Interview With National Security Journalist William Arkin: FBI Faces Political Disaster
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In 2019, longtime national security journalist William Arkin appeared on "Democracy Now!" and spoke out against liberals in the United States who believed the FBI (and CIA) could save the country from President Donald Trump.
"The FBI, in particular, has a deplorable record in American society, from Martin Luther King and the peace movements of the 1960s all the way up through Wen Ho Lee and others who have been persecuted by the FBI," Arkin stated. "And there’s no real evidence that the FBI is that competent of an institution to begin with in terms of even pursuing the prosecutions that it’s pursuing."
"But yet we lionize them. We hold them up on a pedestal, that somehow they are the truth-tellers, that they’re the ones who are getting to the bottom of things, when there’s just no evidence that that’s the case," Arkin added.
Arkin has a proven record of speaking out against perpetual war and challenging the immense power of the national security state. He co-authored the 2011 book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the American Security State and also wrote the book American Coup, which he describes as documenting the "creeping fascism of homeland security."
When Arkin appeared on "Democracy Now!", he had just left NBC News and circulated a letter that criticized the media organization for "emulating" the national security state in the era of Trump.
I’d argue that under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous and practically impervious to criticism. I’d also argue, ever so gingerly, that NBC has become somewhat lost in its own verve, proxies of boring moderation and conventional wisdom, defender of the government against Trump, cheerleader for open and subtle threat mongering, in love with procedure and protocol over all else (including results). I accept that there’s a lot to report here, but I’m more worried about how much we are missing. Hence my desire to take a step back and think why so little changes with regard to America’s wars.
I recount all of the above to show you why I setup an interview with Arkin about the Justice Department and FBI's handling of the investigation into Trump and his possession of documents at Mar-a-Lago. He has the credibility to offer important insights into what pursuing an Espionage Act prosecution against a former US president may mean for the United States.
Arkin is currently the senior editor for intelligence at Newsweek. He has written multiple reports related to the Justice Department's investigation into former President Donald Trump's mishandling of classified information. His reporting revealed that the FBI had an informant, who had knowledge of what documents Trump had in his possession and where they were located. He later reported more details on Trump's "private stash" of documents.
In the 30-minute interview, which was recorded on August 19, Arkin outlines the timeline of events, what the DOJ investigation may mean for Trump's potential 2024 presidential campaign, and why he believes the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago has sparked one of the biggest political disasters in the history of the bureau.
*Below is a transcript of the interview with minor edits to improve clarity.
WILLIAM ARKIN: It’s important to just talk about the background of what happened at Mar-a-Lago because this has been going on since Trump left office. So even though most people were not aware, there’s been a battle between the Trump camp and the National Archives since January 2021 about this whole question of what records the Trump administration had taken with them from the White House.
If you talk to Trump people, they’ll tell you, oh, we had such a rushed departure—and of course the reason is because Donald Trump did not accept the terms of the election—that we by mistake took boxes to Mar-a-Lago. Indeed, in January of this year the Trump camp delivered 15 boxes of presidential records to the National Archives, and it was in the course of that delivery that I think the National Archives came to see that these were not complete sets of records, that there were a lot of presidential records which were still being held by the Trump camp, and they requested additional records.
And basically this has been going on now since January 2022 this year and that culminated by a grand jury subpoena, which was delivered to the Trump camp in the end of May, and that subpoena basically said here are specific documents and types of documents that we would like you to return and the next step essentially was that three FBI agents and a Justice Department official visited Mar-a-Lago on June 3, and they retrieved some documents. But they also in the process of that inspected the storage room at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump was keeping his presidential materials and recognized that there were additional materials with additional classified information.
Now the FBI knew that there were additional materials. They asked the Trump [camp] to put better locks on the door of the storage room. They knew that they were there. So when the search occurred on August 8, it was a surprise to most people. Maybe not so much to the people who had been following this back and forth. But it does raise the question as to whether or not what Merrick Garland, the attorney general says, is true, which is did they in fact exhaust all the possibilities for getting the additional documents.
Now we know that they took 27 boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago last week. So that’s a total of 42 boxes of documents, and the 27 boxes of documents that they took under this search warrant included 11 sets of classified documents and an additional leather box that they had retrieved that contained top secret sensitive compartmented information.
I reported earlier last week that the FBI had a confidential human source inside the Trump camp that essentially let them on to the fact that Donald Trump was secreting additional documents away. And at this point based upon my reporting, it looks like the FBI had two targets in their raid on Mar-a-Lago. One was to retrieve the additional boxes that they knew were in the storage room, and two was to find this stash of documents that Donald Trump was evidently segregating from those 27 boxes, which the FBI concluded as part of their investigation that Donald Trump had no intention of returning.
I wouldn’t say that the search at Mar-a-Lago was a cover for the fact that they knew that Donald Trump had additional material, but Donald Trump himself has given us clues to the fact that there were two separate searches. Because we know that the storage room was entered. We know that they entered the bedroom in the presidential office. Donald Trump is the one who said that they broke into his personal safe. And in fact when the FBI returned Donald Trump’s passports earlier this week, it was evident that they had gotten them from somewhere that wasn’t the storage room. It pretty much confirmed what Donald Trump had claimed—that his personal safe had been broken into.
It’s kind of a game of chicken between the FBI and the Trump camp. Right, Donald Trump can’t say, oh, I was secreting away particular documents, and that’s what the FBI is really going after. He’s just going to go on this straight I’ve-been-politically-persecuted line, and that’s what he’s going to stick with. And of course once the Trump camp gets their act together and figures out what they’re actually going to say, the reality is they’re probably going to argue, why did [the FBI] execute the search warrant at all because we were cooperating with the National Archives? And if they had asked us for additional boxes, we would have returned them.
So, yes, it’s true that Trump has kind of argued they were my private papers. They weren’t belonging to the National Archives. But it’s sort of irrelevant because if you don’t consider what it was that the FBI really going after, you wouldn’t understand why they would have thought it necessary to execute this extraordinary and unprecedented of a personal residence of a former president, which has never been done in our history.
If you understand that the FBI obviously felt that Donald Trump was not planning to return everything, that they knew from their confidential human source and their investigation that it existed (and more or less where it existed), and that they were concerned that Donald Trump would weaponize that material. And that could be using it for monetary gain or using it as part of his election efforts. We don’t really know the answer there.
But if you consider all of those, then the search begins to make some sense, even though I think politically it’s been a disaster for the FBI, and as much as the mainstream might be rallying around the FBI and saying, oh, poor FBI, the truth of the matter is that it seems like this is another naive investigation on the part of the FBI and Justice Department that thinks that because we have all of the paperwork in order that it makes sense to execute this but I think in fact it’s probably strengthened Donald Trump’s hand within the Republican Party and also within the electorate, who feel like in fact after six years of investigations if they haven’t indicted him yet that it is persecution.
And there’s some validity to that. Let’s just imagine for a moment that Bernie Sanders was president, and that the FBI was going after him for six years. I mean people would be screaming bloody murder. Either indict him or stop it. And so I imagine in the coming weeks we are either going to see Donald Trump indicted finally for a peripheral question, which is possession of these documents. Not the content of the documents, but possession of them.
Or we’re going to see a political disaster in the making, which is that everyone is going to rally behind Donald Trump within the Republican camp and basically say this is an outrageous act on the part of the Biden administration, even though I believe that it didn’t have political overtones to it or undertones to it. That they inadvertently stepped into something like the Mueller investigation or like Comey talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails, where they just didn’t understand what the political fallout of their actions were going to be.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: What is your assessment of the divisions or factions or the nature of the FBI or Justice Department—not necessarily just right now but in the FBI or Justice Department up to this moment—and their relationship to Donald Trump?
Because I think it’s so important for people to know the deeper context, and since you’ve done this reporting on administrations for so long, how extraordinary it was that they had such a different posture to the president than some of the more recent previous presidents in history. Because this relationship is completely unlike Obama. It’s completely unlike George W. Bush. It’s completely unlike what we have with Joe Biden. There’s no reason for antagonism to exist between those prior presidents.
ARKIN: Well, we’ve never had a Donald Trump before. That’s the most important ingredient here. The FBI has always been a political organization, though it would like to portray itself as not one. During the civil rights era or during the communist scare of the 1950s or doing the period of time where it was basically persecuting those who were against the war in Vietnam, etc, the FBI has always hewed in the direction of being a right-wing institution with an antagonism towards the left.
With Donald Trump, the shift began to be apparent that the FBI, in fact, had a lot of people within its ranks who were anti-Trump. In fact, the long bipartisan era of the FBI was over. We live in a topsy-turvy world where the Rachel Maddows of the world are cheering the FBI on and the right-wing hates them. That’s unprecedented in modern history, that the left somehow thinks that the CIA and FBI are going to protect us from Donald Trump rather than the right [supporting these agencies]. Even like the left is quasi-cheerleaders for perpetual war and for the continuation of the war in Syria and for the war in Ukraine, etc. Whereas the right is much more of a traditional American isolationist entity.
Look, Donald Trump isn’t smart enough to articulate and/or represent the actual currents, which exist within American society, but there are currents that exist within American society. It’s Washington DC, and the New York bubble and the LA bubble versus the rest of the country, or urban versus rural. Whatever way you want to describe it. Donald Trump was elected because of that divide. Because of that increasing divide between officialdom and the rest of the American population.
So the FBI, which has always been seen in the mainstream’s eyes as being a neutral party, became a very political party. They just did. They became a political party. And at the same time that Barack Obama was being criticized during the 2016 presidential election cycle for not doing about the accusations vis a vis Russian collusion and Russian intervention—Obama said, well, I’m not going to do more because I don’t want to put my finger on the scale of the election. It’s up to the American people to decide who is the next president.
But they wanted the FBI to put their finger on the scale, and that was what happened when Comey had a press conference right prior to the election and stated Hillary [Clinton] broke the law but we’re not going to indict her. That just pissed everybody off on both sides, but most importantly, what it did was introduce the idea that Hillary Clinton was a lawbreaker and hadn’t been held accountable whereas Donald Trump was being accused of being lawbreaker and people were assuming that he was guilty.
I’m sorry. I live in a country where I still believe innocent until proven guilty. Donald Trump is innocent. He’s innocent of claims of collusion. He’s innocent of claims of cooperation. He’s innocent of all these claims until he is proven guilty. So while we might be comfortable in the mainstream saying Donald Trump’s lies about the election—I mean, listen to NPR. They say it in that way, and it should be Donald Trump’s claims about the election. By saying the word lies, you are already declaring what your political position is. That’s not impartial journalism as I understand it to be.
So Donald Trump is innocent until proven guilty, and now this search warrant has been executed. I hope as a citizen that either the Justice Department brings charges against Donald Trump or it starts to reevaluate whether it continues to spend its resources and our money in going after this guy.
GOSZTOLA: Let me ask you a few specific questions. Do you actually believe that this is a mistake on Donald Trump’s part that he has these boxes? I seem to get from the way you are setting up the timeline that that seems like a very convenient excuse at this hour. Have you seen any evidence that they really made this mistake with this many boxes of documents?
ARKIN: I mean, Melania’s shoes might have taken 42 boxes themselves. We don’t know how many boxes were actually removed from the White House in that six-hour period on January 20. But I think it's important that you think because Donald Trump screwed up and didn’t have a normal transition and boxes ended up going to Mar-a-Lago that shouldn't have gone to Mar-a-Lago, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t Donald Trump’s fault. I mean, this is his trick, right? They were sent by mistake, but if it had been a normal transition, they wouldn’t have been sent by mistake.
You have to ultimately say that this falls on Donald Trump in terms of what direction was given to the White House staff and his subordinates in terms of preparing the White House for the Biden administration to come into the office. So, yes, I can see that the documents might have ended up in Mar-a-Lago by mistake, but the mistake is that Donald Trump didn’t accept the results of the election and didn’t facilitate an ordinary transition.
Why it’s so important then to see the decision-making on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department about this extraordinary search is that it obviously has to be about something bigger than just run-of-the-mill secrets. And I know that some people will think, well wait a minute? Top secret documents are documents that could cause exceptionally grave damage to the United States. But I’ve been in this business a long time, and I also am a former intelligence officer in the US military, and I can tell you there’s a heckuva lot of top secret documents that have no meaning outside of just the source of information that is just describing what we know.
A lot of this [information] is classified because of the possibility that its release would divulge intelligence sources and methods, and some of those intelligence sources and methods, such as our satellite capabilities, are well-known anyhow. But I understand that people have this idea that somehow Donald Trump stole secrets, when I’m kind of doubtful that there was really much material that was in there that was intentional or detrimental to US national security in a specific way.
However, we know that Donald Trump during his entire presidency took documents to his residence, asked for copies of documents, ripped pages out of documents that were delivered to him, squirreled away documents that were interesting to him, and those documents dealt with everything from Russiagate and the political travails of Donald Trump to nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea and possibly even Russia and China. So we know that it’s a wide variety of documents—things that Donald Trump found interesting. That’s basically this leather box or this separate stash of documents that were in his personal safe, and that was really the focus.
I think in the end people will be surprised that it’s not really an argument about the sensitivity of the documents per se. It’s just about the documents. It’s just about the documents. They don’t need to argue that the documents are highly classified or whatever. That’s terminology that we use in the news media. And it’s kind of bullshit.
If Donald Trump just had a bunch of personal letters that belonged to the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act, they would still be making the same arguments as to why we need to retrieve those letters from the Trump camp. So I think it was really only in the case of documents that they thought that Donald Trump had personally segregated—and might use in the future, that were the ones that they were concerned about.
GOSZTOLA: That’s the problem, right? We get this from your reporting. It does a good job of communicating this. It doesn’t seem like the FBI is moved to conduct the search just because Donald Trump has [these boxes]. Because we see the ongoing conversations with representatives over returning the boxes. But there’s something about the stash. There’s some kind of fear that they have that he’s going to do something with the documents that he has privately, and obviously, we’re at an important point in time.
There’s a Trump circus, but there’s also an election circus. We are dominated from 2023 to November 2024 will be primaries and general electon, wall-to-wall media. And you know this better than anyone having survived alongside it—how much elections dominate and overshadow important national security journalism and other stories that should be given attention rather than this horse race coverage.
It’s hard not to think based upon what you’ve been reporting that there is some motivation that, okay, we have a small window of time to do this before Donald Trump might start his campaign. And also these documents, as your sources told you, [Trump] is going to weaponize this information.
So I think it’s worth asking you what your assessment is of the Russiagate counter-investigation. That is the investigation into the people who were investigating Donald Trump and the abuses of power that they were alleged to have committed by people who were empowered, like Durham, to investigate these people and what was happening. There have been some things related to Carter Page, and there’s been some isolated examples. [The Trump camp has] tried to craft a narrative that people within these institutions were trying to, as they would put it, take down Donald Trump. That’s how they present it to the American people.
If the FBI is going in there to take this stash of documents, and it is proven out that there are documents related to the Russia investigation that Donald Trump was keeping because he thought they exonerated him or whatever, that seems pretty bad as far as the FBI and the idea that it’s supposed to be a neutral institution. I mean, obviously, historically it’s always acted politically. But if the FBI is going above and beyond to seem like it’s not a political organization, how do you green light a search when it is going to be so patently obvious later that you are taking this step?
ARKIN: Let’s talk about it in the context of 2024. First of all, we have to understand that what was been revealed as result of the 2016 election and Russiagate is that there was FBI wrongdoing. Whether you consider minor or not, the truth of the matter is that we’ve had FBI agents go to jail already for falsifying FISA applications, for using official email and text to campaign against Donald Trump as a candidate, and even people who were involved in the investigations who are supposed to be neutral parties essentially declaring that they are anti-Trump.
I don’t take from that that it’s big or little. I don’t want to quibble about whether or not the FBI is or isn’t pro- anti-Trump, but what we see is they make mistakes. Tons of them. This is not a perfect institution. We should stop seeing it as a perfect institution.
If you understand that this is a flawed institution, where the lawyers are saying, well, you can do this, you can do that, and you can do this and you can do that, and now the FBI has to decide are we publicly going to be able to do this, that the reality in the end is the FBI seems to operate on the idea that if the paperwork is immaculate that the political consequences are going to be neutral. That’s where the FBI has gotten it wrong over and over again. The paperwork can be immaculate, and yet they can be doing exactly wrong thing politically.
If I’m a smart Justice Department official, I’m going to say we got to let the chips fall where they may. If the raid on Mar-a-Lago helps Donald Trump, we still have to do what’s legally correct to do. Now you might ask, well, did they exhaust all the possibilities in talking to the Trump camp? Did they absolutely have to do this? What evidence did they have that Donald Trump was going to weaponize the information? Was there some imminent reason for them to have to do it now? Etc etc.
In the end, if I’m a Justice Department official appearing before the news media, I might answer every question that I understand that you are arguing the political consequences, but our job is to enforce the law. And Donald Trump was breaking the law, and we needed to enforce the law and it took us this long to get to the place where it was obvious that Donald Trump was not going to return the material that he had in his possession.
All of this is going to come out in the coming weeks or months, but whether or not it is going to benefit Donald Trump in this election cycle, and then specifically, in 2024, we’ll have to see. I’m fearful that the effect of this is going to be that more people will lose respect for the government. More people will see Washington as persecuting Donald Trump, and that the Biden administration and the Biden Justice Department are not going to be able to get off that merry-go-round and that’s going to add to the Trump camp’s constituency.
We already see that prominent Republicans from all walks of life except for two people on the planet (Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) have all rallied behind Donald Trump on this issue. I would say that this is perhaps one of the largest crises in the FBI’s history. They may not understand it themselves. They may have made mistakes here in what they did, and they may have been legally justified to do what they did. But politically I believe it will be seen as a disaster.
GOSZTOLA: Finally I want to put to you the issue of the Espionage Act being part of the conversation. A lot of my work has been watching and monitoring and covering the developments in individual Espionage Act prosecutions over the last decade-plus. Those individuals and their attorneys would also say that they were charged for materials that would not cause exceptionally grave damage, and yet the book was thrown thrown at them and they had their lives ruined and their careers ended. So why shouldn’t the same be true for Donald Trump?
I think it presents a crisis. I think it’s part of this crisis of the liberals and the Democratic Party establishment really feeling strongly about pushing forward with whatever the Justice Department is about to do. What’s your sense of the risk if Donald Trump were to be charged with violating the Espionage Act?
You’re talking to people about the potential charges that could be brought. Is this even a distinct possibility? You said unlawful possession, which can be within that law. But there are other laws. Do you think it would be a more minor law to keep the Espionage Act out of the conversation?
ARKIN: We now know that the Espionage Act was only being referenced because of section 793(d) of the Espionage Act, which is an area of the Espionage Act that deals with if you are in possession of classified documents and the federal government asks you to return them, and you don’t return them, you’re in violation of 793(d) of the Espionage Act.
It’s called the Espionage Act, what it’s been called since 1917, but it also happens to be just one of a handful of laws that deal with security classification. The rest of the security classification system exists under executive order. That’s why Donald Trump and his people are arguing that he declassified everything. But it’s not altogether true. Some elements of classified information do fall under statute, such as atomic energy information or information about the identities of CIA sources, etc. Those fall under statute.
So it’s unfortunate that the Espionage Act is the place where this is contained, this provision about returning classified material in your possession, because it’s abused in a way because we don’t have modern legislation. Perhaps one of the solutions will be that we will finally have a law passed, which will specify what is classified and unclassified information and what is the modern security classification system and where are the authorities and what’s against the law and what’s not against the law.
That does influence Julian Assange’s problems in the courts. It influences other whistleblowers who have been charged with the Espionage Act, and even if they were not guilty of espionage, as we think of it, they are charged under the Espionage Act. So we need to clean this up because I don’t think that we have a law in a proper way that really specifies what the true state of play is here.
If I support Julian Assange, I want Donald Trump to spur along a better articulation of what is the actual purpose of the Espionage Act. To have say for instance Julian Assange, a foreign national charged under the Espionage Act—espionage against who? If he committed espionage against Australia, then he should be charged in his own country of his nationality.
In some ways, if I’m a supporter of Julian Assange, I want to see that Donald Trump helps to clarify what is this law and what it can really be used for. Because in the cases of [Chelsea] Manning, in the cases of Tom Drake, in the case of Julian Assange, I think it’s been misapplied. And in the case of journalism, there have been attempts at various times within our recent past going back to the Reagan administration, where the federal government has sought to use the Espionage Act as a way of suppressing a free press.
Again, if I’m really interested in the future, I would want to see Congress step in finally and establish an omnibus law that deals with security classification in this country. That’s more important than Donald Trump.