Behind Closed Doors
BROOKE GLADSTONE After Biden and Putin's first meeting, is there anything for pundits to chew on? Aside from, you know, the obvious.
Joe Biden crossed his legs, looking very comfortable, very casual. He's been coached on body language. Putin, of course, a master of it. You see him there sprawled out a little bit like he owns the place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. New reports revealed the Justice Department seizing journalists records...again.
MATT APUZZO Nobody gets in trouble for talking about the bin Laden raid. Hooray for America! We'll make a movie about it. Gets you in trouble is when you say they're waterboarding people in secret prisons, or there's illegal wiretapping going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And a look back at a truly history making case of our government guarding its secrets.
RICHARD NIXON Public has no right to know. Secret documents and freedom of the press is not the freedom to destroy the integrity of the government. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. According to historian John Ashley Saomes, Grenville, the first use of the word "summit" as a global leader meetup was in Geneva, the Cold War summer of '55. For the heads of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain and France, the meeting was an effort to break the ice on peaceful coexistence. Summit has been applied to such gatherings of global chiefs ever since, including thrice this week for NATO, the G7 and for Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin's first in-person chat, which, like the summit of '55, was in Geneva, in uneasy times. Biden went on the record in an ABC News interview.
REPORTER You know Vladimir Putin, you think he's a killer?
JOE BIDEN Mhm, I do.
REPORTER So what price must he pay?
JOE BIDEN A price he's going to pay? Well, you'll see shortly. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sanctions have been levied and diplomats expelled.
[CLIP - MONTAGE]
NEWS REPORT The United States on Thursday announced sanctions punishing Moscow for alleged cyber hacking, election interference and other malign acts.
NEWS REPORT A buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine is reportedly setting off alarms for the US and its allies.
NEWS REPORT Russia now kicking out 60 American diplomats from Moscow and shutting the US consulate in St. Petersburg.
NEWS REPORT A ransomware attack that shut down the country's largest gasoline pipeline was most likely the work of Russians. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This summit was a classic icebreaker. That's all it was expected to be. Pundits were left with little but body language to pick over when the doors closed.
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT What do you make of the little things we've seen so far, the way they shook hands, the fact that they both showed up on time?
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT Even the way that Joe Biden crossed his life, looking very comfortable, very casual. He's been coached on body language. Putin, of course, a master of it. You see him there sprawled out a little bit like he owns the place.
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT Biden is way more concentrated on Putin. We see him quite eager. His balance is well forward. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the doors opened, each president held separate press conferences. When asked about Russia's human rights record, Putin showcased his signature moves – deflections and whataboutisms?
PUTIN TRANSLATOR Look at the American streets. People are getting killed there, including those who are leading the various political organizations – that you can get a bullet in the back of your neck. A woman just ran away from the police and they shot her in the back. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we admit it. We're working on it.
PUTIN TRANSLATOR But take Afghanistan shooting from a drone at an unarmed crowd. Clearly the civilian crowd. How would you call that? Who is the killer now? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, um.
PUTIN TRANSLATOR The Guantanamo prison is still operating. It doesn't even start to resemble what is stipulated in the international law or in the US legislation. And yet it exists. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are still forty people there. But is Putin actually saying that American failures give him carte blanche? President Biden opened his presser by suggesting the meeting had been overhyped, that it was merely the start of a dialogue on vital issues, and he expressed cautious positivity, a tone one reporter seemed to, well, overhype.
KAITLIN COLLINS Why are you so confident he'll change his behavior, Mr. President?
PRESIDENT BIDEN I'm not confident he'll change his behavior. What do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident? What I said was, let's go straight, I said what will change your behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to that diminishes the world. I'm not confident in anything, I'm just stating a fact. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey Kovalyov is the investigative editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet. And he noticed that after the meeting, Putin did something unusual. He said something nice.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV He said it was a very instructive meeting. That's despite the impression that some media are giving about him. Joe Biden is a professional and he's very informed and that even if he consults some cheat notes, as yesterday Russian state media were quick to point out, Putin said it's nothing unusual and we all do that. He was unusually friendly. From the looks of it. Putin is eager for at least some improvement in relations with the United States because we really can't go on like this for too long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You saw some familiar tropes in Putin's presentation. Whatever Russia is doing is because the US did it first.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV I wonder if he realizes how insane that actually sounds, whether it's the Guantanamo or whether it's George Floyd protests or police brutality in the United States, the essence of it is always the same. So you don't have the moral authority to criticize us because look at yourself, things are as bad or probably even worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then there's something that the US population has become very familiar with, which is the, you know, uncontested lie.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Yes, that's one of his tricks up his sleeve in the same league as turning up hours late. That's just his way of not trying to convince you of something, but just showing you your place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's an exercise of power. What did you think of Biden's presentation?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Well, the optics of not allowing Russian press to the press conference wasn't good, and of course, the Russian press quickly latched onto this and criticized Biden for it. So what about your famous freedom of speech thing, et cetera, et cetera?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think that Biden excluded the Russian press?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV And maybe the logic was like, why invite the press that's all controlled by the government when you can just talk to the guy himself. If that's indeed, was his thinking that it's getting uncomfortably close to what Putin himself thinks of the press. He clearly doesn't believe in free press, and it's evident when he sits down for one on one interview with a foreign journalist, which he would never do in Russia with an independent media. I mean, what's Meduza? There is no chance in hell we’ll ever get a sit down interview with Putin. The Kremlin won't even acknowledge our existence. They scrapped all mentions of Meduza from the Kremlin's transcript of the interview with NBC's Keir Simmons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While we're on the subject, you were designated by Russia as a foreign agent. What does that mean for Meduza?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV From now on, we have to on paying a very huge back breaking fine, put a massive, ugly legal disclaimer on top of everything we publish. And that includes all ads and promotional materials. And of course, that's carried away 90 percent of our advertisers and ruined our business model. We launched a crowdfunding campaign which helped us stay afloat for a few months more. But now our sources are also afraid to talk to us for fear of being associated with a foreign agent. Our freelancers are reluctant to work with us, and that creates a whole new set of problems which haven't existed before. I mean, we are the first independent media outlet to be designated a foreign agent. So we're in uncharted waters. We don't know what's going to happen next, but I mean, it's not really looking good. And that was the plan. That was the design, slowly strangle independent media out of existence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did the Russian press deal with Putin at his press conference?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Pretty much the same as they would at any regular press conference, you know, just throw him the softball questions, pretty much the same that the Russian press criticized the Americans for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was notable to you about the performance of the American press in dealing with Putin?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV So there was a lot of what I would call "sound-bite theatrics" where the act of asking the tough question is more important than getting the actual answer, because if you've been following Russia long enough, you know what the answer would be. So it came from ABC's Rachel Scott, who asked Putin the list of your political opponents, what that imprisoned job is long, what are you so afraid of? But, of course, Putin would deflect with a long diatribe about BLM protests in the United States or something. So I don't think it was very informative in terms of getting actual answers from Putin because he's not there to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But something stood out for you, not during the actual press conference, but remarks by NBC's Keir Simmons after his interview with Putin.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Keir said after the interview, which lasted for 90 minutes, Putin stayed for almost an hour and he leaned in and he was really trying to persuade Kier that America is actually buying up all the Russian opposition, and trying to unseat him through regime change efforts. And something that really shines through all his bluster, his actual fear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you think he means it?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV He does. And I think all of Russia's recent domestic policies are a reflection of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was trying to talk to Keir Simmons because he saw Keir Simmons as a representative of the US.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Oh, yes. That's very evident from the answers he gave Mr. Simmons. And Simmons was always trying – "but I'm just a journalist. I have no influence on the US policy," but Putin wouldn't take any of that. I mean, he's quite convinced that the way the press works in the United States is the same. And not just the press, the civil society, everything, because he's been president for 21 years now. That's the way it's always been with him. Literally, the first thing he did was bring all the big business and the media and the civil society to his hill because he saw free press and independent marketers as agents of chaos. And he's convinced that everyone sees them as such. And he thinks that the US press is just as subservient to the president's office as the state media in Russia. And that's why he's talking to foreign journalists as ambassadors of their governments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When he was asked about cyber attacks, he said that the US has a huge cyber offensive program, which is true, and that Russia has hardly any program at all. How do you make progress on those issues if you don't admit you have those issues?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV I think there is a difference between what Vladimir Putin says in the public and what his aides and ambassadors and diplomats backchannel back to the Americans. So if the American side presented incontrovertible evidence of Russian hacking into American networks and if the Russian side admitted it through back channels, they would never do it publicly. Yeah, but probably maybe a few months or a year, the intensity of cyber attacks will quietly go down. And that's how we'll know that this summit was a success. They'll never want to be seen as caving into someone's pressure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people have said this meeting shouldn't be receiving so much attention that it's just legitimizing Putin. It's platforming a dictator. I push back on that. This is the US president and the Russian president. I mean, they should meet, right? What do you think?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Well, of course they should. I mean, there's no way around that. No matter what we think about Putin, he's the president and he's going to be for any foreseeable future. So we got to work with what you have after all these years of these craziness. I'm actually very cautiously relieved. What happened at this meeting in the summit and the Putin's remark after the summit. I'm kind of egotistically hoping that if the relations with the United States improve somehow, maybe it's going to be a relief for us here for independent media and civic society, because we are being punished for the state of relations between the United States and Russia, despite us not having any say in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey, thank you very much.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Thank you for having me. It was very interesting and illuminating conversation unlike President Putin's press conference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey Kovalyov is the investigative editor at Meduza. Coming up, presidential missteps on press freedom. Yesterday, 50 years ago and 60 years ago, here, there and everywhere, this is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. As President Biden tried to bring down the temperature in Geneva this week, a long standing argument over press freedom was boiling over in Washington.
NEWS REPORT Leaders from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post will meet with Attorney General Merrick Garland today. The meeting is set to discuss a controversial Trump era leak investigation. It comes after revelations that Department of Justice officials saw 2017 phone and email records from reporters at all three media outlets. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 8 reporters were targeted, and we don't yet have an official reason why, but we can guess. In 2017, The Washington Post and The New York Times were each reporting out stories that involved leaked classified documents. Under Trump, the DOJ went looking for the news room sources and hit a dead end. But in 2020, then Attorney General William Barr restarted the probe, this time filing subpoenas for the journalists e-mail and phone records and issuing gag orders, so the news organizations lawyers couldn't tell the staff that they were targets. 2021 brought a change in command, but initially no change in policy. Under Biden, the DOJ continued fighting in court to obtain phone and email records for reporters at the Times. In March, it issued yet another gag order. But this month, both the gag and the quest for records were dropped, and the new president expressed scrupulous regret.
PRESIDENT BIDEN It's simply, simply wrong.
NEWS REPORT So you won't let your Justice Department do that?
PRESIDENT BIDEN I won't let that happen. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE While conceding some mildly exculpatory ignorance.
JEN PSAKI It's an independent Justice Department. They will proceed, of course, with a range of investigations, which, as we noted in our statement on Saturday morning, we did not know about the gag order until minutes before the reporting came out on Friday night. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The tension between government secrets and a free press that spanned multiple decades and administrations. And Matt Apuzzo, an international investigative reporter for The New York Times is no stranger to being caught in the middle. Matt, welcome to On the Media.
MATT APUZZO Thanks so much for having me here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you make of the White House spokesperson Jen Psaki's response that the DOJ is an independent body, that the Biden administration itself didn't even know what was going on for a while? I think she said that. And we condemn Trump for using the department as his own private goon squad. She didn't say that. Should we slam Biden for a lag before pulling the break?
MATT APUZZO I don't really care. I'm not into this for politics. My colleagues and I went through this under the Obama administration. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act in unprecedented ways to go after people. That administration completely trampled on the rights of a free press. So this is a bipartisan strategy here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The incident you were directly involved in under the Obama administration, that was back in 2013. You were at AP and you and reporter Adam Goldman broke news about an al-Qaeda affiliated bomb plot in Yemen.
MATT APUZZO We revealed that there was an active plot, that the government knew about it. Wasn't telling people that there were active threats to travel, threats to the homeland, and that this was a very live plot with a sophisticated new type of bomb. They initiated an investigation and they seized our phone records without any sort of ability to argue in court that that was an overreach. I would love to say that we were the only ones that happened to, but unfortunately, the Obama administration made a habit of going after reporters and going after people who talk to reporters. And so the rules that dictate how the Justice Department should handle these sorts of things changed under the Obama administration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In his second term, these incidents dropped off.
MATT APUZZO Yeah. And the idea was that there should be a higher bar when the government comes for reporter work product, and that reporters ideally should get a chance to argue in court that this is an overreach. And then the administration changed and we went right back to square one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Go back one more administration to George W. Bush. The DOJ was very aggressive with national security reporters. Jailed Judy Miller, a Times reporter for 85 days for refusing to reveal confidential sources regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame. This is not partisan. I'm just wondering, leak investigations, seized records, gag orders. We all know that this is going to have a chilling effect, but have you ever experienced a likely source backing off because of this?
MATT APUZZO Yeah, I mean, look, you can never know why somebody doesn't want to talk to you, but I can absolutely tell you the chilling effect is real. It is not a theoretical thing. And that is precisely why it gets done. It gets done to tell people in the government that they're going to get caught if they step out of line. Because let's remember, what gets you in trouble in Washington is not talking about classified information. What gets you in trouble in Washington is talking about stuff that makes the government mad. Right, nobody gets in trouble for talking about the bin Laden raid. Let's tell the whole story in every detail about the most highly classified operation ever. We'll make a movie about it, right. Well, CIA will participate. What gets you in trouble is when you say actually, you know, they're waterboarding people in secret prisons, or there's illegal wiretapping going on or the government collecting everybody's phone records in America. They hide under the guise of “it's classified,” even though everything in this government is classified. The intention is to scare people off of talking to reporters. That's the goal, so that the only information that gets out is the officially blessed version of the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You'd been through this before. How was it for you when you found out about this latest incident?
MATT APUZZO We had seen that the government had come for The Washington Post and we'd seen that they'd come for CNN. So when they said, oh, yeah, you guys, too, it wasn't a huge surprise, but obviously it was really upsetting. And the real thing that was upsetting, Brooke, is that this is career law enforcement people, weaponizing really anti-American anti-press rhetoric. When the president of the United States says the press is the enemy of the people and he points to The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, and then prosecutors go and get a secret order to start rummaging around in email accounts and in phone records, that should be troubling to anybody.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that some of your sources and those of other reporters have been revealed during this process?
MATT APUZZO I don't know. I mean, I don't know at this point what they have, what they intend to do with it. I sure as hell think they should give back what they have and destroy copies. But first, we need to know what the heck happened. We need a reckoning to know, were the rules followed? The rules are pretty clear that this has to be signed off on by the attorney general and the head of public affairs. So let's just see the chain of command. Let's see if the policy worked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you do to prevent your records becoming vulnerable? You use encryption procedures that offer some protection to a source.
MATT APUZZO Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, everybody has encrypted apps on their phone now and you try to do your meetings in person and for sensitive stuff, leave your phone at home. But look, here's the thing. Reporters aren't spies and we shouldn't have to be. We're not doing anything wrong. We're trying to tell the story of our government and that's important. We can all take precaution, but it is naive of us to think that I, sitting at The New York Times with my phone in an encrypted app, am going to defeat the most sophisticated and best funded intelligence gathering operation in the history of mankind. I mean, that's just not going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would satisfy you, Matt? Assuming that there are sometimes, rarely, occasions where a reporter or a source may overstep and actually threaten national security?
MATT APUZZO Two things on that. First, I want to push back on this idea that harming national security is somehow a standard, because looking at everything we know about the way the government has conducted itself since 9/11, about drone strikes or secret prisons, torture, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, abuses at Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping, everything we know was under this guise of if you reveal that, you're going to harm national security. So if you took that off the table, what would you know about what the government does to keep you safe? You would know nothing. They always say if you print the truth, it's going to harm national security. So that's the first thing. The second thing I would push back on is when I talk to my kids, when something goes wrong, I get you’re sorry. And I get you promise you're never going to do it again. But first, I need to understand what happened. So I, you asked me what would satisfy me, I'm much more interested right now in understanding how this went off the rails than I am trying to envision, what are we going to do. Because we can't ask the question of how are we going to fix it until we know what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's that missing piece that's getting at you?
MATT APUZZO Where did the idea for these subpoenas come from? What were they looking for? Who proposed it? Who authorized it? Were the internal procedures followed? Why did the government argue behind closed doors, we couldn't possibly tell the reporters that we wanted to see their phone records. We couldn't possibly let them come to court because it was a big secret. Why was that allowed to be said when there's an article, I think, on the front page of The New York Times and elsewhere saying there's a leak investigation going on into these stories. I just want to know and I know the inspector general is investigating this, and I know, obviously the fact that members of Congress and their families also had records seized on them. It's all part of this. Look, nobody is arguing the government doesn't have a right to protect its own secrets and to conduct internal investigations. They have huge power to do that internally. They can go through people's phone records. They can do polygraphs, they could pull security clearances. There's no shortages of tools that they have at their disposal. What I don't understand is why this all powerful intelligence apparatus that has cropped up in the last 20 years, suddenly hits a dead end and is really interested in going through my news gathering materials. So wherever we end up, I'd be, be pretty happy to have that line be a little clearer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The implication is that they don't need journalists to find the stuff out. So they're doing it for another reason.
MATT APUZZO Yeah, they're sending a message that if you write stories we don't like, there's always the risk of consequences. It's as much a message for me and my colleagues as it is for everybody who works in the government. And again, there's no surprise that the news organizations that they came for with The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, given everything that the former president was saying about those news organizations almost on a daily basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
MATT APUZZO Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matt Apuzzo is an international investigative reporter for The New York Times, based in Belgium.
At some point, every American president tangles with an unruly press. The hard boiled surveillance campaigns Apuzzo described are not particularly novel. But no president, other than perhaps the last one, conjures up media fear and loathing more than Richard Nixon, who told his foes they'd be sorry when he was gone.
RICHARD NIXON Just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was him in '62, freshly a sore loser of the California governor's race, berating a hundred journalists at what he called his last ever press conference. Six years later, Nixon was a presidential candidate, desperate not to lose again and to ensure he wouldn't, he did something that, according to the new podcast, Nixon at War, would forever haunt him. Kurt Anderson, host of Nixon at War, says the need to protect that secret escalated Nixon's paranoia when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 prompted the infamous Watergate break-in in '72 and ultimately ushered in Nixon's bitter end. Welcome to the show, Kurt.
KURT ANDERSEN I couldn't be happier to be here with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the Nixon years have been litigated over and over again, but your innovation is you make it feel more intimately knowable. I want to play a clip from Episode 2 wherein President Lyndon B. Johnson talks about then presidential candidate Richard Nixon's meddling in Vietnam War peace talks in '68. On a Saturday night, Johnson called Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen. Johnson calls what Nixon is doing treason. Dirksen agrees, but Johnson says he's not going to call it out.
LYNDON B JOHNSON I know who's doing this. I don't want to identify it. I think will shock America if a principle candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this important. I don't want to get in a fight with him there. I think Nixon is going to be elected. But I know this, that they're contacting a foreign power in the middle of war.
EVERERR DIRKSEN It's a mistake.
LYNDON B JOHNSON And it's a damn bad mistake. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what was Nixon up to in '68?
KURT ANDERSEN If not treason, it was certainly wrong, illegal. It was a violation of the now somewhat famous Logan Act, which prevents American citizens from doing exactly what candidate Richard Nixon was doing, which is to say, using his agent to keep telling the South Vietnamese president and regime, our allies, to not go along with this peace breakthrough that Lyndon Johnson had just crafted because it would help his vice president, Nixon's opponent, Hubert Humphrey, win the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned Nixon's agent. To scuttle the peace talks in Paris, he enlisted the help of Anna Chennault, a former Chinese journalist and a prominent Republican. Of course, Nixon denies it. And here, your team dug up a previously unheard clip from the famous interviews of Nixon by British TV host David Frost.
DAVID FROST There have been a lot of reports that Madame Chennault was in touch with president Thieu, via the Vietnamese embassy. Urging him to take a firm line because he would get better terms, better support from you than from a Democratic president and so on. Did you ever hear about that?
RICHARD NIXON I have, of course, I'm hearing about it from you today, and I would do nothing to undercut them. I did nothing to undercut them. I couldn't have done that in good conscience. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did you learn about Anna Chennault in the course of making this podcast? How pivotal was she?
KURT ANDERSEN Absolutely pivotal. And she's an extraordinary character. This teenage war correspondent who meets this famous US Air Force general during World War II, marries him, and comes to the United States, he dies and she becomes this right wing anti-communist powerbroker and Nixon's biggest female donor. That's how she was referred to at the time. And was big pals with the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, whom she introduced to Nixon. And in that introduction was named by Richard Nixon to be his sole emissary as a candidate to South Vietnam to make sure they didn't go along with this peace breakthrough. If it came to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You see his sabotage as kind of the first domino. It certainly did seem to be of a piece with what followed later. I mean, right up until when the Pentagon Papers were published. And they weren't even necessarily bad for Nixon since they were about prior administrations. In fact, you share what Kissinger told Nixon on the day they were published.
KISSINGER No one reading this can then say that this president got us into trouble. I've read this stuff. We come out pretty well in it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why did they trigger Nixon to order a break-In?
KURT ANDERSEN There was a secret file that he thought the Brookings Institution, the big liberal think tank, had that would prove and show all of his dirty deeds about the peace talks to get elected.
RICHARD NIXON Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe cleaned out. [END CLIP]
KURT ANDERSEN Days and weeks later, have we taken care of Brookings? Have we done that? Did we get the men there last night? Part of the plan at one point had been to also commit arson there as a diversion from the burglary they were going to commit. Never took place, but this is the moment at which the plumbers, as they were called, these burglars, were really given carte blanche to do whatever it takes to find out what secrets the Democrats had or anybody else who he saw as his enemy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say all roads lead back to Vietnam for Nixon?
KURT ANDERSEN All of the paranoia and fascination with secrets that led him to do the Watergate burglary and then the cover up really started back here in 1971, right after the Pentagon Papers when he was ordered to break-in of the Brookings Institution. And then before that, in this really covered-up, dismissed story of Anna Chennault and dealing with Vietnam and using and justifying to himself any means of national security, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, whatever, for political reasons, were justified because we're fighting a war. One of the great tragic ironies is, is that way too slowly, but the war was winding down, fewer American men were being drafted, we were pulling out, and yet he couldn't let it alone. It drove him mad. Vietnam and the politics of Vietnam and the liberals are against me and the press is against me and all of that, that really set him off the rails and right into Watergate and his downfall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He also exploited a kind of organic political fissure between middle America, the silent majority and the so-called elites. He literally hit hard hats against hippies.
KURT ANDERSEN A bunch of construction workers in lower Manhattan attacked a bunch of protesters a few days after the Kent State killings. And then that became a thing. Construction workers marched day after day after day in favor of the Vietnam War, and this "America. Love it or leave it" stuff. Starting in '68 more softly. This was part of his pitch, us normal Americans versus the professors and the liberals and the hippies and the protesters and the black people. And then he gives this speech at the end of 1969, just after there had been these massively successful anti-war protests called the moratorium. He gives a speech, famous silent majority speech in which he doubled down on that.
RICHARD NIXON I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street [END CLIP]
KURT ANDERSEN And we really are in a way that I had never fully realized, living with the residual effects of Richard Nixon's making as his central political pitch – what is now the central political pitch of the Republican Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nixon famously loathed the press.
RICHARD NIXON They're running the line, Chuck, a 'right to know'. That's, of course, a goddamn code word, 'right to know'? The public has no right to know secret documents. [END CLIP]
KURT ANDERSEN In the speech Richard Nixon gave, for instance, in 1962 when he lost the governorship of California, it's a many, many minutes long aria about why the press hates him. And it's, it's all about Alger Hiss.
RICHARD NIXON For 16 years, ever since the Hiss case, you've had an opportunity to to attack me. [END CLIP]
KURT ANDERSEN Richard Nixon made his name as a freshman congressman, persecuting and then prosecuting former communist Alger Hiss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was also a kind of upper crust patrician type that would have especially rubbed Nixon the wrong way.
KURT ANDERSEN A hundred percent. No, he was this Ivy Leaguer who the liberals in the newspapers loved. And, and then, you know, Daniel Ellsberg, a different kind of guy, but also an Ivy Leaguer, Jewish. And although Richard Nixon had many Jewish people working for him, was famously – and we have tapes galore to testament to this – a raging anti-Semite. And he just saw this is the same thing all over again. The press loves Ellsberg. Ellsberg is a fink, just like Alger Hiss was. He just keeps saying, no, no, no, this is how we did it with Alger Hiss. We ruined him in the press. We've got to ruin Ellsberg in the press. He rode Alger Hiss into political success and rode his idea that it was happening again with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and then Watergate right out of office. If you were doing this as a movie, as a novel, it's a little pat, but that's exactly what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was the most surprising thing that you learned from producing the podcast?
KURT ANDERSEN Kissinger really is the other major character in this story. And just the sense of them and their relationship that one gets in this audio way that you don't get from text. It's not the same. After Richard Nixon gives a speech late in the game in 1971, the anchors on television are saying you did OK, and spends the whole night getting call after call after call from various employees, friends, donors, sycophants, saying, oh, you were great, you were great, were great, and then starts worrying like this person didn't call, why didn't this person call? So Henry Kissinger keeps calling back.
KISSINGER The speech that we can all be proud to have had the privilege to be associated with.
RICHARD NIXON Well, I'm glad you feel that way. It was a God damn good little speech.
KISSINGER It was also magnificently delivered. It was the best delivery. [END CLIP]
KURT ANDERSEN This sense of the Nixon whisperer, Henry Kissinger, using this guy as he himself was being used by him. It's not a new revelation, but I would say that my sense of that is now deeper than it ever was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kurt, thank you very much.
KURT ANDERSEN Brooke, thank you. A longtime fan, first time guest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kurt Anderson is author of Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History, and also the host, writer and producer of the podcast Nixon at War from PRX.
Coming up, most of us know the end of the story of the Pentagon Papers. Next, we return to the beginning. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. When it comes to peeling back the curtain on White House Wizards of Oz, journalists can come across as heroes or at least gritty crusaders for the First Amendment, as in the 2017 Steven Spielberg film The Post about The Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers.
REPORTER Ben, how are we supposed to comb through 4,000 pages.
DIFFERENT REPORTER They're not even loosely organized?
REPORTER The Times had three months, there's no way we can possibly...
HOWARD He's right, we got less than eight hours.
BEN Hey, hey, hey, for the last six years we've been playing catch up. And now, thanks to the president of the United States, who, by the way, has taken a sh*t all over the First Amendment, we have the goods. We don't have any competition. There's dozens of stories in here, The Times has barely scratched the surface. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But getting and publishing the papers and the subsequent trial was the end of the story. How about the beginning? Back in 2018, I sat down with Les Gelb, who was a 30 year old Defense Department official when he was put in charge of compiling the papers by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And he told me how those papers came to be.
LES GELB We got a list from McNamara of 100 questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Things like what's happening in the field, how many of the enemy died?
LES GELB Right, what's the body kill? 8 of the 100 questions were historical. I was given 6 people to work on these questions and we were given 2 months to get them done. By the way, we were told not to tell anybody about this. We stared at the questions. We all started laughing. They said, well, why are we doing this? This is the kind of stuff we sent up to the press secretary when we're preparing him to answer questions. And we're not going to be able to add anything to what we're doing on a daily basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But some of the questions were bigger than that. The questions included, are we lying about the number killed in action? Can we win this war?
LES GELB Yes. And those were, those were the daily questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Real answers to those questions would take a lot more than a sound bite from a press secretary.
LES GELB Well, we were giving what we thought were the real answers to the questions when we did the press guidance for the press secretary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did the government feel about the war?
LES GELB I would say almost everybody in the government felt that the war was not going well, but a number felt there were ways to fight it better. There were very, very few people in the Pentagon or the State Department or the White House who were flat out against the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. They believed in the domino theory.
LES GELB Essentially, that was it. We're all brought up in that tradition of the domino theory, that somehow if we lost the strategic place such as Berlin, we would lose Europe. And in fact, in one of the memos you'll see in the Pentagon Papers, the State Department referred to Indochina as the Asian Berlin. That's how central they thought it was to the future security and safety of the United States. Hard to believe, but that's what we thought.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But why did McNamara ask you these questions if you were already giving the best answers you could to the press secretary every day?
LES GELB To this day, I don't know. McNamara initially just said answer those questions. Then after this group of 6 that I had assembled, schmoozed about it for several days, we decided, well, you know, it might be interesting if we could look back into the files, and maybe give more in-depth answers to the questions we had been answering, more or less from our daily experience. And inevitably, you had the dip back into the history. We wrote up a list of about 20 some odd monographs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Short papers.
LES GELB That's really what the Pentagon Papers is, a bunch of short papers. I sent the memo to McNamara and he wrote on that memo, OK, let it be encyclopedic and let the chips fall where they may. But the only ones who really knew were CIA, because McNamara called the head of the CIA, Richard Helms. And Helms shipped over to me an enormous quantity of these documents from the CIA. But he never called Dean Rusk the secretary of state. He never called Walt Rostow the national security adviser. He told Lyndon Johnson, the notion that this was a definitive history is just plain wrong, Brooke, because we didn't have that kind of access and we never were allowed to do any interviews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How long did it take?
LES GELB A little over a year and a quarter. Started in June of '67, finished in February '69. And when it was all done, you know, we had these 36 volumes, which very few people who have written about the Pentagon Papers, I assure you, have read. And then I took the papers over to McNamara's office at the World Bank. He was head of the World Bank in February '69. I brought him into his office and we're sitting around this coffee table having a little chat. And then finally I said to him, Would you like to see the papers? I opened up one of the boxes, handed him one of the monographs. He flipped through it like you flip through a deck of cards with his thumb and he threw it back into the box and he said, and I quote, Take them back to the Pentagon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think he ever read them?
LES GELB I have no idea. I spoke to him many times over the years and I never asked them and he never said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was replaced by Clark Clifford as secretary of defense, blueblood lawyer who had virtually no foreign policy experience.
LES GELB And we thought Clifford was sent to the Pentagon by Johnson to sit on people like us who had begun to ask questions about the war that the White House didn't like. Clark Clifford sensed this right away, and laughed, and said, you know, realize I've been against this war since 1965.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did he think of the domino theory?
LES GELB That was the reason why he became a dove in '65. Johnson had sent him to talk to the Asian leaders about sending more troops to fight the war, and none of them would give any troops. And so Clifford said, I thought to myself, well, if the dominoes don't think they have to fight to save themselves, what the devil are we doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE By the time you were assembling what became the Pentagon Papers, it was already known to the secretary of defense and to the president that the war was not going to be won.
LES GELB That's correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet they felt they had to continue to send battalion after battalion into the field to die.
LES GELB No question about it. But I think most people, by some time in '68, came more to believe that we couldn't afford to lose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They continued to send soldiers into it,
LES GELB Not to lose,
BROOKE GLADSTONE To maintain a strange balance of power in the world. The domino theory, a bankrupt notion as it later came to be believed,
LES GELB but at the time, most people in government believed it. The story has been put out of the Pentagon Papers showed they were all lying. But while the papers show some lies, the main message is that our leaders from Truman onwards didn't know hardly anything about Vietnam and Indochina. They were ignorant. And it also shows that the foreign policy community believed that if we lost Vietnam, the rest of Asia would fall. Here we're talking about all this stuff and you know far more than the average informed person about the Pentagon Papers. And you're surprised by my answers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Precisely why we called you Les. Because there are legends about the Pentagon Papers and you think that they convey a false narrative. Now, you concede there was an enormous amount of lying about numbers, constant statements of optimism. There was the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
LES GELB Yeah. What the American people were told in 1964 was that North Vietnamese boats attacked American ships in the Tonkin Gulf area and that our ships fired back. But what I found out when I actually saw the negatives of the pictures taken during that night, these were negatives that showed our ships firing huge guns and no evidence of any small ships firing guns at us. I was astonished.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Confusion in the Gulf of Tonkin initially, and later outright deception, enabled President Johnson to effect a huge escalation in that war.
LES GELB That's right. It provided the public justification.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I would argue that you may underestimate the significance of the continuous lying throughout the conduct of that war.
LES GELB I don't think I underestimate the lying. I know what it was and I know who is doing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you think the media narrative about it is outsized?
LES GELB It's outsized based on the Pentagon Papers, Brooke. Ellsberg created the myth of what the papers show is that it all was a bunch of lies. But the truth is, people actually believed in the war and were ignorant about what could and could not actually be done to do well in that war. That's what you see when you actually read the papers as opposed to talk about the papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So essentially, a set of beliefs forced the government to continue to sacrifice in order to get the enemy to the table, maybe.
LES GELB And Nixon negotiated for another four years or so before he concluded the deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how many people died in that period?
LES GELB As many as died in all the years before. And God knows how many lives ruined. And look, I wish I had turned against the war much sooner, and I regret it. You have no idea. No idea. But eventually I did. And then I spent several years of my life fighting against the Nixon policy and for the early end of the war. But it was too late.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did you feel back in 1971 when you discovered that The New York Times was about to publish the Pentagon Papers?
LES GELB That's a very good question, because to be perfectly frank, as I think I've been throughout this interview, my first instinct was that people would think this was the definitive history of the war, which they were not, and that people would think it was all about lying rather than beliefs. And look, because we never learn that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars. We went into Afghanistan and we went into Iraq. You know, we get involved in these wars and we don't know a damn thing about those countries. The culture, the history, the politics. And my heavens, these are not wars like World War 2 and World War 1. Where we have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, what the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That's the damn essential message of the Pentagon Papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Les, thank you very much.
LES GELB You're very welcome. You know, again, I don't deny the lies, I just want him to understand what the main points really were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Les Gelb, former correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, former senior state and Defense Department official, former head of the Council of Foreign Relations and compiler of the Pentagon Papers, died in 2019.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Lowinger, Eloise Blondeiu, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Molly Schwartz and Anthony Bansie with help from Ellen Li. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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