Ken Klippenstein is the Trump administration’s “dissent channel.”
The investigative reporter, now Washington correspondent for The Nation, has broken some of the biggest national security stories of the coronavirus era. Klippenstein revealed that Border Patrol had conducted an arrest in Portland as federal agents were streaming into the protest-roiled city and uncovered internal Pentagon documents about America’s lack of pandemic preparedness.
He was even one of the first to report on the early outbreaks in immigration detention.
Many of Klippenstein’s investigations have revealed how America’s long wars in the Middle East are coming home. U.S. military planners were worried that the economic pressure campaign against Iran was making the coronavirus pandemic more difficult, and Homeland Security officials tried to tie Antifa protesters to the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia.
The National Interest spoke to Klippenstein about national security, the politicization of intelligence, and how the forever wars affect law enforcement in the United States. Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Matthew Petti: Thanks for giving your time. I wanted to dive right in with some news that just came out, which was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report on election interference, where they said basically that Russia was rooting against Biden, and that Iran and China were rooting against [President Donald] Trump.
You’re someone who has a lot of experience reporting on the national security apparatus and how stuff can get molded and manipulated, and I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the process that may have led to this report?
Ken Klippenstein: I think, coming into an election like this—this is the first election since 2016 in which foreign influence was a big concern, so I think it’s natural that they would conduct an assessment now.
This is what the ODNI and other national security agencies do. They’re tasked with detecting foreign influence, conducting what’s called counter-intelligence, which means trying to counter the intelligence apparatuses of foreign states.
I think this has become increasingly politicized—so it’s probably unusually in the sense that it’s getting a lot of coverage—but this is what these agencies do, so I’m not too surprised that they would issue a statement like that.
Matthew Petti: We did see, with the DHS report on YPG, that there is a tendency to try to link domestic issues to foreign conflicts and vice versa. I’m curious if you see anything concerning with the ODNI report, and also the attempts to ban TikTok—a use of domestic tools for foreign policy aims, or bringing foreign issues into domestic law enforcement.
Ken Klippenstein: I think there’s been a general politicization, not just on the part of the Trump administration, which has been quite intense, but on the part of the Democrats as well.
For example, if you asked a good national security reporter, they’d tell you [House Intelligence Committee chair Adam] Schiff and the Democrats in particular in the House, with the access to intelligence that they have, there’s going to be a tendency to release stuff that advances their political aims.
That’s pretty typical, but it has intensified in recent years.
After 2016, the framing of this election as one in which foreign influence made a significant or even decisive impact—I’m not commenting on that either way—the notion or perception that that happened in 2016, it just seems like a continuation of that.
But, again, this is what these agencies do.
It’s typical for them to look for foreign influence, and try to counter the intelligence apparatus of other states or foreign groups, but in this case, we’re seeing it potentially be a political thing.
In the case of the Kurdish militant groups, this is consistent with what President Trump has said in the past, for example, when he vowed to label Antifa a terror group, that is of course very difficult to do for a domestic organization unless you’re able to prove that foreign sponsorship.
I would say that what is different now is that this is being used for increasingly partisan ends, and I would say that this is true of both Republicans and Democrats, although I think the Trump administration has been more intense in exploiting these kinds of things.
This is the direction that these things have been going.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is unprecedented for them to be looking at these sorts of things, but for the parties to use them for reasons related to elections, and to say, “this guy’s preferred by that foreign country,” that’s pretty unusual, even if it’s not unusual for the intelligence agencies to be conducting these assessments.
Matthew Petti: The flip side of that, which is very bizarre but also seems to be happening a lot, is that foreign policy ends up getting tied up in domestic partisan politics.
I think a lot of what we’re doing with Iran and China is definitely tied to domestic Republican concerns and throwing red meat to the base.
And I mean, [for Democrats], the whole Afghanistan withdrawal thing with the Russian [bounties on] troops.
Even the Kurdish thing. The whole idea that the Kurds were supporting Antifa seems to me like it comes from when [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan tried to harness a U.S. domestic concern to his advantage.
He knows Trump’s opposed to Antifa, he knows there’s this tenuous link, so he tries to link the two.
Ken Klippenstein: I think there was a report recently—I wish I had time to explore this in my article—showing that Erdoğan had spoken to Trump and had tried to make the case to him that there’s ties between these groups, I would imagine because he wants help in extirpating the Kurds and Kurdish groups.
The context being, Turkey and Erdoğan’s horrible mistreatment of the Kurdish minority population, not just within its borders, but without as well.
That is very significant, and to see a president potentially pursuing these sorts of policies, as it appears to be the case, because he heard it from some head of state that he chatted with—
That’s certainly very unusual, and an intensification of political dynamics that may have been there in the past, but not in this sort of ferocity we’re seeing right now.
Matthew Petti: The other strange thing about that is that it doesn’t seem like the Pentagon or the State Department latched onto this at all.
To them, it’s the same strategy, it’s the same policy towards the Kurds.
But then domestic law enforcement latched onto it, which may not have been Erdoğan’s aim to begin with.
It’s interesting that America has such a big intelligence apparatus with so many different moving parts.
Ken Klippenstein: One thing you pointed out is that this has been a law-enforcement response. So when we talk about the document I obtained, which was a Customs and Border Protection document, it is a law-enforcement agency, it’s not in the intelligence community.
The Department of Homeland Security does have a unit that’s in the intelligence community, which is Intelligence and Analysis, but that’s separate from CBP.
Law enforcement is able to do things that the intelligence community can’t do. Formal components of the intelligence community are restricted in the kinds of information that they’re able to gather about U.S. residents.
They need an authorization, for example, from the FISA court, a secret court that identifies people they consider to be foreign agents. Once they get that authorization, then they can look at individuals.
But the law-enforcement agencies don’t need that necessarily. Law-enforcement agencies can conduct forms of surveillance that the intelligence agencies would need to pass through more barriers to be able to do.
This is something that had been told to me by a DHS intelligence friend of mine. He said law enforcement is the way that the administration could potentially crackdown on Antifa, which, as I’m being told, is the aim of a lot of these different programs we’re seen, from the Portland deployment to this DHS report.
He said that the easiest way to go about doing that is actually not to use the intelligence community, because of those rules I was describing before. It’s to use the law-enforcement agencies like the Justice Department.
For example, they sent U.S. Marshals down to Portland. And they were doing a lot more there than is publicly known. I’m writing about that now.
Not just the U.S. Marshals, but potentially using the FBI as well, and of course DHS itself has a whole bunch of law enforcement components within it, so all of those tools can be useful if you’re not able to clear the bar and provide requisite evidence that folks are acting on behalf of a foreign power.
As in the case of Antifa, I think they probably can’t.
Matthew Petti: Sometimes you have very frank admissions behind closed doors. I remember you had a scoop a few months ago where the U.S. military was basically admitting that the U.S. pressure campaign on Iran was making the coronavirus situation worse, which is something that the State Department was super-adamant is not the case.