THE THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
May 17, 2013
Guests: Gregory Johnsen
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Happy Friday. Thanks for being with us tonight,
on a day that feel like kind of a news day like only happens in the movies.
The first headlines to cross this morning were about a jewel heist in
France, specifically a specifically at the Cannes Film Festival. Hundreds
of thousands of dollars in jewels, all stolen from a hotel safe. There
were initial reports that the jewels might have been things that movie
stars were planning to wear at the film festival, but now, it seems like
that is maybe less likely.
A professional gang of jewel thieves who are actually known as the
Pink Panthers have hit this area in France in recent years. Police say
they do not think this particular heist looks like the work of the Pink
Panthers but they are not ruling them out yet. And no, that is not my dog.
Then, this evening, also at Cannes, shots of some kind, shots, were
fired during live broadcast at the festival, which sent the audience and
movie stars running for cover. Police arrested a man in position of a fake
grenade and starting pistol. So a thing that looks like a gun and can make
a sound like gunshot, but it does not fire real bullets.
The police initial about the guy they arrested is that he seems to be,
quote, "a crazy guy." Don`t get mad at me for saying crazy. That`s what
the police said in France.
Also today, reports of a video that appears to show the mayor of the
fourth largest city in North America smoking crack. This is a photo
supplied by the people who are selling the video. Gawker.com was the first
source to break the news. Their editor saying he traveled to Toronto after
he was approached to buy the crack-smoking mayor videotape.
The Gawker editor says he did see the tape. He says that he is sure
that it is the mayor in the tape, but he did not buy the tape. The price
was too high but nevertheless he wants you to know it exist.
So, the news is kind of like that today, right? Even before you get
to today`s details in the Silvio Berlusconi trial in Italy where some of
the prostitutes at his parties were allegedly paid to dress up like
President Obama, for whatever reason. Yes, it is just that kind of day in
But in Washington today, it is still scandal o` clock all day long.
And today, we saw the guy who was just forced at the IRS grilled in a
congressional hearing about the tax agency using conservative-sounding
political keywords to single out applicants for special scrutiny. The
inspector general at the Treasury who investigated the scandal in the first
place said today that he did tell two higher ups at Treasury last June that
he was going to be doing this investigation into how the conservative
groups were treated. He told the deputy treasury secretary and he told the
general council at treasury that he was starting this inquiry into whether
conservatives were unfairly singled out. He says he told them he was
starting the inquiry but obviously not what the inquiry had found since he
hadn`t found anything yet because he was just getting started.
Republicans seized on this news today, though, because of the timing.
Saying it is important that there were administration officials outside
just the IRS itself who knew before the election that there was at least a
potential problem with the IRS targeting conservative groups. Shouldn`t
that have been disclosed publicly, couldn`t that become a salient in the
election had the administration disclosed that that investigation was under
way before everybody voted.
So, that`s what happened today in today`s hearing on the IRS scandal.
Don`t worry. In case you missed today`s hearing on the IRS scandal, there
will be many more. There will be endless hearings on this. At least it
The next ones are already scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of next
week. This is the new story that the Republicans and even the Democrats
this time are going to make their obsessive 24-hour a day investigative
reason for living from here on out. And they have time to do that in part
because the other scandal that the Republicans have been obsessing on in
trying to ring for all its worth for months now, has kind of fallen apart
in the last few days.
More specifically, it`s actually just taken a really hard turn in the
past few days. It was this time last week when the Benghazi scandal
finally crossed over into a mainstream concern, right? Instead of just
fuelling all caps exclamation point misspelled fundraising chain mail
letters on the right.
It was this time last week when ABC News finally blew this story wide
open. When I say they blew this story, I mean seriously, they totally blew
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Now to the White House, challenged today
during leadership crisis. A crisis about what the president did on
Benghazi and we`re talking about eight months ago when four Americans died.
ABC`s chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl broke the story
that created a storm today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: You know, he did create a storm. The ABC report on Friday
caused all three network newscast to report on the scandal of Benghazi.
Not just for FOX News any more and talk radio. It`s ABC news and CBS News
and NBC News, it`s all of cable news.
That was Friday. Then, Sunday morning, oh, boy, it was all for Sunday
morning talk shows, ABC and NBC and CBS and "FOX News Sunday" all leading
with Benghazi. Wow, thanks, Jonathan Karl. Thanks, ABC.
Now this is the biggest story in the country because of the damning e-
mails that ABC News said it had obtained.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Saying in an e-mail obtained by ABC --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Obtained, obtained by ABC. This is ending up being the key
point there. An e-mail obtained by ABC. ABC said overtly that they had
obtained these damning White House e-mails. And then in their reporting,
which again blew this whole story into a national mainstream news story for
the first time ever, which has taken a week to even start to dissipate.
ABC printed what they said were direct quotations from these e-mails
that they said they had obtained.
We now know that ABC had not obtained e-mails because the emails they
were supposedly directly quoting from were actually obtained by other
reporters and than published publicly as part after big document dump by
the White House. ABC bizarrely decided to update their story but not
correct it. They decided not to apologize for it or retract this false
thing they published.
What turns out to be the most interesting question in all of this,
besides when the heck is ABC going to correct this, the most interesting
question in all of this turns out to be, well, if ABC was not quoting real
White House e-mails, they said they were quoting real White House e-mails.
They were not. What were they quoting?
And now, it turns out we can piece that together from all of the other
news agencies trying to reverse-engineer this disaster, this false story
that went totally wrong this week. What is now apparent is that the same
cooked up false account of something that was supposedly said and done by
White House officials in the aftermath of Benghazi, that false account was
written by with what various reporters describe as congressional and
Hey, I think I found the actual scandal. This is how NBC put it.
Congressional sources discussed with NBC News a report compiled by House
Republicans that examined a series of e-mails concerning when and how
talking points were crafted about the Benghazi attacks. That itself
congressional sources discussed with news agencies, a report compiled by
That kind of sourcing itself is not a scandal. This becomes a scandal
when we learn subsequently that that report that was given to reporters was
a false report. It made up something that the White House supposedly did,
that the White House did not do.
And they shot that false report to ABC News and ABC News bought it
hook, line and sinker. They published it as an exclusive. And all the
Beltway media, and all the national media and everybody in politics jumped,
because now this finally seemed like a scandal. Oh, that`s what the right
has been so upset about.
But the scandal part of it was this idea that the White House got in
right after the Benghazi attacks happened and started big-footing the whole
process to make sure that State Department would look good. That`s the
scandal. That`s what was supposedly this big bombshell that ABC broke on
Friday, and that scandal that White House weighed in, in the talking
points, to make the State Department look good, that did not happen.
That only happened in the cooked up dossier that Republicans in
Congress wrote themselves, that they said was the work of the White House,
and then they shocked it to the press. And, yes, part of the scandal here
is a press scandal. You know what? When you get used like this and you
publish false information, false quotes, you have to correct it.
But the bigger scandal here is not a process matter. It`s not a press
matter. It is this very stark fact that somebody in Congress right now, or
somebody working for somebody in Congress right now, a staffer, concocted a
big lie to try to make the White House look very desperately bad on this
Benghazi scandal that they otherwise haven`t been able to get traction
Who told the lie? A note to my journalist pals who got involved in
this scandal: if your source lied to you, they are not actually a source.
They are a con artist and you are their victim. It means you don`t have to
protect them any more. They are not a source.
When you get lied to, when you are a tool of somebody else`s
deception, when you get lied to, the person lying to you is no longer a
source. They are news. Their lie to you is itself news. And can you
report that news.
Republican congressional offices shopped a false dossier as if it was
White House`s mails. That is a story. The office and staffers and members
of Congress maybe who did that, that is news. And if you know who it is,
you can say so.
The other thing I would say to my friend in the media on this is that
it is OK to say that you got something wrong. I mean, it sucks it say
you`re wrong. But if you are wrong, it is better to say you`re wrong than
to not say you`re wrong and just hope it all goes away. Look, I can prove
it. It sucks but you can say sorry.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: OK, department of corrections, I made an error on last
night`s show. It is embarrassing. I regret the error.
We have a correction to make.
I had no idea I made this error because I am now an old person.
Correction, I screwed up and I`m sorry.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: It is awful and horrible, but you can just do it. The show
has been on the air almost five years now, knock on wood, right? And in
that time, we`ve gotten some stuff wrong. One of those ones that we just
played a clip from was me screwing up barrels versus gallons when we were
doing a story about oil. That is freaking embarrassing.
I mean, a barrel is really, really big, right? A gallon you can pick
up in one hand. Did I screw up? Yes. I screwed that up, right?
But you know what? You guys screwed up on this Republican-Benghazi
scam ABC thing, you screwed something way bigger than that. You have to
You put it in quotes. It was not a quote. You have to fix it. You
have to correct it.
So that`s the status. That is the state basically of Washington
scandal today. But at times like this in our politics, sometimes it feels
like the individual circumstances of each individual scandal unfolding
through each individual hearing they feel like the individual circumstances
matter less than the overall momentum that comes with Washington, you can
feel it, clicking over into scandal mode, right?
Hold on, we`re going into a tunnel. Things are about to look very
Once you are in scandal mode, it`s like if you have a four wheel drive
vehicle, remember how it used to be? And sometimes it`s still is, in some
vehicles, you have to click over into locked hub four wheel drive low.
Locked hub four wheel drive low is great for getting yourselves out of
really sticky situations, churning through really deep mud of a very slow
If you do actually want to proceed on pavement towards transporting
yourself somewhere, four wheel low is not actually going to get you there.
That`s kind of where we are right now. We`re in scandal mode.
Does the Obama administration have a way to get out of scandal mode?
Or is this essentially indefinite if not permanent now?
Does the Obama administration need to get Washington out of scandal
mode or is there some way in which they might see this as not necessarily
all bad for them.
And has Barack Obama the man, or Barack Obama the politician, even
before he was president, ever been through a period like this in his life?
In his personal or political history, has he ever been through this type of
trial? Does his past tell us anything about what might happen next?
Joining us now is David Axelrod. He is former senior adviser to
President Obama. He`s now director of the Institute of Politics at
University of Chicago, and he`s MSNBC senior political analyst.
Mr. Axelrod, thank you for being here.
DAVID AXELROD, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to be here. I`m
nostalgic listening to these recounting of the week. I`m missing
Washington so much.
MADDOW: Yes, I bet.
Well, you have known President Obama for a long time. You`ve been
with him through his political career. Has he ever been through a very
difficult sort of multifaceted period like this? Personally or
politically, have you seen him through periods like this before?
AXELROD: Oh, yes. In fact, I have experienced with him.
First of all, understand we went through a whole campaign in 2007-
2008., principally 2007 in which the whole Washington establishment was
writing us off as incompetence. Then during the presidency, we have had
When I watched the news this week, I was getting flashbacks to that
week in the spring of 2010 when the oil leak erupted in the Gulf Coast.
And you remember it, Rachel, it was -- the president wasn`t passionate
enough, didn`t move quickly enough, his staff are all a bunch of idiots,
are all a bunch of idiots. He ought to get rid of this them.
This is Obama`s Katrina. It`s the defining event of his presidency.
Will he ever recover from this?
I must say, I don`t think there was one mention of the oil leak during
the whole 2012 campaign.
But Washington tends to get itself into a tizzy and every event is
treated as if it`s the defining event, at least for the number of hours and
days it goes on for, then the town moves on to its next obsession.
And I suspect that that is what`s going to happen here. This will
play out. We will come out of it. And I don`t think any of these things
will have a lasting defining impact.
I think the danger of it is that it eats up time and when you`re in
your second term, every day is precious and trying to get some things done.
And when the town is spinning on these faux scandals, it takes up time.
MADDOW: Is there anything strategically that you think the
administration is likely to do, or ought to be doing to stop burning up so
much time? To try to make sure these periods are sure as possible.
AXELROD: You know, I actually think that they did some smart things
this week. I think, you know, getting those e-mails out quickly this week,
reintroducing the media shield act, acting quickly in terms of dismissing
the director of the Internal Revenue Service and initiating, you know, a
process of review, I think those things are all important, and valuable.
In fact, you know, the thing that is also worth reviewing here is
there are serious issues behind each of these questions. It is just not
what anybody is talking about. There is no doubt that Benghazi was a great
tragedy and a tragic series of missteps and errors that led up to it in
terms of the safety of those people. Nobody ever dismissed that. In fact
the State Department, the review board issued a scathing report on this.
So, the question is, what can we do? Are we going to devout more resources
to protecting the embassy?
The IRS --are we going to examine not just happened and why but how do
you deal with the 501(c)(4)s? These entities that are so hard as to
whether they are political or not? I happen to believe a lot of them are
political. And maybe they don`t warrant the treatment they get from the
Internal Review Service, although that should be examined across the board.
I`ve been pleased to see on "The A.P." story that we now have a lot of
born again defenders of the freedom of the press. We will see if that
carries through to actually voting for a media shield law. If that`s what
comes from this, that will have been positive.
But none of that is being discussed now. It`s -- you know, the
scandal mania is a stride in Washington and that just has to burn itself
MADDOW: In terms of how quickly it will burn itself out and whether
or not new revolutions are going to continue to keep this going on. Today,
it seems like what emerged from the hearing about the IRS scandal was this
idea the inspector general had notified higher-ups at Treasury, so outside
the IRS, at the Treasury agency, that they are looking into this question
about whether conservative groups were mistreatment in the application
process by the IRS. They had known and they knew before election season.
Does that open up you guys from the campaign and the administration to
the charge that you should have let that be publicly known that that
investigation was under way, it might have a really big effect on the
election, because it would have upset people, as we see now?
AXELROD: Well, first of all, speaking for someone who was at the
campaign, I didn`t know anything about that when it was going on. And, you
know, one of the things about this, Rachel, is when you look at how utterly
asinine it was that they were doing what they were doing -- I mean it made
sense from a technical standpoint that, you know, a lot of these
organizations sprung up in the middle of the election, and so it was fair
to surmise that they weren`t really social welfare organizations.
But just from a political standpoint, it was ludicrous to do what they
do. And there is prima facie evidence that nobody political was exercising
any judgment in there.
But in terms of your question, I assume that the people who were told
there were result of the review and people waiting to react on the review.
I don`t know if it would have had a great impact on the election to know
that this was going on. These questions were swirling around. Maybe it
But I suspect it would just energize people who were already energized
to oppose the president. The truth is, you know, as I move around the
country, I don`t know that all of this is kitchen table talk for anybody
out here in America, maybe in Washington. Obviously people are concerned
about manipulation of the IRS for political purposes, if that`s what
But you have an inspector general who testified today that that`s not
what happened. That`s not what he believed happened.
And so you know, I do think that, yes, there will churn. I think
there`s a danger for the Republicans that if they overplay it, a lot of
folks out here for whom this isn`t kitchen table talk will say, when will
they get to stuff that actually matters to us.
AXELROD: When will they deal with something that has consequence in
MADDOW: Weren`t we going to get to immigration this time? Weren`t we
going to get to gun background checks? Weren`t we going to get to and,
and, and, and --
AXELROD: And not to mention the economic issues like the budget.
David Axelrod, former senior advisor to President Obama, now MSNBC
senior political analyst -- thank you for being with us on a Friday, David.
We really appreciate it.
AXELROD: Always nice to be with you, Rachel. Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. Next, I will talk about a man wearing a strange
wig in a completely legitimate news context. Not only because it`s Friday,
but it is Friday of this week and this is when wigs in the news end up
being normal. Yes, that`s next.
MADDOW: This is James Traficant. He was a Democratic politician.
Once a member of Congress from Ohio. He was thrown out of Congress after
he was convicted of taking bribes, false tax returns, racketeering, all
sorts of stuff.
James Traficant is kind of an amazing story for a lot of reasons.
Let`s not beat around the bush here. Let us dispense of (INAUDIBLE).
Obviously, the thing that James Traficant is most remembered for is, oh, my
God, look at his hair, right? I mean, it`s amazing hair. And nobody else
in history has ever had hair like that, except apparently this guy. Tada!
An American named Ryan Fogle, who worked at the American embassy in
Moscow, who was arrested in Moscow earlier this week, apparently while
wearing the world`s most astonishing and ridiculous wig. That picture of
him in a wig is a still picture from the video of Ryan Fogle`s arrest that
was released to the Russian media. They released video both of his arrest
and of an elaborate perp walk that the FSB made him do.
Russians filmed the arrest, they filmed him handcuffed, still sporting
the wig and the hat. They filmed him being escorted into a backseat of a
black car, then they filmed him being taken into a building no longer
wearing his leg but carrying it in hand, and then we eventually see him
waiting to be questioned by the FSB. The FSB is what the KGB used to be
And then at one point in the video, on a table, they lay out on the
table and show us all the spy gear they allegedly caught him with.
Now, here is the thing. This is the long oddly transfixing video that
we got from the Russian earlier last week when they arrested Ryan Fogle.
Now, I want you to watch this. This is n excerpt of a Soviet era
documentary from 1986 showing a CIA operate of named Michael Sellers (ph)
who was arrested and interrogated at KGB headquarters back in `86.
And look at the video side by side. We see both men taken in for
questioning. We see them sitting awkwardly at this table, almost from the
same angle. In both videos, we can`t see the identity of the men can them
and asking them questions.
And then, in both cases, we see this amazing table of spy gear.
Multiple pairs of eye glasses, recording devices, right down to each of
them having a light colored wig that fits into a hat.
This arrest this week in Moscow, this oddly choreographed performed
for the cameras arrest for the supposedly American spy in Moscow this week
is basically an exact replay of the exact thing that Russians did to great
propaganda effect in 1986. I mean, right down to the retro Cold War era
spy gear that they say they caught him with and showed with such pride in
the perp walk video.
I mean, this could mean that the CIA still goes to the same wig store
and buys the same wigs for their spies decade after decade. Or it could
conceivably mean that it is actually the same wig from 1986 that has been
at a filing cabinet at the KGB -- I`m sorry, FSB, ever since. They dug out
the old wig to accomplish the spy versus spy propaganda coup just like it`s
the Cold War all over again.
There are a lot of fishy details about the Russian spy revelations
this week. Obviously, first, there`s the Austin Powers spy kit they
allegedly found on the spy, right? Bad wigs, glasses, a compass, really?
A street atlas, a pocket knife, a lighter, and a spy recruitment letter
that starts with, dear friend, and then offers between $100,000 up to a
million dollars for the supposed target`s cooperation in spying.
Come on. If this supposed American spy was arrested while he was
supposedly going to meet with his target in person, why would he bother
writing down his spy offer on a piece of paper and have it in his pocket so
he would have no denying it if he got caught for any reason?
The weirdness for the spying for money offer is not diminished by the
fact that Russians have just released audio as well. An audiotape they say
is Ryan Fogle making the same weird up front, very expensive cash offer for
spying over the phone.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
MADDOW: Is that real? The truth is, we don`t really know what is
going on. Maybe Ryan Fogle is a real spy and that`s his real wig that he
picked for his spy job.
But consider the timing here. They arrested this guy Monday night.
On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, who the Russian government
hates, he was scheduled to do a Twitter Q&A with the public, ask the
ambassador anything. He was scheduled to do that on Twitter at 2:30 local
And at 2:30 local time on Tuesday, that is exactly when the Russian
government released the news that they had arrested this spy, this guy in
the terrible wig. Hey, here`s the pictures. Here is the video.
"Washington Post" pointed out that timing this week. Then the day
after they announced the arrest, that`s when U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry had his big high profile meeting with his equivalent in the Russian
government with the foreign minister. It`s embarrassing thing to happen
right before the meeting, right?
Then, today, an FSB spokesman ups the ante by reportedly revealing the
identity, revealing name of American CIA station chief in Moscow. Wow!
We do not know if Ryan Fogle is a spy. We do not know if that was his
real spy gear, his real spy wig, or if it was all a plan to make the U.S.
look stupid. We do not know.
Until we know, there is no reason to speculate. But no matter how
this saga resolves, I think we can all agree that James Traficant should
sue to get his hair back. Or at least he should get royalties when they
inevitably make the bad movie out of this.
MADDOW: One of the biggest most public vows that President Obama made
to the public immediately upon taking office in 2009, may actually right
now, be considerably closer to becoming a reality, finally. They said it
couldn`t be done but it is maybe about to be done. And that surprising
story is next.
MADDOW: Hey, it turns out there may be a solution at hand for one of
the things that in the Obama administration everybody said was going to be
impossible to fix. I realize it is totally typical to break this kind of
news late on a Friday night. But it can`t be avoided.
And it is potentially really important. It`s is about the very first
thing that President Obama did when he became president in 2009. His first
official act as president was to sign a directive ordering that off-shore
prison we`ve been maintaining in communist Cuba should be shut down. He
said it should be shut down within a year.
It was the second part to that order though. The president also
ordered at the same time that there be a review of every case of every
prisoner at that prison to determine what should happen to him. Should
they be prosecuted? Should they be set free? Should they be sent home but
sent home to prison? Should they be held on to without trial for a while
longer to pretend they weren`t there and didn`t explain to anybody why the
prison needed to be in Cuba?
Those reviews for every prisoner, those were all ordered by the
president at the same time as part of that very first thing that he did as
a new president.
And it is interesting, since he has been president, not a single new
person has been sent to that prison that we keep in Cuba. There have been
no additional prisoners added. But obviously we have not closed it yet
either. There were 242 people in prison there when President Obama took
There are now 166 men there. Only 9 of the 166 have been charged or
convicted of any crime the rest are in this limbo. This limbo that the
administration says it wants it end.
Of all the guys left there, most of them are from one country. When
we first opened up this prison in Cuba and started sending guys there, a
ton of them were from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia. But almost all of
those folks are gone now. Not all of them, but almost all of them are.
The ones who are left are numerically, mostly, from this place.
There`s 166 guys at Guantanamo, and 88 of them are from the nation of
Yemen. Of those 88 guys, 59 of them have been cleared by that review
process to go home. Just like the Saudis did and just like the Afghans did
and most of all the other people from the other countries heavily
represented at this prison, these guys from Yemen, most of them, were
They were set to start going home in December 2009. Until a guy with
ties to al Qaeda in Yemen tried to bomb an American plane with a bomb
stuffed in his underpants at Christmas time 2009. That put a hold on plans
to send prisoners home to Yemen. That eventually led to congressional de
facto bans on the U.S. government sending anyone to Yemen from Guantanamo.
So, there has been this intractable problem of something President
Obama wanted to get done, he wanted to close this prison. But he has been
stuck with this prison that Congress won`t let him close. He is stuck with
this roster of mostly Yemen prisoners who are mostly cleared to be
released, but he is blocked from releasing them.
And now, a majority of the prisoners at Guantanamo are refusing food
and hunger striking buzz they think there is no end to any of it.
But we now know, at least we can maybe know enough to imagine, how
this might end. At least how some of it might end.
When Attorney General Eric Holder walked into the hearing where he
testified for four solid hours this week on scandal-rama, as the attorney
general was walking into the hearing room, a protester yelled at him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PROTESTER: Mr. Attorney General, when are you going to appoint a
special envoy to Guantanamo? Twenty-nine people are now being force-fed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Mr. Attorney General, when are you going to appoint a special
envoy to Guantanamo?
The attorney general did not answer. They never do. The protester
was eventually thrown out.
But then during the hearing, the attorney general did say this --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: There are steps that the
administration can do, and that we will do, in an attempt to close that
facility. There`s substantial number of people who can for instance be
moved back to Yemen. The president put a hold on that given the situation
going on in Yemen. That is something we have to review. I think the
president indicated we will be taking new action in that regard.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The attorney general there saying, taking renewed action in
that regard. He`s not talking about specifically renewed action about
sending people to Yemen but he did raise sending people to Yemen as
something they are looking at doing maybe soon.
"The L.A. Times" has since pulled that thread from that commentary and
is positing the fact that there is a new government in Yemen now. Might be
what is making this previously undoable thing suddenly maybe doable.
Quote, "Of the 86 prisoners approved by presidential task force four
years ago for transfer of Guantanamo, 59 are Yemeni and this is the
important part, their new government wants them back. Citing the emergence
of a more collaborative leadership under Yemen`s new president, the
country`s officials have been lobbying Washington to return their
So we don`t necessarily want them. They desperately want them. They
have been cleared for release.
Anybody else sensing that something might be conceivably about to
Joining us now is Gregory Johnsen. He`s the author of "The Last
Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and America`s War in Arabia." He`s a Near East
study scholar at Princeton University.
Gregory Johnsen, thanks very much for being here.
GREGORY JOHNSEN, AUTHOR, "THE LAST REFUGE": Thanks so much for having
MADDOW: Why would the new government in Yemen want these guys back?
JOHNSEN: Well, the old government wanted them back. Ali Abdullah
Saleh wanted them back. But Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, the
dictator of Yemen, in power for more than three decades, he knew how
important closing Guantanamo Bay was to President Obama. And he played
politics with it. He essentially held the prisoners ransom a second time
trying to get as much from the Obama administration as he possibly could.
The new government, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen, has
very little domestic base of support. So what he needs is a lot of
international support particularly from the United States, to offset his
lack of domestic support. So what he`s doing is essentially being a very
flexible partner willing to take these off President Obama`s hands.
MADDOW: Is he doing a good job at this diplomacy? Is he asking for
the right things and making his offers the right way?
JOHNSEN: Well, that`s a very interesting point because just last
week, Yemen`s minister for human rights, Hoorya Mashhoor, showed up in
Washington thinking she was going to lobby for the release of these 59
individuals. Her trip was scheduled to be 10 days long. She left after
She didn`t get the meeting she thought she was going to get. She was
very upset with the reaction from the American. She was very upset with
how her own embassy staffed her and she left Washington in a huff.
MADDOW: Wow. Does that mean there is a bigger hurdle to this than we
thought based on the calculations on paper?
JOHNSEN: Well, it`s Guantanamo Bay. There is always a bigger hurdle.
This is something President Obama has been talking about since day two, and
from the first week, this is when AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,
the same week that President Obama signed the legislation saying he was
going to close Guantanamo, this new group shows up with two former
Guantanamo Bay detainees. He tried again at the end of the year, there`s
the underwear bomber.
Every time the president makes a move on this, something from Yemen
comes up, trips him up.
MADDOW: In terms of the objections to sending -- whether or not it is
safe to send former Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared for release
in terms of their raw assessment of dangerousness, however they do that, in
terms of whether or not it is safe to send them to a place like Yemen, can
this government or could the previous government make any meaningful
assurances about that. Is any of that strike you as substantive, or is it
all just politics?
JOHNSEN: Well, a lot of it is politics. And mostly, this has to do
with trust, right?
The Bush administration sent people back it Saudi Arabia because it
trusted the Saudi government. Send people back to Afghanistan because it
trusted in sort of a way, what the Afghan government was.
There hasn`t been that same amount of trust in Yemen. And the real
irony is that the group in Yemen, al Qaeda, the group responsible for the
underwear bombs, these cartridge bombs, that group has former Guantanamo
Bay detainees in it. But they are not Yemenis, they are Saudis.
MADDOW: And why did they end up going to Yemen in order to be
MADDOW: Because they had room to maneuver.
JOHNSEN: Absolutely correct.
MADDOW: Is there anything in terms of what you see as in terms of
operational room to move, a group like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
has there? Is there any chance that there`s got to be meaningful pressure
from them from the domestic government? Will it all be imposed from U.S.,
JSOC and CIA military efforts?
JOHNSEN: That`s a very good question. I mean, right now, the group
is under pressure but most of it comes from drones, most of it comes from
airstrikes. But the Yemeni government right now, we have to remember that
Arab spring that overthrew President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Tunisia, Ben
Ali went into exile, in Egypt, Mubarak goes to prison, and in Libya,
Gadhafi is killed, in Yemen, it`s a different situation.
Ali Abdullah Saleh Sulla didn`t lose, he just stepped down from being
the president. He is still a political figure. And so, there is all of
these tensions, there`s this behind the scenes maneuvering between these
different factions and the Yemeni government doesn`t have complete control
over large portions of the country there right now.
MADDOW: Gregory, I know that you are a Yemen expert. You are not
necessarily a Guantanamo expert. But if you -- if something was able to be
worked out in these 59 guys were shipped from Cuba to home to Yemen, like
the Yemeni government is arguing for, do you think that would essentially
be the key to closing Guantanamo?
JOHNSEN: It would be I think a large step towards closing Guantanamo.
But I think there is a deeper issue here, a bigger issue, and that is
keeping people indefinitely detained outside the legal framework. And so,
President Obama is very clear that he wants to close Guantanamo Bay. But
at the same time, his administration appears to want to continue to
indefinitely detain many members outside of any sort of a legal framework.
And so, you can sort of get away with the -- with sort of the
rhetorical value of closing Guantanamo Bay, while keeping the policies that
underlie it in place. I think that`s the real initiative.
MADDOW: And they say they only want it for a very small number of
people. But if you have extra judicial detention, you`ve got it. It`s
kind of like being a --
JOHNSEN: Right. It`s either/or, yes, absolutely.
MADDOW: Exactly. Gregory Johnsen, it`s great to have you here.
Thank you so much.
JOHNSEN: Thank you.
MADDOW: Been following you from a far for a long time. It`s nice to
have you here.
All right. Gregory Johnsen`s book is called "The Last Refuge: Yemen,
al Qaeda and America`s War in Arabia." If you would like to check it out,
it is linked at Maddowblog.com.
All right. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: So there have been a lot of notable heists recently. Heists
is a fun word to say. For the record, caper also is fun, but sounds like
food. So that`s why we stick with heist.
We`d just barely gotten over the news of the multimillion dollar
diamond heist that took place on the airport tarmac in Belgium. And then
there was the news of the multimillion dollar ATM cash heist in Manhattan
and then more than two dozen other cities.
Then, today, news of the 300,000 euros of jewelry heisted from a motel
room near the Cannes film festival. That was before the weird thing with
the guy shooting blanks with the fake grenade, yes.
Even before today`s news, it has been a particularly heisty news
cycle. If that heisty news cycle has spurred your appetite for legitimate
mysteries in news, we have got one for you.
That`s our closing story tonight. It is really good. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Even a person with very, very good eyesight needs a
magnifying glass to look at this, the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED.
The OED is for people who love the English language so much, you`re willing
to devote to it both serious shelf space and potentially some serious eye
These two volumes here, this is the compact edition, this is the
little one, the one that condenses 20 giant volumes of regular size print
into two volumes of impossible to read print. Now, one of the reasons that
the OED is really important is that it is a historical dictionary that
tells you not only the meaning of the word. It also traces the evolution
of that meaning.
And so, when you look through your magnifying glass at whatever it is
that you`re looking up, you can see it cites for each definition the first
few works of literature in which that word appears. It includes sentences,
poetic lines in which the word appears, so you can see for yourself where
it came from.
Por ejemplo, let`s take the word fringy. According to Oxford English
Dictionary, one of the meanings of the adjective fringy is, quote,
"furnished or adorned with fringe or fringes. Covered with fringes."
And the OED cites a work called Crochet Castle by T.L. Peacock, as the
first example in literature of using the word fringy in that way. So, it
was 1831. All that surrounded their eyes, fringy portals was radiant as
the forehead of the morning sky.
Thank you, Mr. Peacock.
So, it is reasonable to be a dork about the OED. Whatever book you
buy comes with a magnifying glass. It is super fascinating and super
useful. And having those -- you know, here is how it was first used lines,
it is an invaluable resource if you`re really interested in the word.
Now, here is the mystery in today`s news. OED editors, Oxford English
Dictionary editors, have been compiling and refining dictionary citations
since the late 1800s, and they use thousands of sources. But one of the
sources used over and over and over again for dozens of words in the OED,
maybe it doesn`t exist. Maybe it does but they can`t find it anywhere and
has the OED editors stumped.
So, if we`re going to go back to the word fringy, the second
documented use of that word to mean covered with fringes, it`s from this --
an 1852 book called "Meanderings of Memory". The usage was, fluttering as
the mantle`s fringy rim. All in all, 51 citations in the OED come from
this book, this "Meanderings of Memory".
This book is cited all over the Oxford English Dictionary to define
the earliest usage of words like chapelled, cock-a-bondy, which is a type
of fly for fly fishing, couchward, epistle, extemporize, flambeau,
gigantomachy, revirginize, yes, seriously, revirginize, scavage, vermined.,
Whinge is one of my favorites British English words ever. Whinge.
But there`s a slight crisis with that word, whinge, and with all those
other words, as to where it came from. All of those words are sourced to
"Meanderings of Memory". They all reportedly appeared in "Meanderings of
Memory," which presumably was owned by at least one of the earlier editors
of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is why it is all through this book.
But, recently, when modern staff was working on the entry for
revirginize, to render virginal again, to purify or renew, the staffer went
looking for that original source that was referenced in the definition,
recorded in the entry as "Meanderings of Memory" by an author known only as
Nightlark. When the staffer went looking, the book itself turns out is
nowhere to be found.
So, the chief bibliographer for the Oxford English Dictionary took up
the search and again, nothing. Nobody can find the book and there`s not
much in terms of signs of its real existence.
The only sign of its existence that we yet know of is from a book
seller catalog from 1854. That entry says that "Meanderings of Memory"
written and published by a well-known connoisseur. But that`s all we`ve
Fifty-one word are homeless in history. Who is Nightlark, what kind
of book is "Meanderings of Memory" and how come nobody can find it?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary`s chief bibliographer, one
of the operating theories is that the book, it`s embarrassing, the book is
maybe porn. It apparently if it was 1852 era porn, it wouldn`t have been
cataloged in the normal way and would be hard to find. But they really
have no idea.
And so, now, OED is turning to the public for help. They`re putting
out a call to biblio files every to please check your shelves, check the
Google, check the remainder table at the library sale for this really
important and possibly porny, rare book.
Have you ever seen a copy of this book? Can you identify the well
known connoisseur mentioned by the book seller?
You know, it isn`t often dictionary folks come asking us regular
people for help. But when they do, I feel we should help when we can.
Obviously, they really need the help.
So, please, if you know anything about this, if you have anything to
offer, let us know, we will pass it on. That`s your weekend assignment.
That does it for us tonight. We`re going to see you again Monday.
Very close up, now that you`ve been very good and you`ve watched us a
whole hour, now you have to go to prison.
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