You may have heard of Julian Assange, but chances are that you haven’t heard about him from inside the CIA, State Department and US military. In this special episode, Eleanor first talks with former CIA counterterrorism officer and whistleblower John Kiriakou about what Assange would face if extradited to the United States, as Kiriakou himself has sat in the very same court that awaits Assange. Kiriakou also discusses the CIA’s rabid stance against Assange and inside workings that allowed the CIA to plan Assange’s murder with total abandon and without any accountability. Next up, former Marine Corps captain and State Dept officer Matthew Hoh joins the show again to walk us through exactly what classified information is, and why that’s important in understanding the files that wikileaks shared. Matthew debunks the popular trope that the Wikileaks publications put any US lives at risk, pointing out that the true harm was to the empire itself.
Video of Interview with John Kiriakou
Video of Interview with Matthew Hoh
Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with John Kiriakou
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Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks everyone for joining us back at the Project Censored radio show.
We’re very glad right now to be joined by John Kiriakou, who is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act, a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose and blow the whistle on the Bush administration’s torture program.
John, thank you so much for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Thanks for having me, Eleanor. Happy to do it.
Eleanor Goldfield: So, starting off here, I want, because you and Assange have this in common, that you’re both being pummeled by the Espionage Act, and he would, like you, end up in the Eastern District Court of Virginia, and I was wondering if you could give folks some context of what that means to be in the Eastern District Court, and how that flies in the face of the argument that were Assange to be extradited, he would receive a fair trial.
John Kiriakou: Oh, yeah. First of all, bottom line up front. It’s not possible for him to receive a fair trial in the Eastern District of Virginia. It’s just not possible.
The easiest reason for that is that his jury would be made up of people who work for or who have friends or relatives who work for the CIA, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, or any number of dozens and dozens of intelligence community contractors. That’s the jury pool. So it’s just not possible to, to get a fair trial.
And I’m going to ask a rhetorical question. You know, I was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia. Jeffrey Sterling, the CIA whistleblower, was in the Eastern District. Snowden has been charged in the Eastern District, as has Julian.
But when former CIA Director David Petraeus exposed the names of 10 covert CIA operatives to his girlfriend, and gave her access to the president’s black books, which were the most highly classified documents that exist in the American government, where was he charged? He was charged in the Western district of North Carolina.
They knocked his charge down to a misdemeanor. He took a plea and he got 18 months of unsupervised probation. He kept his security clearance. He kept his contract with the white house. And at his sentencing hearing, the judge came down from the bench to shake his hand and to thank him for his service to the country.
So there’s a big difference in the way people are treated under the Espionage Act, depending on which federal district you’re charged in.
They call the Eastern District of Virginia the Espionage Court for a reason. And it’s that no national security defendant has ever won a case there. Ever.
Eleanor Goldfield: And I’m curious, too, because in your trial, as I understand it, and I’m hoping you can speak more to this, you weren’t actually allowed to put up a defense for yourself.
John Kiriakou: No. No. That’s, that’s one of the quirks of the Espionage Act. There is no affirmative defense.
You can’t say, yes, I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program, but I did it because it was an illegal program.
All you can say is, yes, I exposed classified information. You can’t, you’re forbidden from saying why you did it. And Ed Snowden, I was in close touch with Ed Snowden after he first made his revelations. Well, first of all, he said he was willing to come home and face the music.
And I said, listen, you’ve got to hire the best lawyers that money can buy. You should hire my lawyers, right? And so he did, he hired my lawyers and they immediately engaged in conversations with the justice department to try to work out a deal because as I said, he was willing to come home and face the music and go to prison, he told me this himself. If they would allow him to stand up in court to explain why he did what he did. And they said, absolutely not.
So for whatever reason, that’s never been explained, it was better for the justice department for Ed Snowden to make a new life for himself in Russia than it was for him to come back and explain that the CIA and NSA and myriad other services are spying on American citizens.
They wouldn’t do it.
Eleanor Goldfield: And it’s really, I mean, if you think about it, intention is really a big deal in court. Because it separates, of course, murder trials. Like, did you mean to kill the person, or did you accidentally kill them?
So intention is really a vital point of the justice system.
John Kiriakou: But not in the Espionage Act.
My lawyers actually tried to make that argument in the very first hearing that we had and, my judge, Judge Leonie Brinkman, a Reagan appointee, she interrupted the lawyers and she said, I’m not going to respect precedent from other courts that the defendant had to have a criminal intent.
And my lawyers are saying, well, wait a minute, your honor, are you saying that a person can accidentally commit espionage?
And she said, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And then she turned to me and she said, Mr. Kiriakou, you either did it or you didn’t do it. And I think you did it. And that was it.
We blocked off three days. We wrote up hundreds of motions to throw out documents. And we blocked off three days for her to hear these 200 motions. So we walked in. And they were all about criminal intent, right? Because they showed, these cables showed my refusal to take part in the torture training, my objection to torture while I was still in the CIA, and there were dozens, hundreds of cables that laid out the actual torture techniques that were being used.
And she said, we walked into the courtroom, and she said, I’m going to save everybody a lot of time, and I’m denying all 200 of these motions. And so, that was it.
She declared us in recess and as we were walking out, I said to my lead attorney, what just happened? And he said, we just lost the case.
That’s what happened. And that’s the Eastern District of Virginia. In the end I got a best and final offer from the Justice Department and I decided to turn it down. My wife and I stayed up all night talking about what to do and I believed in my heart that I was innocent and I was going to turn it down and I said very naively, once I get in front of a jury and I explain what happened, they’re going to see how ridiculous these charges are.
So I emailed my attorneys very early in the morning and they responded immediately that three of them were coming over to the house, four of them were coming over to the house. The one who was the oldest and the most grizzled when he walked in, he said to me, these were his exact words. He said, you stupid son of a bitch, take the deal.
And then the second one who was kind of this Southern gentleman, he said, listen, if you were my own brother, I would beg you to take this deal. It’s not going to get any better than this. And then the third one who was tough but who I liked and respected the most got right in my face. And forgive me if I’ve told this story too many times, but got right in my face and he said, you know what your problem is, your problem is you think this is about justice and it’s not about justice, it’s about mitigating damage, take the deal.
And so I took the deal. And that’s what they expect. That’s why, according to ProPublica, the federal government wins 98. 2 percent of its cases and in the Eastern District of Virginia, they win 99. 1 percent of their cases.
You don’t have a chance. You can’t win.
Eleanor Goldfield: And as you’ve said before, Julian Assange would not, I mean, there’s no way that he would be offered a deal by the Justice Department at this point.
John Kiriakou: I doubt it. The only way I could see the Justice Department offering him a deal would be if he or if Wikileaks had additional information that had not yet been released and as part of the deal, they would negotiate, you know, X amount of time in exchange for you not releasing the information or returning it back to the government.
But no, he’s facing 175 years in prison on dozens of espionage charges. I can’t imagine that they would want to make that any easier for him.
Eleanor Goldfield: And in your experience too, it’s not just about the Eastern District, it’s also about trying to ensure that lives are destroyed after the fact. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that.
So let’s say that somehow he was pardoned. There’s also this large state apparatus that tries to ensure that whistleblowers and truth tellers have their lives destroyed even outside of the justice system.
John Kiriakou: Yeah, you know, automatically people walk away from you, right? Friends, former colleagues, even relatives will just walk away from you and they’ll never speak to you again.
That’s hurtful, right? But you can live with that. Okay, you get to see who your friends really were anyway. And then you make new friends in a new community. So you’re okay there.
But where you’re not okay is you will never work in your field ever again. And on top of never working in your field, you have a national security felony conviction.
So you lose your federal pension. You lose the right to vote. You lose the right to ever own a firearm. You’re always a suspect in something. I mean, it was years after I got home from prison that the FBI continued to follow me around. Not all the time, but with some regularity.
And so, here, myself as an example, I was one of the U.S. government’s leading experts on the Middle East. And I ended up stocking shelves at Michael’s craft store on midnight shift before I got a minimum wage job at a left wing think tank, and then finally my wife left. She couldn’t take it anymore.
So, that’s all part of the longer term punishment. They want you to be ruined. Not because they specifically have it out for you, right? They’re not sitting around a table saying, how can we screw Eleanor? How can we make it so she never works again? What they’re doing though is saying, how can we use Eleanor as an example? Where we make her so hurt that other people are going to look at her and say, you know, I was thinking about blowing the whistle, but look what they did to Eleanor. I better keep my mouth shut.
A New York Times reporter told me that on the day of my arrest, literally every one of the New York Times national security sources went silent and stayed silent for six months.
And that was the goal. That’s what they wanted to do.
Eleanor Goldfield: Wow, that is terrifying.
Well, and I’m curious too, because you worked at the CIA, and because the CIA has been particularly rabid against Julian Assange, were you surprised when you heard, for instance, that Pompeo had hatched this plan to have Julian Assange murdered?
Did that seem in step and in line with how the CIA operates on the inside?
John Kiriakou: Yes.
And I’ll tell you why. I was sickened, of course, by this report. You’re talking about the report from Yahoo News. I was sickened by it, but not at all surprised.
And there are a couple of little details in there that are not generally publicly known that I think are very important.
So what you’re talking about is a report by Michael Isikoff that ran in Yahoo News. Now, Mike Isikoff is a very well known, very highly respected national security journalist here in Washington. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, made his made his bones at Newsweek when Newsweek was a major publication.
He was able to get 30 current and former intelligence officers to talk to him for this report. So it’s not like just one guy said, Oh, Pompeo wanted to kill Julian Assange. This is 30 people from the inside who gave the details of this operation.
Now the idea was if Julian attempted to leave the Ecuadorian embassy that he would be snatched off the street and rendered, either to the Eastern District of Virginia to face trial, or to Guantanamo to be held until they could figure out what to do with him.
Or, if they couldn’t render him, to shoot him dead in the street. They also talked about a Plan C: that if he were somehow to make his way to one of London’s airports and board a Russian embassy flight, the CIA was authorized to shoot out the tires of the plane.
Now this is an act of war, to shoot out the tires of the plane to ensure that it couldn’t take off.
Okay, one of the things that most people missed was a couple of days before this became public, Mike Pompeo, in an interview, called WikiLeaks a hostile, non state intelligence service.
Those words were very carefully chosen, because if WikiLeaks is a hostile, non state, intelligence service, that makes this whole case a counterintelligence case.
Now, a counterintelligence case would be run by the CIA’s counterintelligence center. But counterintelligence cases are the most highly classified cases that the CIA handles. They’re so highly classified that they are the only cases that don’t have to be briefed to the House and Senate oversight committees.
Why? Because counterintelligence usually means that you’re working for a foreign power, a foreign government. Well, if the CIA is investigating a mole, who’s to say that the mole maybe isn’t the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, right? Or the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
So those are all held internally. Well, if this operation were to be carried out, all anybody would know was that Julian Assange tried to leave the embassy, the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and he was shot dead, period. And that’s the end of the story. That’s why he used those very specific words, that very specific term, or terminology, that it was a hostile non state intelligence service.
And of course it’s not. It’s a transparency and journalism outlet, but that’s what they don’t want people to think.
And let me add one thing, and this is just an educated guess. I don’t have any inside information to prove that this is the case, but I think the reason why this never happened was the modus operandi for a covert action program like this is you first go to the CIA’s general counsel, they say, yes, it’s legal, no, it’s not legal. If it’s legal, it goes to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, OLC, and they say, yes, it’s legal. No, it’s not legal. If they say, then it goes to the National Security Council General Counsel and he’ll say yes, it’s legal, no, it’s not. If it is, it goes to the national security advisor for a signature. If that person signs it, it goes to the president for his signature. And if the president signs it, it’s implemented.
I think that it made its way to the N.S.C. And I think the national security advisor received it and said, are they out of their minds?
We are going to assassinate a Five Eyes citizen, a citizen of Australia, who has never faced his accusers in a court of law? We’re gonna murder him in broad daylight in the street in Knightsbridge, London? So somebody, probably the National Security Advisor, was the adult in the room and killed it.
But I think at the same time, there were enough people in the CIA who were aware of the planning for it that they said, this is above and beyond, we’ve got to say something because people have lost their minds.
And I think that’s why this team of Yahoo reporters didn’t have one source or two sources or five sources. They had 30 sources who all confirmed each other’s information.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, that is remarkable.
And I want to kind of talk about that hierarchy for a second because it does seem like it’s a bit askew, right? Because yes, in that case, the CIA could be tamped down by the NSC and basically like, no, we’re not doing that, that’s ridiculous.
But at the same time, as Kevin Gosztola points out in his book, there’s a good chance that Assange wouldn’t be facing the charges that he’s facing were it not for the CIA’s rabid stance against Assange, because the DOJ was really scrambling to charge Assange once Pompeo made it very clear that he wanted Julian’s head on a stick.
It seems like the hierarchy where the CIA operates underneath anyone, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
John Kiriakou: Yeah, people, I think, generally don’t realize just how authoritative the CIA is in areas of government where they shouldn’t even be a part of the conversation, right?
The CIA’s job, very simply, is to recruit spies to steal secrets and to analyze those secrets, to allow policymakers to make the best informed policy decisions, period. That’s it.
It shouldn’t be up to the CIA to decide who’s charged with a crime, who gets prosecuted with a crime, to create paramilitary forces, to carry out international kidnappings or torture programs in archipelagos of secret prisons, to decide what Congress should and shouldn’t know.
None of that should be up to the CIA, but we’ve allowed the CIA, like we did with the FBI in the 50s to just keep pushing that envelope to the point where it’s too late to stop them. And you need a Church Committee or a Pike Committee to finally reign them back in again.
Remember, Barack Obama, as bad as he was, especially for national security whistleblowers never charged Julian Assange with a crime. It was Donald Trump that did it.
Now, many of us, and I’ll admit that I was just as wrong as many of my friends and colleagues, many of us thought that, well, you know, Joe Biden was a part of the Obama administration and he knew what Obama was talking about when he said that charging Assange would give him a New York Times problem, and we can certainly talk about that.
Certainly Biden understands the New York Times problem and he’ll have to drop these charges. No, he doubled down. He doubled down and here we are, expecting that Julian will be extradited to the Eastern District before the end of this year and then probably sit in pre trial detention, you know, for years while the two sides bicker about what should be admitted as evidence and what shouldn’t.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. And I would definitely like you to speak to the New York Times problem. For people who don’t know, could you briefly explain what that is before we, before we sign off?
John Kiriakou: Yeah, it’s one of the funny ironies of this whole situation.
You know, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, AP, all of these big news outlets, these big mainstream news outlets publish classified information literally every single day.
Washington couldn’t run if it didn’t have classified leaks every single day.
And usually it’s the White House or the Pentagon that’s doing the leaking. I can point to leaks that I’m positive came from the CIA just in the last two weeks about Israel / Palestine.
But when those leaks are authorized, eh, you know, everybody’s happy. When the leaks are unauthorized, then the White House is very upset and the CIA will file something called a Crimes Report with the FBI, and then the FBI has to investigate it.
But the truth is, if you’re going to charge Julian Assange, a publisher with multiple counts of espionage, then you’re going to have to charge the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, AP, and everybody else who publishes classified information every single day.
Well, that’s a First Amendment violation, isn’t it? So we’re either going to be transparent and supporters of freedom of speech and freedom of press, etc or we’re not. Because you can’t be both.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, there really is that much that hangs on this case, and I’m curious, just because when you were speaking, I was like, an authorized leak, wouldn’t you just call that sharing information, but they still call it an authorized leak?
John Kiriakou: An authorized leak is like, the CIA leaks: we got it right on Gaza. We predicted three days before that they were going to launch this attack. And then they leak that to the Post and then the Post says: classified CIA paper says the CIA got it right. And then the CIA says, Oh, no, that information was classified. It makes us look really good. We probably should report it to the FBI. But they probably won’t be able to figure out who leaked it anyway. That’s an authorized leak.
Eleanor Goldfield: I see. Okay. Like accidentally posting a really good looking picture of yourself online or something.
John Kiriakou: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
Eleanor Goldfield: Wow. Okay. John, thank you so much for giving this really, really important context and sharing your own story about what happened to you.
Really appreciate it.
John Kiriakou: Oh, thanks for the work that you do, Eleanor. It’s important. Thanks for having me.
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Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Matthew Hoh
Please consider supporting our work at Patreon.com/ProjectCensored
Eleanor Goldfield: Thank you, everyone, for joining us back at the Project Censored radio show. We’re very glad to be joined on the show again by Matthew Hoh, who’s the associate director of the Eisenhower Media Network and an emeritus senior fellow with the Center for International Policy.
He’s a disabled Marine Corps combat veteran, and in 2009, Matt resigned his post with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest over the escalation of that war.
Matthew, thank you so much for joining us again.
Matthew Hoh: Hi, Eleanor. It’s good to see you. Thanks for having me back on.
Eleanor Goldfield: Absolutely. So I want to start off first with something that I feel is missing from the conversation about Assange, which is the language around quote unquote, classified information.
And I’ll start off by saying this, that there is no law in the United States against publishing classified information. I’ll say that again. There is no law in the United States against publishing classified information.
And with that, Matt, can you walk us through the designation of classified materials with regards to the military, the Pentagon and the State Department?
Matthew Hoh: Yeah, sure. You know, one of the things too, is that as my understanding of it is, is that as civilians, we’re not bound by classified law. We’re not bound by the classification process. That is something for the executive branch.
They can certainly threaten us with it and that falls underneath the Espionage Act, and I think that’s why you see when a journalist like Julian Assange is prosecuted for the revelation of classified materials, it won’t be on the same charges as Chelsea Manning is or say Tom Drake was or John Kiriakou was. Certainly there’ll be some overlap. But classification pertains to the executive branch. It doesn’t pertain to civilians.
That’s not to say that they don’t have other ways of going after people and Julian Assange, of course, the prime example, but within the U.S. Government, just as a background, I worked with classified materials for 12 years or so of my life.
There’s there’s multiple levels to it. There’s the sensitive but unclassified, which is called S.B.U. There’s secret and there’s top secret, and within top secret there are various tranches, compartmentalized programs, if you will. So various buckets of information that people have access to, so just because you have a top secret clearance doesn’t mean you could see all of the top secret information.
They have changed things in the years since the WikiLeaks revelations, since the work of Chelsea Manning, and Ed Snowden, and Julian Assange, and others. You have seen where they have restricted secret access, but certainly back in my day, you could access the entire secret database of the United States government if you were on the network. It was like one big Google share drive, basically.
A lot of people think that a secret or a top secret computer is special, is different, looks like it’s something from another time and dimension. And it’s not. It’s literally the same Windows machine, windows based machine that the rest of the government uses. You use Microsoft Office, you use Internet Explorer or whatever they’re using now. So it’s not like it’s anything special or unique or custom built.
What makes it secret besides the classification process is the connection that runs into those machines. So you would when you would work on these issues, you would have 2 computers at your desk and 2 screens, right? So you have your secret computer over here or top secret or whatever. And you have your unclassified machine here as well, because if you need to talk to anyone who wasn’t on a network, you had to do it on the unclassified side.
And I should say as well with the top secret stuff, usually that is contained in a room called a SCF, secure compartmentalized facility. And that is like a vault within a vault. So most of the time when you’re working on secret or top secret programs, you’re in a room that is locked, so to speak.
And you know that that’s how it’s handled. But it also kind of belies the case against Julian, the case that was against Chelsea Manning, that there was hacking involved because if you have access to the network, okay, so if you have a secret clearance, you have access to whatever your password and your profile gets you into.
And again, in the last 10 years or so, they’ve really limited that. But in my day, yeah, I could get on it. And it was just like getting on the Internet on any machine in your house. You could travel to all these different websites hosted by all these different commands and units. You can go into their databases.
Occasionally, you will come across something that was password protected, which makes sense. We do that with our work. I mean, I think most people right if you’re working for a business or for a foundation or a firm or a company or an organization or a school or wherever there are going to be some things that you don’t want everybody to have access to.
Just saw it the other day where, god bless them, they put out a great thing on Google sheets and somebody deleted the whole thing, right? You know, so I think everyone has that experience in their life, right? So you can understand why you would just do that on a practical, we’re dealing with other human beings level, but there also are security reasons.
But when Chelsea provided that information to WikiLeaks she didn’t need to hack into anything, right? It was all there.
I think people have in their heads a kind of a Hollywood vision of it where you have to sign in using your eyeballs, right? And it’s like the first Mission Impossible movie where Tom Cruise comes in from the ceiling and there’s lasers everywhere and they have to drug somebody to get in there and everything else, right? It’s not like that. It’s not like that.
There certainly are secure facilities, secure facilities within secure facilities. But in terms of once you’re on it, you’re on it. Right. And unless something is, you know, firewalled or password protected, you can kind of see everything.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. Thank you. I, I think very many people do have that perspective on it.
Matthew Hoh: It’s very, it’s very mundane and boring. And I’ll even tell you one thing that, if anyone knows the US government, when I was in Crystal City at that point I had two computers, one unclassified, one classified, one secret level. And, they were using two different Microsoft operating systems, so one was windows eight or whatever, and the other was windows XP or something. Everything was backwards on each of them, right? So if anyone’s worked with the U.S. Government and the U.S. Military, they totally understand what I’m saying. Going from one computer where the close button on your Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is in the top left to another computer where it’s in the top right across from each other. That is, I think, the synthesis of the U.S. Government.
I think that’s why a lot of us also will say that, you know, there are conspiracies out there, certainly, the Iraq war, one of the biggest ones of all time. But, many times it’s more incompetence than it is conspiracy, and then sometimes, of course, it’s a mix of both.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. Well, I mean, I, I remember, I can’t remember how old I was, but several years ago when I found out that they’re still using floppy disks for our nuclear warheads and I had to explain to someone what a floppy disk was.
And I was like, okay, this is our government, right?
Matthew Hoh: Yeah. To tell you another story from that same place, actually, this was in 2008. I come into work one day and, in 2008 USB drives, very popular, right? Thumb drives, very popular. We’d had them for what, about five years or so at that point, everyone used them for everything.
And the entire Department of Defense had turned off access to thumb drives. The story was that at an overseas base, the Chinese were dropping thumb drives in the parking lots that were loaded with espionage programs. And so you’re like, like anyone else, you’re walking around, you say, Oh, hey, a thumb drive. That’s great. And then you go, you go into work and you plug it in thinking you just found yourself a brand new thumb drive. Right.
So literally we came into work on a Monday and the entire Department of Defense thumb drives have been turned off, and I always just think of like the men and women who had the big presentation that morning for the boss, and it was on the thumb drive and they couldn’t do it right.
You know, it’s comical, but it also shows the bumbling nature of it all. And so the idea that, again, to get back to the WikiLeaks story, that there had to be some type of hacking, it had to be Tom Cruise coming down from the ceiling when, no, it was 20 year old Chelsea Manning just hooking up a hard drive in front of everybody in the office, probably, downloading it all.
It doesn’t look like a Hollywood movie. It doesn’t look like that. It looks like your workplace where most people are trying to get through the day without the place burning down.
Eleanor Goldfield: Ha, well, and with that, I also want to get into the other trope that’s brought up with this, that because Chelsea Manning shared this classified information and because WikiLeaks published it, there was a danger to U.S. troops and personnel.
And I was wondering if you could help debunk that with your understanding and your experience with that classified information.
Matthew Hoh: Well, there was never going to be that possibility. Because again, as we described, sensitive but not classified which is all your basic daily administrative type work. Secret is the level where harm could come to the country based upon its exposure, and top secret to paraphrase it, dire harm could come to the country.
In reality, though, the way those classifications are broken down, secret information is predominantly historical information. So what happened? A patrol went out, writes a report up, puts that up, right? The strength of units at a given point in time, right? So most of the time, your plans, the preparations for those, certainly a type of covert or clandestine operations that you were planning or running will be on the top secret side. Your sources, you know, any type of human intelligence, your signals intelligence, the intelligence that they get from the sensors on drones and spy planes and satellites that can detect radiation someplace or see a plume of smoke or whatnot, exhaust, you know, a launch type of situation. That’s all on the top secret side.
So once you understood that what WikiLeaks had released was secret level, there was really no possibility of harm. There was going to be no agents on there. The names of people who worked with us, whether an intelligence side, military side, diplomatic side, were not going to be on there if we, if there was a presumption that any harm could come to them by them being revealed.
Certainly people who worked with us that it was well known, so I would I say when I was in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I would have a meeting with the governor or with provincial council members, or I met with this engineer, he told me about what they’re building over here, the insurgency, the resistance knows who those people are.
So, you know, once you understood that this is mainly primarily historical information, things that had happened in the past, things that were likely well known by the public in that area, and certainly by the insurgencies and the resistances in that area, you know, where they feel the harm came from, where they say the harm came from is this idea that lives are put at risk.
And that wasn’t the case. Everything was redacted by Wikileaks before they released it. Wikileaks spent a ton of time going through and anyone whose name was in there, they redacted. Even though, again, as I explained, they weren’t going to be in harm’s way. They weren’t gonna be put in danger. The insurgencies, the resistances, the al Qaeda’s, the Russians, whatever boogeymen are out there, they were already aware of these people.
So even when the unredacted versions were released, those caused no problems. They caused no harm. And we know this because the United States government spent a lot of time and effort, they had a whole interagency process of going through all the WikiLeaks files. So it wasn’t just the Pentagon. It wasn’t just the CIA or the State Department that went through these things, but the entire government: the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, they all went through it looking for any harm people who were hurt by these revelations. And of course, nothing was found.
And we know this because of the work of journalists, but also the U.S. Government in Chelsea Manning’s trial had a say in court: we found no harm. We found nobody who was hurt by this. And then again, years later in Julian Assange’s extradition trial in Britain, the same thing, too: there was no evidence produced that these revelations, these exposures, these leaks caused any harm to anyone.
Now the harm it did cause was it damaged the U.S. reputation, things were let out. Again, I said, these are historical. Looking back, you would say one of the revelations that came out that was so harmful to the American government was the revelation that prisoners were being tortured in Iraq.
Particularly the U.S. government, the U. S. military was handing over prisoners to the Iraqi government, dominated by the Shia militias at that point, who were torturing, systematically, those prisoners. I think people looking back would say, why didn’t they put that a top secret? And looking back, I’m sure many military and intelligence and diplomats said that as well, we should have classified it differently. But I think when you’re in that milieu, that environment where you don’t view what you’re doing as necessarily wrong, you don’t even think about that.
And so that was the harm that came was the revelations, particularly from diplomatic cables, of the United States’ complicity, but also its actions overseas in countless countries where it was systematically violating international law, where these documents also showed that we knew that what we were doing, it was very counterproductive.
You know, one example was the reports that came out showing that we knew the Pakistani military and the Pakistani intelligence services were supporting and funding the Afghan Taliban. So the money that we were giving to the Pakistani military intelligence service was being pushed down to the Afghan Taliban, and they were coming and they were killing American troops in Afghanistan.
And then we would send more money to the Pakistani military intelligence services because, hey, look, the Afghan Taliban are killing our guys. We got to support the Pakistanis more, right? And that cycle, you know, and so we knew what was going on was incredibly embarrassing.
So when they talk about the harm, there was harm because they were embarrassed. They’re humiliated. The dirty, dirty crimes of empire were revealed and this is ultimately why this persecution and prosecution of Julian Assange has been going on for all these years.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, I mean, as you’ve noted, the harm to U.S. troops seems to be the U.S. military.
Matthew Hoh: Right, absolutely. Yeah.
Eleanor Goldfield: Right. And I’m curious, because you were on the inside, and I understand that you left in 2009 before WikiLeaks released this information, but understanding that you were a part of this and a part of that system, and probably also still knew people that were a part of it, what was the response by people inside?
Not just like the Pentagon and the State Department, but on the ground troops who had either, you know, done tours or were still stationed there. Was there shock? Was there disgust?
Because I can only speak to, and I think a lot of people can only speak to what we as civilians experienced and felt, but what was the response on the inside?
Matthew Hoh: What I got a lot of, I heard a lot was, it was good that it was done, but it wasn’t done the right way. Right? So that double speak, which you often hear from people within institutions, people who are part of something they don’t agree with. You know, they’re having cognitive and intellectual and moral difficulty with what’s going on. And so when someone does something or something like this occurs, they support it in the sense of like, this stuff is true, it needed to be said, but it wasn’t done the right way. And I heard that over and over and over again not just with Chelsea, but with Ed Snowden, with Daniel Hale, you know, it’s really good that information is out there, but they didn’t do it the right way.
And it’s an excuse. It’s an excuse to allow them to keep doing what they’re doing because, you know, we saw what happened to Ed when he tried to do it the right way. We saw what happened to Tom Drake when he tried to do it the right way, you know.
I think a lot of people who like I was realized that no harm is going to come from this in the sense that our plans are going to be disrupted or the terrorists are now going to break into an American base and steal a nuclear weapon, you know. All the pearl clutching that was going on, and the hand wringing was completely unnecessary.
And, you know, as it was detailed, the embarrassments and humiliations came from things in the past, things that have been covered up and hidden but certainly nothing was in jeopardy in terms of all the crimes that were in progress.
And actually you start talking about the CIA and I guess probably the special operations community as well, you get into places where nothing is even put down. Seymour Hersh wrote about this a couple weeks ago when he was talking about the Nordstream bombings, how it’s quite possible that whatever was written about that was written on a typewriter and then, you know, shredded then burned, however they get rid of it with the CIA.
And I think a lot of us too, or many guys I spoke with about it, there is a feeling of comic relief. You know, of, like, of course, this happened, how come it didn’t happen sooner? In that sense that really everything we say about ourselves, it’s going to take a 19, 20 year old private just to undo it all, you know? So I think that was really responses that I recall.
Certainly the higher ups, and the more concerned they were with their career, the more muted their opinion was.
And then, of course, the U.S. Government’s reaction was like you would expect from a frightened beast. It overreacts. So, one, that it tells anybody part of the US government, you cannot read this stuff. Even if it’s in USA Today, if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, if CNN’s on talking about it, turn off your television, you know, because you’re going to be contaminated, you’re going to be guilty.
And so they went on this fear campaign and they instituted what was called the Insider Threat Program, particularly once Ed Snowden’s actions took place. And this insider threat program was basically telling people, you need to rat out your colleagues. If you think someone is doing something that could put the security of this country in jeopardy, it’s your responsibility to tell on that person.
And so you set up this culture, right? This internal culture, this insider threat program, where people were not just encouraged to rat out their coworkers, but were told it was a job duty to do so. So if we found, if this person does something wrong, and we found out you didn’t say anything, you’re going to suffer the same consequences.
So like that type of mindset rolls throughout the whole federal government, particularly the national security side, and as far as I can understand it, it’s still there to a degree because, you know, after Daniel Hale’s and Reality Winner’s revelations, you know, it just picks back up again.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And kind of wrapping up here, I remember Ed Snowden saying this, that one of his greatest fears is that nothing would change with regards to what he shared. And I think that that’s a lot of people’s fear as well with regards to Assange, but it goes, of course, many steps further: the effect that this would have on our access to free press, free speech, all of that.
And so I’m curious how you see this having an effect on people who are either with the military, with the Pentagon, with the State Department, in terms of their ability to do what you did and have this moment where you realize, I don’t actually want to be a part of this anymore. I don’t think that this is right.
And so I was wondering what effect do you think that will have? And also, if you could share a little bit about how you came to that realization, even before there were these larger leaks about what was really happening?
Matthew Hoh: Well, my realization of the wars was fairly early on, but then I made excuses and I lied to myself for many years, right?
As we’re talking, a State Department officer in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs just resigned in protest over the Biden administration’s policy of supporting Israel and its ethnic cleansing against the Gazans. And, in his resignation letter, he speaks of the moral bargain he kept making with himself for the last 11 years in that job. And you do, you make a bargain with yourself, you make excuses, you lie, you come up with another reason why you should persevere in this.
And so the amount of mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma that whistleblowers endure before they go public often has a lifetime effect.
It’s so heavy on them. Just because you’ve resigned in protest, you’ve blown the whistle, whatever. But that emotional, mental and spiritual trauma still exists. And I mean, to this day, I still think certain things are going to be said about me, or people are going to come at me with certain things, call me a traitor or whatnot. And that’s never happened, but still in my head.
But I think, you know, for me, the excuses were, well, you know, I can go over there and I can do my part and I could be moral in my surroundings and my actions. Which is a foolish, naive, stupid thing to say or think, because in circumstances like war, you have no moral agency. The war makes you an agent of its immorality, that’s just the way it’s going to be, always has been.
And then when you realize that, then it’s the other, well, I’m a junior level, mid level guy, when I’m a senior guy, I won’t make the same mistakes. We need people like that to stay in so these things don’t happen again. Then it becomes well, you know, I’m really pretty good at this job and I’m a better marine officer than other guys I know. If I bring these kids over there, they got a much better chance of coming back home alive than if that guy does.
So it’s just all these excuses, excuses, rationalizations lies, right? And it builds and it builds.
The first time I ever spoke to our late friend Daniel Ellsberg, he calls me on the phone, and this was and the first question he asked me was, did you bring any classified documents? And, you know, when I resigned, when I left Afghanistan, I was done with it. I was so morally and intellectually broken that I was done.
Like, my concern was just not killing myself, honestly, at that point, was to get away from it all, escape from it. My resigning in protest was something I thought was going to be internal. I didn’t decide to have a plan or I never thought about speaking to the press until the head of Afghan operations for the State Department actually said that to me, you know, Henry said, are you gonna talk to the press? And I had never even thought about it. And then my thoughts were, that’s the first question they’re asking. They’re really worried about this.
But you know, I burned my stuff, my personal notes, everything, before I left there. And, you know, even if I hadn’t, it would’ve been easy to do it, put a thumb drive into the classified machines, I’m fine. You know, I remember being interviewed by Jeremy Scahill for his film Dirty Wars, and he asked me a particular detail, how many people were on the JPEL, the JPEL is a Joint Prioritized Effects List, and that was the kill list that we had of who we were going to kill. And he said, how many people are on there? And I’m on film saying, I can’t tell you that.
Because even nine months, 10 months after, I was still hedging. I had this thought that I would be able to go back in. There was a history of that. You know, Tony Lake for example, someone who resigns over the Vietnam War ends up becoming the national security advisor for Bill Clinton many, many years later. And maybe that’s how it was then, it certainly wasn’t 15 years ago, 14 years ago, certainly is not the case now in DC.
But I was naive, stupid, but I would hedge on those things cause I didn’t want to jeopardize myself. So even as I was denouncing the wars and saying how the wars were counterproductive and the Obama surge in Afghanistan was doomed for failure, and then on with Libya and Syria and everything else, at that point I was afraid to put forward anything that I knew was classified.
You know, now, of course, I’ll tell you, if I remember right, about 3000 people on that list, right. And, and, you know, just one of those things, another little story, I had to go to NATO headquarters, ISAF headquarters in Kabul one time when I was there with several other guys, and our point in visiting them was to talk to them: how do we get people off of the JPEL?
So to get somebody onto that kill list, where either a drone, where a drone would come in, F 15 or B 1 or whatever would drop a bomb on your house, or our commandos would come and kick your door down and shoot you in the face, we can get you on that list. No problem. If I wanted to, I mean, anyone who was in a position to do so could do so. That person needs to go on the list and he would go on the list.
To get a person off the list was impossible. And I’m not joking about impossible. There was not a way to get somebody off the list.
So I remember going to this meeting where, and it just was, it was a scene out of a movie. You know, it was this absurd Kafka-esque situation, very catch 22 where you could put someone on a list, but you can’t take him off. You can get the person killed, but you can’t keep him from being killed, even if you’re there with all your documentation, everything else saying that’s the wrong guy, that’s the wrong person.
Of course, people probably recall that’s how our no fly list was in the United States for, it probably may still be: we had tens of thousands of people on no fly lists and almost all of them had no reason to be there, literally almost all of them, and when people found out they were on, they couldn’t get off.
I mean, so you have this type of bureaucratic inertia, this absurdity, again, this Kafka-esque thing that you look at it and you say, my God, and then I think a lot of that builds up as well, too, you know, in your head when you’re going through this, when you’re having these intellectual and moral problems with what you’re taking part in.
You see the ridiculousness of the institutions and they can accomplish getting people killed, but we don’t even know if we’re killing the right people. And I mean, that was the type of thing that you saw over and over again. So even knowing the absurdity of that, that whole story I just spoke about there, when Jeremy asked me how many people were on the list, I still told him I couldn’t tell him, right?
So even after I resign, after everything else, it took me a couple of years to get past that. And now certainly, yeah, I wish I had taken stuff with me. I wish when Dan had called me that first time I’d have been like, yeah, I’ve got a whole briefcase full of it, what should I do with it.
You know, I wish that was the case, but…
Eleanor Goldfield: Well, I think regardless of briefcases full of thumb drives, I think that you do a very powerful and important job now of speaking out against the military industrial complex and the U.S. Empire.
And I think it’s why people come to you because it’s not that common to find someone who was in the Marines and worked for the State Department that is now in your position.
And for me, that’s one of the things that I, you know, I hear Snowden’s words in my head, we need more people like you, veterans that are for peace, to bring people who have served out of the machine because somebody like me, you know, I’ve known people in the military who have looked at me in the face and just said, you don’t understand and you’ll never understand.
So I can’t reach them, but having people who have been in those situations and had those jobs and seeing the things that you’ve seen, I think is so important for reaching the people who are in those positions now.
Matthew Hoh: Yeah, thank you for saying that. And I’m sorry that’s been your experience trying to talk to people from the military or intelligence community or diplomatic corps or whatever, because it’s a really lazy, shallow, nonsensical excuse not to engage on something, right? It’s a means of avoiding something that you don’t want to take it on. So you just immediately discredit whatever’s being said from whoever’s saying it as they couldn’t understand, they don’t understand.
And the reality is I was fairly unique in my experiences that I had a pretty broad range of experiences. Very low level work to very senior work as I got myself into that circumstance where I’m around these senior people, but the same time to have that experience of being on the ground, right?
And most men and women who are there oftentimes have a very narrow aperture, right? They’re looking through the soda straw, so to speak, because they have a job that’s very confined.
And this is why my friend, Danny Davis, when he came forward in 2012, January 2012, New York Times put him on the front page when he went to Congress with classified information, which you are allowed to do under law. And Danny spent a lot of time making sure he didn’t break the law in order to do this.
You know, he went to Congress with the classified information and Danny said, look, General Petraeus and others are coming in here, and they are saying this about Afghanistan, and that’s not true. This is what their own internal information says. They are coming in here, and they are lying to you. It says A, and they are coming in, and they’re saying X.
And, you know, Danny will tell you, about six members of Congress looked at what he provided. And they were the usual suspects, Walter Jones, Barbara Lee, so I, I think there’s that frustration as well.
There’s such capture of the media and the political spectrum by the military industrial complex, including the intelligence agencies, that you have to resort to the spectacular, the dramatic to get any attention, right? So if Daniel Hale tries to do it the right way, rather than putting out videos of drones killing innocent people, you don’t have that, again, the drama of it, the theater of it, then no one’s going to pay attention to Daniel.
You know, if it wasn’t for the spectacle of Donald Trump himself, we probably wouldn’t know much about Reality Winner.
If she had put out something unrelated to Trump, it wouldn’t have made much of a notice and they still would have thrown her in jail, by the way.
Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, as we’ve been discussing, the empire does not like to be made a fool and have its own facts thrown back in its face.
Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time, to sit down with us and share your insight. I really appreciate it.
Matthew Hoh: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for doing this and thank you for the work you do.
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