was certainly a surprise to me that there was a separate server, a more secret server where some of these transcripts were put into. And for reasons that did not have anything to do with national security.
Mark Mazzetti: I mean, one wouldn’t be surprised that there is a very compartmentalized server in the white house to deal with the highest levels of national security for the highest levels of clearances. But if there’s phone calls or transcripts of phone calls being put in because they’re potentially just politically embarrassing, that’s a whole nother matter, and I think that’s the story that we need to keep digging into.
Preet Bharara: Catch your question, going back to your role as a national security reporter and you have sources and you come into contact with people who give you information that I’m presuming from time to time the government doesn’t want you to publish. Has there ever been a time you’ve had a scoop about something and you were persuaded not to publish it?
Mark Mazzetti: Well, what happens is, and this is probably valuable to explain, when I do a story or my colleagues do a story that involves national security, whether it’s the CIA, the Pentagon or whatever, we’ll always call for comment from whatever agency we’re writing about and usually it’s a no comment, but there are times when the government will then initiate a conversation. They say, we would ask you not to run the story. Now if that happens, it’s out of my hands. It then sort of elevates up the chain. I’m not going to say, okay, well I take your word for it. They have to make an appeal to, if you talk about the New York times, initially it will be the Washington Bureau chief and it might eventually end up at the executive editor. And there’s an escalation on the government side too, if it’s the CIA spokesman making an ask, that’s one thing. But if it’s the CIA director or even the president making an ask, it shows they are potentially increasingly serious about things.
Mark Mazzetti: And so then there’s some discussions that take place and ultimately the decision is made by more often than not, it’s usually made by the executive editor of the New York times. Now, there have been examples where the decisions were made to withhold information from a story that I didn’t agree with, but I didn’t ultimately have the say. There’s an example that our executive editor has subsequently talked about, which is that after Anra Alalaki was killed in September, 2011 and he was an American citizen who the justice department had authorized to be killed. The operation had been launched from a drone base in Saudi Arabia, and we believed that it was important to reveal that the operation had been launched from Saudi Arabia and at the time the government did not want acknowledge that the base was in Saudi Arabia. Our editor in chief Dean Baquet, who is still the editor, has subsequently said that he regrets not putting that in the initial story that the government asked not to mention that specific detail, and he subsequently said that, that is a decision he regrets because it was important information to have at the time.
Preet Bharara: What about the decision that the New York times has been criticized for a little bit to reveal certain details about this whistleblower who came forward about the call between president Trump and president Zalinsky of Ukraine?
Mark Mazzetti: Sure, and I did not have a role in that story, but I’ll certainly defend the decision to publish it. It got certainly twisted as the New York times reveals the identity of the whistleblower, which we far from it. All the Times did was identify that the whistleblower was a CIA employee.
Preet Bharara: But if the New York times knew the name, would you have found it justifiable to publish the name of that person too?
Mark Mazzetti: That’s another discussion that would have to happen if we knew the name, the question would be what’s the newsworthiness? In the case that we’re discussing of revealing the affiliation of the whistleblower, I think it was important to point out that the criticism we got in part was this will help the White House hunt this person down and find him. But as we explained that the White House was well aware that the person was from the CIA because the person had originally gone to the White House general counsel about his concerns and the White House general counsel brought not only the justice department but also lawyers at the White House. So they knew of the CIA’s role. So I think that kind of defanged that argument a little bit.
Preet Bharara: There’s some issues that are really easy. So for example, if the day before the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in the bottom about Pakistan, a New York Times reporter came into information that there would be a raid, not knowing where, but that there was a raid planned on bin Laden who was alive and well somewhere in the world. Would you say, I’m not asking you to represent as the lawyer for the entire paper, but is that in your experience an easy, don’t publish?
Mark Mazzetti: Rather than giving a definite answer on hypotheticals, I think that I would say that there are cases that are difficult. Solid arguments are made by the government that lead us to either hold stories or take some details out of the stories.
Preet Bharara: That sounds like a pretty easy one, and I would predict that the New York Times would catch more hell than it’s ever caught before if it revealed a day in advance of a raid on Bin Laden that then ultimately might not have been successful based on some journalistic principle.
Mark Mazzetti: If there’s a case of a revealing a military operation in advance of the military operation, that would be one of the decisions that would be the hardest for the Times and it would be a real serious debate. I’m not going to predict how it would go either way. Although of course, decades ago John Kennedy famously said that the New York times, which had known about the Bay of pigs before it had happened, he kind of wished that they had actually published it.
Preet Bharara: Right. That’s your one counterfactual Mark. You can have that one.
Mark Mazzetti: No. Really am not here to make the case that of course the New York Times would publish the Bin Laden’s raid in advance…
Preet Bharara: Its above your pay grade.
Mark Mazzetti: It’s way above my pay grade.
Preet Bharara: Happily so.
Mark Mazzetti: How’s that for a Dodge?
Preet Bharara: That’s fine. Do you think based on covering all this for a long time and refreshing your recollection about the events post 911, that enhanced interrogation techniques and torture can come back or do we have finally a permanent consensus against it?
Mark Mazzetti: No, I think far from it, I don’t think we have a permanent consensus. I mean I think there’s a consensus among people who really have studied this over the last decade plus, and certainly there’s a view at the CIA that we never want to do this again because in the end was mostly problematic for us. Although, certainly senior former officials defend the program and say it was quite effective, but generally even the ones who defended say we don’t want to do it again. There’s also just this lingering, as I said earlier, view and it was advanced by the president in the beginning of his administration that it is effective, and if people watch enough TV shows and movies will imply that it was or is effective. And enough time passes away from the details of a voluminous report by the Senate intelligence committee that let’s face it as a government report that only a very small amount of people will read, enough time passes and it loses its power. And so could I see this happening again? I could.
Preet Bharara: I think this whole flipping of Obama key gloves with the intelligence community and Trump punching it in the face every day is really fascinating.
Mark Mazzetti: It is. If you look at polls, and I haven’t looked at them for months on this issue, but the views of Republican voters on whether the FBI and the CIA is trustworthy, it’s extraordinary in terms of how much lower the opinion is in the years of the Trump administration than it was historically. I mean, this was the sort of bedrock of a Republican viewpoint that the national security agencies were trusted and should be given as long, at least as possible, and that Russia was bad. And we’ve certainly flipped both of those things on our head.
Preet Bharara: Do you think there’s any movement over time for the CIA, especially to go back to its prior less paramilitary role?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that there was certainly an attempt at the end of the Obama administration where there was this realization including by John Brennan, the CIA director, that a lot of this stuff should not be done by the CIA, or it should not be the default position where it goes to the CIA. That the CIA, there’s opportunity costs, right? If everyone is hunting terrorists, what is the CIA missing? And that is gathering information on China, on Russia. That there was this view that in the decade plus after 911, the American national security ship had listed so far to one side in counter terrorism. And what was missing was trying to get information about adversaries like Russia and China. Now, I think that movement is and has been underway. It’s always difficult to know because the CIA doesn’t get progress reports of how many of these people are doing what. It’s always then going to be the tension though, because they think Americans have come to accept the idea that, Oh yeah, the CIA is the one that goes and hunts and kills people, uses drones.
Mark Mazzetti: Yeah, we should have the CIA do that because they go places where the military can’t go. I think that it’s become kind of accepted by a lot of people in the post 911 environment that will show the president should rely on the CIA. So that’s what I think. And of course it’s always a seductive tool for presidents, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. So I think that’s always going to be there, and will be the sort of tension pulling the CIA back in the direction of terrorism, even if others want to go in the direction of big state actors.
Preet Bharara: What’s the level of frustration and, or anger on the part of folks in the intelligence community at the president who continues to bash them on a regular basis?
Mark Mazzetti: I think that’s hard to answer beyond just sort of anecdotally, where you hear from people who they can’t fathom the idea that the president of the United States would on Twitter basically accuse the CIA of being not only corrupt but trying to stage a coup against him. I mean, this has all happened so frequently that it seems normal now. Right? But it is so abnormal to have the president accuse his intelligence and military and law enforcement agencies of basically aligning against him. So there is frustration. I think a lot of people are just trying to keep their heads down. I think there are people who are doing their job and trying to keep the political noise out, but there is this question of course is what is the lingering impact?
Mark Mazzetti: If you go to opinion polls and if he says it enough that over time a far larger percentage of the American public, both Democrat and Republican come to think, well, why would we trust what the FBI says? Because we know they are politically biased, we know they leak to the media and produce fake news. I think that there’s this big question about what’s the institutional impact of the Trump administration even long after the Trump administration as a thing.
Preet Bharara: Mark Mazzetti, been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for being with us.
Mark Mazzetti: I enjoyed it. Thanks very much.
Speaker 1: Stick around after the credits for more from my conversation with Daniel J. Jones, whose story is told in the Amazon original motion picture, The Report.
Preet Bharara: Well that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned, thanks again to my guest, Mark Mazzetti. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag ask Preet, or you can call and leave me a message at (669) 247-7338, that’s (669) 24 Preet or you can send an email to [email protected] Stay Tuned is presented by cafe. The executive producer is Tamara Shepherd, and the cafe team is David Todd ashore, Julia Doyle, Carla Puryini, David Kurlander, Calvin Lord and Jeff Eisenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, stay tuned.
Speaker 1: The Report is a thriller based on the real life investigation of the CIA secret detention and interrogation program, which was created in the aftermath of 911. I spoke with Senate staffer, Daniel J. Jones, played by Adam Driver in the film, who was tasked by his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, with leading a year’s long investigation of the program. I asked him about the importance of congressional oversight, a key theme in the film.
Daniel J. Jones: We have three branches of government and one of the main responsibilities of the legislative branch is to oversee the executive. And since the establishment of our country, of course there’ve been peaks and dips in the effectiveness of congressional oversight. And what I hope the Senate report shows is what the Senate needs to do and what the legislative branch needs to do to oversee the executive and the importance of overseeing especially secret and covert action programs that are hidden from the American people.
Daniel J. Jones: You know, the Senate intelligence committee has 15 members. And those 15 members have exclusive access to really important secretive actions of the U.S. government. And it’s their job to be a check, to be the voice of the American people on that, and I hope it serves as a lesson of what can be done and the importance of congressional oversight. It can never be more important than it is right now when we see what’s happening in the executive branch.
Speaker 1: Finally, we talked about what has been done to prevent similar abuses of power from happening again.
Daniel J. Jones: Again, you know the Senate spent seven years in this investigation. We produced a 6,700 page report, and the main objective was to document the facts of that program and then once the members found out what the facts were that these torture tactics were massively ineffective and that they are contrary to our values, they felt a need to make sure that these facts were known and released to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. And then of course we passed the McCain Feinstein act, the Senate passed that with a vote of 78 senators voting in favor of it. It requires international committee of the Red Cross access to all U.S. detainees, and it restricts the CIA and every other agency of the U.S. government to interrogation tactics that are publicly articulated in the U.S. army field manual.
Daniel J. Jones: Now, it’s important to note that this program is always illegal under domestic and international law and it’s never impossible of course, to stray again, but I do think because of what the Senate did because of Senator Feinstein and Senator McCain and so many others, that it’s very unlikely that the U.S. ever goes down this path again, and I should say a lot of credit goes to Scott Burns for writing and directing this film. I don’t know how many people actually have read the full Senate report, I suspect not that many, but I do know that a lot of Americans will see Scott’s film and hopefully it will turn them the Senate report and ensure that again, this never happens again.
Speaker 1: Thanks again to Daniel J. Jones for sharing his experiences and thoughts with us. Today’s special episode of Stay Tuned was brought to you by the Amazon original motion picture, The Report. In theaters November 15th and on prime video November 29th.