“Prisoners of Donald Trump.” That’s how longtime NBC reporter and analyst William Arkin described the mainstream media in a scathing letter last week announcing he would be leaving the network, accusing the media of warmongering while ignoring the “creeping fascism of homeland security.” He issued the blistering critique after a 30-year relationship with NBC, calling for “Trump-free” media days and a reckoning about how the network encourages a state of perpetual warfare. We speak with Arkin, whose award-winning reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post. He is the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “Prisoners of Donald Trump.” That’s how longtime NBC reporter and analyst William Arkin described the mainstream media in a scathing letter last week announcing he would be leaving the network, accusing the media of warmongering while ignoring the, quote, “creeping fascism of homeland security.” Arkin issued the blistering critique after a 30-year relationship with NBC, calling for Trump-free media days and a reckoning about how the network encourages a state of perpetual warfare.
In the memo, he writes, quote, “I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.”
He continues, quote, “Of course [Trump] is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by William Arkin, longtime NBCreporter and analyst. His award-winning reporting has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post. He’s the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
WILLIAM ARKIN: Thanks, Amy, for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you left NBC with this explosive memo, that not only indicts NBC, your network, says basically NBC, they might not like this, but doesn’t stand out among the crowd of corporate networks in dealing with this issue of perpetual war.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Everything I said in this letter, which was a goodbye letter to my colleagues at NBC, applies to all of the mainstream networks, applies to CNN and Fox, as well. So, I’m not really singling out NBC. I was just most familiar with it.
And my decision not to renew my contract was really one of thinking to myself that I wanted to stand back and think more about what we needed to do in order to change our national security policy. We’ve been at war now for 18 years. I don’t think anybody could argue that there’s a country in the Middle East that’s safer today than it was in 2001. The generals and the national security leadership that runs the country, and now also is the commentators and the analysts who populate the news media, really are not people who we can look to as saying, “Wow! They won a war. They avoided a war. They achieved some magnificent objective.” In fact, they are the custodians and the architects of perpetual warfare. And it seemed to me like there needed to be both a different voice and a solution. And I want to step back myself and think about how we can end this era of perpetual war and how we can build some real security, both in the United States and abroad.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering, in terms of your concerns about the coverage of President Trump and of the Trump era and your concern about the fixation—and it really is an obsession, almost—of all of the networks with covering him on not just a daily, but an hourly, minute-by-minute basis.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, let me just say, I’m here at Democracy Now!, and I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me, but you started your broadcast today making fun of the president and his remarks last night about the border. It’s almost impossible to avoid.
Donald Trump runs a circus. Every day, he gets up, he unzips his pants, and we go, “Oh, my god! What is he doing?” And then the next day he repeats, and we repeat.
So, I think that, to some degree, he sucks the oxygen out of the debate. He changes the discourse. And we haven’t figured out yet in the news media, every part of the news media, how to get beyond that. So, I’m not arguing only about the mainstream. I think everyone is stuck in the Donald Trump circus.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I have to take issue with you saying “making fun,” because “fun” is the one word I wouldn’t use. But, yes, we did focus on what he had to say. The more the networks broadcast directly what he has to say, this is the information that gets out to the American people, and it is so critical to take on each point. In that case, for example, that immigrants commit more crimes than natural-born Americans, which isn’t true. And it’s absolutely critical, each time those comments are made, to counter them.
But let’s get to the issue of who populates the network TV shows, which is validating an issue you have criticized for so long and investigated for so long: the national security state.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, you know, I’ve been associated with television for 30 years. I’ve been a journalist for about the same period of time, but it’s not my background. My background was in Army intelligence, and then, thereafter, I wrote books about the military. And I was called upon to be a journalist because there was a desire on the part of the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and NBC to have experts helping people to understand an incredibly complex issue—national security.
In those days, when I started, we used to have civilian experts on the air, people who weren’t former government officials, people who weren’t retired generals, people who might be university professors or activists who worked in nongovernmental organizations or experts who were associated with think tanks. Something happened post-9/11, something happened in this intervening years, in which those people virtually disappeared from the airwaves, and we don’t see as many anymore.
And, in fact, we increasingly see journalists who are the commentators on what’s going on. Now, that’s a tricky position, because journalists are supposed to be unbiased, but also, at the same time, they’re supposed to be explaining to the public what’s going on with inside information.
But the end result of it is that we become shallower and shallower in our coverage, particularly in an area like national security. We’ve just become so shallow that we’re not really able even to see the truth, which is that we’re at war right now in nine countries around the world where we’re bombing, and we hardly report any of it on a day-to-day basis.
So, to me, the crisis is that we condone perpetual war by virtue of our lack of reporting and investigation, and then, second, we fill the airwaves or we fill the newspapers with stories about the immediate and don’t give an adequate amount of space to deeper investigations or what I would say would be net assessment investigations of what really is going on.
I mean, whether we should or shouldn’t withdraw troops from Syria, whether we should or shouldn’t withdraw troops from Afghanistan, whether we should or we shouldn’t improve our relations with Russia, whether we should or we shouldn’t pursue denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula—all of these questions deserve a high degree of investigation and reporting, beyond the question of whether or not Donald Trump is a buffoon. And we just don’t do it. We’re just not doing it.
And so, to me, I’m not necessarily interested in prescribing the why. I’m interested in changing the culture so that we can, in fact, better inform ourselves about national security, so that the citizenry can play a more powerful role in influencing our national security policy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to expand on that. Back in the ’70s, the old socialist economists Baran and Sweezy used to talk about the huge percentage of the American population that owed its livelihood directly to the defense industry. Right? And one of the things in your Top Secret America exposés is that the Cold War ended, and the threats, supposedly, in terms of state threats, receded to the United States, but yet, obviously, the military maintains its huge spread across the world. And more importantly, through homeland security, the militarization internally of the country, as you point out, has gotten to the point where people don’t even know how extensive the homeland security apparatus is of this country and the number of people that have top-secret clearance.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, it seems to me that the number of people working for this apparatus has actually grown, despite the fact that the threats, the existential threats, to the United States have receded.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, there’s no question that the national security establishment has grown and has become far more powerful than it ever was. But here’s the change. We’ve shifted from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. And consequently, we’ve also shifted from the dominance of the military-industrial complex, if you will, to a much more insidious and much more difficult-to-diagnose information complex. So, the advent of contractors, the advent of a professional military, which means that the military itself touches fewer and fewer lives in America, all of those work together to make the national security state more and more embedded within our society, but yet, at the same time, more difficult to get to, more difficult to understand.
So, most people would be surprised to learn, for instance, that Amazon is one of the largest defense contractors, that they’re building the cloud and they’re building the data centers which support the intelligence community and support the military. And there are other civilian companies, that we associate with being civilians, who are also terrific beneficiaries of the military’s largesse.
So, to me, to diagnose properly where we stand today, the point of the Top Secret America investigation was to show the wild growth of all areas of national security and this new invention of homeland security, if you will, but at the same time to point out that it wasn’t something that was necessarily segregated from our society, it was more and more embedded within our society, and that that made it more and more difficult to analyze properly and to do something about.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you talked about the people who populate the networks as pundits, and you’ve been a fierce critic of the national security state, or at least understanding who it is who is explaining things to us. Reading from Politico, “Former CIA Director John Brennan … the latest superspook,” they said, “to be reborn as a TV newsie. He just cashed in at NBC News as a ‘senior national security and intelligence analyst’ and served his first expert views … on Meet the Press. The Brennan acquisition seeks to elevate NBC to spook parity with CNN, which employs former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden in a similar capacity. Other, lesser-known national security veterans thrive under TV’s grow lights. Almost too numerous to list, they include Chuck Rosenberg, former acting DEA administrator, chief of staff for FBI Director James Comey, and counselor to former FBI Director Robert Mueller; Frank Figliuzzi, former chief of FBI counterintelligence; Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser under Bush, at NBC; and Fran Townsend, homeland security adviser under Bush.” And it goes on and on and on.
These are now the pundits. And so, when you have a situation like President Trump announcing he will immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and halve the troops that are in Afghanistan, you have this massive attack on him that’s actually led by the permanent national security state under the guise of pundits on television.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I think that you’ve—I mean, what you said stands for itself, Amy. But I would add to it that I think the real crisis is that when we have a panel discussion on television, in the mainstream press, and even in the mainstream newspapers, we don’t populate that panel with people who are in opposition. We have a single war party in the United States, and it’s the only one that is given voice. And so, really, the crisis is not so much that there are experienced government officials speaking out; the problem is that there aren’t critics who are sitting next to them saying that “You’re full of it.” And so, to me, we need to balance that.
And I think that probably because of the phenomenon of Donald Trump—let’s just be honest about it—really what we see on TV now is former Obama administration officials masquerading as analysts who are nonpartisan, when in fact they are partisan. And indeed we see fewer retired generals and fewer retired admirals, who sometimes are useful in terms of explaining the profession of arms and the conduct of military operations, in favor of these political figures who have a partisan view.
I just don’t think the American public gets well served by the fact that there isn’t a broad range of opinions on those panels. I want to see peaceniks. I want to see academics. I want to see historians. I want them to as much have a voice, in terms of understanding what’s going on, as I do see a former Obama administration official.
AMY GOODMAN: We have break, but we’re going to come back to this conversation and talk, among other issues, about one of your statements—”don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?’’—and much more. We’re speaking to William Arkin, a longtime NBC reporter and analyst who just left the network, penning a letter critiquing the network for supporting perpetual warfare, his criticism, talking about the creeping fascism of homeland security. Stay with us.
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