This statement was admiringly blurted out by political vlogger Jamarl Thomas on his program The Progressive Soapbox last week. What he was talking about was a recent interview that Aaron Maté, producer, journalist and on-air talent at Paul Jay’s Real News Network, did with veteran journalist James Risen, currently of The Intercept. What did they discuss? The jailing of Reality Winner—Risen’s source for a leaked NSA document about potential Russian digital interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential primary.
Listen here, it’s really worth your time:
If you’re not familiar with Maté, a little background is in order. If you already know, feel free to skip this paragraph, but longtime Democracy Now listeners will recognize him for the nine years he spent on that program as a correspondent and sometimes co-anchor with Amy Goodman. He left DN in 2016 to join the Real News Network, just as Goodman was starting to embrace some fairly destructive establishment viewpoints (where previously she’d played footsy with them) in her coverage of key events, particularly around Russiagate and the U.S. proxy war of aggression in Syria.
It stands to reason that Thomas calls him Aaron “Buzzsaw” Maté. Even during his youthful Democracy Now days, Maté showed a genuine talent for interviewing people with a dogged focus on facts and an absolute inability to let his interviewees get away with bullshit, regardless of their perceived status.
As I listened to this interview with Risen, I started having flashbacks to all the Columbo reruns I watched as a kid. If you’ve ever seen the old detective show with the inimitable Peter Falk, there was a formula: the disheveled working class Columbo would ask an endless stream of seemingly basic questions of his suspects, who were usually impatient and annoyed wealthy white people who thought he was far beneath them in the pecking order. Eventually, they would crack under the pressure of his incessant queries, realizing too late that he’d been amassing reams of factual evidence against them while they’d been too busy feeling superior to notice.
Maté performs something like the upper-class journalist version of Columbo in his interview with Risen and it’s fucking beautiful. Click To Tweet He starts out innocuously enough, setting the stage by asking Risen about Winner’s recent 5-year prison sentence and the unequal application of the law as compared to, say, former general and head of the CIA David Petraeus, who received little more than a light spanking and a wink for revealing highly classified information to his mistress. This was all in Risen’s wheelhouse and he got comfortable and righteous about the unfairness of Winner’s sentence, the imperial behavior of the Trump administration, yadda yadda.
All good and well, but then Maté did something unprecedented. He suggested they discuss the actual document Winner provided to Risen and The Intercept, which he had taken the time to review in detail. WTF!? Journalists aren’t supposed to behave this way anymore. They’re not supposed to act like skeptical detectives. They’re not supposed to look at the evidence. They’re not supposed to question their betters. But Maté, having ignored that memo, and merely by walking through the contents and relatively obvious meaning of the document, had Risen hemming and hawing indignantly. In fact, Risen remarkably refused to even discuss the contents of the document he was only moments before referencing as a legitimate, bombshell piece of whistleblowing intel.
As Maté deftly unpacked the document’s underwhelming information in what became an increasingly uncomfortable exchange, the most Risen was able to do was say he disagreed with Maté’s interpretation, without offering his own—even when Maté, by simply reading the damn thing, pointed out that the NSA analyst who prepared the brief never claims a hack by the Russian government of any U.S. election system. Instead, the document reveals a spear phishing email sent to some election officials, purportedly originating from a well-regarded technology company, but inexplicably and amateurishly using a Gmail address! And then the analyst can’t say with any certainty who the email originated from, let alone whether it came from the Russian government. This is the bullshit Reality Winner thought was so urgent? This is the spurious crap she’s gone to jail for?
Let’s take a brief pause here for a reality check. Risen is an experienced investigative journalist, who spent years working at the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer in 2006 for his coverage of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping practices and has a history of taking deep looks into intelligence agency programs and national security issues. He’s written books critical of the CIA. He refused to testify when the Bush and Obama administrations wanted to lock up one of his sources, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who had been helping Risen round out a report of how the CIA fucked up an operation where they were trying to provide fake nuclear weapons designs to Iran. While Sterling went to jail over his communications with Risen (dubiously, I might add), Risen himself successfully faced down the government and avoided prosecution.
All of this is to say, Risen is not a fucking fool. He knows that U.S. intelligence services are often incompetent, criminal, mendacious and vindictive. So why all of a sudden is he, in addition to having become a shameless Russiagate shill, unable to critically review an easy-to-spot stretch of an intelligence memo? What the hell happened to this guy? Did he suddenly lose his thinking skills when he went to work for The Intercept? And why on earth did they publish it as if it was genuine intel? I’ll let y’all ponder that for a moment.
At this stage of the interview, Columbo Maté had Risen on the run. In frustration, Risen seemed on the verge of childishly calling Maté a conspiracy theorist for being skeptical of the larger Russian election tampering narrative. And it’s here’s where Maté got to what he was really after. How did Risen and The Intercept, which is supposed to be a wicked savvy national security outlet, screw up their publishing of the document so badly that Winner was identified in a day and arrested?! I mean, c’mon. At the very least, you’d think Risen would be extra careful around sources given his near-jail experience with Sterling.
On that count, we may never know. The millisecond Maté raised the issue, Risen cut the interview and scampered. But wait. Hold the phone. We do know a little something about how Winner was identified by the government so quickly. It has to do with codes that are embedded in all classified documents that make it easy to understand where a document originated. Because The Intercept went and published the raw document without scrubbing those codes, they gave the government a gift in nabbing Winner. Check this piece about it.
Okay, so what does all this mean? One, Aaron Maté is indeed a beast. He offers no deference to Risen while somehow remaining polite and professional throughout the entire exchange. He practices what should be pro forma and mainstream for any journalist: skeptical, evidence-based inquiry. It’s sad that this should even be notable. Two, the ridiculousness of entire Reality Winner affair has got to have any critically thinking person sniffing the air. What really motivated The Intercept’s story? How and why were they so incompetent in exposing their source? How does Risen’s preposterous credulity towards flimsy NSA analysis rise to the level of “fearless adversarial journalism” The Intercept is supposed to be all about?
I don’t know, man. The thing about bullshit is it always stinks.
In an age of escalating in-your-face propaganda, we should thank Aaron Maté for kicking open the outhouse door.