'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, May 16th, 2013
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THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
May 16, 2013
Guest: Nicholas Thompson
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: We should start doing like the BBC, where you
hit chime at the top of the hour. Set your watch. Look, now I blew it.
Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
Today, our nation got a new secretary of energy. It was a unanimous
vote in the Senate, 97-0 for Dr. Ernest Moniz.
The extra bonus we get with him is that he will also be available to
the nation if we ever find ourselves in need after secretary of amazing
hair. Amazing hairdo that looks jus like the French novelist George Sand.
Dr. Moniz could also fill in in a pinch (ph) there, if we ever need that.
Two more cabinet secretaries for -- two more cabinet nominees,
secretary of labor, EPA administrator also made it to the full Senate
today. They haven`t been voted on in the full Senate and there is a
possibility that Republicans will filibuster those on the Senate floor but
those at least made it to the Senate floor.
Today, in Idaho, authorities arrested a man from Uzbekistan on
terrorism charges. He`ll be in federal court tomorrow and so, we`ll learn
more then. But the indictment alleges he possessed an unregistered
explosive device, that he was distributing information about explosives,
bombs and weapons of mass destruction. Again, we will have more on that
when we know more but the arrest happened in Idaho today and the court
hearing is due in federal court in Idaho tomorrow.
There was a major bomb attack on American forces in Kabul, in
Afghanistan today. Two U.S. military vehicles were blown up by a roadside
bomb. Sixteen people were killed, including six Americans.
On Capitol Hill today, there were hearings on whether the
authorization to use military force that we enacted as a nation right after
9/11 and is still in force now, there were hearings today about whether
that should stay in force forever -- essentially given whoever the American
president is the ability to wage war on his own without Congress
indefinitely into the future. What could possibly go wrong?
In Maryland today, 2016 presidential hopeful and current Democratic
Maryland Governor Martin O`Malley signed into law new gun reforms for his
state, including an assault weapons ban and ban on high-capacity ammunition
magazines. The antireform side in his state says that they will try to sue
to block that new law but he signed it today.
And there is a lot more that happened. This is kind after very
granular nitty-gritty day of news today.
There were also some new and provocative details on the West, Texas,
fertilizer plant explosion.
Also, new details on the Russian spy arrest.
We`re going to have all of that stuff coming up this hour. NBC`s
Richard Engel is here live as well.
So, that is all to come.
But we are starting tonight in Sichuan province in China. This is a
map of China. Sichuan province is here.
In 2008, you might remember there was an absolutely massive
catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province, whole villages just flattened.
The final death toll from that quake was in order of 70,000 people killed
in a single quake. That was five years ago this week.
It happened not far outside the capital city of Sichuan province,
which was a city called Chengdu. That earthquake was about 50 miles
northwest of the capital city.
That quake was 2008. But then last month, it happened again. Same
fault line. At least we think it was the same fault line. Right there in
the same region. In this case, the quake was within 100 miles of Chengdu,
sort of in the other direction from the city, as you see mark here on the
And while this most recent quake was not as devastating as the mega
one that killed tens of thousands of people five years ago, it was still
big quake. It killed something like 170 people.
So, this is not only an active earthquake region in Sichuan province,
but it`s a place where even very recent quakes have not just large but
deadly. And if you live there, if you live in Chengdu, having just lived
through those big quakes where lots of people died, having seen what quakes
in that region could do, how would you feel about the news that the state
run petro China company was planning to build on that same fault line, a
massive mega petro chemical plant producing 10 million tons of oil and more
than 800,000 tons of ethylene per year.
People who survived the Sichuan province earthquakes over the past
five years are understandably a little bit unnerved by this prospect.
They`re going to build on fault line.
We know at least some people in Sichuan province are disturbed by this
prospect because at least some of them have tried to protest this planned
petrochemical plant. They tried online to organize a protest for last
Saturday in Chengdu, but the security services kept censoring everything
that people had posted about it online.
And then when the protest date rolled around, May 4th, the police
called a surprise earthquake drill for Chengdu. According to a report from
"The Associated Press", police flooded the streets of the cap it will.
Thousands of police for the earthquake drill. Exactly where and when that
protest was supposed to take place.
Then, three days after that, last Tuesday, somebody -- we do not know
who but we know that it`s a woman. We know she lives in Chengdu. We know
that she`s in her late 20s.
An anonymous person with the initials B.Y., we did find that s found a
place to safely post online her protest, her worries, her complaint about
this chemical plant and her request that, please, given the environmental
risk of this plant, please, couldn`t this decision be subject to some sort
of environmental monitoring or evaluation?
And you can see her protest here, her complaint, her worry is posted
here in English but it is kind of broken English. Like at the end it says
thank -- instead of saying thank you.
But the one safe place this one young woman found to post this
grievance, this call for protest, this plea for help, the one place she
found online that she felt safe to post it was the Web site of the White
House. It`s on the petitions part of the White House site, the "we, the
people" thing, that the White House started in 2011, where anybody can post
on any petition you want to, at any subject, and if it gets enough
signatures, the White House will respond.
I mean, it`s strange but it is also kind of moving, right, that
somebody -- even in another country looks to our government, looks to our
government, as a place where they can be safe airing grievances, where they
can safely protest even if they can`t protest safely at home.
What ends up being scary about this is that the young woman who posted
this petition at the White House last Tuesday she never posted her name.
She never posted any identifying information on herself. She just did it
under her initials, anonymously.
But by the end of the week in China, the internal security police were
knocking on her door. Imagine how scary that must be. How did they find
When the police knock on her door she posted on the Chinese version of
Twitter, which is called Weibo, she posted on Weibo, "I will be out to have
some tea. If I should not return in two hours, please report me as
"Associated Press" article about her noting today that -- saying "I`m
going to have some tea is a widely understood euphemism in China for I am
going to be talking to the police." And, obviously, by saying "if I`m not
home in two hours report me missing," she was afraid that she was never
going to come home.
Well, she did come home. She is safe and she`s brave enough to have
done an interview with "The A.P." by instant message, about what just
happened to her, what happened to her after she posted that thing on the
White House Web site.
And that`s brave if you think about it, right? Because she knows that
the police know who she is. They already found her in person and
questioned her. And she is still willing to talk to the press about what
The White House didn`t turn her in to the Chinese police. Maybe you
believe there is some great conspiracy here, but the White House says we
don`t collect any information on who posts things on the White House Web
site. They said they certainly did not hand over that information to
anybody, most especially the Chinese government. But the Chinese police
were able to follow the trail from her to the White House petition and
figure it out.
And when "The A.P." reporter called the Chinese police to get a
comment about what they did, hey, wouldn`t you know it? It turns out that
part of the police has an unlisted phone number. That part of the police
they do not talk to the press.
This is not the first grievance from China that`s ended up getting
posted at our White House Web site. There`s a petition that has a ton of
signatures on it about an unsolved crime in which a Chinese student was
murdered about 18 years ago. There`s another petition now about another
petrochemical plant being built in another city under similar circumstances
in another province. There was actually a street demonstration about that
today in China.
But whatever you think about the individual grievances that Chinese
people are airing through our government, through our White House Web site,
through what we take as almost an online gimmick, it is kind of a bracing
reminder that this is a really important part of what we have to offer the
world as a nation. I mean, yes, we are a big and rich and powerful
country, but we are not the only big country or rich country or powerful
I mean, China`s way bigger than us. We may have the biggest economy
in the world but China has the fastest growing big economy in the world.
If our brute strength is the kind of thing that we think is always going to
set us apart, hey, it`s not always going to set us apart. And for the way
we like to think of ourselves, the real and best things we have to offer
the world, you know, it`s the stupid name for that online gimmick at the
White House Web site.
It`s not brute strength. It`s we, the people. It`s our open
It`s about having a government, having a whole structure in this big
powerful country of ours where we get to air our grievances and seek
redress of our grievances. That really is the best thing that we have to
offer. That is the best thing about us, is the defining thing of us.
And the reason that no other big enduring country has that in exactly
the same way that we do is because it`s really hard to keep, especially
over time. I mean, there is every incentive in the world, there`s every
pressure in the world for whoever hold power to try to stop other people
who have less power from bugging about them, from complaining about them
and exposing what they are doing wrong and demonstrating them against and
making counter-arguments against their arguments, making fun of them.
People in power inexorably want to use the power that they have to
stop other people from bugging them -- universally, across time, across
personality, across geography, across culture. That`s why it`s so
important that our protections against that, our constitutional protections
that keep our government open, that keep our system free, that keep our
press free. Our constitutional protections that protect those things are
so blunt and so obvious and so inarguable.
It`s the clearest thing about us, right? I mean, representative
democracy and free speech. That`s pretty much what it boils down to.
President Obama said today that that is the whole reason he got
involved in politics in the first place.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also live in a
democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of
information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government
accountable and helps our democracy function. And, you know, the whole
reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in that
democracy and that process.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: President Obama speaking today, and he`s right about his own
articulated history. He has been making the case about the importance of
our open government from the very beginning. It was certainly a big part
of why he ran for president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I`ll make our government open and transparent so that anyone
can ensure that our business is the people`s business. And Justice Louis
Brandeis once said, "Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant."
So that`s part of why we`ve had so much trouble is we haven`t invited
the American people to participate in the process. That`s why I always
focus on accountability and transparency in our government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That is how he ran for president. President Obama harkens
back to that today when he got asked at this press conference today about
the fact that his Justice Department, on its own volition, without ever
going to a court monitored all the phone records for two months from "The
Associated Press" D.C. bureau, New York City bureau, Hartford bureau,
congressional bureau and work phones and personal phones and cell phones of
"A.P." reporters and editors.
So, anybody who is trying to air their grievances and hold their
government accountable by talking to that part of the press in April or May
of last year, if any reporter called you as a source from any of those
places over that two-month period, the government has your number and knows
you`ve been talking to the press anonymously.
"The A.P." may have told you that they could protect your anonymity.
They could get your story out without you ever being known to the
government. It turns out they could not make that promise because the
government secretly stepped in of its own volition without ever even asking
a judge and they took a knife to the ability of "The Associated Press" to
do its work, now and in the future, indefinitely. They took a knife to
"The A.P.`s" ability to do journalism.
Any "A.P." reporters who work in those bureaus can now write down any
official story of what if he official tells them is the approved truth to
know about what the government is doing but if anybody wants to speak
anonymously about what the government is unofficially doing because they
think that`s important that that be known in our free society, that in a
really important way now is gone for that part of our press.
And the president today in talking about how much he loves open
government and transparency and how important that is to him an always has
been, he said it in the context of calling for a new media shield law, to
protect reporters from this kind of reach from the government.
A, some of the harm`s already done. B, who knows if we`re going to
get a shield law? It`s good I think that he`s calling for it.
It is important to note though that President Obama is not apologizing
for what the Justice Department did to "The A.P." For reasons that he
feels very comfortable with, this president has been very aggressive in
dealing with leaks, people inside the government talking to the media and
in going after those leakers, he has been willing to ride roughshod over
what the media does.
We`re going to be talking with Richard Engel about the president`s
concerns and the leak in question later on in the show tonight.
You know, maybe this shield law, if we get one, will offer real
protections against this kind of thing that`s just happened to "The
But the other way to protect this important thing about ourselves as a
country and who we consider ourselves to be as a country, the other way to
protect our gold standard free press is to not just depend on the
government to do it -- to do it ourselves, to take care of it ourselves, to
protect the freedom of the press ourselves. That`s now happening in a way
that`s edgy and DIY and live as of yesterday.
The basic idea here is what if there was a way for sources to talk to
the press without there being any possibility of their being found out for
doing that. From the government`s perspective, the dangerous side of that
is that it makes leakers really hard to catch. The beneficial side of that
is that, while investigating leakers, the government will not be able to
trample all over press freedom. It protects leakers but it also protects
the power of the press to do its work.
This new way for sources to talk to the press was created, in part, by
this guy, Aaron Swartz. He was sort after prolific computer programmer and
online activist. He developed some of the most basic ways we use the
Internet today, and some of the most amazing. He helped develop a Web site
you probably heard of called Reddit.
Aaron Swartz`s mission I guess was essentially to give the general
public as much information for free, as humanely possible. His pursuit of
that mission eventually ended in tragedy. In 2011, he was arrested at MIT
for mass downloading academic journals off the school`s server, with the
intent to make those journals available to everybody who wanted them.
The federal government decided to throw the book at him. He was
facing the possibility 35 years in prison. But before he could be brought
to trial on those charges, Aaron Swartz killed himself. This past January,
he was found dead inside his Brooklyn apartment.
But a couple of years before all of that, Aaron Swartz started coding
a system for sources to send information to the press with anonymity. Not
even the reporters on the other side can know where information came from.
That means if the government leans on those reporters, reporters can`t tell
how their sources are because they don`t know. He work on it at the
request of an editor from "Wired" who had grown frustrated by other failed
attempts to set up that kind of information system.
The system Mr. Swartz came up with allows anyone in complete secret --
apparently in complete secret -- to upload data like files or photos or
documents to somebody on the other end. You get a secret account so the
receiver on the other side can try to write you back under your top-secret
name. If you choose to log back in with your top-secret name, you can get
that return message. You reveal more that way about what you have sent or
if you don`t feel safe to do that, you just go away, don`t ever open the
return message. Nobody will ever know your identity. That`s the idea at
least. Anybody can get the system themselves. It is open source. It`s do
And as of yesterday, this kind of amazing thing built by Aaron Swartz
in the last years of his life, it is now live and operating at the Web site
of "The New Yorker" magazine.
Joining us now is the editor of the "New Yorker Magazine`s" Web site,
Nick, it`s good to have you here tonight. Thank you.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON, NEW YORKER MAGAZINE: Pleasure to be here.
MADDOW: I am a user of the online machine but not an expert. And I
bet that I didn`t explain that exactly right.
How does the Strongbox idea work exactly and did I screw any of that
THOMPSON: You have it absolutely right. You can set it up perfectly.
So, the way it works is that it begins with a system called Tor. Tor
is a way of keeping your computer address safe. It`s like if you hand you
a package, in between, I also break up the package and give it to 100
people in between. So, you once you log in into Tor, no one can identify
the computer it initially comes from.
So, the person starts by logging into Tor. And then the file they
want to upload is encrypted. The encrypted file is passed through Tor,
passed through our servers, to us. It`s still encrypted. We that take it
off the machine on to a little flash drive. Then we take it to another
computer that`s not on the hard drive and there, we decrypt it.
So, the whole time from when it passes from you to me, there`s no way
to trace where it came from, it`s encrypted the entire time. By the time
somebody at "The New Yorker" looks at the file, they`re looking at the
computer that`s not connected to the Internet and it doesn`t have a hard
drive. So, there`s kind of an air break between the machine and between
MADDOW: In reading the fine print on what`s posted online right now,
it`s marketed as an as-is market. There are no guarantees and you can`t be
absolutely sure anonymity can`t be protected. Other people have sort of
tried to build things like this in the past but they`ve essentially been
hackable. Haven`t they? There`s been ways to get around the anonymity
protections in previous iterations?
THOMPSON: Right. There has been. One of the things that we did is
to start with Tor, which gives you a lot of extra protection. It makes a
lot harder to use. It`s relatively difficult to use the system. But we
think that the people who are going to give us stuff will make for great
investigative "New Yorker" stories are people who are going to be able to
So, maybe somebody will end up cracking it. I sure hope not. Aaron
Swartz was a fantastic coder, who built in lots of protections. We tested
it. We had various more people try to break it.
So, we feel very confident in it. So, we`ll see.
MADDOW: One of the things that I think in a slightly bigger picture
about leaks and I thought about this around WikiLeaks and some of the
scandal, or at least the controversy there, is that when you get an
anonymously leaked information, as a reporter, as somebody who`s trying to
decide the news value of that, it`s important to know where it came from,
in part because if somebody has an ax to grind, if they`re the person who
is capable, either by circumstance or by experience, of faking that
information to you. It`s hard to verify leaked information.
With no ability to trace back even confidentially, are you worried
that "New Yorker" journalists using this material are themselves a little
THOMPSON: Oh, absolutely. It makes the process of creating a long
story more complicated if you get information you have no idea where it
came from and you have no possibility of figuring out where it came from.
THOMPSON: You know, we can put a mess animal on a bulletin board and
a person with a super secret password or super secret passname as you
describe, will maybe go to the bulletin board and maybe see a message and
maybe write back to us, but we may just have it. Then it`s a hard
editorial choice, we`ll do our best to verify it. If we can`t verify it we
have a whole bunch of other choices to make.
But those are choices that we`ve dealt with before. People mail us
stuff. People have sent us information anonymously before. So, you know,
it creates different journalistic problems, but we`ll figure those out.
MADDOW: Do you expect this will be used by lots of different types of
journalists or even non-journalistic communication? Anybody can use it at
your Web site.
THOMPSON: Anybody can use it in our Web site. And maybe it`s -- when
we first conceived of it I thought it would be people sending us documents.
One of our editors said it would be a great way to communicate with one of
my writers when they`re working in Syria, it would actually be a great way
to get information back and forth.
The code is open source. That`s part of Aaron Swartz`s idealism. So,
other people are going to build their versions of it.
If the White House wants to build a version so people in China, just
as you were saying, can upload information to them in a more secure way,
then great. You know, so we`ll see exactly where this goes, but I hope
we`re going to get a lot of great stories out of this in the next few
MADDOW: Nicholas Thompson, NewYorker.com editor, thank you so much
for helping us understand this.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
MADDOW: I appreciate it.
I will note that on that China story, as the Chinese press and also
some of the American press followed up on that petition from that Chinese
activist being posted at the White House Web site, the White House`s
response was, yes. The White House, we, the people, petition is not only
here, is not only something that we will not help the Chinese police find
anybody through, but it`s open source and available to anybody and we are
happy to provide this code, this means of communicating online to anybody
who wants it.
It is an open source world even if it makes a lot of us ughy.
We`ll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: The Tea Party movement has been
falsely aligned from its inception because it was feared. It was feared
because it was an organic, spontaneous uprising against big government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Oh, it makes me feel like I`m 38 again. Congresswoman
Michele Bachmann still exists, it turns out. And was back front and
center, leading a Tea Party rally again on the steps of the Capitol. Ooh,
After dissolving into the things like the Michele Bachmann for
president campaign and other things that didn`t turn out to much, the Tea
Party movement now wants to be back on the wings of the IRS scandal that
they and other conservative groups got singled out for extra scrutiny in
their applications to the IRS for tax exempt status. That`s a thing that
they naturally think is terrible and not at all the kind of thing that the
IRS should be doing.
The awkwardness of the politics here is that everybody agrees with
them on this, including their nemesis, President Obama himself.
President Obama last night demanded and received the resignation of
the acting commissioner of the IRS. Today, a second top IRS official was
shoved into an early retirement. The second head to roll was the
commissioner of the agency`s tax exemption division.
President Obama has now appointed a new interim IRS commissioner
around it`s likely that the new commissioner`s job will at least for a
while be taken up with responding to the gazillion new investigations that
the IRS is now being subjected to.
The Department of Justice is investigating along with the FBI. The
Senate is investigating. The House is investigating. And that all follows
the initial inspector general investigation -- all looking into the
improper scrutiny that the IRS allegedly gave and seems to have given to
conservative groups who were applying for tax exempt status.
Here is something to watch though. That`s not about that issue of
extra scrutiny and therefore extra delays for these conservative group
singled out on the basis of their apparent ideology. Here is the thing to
watch other than that.
Late last year, the same IRS office in Cincinnati handling
applications from these types of groups, the same office that did the Tea
Party keyword targeting, last year, that same office also released tax
documents about a bunch of political groups to a news gathering operation
called "ProPublica." "ProPublica," is an independent non-profit newsroom
that specializes in investigative reporting.
And last year, "ProPublica" was working on a series of articles on the
relationship between tax exempt status and these supposed social welfare
non-profits that are just political groups. In the course of that
investigative work, "ProPublica" went to the source. They went to the IRS`
office in Cincinnati which was responsible for reviewing applications from
those kinds of groups, and they asked that IRS office for the applications
from a whole bunch of these group. They asked for the applications from 67
different non-profit groups.
For what it`s worth, this was all after the presidential election.
Thee requests came in November 15th. But a couple of weeks after they put
in the request, the IRS responded. And the IRS did not give "ProPublica"
the documentation for all of those 67 groups they asked for, but they did
hand over files from 31 of the groups.
Nine of those 31 applications had not yet been approved by the IRS.
And if the application has not been approved, it`s supposed to be secret.
The IRS is not supposed to release that information to anyone until the
application has go tough the whole process and been approved. If it is
still pending, it`s supposed to be private.
But the IRS sent it out anyway -- which is bad. I mean, maybe it`s an
oops, but even if it`s an oops, regardless, it`s bad. After getting those
nine unapproved applications, "ProPublica" was like, hey, we`re not
supposed to have these! They got in touch with the IRS and said,
essentially, hey, why did you send these to us? Aren`t you not supposed to
do that? These are unapproved applications.
And the IRS responded, "Oh, jeez, you`re right, we shouldn`t have done
that." And we know all this because "ProPublica" posted a detailed article
about it that we have posted to our Web site tonight if you want to check
it out at MaddowBlog.com.
The IRS went on to tell "ProPublica" not only should they not have
sent those applications but there is actually a law against releasing
unauthorized returns. There is a law against exactly what the IRS had
itself just done. They went on to sort of threateningly tell "ProPublica"
this was a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprison of up
to five years or both as if it was "ProPublica`s" fault.
"ProPublica" has made no bones about this all went. They know they
got the documents from the IRS that they were not supposed to have, but it
was the IRS who screwed up here. The IRS sent those documents illegally to
reporters. This is a problem.
What we do not know yet was whether the IRS` bungled handing of
private documents over to "ProPublica" is linked at all to the bigger
scandal here, right, to the IRS improperly scrutinizing conservative
But you know what? Don`t let the right wing, dance off with your
pants off, naked skipping ecstatic accusatory joy over their being an IRS
screw-up distract you from the fact there really was an actual screw-up
here. When Michele Bachmann, it`s easy -- when Michelle Bachmann says it
is easy to believe that categorically, it`s definitely not true. But in
this case, unauthorized disclosures of tax information that was supposed to
be private, that seems to be a real thing and that is the next part of this
MADDOW: NBC`s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is here with
us live tonight in just a moment. That means two things. Two good things.
One, he`s not somewhere terribly dangerous worrying everyone. And two,
he`s got a heck after story for us.
MADDOW: When U.S. forces found the head of al Qaeda in Iraq back in
2006, they reportedly found him by following the man they knew to be his
spiritual advisor when his spiritual advisor paid him a visit.
When U.S. forces found Osama bin Laden they reportedly found him by
figuring out who was working as a courier for bin Laden, and then following
the courier to bin Laden`s house.
When U.S. forces found Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, they reportedly first
tried to find him by putting a tracking device on the luggage of his new
wife. Story`s kind of amazing. It`s detailed in Jeremy Scahill`s new
book, "Dirty Wars." Ultimately, the luggage idea did not work and they
found him by some other means.
As U.S. intelligence and military forces and various kinds of roam the
earth this past decade, hunting down al Qaeda, the means by which they have
found their most wanted al Qaeda targets are varied. They all differ case
But as far as we know, as far as we have been allowed to know, the
process of finding these senior al Qaeda guys and tracking them down has
almost never been by use of double agents. After all these years, after
all these famous cases, you don`t really hear very much about the U.S.,
about the West sneaking somebody inside al Qaeda so that al Qaeda thinks
the guy is a fellow terrorist but really he`s a spy. That has not been the
way this war on al Qaeda has worked in terms of the top level killings.
Mostly that`s not the way it`s worked -- except it did work that way
apparently with this guy. He`s from the al Qaeda group in Yemen. This
time last year, he was killed by a drone strike in Yemen after stepping out
of his vehicle.
That drone reportedly knew where to find him because of a double
agent, because there had been somebody on the inside of al Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula in Yemen who al Qaeda thought was one of them but who was
actually a spy working for the West. Not apparently for the CIA, but for
another Western intelligence service.
The reason that we know that is why the records from 20 phone lines
and "Associated Press" bureaus in D.C. and New York and Hartford and
Congress and all these reporters` personal phones and everything all ended
up in the hands of the Justice Department, even though we supposedly have a
free press in this country and reporters are supposed to be able to talk to
people without the government spying on them while they work.
When it was reported a year ago that a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound
plane had been thwarted in Yemen, one of the details that "The A.P."
reported at the time was that the actual bomb from that plot not only
hadn`t been detonated on that plane, but the actual bomb had ended up in
American hand. It was at the FBI bomb lab at Quantico, being analyzed.
Juicy detail, right? Hey, wait a minute, how did we get the bomb?
It was that detail that led to the ultimate story that this bomb plot
had not just been caught at the gate by an extra good pat-down or
something. The bomb plot had been foiled by a double agent, by somebody on
the inside of that al Qaeda group who al Qaeda thought was one of them but
who was a Western spy who got a hold of the bomb and turned it over in such
a way that it ultimately ended up at the FBI`s lab and whose intel
reportedly led to the drone strike that killed this al Qaeda heavy just a
couple of days later.
The Obama administration taking the phone records of all those phone
lines at "The A.P." is not to get at "The A.P." The wrecking ball that the
seizure of those records takes to "The A.P." as a news agency in this case
is collateral damage.
What the Justice Department is actually trying to find is not anything
interesting about the reporters themselves. What the Justice Department is
trying to find is who in government told the press that that bomb was
sitting at the FBI bomb lab in Quantico. That`s what this whole thing is
Joining us to tell me if I have`s got that right and what this means
is Richard Engel, NBC chief foreign correspondent.
Richard, thank you.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It is good to be
here. It is a very complicated story but you did you get it right, and it
goes back to have investigation.
If I`ll peel it back a little bit. You talked about the foreign
government getting an informant inside of al Qaeda. That is very rare.
Al Qaeda generally doesn`t trust outsiders. It doesn`t -- it is not
the kind of organization you can just show up and join. They know each
other. A lot of al Qaeda members are related.
The U.K. in this case, British intelligence, gets an informant inside
an al Qaeda cell in Yemen. That`s a great accomplishment for them, and an
accomplishment, by the way, which should remain secret. We`ll get to that
in a second.
They get the informant inside. The informant gets in contact with a
bomb and is told that this bomb is going to be used on a flight from the
U.K. to the United States. The informant, like a good informant, informs
his handlers. The handlers, since the U.S. involved, inform the United
That`s all being carried out in secret, as you would expect it. The
United States, learning that there is this threat of a bomb going to be put
on a plane from the U.K. to the United States, alerts security officials --
air marshals, TSA, people who would be concerned about transportation in
MADDOW: We try to harden ourselves as a target, oh, jeez, an attack
ENGEL: We do that, and that you can`t hide. And when increased
security measures are taken and orders are given out publicly, not
classified orders, to increase surveillance of air marshals and things like
that, that`s when reporters start digging.
What`s going on, why are there suddenly all these extra alerts. "The
A.P." started digging. We started digging. Lots of people started
People got different parts of this story. Was there a bomb plot? Did
it go back to Yemen? Yes, it did.
"The A.P." got this piece that not only was there a bomb plot but the
bomb was already in U.S. hand. It was at the lab in Quantico. And "A.P."
ran with that story.
And when it did people started freaking out in the administration.
How did they get this? What did they know?
There was a briefing given by Brennan and he told --
MADDOW: John Brennan, who`s now head of the CIA.
ENGEL: Exactly. Who was -- someone who knows about Yemen,
counterterrorism, and went out to try and also calm some public opinion.
He said, look, yes, this bomb -- there was this plot but the bomb has
always been in our possession.
It was always under our control was the specific word, which means
that there was never a threat that this bomb that was being made in Yemen
was going to blow up an aircraft. That the U.S. or U.S. friends -- because
what was under our control, it wasn`t under our control. It was under the
U.K.`s control but since we`re all friend in this, the U.S. and U.K., it
was under friendly control.
MADDOW: And so, him saying -- I think inside control, too.
MADDOW: Inside control, our control, putting that together with the
detail that we`ve got the bomb in our possession, it`s not a big leap to
come up and there`s got to be a mole.
ENGEL: Well, because -- OK, the bomb was made. The bomb didn`t get
on to any plane. It ended up in a Quantico lab and you have a senior
official saying it was always under our control.
Lots of people at that stage started reporting that -- well, the CIA
has someone inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that was yet
another blow and I think why this became such a big deal. And there is a
big deal here.
MADDOW: Yes, talk about the -- exposing something like this and why
that is so dangerous.
ENGEL: And I don`t think "The A.P." -- "The A.P." is reporting, it
reported something that`s kind of two steps removed. It reported that
there was this bomb that was found and it is at a lab in Quantico. That`s
not exposing the name of the informant or that there is an informant. It
led to a sequence of events that did reveal that information.
But revealing the name of an informant in al Qaeda is a death sentence
for him, for his family. It has dangers for Americans because -- for
anyone really, because let`s say al Qaeda learns that it has an informant
among them. The group could harden its security. You can lose
information. It could decide to change the timing of an attack.
MADDOW: Speed up an attack.
ENGEL: Speed up an attack.
If you think someone is watching you and someone is on to you, you`ve
got a bomb, do it now before the authorities have a chance to catch up.
So, there is real consequences --
MADDOW: And "The A.P." didn`t disclose that, but they disclosed
something that led to that.
ENGEL: Something that led to that.
MADDOW: There can`t be that many people in government who knew that
bomb was sitting in Quantico, but whoever it was who knew that, who talked
about it to the press, that`s what they`re trying to find.
ENGEL: It`s not "The A.P." they`re looking at. They want to know who
MADDOW: They want to know who told --
ENGEL: So, they started -- investigators started looking at Quantico,
did someone there pass this information on? And as far as I know, it
wasn`t somebody there.
They started looking at airport, TSA, and air marshal officials. Did
they have information since that was in the -- part of the chronology? And
as far as I understand, the investigation is still going on and they want
to know who told "A.P." that initial piece of information that ultimately
exposed a very valuable -- the fact that a very valuable source was planted
in al Qaeda.
MADDOW: And the investigation ultimately, because it ends up tapping
all those -- getting the records from all those "A.P." and phone lines ends
up doing huge damage to "The A.P." as an organization, as just one of the
many consequences of this. It`s very dramatic story.
Richard Engel, NBC`s chief foreign correspondent. Thank you for being
both physically here.
ENGEL: Won`t be for long. I`m on my way out of the country soon.
MADDOW: Of course. I`m going to put a tracker on you myself.
ENGEL: Good to see you.
MADDOW: We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: It`s been kind of a busy week, right? Last Friday, amidst a
lot of other news, we reported an update about the West, Texas, fertilizer
plant explosion. That was such an enormous disaster. It killed 15 people,
injured hundreds of people last month, that more than 90-foot crater after
that giant explosion in Texas.
Texas law enforcement officials, we reported, as of Friday, had
launched a criminal investigation into what caused that explosion. And
then, dramatically, within a couple of hours of them launching that
criminal investigation, we also learned that there had been an arrest.
Volunteer paramedic was one of the first responders on-scene at the
explosion had been arrested. He was ultimately charged with possession of
a destructive device, specifically, materials that could be used to
construct a pipe bomb.
And, obviously, the confluence of these two stories happening within a
couple hours of each other is a very provocative thing. Law enforcement
raising the possibility of a criminal act being responsible for setting off
that explosion, and law enforcement argue somebody who had responded to
that explosion, arresting them on charges related to an explosive device.
That confluence is a very provocative dyad.
Obviously, we do not know if there is more of a relationship between
those two stories than the fact that they both have to do with West, Texas.
But now, we do have some more information and it`s really interesting. Law
enforcement officials have told NBC News, that thus far, the ATF has not
found any evidence that it was a bomb that set off last month`s deadly
explosion in Texas.
Today, state and federal investigators said that they would not even
speculate about whether the paramedic charged with possession of a pipe
bomb, whether that has any connection with the plant explosion. They would
not answer any question about the paramedics` case.
But officials did make some really specific announcement. They did
say they have completed their investigation at the site of the explosion,
even as the broader investigation continues. And the Texas fire marshal,
Chris Connealy announced today that the cause of the explosion is
considered right now to be undetermined.
And here is the interesting specific details part of it. State fire
marshals office and the ATF say that they have eliminated these following
causes of what might have set off the explosion.
They say it was not a rekindling of an earlier fire. They say it was
not spontaneous ignition. They say it was not anything related to the
plant`s 480-volt electrical system, which is one of the two electrical
systems in the plant. They say the explosion was not set off by anhydrous
ammonia or by ammonium nitrate. They say it was not set off by somebody
smoking or by something related to weather.
But officials they have not ruled out the following potential causes.
They say it is possible, as yet, that something went wrong with the other
electrical system in the plant, which is 120-volt system. They say also it
is possible they have not ruled out that part of the problem was a golf
cart that was stored in the seed room at the plant. Officials say golf
cart batteries have a history of causing explosions. But they have not
recovered enough pieces of the golf cart in question to eliminate it or to
damn it in this case as a potential cause.
They also say they have not ruled out the possibility that the fire
was set on purpose.
So, the investigation is still ongoing, and ongoing, and ongoing, and
open. The paramedic has pled not guilty, says he has nothing to do with
it. We`ll keep you posted as we learn more. But watch this space.
MADDOW: Chart imitates life.
All right. There was a time in the 2012 presidential election season
when Republicans tried to make the major issue of the presidential
campaign, the defining issue of the campaign, the fact that President Obama
had not been able to cut the deficit in half in his first term.
Remember the big debt clock running at the RNC, right? The president
had said that it was the goal of his first term to cut the deficit in half,
and he did shrink the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, but he
did not cut it in half, which he had said he would try to do. And that
issue, arguably, is the major reason that Republicans picked Paul Ryan to
be their vice presidential nominee in 2012. They wanted to keep the heat
on, on this deficit issue, right?
Paul Ryan was their deficit guy, and that deficit argument, that the
deficit was too big, one of their main arguments against re-electing
We have just received the new estimate of what the deficit is going to
be by the end of this year. This is what the deficit had been up through
last year, so 2009. That`s President Obama`s first year, 2010, 2011, 2012.
Now, show the next year.
This is what they had projected the deficit would be by the end of
this year. But now, that estimate has been revised. They have revised the
projected deficit for this year, and as of now, this is what the new
We have that slide whistle. We have never used it before. Are you
The opportunity cost. Anyway -- as of now, this is what the new
estimate of what the deficit will be by the end of this year.
As you can see, this means that the deficit has shrunk by about $800
billion since President Obama has been in office. This is the fastest
deficit reduction we have had as a country since World War II.
And honestly, that`s kind of terrible. It`s kind of terrible to the
extent that we are working on this stupid deficit issue, spending less
instead of more to put people back to work.
This is the thing that "The New York Times" crunched the numbers on
last week in the big, devastating front page article. They found if we
were not doing what we have been doing to reduce the deficit, we would have
1.5 million more jobs right now. The unemployment would be down a full
point, to 6.5 percent, had we not been doing the stuff to reduce the
Economically, reducing the deficit this much, this is not at all what
we need as a country. But it is what the Republicans said would be their
highest priority -- if they got control of the White House. It was the
thing they said they must most wanted President Obama to do. The thing
they most lambasted him for not doing.
Think they`ll give him any credit now for actually doing it?
That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow night,
where we are going to bring you a very important wig-related story about a
Russian spy that nobody else has reported. It`s going to be really good.
That`s tomorrow night.
But now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL word".
Have a great night.
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