Seven years after the popular uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and the NATO intervention that removed him from power, Libya is extremely fractured and a source of regional instability. But while Congress has heavily scrutinized the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi a year after Gaddafi’s overthrow and death, there has been no U.S. investigation into the broader question of what led the U.S. and its allies to intervene so disastrously in Libya.
However, a corruption investigation into former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is opening a new window into little-known motivations in the NATO alliance that may have accelerated the rush to oust the Libyan dictator.
Last month, French police detained and questioned Sarkozy about illicit payments Gaddafi is said to have made to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election campaign. A few days after Sarkozy was released from detention, he was ordered to stand trial for corruption and influence-peddling in a related case, in which he had sought information on the Gaddafi inquiry from an appeals court judge. The scandal has highlighted a little-appreciated bind that Sarkozy faced in the run-up to the Libyan intervention: The French president, who took the lead among Europeans in the military campaign against Gaddafi, was eager to compensate for diplomatic blunders in Tunisia and Egypt and most likely angry about an arms deal with Gaddafi that went awry. Sarkozy, it now appears, was eager to shift the narrative to put himself at the forefront of a pro-democracy, anti-Gaddafi intervention.
Libya today is divided between three rival governments and a myriad of armed groups backed by external powers like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Security gaps have allowed terrorist groups to step up operations there and permitted a flow of weapons across the Sahara, contributing to destabilizing the Sahel region of northern Africa. The lack of political authority in Tripoli has also opened the door for the migrant crisis in Europe, with Libya serving as a gateway for migrants to escape Africa via the Mediterranean Sea. Although far fewer people have died in the Libyan conflict than in Iraq or Syria, the problems Libya faces seven years after NATO’s fateful intervention are no less complex, and often have more direct impact on Europe than what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.
A History of Corruption
After the sanctions were gone, Gaddafi looked to foster a cleaner, more legitimate image in Western circles. He found particularly eager suitors in British oil and gas companies, as well as Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, who saw lucrative business possibilities in the country. Libyan spy agencies also closely collaborated with MI6, their British counterpart, under the broad umbrella of counterterrorism.
France was also developing a close business and intelligence relationship with Libya. In 2006, Gaddafi bought a surveillance system from a French company, i2e, which boasted about its close ties with Sarkozy, who at the time was France’s interior minister. In 2007, after he was elected president, Sarkozy received Gaddafi for a five-day state visit, Gaddafi’s first trip to France in over 30 years.
During the visit, Gaddafi said Libya would purchase $5.86 billion of French military equipment, including 14 Rafale fighter jets made by Dassault Aviation. Military sales “lock in relations between two countries for 20 years,” noted Michel Cabirol, an editor at the French weekly La Tribune, who has written extensively on arms sales. “For Sarkozy, it was important to sell the Rafales because no one had sold them to a foreign country. In the case of Libya … it was one of his personal challenges at the time.” Cabirol reported for La Tribune that negotiations were still ongoing in July 2010, but Sarkozy never did complete the sale of the Rafales to Gaddafi.
Revelations about the Libyan payments to Sarkozy surfaced in March 2011, when the specter of an imminent NATO intervention loomed large. Gaddafi first asserted that he paid Sarkozy’s campaign in an interview two days before the first NATO bombs were dropped. His son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi made similar claims shortly thereafter. In 2012, the French investigative news website Mediapart published a Libyan document signed by Moammar Gaddafi’s spy chief, Moussa Koussa, arranging for 50 million euros to support Sarkozy’s campaign, which French authorities later found to be authentic.
Since the initial revelations, Ziad Takiéddine, a French-Lebanese arms dealer who had helped arrange Sarkozy’s visit to Libya when Sarkozy was interior minister in 2005, has testified in court that he fetched suitcases stuffed with millions of euros in cash in Libya and delivered them by hand to Sarkozy in late 2006 and early 2007, when Sarkozy was still interior minister but preparing his presidential campaign. Sarkozy’s aide at the time, Claude Guéant (who became interior minister after the election), had opened a large vault at BNP in Paris for seven months during the campaign. The former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi has asserted in media interviews that payments were made. French authorities have also examined handwritten notes by Gaddafi’s oil minister, Shukri Ghanem, that detailed three payments totaling 6.5 million euros to Sarkozy.
Austrian police found Ghanem’s body in the Danube in Vienna on April 29, 2012, one week after the first round of presidential elections that the incumbent Sarkozy was contesting, and one day after Mediapart revealed the document signed by Koussa. The American ambassador to Libya at the time, the late Chris Stevens, wrote in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June 2012 that “not one Libyan I have spoken to believes he flung himself into the Danube, or suddenly clutched his heart in pain and slipped silently into the river. Most believe he was silenced by regime members or else by foreign mafia types.”
One of the Libyans who is said to have organized the payments, the head of the Libyan investment portfolio at the time, Bashir Saleh, was smuggled out of Libya and into Tunisia by French special forces, according to Mediapart. Sarkozy confidante Alexandre Djouhri then flew Saleh from Tunis to Paris on a private jet shortly after Gaddafi was toppled. Saleh lived in France for about a year and reportedly met with Bernard Squarcini, head of France’s secret services, despite an Interpol arrest warrant against him. “The judicial investigation shows that within the Gaddafi regime, Bashir Saleh had the most thorough records relating to French funding,” said Fabrice Arfi, one of two Mediapart journalists who has covered the affair since 2011. “He is suspected of having swapped the records for help from France to save him from the jaws of the revolution.”
In 2012, Paris Match published a photograph showing Saleh walking freely in Paris despite the arrest warrant, and he was forced to leave the city. He flew to Johannesburg, where he has been living ever since. In March, shortly after his ally, former South African President Jacob Zuma, was ousted from power, Saleh was shot while coming back to his house from the airport in Johannesburg. Saleh is wanted for questioning in the Sarkozy affair by French judges.
Even Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, has implied that Gaddafi funded the Sarkozy campaign. In Hollande’s book, “A President Shouldn’t Say That,” while comparing himself to Sarkozy, Hollande wrote that “as President of the Republic, I was never held for questioning. I never spied on a judge, I never asked anything of a judge, I was never financed by Libya.”
Sarkozy’s corruption in Libya is not the first time a French president or top political figure has received illicit funds in exchange for political favors. Indeed, “Sarkozy’s corruption fits into a deeply ingrained, time-honored tradition in Paris,” said Jalel Harchaoui, Libya scholar at Paris 8 University. “In the 1970s, you had the scandal of Bokassa’s diamonds, which President [Valéry] Giscard accepted and took. You also have the “Karachi affair” involving kickbacks paid to senior French politicians via French weaponry sold to Pakistan in the 1990s. You also had Omar Bongo’s tremendous influence in Paris politics for years on end.”
Sarkozy and the Bombing of Libya
Sarkozy was an early and vocal advocate of the Western decision to intervene in Libya, but his real military zeal and desire for regime change came only after Clinton and the Arab League broadcasted their desire to see Gaddafi go and showed that they “wished to avoid the limelight,” said Harchaoui. The Arab League had suspended Libya on February 22, 2011, and in the following days, calls for a no-fly zone grew louder. This “create[d] a framework in which France knows the war is likely to get initiated soon,” said Harchaoui.
By February 26, William Burns, under secretary for political affairs at the State Department, had spoken with Sarkozy’s top diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte. Burns reported in an email to Clinton’s team that “on Libya, French strongly supportive of our measures,” but that there were “Fr concerns on NATO role,” likely meaning that France didn’t want a full-blown NATO intervention at that point.
Two weeks later, Sarkozy made his first significant move to show that France, rather than being hesitant, had decided to take the lead in the fight against Gaddafi. On March 10, 2011, Sarkozy became the first head of state to recognize the National Transitional Council as Libya’s legitimate government. At the time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said recognizing the NTC was “a crazy move by France.” Crazy or not, France was now in the lead in Europe. According to a British parliamentary inquiry into the intervention in 2016, “UK policy followed decisions taken in France.”
Sarkozy’s foreign minister at the time, Alain Juppé, then introduced United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which called for a no-fly zone over Libya, ostensibly in order to protect an impending massacre of civilians in Benghazi by Gaddafi. Although American diplomats drafted the resolution, Juppé was the Western diplomat who argued most passionately for it, telling the Security Council that “we have very little time left — perhaps only a matter of hours” to prevent a massacre against civilians in Benghazi. The French emergence to the front line of the diplomatic push was an apparent reflection of Barack Obama’s doctrine of “leading from behind” and letting Europe occupy the limelight. Arab League support for the resolution helped create a broad coalition of powers, beyond just the West, and the Libyan deputy ambassador to the U.N.’s defection against Gaddafi helped push the resolution forward.
Two days after the resolution passed, Sarkozy held a meeting at the Élysée Palace on May 19 to plan the military strategy with Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, other NATO leaders, and leaders of the Arab League. According to Liam Fox, the British defense secretary at the time, the summit “finished mid-afternoon and the first French sorties took place at 16.45 GMT.” A gung-ho Sarkozy had sent 20 French jets to carry out the first sorties without informing Fox, four hours ahead of schedule; the U.S. and U.K. launched cruise missiles shortly thereafter. By showcasing the Rafale jets in the Libya campaign and other wars in Mali and Syria, France ended up attracting eventual clients in Egypt, India, and Qatar.
Left/top photo: SAC Neil Chapman/MoD/Getty Images. Right/bottom photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Nathanael Miller/US Navy/Corbis/Getty Images.
“Sarkozy has done a great job in getting the Rafale out there and hitting a convoy early on,” Reuters quoted a defense executive from a rival nation as saying at the time. “He will go to export markets and say this is what our planes can do.”
Why Sarkozy Went to War
Sarkozy’s zeal for military action stemmed from more than humanitarian concerns for rebellious Libyans in Benghazi who were endangered by Gaddafi’s wrath. Sarkozy’s reasoning included a mix of domestic, international, and personal reasons.
Sarkozy had found his administration out of step when the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia. He had a strong relationship with Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and when security forces fired on massive street protests in January, instead of condemning the violence, Sarkozy’s foreign minister offered to share the “savoir-faire” of France’s security forces “in order to settle security situations of this type.”
“Sarkozy’s image as a modern leader was sullied by the Arab Spring,” said Pouria Amirshahi, a former Socialist deputy in the National Assembly who in 2013 had called for a French parliamentary inquiry into the Libya intervention. The Libyan war allowed him “to forget his serious political mistakes during the Tunisian revolution of January 2011.”
Arfi, the Mediapart journalist, cautioned against treating Sarkozy’s involvement in the war as strictly personal, though it’s also a vital element. “I don’t believe that Sarkozy brought France and other countries to war in Libya exclusively to whitewash himself,” said Arfi, who co-authored a book, “Avec les compliments du Guide,” which details the Gaddafi-Libya investigation. But, Arfi said, “It’s difficult to imagine that there wasn’t some kind of personal or private dimension to Sarkozy’s pro-war activism in 2011.”
The personal dimension that Arfi refers to would be Sarkozy’s interest in shifting the narrative that he had initially cultivated — as close to Gaddafi — to one that distanced him from the regime and any questions about his former proximity to Gaddafi, once he realized just how seriously the U.S. and Arab states wanted to get rid of the Libyan leader. “Once the war was triggered, [Sarkozy’s] attitude is deeply impacted by the scandal that he is the only one aware of at the time. So, it gives rise to a very uncompromising France pursuing a scenario where everything would be destroyed and everything related to the Gaddafis would be discredited,” Harchaoui said.
However, Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of the British House of Commons who was on the Foreign Affairs Committee when it published its 2016 report on Libya, ruled out the personal angle, saying that “if Mr. Sarkozy had taken money from Gaddafi, you might expect it to make him less likely to intervene, if anything. For this reason, I don’t really think this is a factor. … Indulging in regime change had nothing to do with intelligence (which should have said ‘Don’t do it’), but with David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s need to ‘do something.’”
For the Obama administration, the intervention in Libya was a humanitarian decision to stop Gaddafi from carrying out an assault against the besieged city of Benghazi. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his autobiography that “Hillary threw her considerable clout behind Rice, Rhodes, and Power” and tipped the scale in favor of intervention. Clinton, national security adviser Susan Rice, White House adviser Ben Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power were instrumental in pushing the war forward; regime change was the goal regardless of Sarkozy’s personal relationship with the dictator.
“They were aggressive in pushing for the resolutions because they felt that they were the right thing to do. … It seemed a very realistic possibility that the regime was going to re-establish control throughout the country, particularly in eastern Libya, and if they did, there would be very harsh consequences for people deemed to be rebels,” said Libya historian Ronald Bruce St. John. The “timing of the intervention was dictated by the move on Benghazi by Gaddafi’s armored column,” explained New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson.
But civilian protection is not always enough to warrant a NATO intervention, as violent repression of protests in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world have shown. The U.K. parliamentary inquiry found that there was little hard evidence that Gaddafi was actually targeting civilians in his campaign to take back cities held briefly by rebel forces. Gaddafi’s long antagonistic relationship with the U.S., the fact that there were no prominent Libyans advocating for him in the U.S., and the fact that Gaddafi didn’t have strong allies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad does in Russia and Iran, made him an easy target to rally against, said St. John.
The French position was nonetheless notable. Rather than have a key ally oppose intervention, as France had done with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, France was pushing hard for military action. A country that had previously acted as a partial brake on American intervention was now serving the opposite purpose of encouraging an intervention that turned into a catastrophe.
(Former deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken, Nicolas Sarkozy’s former diplomatic advisor Jean-David Levitte, former Director for War Crimes and Atrocities on the National Security Council David Pressman, former deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan, William Burns, and French Ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud all either declined to comment or did not respond when contacted for this article.)
Contact the author:
Digital security specialists like me get some version of this question all the time: “I think my laptop may have been infected with malware. Can you check?”
We dread this sort of query because modern computer exploits are as complex, clever, and hard to reason about as modern computers — particularly if someone has the ability to physically access your device, as is routinely the case with laptops, especially when traveling. So while it’s definitely possible to detect certain types of tampering, it isn’t always trivial. And even in controlled environments, it’s impossible to give a laptop a clean bill of health with full confidence – it’s always possible that it was tampered with in a way you did not think to check.
The issue of tampering is particularly relevant for human rights workers, activists, journalists, and software developers, all of whom hold sensitive data sought by powerful potential attackers. People in these vocations are often keenly aware of the security of their laptops while traveling – after all, laptops store critical secrets like communication with sources, lists of contacts, password databases, and encryption keys used to vouch for source code you write, or to give you access to remote servers.
Join Our Newsletter
Original reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.
How safe is it to leave your laptop in your hotel room while you’re attending sessions at a conference? If you come back to find your laptop in a different position than where you thought you left it, can you still trust it? Did someone tamper with it, did a hotel housekeeper simply straighten up the items you left on your desk, or did you misremember where you left it?
These questions typically can’t be answered with total confidence because clever tampering can be so hard to detect. But I hoped I could get a sense of the risks with a carefully controlled experiment. For the last two years, I have carried a “honeypot” laptop with me every time I’ve traveled; this computer was intended to attract (and then detect) tampering. If any hackers, state-sponsored or otherwise, wanted to hack me by physically messing with my computer, I wanted to not only catch them in the act, but also gather technical evidence that I could use to learn how their attack worked and, hopefully, who the attacker was.
While traveling by air, I checked this laptop in my luggage to make it easily accessible to border agents, both domestic and foreign, to tamper with if they chose to. When staying in hotels, I left the laptop sitting on the desk in my room while I was away during the day, to make sure that any malicious housekeepers with permission to enter my room, or anyone else who broke into my room, was free to tamper with it if they chose to. I also put a bunch of hacker stickers all over it, hoping that this would make it a more enticing target.
Over the duration of this experiment, I traveled to Europe three times and domestically in the United States five times (including once to Puerto Rico). I found eight different notices from the Transportation Security Administration informing me that my baggage had been searched. I have no way of knowing how many times it had been searched by other authorities who weren’t kind enough to leave me a note.I never caught anyone tampering with this laptop. But the absence of any evidence of tampering — and my obsessive thoughts about the various ways an attacker could have evaded by detection — serve to underline how fraught the process of computer forensics can be. If someone who makes their living securing computers thinks they could have missed a computer infection, what hope is there for the average computer user?
At the end of my experiment, I thought through all of the things that could have gone wrong. Perhaps someone did tamper with my honeypot laptop, and my methodology for detecting this wasn’t thorough enough to notice. Or maybe potential attackers noticed that the laptop I carried with me and used at the conferences I was attending was different than the one I left in my room, and decided against tampering with it in case it was a trap.
But the most likely reason I didn’t catch any attackers is that no one tried to tamper with my laptop. Hacking a target’s laptop by physically tampering with it while they’re traveling probably happens only rarely because it’s so expensive – it may require travel, physical surveillance, breaking and entering, and the risk of getting caught or breaking the laptop is high. Compare this to cheap forms of hacking like email phishing: You can target thousands of people at once from the comfort of your office, and the risk of getting caught is much lower.
Still, I believe actively checking devices for tampering is worthwhile. You’ll never catch an attacker in the act if you never look for evidence of their attacks. And just looking for evidence, even if you don’t find any, increases costs for attackers: If they want to be sure you won’t notice, they’re going to have to get more creative. I believe it’s useful to explain the technology and the methodology I came up with to detect tampering and share what I learned from the experience. Doing so gives a taste of just how many ways there are to tamper with a laptop.
Photos: Micah Lee
Evil Maid Attacks
If you don’t use full disk encryption on your laptop, anyone who gains physical access to it, even for just a few minutes, can access all of your data and even implant malware on your computer to spy on you in the future. It doesn’t matter how good your password is because without encryption, the attacker can simply unscrew the case on your laptop, remove your hard disk, and access it from another computer.
Disk encryption does a great job of protecting your data in case you lose your laptop or someone steals it from you. When this person tries accessing your data, they should be completely locked out, so long as the passphrase you use to unlock your laptop is strong enough that they can’t guess it.
But there is a sneaky class of attack, called “evil maid” attacks, that disk encryption alone cannot protect against. Evil maid attacks work like this: An attacker (such as a malicious hotel housekeeper, for example) gains temporary access to your encrypted laptop. Although they can’t decrypt your data, they can spend a few minutes tampering with your laptop and then leave it exactly where they found it. When you come back and type in your credentials, now you have been hacked.
Exactly how an evil maid attack would work against your laptop depends on many factors: the type of computer you use, what operating system you use, which disk encryption software you use, and the configuration of firmware used to boot your computer, firmware which I’ll call “BIOS,” although it can also go by acronyms like EFI and UEFI. Some computers have considerably better technology to prevent evil maid attacks than others – for example, attackers have to do more advanced tampering to hack a Windows laptop encrypted with BitLocker than they do to hack a Mac laptop encrypted with FileVault (as of now, anyway) or a Linux laptop encrypted with LUKS.
Here are the main ways that an attacker could physically tamper with your laptop:An attacker could modify data on your hard disk. “Full disk encryption,” the term used to refer generically to systems like FileVault, really ought to be called “nearly full disk encryption” because, except in a few specific circumstances, there’s always a small part of a computer’s disk that isn’t encrypted.
When you power on your laptop, before your disk has been unlocked, your computer loads a program from this unencrypted part of your disk; it then runs the program, and the program asks you to enter your passphrase. The program converts your passphrase into an encryption key and tries to use it to unlock the disk. If you typed the correct passphrase, the disk unlocks, and the rest of the operating system (which is stored in the encrypted part of the disk) boots up. If you don’t know the right passphrase, there is no way to unlock the disk.
But since the program that asks for your passphrase isn’t encrypted, it’s possible for an attacker that physically has your laptop to replace it with a malicious version that looks exactly the same to the user, but that takes extra steps. For example, after you successfully unlock your disk, it might copy malware onto it that, after the computer finishes booting up, automatically runs in the background, spying on what you’re doing.
Computers that support “secure boot” or “verified boot,” such as Chromebooks and Windows laptops with BitLocker, aren’t vulnerable to this. The BIOS can detect if the unencrypted part of your disk has been tampered with, and if it has, it will refuse to boot. MacBooks and laptops that run Linux could potentially be attacked in this way.
An attacker could replace your BIOS firmware with malicious firmware. When you power on your computer, the very first program that your computer runs is your BIOS firmware. The job of this program is to initialize all of your hardware – your memory, disks, Wi-Fi adapter, video card, USB ports, and everything else – and then ultimately boot an operating system, typically the one stored on your hard disk.
When you format your disk and install a new operating system on your computer, your BIOS firmware doesn’t change. This is because this program isn’t stored on your hard disk at all. Instead, it’s stored in a small chip on your computer’s motherboard called an SPI flash chip.
This is why BIOS malware is so stealthy – you can’t get rid of it by formatting your hard disk, and it can spy on you across operating systems, such as if you boot to a Tails USB stick.
SPI flash chips have eight pins, including one for providing the chip with power, one for reading data, and one for writing data to the chip. This means that it’s possible for an attacker to power off your laptop, open up the case, and attach their own wires to the SPI flash chip pins in order to power it on, and then read and write data to it (the chip itself has no way of telling the difference between this, or just being part of the normal computer). Using this technique, an attacker with physical access to your laptop can replace your BIOS firmware with whatever malware they want.
The Italian spyware firm Hacking Team was caught selling such BIOS malware to its customers (the company’s clients include foreign governments with troubling human rights records). This specific firmware made sure that Windows was always infected with malware. If you’re a target of a Hacking Team customer, even formatting your disk and re-installing Windows would not remove the malware. As soon as you reboot, the malicious BIOS firmware would re-infect the freshly installed Windows with the same malware again.
An attacker could do other things to your hardware. Tampering with unencrypted data on your hard disk, or replacing your BIOS firmware with malware, are the most straightforward types of evil maid attacks, but the list of other potential attacks is only limited by the attacker’s creativity and budget.
Here are a few examples:
- An attacker could potentially figure out a way of spying on your computer use by replacing firmware on other components of your computer besides your BIOS, like your processor, video card, network card, or hard disk.
- An attacker could install a hardware keylogger (they would plug your internal keyboard into the keylogger, then plug the keylogger into the motherboard) with the intention of stealing your laptop later, but with a record of your disk passphrase and your other keystrokes.
- An attacker could completely replace your laptop with a different laptop of the same model – they could even put your real laptop case with all your stickers and scratches on the fake laptop, so that it looks exactly the same. When you type your passphrase into this one though, it could send that passphrase over the internet to the attacker, who could then use it to unlock your real disk.
When I decided to start this honeypot laptop project, I realized early on that I couldn’t possibly detect every form of tampering. Because tampering with the data on the hard disk or the BIOS firmware are the simplest and cheapest types of evil maid attacks to conduct, and because attackers have limited resources and prefer low-hanging fruit when it’s available, I decided to limit my detection to these two components. But who knows? It’s possible that my honeypot laptop has a malicious component in it that I never checked for.
In February 2016, shortly before I was planning to fly to Spain for the Internet Freedom Festival, I bought a Lenovo IdeaPad S210 Touch for about $700 to use as my honeypot laptop.
Here was the plan. Before each trip, I would:
- Update all of the software on my honeypot laptop. (I wanted potential attackers to see that I’m using up-to-date bootloader software stored on the small unencrypted part of my disk, to believe that I actively use this computer.)
- Power off the laptop, and don’t power it on again until the trip was over. (Just by powering on the computer, I risk slightly modifying data in my BIOS and hard disk.)
- Remove the hard disk from the laptop, attach it to an external USB enclosure, and plug it into another computer, taking care not to modify any data on it. From there, I could make a record of the state of the disk.
- Attach a BeagleBone Black, or BBB, a tiny $50 computer that’s great for hardware hacking, to the SPI flash chip on the motherboard and use it to dump the BIOS firmware, saving an exact copy of the data stored on the chip.
- Re-assemble the computer.
Then, during the trip, I would:
- Put the honeypot laptop in my checked luggage.
- Leave the honeypot laptop unattended in my hotel room.
Once I returned home from a trip, I would:
- Remove the hard disk from the laptop, plug it into another computer, and record the state of the disk again. If even a single bit of data on the disk has changed, I could detect it.
- Attach the BBB to the SPI flash chip and dump the BIOS firmware again. I could then compare the firmware image I took from before my trip with the image I took after it, to detect if it was tampered with.
Along the way, I planned to document everything: I’d take photos of my laptop in my luggage, in hotels, and of the cards that TSA leaves informing me that they searched my luggage; I’d keep a log of the state of my hard disk and BIOS before and after each trip; and I’d keep a journal that includes all technical hurdles I ran into.
This is mostly how it went down, but I did run into a few snags. Bear with me, in the following sections I venture much deeper into the technical weeds than I already have.
Checking the Hard Disk for Tampering
Before I proceed, there a few concepts I need to explain.
- Computer drives, whether disk- or flash- based, are organized into separate “partitions.” For example, if you install Linux with disk encryption, your drive will likely have two partitions: a small (often less than 1 gigabyte) unencrypted partition called “/boot” – this is where the program that asks for your encryption passphrase is stored, and where evil maids might put their malware – and the rest of the disk will contain a large encrypted partition. After you unlock the encrypted partition with the right passphrase, it will likely contain two other partitions inside, a “/” or “root” partition that holds the rest of the files on the computer, and a “swap” partition that’s only used when the computer is running low on memory. (I refer to both flash- and disk- based storage drives as “disks” and “hard disks.”)
- There is a small amount of disk space at the beginning of every hard disk (which I call the disk header) that’s reserved for a bootloader program. When you power on a computer and boot from your hard disk, you run this program. In Linux, this program simply starts running another program called “grub” that’s stored in your unencrypted “/boot” partition. Grub is responsible for actually booting your operating system. In order to detect evil maid attacks, it’s important to make sure the disk header was not tampered with.
- In cryptography, a “hash function” is a one-way function that takes an input of any size and outputs a fixed-size result called a “hash” or “checksum.” For example, with SHA256, the hash function I use in this project, whether your input is 5 bytes long (the size of the word “hello”) or 512 gigabytes long (the size of a hard disk), the output will always be 32 bytes long. The same input will always lead to the same output, but if you change the input in any way, even if only a single byte is different, the content of the output will be entirely different (although the length will be the same). You can use checksums to detect tampering.
When I started this project, I decided to dual-boot Windows 10 and Debian, a popular Linux distribution, on my honeypot laptop – that is, I installed both operating systems in different partitions on the same disk, and when I powered on the computer, I got to choose which to boot to. But due to various time-consuming and annoying issues related to Windows updates, I eventually chose to abandon Windows altogether and just run Debian on my honeypot laptop, which made my job of detecting hard disk tampering simpler.
Before each trip, I removed the disk from the honeypot laptop, plugged it into a USB enclosure, and then plugged the USB disk enclosure into a different computer. The first snag I ran into was that when I plugged in the USB disk, my computer automatically tried to mount the partitions. This isn’t good – just by mounting the partitions, I risked modifying the data. So I changed the settings on my computer (which was running Linux) to disable automatically mounting external drives by following these instructions.
Once the USB disk enclosure was attached to a computer other than the honeypot, I could generate checksums of all of the disk’s partitions, as well as the disk header, using a tool called sha256sum. In order to take a checksum of just the disk header, I used a tool called dd to copy the disk header into a file, and then used sha256sum to take a checksum of that file.When I returned home from my trip, I repeated the same process to generate a new set of checksums. Finally, I compared the checksums from before my trip with the checksums from after my trip. If the checksums were not the same, then the data on the disk must have changed – this would be evidence of tampering. If I discovered this, I could then start looking into exactly what data had changed to discover how the tampering worked.
For example, in March 2017, before flying to Amsterdam to attend a Tor Project meeting with developers, volunteers, and advocates for the open-source anonymity network, these were the checksums I generated:
4040239f4f0a2090c3ca15216b6e42522c4c3cd291f2c78f3c9e815f25be8295 disk_header ed6e8a3438e55d2aeae4ae691823c4005f7b5df0b62d856bd72d54fa00d886bb /dev/xvdi1 db3d92ed1cfa8621e5673da32100d9117a3835c06a613cf9ac0f2f90de404d17 extended_header cbeb585b6fa39a8425f57fa095ac17353a583bccd93532d65d9274da628a4c72 luks_header
Ten days later, after I had returned from my trip, I generated another set of checksums. They all turned out to be exactly the same, which allowed me to confirm that the data on my hard disk had not changed at all.
Checking the BIOS for Tampering
When I started this project, I intended to dump BIOS firmware images externally using a BeagleBone Black (explained previously) and a software tool called flashrom, which is used for reading and writing data that’s stored on physical chips on circuit boards, roughly following the instructions outlined here. But I quickly hit a snag, one that I didn’t have the tools or knowledge of electronics to easily resolve.
The SPI flash chip that holds my honeypot laptop’s BIOS firmware has a pin for power and another pin for ground. With the laptop powered off, I connected the power and ground pins to my BBB, and then powered on the BBB.
I had hoped that the BBB would provide power to the SPI flash chip, allowing me to read and write directly to that chip. But instead the BBB immediately powered off. It turns out that, the way this specific laptop was wired, the power for the SPI chip was not isolated from the rest of the system. In order to provide power to that chip, I also needed to provide power to rest of the components of the motherboard, and that takes more watts than my BBB was able to handle. This was annoying because one of the reasons I chose a Lenovo computer as my honeypot laptop is because I have had success doing this exact process on other Lenovo computers in the past, dumping the BIOS firmware by connecting a BBB to the SPI flash chip.
So I decided to change strategies. Instead of dumping the BIOS firmware by connecting wires directly from the SPI flash chip, I would instead use a piece of software called chipsec, running on the honeypot laptop itself, to dump the firmware. However, this strategy has a few downsides compared to directly connecting to the chip:
- In order to run chipsec, I needed to first power on the honeypot laptop and boot to an operating system. It turns out that this process, booting up the computer, slightly modifies the data stored in the BIOS firmware, which makes it more difficult to check for tampering.
- It’s impossible to get a complete BIOS dump from within an operating system, but you can get most of it.
- When I dump BIOS firmware using chipsec, it may be possible for sophisticated BIOS malware to lie to chipsec, which could be used to prevent detection. (I have never heard of BIOS malware that actually does this, though.)
In order to use chipsec, I set up a USB stick with the operating system Ubuntu (another popular Linux distribution). With the hard disk removed from the honeypot laptop, I plugged in my Ubuntu USB stick, powered on the laptop, and booted to Ubuntu. I put a copy of chipsec on an SD memory card, which I also plugged into the laptop. From there, I was able to run a specific chipsec command to dump the BIOS firmware and save it to the SD card, which I could then inspect on my other computer.
Here is the VirusTotal report from the first BIOS firmware image that I dumped using chipsec from my honeypot laptop.Once I successfully managed to dump the BIOS firmware, I came up with this plan:
- Before each trip, I would remove the hard disk from the laptop, boot to the Ubuntu USB stick, and dump the BIOS firmware, making sure to save a copy of it on my other computer.
- After I return from the trip, I would repeat the process, dumping a fresh BIOS firmware image.
- Then I would generate checksums of the BIOS firmware images from before and after my trip. If the checksums were exactly the same, I could confirm that my BIOS was not tampered with.
Of course, it wasn’t this simple. It turns out, every time I booted my honeypot laptop to an Ubuntu live USB stick and dumped the BIOS firmware, that firmware image had a different checksum than the previous one. In order to investigate what was going on, I used a program called UEFITool. This is a graphical program that lets you load BIOS images, view and edit what data is stored inside, and extract data into separate files.
For this specific laptop, each BIOS firmware image is exactly 4 megabytes. Some of that space is used to store the actual programs that make up the BIOS (an evil maid attacker would replace these programs with malicious versions), and some of it is used to store other data, such as saved BIOS settings.Looking at two BIOS firmware images that had different checksums, I was able to use UEFITool to extract the same components from both, and then generate new checksums for those individual components to see if they matched. I discovered that there was only one small part of the firmware images that differed, and that part did not include any programs. It turns out, each time I powered on the honeypot laptop and opened the boot menu to tell it to boot from my Ubuntu USB stick, it saved information related to booting to a USB stick in that section of the firmware, and this information was slightly different each time, which caused the firmware images to always have different checksums.
So I amended my plan for detecting tampering in the BIOS firmware. To compare firmware images from before and after my trip, I would have to open each image in UEFITool, extract all of the components except for the one that I knew changed, generate checksums for those components, and then compare those checksums to make sure they matched.
What I Learned
Traveling with a honeypot laptop was a lot of work. It required spending a few hours both before and after each trip if I hoped to actually catch an evil maid attacker in the act. So after two years without catching anyone, I have decided to retire the project.
A tool exists today, that didn’t exist when I started the project, that makes it possible to catch evil maid attackers in the act in a different way. Haven is an Android app, designed to run on a spare phone that you leave in your hotel room while you’re away, perhaps sitting on top of your laptop. It uses all of its sensors – microphone, motion detector, light detector, and cameras – to monitor the room for changes, logs everything it notices, and can send Signal notifications to the phone you carry with you when it detects a change. Haven isn’t perfect – there are plenty of false positives – but it gets better all the time and is still likely to catch anyone attempting to tamper with the laptop that’s sitting under the phone Haven is running on.
I was able to do this entire project with 100% free and open source software, thanks to projects like Debian and Ubuntu and tools like dd, sha256sum, flashrom, chipsec, and UEFITool. Other than the honeypot laptop itself, you can buy all of the hardware tools I used, like screwdrivers, a USB enclosure, and a BeagleBone Black, for less than $100.
Contact the author:
Private Facebook posts show a Democrat recruited by the national party to challenge the local party’s preferred choice in a congressional primary proudly engaged in “pro-life advocacy,” including participation in the March for Life, as recently as 2016. Despite that, she earned a 2017 endorsement in her previous race from the pro-choice group EMILY’s List.
Juanita Perez Williams, a 2017 Syracuse mayoral candidate and former prosecutor running in New York’s 24th Congressional District, initially declined to make a bid for Congress after being recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee but changed her mind earlier this month. She is competing in the primary against the pro-choice Dana Balter, who is supported by a coalition of local, grassroots groups.
Perez Williams’s Facebook posts leave little room for doubt about her position on the issue. “My heart has also been changed for life from the many women I know, both young and old like me, who have suffered greatly from abortion,” she wrote in a post dated two years ago. “It is a choice that leaves many with years of suffering. It is a choice that leaves one with depression, and sadness, and often hurts relationships. I mention this because there is nothing in my pro life advocacy that even suggests judging or condemnation. I hate that crap! Women suffer with pregnancy and often feel hopeless. This I know! Be good!”
EMILY’s List, which was founded to elect pro-choice women to Congress, endorsed Perez Williams in her mayoral bid last year. She won the nomination but lost the election in a landslide to an independent candidate.
“We are taking a close look at this race,” an EMILY’s List spokesperson told The Intercept, referring to the congressional race. “Although we do not discuss our internal endorsement process, we do reexamine every candidate with fresh eyes when she pursues a new office and evaluate every race on a case-by-case basis.”
As part of that process, last weekend, Perez Williams was in Washington, D.C., for EMILY’s List’s annual gala.
Asked about her Facebook posts on the issue of abortion rights, which were surfaced by activists in the district, Perez Williams did not dispute their authenticity. She told The Intercept in a statement that while she may personally be opposed to abortion, she supports the legal right for others.
I believe 100% in women’s right to choose and will always defend and protect that right. I further believe that women should have access, funding, and education with regard to their reproductive health and therefore I will advocate for and defend organizations like Planned Parenthood. Like many women, my personal beliefs on the issue of choice have been shaped by my life experiences, both as a Hispanic and a Catholic and as a mother and a grandmother. My own personal opinions are far more nuanced then some people would like you to believe. I will always vote to support the choice of all women.
Conor Lamb, who recently won a special election in a conservative district in Pennsylvania, took a similar approach — private moral opposition matched with public support for the legal right. But in some of Perez Williams’s posts, the policy and the morality blend together.
She has been a supporter of the movement to ban legal abortion, proudly marching in the streets, she wrote in a January 2016 post reacting to a story about Hillary Clinton meeting with Mother Teresa. “I love this. I am a Dem who supports all life. From beginning to end. To some it is strange but it makes all the sense to me. My parents taught me at a very young age that as Dems we, as members, care about all those who can’t defend themselves. So yesterday I proudly marched for life. Perhaps Secretary Clinton doesn’t see exactly eye to eye with me on this issue but she will come around. For that she has my support.”
The post is dated January 23, 2016. That year’s national March for Life in Washington was on January 22. (Perez Williams did not respond specifically to questions about her professed participation in the March for Life.)
Later that year, when Clinton selected Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who personally opposes abortion, as her running mate, Perez Williams celebrated. “Wow our girl picked a Dem pro lifer. Now you’re talking…”
In another post, this one dated August 2016, she shared an article from LifeSiteNews, a conservative, anti-choice website, on the Irish High Court ruling “unborn” children are clearly children with significant rights, adding, “I love the Irish!”
Balter, a Syracuse University professor who has the backing of local activists and Democratic clubs, said women’s rights are “non-negotiable” and that the posts were “disturbing.”
I believe we need a Democrat in this race who stands firmly for Democratic values. One of those values is that women’s rights are non-negotiable. That holds whether we are talking about the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to be free from harassment and abuse; or the right to access reproductive healthcare. Women’s rights are non-negotiable.
I find Juanita’s statements disturbing. How can we consider electing a Democrat who describes herself as a pro-life advocate? Especially at a time when women’s access to abortion is under attack across the country. I am absolutely pro-choice and believe that abortion is a personal decision between a woman, her family, her faith, and her doctor.
The question of abortion rights as a litmus test for Democrats roiled the party in early 2017 when Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez campaigned on behalf of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. It sparked a debate within the party over whether anti-choice candidates in conservative areas deserve national party support. But in Syracuse, there is no burning demand for a March-for-Life-style candidate. Instead, DCCC support for Perez Williams likely comes without knowledge of her professed “pro-life advocacy.” (A DCCC spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
While it could be chalked up to a simple mistake, it is also a predictable result of a top-down approach to choosing candidates.
It’s a flaw in the strategy identified by former New York congressional candidate and professor Zephyr Teachout in a previous interview with The Intercept about the DCCC’s approach to campaigning. “Structurally, they’re going to be idiots because there’s no way they can bring in the talent to do it right,” she said. “Their strategy is stupid in the first place and bad for democracy, but then it’s really stupid because they have 26-year-olds sitting around who don’t know anything about the real world deciding which candidates should win.”
The way the news broke also shows the difficulty of foisting a candidate from Washington onto a community that has already rallied around a different woman. Successful insurgencies rely on support from the local community, and in this case it was local activists, not high-priced opposition researchers, who surfaced evidence of Perez Williams’s anti-abortion-rights advocacy. Two of the posts were tweeted by a local activist and flagged for The Intercept, while two other activists sent two additional posts. The national party may have had no idea about the candidate’s anti-choice views, but the Onondaga County Democrats who had debated with her in Facebook threads certainly did.
The DCCC helped push Perez Williams into the race in a last-minute move that incensed local officials and progressive groups, as The Intercept previously reported. Local Democrats had already rallied behind Balter, who leads a local Indivisible chapter. In a January interview with syracuse.com, Perez Williams said that she would sit out the race and support the designated nominee. But just days after donating to Balter, Perez Williams backpedaled and decided to challenge her in the primary, citing Balter’s poor fundraising.
With the help of the DCCC, Perez Williams paid canvassers to collect enough signatures for what appeared to be a spot on the ballot. But opponents on Monday filed objections with the state Board of Elections in Albany, claiming that more than 2,400 of her signatures are invalid. A final hearing to determine whether she can remain on the ballot will come in early May, with the primary on June 26.
Contact the author:
The summit on Friday between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was about far, far more than North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The “Panmunjom Declaration” they released at the meeting’s conclusion has 21 paragraphs; just one of them addresses the nuclear issue.
Most importantly, Moon and Kim affirmed their intention to finally end the Korean War – which began in 1950 and, formally speaking, was only suspended by an armistice in 1953 — and “establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Their statement laid out steps they plan to take to heal the scars inflicted by Korea’s bitterly tragic history. All of this will be done based on “the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord” – something that would manage to simultaneously perturb the United States, Japan, and China, each of which has brutalized the Koreas for their own ends.
Seen from the U.S., however, the nuclear issue is the only thing that matters. And according to the declaration, “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
So with a historic summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump imminent, the question now is what “denuclearization” means, most importantly to Trump himself.
At one end of the spectrum is Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, who before his appointment said the only thing for the U.S. to discuss with Kim was “what ports should American freighters sail into and what air bases should American cargo planes land at so that we can dismantle your nuclear weapons program, put it in those planes and boats and sail it back to America to put it at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”
That is a clear, commonsense definition of denuclearization. It also would be a catastrophic stance for Trump to take, given that there’s absolutely no chance that North Korea would agree to it. That is part of its appeal to Bolton, who is itching for the U.S. to start a gigantic war with North Korea.
The good news is the Trump administration as a whole has not ruled out a definition of “denuclearization” that would be achievable and defuse tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
On April 23, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the word means “that North Korea doesn’t have or isn’t testing nuclear missiles,” something which is a fairly practical goal in the near-term.
When Sanders was pressed by reporters later the same day to endorse something like the Bolton perspective, she refused to do so, and left Trump maximum wiggle room for the summit. “Certainly the goal is denuclearization of the peninsula,” she said. “I’d refer you back to also South Korean President Moon, who has said that North Korea has expressed a will for complete denuclearization. And certainly that’s the focus of any conversation and negotiation that the United States will have with North Korea.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who secretly met with Kim Jong Un — also offered some nuance during his recent confirmation hearings. Colorado’s Republican Sen. Cory Gardener tried to pin Pompeo down, asking him: “To be clear, again, the only goal the United States has as it relates to North Korea is the complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization of North Korea?”
“I want to be careful about complete,” Pompeo replied. “North Korea also has a significant military arsenal. One of the largest armies in the world. We need to insure we continue to provide a strategic defense framework for our allies in the region, the South Koreans, and others as well. But the purpose of the meeting is to address the nuclear threat to the United States.”
All this verbiage suggests the possibility – always subject to change at any moment with Trump – that the U.S.-North Korea summit could end with Trump stepping back from the brink, by accepting a deal that doesn’t fulfill the wishes of hard-liners, while simultaneously claiming victory. This is because a continuing freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM testing would be a genuine concession by Kim. While Kim recently claimed that this cessation was meaningless because North Korea is already certain it can successfully hit the U.S. with nuclear missiles, experts, like Ploughshare Funds President Joe Cirincione, disagree.
In an interview with The Intercept, Cirincione summarized Kim’s position as: “’These are acts of strength, I’ve finished the program, I can close the test sites now, I can stop testing, everything’s fine, we have our nuclear deterrent.’”
But is that true? “Probably not,” Cirincione says. “At least not by the standards of most nuclear armed states. No nuclear armed state has willingly stopped their test program with so few tests. All nuclear scientists want more tests.”
Cirincione believes the North Koreans, with their nuclear program as it currently stands, have around a 50-50 chance of being able to successfully utilize a long-range missile to hit the United States. In order to improve the odds, they would need more tests.
Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, agreed. “The accuracy and reliability of those systems is low because North Korea has conducted so few tests,” Davenport told The Intercept. “So a moratorium on nuclear tests, intercontinental ballistic missile tests, could certainly prevent North Korea from qualitatively advancing its program.” Davenport notes as a caveat that North Korea has cheated on international agreements before and that the Trump administration should look for a way to “lock in” those commitments during upcoming negotiations. (The U.S. has also cheated on its end of the bargain in previous agreements with North Korea.)
This is far from what most people would understand as “denuclearization.” But it would be an extremely positive first step, and it could lay the groundwork for future progress toward real peace.
Both Cirincione and Davenport argue it is possible that with a reduction in hostility from the U.S., North Korea could begin a process that, in the long term, ends with them actually giving up nuclear weapons. (The only country that has built nuclear weapons domestically and then renounced them is South Africa. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had Russian warheads on their territory but surrendered them to Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse.)
“If Trump thinks that he’s going to come back to the summit with Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons in the cargo hold of Air Force One, he’s delusional,” Cirincione said. “If he goes in prepared to have this be a breakthrough meeting that yields important concessions from Kim and is the start of a multi-year process toward denuclearization, then he might be able to pull off a stunningly successful summit.”
The experts also cautioned that the United States has to be willing to truly compromise with North Koreans as well. “Trump also needs to be realistic about the concept that this is a negotiation and North Korea’s going to want something from the United States in return,” Davenport said. She cited U.S. nuclear-capable airplanes taking part in military drills and the presence of nuclear-capable submarines as two areas in which Kim’s government wants to see real changes.
When asked what they think the chances are that the Trump administration might pull this off, both experts landed at the same number. “I’d put the odds right now at 50-50. I think there’s actually a 50 percent chance this unorthodox diplomacy could work,” Cirincione said.
“At this point, it is highly likely that the summit will take place, but the chances that Trump will be able to obtain a reasonable commitment from the North Koreans to take steps to freeze their nuclear missile program is 50/50,” Davenport concluded.
Cirincione in particular put much of his hopes in South Korea’s progressive new leader. “People have been grossly underestimating the role of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He’s the one who has pushed this agenda and gotten us as close as we are,” he said, also alluding to his strategic use of flattery to persuade America’s leadership. “The South Koreans are handling this very well and all the while by the way deflecting praise to Donald Trump.”
Indeed, earlier this year, Moon singled out Trump for praise on the issue, saying “[He] made a huge contribution to make inter-Korean talks happen, [and] I’d like to express my gratitude.”
P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary for public affairs and spokesperson for the State Department under the Obama administration, also stresses that U.S. negotiators must be pragmatic.
“It is unrealistic for us to expect North Korea to capitulate in one meeting. They have spent a lot of money to produce whatever weapons and missiles they have. So the president has to decide if they’re serious and if a lengthy negotiation will bear fruit,” he told The Intercept.
Contact the author:
The Trump era has been breathing new life into often dormant local politics — and the president’s crackdown on immigrants, in particular, has made resistance to federal immigration enforcement a central issue in some municipal elections.
As the increasingly aggressive tactics of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have come under scrutiny, the question of whether local police should help ICE deport people has taken on new importance in local races. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where residents are heading to the polls next month to choose a sheriff, the question has made the previously obscure 287(g) program a central issue in the campaigns of the incumbent sheriff, who embraced it, and his two challengers, who want to end it.
Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows local law enforcement agencies to form voluntary partnerships with the federal government to enforce immigration law. Agencies that sign up receive delegate authority to ask people booked into local custody about their immigration status and to hold undocumented individuals for ICE. But 287(g) has been mired in controversy ever since it started in 1996 — in some places, leading to sweeping racial profiling and, in many others, putting a huge drain on local law enforcement resources and damaging police relationships with the communities they serve.
Join Our Newsletter
Original reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.
An array of community groups in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, have come together to make sure this election marks the end of the controversial policy. “The current sheriff has said that he believes the program is helping the community, keeping it safe, and he’s not willing to end it,” said Oliver Merino, an organizer with Comunidad Colectiva, one of the groups fighting the county’s participation in 287(g). “We feel like the best way to get rid of the program is to get a new sheriff, somebody that understands that the program is not working.”
Since 2006, when Charlotte signed on to the program, more than 15,000 people have been detained by the sheriff’s department and processed for deportation — many of them over minor infractions and traffic violations, like driving without a license, which undocumented people can’t legally obtain in North Carolina. In fiscal year 2017, there were more than 1,300 “encounters” through the county’s 287(g) program, leading to 288 deportations, according to an ICE spokesperson. In March, 45 groups signed a letter calling on incumbent Sheriff Irwin Carmichael to terminate the county’s participation in the program.
“While your office continues to highlight a handful of cases of individuals with serious crimes, the fact is that a great majority of deportations under the 287(g) program are due to minor offenses,” the letter states, listing the stories of local residents seized and deported as a result of the program. “The sheriff’s office is deporting fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, disrupting and separating families in the process.”
Carmichael told The Intercept that there was misinformation “being put out there about the program,” and released a video discussing 287(g). “A lot of folks always say that we are ripping families apart. Again, I always tell everyone, you will never ever encounter this program unless you’re arrested and charged with a crime and brought to our jail,” Carmichael told Fox News in March. “We use this as a tool to identify exactly who we have. … Maybe they’re from a foreign country and maybe they committed murder in a foreign country.”
Challenger Garry McFadden told The Intercept that if elected sheriff, he will discontinue the agreement. “287(g) often hindered and complicated my investigations,” the former homicide detective said. “Both the witnesses and victims did not want to come forward to cooperate with the investigation. 287(g) does not create a trusted working relationship between law enforcement and many of the community.” Antoine Ensley, who ran for sheriff twice before, with opposition to the program as a central component of his platform, told The Intercept that he has long argued 287(g) needs to be “dismantled.” “I still believe it to be very bad for Mecklenburg County,” he said. “I believe a significant amount of the public now recognize how divisive and unnecessary this policy is to the business of public safety.”
The Democratic primary is on May 8 — but with no Republican challenger, the winner of the primary will be the new sheriff. Early voting is currently underway.
Charlotte is one of the country’s most segregated cities, and one of its most diverse, with fast-growing Latino and Asian populations. Nearly one in six city residents was born abroad. While North Carolina is a major destination for new immigrants, Charlotte is also home to large communities of Southeast Asian immigrants who moved to the U.S. following wars in the region in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, many were resettled in poor neighborhoods without much support, and some were caught up in the criminal justice system, which, decades later, can put their legal immigration status at risk.
“Now, 20, 30 years later, these folks are being pulled out of their families to be sent to countries that they sometimes never lived in,” Cat Bao Le, executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition in Charlotte, told The Intercept. “It’s a different path, but if you look at the roots, it’s the same as what other communities are facing. It’s over-policing in our neighborhoods that created this.”
“It’s up to us to move beyond the thinking that this is just an issue for this community or that community,” she added, noting that the fight over 287(g) brought a range of Charlotte groups together, some for the first time. “We have a critical mass, if we identify what can bring us together.”
Charlotte is also home to a large black population that is all too familiar with failed police policies, and the city is in the midst of a political reawakening following the 2016 police killing of Keith Lamont Scott and the large protests that ensued. Those street protests have turned into civic engagement and increased scrutiny of local law enforcement. Advocates calling for an end to 287(g) also criticized Carmichael’s practice of placing teenagers in solitary confinement, and his decision to replace in-person jail visits with video visitation.
“We are a very different city,” said Braxton Winston, a protester-turned-Charlotte City Council member, following what people there call the Charlotte uprising. “In terms of who is literally at the table — I’m a prime example of that, but there are so many others whose voices would not have been there at certain points in time.”
Today, Winston is one of those leading the charge against the county’s participation in 287(g). “It’s a really bad policy,” he told The Intercept. “When you look at the intent and the cost, not in terms of dollars but harm done to the community, I think it’s pretty clear.” In a city struggling to improve police-community relations, he added, “the relationship is the main part of it. You have to be able to form some kind of trust.”
“I think a lot of people do believe that we need comprehensive immigration reform — but this is one of these polices that the federal government have put out there to get a result in place of that reform.”
Charlotte’s debate over 287(g) is hardly isolated — depending on local officials’ embrace or rejection of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, cities and counties across the country have been both eagerly signing up for and fighting to leave the program.
Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order instructing the Department of Homeland Security to pursue new 287(g) agreements, and last July, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan pledged to “triple” the number of agreements by the end of the year. Of the 76 agreements currently in place, 47 were signed after Trump took office, including six that had been approved previously. In fiscal year 2017, nearly 26,000 people nationwide were processed as part of the program, according to ICE, with nearly 6,000 ultimately deported.
But some agreements have been terminated — at least 35 over the last 10 years, according to a review of the program by the Center for American Progress. Some agreements were called off by ICE itself — as was the case in Maricopa County, Arizona, where a Justice Department investigation found that the local sheriff’s department, under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, engaged in systemic and unconstitutional racial profiling of Latinos. ICE also called off its partnership with Alamance County in North Carolina after the Justice Department found similar patterns there.
Trump’s election, and the all-out attack on immigrants unleashed by his administration, also prompted others to reconsider their ties. At least three agreements have been terminated since Trump took office. In February 2017, the sheriff of Harris County, Texas, ended his department’s agreement with ICE, citing the program’s impact on the department’s resources. In March 2018, New Jersey’s Hudson County withdrew from the program following pressure from the local community, and in California, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department called off its 287(g) agreement after the state passed legislation setting limits on local agencies’ collaboration with federal immigration enforcement.
An ICE spokesperson told The Intercept that 287(g) is an “invaluable tool that allows ICE to have a presence in local jails across the country.” “ICE continues to conduct outreach to educate local law enforcement agencies about the program and identify new potential partners,” the spokesperson added.
Following Hudson County’s withdrawal from the program, John Tsoukairis, field office director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Newark, said he regretted “the loss of such a strong public safety partnership.” “I find this decision troubling, as the security needs of citizens should be the priority, not sheltering criminal aliens,” Tsoukairis said in a statement.
“Particularly after the Trump administration came into power, there was a real sense from local communities that this was wrong, ICE is wrong, and that local communities, in order to feel safe, at the bare minimum need their local police to work and protect them rather than do ICE’s dirty work,” said Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “People are waking up and trying to end these collaborations. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing that in places that are anti-immigrant and want to follow Trump’s deportation agenda and go after people of color, they’re signing up very happily to the program.”
“You’re seeing places like Charlotte, where they’re going through a criminal justice — racial justice — reckoning, wanting to end police deputization as immigration agents,” she told The Intercept. “There are also places like southeast Georgia, and southern to northern Texas, that are wanting to join the program having never heard of it until the Trump administration.”
In some states, mostly in the south, local law enforcement “is a gigantic funnel for ICE’s and Trump’s deportation machine,” Mao added, pointing to a study that found that in the first four months of the Trump administration, immigration arrests were up 75 percent for the ICE Atlanta field office, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. In those states, the number of immigrants arrested who had no criminal convictions increased by 500 percent, according to the study.
“Basically, people’s solution was not to leave their house. That was pretty much the only thing they could do,” said Mao, adding that a number of arrests were made during traffic stops. “Or just be very afraid and basically drive at the risk of being deported.”
Ending 287(g) alone won’t ease people’s fears, Charlotte advocates say, but it’s a more practical approach to the sometimes-vague notion of sanctuary some have called for elsewhere. “The term doesn’t really mean a lot. What does it mean?” said Merino, of Comunidad Colectiva.
“The question for our leaders is: Do they want to keep us safe? And do they want to build trust or not?” echoed Bao Le, of Charlotte’s Southeast Asian Coalition. “287(g) is just kind of a symbol for that question.”
Contact the author:
Ralph Nader is the best known public advocate in modern U.S. history and has run four times for president. On this special episode of Intercepted, we are going to dig deep into several issues facing the country and the world right now. In case you are not familiar with Nader, he rose to prominence in the 1960s after blowing the lid on extreme safety issues with General Motors and other car manufacturers’ products. His book “Unsafe at Any Speed” was an influential investigation and exposé. Throughout his life, Nader has waged countless campaigns aimed at food safety, worker and environmental protections, ending pollution, cronyism in government, financial crimes, and more. Nader simply calls himself a public citizen.
Many Democrats and liberals continue to blame Nader for George W. Bush’s victory in the 2000 election, even though the claim is demonstrably false. But Nader perseveres and, at the age of 84, he continues to wage the very same battles he has from the start of his public life. His latest book, “Breaking Through Power,” chronicles his various battles against the U.S. government, big corporations, and concentrated political power. The latest Intercepted featured an excerpt of our interview with Nader. What follows is the entire conversation in both audio and transcript form.
Jeremy Scahill: Ralph Nader, welcome to this extended episode of Intercepted.
Ralph Nader: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Let’s start with Gina Haspel. This campaign that the CIA is publicly waging to support her nomination, leaking or publicizing memos that seem to exonerate her of any direct role in the destruction of torture tapes. First question is just: Have you ever seen anything like the CIA social media campaign that’s being waged right now in an effort to get Gina Haspel confirmed as CIA director?
RN: No, and the reason why, one is that the CIA desperately wants someone from their own ranks, they don’t want an outsider. They’ve been battered at times by Trump and others, which is pretty unheard of for a president to do that. So they’re hunkering down, and they don’t want to lose this one.
JS: Right, but, at the same time, isn’t the CIA supposed to be prohibited from engaging in domestic propaganda? I mean, it does seem like they’re utilizing their social media platforms to campaign for someone that there’s very serious questions about her role in torture, black sites and other issues.
RN: Well, who has ever found a boundary for the CIA? I mean they’re not supposed to deal with overt armed action abroad, according to their original charter, they’re just supposed to collect intelligence, and we know where that’s gone — that’s out of the window.
The CIA does what it wants, under the cloak of secrecy and national security, does whatever it wants, and who’s going to stop it? It has so many feelers all over the country and the world, and they really want her in because they think that Trump is perfectly capable of nominating an outsider who would give them a lot of trouble. And they’ve been jolted more than usual, publicly, as an agency, and they want stability, as they define it. And it doesn’t matter what she did in Asia in terms of the Thailand episode and torture. I mean, that’s what they do. That’s what the CIA does all over the world.
JS: You know it’s interesting, as I watch Trump supporters who are railing against the deep state and saying that, you know, you have all of these powerful people within the CIA/NSA/FBI bureaucracy that are plotting against Trump, the thing that comes to my mind is that if I were a really dark character within the CIA, right now, I’d be very content with Trump being the commander-in-chief because he doesn’t seem to understand the full range of powers that the CIA has. And it seems to me like they’re able to do basically whatever they want right now without much questioning from the White House.
RN: Well that’s been true of prior presidents. They want deniability. They don’t really want to know what the NSA and CIA do. President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton — they don’t want to know that the NSA was dragnet snooping on virtually all Americans, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, as well as the FISA Act.
And President Trump is no different in that way. What they are really upset about is: When was the last time we ever heard a president attack “the deep state”? He’s not attacking some rogue outfit in Afghanistan that’s an offshoot and maybe under contract. He’s attacking the military industrial complex’s core secrecy operations and that is freaking out people at the CIA, especially career people who have never been fingered that way from the White House. That’s why they want the stability of this present nominee.
JS: It’s an interesting point that you’re raising. The one pushback that I would have on it though, is that it does seem that given that Trump does not appear to have even a full staff in place right now, and doesn’t seem very committed to any sort of oversight function, that those fears within the CIA and Trump, because he’s railing against the deep state, could be unfounded given that they can continue on with whatever operations they want right now, without anyone really questioning them.
I mean, look at the Senate Intel Committee. The House Intel Committee. They’re running around on this Russia stuff. Are they actually conducting any official oversight of the CIA right now?
RN: Well no, I wouldn’t say any congressional committee, since the Church Committee, back decades ago, really conducted oversight over the CIA and recommended changes, that was during the Nixon administration. But you have to keep in mind: style, secrecy, being in the corner, not being in the spotlight all of this is essential for the CIA to continue operating. So even though they don’t have to fear Trump [will] engage in any oversight, they fear the kind of sudden shaft of light that comes out of his tweets.
And also they can’t assume that he wouldn’t appoint a crazy to head the CIA. I mean he just appointed a crazy, lawless warmonger, John Bolton, to be his national security adviser. You don’t think that reverberates at the CIA?
JS: Oh, I think absolutely. I’m just trying to say that I think there are a number of complicated dynamics at play obviously. I agree with your analysis, particularly on Senate oversight not really occurring with the CIA for many decades.
What about Mike Pompeo now going over from CIA to State Department?
RN: Well he’s the last person to be appointed head of the nation’s diplomats. I mean Pompeo is a warmonger, his statements when he was a congressman were just off the charts — only to be exceeded by the crazed John Bolton.
Now he’s pulling back, and, you know, he’s moderating and he has to deal with the foreign service. He doesn’t want to disrupt any further a shattered, fractured State Department.
But he is a part of this clique that’s growing around Trump to use armed force regardless of international law or the Constitution or federal statutes. It’s remarkable that he and Bolton don’t believe in the rule of law at all — it’s just, “Bomb ’em.”
And we’re going to get to Bolton, I hope, but they are kin: Pompeo’s a graduate of Harvard Law School and John Bolton’s a graduate of Yale Law School, and they’re the shame of both law schools. It isn’t that they just pursue policies abroad that reasonable people can disagree with. They are constantly pursuing illegal criminal acts of aggression, which is going to put our country into a more insecure posture. How many more years can we rely on the pacific and Atlantic ocean, before our 100 plus year messing around in the backyards of countries over there, propping up dictators and suppressing their own people brutally and playing around with oil politics. How long is that going to be a protected area, before the explosions start in the U.S.?
JS: Well, what do you say to people, and there’s a lot of them, both the never Trumpers and a lot of the so-called liberal Democrats that, that take this line, “Well, General Mattis is the adult in the room or General Kelly is the adult in the room.”
RN: Well the problem is, everything’s relative, isn’t it Jeremy?
RN: The two sources of restraint on a bellicose Trump or a wag-the-dog Trump are the secretary of defense, Mattis, and his chief of staff, General Kelly. But you see, if they can’t work with Pompeo and Bolton, and Bolton is a bolt, he knows how to maneuver, and he knows how to try to get his way, he knows how to intimidate, he has a high energy level, it’s quite conceivable that Kelly will quit. He’s already talked about quitting because of the way Donald Trump has mistreated him, and Mattis privately has said, before John Bolton took the post on April 9th in the White House that he couldn’t work with Bolton. Well, after that he said, well, he will work with Bolton and he met with Bolton.
But, let’s put it this way: If you’re projecting who’s most likely to quit, Mattis and Kelly are far more likely to quit than Pompeo and Bolton. And that’s the danger. That’s the clear and present danger to this country.
JS: Right, and just to add one note on General Mattis, I’ve often thought that it is really a ridiculous line to imply that he is this sort of moderating force when you look at his track record as a commander in Iraq. But, also, his views on Iran, he is a very hawkish military figure that now means that we have only nominal civilian leadership at the Pentagon, because Mattis had to get this exception.
And the case of John Kelly — he was infamous within the military, particularly when he was at U.S. Southern Command, for being a kind of overt xenophobe and very anti-immigrant and yet those two are being described in a positive way as like the responsible ones in the room.
RN: That’s why, that’s why I said it’s all relative, isn’t it? And the critical juncture is going to be in mid-May if Trump gets out of the Iran nuclear decree, and he can because it was never a treaty ratified by the Senate, it was basically an executive order by President Obama. If he gets out of that, the question is: Is Mattis is going to take it? Because Mattis, as a secretary of defense, is a bit more moderate and understands the importance of the Iran nuclear decree compared to his wild, belligerent, Marine-type statements in Iraq.
But is he going to say, “Well, that’s it! I can’t handle it anymore, because once you pull out of the nuclear accord with Iran, you unleash forces out of Netanyahu’s Israel, you create tremendous complications with the other countries that have signed on and are not going to withdraw, including China and Russia, not to mention France and England. So this is a very perilous spring coming up.
JS: Hmm. Yeah, and I mean it’s, if you look at John Bolton’s first hours as national security adviser, it was all about pummelling Syria and launching this attack. What are the top concerns you have about John Bolton being in this non-Senate-confirmed, very powerful position of national security adviser?
RN: Well, first of all, he has a record, a demonstrated record of alienating Muslims and Arabs. He is a prime advocate of anti-Semitism against the Arab people. He is associated with Pamela Geller, the notorious Islamaphobe and web patron out of New York. He has had a record of aggressively supporting the criminal invasion of Iraq under Bush and Cheney, and he says to this day that it was not an error, it was not a mistake. He still pushes for it.
He’s written an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, as many people know, over two months ago, urging the bombing of North Korea. He wants to overthrow the government of Iran. He supports the annexation of the Palestinian West Bank to Israel. He’s out Netanyahu-ed Netanyahu. He’s crazed! I call him a lethal juvenile, because he never asks himself what’s going to happen after you bomb North Korea, or after you try to overthrow Iran, or after you annex the West Bank. And he is the worst possible choice.
Now, having said that, Bolton doesn’t have many friends. He’s a bully toward his subordinates, he’s what’s called an observer once called a “kiss-ass” to his superiors, and that’s one reason why Trump likes him. He doesn’t have many friends in the Senate. The Republicans wouldn’t even confirm him as ambassador to the U.N. — it had to be a recess appointment by President Bush in 2005. So that’s consoling, that he’s alienated so many people. But all he has to do is persuade one person: Donald Trump.
And that’s why there are a number of legal experts now that are about to put out a statement, that the post of national security adviser is a confirmable post, under the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. It’s an office of the United States. And, unless the Congress specifically exempts the office from confirmation, it is a confirmable post, and you’re going to have leading experts, Louis Fisher, the leading Constitutional expert out of the Library of Congress, Bruce Fein, maybe Professor [Laurence] “Larry” Tribe, to try to push that. Because it’s retroactive. If Bolton makes a bad move and alienates the Senate in terms of the mid-term elections, the Republicans, anything like that can happen. There’s also an effort in the Congress for a joint resolution disapproving of the choice of John Bolton.
And I remember once I was interviewing Castro in Cuba and it was just a few weeks after Bolton who was working under secretary of state Powell at the time, put out a statement without any authority that Castro was engaged in developing chemical and biological weapons. Well, it was completely false and Colin Powell retracted it, overrode his insubordinate John Bolton who he thinks is a perilous and a disreputable person, by the way, but he won’t say it publicly. That’s Colin Powell. And when I was interviewing Fidel Castro, he was terrified when he heard this. He thought it was a precursor to an attack on Cuba. You can understand — that’s not a particularly paranoid attitude by Castro given our attempts at overthrowing him in prior years.
So you just can’t, you can’t top this belligerent, super, hyper war-hawk who doesn’t think of any consequences. He, also, you know, avoided going to Vietnam. He’s one of these neo-cons. You might ask: How does he keep bouncin’ up, if everybody doesn’t like him? And there are two reasons: One, he’s useful to the military industrial complex’s extreme elements — he wants more and more weapons, more and more contracts, and there are extreme elements of the military industrial complex, that President Eisenhower warned us about, who liked him. And the other is the swarming Israeli lobby which thinks he’s heroic beyond their dreams, and they support him as well. And then you put in the mix the neo-cons who keep popping up in powerful areas and who were heavily responsible for pushing Bush into Iraq, and elsewhere, and that explains why this madman — and that’s an understatement, he really is a madman — he is Dr. Strangelove on steroids. It’s very hard to exaggerate the criticism of one, John Bolton.
Now, he may self-destruct, he may say the wrong thing, he may get Trump pretty embarrassed, and we’re all hoping that that will happen, because Trump will give John Bolton the bolt, if it’s a question of embarrassing Trump. But this is what happens when Congress does not obey the Constitution and the requirements of the Constitution on Congress and foreign policy and national security.
JS: Well, it does seem that Trump is more bothered by John Bolton’s very large mustache than any of the concerns that you’re raising. Trump reportedly was waivering on him because of his mustache. And it could be that superficial of a thing that Bolton has food in his mustache one day, Trump could just say, “Alright, you’re outta here.” Rather than it being a policy embarrassment.
One thing you left off the list, I’m sure not intentionally because you just gave a great list of past activities and current positions of Bolton, but also his support for the MEK organization, they say in Iran, but really it’s an exile group, and for years, this was designated, the MEK, as a state, as a terror organization by the U.S. State Department. That’s the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. He has taken money, has spoken at their conferences, has said that he wants them to be in power in Iran. And Bolton is in league with some pretty prominent Democrats like Howard Dean and others in supporting and taking money from the MEK.
RN: And, unfortunately, Senator Schumer has said many nice things about Bolton because he’s so fervid pro-Israeli military government, and so that’s another factor.
But what you just said Jeremy raises a very serious question about the endurance of Bolton in the White House he has not gotten a top secret security clearance. It is going to take the FBI months — that’s months — to find out whether they are going to come down plus or minus on his top-secret security.
And, of course, what happens in the case of Jared Kushner and others is that Trump gives him a waiver, so he’s obviously giving a waiver, although the press don’t seem to have asked about that, to John Bolton.
But people who know his entanglements, and you just pointed out one. And his contracts and money and who he’s associated with believe that the FBI will not be able to come up with a finding that he deserves a top-secret security clearance. But he’s receiving top secrets right now, day after day. I think that is a possible Achilles’ heel here, especially if the imbroglio over Iran occurs, and if Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear accord.
JS: Ralph, let me ask you about this recent airstrike festival that Trump and Bolton and the UK and France just participated in where they launched more than 100 cruise missiles and other munitions at a handful of facilities in Syria, supposedly as a response to the Syrian government using chemical munitions in Douma. Why did that happen? Because it clearly didn’t have any impact on any chemical weapons facilities or storage facilities, but maybe start from the beginning: What do you believe of the allegation that was very publicly made by Nikki Haley, and now Donald Trump, that Assad definitely was the party that was in charge of using these chemical weapons?
RN: Well I think the two strikes by Trump in Syria were basically macho strikes — he has to show that he’s tough and strong and commander-in-chief, because it didn’t have any strategic effect.
The other part of your question is very puzzling in terms of trying to find a response, because there are claims on all sides that there have been use of chlorine and sarin gas by various parties, from the Assad regime to forces opposed to him. You can see the rationale — Assad is running short of ammunition and planes, and lethal gas is a way to smoke people out, to use one of George W. Bush’s phrases, in urban areas, and to create terror. And the other side, the rebels, they want to make sure that Assad is associated with chemical weapons, because that will bring the Americans in.
Well, the fact is that we’ve lost the war in Syria, the Russians and the Iranians have far more people on the ground, they have far more strategic interests, and we’re not willing to admit it.
The rest is mopping up ISIS with a couple thousand U.S. soldiers in Syria. ISIS is now being scattered where it can become even more dangerous in other countries. So civil wars are incredibly brutal, more than others. Our civil war killed 700,000 people at a time when our population was about a million or two greater than Syria. So this is a multi-faceted civil war, and the best that can be done here is to try to have an international peace conference, with all the parties that can pull the strings in Syria on Assad, on the rebels and on other factions.
JS: If you look at the history of United Nations investigations in Syria on the issue of use of chemical weapons, as you point out, there are findings of responsibility for the Syrian armed forces under the control of Bashar al-Assad and there also are clear findings of responsibility for the Islamic State and other actors. What I find really, unfortunately not surprising, but really significant to bring up is that so many people, just because the United States government says so, say “Well, this incident must be Assad’s forces using the chemical weapons,” when these strikes that Trump recently ordered took place literally on the day that the OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria to go and do their investigation.
And I think we’re in a dangerous situation where if people are going to take the word of Nikki Haley or Donald Trump on an issue that the United States has a long track record of lying about, including the Iraq war, but also other examples, then we sort of are like led like sheep to our involvement in war crimes or, in bombings that play no strategic purpose even for the stated missions of the United States in Syria.
You get what I’m getting at here — it’s incredible to see Democrats and liberals sort of lapping up what Nikki Haley and the president are saying as though it doesn’t bear any scrutiny. You know, I wouldn’t doubt if Assad was responsible, but shouldn’t we confirm that?
RN: Yeah, it is strange that you know in a day of massive advance surveillance and techniques, remote and otherwise, that that has not been determined.
I think it’s because it’s in everybody’s interest to accuse everybody else that they are using chemical weapons. We should remind listeners that a large amount of Assad’s chemical weapons were given up and transferred to U.S. custody where they were burned on a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean. But obviously he, like most dictators, always wanted to maintain something in reserve because it tends to be a deterrent. That’s all one can say.
I think that we’ve got to focus on the problems that cause the problems over there, here, and when you have the New York Times have a major editorial titled, “Yes, John Bolton Really Is That Dangerous” and American Conservative magazine says that John Bolton is dangerous and that he’s a prevaricator, and a violator of law — that’s the American Conservative magazine. The Times began its editorial saying, “There are few people more likely than Mr. Bolton to lead the country into war.”
So this is the root, here, that is under the control of the people. And people all over, in congressional districts, we gotta wake up here. One percent of the people mobilize in congressional districts representing majority public opinion can turn Congress around. If we turn Congress around, then we can start turning the executive branch around.
So it’s so easy, you know, to get mired into the pros and cons over there and the intrigues and we want to know more facts, of course, what’s on the ground for policy-making but it distracts from our responsibilities here at home to put the heat on only 535 members of Congress from back home. And that’s what we’ve got to focus on.
JS: On a different subject, Ralph, as you’re aware, last Friday the Democratic National Committee filed this lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against the Russian government, the Trump campaign, individuals that the DNC alleges participated in interfering in the U.S. electoral process in 2016, and they also named WikiLeaks as a party in the lawsuit, even though the suit itself doesn’t allege that WikiLeaks participated in hacking or knew in advance about it at all, it just says Wiki Leaks was publishing the hacked e-mails.
That part of it, to those of us in the media that follow these issues, is chilling because what they’re essentially saying is that news organizations or publishers that publish hacked or stolen material which every publication in this country has done repeatedly, that that’s a criminal or an activity that should be sanctioned or punished.
What is your analysis of this DNC lawsuit naming the Russian government, WikiLeaks, Trump campaign, etc.?
RN: Well, first of all, I think it’s an insurance policy in case the Mueller investigation fizzles, doesn’t come up with conspiracies, doesn’t come up with indictments at the top. They already are starting in terms of indictments at the bottom, in terms of operatives under the Trump campaign. That’s one.
The second is the Democratic National Committee wants to raise money, and it’s a great fundraiser.
The third is that when you file a civil lawsuit like that, you’re much freer to try to get information under subpoena and depositions and get information maybe that the Mueller investigation chooses not to get or not to disclose or the Justice Department.
And four, there’s been criticism that the Democratic National Committee is moribund, it’s hunkering down and it wants to show that it’s in the center of the action.
They got an aggressive plaintiff lawyer’s firm, Cohen Milstein, that know what they’re doing, that have been around a long time, and they’re very aggressive, and I’m sure they’re taking it on a contingent fee, plus expenses. So what’s not to like? From the head of the Democratic National Committee, [Tom] Perez, who will not meet with citizen groups who want to suggest a winning agenda for the Democrats in 2016.
JS: What’s your broader sense of the Mueller investigation, and it seems to me like the goalposts ever widen, and also this shift has occurred from really focusing on is Trump like a sleeper agent or a collaborator-conspirator with Putin, over to, well, we may uncover all this other criminal activity in this investigation. I mean, it doesn’t seem like they, certainly what’s available now in the public, have been able to directly link Trump to any sort of criminal conspiracy with Russians or Putin or Russian entities.
RN: Well, the Mueller investigation is going to lead to a lot of indictments, and they’re going to hand off some of these to the U.S. attorneys because they’re not set up in the Justice Department to pursue them, and, as you know, they’ve already started with the U.S. attorney in New York. They’re finding a lot of things. So far, a lot of economic shenanigans —
JS: Right —
RN: — that’s what they’re finding. The kind that violate international laws, the kind that violate domestic laws, hanky panky, and they’re not really interested in pursuing that directly unless it reaches Donald Trump — which it may!
I mean, you’re talking about an incredibly complex matrix of economic webs and tie-ins with the Russians. You know, he was in bankruptcy, again—and again, he couldn’t get U.S. banks to loan to his casinos, and this was at the time that the Russian oligarchs were pouring money out of Russia, looking for a place to invest. So there are a lot of trails here that can be examined.
This is more murky than your investigation of Blackwater, Jeremy.
JS: Yeah, well —
RN: In terms of the network. So, number one, I think we’re going to get a lot of prosecutions of people who deserve it, but not in the sense of heading toward the top with Trump. As far as whether they ever get anything on Trump — who knows, it’s all speculation.
I think Trump now is more worried about Michael Cohen’s imbroglio with the Justice Department and the seizure of his records by the Mueller team, and by the women who he bought favors from filing civil lawsuits. I think a lot of people don’t understand the enormous information you can get through civil action lawsuits under the law of torts. And someone who does understand that is one called Donald J. Trump.
JS: Right, and as we pointed out before on this show, there’s also a defamation suit that was brought by one of the women who allegedly was sexually harassed by Donald Trump. And she is, her case is based on the idea that Trump has maligned and defamed her by using his very powerful platform to call her a liar and that case, until recently, was brought by Gloria Allred, but it’s proceeding.
You mention Stephanie Clifford, who’s popularly known as Stormy Daniels, her case could result in a tremendous amount of discovery being handed over. And then you have the Sean Hannity aspect of it where he turns out to be, sort of, client number three of Michael Cohen, and he is basically like the shadow, I don’t know what you would even call him, chief of staff to Trump or something? But it’s, yeah, you’re right, the civil cases could end up producing an enormous amount of information that will be of public interest.
RN: And then it might curb his tweetdoms —
JS: We’ll see about that.
RN: Because of the tort law of defamation against a public figure like Donald Trump is great peril to him because he’s so malicious, and willful, and deliberate. Now the argument is under a Supreme Court case, the New York Times case, he can say, “Well the people I’m attacking verbally are public figures.” They’ve gone into the public arena and therefore I cannot be sued by them for defamation, citing the New York Times case.
The answer to that is you get away from the New York Times case if you are willful, deliberate, malicious and provocatory. So, I mean, he is about as willful and malicious in tweets as anybody in the U.S., so he is making himself very vulnerable to a whole slew of defamation cases which going to embroil him, because the fact that he is president means that he’s only above the law on issues of war, on issues of political outlawry. That’s where a president’s above the law. What many people don’t realize is they are beneath the law when it comes to conventional criminal law, which trapped Nixon, obstruction of justice, and conventional tort law, which trapped Clinton in losing his license due to perjury under a deposition. And I don’t think that’s made clear enough, because people think presidents can get away with almost anything, and they certainly have demonstrated that, and you have documented that again and again in your work, Jeremy Scahill, but they don’t understand they cannot get away from the mundane: criminal law and civil law of torts.
JS: Right, and we also saw a kind of replay of that, to a degree, with the recent pardon of Scooter Libby, and you know it was interesting to watch the kind of right-wing and neo-con response to this, where they say, “Aha! Dick Armitage is the one that leaked Valerie Plame’s identity. And, you know, so this wasn’t what Scooter Libby was convicted of.”
And that’s right — he wasn’t convicted of leaking Valerie Plame’s identity, but we know from the court proceedings and from Libby’s own testimony that, in fact, he was ordered by Dick Cheney to do it and he did that to Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine and Judy Miller of the New York Times.
But again Trump, it’s one of the situations, I’m not sure the Trump even knew who Scooter Libby was before he pardoned him. I mean, it sounded like he had some informal conversations with people, the timing with Bolton is quite curious, you know to have —
RN: Well, first of all he wants the allies that he had gotten before he did that, he wants the whole Cheney alliance to support him. He’s never going to get George W. Bush to support him, but he wants the Cheney core, and he wants to set a precedent for future pardons. He said, “Well, you know, I pardoned people who had nothing do with me. I pardoned Scooter Libby.”
People who think Trump is stupid may be right in terms of his understanding reality and history and the things that we would like presidents to be alert and smart about, but when it comes to street smarts and timing and the jugular? You can’t find anybody more proficient.
JS: Well, and James Comey on his big media tour, right now, has said repeatedly that he found Trump to be a man with above average intelligence. What do you make of the whole Comey episode and the way that Comey has sort of proceeded here?
I mean, first of all, you have this lionization of Comey that is happening on a lot of liberal networks and in liberal circles, and he has a track record filled with anti-civil rights, anti-civil liberties actions and his time working in the Bush Justice Department and on and on. But in this specific case, presumably the guy is going to be an important witness in any prosecution or investigation of Trump. And yet, he’s running around just sort of talking about all of this out in open. What’s your sense of the Comey moment?
RN: Well, if I can guess: One, he wants to justify his place in history. He’s caught between what he did to the Clinton campaign and what he’s doing to the Trump campaign, and he wants his explanation out there repeatedly on the mass media.
And, two, there is obviously an economic incentive, he’s not a super-rich man; a bestseller helps the security of his family economically.
And, three, he wants to protect the FBI. I think he’s infuriated the way Donald Trump pejoratively puts down the FBI — when was the last president who’s done that? And that has shaken the FBI to its core, especially with recent resignations by McCabe and others, or firings by McCabe and others.
JS: As a very young reporter, and not so experienced reporter, Ralph, when you were running for president in 2000, I was at a press conference after you launched your campaign, I believe it was in Denver, Colorado, and I asked you at that time, “Would you abolish the FBI?” And I’m wondering your thoughts on that now, whether we should even have an FBI as it currently exists?
RN: J. Edgar Hoover put the FBI on a very bad track because he used his secret files to extort and expand his influence against high members of Congress who might have offended him or presidents and vice presidents, and they were terrified of him. And you never want the secret domestic police to terrify the leading elected figures in our federal government. That has lingered at the FBI. They have an undeserved reputation of excellence, when, again and again, they have fumbled investigations.
However, they do have a level of pride. They haven’t had many conventional examples of being bribed into doing something. And the FBI agents, many of them are lawyers, members of the bar, officers of the court, that adds to their pride and they just can’t believe how they’re being beat up by the president of the United States, and Comey is viewed as their defender, the person who is in the mass media where they cannot be, taking on this man who is damaging and besmirching the reputation of the FBI.
JS: Alright, Ralph, a couple of quick questions: I was asking some colleagues, “If you could ask Ralph Nader something right now, what would you ask them?” One of my colleagues wants to know what you think of driverless cars.
RN: Hype beyond any reasonable belief. We’re not going to see them anytime soon in the next 10 or 20 years. First of all, they cannot mix with driver-driven cars, it’s very, very complex.
The second is, there’s a competition between companies over who is ahead in the driverless car arena, and they get publicity and approbation in the business pages for that, so they have an incentive that’s remote from engineering justification for a driverless car.
Third, there isn’t enough data to back up the claims of Waymo, or Uber, or General Motors, that they’re making. They haven’t really tested in real-life, congested Manhattan Island traffic, for example.
And finally, and this is the one that they never like to talk about at technical conferences, and that is that driverless cars have no defense against remote hacking, and that will terrify anybody who owns a driverless car or is in a driverless car, where the companies can hack their way, they can coerce upgrades, for example. Car dealers can immobilize a car if the installment loan payment doesn’t come in on time. And most ominous is that evil forces, anywhere in the world, can hack these cars and they can hack them at the level of model-year-volume. Let’s say you have two million Toyotas of the same volume, they’ll be able to crash these Toyotas all over the country or the world, and that’s why it’s a no-no and that’s why members of Congress are disgracing, themselves pushing through legislation that is deregulating, to a serious degree of risk, driverless cars and trying to view it as a brand new industry and getting caught up in the hoopla.
So that bill has got to be stopped, Senator Blumenthal, Senator Markey, and others are trying to stop it.
But it just shows you that when the media gets caught up in a technical hype, the consequences are very bad for consumers, they’re very bad for politicians and the media has just got to become much more critical. We need a Jeremy Scahill on autonomous cars.
JS: Well, I mean I do find it fascinating, I was just telling some younger colleagues about your work going back many decades on the seat belt, on the sharp corners within cars, and the basic safety issues— it was a real battle that you had to wage to even get minimal safety considerations accepted in the automobile industry, and it’s still a fight that I, I really wish that more young people right now, especially those that are going to be getting on the road took this stuff seriously.
RN: Well, they’ll take it seriously because there will be more accidents and fatalities, there have been two or three already, and they get a lot of publicity and they sort of slow down this hype acceleration for these autonomous cars.
And that is not to say that semi-autonomous brakes and semi-autonomous devices, many of which are already in cars as standard equipment or options are not good. They are good. But we’re talking about the nth degree of these cars coming up to your place and saying, “Take me where you want me.”
JS: You know, I have to say, Ralph, that when I listen to you talking about Donald Trump and the way that the national security establishment, you know, views him and the FBI right now, and sort of he’s shaking them to their core, I can’t help but sort of daydream what would it be like if we had an actual principled leftist who was in this position rather than Trump, the disrupter, but if we had an actual principled individual as commander in chief, as president of the United States, sort of what that would even look like, if you had sort of the moral equivalent of Trump, on the flipside, somebody that was going after them for the right reasons, the reasons that, you know, you’ve spent your life fighting about.
RN: What it looks like is waging peace. For heaven’s sake, there are enough examples in the last 100 years where waging peace, instead of the first option war, have paid off. And that’s got to be the function of the State Department, which under both Democrats Republicans have been more belligerent, in the statements, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. Look at Secretary Hillary Clinton that toppled the regime in Libya, against the wishes of Secretary of Defense Gates, and the chaos and violence spreading all over that area of Africa is a tribute to her folly and to her arrogance, and going to the White House and telling Obama to only take a few planes and we’ve got an alternative government ready to replace that of Qaddafi.
So waging peace has a lot of benefits, certainly in every public opinion poll in every country in the world, and that’s not something to be minimized.
Second, I would require the Pentagon budget to be audited. The Pentagon budget is violating federal law since 1992, when Congress passed a law saying that no department or agency can observe the law without providing auditable data to the General Accounting Officer, now called the Government Accountability Office of the U.S. Congress. And every year, the GAO reports on the Pentagon, saying: “Sorry, we don’t have auditable data to audit the sprawling massive budget of $700 billion or so now.” And that’s not a technical accounting matter, because that is what puts the trail on billions of dollars being lost in Iraq or Afghanistan, billions of dollars of inventory available, but not locatable, by the Air Force and Air Force warehouses around the world, so they buy them all over again. And it exposes this hallowed defense budget which is being supported automatically by both Democrats and Republicans in the Congress and shows how it’s draining our country as part of a runaway empire. All empires devour themselves, and the Pentagon budget is devouring billions and billions of dollars that could renovate schools and rebuild highways, drinking water systems, sewage systems, public buildings, bridges, public transit, you name it. That’s what a president should be doing — every mayor, every labor union, every chamber of commerce would be behind that kind of public works or infrastructure agenda.
And then, third is you’ve got to empower people on Congress. Congress is the pivotal most important branch of government under the Constitution. It declares war or supposed to, it’s got the appropriations, the tax function, the exposure function, the confirmation of nominee function. And as Warren Buffet once said, there are only 535 of them on Capitol Hill, and we’re 3 hundred million, why can we control them? And I’m amazed how many investigative reporters and good editorialists, they do the right denunciation — it’s imperial, it’s applicable to today’s concerns — but they don’t go back to the districts and say, it never takes more than one percent of the people that has a Congress watchdog hobby, several hundred hours a year, with a few full time people in congressional districts representing a majority opinion, to turn around our foreign and military policy with both conservative and liberal support.
JS: Hmm. Last question, Ralph. Part of the line from a lot of Democrats is that people like Jill Stein and people who were aggressively reporting on Hillary Clinton and on the Podesta e-mails and the DNC hacks, and that this is a charge daily thrown at you, at me, at Glenn Greenwald, and others. What is your response when people say, “Well, look what you gave us with Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton would have never put us in the peril and danger that we find ourselves in with Donald Trump. Just look: John Bolton is now the national security adviser.”
RN: And the Democratic Party could not landslide the worst Republican Party in history since 1854? The most ignorant, the most corporate indentured, the most warlike, the most corporate welfare supportive, the most bailout-prone Republican Party, anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment? Why don’t they look in the mirror? The Democratic Party is the main scapegoater in American politics. It’s never their fault. It’s never Hillary’s fault. It’s always a Green Party fault. It’s always an independent candidate fault. They’ve lost two presidential elections since 2000, even though they won the popular vote, because the Electoral College took it away from them, there’s a major national citizen effort to have an interstate compact to neutralize the Electoral College.
The Democratic Party is not supporting of that. The Democratic Party doesn’t want to get rid of the Electoral College. They’ve lost twice to the Republicans. And that meant George W. Bush, and that meant Donald J. Trump.
So this scapegoating is nothing more than a sickness of the Democratic Party that cannot unleash new energy. It keeps putting losers in place like Nancy Pelosi. It keeps putting the Democratic National Committee apparatus against any kind of insurgent effort like Bernie Sanders. It’s a sick decrepit party that cannot defend the United States of America against the worst Republican Party in history.
JS: Does anybody ever have to ask you what you really think, Ralph?
RN: Well, what I really think is that we ought to make an accusation, Jeremy, that the Democratic or Republican parties do not really believe in democracy. If they did, they wouldn’t attack the press when the press is uttering inconvenient truths, they wouldn’t attack competitive candidates. Democracy cannot be a democracy if wealth is concentrated in a few hands, and democracy cannot be a democracy if it is not a competitive democracy in a multi-candidate election situation, and the two parties have an autocratic duopoly opposed to those democratic principles.
JS: On that very powerful note, I want to thank you Ralph Nader, very much, for speaking with me.
RN: Thank you, Jeremy Scahill, very much.