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September 13, 2021
What A Day
America's Forever Wars With Spencer Ackerman

In This Episode

  • This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and beyond the typical yearly commemoration, the FBI released a newly declassified document detailing contacts that two hijackers had with Saudi associates in the U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Spencer Ackerman, joins us to discuss the history of 9/11, the war on terror, and the latest developments in Afghanistan.
  • And in headlines: Iran reached an agreement with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, people who are not fully vaccinated are eleven times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated, and Democratic lawmakers still can’t agree on a price tag for their spending plan.Show Notes:
  • NYT: “In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb” – https://nyti.ms/3E97iK1
  • Forever Wars Substack – https://foreverwars.substack.com/

 

Transcript

 

Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, September 13th. I’m Gideon Resnick.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that some of you may not know is actually widely credited with reuniting Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, as legend has it, they reconnected somewhere on our show’s review page.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true. It’s true.

 

Gideon Resnick: Honestly, that’s one of probably a thousand relationships that have started there.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, Senator Joe Manchin clashes with his Democratic colleagues once again over the $3.5 trillion spending package. Plus, we recap the outcome from the U.S. Open.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, interesting stuff there. But first, we are going to dive into the history of 9/11 and the War on Terror. This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And beyond the typical yearly commemoration, the FBI released a newly declassified document detailing contacts that two hijackers had with Saudi associates in the US. It reportedly did not have any more conclusive evidence about the Saudi government’s role, though. This is the first document released after President Biden ordered a declassification of such materials that have been clandestine for years. And it comes after many families of victims have pushed for further investigation into possible involvement of the Saudi government in the attacks.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, and meanwhile, there are more developments and the decades-long war in Afghanistan that followed 9/11. For one thing, a New York Times investigation found new details about a U.S. drone strike in late August that killed civilians in Kabul. The version of events presented by American officials reportedly is way different than the reporting bears out, namely whether a bomb was even in the vehicle targeted by the drone, as the military first claimed, and whether there was any connection to ISIS at all. The driver of the vehicle, according to the Times, was a long-time employee for a U.S. aid group who appeared to have been actually driving colleagues to and from work. We’ll link to the story in our show notes.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and given the withdrawal in Afghanistan and the impending anniversary of 9/11, I spoke with Spencer Ackerman. Ackerman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked at Wired, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast, where I had the pleasure of sometimes hearing his conversations with sources. He had that same pleasure. We both speak quite loudly at times. And also witnessing the conviction of his work firsthand. He is also the author of the new book “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump”. And you can read more of his indispensable work at the Substack “Forever Wars.” I connected with Ackerman late last week, and I started by asking what he remembers about 9/11, the day itself.

 

Spencer Ackerman: So I’m a native Brooklynite and through a series of strange decisions, ended up going to college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was a senior in college and I woke up and I went downstairs in the group house I was living in and saw my roommates in front of the TV, sobbing. All I could think of throughout that day was my parents are going to die, my cousin is going to die, my friends are going to die. It wasn’t until Friday that I was able to get back home and I wanted to do something like, at Ground Zero. Like, I know fuck, I had no idea what I was, I had no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. I just felt like I had to do something. I felt just such tremendous guilt. About not being there. And there was a volunteer collection point or would-be volunteer collection point near Penn Station. I walked over there. It was a mob scene and there was something else that was there in that line, like hearing people who didn’t sound like New Yorkers. Quickly, it became clear that, like people had driven hundreds of miles, like from the south, from New England and from the Midwest, because like they watched 9/11 happen, they saw the suffering and they wanted to help. There was a spirit of real solidarity shown to New Yorkers at one of our single darkest hours. And that feeling was manipulated, interpreted in such a way, legitimized and justified, so as to filter it into a kind of bloodlust. I live and have grown up like, the place where I’m from and the place where I live now is very close to this, very tiny corner of Brooklyn called Little Pakistan, and Little Pakistan was decimated after 9/11. You’ll also notice that there were no Pakistanis among the 9/11 hijackers and the fact that that didn’t matter was the point. That now the theory in operation was that there is going to be another attack and that people inside New York, Muslim communities must know about it. And so they became the prey of 9/11 and they became the prey of the national unity.

 

Gideon Resnick: And to sort of take it to something more recent, what have you been thinking about most when it comes to the withdrawal from Afghanistan?

 

Spencer Ackerman: So the coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan underscored the reasons why this has been a forever war. The prevailing narrative, basically, there was a ton to criticize the Biden administration for, and yet the dominant criticisms were for all of the things that Biden did right. Biden does, in fact, get out, and through a whole lot of criticism sticks with that decision, and rightfully so. Because the criticism misunderstood fundamentally what it was seeing and reporting before its face, which is that the human disaster that really was on display was not the result of abandoning the war. It was the result of the war. The way the Afghanistan war proceeded after the 2001 decision by the Bush administration not to accept a conditional Taliban surrender that would have gotten them precisely the terms that Trump deals for in 2019—

 

Gideon Resnick: Right.

 

Spencer Ackerman: and signs in 2020—all of that strengthened the Taliban in the interim. The thing also is, is that Biden launches this enormous effort to get people out of Afghanistan, but it’s a revealing one because first it throttles the access of the airport away from Afghans and toward Americans, Westerners, foreigners, and then the Afghans that it does get out are people who served the United States, its allies and Western interests. And then accordingly, there is nothing done in terms of like TPS access or admission or however, in fact, it works. By the estimates of the Costs of War project at Brown University, at least—it’s a very conservative estimate—at least 160,000 Afghans, that’s surely an undercount, the refugee migration and so forth. America creates refugees and doesn’t take responsibility for refugees because it doesn’t want to admit refugees. And we saw a refugee backlash that really like brought back out the MAGA view of the War on Terror, which in the book I call “the War on Terror’s most authentic self.”

 

Gideon Resnick: Right.

 

Spencer Ackerman: Where the wars themselves are the expendable things, the nativism powering that war is the thing that must remain, and the brutality in both respectable and vulgar forms of expressing that that comes along with it.

 

Gideon Resnick: And you drew that link to the MAGA movement, as it were. And you’re also writing in the Times Op-Ed that I was reading linking the 9/11 attacks to the insurrection of January 6th. Can you unpack that more and how you were drawing the conclusions along those timelines?

 

Spencer Ackerman: The War on Terror, despite the euphemism of its name and its pretenses to be agnostic as to whose terrorism is the issue, entirely exempts white terrorism. I open the book in a white terror training camp that’s explicitly a religious-sanctified city in northeastern Oklahoma. With that comes the safe haven that Americans like very casually talk about being the thing that they must go into Afghanistan to deprive terrorists of. So there is this like very real blindness to increasingly emboldened militia activity, particularly heavily-armed stuff and you start like seeing a whole lot of military cosplay at protests. And this really intensifies around the mid-2010s, under now what’s increasingly joined critique by this proto-MAGA coalition, police forces themselves and politicians, which is that like Black Lives Matter, winking and nodding, are acting like terrorists or are a terrorist group themselves or are causing terror on our streets. It’s a real five-alarm fire where you can increasingly in a normalized way, use the expanded investigative intelligence, prosecutorial, financial and ultimately violent tools of the state against people who are very far away from actual acts of violence. But what the War on Terror really should have taught everyone by now is that these tools will just always be more relentlessly, vigorously applied and excused to people of color, particularly Black people, particularly indigenous people, and to their perceived allies, against left-wing politics far more than is conceivable to be against right-wing politics. That’s the reality of the War on Terror.

 

Gideon Resnick: And to that point, I’m curious, like what you think the next 20 years actually look like in the so-called War on Terror. How is it even conceivably possible to break this cycle of expanding the surveillance state, having a political party sort of dictate what direction that goes into and against whom?

 

Spencer Ackerman: There’s only one answer and it’s to organize. Elite politics has shown us for 20 years that it will never abolish the War on Terror. Kerry Howley in her excellent recent New York magazine piece about the whistleblower Daniel Hale, who should be freed this instant, had this wonderful line about how, like before you realized it, the War on Terror was just American foreign policy, only through grassroots pressure and organizing can politicians be forced into a binary choice between preserving the War on Terror and preserving their political office or the chance of them holding it. That, I think, is the only thing that can determine that there can be a future without a War on Terror, and we deserve that future and we can achieve it.

 

Gideon Resnick: That was my conversation with Spencer Ackerman from late last week. He is the author of the new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. You should pick it up ASAP.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely. We’ll have a link to where you can get it that’s not Amazon, and more of Spencer’s work from his Substack “Forever Wars” in our show notes. But that’s the latest for now.

 

Gideon Resnick: It is Monday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we were talking about sports that have a completely unique understanding of the word love, different than you would find in Apple podcast reviews, for instance. So tennis is U.S. Open was this weekend featuring major upsets in both the men’s and women’s contests. On the men’s side, Russia’s Danill Medvedev beat out Novak Djokovic of Serbia, in a match that could have made Djokovic the first male player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a year since 1969. The women’s title was won by 18-year old Emma Raducanu of Britain, who entered the tournament ranked 150th in the world. She had to play through the qualifying tournament just to reach the finals, winning every single one of her 10 matches along the way. So Josie, there’s an obvious question when a teenager wins a major athletic contests like this: are you jealous?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: You know, Gideon, I still think I’m 18, but I’m almost twice her age so when I remember that, I am jealous, but also happy about my very bad memory. What about you?

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I, I don’t understand this world whatsoever. Like, I’m not even wildly far removed from this age I guess, but it still feels like it never happens to me, you know? Like that’s how, like it so much in the rear view that like it doesn’t make any sense. And also to the point of the conversation we were just having about like 9/11 and anniversaries and things like that, we are old enough that people who are major athletes at the top of their sport, winning important tournaments in their lives, were born after that happened. I mean, that is crazy.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: I know. It’s unbelievable. Gideon’s also just trying to tell all of you guys that he’s younger than me. Don’t believe him. That is fake news. That’s complete fake news.

 

Gideon Resnick: I’m definitely, I would say that I’m definitely closer to double her age than not, if that makes sense.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It does make sense. It does make sense. My son is as far away from Emma’s age as I am from Emma’s age, which is pretty upsetting. But hopefully, maybe one day he’ll be a famous tennis star. It’s not looking good, but we can cross our fingers.

 

Gideon Resnick: There’s a lot of time, which is the reassuring element here. Just like that, we have checked our temps. If you are young in a team, congratulations on your athletic success. We’ll be back after some ads.

 

[ad break]

 

Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.

 

[sung] Headlines.

 

Gideon Resnick: Iran reached an agreement with the UN’s nuclear watchdog over the weekend, allowing inspectors to install new monitoring equipment inside the country’s nuclear facilities. Many see this as a step in the right direction after the last couple of years of tension between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. A lot of those tensions came about under the Trump administration after Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal granting the US the ability to impose sanctions on Iran. The latest agreement reaffirms an ongoing inspection program to monitor nuclear production in the country, which could eventually lead to the US lifting its sanctions.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: People who are not fully vaccinated are 10x more likely to be hospitalized and 11x more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated, according to a CDC report published last Friday. A second CDC study highlighted that the Moderna vaccine is more effective in preventing hospitalizations than the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson shots—shout out to the Moderna hive. However, all three vaccines approved in the US collectively were 86% effective in preventing hospitalizations and are extremely effective in protecting against severe illness and death. Last week, President Biden announced he would require federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and mandate that large employers either require their workers to be vaccinated or get regularly tested. Meanwhile, with nearly 30,000 kids hospitalized in August, the highest levels reported to date—terrifying— the FDA still working to get more data before approving a vaccine to be given to kids younger than 12 years old.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that definitely feels like it will be the turning point in this.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, absolutely.

 

Gideon Resnick: Democratic leaders hope to hold a vote on President Biden’s economic agenda later this month, but lawmakers still cannot agree on a price tag for the multitrillion dollar spending plan. Democrats feel a sense of urgency to pass this bill in the coming months because strategists think they’ll likely lose the House and possibly the Senate in 2022—and who do they listen to but strategists—which would close their window for passing this kind of package. Do or die moments like these are a summoning spell for the Republican demon that controls Joe Manchin. Manchin is threatening to vote against the $3.5 trillion proposal, which includes programs to address child poverty and climate change due to, well, its cost. Manchin’s colleague, Senator Bernie Sanders said any smaller economic package would be, quote, “unacceptable.” The debate played out during Sunday news programs yesterday where Sanders said it’s important that the reconciliation bill passes alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Here he is on CNN’s State of the Union:

 

[clip of Sen. Sanders] These two bills, the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill, are marching down the path together. Mr. Manchin, I know, worked very hard on the bipartisan bill. It would be a terrible thing for the American people if both of those bills failed. They are linked together. They’re going to go forward together.

 

Gideon Resnick: Just like the people that meet in our Apple podcast reviews—the last time I will do that call back, I promise. Although the reconciliation bill is still being fully formed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aims to have it fully written by September 15th, and needs all Democrats to be united for the legislation to pass in both the House and the Senate.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: In a testament to the enduring legacy of Lady Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, someone jumped out of the sky at a football stadium this weekend. And that someone was a cat, who was in attendance at a game between University of Miami and Appalachian State. Thankfully, the cat is safe after somehow ending up in the upper decks of the stadium and hanging from a ledge by one paw. It was crazy. It plummeted to the stands below, but was caught by fans who made a DIY safety net out of an American flag. Cat rescue quickly overtook football as everyone in the stadium’s favorite sport, with the crowd responding like this when the animal was revealed to be OK:

 

[crowd roars]

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, it was extremely emotional. Anyway, this is the story of yet another college athlete who should be paid for their hard work. We stand with you, varsity falling cat.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, you need to organize for your rights. You should not be falling for free, that’s for sure.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: You should organize in the reviews of What A Day. And yet another callback.

 

Gideon Resnick: One more.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: You made promises. I did not.

 

Gideon Resnick: That’s exactly true. There’s a recording to prove it. And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, leave a review, exorcise Manchin’s demon, and tell your friends to listen.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just stories of cats who fell but we’re OK, like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.

 

Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.

 

[together] And be older, athletes!

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, come on. We got to be on the same page, somehow.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Everybody in the world needs to work together to make me feel young and they are failing.

 

Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.

 

 

What A Day