by Justin Anderson
MSNBC is often described as the liberal version of Fox News, delivering unabashed left-leaning content for vociferously partisan viewers. But if you looked at MSNBC’s lineup of guests for August 15, you’d be hard pressed to find a more odious group of right-wing liars, warmongers and racists on Fox News or any other outlet.
MSNBC kicked it off with Andrea Mitchell interviewing mercenary Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of private military contractor Blackwater USA and the brother of Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Firstly, Mitchell didn’t even get Prince’s credentials right, saying that his company Blackwater no longer exists. This is exactly what its marketing department wants you to believe: Blackwater rebranded as Xe Services following the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors in Nisour Square in 2007. In 2010, Prince sold Xe to a private equity firm run by a family friend, who changed the name to Academi, which later merged with rival private military contractor Triple Canopy in 2014 to form Constellis Holdings, which was in turn purchased by the private equity giant Apollo Global Management in 2016. Under the name Constellis, Blackwater is still going strong; earlier this year, Apollo was looking to sell it for between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.
In her introduction of Prince, Mitchell didn’t even mention Nisour Square, merely noting casually that Blackwater “faced years of investigation for its role in Iraq.”
A large donor to the Trump campaign, Prince has been reported to have acted as an unofficial adviser on Donald Trump’s cabinet picks during his presidential transition, and continues to be an influential person in the Trump orbit. Prince proposed a number of appalling ideas to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, such as the creation of a global network of private spies to carry out Phoenix Program-style assassinations and counter Trump’s “deep state” enemies. (In 2010, Prince was outed as a participant in the CIA’s unsuccessful jihadi assassination program by then-Director Leon Panetta.)
Last year, Prince came under fire for acting as an unofficial representative for the Trump administration during a “chance” meeting with Russian official Kirill Dmitriev in the Seychelles, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, in order to establish a back channel between Vladimir Putin and Trump. Mitchell asked about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on the Seychelles meeting, but did not press Prince with any follow-up after he dodged her initial question, preferring to move on to ask Prince if he was mad that Trump referred to his sister as “Ditzy DeVos.”
The meat of the interview was Mitchell letting Prince go on for seven minutes about his latest plans to privatize the war in Afghanistan, which he initially proposed back in 2017. His plans last summer included appointing an “American viceroy” for Afghanistan, based on the “MacArthur model” to oversee military operations in the country, which would receive an influx of supposedly cheaper contractors to replace many US troops. Such plans have reportedly been gaining steam of late within the Trump administration. But even if those reports overstate the influence of Prince’s plans in the administration (Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo are apparently opposed), the decision of MSNBC to plug them will likely amplify their respectability in the cable news-addicted mind of President Trump.
Prince has been involved in other shady dealings that don’t involve Trump’s ties to Russia or the military privatization, but MSNBC seemed less interested in them. In 2014, he became chair of Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, which is partly owned by the Chinese government, and handles aviation, security and logistics in locations along China’s new One Belt One Road program, particularly mineral and oil interests of Chinese companies operating in Africa. Through FSG, he has become the focus of Department of Justice investigations over the creation of a private air force, money-laundering and offers for private military service contracts in Pentagon-restricted countries like Libya. Mitchell’s questions on Prince’s involvement with China stopped after some haggling over the exact number of students at an FSG military training academy in Beijing.
FAIR (8/30/17) has noted that MSNBC (12/1/17) has given Prince a platform to talk about his alarming ideas in the past. Giving him a megaphone inevitably legitimizes his proposals to boost the power of Blackwater-style mercenary forces. Not for nothing, MSNBC’s Facebook and Twitter feeds published Prince’s quotes verbatim, as if they were rational arguments for fixing the US’s involvement in pointless and costly wars. While Mitchell at least called out Prince for refusing to characterize his plan as “privatization,” and repeated some negative quotes by a former military contractor who trashed Prince’s military strategy, she never once suggested the alternative that almost never gets discussed on MSNBC or any other corporate news outlet (Extra!, 11/09): ending the war in Afghanistan.
But Prince was just the beginning of MSNBC’s parade of deceitful right-wing guests. That night, Rachel Maddow invited on John Brennan, former director of the CIA and the Homeland Security advisor under Obama. He is back in the news cycle over his numerous negative comments regarding President Trump, who vengefully revoked Brennan’s security clearance on August 15.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, is now working as a regular intelligence analyst for MSNBC, and has been appearing frequently on the news channel to discuss how Trump destroyed the norms of discourse and civility within the Beltway. In an interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and David Ignatius on June 1, Brennan decried Trump’s “lying and lack of ethics.” However, anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of the CIA will know that truth and ethics are pretty much the exact opposite of the Agency’s core values.
The bulk of Maddow’s interview with Brennan pertained mostly to MSNBC’s favorite topic: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the likely collusion of Trump and members of his campaign, which Brennan described as “nothing short of treasonous.” Of course, a former CIA director crying foul at any sort of election-meddling is pretty rich, considering the US, and the CIA specifically, have interfered in dozens of democratic elections throughout the world over the past 73 years, not to mention their role in dozens of coups as well. While Russia does have a (less extensive) history of election-meddling as well, there was nonetheless not even a passing mention of the CIA’s role in electoral interventions in Maddow’s interview.
Nor was there time to mention the heinous and illegal acts the CIA committed specifically under Brennan’s leadership. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the CIA’s drone assassination program, codified and coordinated by Brennan, which now allows the US to use “surgical” drone strikes to kill people listed on a CIA-approved “Disposition Matrix” (kill list) in countries outside of combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the New America Foundation, about 20 percent of drone strikes kill civilians not on the CIA’s list. Strikes under the Obama administration are estimated to have killed between 384 and 807 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (countries that the US is not currently at war with).
In the Maddow interview, Brennan described Trump as “abusing the powers of his office.” Thanks to the norms established by Brennan as CIA director, the “powers of his office” now include the ability to place anyone, even an US citizen, on an unaccountable hit list without due process, so long as they’re given the incredibly slippery and imprecise designation of “terrorist.”
But just because the CIA expanded its wheelhouse to include flying killer robots under Brennan doesn’t mean that its traditional tactics of illegal spying should be ignored. In 2014, after accusations from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the CIA was found to have hacked the computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were charged with Agency oversight, specifically in regards to the Committee’s review of the CIA’s detention and torture programs. (Brennan initially denied the hacks.) Following the release of the Intelligence Committee’s torture report, Brennan publicly defended the CIA’s use of torture techniques such as “rectal feeding,” mock executions, beatings and waterboarding as useful and successful, although he agreed they were, at times, “harsh.” Brennan has flip-flopped a few times between supporting and decrying the CIA’s use of waterboarding under his watch, but only denounced it on the grounds of its helping jihadi extremist recruitment, rather than opposing it on legal or moral grounds.
Maddow did skewer Brennan’s history on torture on her show in 2013, in the midst of his confirmation hearings, and has covered CIA atrocities with combative rhetoric in the past, particularly during the confirmation hearings of current Trump CIA Director Gina Haspel, who in 2005 ordered the destruction of tapes and documentation of the CIA torture programs. But since Brennan has been added to the MSNBC regular correspondent lineup, he seems to have been given a pass from Maddow and her colleagues.
MSNBC capped the night off with Ari Melber interviewing Erik Prince’s old pal Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign manager and chief strategist, one-time vice president of Cambridge Analytica, and former head of far-right propaganda outlet Breitbart News. The interview was mostly uneventful, with a somewhat combative Melber getting Bannon’s take on various topics, ranging from immigration to Republican chances in the 2018 midterms to the Mueller investigation. During his time in the Trump White House, running Breitbart and in his other ventures as a movie producer, Bannon has harbored and pushed racist and white nationalist views, although in the interview he denied the significance of white nationalists in Trump’s coalition.
But with Bannon’s history of promoting views like these, why exactly would a so-called “liberal” network like MSNBC invite him on in the first place? To see whether “political correctness protects Muslim rape culture”? Or maybe to decide if “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”? Or whether feminism is worse than cancer? Should the left-leaning viewers on MSNBC be subjected to this sort of right-wing trolling while issues like climate change, corporate concentration or the US-backed Saudi war in Yemen get little coverage?
Even now, with Bannon long past his zenith of political influence, MSNBC clearly hasn’t learned that all he wants is a megaphone to publicize his fanatic views. In the interview, Bannon did have one striking point (at the 45:58 mark). In regards to the laughably small handful of white supremacist demonstrators at the second Unite the Right rally in Washington, DC, Bannon remarked:
These guys are cranks. Nobody takes them seriously, except the mainstream media. Its MSNBC’s camera and CNN’s camera that gives them a platform. If you didn’t pay attention to them, they would go away.
If MSNBC didn’t provide a spotlight to war-profiteering mercenaries like Erik Prince, slimy spooks like John Brennan or white nationalist crackpots like Steve Bannon, they might not go away. But it’s worth a shot.
Please send your suggestions to MSNBC about who would make better guests than mercenary entrepreneurs, former CIA directors and white nationalists.
Contact: Deb Finan, Senior VP, Programming and Production