Return to Transcripts main page
Trump Says A Small Contingent Of U.S Troops Are In Eastern Syria; How Does The Trump Administration Protect U.S. Interest In Syria?; Mark Esper, U.S. Defense Secretary, Is Interviewed About Withdrawal Of U.S. Forces In Syria; Challenges And Personal Cost Of Whistleblowers; Tom Mueller, Author, "Crisis Of Conscience," Is Interviewed About His New Book; Upholding American Values; Information Wars. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired October 22, 2019 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR. Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We didn't sign up to fight a war to defend the Kurds against a long-standing NATO ally and we certainly didn't
sign up to establish an antonymous Kurdish state.
AMANPOUR: How are you?
ESPER: Fine. Good to see you again.
AMANPOUR: Good to see you again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: My exclusive interview with U.S. defense secretary, Mark Esper, demonstrating new forces here in Saudi Arabia designed to confront Iran
while also coping with terrorist the U.S. seceded to Iran in Syria.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM MUELLER, AUTHOR, "CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE": The people inside those organizations realize I'm the last line of defense. If I don't stand up
and say something, no one will ever know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: In an age of whistleblowers, author, Tom Mueller, discusses their crucial work and the retribution they face.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD STENGEL, AUTHOR, "INFORMATION WARS": This rise of strong men and authoritarians is also accompanied by sophistication of using media and
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Former State Department official, Richard Stengel, on waging war against disinformation.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm in Christiane Amanpour in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where U.S. secretary of defense, Mark Esper, is visiting the
Prince Sultan Air Base amid the deployment of thousands of new troops, which is part of the U.S.-Saudi effort to visibly confront Iran.
And yet, the tumultuous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria benefits Iran's regional ambitions as well as Russia's, and it further cements
Bashar al-Assad's grip on Syria. In the face of widespread and withering criticism, the Trump administration says it could keep a small contingent
of U.S. troops in Eastern Syria.
Meantime, the dramatic abandonment of America's Syrian-Kurd allies is shifting the strategic landscape. The Turkish offenses killing hundreds of
Kurdish civilians and fighters and displacing hundreds of thousands. These scenes tell the story of a people who feel angry and betrayed. Kurds
tossing potatoes at U.S. military vehicles as the Americans pack up and leave.
So, what will happen to them as the brief U.S. broke rapports and hostilities expires tonight? Turkish president, Erdogan, says unless they
have totally withdrawn, he'll resume his crushing offensive.
In an exclusive interview, I asked U.S defense secretary, Mark Esper, what is plan B to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and how does the Trump
administration protect strategic U.S. interests in this region now that it's left the Syrian battlefield to its adversaries.
Secretary Esper, welcome to the program.
MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Thank you, Christiane. Good to be here.
AMANPOUR: Can you tell us, first and foremost, there seems to be some confusion that maybe you can clear up, where are the U.S. forces in Syria
going? The president has said perhaps a contingent could stay in Syria. You said that they were going to be redeployed to Western Iraq. But the
latest news is that the Iraqi command says, welcome to come across the border but only on route out.
AMANPOUR: He doesn't anticipate your troops staying there. So, where will they be?
ESPER: Well, as you know, we're conducting a phased withdrawal, deliberated phased withdraw, from Northeast Syria. It began with the, what
we call, phase one, which was an immediate zone of attack. Now, we're under phase two, which is from the Northeast Corridor, if you will. And
then, eventually, we have other phase that will draw the forces out.
We will temporarily reposition in Iraq pursuant to bringing the troops home. And so, it's just one part of a continuing phase. But eventually,
those troops are going to come home.
AMANPOUR: So, they are coming home?
ESPER: They will come.
AMANPOUR: None will stay in Syria?
ESPER: Well, right now, the president has authorized the -- that some would stay in the southern part of Syria, (INAUDIBLE). And we are looking
maybe from keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oilfields, also, in the middle part of the
country, if you will.
But that needs to be worked out in time. The president hasn't approved that yet. I need to take him options sometime here soon.
AMANPOUR: So --
ESPER: But the bulk of the force would reposition in near Iraq and then eventually go home.
AMANPOUR: So, none of this is clear, first and foremost, and those who might stay might be away from that border, away from the bulk of the ISIS
trouble and securing oilfields from who?
ESPER: Well, I don't talk about securing oil fields as much as I talk about denying ISIS access to the oil fields, so that they can't have
revenue to continue their bad behavior.
And with regard to, you know, the deployment, what I try and do, what my aim is to keep my options open, really keep the president's options open so
as events change on the ground, whether it's up in Northeast Syria or other parts, we have the flexibility to respond to the president's direction.
AMANPOUR: How are you going to have the flexibility to respond to a resurgence of ISIS? And as you know, that is a big concern from inside the
military, from amongst your allies, from many in the president's party back in the United States and analysts and politicians all over the world.
All of these years that you've managed to deny them the ability to pose a serious [13:05:00] threat, they are now open for business again and people
are very, very concerned. In fact, General Petraeus has said, this does not end an endless war, it probably prolongs it because this gives ISIS an
opportunity for a resurgence. This is not a strategic success.
ESPER: Well, let's look at the facts on the ground. Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have of the 11,000 or so detainees
that were in prisons in Northeast Syria, we've only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped.
The SDF, and we remain in contact with them, are maintaining guards over top the prisons they have control of. So, right now, we have not seen this
big prison break that we all expected. So, that's the good news piece.
And then, with regard to the other part, I'll be meeting with my allies, the United States allies in Brussels in the coming days. We're going to
have a specific session on what do we do with the defeat ISIS campaign, now, that's in the new phase, to ensure that we can contain -- maintain
pressure on ISIS so that it doesn't resurge.
AMANPOUR: Golly, Secretary. In a new phase, some would say you have, I don't know, wantonly or willingly ended the success on ISIS. You heard
what General Petraeus just said --
ESPER: Well, the success --
AMANPOUR: -- it's not really a new phase. I mean, the metrics are not about territory, are they? They are about resurgence, regrouping, the
ability to do so. And even before the withdrawal of U.S. forces, many in your military and elsewhere were watching a resurgence.
ESPER: Yes. Well, actually, I --
AMANPOUR: Like watching new cells come to together.
ESPER: I wouldn't classify it as a resurgent. I had not. What I would say is this, is keep in mind why we partnered with the SDF originally going
back to 2014, it was to defeat ISIS. And we ended up destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS as of March this year. And the task then to
make sure we maintain the enduring defeat. And part and parcel, that is making sure that local security, et cetera, can handle that.
So, yes, we are in a new phase of the defeat ISIS campaign. It's to maintain that defeat, maintain that destruction.
AMANPOUR: I'm still confused. The local forces who are making sure that that happened with the SDF and those are the forces who, by withdrawing,
you have allowed to be victims and targets of the Turkish offensive, which is precisely designed to get them out of the way of the area that you've
ESPER: The SDF are still in control of the prisons that are under their control. The Turks have told us they have taken control of the prisons
under which they now have responsibility. And our mission in that area was to train, advise and assist. We weren't guarding prisons up there in that
part of the world.
AMANPOUR: Yes. I mean, as you know, it's not just about prisons, it's about fighting. And the Kurds were on your real on the ground fighting
AMANPOUR: Tragically, about 8 American lives were lost during the fight for ISIS but more than 11,000 Kurdish lives were lost.
ESPER: That's right. And we were their enablers and we were their air force. So, we had mutual interest. The mutual interest was destroying the
physical caliphate of ISIS.
AMANPOUR: Correct. And make sure that ISIS doesn't come back as a fighting force --
ESPER: That's right.
AMANPOUR: -- which people are worried that they will right now, including members of the Pentagon.
ESPER: And we're all focused on that, is to make sure we understand as we enter the new phase how do we continue that enduring defeat of ISIS.
AMANPOUR: I'm having trouble with the word "enduring." But let me ask you first, you say you're going to NATO to talk to allies.
AMANPOUR: Allies are actually quite shocked. And I would be interested to know what they say to you because those were your allies, the Kurdish
forces on the ground. And they, right now, feel utterly betrayed.
You've seen these terrible tragic pictures. I'm sure no secretary of defense wants to see their allies throwing rocks and rotten fruit at
retreating American forces calling them liars and saying that they have betrayed them. I wonder what your -- how do you feel when you see that?
ESPER: Well, here is what the allies have said, publicly and privately. We all condemn what President Erdogan of Turkey that has done. We all
opposed it. That is this irresponsible incursion into Northern Syria that has upset what had been happening on the ground successfully.
And so, everybody opposes that. We're going to talk specifically about that as well in the context of what is next with regard to defeat ISIS. So
that's, I think, where we will begin at that point right there.
AMANPOUR: I guess I'm asking you how does it feel to see your allies react to what they believe is a betrayal, throwing rotten fruit at you? How do
you react to Russian forces, and we have pictures of them, marching nonchalantly into the abandoned U.S. bases?
ESPER: So, I think you have to go back to the original reason why we partnered with the SDF is going back to the Obama administration carried
through into the Trump administration. The fate of ISIS which resulted in the physical destruction of the caliphate.
We didn't sign up to fight a war, to defend the Kurds against the long- standing NATO ally and we certainly didn't sign up to help them establish an antonymous Kurdish state. That was the conflict that the Turks put us
in between. An advancing Turkish army opposed by the Kurds, at least elements of the SDF, and at the same time, you had Syrian and Russian
forces moving in. That's not the position which we want our young American service-members to be in.
AMANPOUR: There's so some many bits and bobs to ask you about. But first and foremost, the 120-hour of cessation of hostility [13:10:00], it's not a
AMANPOUR: As you know better than I do. It's not a formal ceasefire, it's a pause. And the president of Turkey has said that they're going to wait
to see. I'm going to play this little sound bite.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKISH PRESIDENT (through translator): That if these promises are not realized, as soon as the 120 hours are over, our
operation of peace spring will continue more rapidly than before.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And he has actually said furthermore, "We will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists' heads." Now, he's talking
about the SDF, the Kurds. What do you make of that?
ESPER: Well, again, we would call upon President Erdogan to be more responsible, to act prudently. What we've seen, with the reporting I've
heard in the last, at least, previous 24 hours, is that the ceasefire is largely holding. There is some skirmishing here and there but when --
AMANPOUR: But it expires tonight.
ESPER: It does. But we are getting reports that the SDF are making good faith efforts to withdraw from the area in time. And I think, if they need
a little bit more time, should be giving a little bit more time.
I think at the end of the day, what we've called upon is for there to be a ceasefire and that we reach a political agreement, a settlement between the
parties that can be enduring.
AMANPOUR: Can I just read you a couple of things? I asked you as a military man, you're a fighting soldier. You've done this for your country
and, actually, to protect Saudi Arabia from invasion --
AMANPOUR: -- of Saddam Hussein, potentially, and that was in -- nearly 30 years ago. There are a lot of U.S. forcers, your brave special forces, who
are telling "Fox News," that's an ally of President Trump's. We're not talking about anybody else, "Fox News," that they feel ashamed. That they
have felt really wounded to see their allies who they fought alongside with betrayed in this way.
We see an army captain who has talked to the "New York Times" and basically, he said, I joined the army to prevent genocide not pave the way
for it. We've even seen the head of the Senate Republicans, that's the Senate majority, Mitch McConnell, write a very, very pointed op-ed in which
he said, "The combination of the U.S. pullback in the escalating of the Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our
Even the five-day ceasefire announced Thursdays holds, if it does, events of the past week have set back the United States campaign against the
Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat," he calls it a retreat, "will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iran
backers to expand their influence. And we're ignoring Russia's efforts to leverage its increasing dominant position in Syria to amass power and
influence throughout the Middle East and beyond."
As secretary of defense of the United States, how do you respond to that?
ESPER: Look, I understand the sentiments of the soldiers on the ground who have fought side by side with the Kurds. The Kurds have been our good
partners in defeating ISIS. There is a certain bond that happens in combat when you're -- with fellow soldiers of any country.
As you said, I experienced it during my time here in the Gulf War. I understand that. But at the end of the day, when you get up to the 30,000
foot level, the strategic level, you got to ask yourselves, at the time that President Erdogan decided to cross that border, very clearly, that he
was going to make that move, I had a responsibility to make sure that our soldiers weren't put in harms' way, trapped between a 15,000-man plus army
and SDF forces from the south, and eventually, Russians and Syrians.
So, I took, with the recommendation of the chairman of joint chief of staff, we recommended that those troops be withdrawn. And eventually, the
rest of the force would be withdrawn.
I think the broader strategic context is this, look, it's no surprise that President Trump said coming into office as he campaigned that he wanted to
bring American soldiers, service-members home as much as he can and to end the endless wars, in his words. And so, this is part and parcel of that
and it should come at no surprise to anybody.
AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you a personal question?
AMANPOUR: Well, a professional question. Were you on the phone call that President Trump had with President Erdogan? Did you know what was being
discussed between the two presidents in the hours before the Turks launched their offensive into Syria?
ESPER: Sure. And I listened into the phone call, of course. But my experience with that --
AMANPOUR: So, you knew --
ESPER: Well, I --
AMANPOUR: -- what was being discussed?
ESPER: yes, absolutely. But my experience goes back to when I came into office in late July. So, two months or so into it. Probably the one issue
that dominated my time more than anything else was working my counterpart, the defense minister of Turkey, trying to build this safe zone, this
security mechanism by which we would do joint patrolling with the Turks to keep a buffer zone between Turkey and the SDF.
And we thought it was going well. We had established a joint operation center in Southern Turkey, we were doing ground patrols and air patrols, we
got the SDF to agree to back up a little bit. And I guess, at some point, the Turks decided it's not moving fast enough, it's not comprehensive
enough, whatever the case may be. But we saw the pressure building despite our efforts and --
AMANPOUR: Pressure from the Turks?
ESPER: From the Turks. And it was just days before when President Erdogan called President Trump that the minister told me that, look, we're going to
be coming across. We'll give you [13:15:00] a heads up. And when Erdogan spoke to President Trump, he confirmed that and notified us that that was
AMANPOUR: So, Mitt Romney, as you know, senator from Utah, "What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain on the annals of American
history. Was there no chance for diplomacy?" he asked. "Are we so weak and inapt diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States
of America." Turkey, he said. And you've just said pretty much that that's exactly what happened.
ESPER: Well, look, Turkey is a long-standing NATO ally. We're not going to war against a NATO ally and certainly not over across a -- with regard
to a border that we didn't sign up to defend in the first place. We got to go back to our primary mission, defeat ISIS.
AMANPOUR: Right. So, you had just said that you were doing a good job and most people thought you were doing a good job.
ESPER: Well, everybody except the Turks, that we were doing a good job.
AMANPOUR: Right. Bizarrely, because you were keeping ISIS down and you were a buffer force.
AMANPOUR: Is that correct?
ESPER: Well, no, I meant in the context of the -- the Turkish government do not feel we were doing --
AMANPOUR: I understand.
ESPER: -- a good enough or fast enough job with regard to building the safe zone.
AMANPOUR: Right. OK. But strategically, in terms of defeating ISIS, that was a successful buffer zone that had taken, you know, a good five to six
ESPER: Well, again, that buffer zone is not related --
AMANPOUR: All right.
ESPER: -- to the defeat of ISIS.
AMANPOUR: Fine. They were buffer forces, would you say?
ESPER: There was a -- it was a -- we were trying to build a safe zone between the Turks and the SDF.
AMANPOUR: That I understand.
AMANPOUR: But to keep down ISIS, you were doing quite a good job there?
ESPER: Yes. That's right.
AMANPOUR: Fine. The president has said, and of course, it's within his right and the right of any president to want to end "endless wars and bring
AMANPOUR: But you know, again, much better that I do that America is full of buffer troops in many parts of the world where wars have ended in order
to prevent a reemergence of hostilities --
AMANPOUR: - whether it's between North and South Korea, whether it's in Europe, and now, with the revanchist Russia, whether it's elsewhere in the
ESPER: And that's one of the challenges I face as secretary of defense, trying to implement our new national defense strategy is how do I
reposition our forces to deal with the threats of the coming decades, which is China, number one, and Russia at number two.
As I look around the globe, I see our forces tied down in multiple locations. Maybe if you step back, you'd see American forces easily in 80
or 90 countries around the world. You see we have legal obligations to help defend dozens of countries, and we will honor those.
But what I have to do is think about how do I reallocate, reposition my forces. And in some cases, substitute them with other countries so that I
can free them up to deal with China again, our principle strategic competitor, in the next few decades.
AMANPOUR: Again, of course, you know, ever since 9/11, radical terrorists from this part of the world have been the principle threat. Your action
against ISIS are -- were successful.
AMANPOUR: And now, nobody knows what is going to happen next and whether it's unleashed another potential pandora's box. But --
ESPER: But the global fight against ISIS though is not just isolated to this -- to Syria, right. We are fighting ISIS on a day-by-day basis
everywhere from Northern Africa all the way into Afghanistan where I just was two days ago getting an update on our fight there. ISIS is throughout
the region and our goal is to stay on top of that so that they don't reemerge or resurge --
AMANPOUR: Yes. So --
ESPER: -- in a way that could threaten the homeland.
AMANPOUR: Exactly. My question is how -- I mean, you have already quietly removed several thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan. There's still no
peace there. No deal with the Taliban. You are here in Saudi Arabia and we're here in this hangar and you have got patriot batteries and you've got
several thousand troops redeploying here.
Actually, speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, asked the president, well, you say you want to bring them home. Is Saudi Arabia home, Mr. President?
I don't know. Is Saudi Arabia home?
ESPER: Very different situations. In this case, what we're trying to do is prevent a regional conflagration initiated by Iran against many of our
long-standing partners. We've been partners with Saudi Arabia now for 70- plus years.
As you said, my war was the Gulf War. I spent seven or eight months in this country helping defend in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, right? So,
what -- while I deployed additional forces here was to help enable the defense of Saudi Arabia, deter the Iranians because what we don't want is
the Iranians taking actions that ends up in an escalatory fight that we end up with another regional conflict. Nobody wants that.
So, I think the differences, if you're trying to make them, between the deployment of additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the withdrawal of some
forces out of Northeast Syria are two different, very dramatically different.
AMANPOUR: You will forgive people for being quite bewildered, especially people at home who are saying, OK, hang on a second. You are moving the
American forces and allowing the territory to be taken by Iranians and Russians and Assad and all the rest of it in Syria. And yet, you're
bringing some here to try to, whatever, confront Iranian forces here.
How does one deploy for a specific reason here while remove and essentially help the Iranians and the Russians and Assad there? That's confusing.
ESPER: Well, I guess I disagree with your premise. If you look at most of the key players in -- that are in Syria right now, the Turks, the Syrians
and Russian, us, there's no --
ESPER: -- there is no love for ISIS, [13:20:00] all oppose ISIS, all want to see the continued defeat of ISIS, first of all. Secondly --
AMANPOUR: But they have territory now. We see the Russians walking into your --
ESPER: The Russians have a lot of territory in Syria.
AMANPOUR: And the Iranians are there too. This is your big enemy.
ESPER: Beginning as early as 2012 or 2013, whenever they moved in --
AMANPOUR: What about the Iranians?
ESPER: Well, look, this is the point, the key thing with the Iranians is we -- because the maximum pressure campaign, the Iranians, at the point,
they appear very desperate and would be willing, we assessed, to start a fight in this region. We saw the September 14th Aramco attacks. We
believe was a responsibility of Iran. Other countries, European countries have said the same, that they, for the first ever struck Saudi Arabia in a
state on state conflict.
And so, what we're trying to do is prevent a growing -- prevent a conflict in this region from growing into something that would --
AMANPOUR: Yes. Again --
ESPER: -- really destroy the region.
AMANPOUR: I understand. Again, as you know, many of the president's own party officials in the United States, plus military, feel that this is
opening a territory to Iranian influence in this region. But anyway, we've talked about that.
I want to ask you, lastly, about war crimes. There are some horrendous reports of --
AMANPOUR: -- extrajudicial killings by those associated with the Turkish offensive, whether they are Syrian --
AMANPOUR: -- Turkish militias or whatever. You've had the "New York Times" expert on this, Rukmini Callimachi, who is actually cordial about
this. "To grasp the extent of the crimes, the Arab militias fighting for Turkey are carrying out in Syria, read the autopsy on the Kurdish
politician executed a few days ago. Her leg and jaw were broken. She was dragged by her hair until the skin of her scalp came out and repeatedly
The report -- and we have the autopsy here. It's pretty devastating. And we're hearing that there's some fear on concern amongst elements in the
Pentagon and others that who knows, you know, the Pentagon, the United States may be liable for allowing this offensive for standing by, for
talking about it.
We understand that white phosphorus has been used --
AMANPOUR: -- against fighters and civilians. We've seen terrible pictures. What do you say to that? How do you protect your troops --
AMANPOUR: -- from those kinds of future allegations?
ESPER: Well, first things first, we didn't allow this offensive to happen. Turkey made this strategic decision to conduct this incursion despite our
opposition. That's number one. Number two, I've seen the reports as well, we're trying to monitor, and they are horrible, and if accurate. And I
assume that they are accurate, they would be war crimes, as best as I know the law of land warfare.
So, I think all those needed to be followed up on. I think those responsible should be held accountable. In many cases, it would be the
Government of Turkey should be held accountable for this because we cannot allow those things to happen.
AMANPOUR: Do you agree with what the president just said, is that these are just two forces who don't like each other, they're in the sandbox and
as if they're in the playground, let them have at it together?
ESPER: Well, look, this is a conflict whose roots go back over 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds, and they've been fighting now since, what,
the early 1980s. So, I think that's one of our concerns is, what do we -- why do we need to be in the middle of this conflict that has gone on for so
AMANPOUR: But that might constitute sitting back, it might constitute talking about it without doing anything to stop it.
ESPER: Well, I don't think that's the case. Certainly, we would welcome an international, you know, discussion about this to try and resolve it
peacefully but we got to get to the core of the problem. And the core of the problem is extensive, it goes back, like I said, many years between
these -- between the Turks and the Kurds.
And, I mean, you've probably reported on this in the past, as well. You know it better than I do.
AMANPOUR: In fact, right after the first Gulf War, you saw what happened, then President Bush urged them to rise up against Saddam Hussein and they
then had to flee Saddam Hussein's offensive because nobody came to their aid. These are difficult days.
Secretary Esper, thank you for joining me.
ESPER: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: President Trump faces the fury of his own party over Syria just as he needs their support during the impeachment inquiry. Even a key ally
of his tells me it's a mortal threat to his presidency, after unnamed officials blew the whistle on his phone call with the Ukrainian president,
Tom Mueller, no relation to Bob Mueller, is a "New York Times" bestselling author who spent years studying the complex relationship between
whistleblowers and society.
His new book "Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud " is a timely reminder of the challenges and the personal cost to those who dare
tell the truth. And he sits down with our Michel Martin to talk about what why this is ultimately about upholding American values.
MICHEL MARTIN, CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: Tom Mueller, thank you so much for joining us.
TOM MUELLER, AUTHOR, "CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE": Thank you, Michel. It's good to be here.
MARTIN: You say pretty early in the book that this is the age of the whistleblower. Starting in the late 1960s, this vital figure has emerged.
And you say in the past five years alone people have disclosed the Cambridge Analytica, the use of Facebook data to help interfere with our
shape elections, you've talked about, you know, the toxic levels of lead in Flint, Michigan's drinking water, abuses and delays in the Veterans
I mean, it goes on and on and on.
Why is this the age of the whistleblower in your view?
MUELLER: I think that our organizations, both public and private, have accepted or built a wall of secrecy around them and a wall of impunity
around them, which leaves whistleblowers as the last line of defense.
And the same time, regulators, investigative reporters and others who, in the past, had been this sort of -- you know, the watchdogs have been sent
home, euthanized, muzzled. And the internal people with a conscience, the people inside the organizations realize, I'm the last line of defense. If
I don't stand up and say something, no one will ever know.
MARTIN: Tell me about the case that opens the book of Allen Jones.
MUELLER: Allen Jones was an investigator at the inspector general of the State of Pennsylvania. And his job was to investigate fraud. He
discovered that the state pharmacist was receiving checks from pharmaceutical companies and depositing them in an unmarked account. So,
he started investigating more and he started questioning, why are these pharmaceutical companies paying this chief pharmacist?
And the answer was, a multibillion fraud scheme across more than 20 states in which Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies were
corrupting the Medicare and Medicaid establishments in these states in order to push their antipsychotic drugs as the number one choice for a
range of elements, many of which the FDA specifically said do not use on children, do not use on elders.
First of all, his own office, the inspector general's office in Pennsylvania treats him as a whistleblower and tells him, back off the
case, Allen. These people are very power politically. Just treat it as an employment matter and move on. And he was not good with that. He's out of
a job now. He's living in a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania. He has only enough money for propane and only just that and spare tires for his
And he starts looking for somewhere to use this magical law, basically the False Claims Act. This law that allows you as an individual citizen to
become a private attorney general. He finally finds it in Texas. He brings suit in Texas and he wins $166 million settlement against Johnson &
Johnson. And later a $2.2 billion settlement is reached by the government against Johnson & Johnson.
He wins on paper but Allen has told me, everyone that turned against me and all of the actual sufferers of the crime who didn't get retribution didn't
get justice. He feels like the world really turned against him and that he finds it very difficult to trust anyone again.
MARTIN: There are those who think that whistleblowers come forward for the money because under the federal law, they get a percentage of the
settlement, if there is one. Do you find that to be a motivation?
MUELLER: Allen Jones didn't even know about the money until after he brought the lawsuit. And his lawyers told him, oh, by the way, there's is
a bounty in this, almost invariably. And then scholarship shows this very clearly. Whistleblowers go within their organization, first. They report
it internally, they try to fix the problem. And their loyalty is to their greater organization.
So often they say, I'm really proud of my bank or my hospital. I really want this to work and just I wanted to fix this the problem which would
have made us look terrible. They don't realize that their bosses are actually treating this as a feature and not a bug. I mean, the fraud is
part of the model here. And only after they're fired do they start saying, whoa, what just happened?
MARTIN: Most of these people experience like vicious retaliation. I mean, you're talking about, you know, being stripped of your authorities, being
put into offices next to the bathroom. Like, intentionally sort of humiliating. Tell me more about that.
MUELLER: There's almost a playbook for how you retaliate against whistleblowers. And it goes through a serious of ritual humiliations that
you do in public, in front of your coworkers. You know, you're marched out by a security guard, you are ritually stripped of your security clearances,
you are, again, placed downstairs in the basement next to a loud photocopier, you're stripped of all of your -- you know, your symbols of
authority. And that tells you you've done horribly wrong but it also tells your officemates, anyone else who speaks up, this is going to be you next.
MARTIN: Why don't they just fire them though? I mean, why do they go through all of that? Why don't they say, I don't like what you're saying,
you got to go? Why don't they?
MUELLER: They need to send a message. They need to send a message to that person but also to every else, don't speak up. Get with the program. And
after they leave, quite often, they're put under surveillance. What are they doing? And there are private investigators lurking around their
houses. They get death threats at night. They get lawsuits, lap lawsuits. I mean, these can be devastating for people.
But the kinds of retaliation we're talking about, quite often, cause them to lose their marriages, lose their houses, they can't work anymore. One
of the most devastating things they're blackballed in their organization and in their industries.
MARTIN: In their industry. Give an example of that, if you would.
MUELLER: Donna Bushy and Walt Tamasitis (ph) were two -- are two extremely well prepared nuclear engineers. They helped to avert a potential massive
nuclear disaster in Washington State. They did everything they could internally to raise the question because they were good, loyal employees
and they thought this is, you know, my duty to my company, to help to prevent this.
But ultimately, they said no, my real duty is to prevent a massive nuclear disaster. They did all the right things. They went through channels.
Then they went outside channels. They went to the press. They filed lawsuits.
And for their good offices, how are they thanked? They are ritually humiliated by their organization. They're blackballed in the industry.
They will never work again. What does that tell you about an industry that prides itself on protecting, you know, the U.S. population from nuclear
disasters? That's very disturbing to me.
MARTIN: And what was the stated reason at the institution gave for treating them that way?
MUELLER: Well, they were considered to be disgruntled employees or considered to be potential security risks because they questioned the
messages of the organization.
MARTIN: Because they went to the press, ultimately?
MARTIN: When internally their information was not received and acted upon, so they went to the press. They then became the enemy.
MUELLER: Precisely. Almost a spy. I mean, the nuclear industry is very definitely sealed under the cold war secrecy umbrella. But, you know,
ultimately it challenged their bosses and they challenged their corporations.
MARTIN: As as we are speaking now, you know, the Trump administration, the president, in particular, is extremely upset about the people who raised
questions about the phone call that he had with the president of Ukraine. I mean he's used those words "spy", "treason." Some of the people around
him have used those words.
You were working on this book long before the administration took office. What is your reaction to the way the administration is responding to this
MUELLER: Well, Donald Trump and his allies are taking a page out of the whistleblower retaliation handbook. This is whistleblower 101 retaliation.
You shift the attention of the general public from the message that this person is bringing forward. The facts in the nine page was a complaint
that they brought to the messenger and questioned their motives, their loyalty, what are they actually doing? What is the deep state question?
All of these things are distractions from the facts. What we need to do is refocus on what is in that document and what will that person say under
testimony? What will the other 12 people he referenced in the document say when they're called before Congress?
This is a road map for finding out facts. No one is going to take their word for it. And ultimately we really don't care what's in their heart.
We care what facts they deliver to Congress.
MARTIN: But what do you say to the Republicans, for example, who are now complaining about the lack of transparency? I mean, the Democrats are
taking extraordinary steps to protect the identity of the whistleblower or whistleblowers.
And they are -- I mean this is necessary to protect both classified information and to protect these people from retaliation. Republicans are
complaining bitterly that there's a lack of transparency and due process and this is unfair.
Based on your sort of deep dive into this topic, what do you say about that?
MUELLER: Well, first of all, the law guarantees anonymity. This person came forward on unguaranteed of anonymity. So this whole, you know, meet
me in the OK corral, I demand to know my accusers. That's whole rhetoric. That's really asking people to break the law.
And second of all, it's absolutely fundamental to protect this person's identity. Because we've heard what Trump himself have said. You know,
back in the old days, we used to know how to deal with spies.
So I would be very very worried as this anonymous whistleblower to have my cover blown. And when we have Republican senators saying this is
illegitimate, I will out them. This is an extraordinary -- this flies in the face of the law. This is illegality.
This person was guaranteed an anonymity and they should have it for very very good reasons that have to do with their safety.
MARTIN: What about the Obama administration? I mean you never heard the Obama administration like trashing whistleblowers in public.
But you make the case in your book that they were -- what would be the word you'd used? Sort of equally disdainful of whistleblowers and, in fact,
tried to retaliate against them. Talk about that if you would.
MUELLER: I would use the word punitive. And particularly in the national security space.
One of the critical promises that Obama made was government transparency. And he was quite supportive on the corporate whistleblower front.
When it comes to whistleblowers within the government, however, Obama has - - will go down in history as one of the worst administrations ever.
MARTIN: Tell me why you say that?
MUELLER: Because, his DOJ created the tools that now Trump is using to go after whistleblowers and after journalists who take whistleblower
MARTIN: Tell me more about that
MUELLER: Well, this is absolutely critical to know that when you bring classified information to the press, you are breaking a law. Okay. And
you're breaking regulations within your organization, whether CIA or NSA.
But the public, the public interest is a balancing act. If you are bringing -- if you're Daniel Ellsberg and you're bringing out the Pentagon
papers which are top secret but you helped stop the Vietnam War, you have just done an enormous service to the American public.
Today in court, as a whistleblower under the Espionage Act, you cannot talk about public defense. There's no public defense motivation that you can
bring up that says, look, I did what I did because I wanted to save the American public from a war, from being spied on, from being a party to
torture, to being a party to black operations and abduction of individuals.
All of these things have really brought our country to a terrible place. Well, guess what, George W. Bush and company founded those things but then
Obama and his department of justice normalized them. And when he went after -- he and Eric Holder and the department of justice, went after
national security whistleblowers, they went after it with an extraordinary venom and extraordinary blunt force of the Espionage Act which is a 1917
act for spies.
MARTIN: And when you say that, what do you mean? You mean going after reporters, trying to prosecute reporters? Is that what you mean?
MUELLER: That's the knock on effect. Well, first of all, we're going to put these people in jail for doing things.
MARTIN: But did they actually put people in jail? That is the question.
MUELLER: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I mean, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou.
We're talking about people who reported gross fraud and abuse. We're talking about people who reported torture. We're talking about -- you
know, Reality Winner, she's in jail now.
These are very very important issues. Not to be able to explain why you did what you did to the court of law is for me, one of the ultimate
MARTIN: But couldn't the argument -- would the argument be that whistleblowers are trying to contravene policy. They're unelected and that
they're trying to contravene policies made and implemented by elected officials.
You've cite the example of the Vietnam War but the Vietnam War had a very deep stem. It was not sort of an act of wrongdoing by one individual. It
was a collective decision under taken by elected policy holders who are accountable to the public in that way.
So what do you say to those who argue, as I think the Trump administration is now, that these are unelected individuals who are trying to contravene
the policy imparities of people who were elected? What do you say?
MUELLER: The national security was supposed to bringing forward issues that are fundamental to our republic, fundamental to our democracy. We're
talking about warrantless wiretapping. We're talking about are we good with torture, are we good with illegal wars? Are we good with drone war
These are issues that are not just a matter of policy. They're a matter that these whistleblowers say the American public should be deciding about
this, the American public has a right to know about this.
I can see my administration. No administration is going to bring this up. We're not going to confront this. I need for the American public to know.
MARTIN: So like Edward Snowden, the warrantless surveillance strategies.
MUELLER: Precisely. Precisely.
MARTIN: I mean the fact is we also have a tradition of civil disobedience in this country. But part of that traditional civil disobedience is you
subject yourself to the whatever the society deems appropriate even if it's punitive in order to make your case.
I mean that's what Martin Luther King did. That's what other people who have engaged in civil disobedience have done. Should he come back and
subject himself to a process by which the public can judge whether he was right or wrong?
MUELLER: Right now, Edward Snowden coming back will not get a fair trial. He will be tried under a 1917 draconian Espionage Act which has one
purpose, to shut people down and to eliminate discourse about critical matters of our democracy.
MARTIN: In your reporting, whistleblowers generally don't have a political motivation, per se. They have what, an orientation toward the public good
as they understand it?
MUELLER: These are people who really believe in the public good. And they see past the can't of their organization, whether it's a government agency
or a private company and say I'm serving the American public here.
Again, it's sort of an old fashioned concept. When you say it's old fashioned, it tells you how far we have drifted from the original American
values. One of my whistleblowers said, we just forgotten how to be Americans. We need to remember a little bit about how to be Americans.
MARTIN: Tom Mueller, thank you so much for talking to us.
MUELLER: Thank you very much, Michel.
AMANPOUR: Now, President Trump has been accused by Democrats of using propaganda and disinformation to discredit those who blew the whistle
leading to his impeachment inquiry.
Richard Stengel is the former editor in chief of Time Magazine and former undersecretary of state in the Obama administration when he led the
department's counter disinformation efforts.
His new book "Information Wars" is a deep dive into the fake news phenomena starting with his own experience with Ukraine during Russia's evasion of
Crimea. And he tells our Walter Isaacson all about combatting false narratives in this social media era.
WALTER ISAACSON, CEO, CNN: Welcome to the show.
RICHARD STENGEL, FORMER EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, TIME: Hey. Great to be here.
ISAACSON: So this great book, Information Wars, it starts with a Russian invasion of Ukraine. And Hillary Clinton calling you up. You had just
become, you know, the undersecretary of state. What does she say to you?
STENGEL: Well, so what happened was in February of 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, the southernmost part of Ukraine, Putin lied about it saying there
were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. And then we saw this gigantic tsunami of disinformation around it focused on the Baltic's and the periphery in
Russian and Ukrainian.
And it was new to me. Even though I had been in media my whole life, I hadn't seen this big Russian engine. But it wasn't new to Hillary Clinton.
She was -- had retired as secretary of state. I was just in the office. I got a call on Saturday morning from her office. I thought it was Secretary
Kerry, not Secretary Clinton. And I thought she was just calling to say congratulations and well done.
And I picked up the phone and it was like a blast of we're getting beaten by the Russians. The Russians have the big engine. Rick, you need to do
more about it. You're going to be frustrated by the state department.
But the state department is still issuing press releases while Putin is on social media changing history. You know, it was like a cartoon version of
that. And then she said, you know, get it done and hung up. And --
ISAACSON: She was right.
STENGEL: She was right. And ironically, she knew more about Russian active measures as it's called, what they were doing on social media than
anybody. And yet at the same time, she became the victim of it in 2016.
ISAACSON: So after you start trying to take it on, you were sort of surprised by being kept with insults around the internet from trolls and
all. Did you -- how did that happen and what did you discover about it?
STENGEL: So, I was trying to get everybody in the state department to be on social media and to tweet and that was not an easy thing. People are
reluctant to do that.
And I started doing it. And then instantly I got hit by tweets from Russian-sounding names, people attacking me, calling me a hypocrite and a
And I was a little bit used to it from being editor of "Time" where, as you know, that happens, as well. But I just started to see how concerted it
was and how organized it was and it was new to me.
And one of the things that I write about in the book is I later saw, which is a little different than even what was in the Mueller report, is that
what the Russians were doing was a whole of government effort. It wasn't just internet research agency in Saint Petersburg.
It was coordinated with Russia today and Sputnik and Tusk and coordinated with the foreign minister. So you had the Foreign Minister Lavrov echoing
these false statements from the internet research agency within 15 minutes sometimes.
ISAACSON: And our government, according to your book, is just not good at doing that.
STENGEL: I came to the conclusion that government is not the answer. That what this information war that we're all involved in is not really a state-
to-state information war. It's non-state actors and states involving regular people and government is kind of reticent in this area.
I don't want to be in the counter propaganda business against the Russians and get down in the muck with them. I don't think that's the right thing
for government. And, by the way, people in government are not very good at it and don't want to do it.
So I thought the best thing to do is enlist the help of people who are good at it to empower people who are good at it and who are doing it. and I
thought that was the best role for the state department.
ISAACSON: So what should we be doing?
STENGEL: What should government be doing?
ISAACSON: What should the United States do to counter these Russians who have become masters at what they call active measures?
STENGEL: You know, this is going to be a kind of disappointing answer because I'm not so sure what the government should do in terms of replying
back and forth. I think that the government has to change the legislation to allow the platform companies to rebut it. And that's a longer answer.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, as you know, treats the platform companies not as publishers, but they get complete liability
for what they publish and that needs to be changed. That needs to be reformed.
ISAACSON: Do you think Facebook should be in charge of stopping Russian propaganda?
STENGEL: I think Facebook should be liable for publishing false content, for provably false content, for disinformation, for deep fakes and things
like that. I think we should give them liability where they have to take that off their platform, otherwise they won't have immunity from it, which
is what the law gives them now.
ISAACSON: As undersecretary of state, you went to Silicon Valley two or three times to try to say to the companies, the tech companies, hey, you
got to at least have some responsibility for what is happening. What was the response of the tech companies give you?
STENGEL: So the focus on that trip where we saw all the heads of the tech companies was really about counter ISIS messaging, about Islamic extremist
messaging. And there again, the tech companies actually did a good job. Facebook did a good job. YouTube did a good job. They got this stuff off
Violent content in their constitutions in their terms of service can be taken off. And they were taken off. In fact, I remember the woman from
Facebook likened it to child pornography where the image itself is the crime. So if there's a beheading video, they would take it down like that.
ISAACSON: So what happens now when we're going into another election to stop Russia from doing this again?
STENGEL: Look, we're not going to stop them. The Russians don't have an off switch. We haven't even penalized them.
I mean, we've had sanctions from the annexation of Crimea but no sanctions basically based on what the internet research agency and did like that. So
I'm nervous about it.
I mean, the Russians have gotten more sophisticated. They're now using and granting personas from people on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg in his
testimony recently just said they take down a billion false handles a year. Well, a lot of those are from Russians and the Chinese and Iranians.
So government is, again, not the answer. People have to have -- you know, I've always said this, we don't have a fake news problem. We have a media
People have to become much more knowledgeable about it. And the fact that we're even talking about this is a good thing because I think people will
be more vigilant. But it's more than just that
ISAACSON: Well, people will be more vigilant but the government today, the Trump administration, seems to almost be doing the opposite in its
treatment of the conversation with the Ukraine.
STENGEL: Well, I mean as I say in the book, the president is the disinformationist in chief. He's both the beneficiary and the center of so
much disinformation around the world. He gives people permission to do it.
I mean, when he gives a constant stream of false statements and lies, I mean the Russians look at that and say yes, we're all on the same team. So
it's hard for the U.S. government to do that at the same time, but there ought to be new regulations.
Very simple one, for example, the platform companies should tell you when they know something is a bot and when something is a human. We should know
that. They need to tell you who is buying your information and for what purpose.
All political ads need to be completely transparent. You have to know where they're from, why you're targeted, who is paying for it. Things like
that will give a kind of media literacy and digital literacy to people that will help rebut it.
ISAACSON: Do you think he's going to have Russia put its weight into re- electing Trump?
STENGEL: Absolutely. And again not so much -- and what we saw -- they weren't even for Trump in the beginning in 2015 and even early 2016. They
were always anti-Hillary.
As you know, he sees Hillary Clinton as his nemesis. And they only later came on the Trump bandwagon. But I think they will support him and --
ISAACSON: Secretary Clinton says they might do it again with Tulsi Gubbard.
STENGEL: I saw that. I saw that. I mean I'm not even going to go that far myself but again, she's, you know, she's an expert.
ISAACSON: Fake news, that was something that was originally used to label things that were made up out of whole cloth, especially that the Russians
would push through social media and then Trump sort of coopted the term.
STENGEL: Yes, the Russians have used the term fake news about American media for 30 years, basically. And I much prefer the term junk news where
it's kind of fabricated, silly things.
And one of the points I make in the book is there's a fundamental difference between disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is
deliberately false material trying to deceive you. Misinformation is a mistake. And fake news is somewhere in between.
I just don't think it's a very useful term. The thing to be wary about is disinformation. People who are deliberately trying to deceive you with
ISAACSON: Do you think that the United States should try to fight fire with fire?
STENGEL: I don't think we should fight disinformation with Disinformation. I think we cannot become the thing that we oppose. And our brand around
the world, and I think people still understand it, is that we don't go to that same level that the Russians do or the Chinese or the Iranians that we
do write about that.
And I think combatting it with our own message and our own battle of ideas and debate is the best remedy for our brand around the world.
ISAACSON: If you were brought into Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandburg and said what should we do, what would be your advice to them?
STENGEL: My advice would be take off content that is provably false.
Take off content that qualifies as hate speech. Take off things like deep fake, which are false. Take off any kind of speech that directly or
indirect leads to violence.
Remember, the first amendment doesn't apply to Facebook. The first amendment applies to government censoring information.
Facebook has its own constitution, its terms of service. So I would say have a blanket policy of taking all those things off.
No. Like Mark Zuckerberg, I don't want Facebook making existential decisions about what is fact and false but people have to make those
We as journalists make those decisions every day. A thousand times a day. Why shouldn't they make that decision and be held accountable for it?
ISAACSON: So you think Facebook should be treated as a publisher not just as a platform where people get to say what they want?
STENGEL: Yes. I think Facebook should be treated as a publisher. Facebook is the largest publisher in the history of the world.
The fact that they're not publishing professional content written by journalists doesn't mean they're not a publisher. This is a modern version
of a publisher.
But they can't be liable in the very detailed way that "Time Magazine" or the "New York Times" is for every word they publish because the content
comes from third parties. But they have to make a good faith effort to take this content off their platform. I think it's poisoning our whole
ISAACSON: You've been editor of "Time". You've watched the rise of social media, embraced it marvelously.
As somebody who worked at "Time", I admired how you did it. But do you think that he internet and social media now is undermining traditional
journalism and is there a price we're going to pay for that?
STENGEL: Look, every new technical innovation and communication does something to the previous form of communication. You know, Plato worried
that writing would ruin people's memories.
So yes, it is changing journalism. Is there a benefit to humanity and civilization that information is available to people on their phones, that
we're creating as much information in several days as was created through the last 2,000 years? That is a good thing.
The fact that some people are abusing it, that people haven't quite figured out how to process fact from fiction, that people are not as sophisticated
about it as they should be, that is a design flaw but I actually think that's repairable. I think that we can evolve.
So, yes. I mean, the reason there are daily newspapers in different cities is that when you're in Omaha, you couldn't read the newspaper in Chicago.
But if you had lived in Omaha, you could read the Chicago newspaper, maybe there wouldn't be a newspaper in Omaha. So I'm not sentimental about
preserving things that technologically are not necessary anymore.
ISAACSON: We always thought that the Internet, the free flow of ideas would bend the arc of history more to democracy, more towards freedom, more
to individual liberty. And suddenly it seems like it's gone the other way. Why is that happening and what should we do about it?
STENGEL: Yes. So again, I would never have predicted that. And the fact that we have this rise of strong men and authoritarian leaders was not
something I would have predicted with the free flow of information.
But what has been pernicious, and that's one of the things I write about in the book, is that this rise of strong men and authoritarians is also
accompanied by sophistication of using media and information. They can do a double whammy on people which is restrict the information they don't want
and promulgate the information that they do want.
That's a very dangerous combination. We haven't really had that in history before. And that is scary.
Ultimately, because I'm a kind of information exceptionalist, I think knowledge will win out. But one of the things I write about in the book is
that this -- the basis of the first amendment, the marketplace of ideas model is actually not working.
Marketplace of ideas is this notion that good ideas will drive out bad ideas. Well, there was a kind of a mystical notion coming from Milton and
John Stewart Mill and that doesn't really happen anymore. I think the marketplace of ideas needs help.
ISAACSON: But if the marketplace of ideas isn't working and good information is not driving out bad, is free speech really a good thing that
we should be fighting for still?
STENGEL: Well, you know, one of the things I realized in traveling around the world was that our notion of free speech, the first amendment, is an
outlier to people. When I was editor of "Time", I was close to a first amendment absolutist.
Publishing be damned and Justice Holmes' idea that free speech is not for the thought that we love but the thought that we hate. But as I traveled
around the world, and went to the Middle East, and a sophisticated foreign minister say to me, why did you allow that minister in Florida to burn a
Koran? Why would you ever want to protect that?
And I began to think, well, why would we ever want to protect that? I mean, hate speech, speech that promotes division between people, different
religions, and different colors, and different genders is not an awful thing.
And some of it has to be protected but some of it should probably be legislated against. I'm actually very sympathetic now to the U.S. adopting
some versions of hate speech laws in Europe. Not as strict as that.
In part, because there's a kind of a design flaw in the first amendment in this age of social media. And I know that's a bit of a high heretical
thing to say. But I think we need to start thinking about hate speech laws.
ISAACSON: Rick Stengel, thanks.
STENGEL: Thank you.
ISAACSON: It was good to see you again.
STENGEL: Good to see you.
AMANPOUR: A call for education to fight disinformation. And just a quick final note on Defense Secretary Mark Esper, he is next on route to Brussels
and NATO headquarters where he will discuss with his allies how to try to keep the lid on ISIS after all that transpired in Northern Syria.
That's it for us for now. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at amanpour.com and follow me on Instagram and Twitter.
Thanks for watching and goodbye from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.