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After Aaron Bushnell’s Self-Immolation, A Pentagon Witch Hunt Looms

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US Airman Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation in protest of the US support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza has raised questions from some about the politics of soldiers in the US military. Bushnell’s self-avowed anarchist views have become an object of particular scrutiny, raising the possibility of Pentagon surveillance and investigations into left-leaning troops. Ken Klippenstein joins The Real News to discuss the political storm brewing in the wake of Bushnell’s act of protest and the ramifications it could have on soldiers and civilians alike.

Post-Production: Alina Nehlich


Transcript

Mel Buer:  Welcome back, my friends, to The Real News Network Podcast. I’m your host, Mel Buer. I wanted to take a moment to thank you once again for tuning into us week after week. Whether you’ve got our shows on while you’re making coffee in the morning, put our podcasts on during your commute to and from work, or give us a listen throughout the workday, The Real News Network is committed to bringing you ad-free, independent journalism that you can count on. We care a lot about what we do, and it’s through donations from dedicated listeners like you that we can keep on doing it. Please consider becoming a monthly sustainer of The Real News Network by heading over to therealnews.com/donate. And if you want to stay in touch and get updates about our work, then sign up for our free newsletter at therealnews.com/sign-up. As always, we appreciate your support in whatever form it takes.

Since the self-immolation of US airman, Aaron Bushnell, in protest of the US government’s involvement in the Israel-Palestine war on February 25 of this year, anti-Zionist activists have invoked his memory and final words at demonstrations across the world. The town of Jericho in Palestine has named a street after Bushnell, with the mayor of Jericho saying at the unveiling ceremony, “We didn’t know him and he didn’t know us. There were no social, economic, or political ties between us. What we share is a love for freedom and a desire to stand against these attacks on Gaza.”

Bushnell’s self-avowed anarchism and anti-authoritarian ideology have been the subject of much conversation in the intervening weeks, with top Pentagon officials fielding questions from reporters about what they are calling extremist views. Should the government officials call Bushnell’s act of protest an “act of extremism” as Congress is pressuring them to do, it could kick off another round of investigations both within and outside of the military of left-leaning individuals in the US.

With me today to discuss this and to expand upon the dangers of the US government – Once again casting a wider surveillance net of its civilians – Is Ken Klippenstein; A reporter for The Intercept, who has covered the government’s response to Aaron Bushnell’s death extensively. Welcome to the show, Ken. Thanks for coming on.

Ken Klippenstein:  Hey. Good to be with you.

Mel Buer:  Okay. You’ve covered Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation for the last few weeks, both at The Intercept and on your personal Substack. We’ve seen this extreme form of protest demonstrated a number of times, both at home and abroad, in the last 15 years. But in Aaron’s case, this seems to be particularly unique in that he was an active duty US Service member. Why is this an important distinction to make?

Ken Klippenstein:  Well, the fact that he’s an active duty service member means that he falls under the administrative system that the military has. And a focus that they have had post-January 6, has been on rooting out so-called domestic violent extremism, and extremism in general, among its ranks. So the context in which that’s happening has been very bitterly criticized by particularly right-wing quarters in Congress because a lot of the focus has been on white nationalists, white supremacists, has been – And I quote in this story a few examples of this – Prominent senators on these relevant committees, Republican senators saying, why don’t you guys go after the left-wing so-called extremists as well?

After Bushnell’s death, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican on the Armed Services Committee and former service member himself sent a letter to the DOD subsequent to my story coming out, demanding that they respond to a series of questions about what they’re doing about left-wing extremism and so-called pro-Hamas extremism. And I want to be clear, there’s no evidence that Bushnell was pro-Hamas as far as I could tell. But the question is how is the DOD going to respond to that because once they’ve been tasked with something like that, it’s likely that they’ll have to respond to pressure from Congress. What is that going to mean for other service members in the DOD who might have similar left-wing tendencies as Bushnell did?

Mel Buer:  Right. I’ve seen some, I would say, anecdotal armchair opinions on places like Twitter, now X, and I think a lot of folks are curious. Would it be fair to say that Aaron’s death has triggered a bit of a reckoning within the ranks of the US military? Is there anything in your reporting that you’ve noticed where that sentiment, that conversation, is happening amongst not the higher ranks but your rank-and-file military service members?

Ken Klippenstein:  Yeah. There are two reactions. One is at the highest level. For example, the Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, responded to a question within days of Bushnell’s death. People were asking, isn’t this an example of extremism? And he said, yes, clearly this is an extreme act, and hinted that those are the lines along which they’re looking at this incident. But at the rank-and-file level? People had a moral shock as one would expect – And as is the point of this action – To it. Anecdotally, talking to the rank-and-file that I know, people were surprised by it. They were like, oh, my God. Who would do this? But then at the senior-most level, the response is much more political.

Something that people need to understand about these agencies is they’re under a lot of pressure from Congress. So whenever something like this happens, there prevails this both-sides attitude where they want to say, we’re taking the left wing seriously, just like the right wing too. And that’s been enhanced after January 6 because of the response. In some respects, this is something that the left didn’t anticipate, which is that anytime they go after either political tendency, there is a lot of political incentive for them to try to balance it out with an equal and opposite response. Or at least a similar response to the opposite political tendency to say, we’re not politically partisan. We go after everybody because Congress provides them with their appropriations and funding and they have oversight and so on and so forth. So that colors the response to this, is people’s perception and the fact of the post-January 6 response to perceived problems within the culture of the DOD.

Mel Buer:  Yeah. I know that the FBI painted their investigations post-January 6 with a pretty broad brush. I got a door knock from the FBI for innocuous tweets about the 2020 protests right after January 6.

Ken Klippenstein:  Wow.

Mel Buer:  So in your most recent reporting, you’ve been asking these important questions about the ways in which these agencies are responding to Aaron’s death, but it’s important to talk about the wider implications for activists in this country. The FBI has focused considerable time and resources on investigating and imprisoning individuals that they believe to fall into these five domestic extremist categories, as you’ve reported on, particularly since 2019 when they set that standard for their investigations. 

But even before that, I’m thinking of anarchists who were imprisoned and harassed by the feds in the wake of the Iraq War anti-war movement. I’m thinking of, most famously, anarchist, Scott Crow was stalked by federal agents for years after Katrina. So we’re seeing these investigations happen, especially in the wake of January 6. A good place to provide more context for our listeners is what are these categories that they categorize individuals that they’re investigating under this umbrella of violent domestic extremism in the US.

Ken Klippenstein:  Since 2019, the FBI’s had five threat categories. I’m going to read them off to you now so folks can get a sense of what these are. One is racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism. Two is anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism, which they use the acronym AGAVE for, anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism. Third is animal rights or environmental violent extremism. Fourth is abortion-related violent extremism, which has become much more of a focus, not just on the part of the left, but trying to balance out the scales.

I’ve done reporting on this as well, and what they try to do is they say, there are people that shoot up abortion clinics and things. If you look at the death count, that’s much higher than the opposing tendency, which might be vandalism and that sort of thing, pro-abortion advocates. They try to use resources to go after both of them so that they can justify to Congress because if they don’t, then one of either of the political parties is going to start yelling at them and say, why are you making all these cases about this side but not the other one? The point I want to drive home in this interview is that as soon as you open up Pandora’s box of using these agencies to pursue whatever you might think constitutes terrorism if it’s not a real ironclad example of terrorism, it’s going to get deployed against both sides. And that’s something I’ve seen again and again.

So what’s interesting about the AGAVE designation anti-government, or anti-authority violent extremism, which can include things like sovereign citizens which are traditionally right-wing or libertarian, and potentially white nationalists. I guess that would be racially, and ethically motivated. But the point is it can include both right and left. So anarchism is a left-wing tendency, but there are also right-wing anti-government tendencies. Every single one of these designations comes with a lot of opportunity for the Bureau to pursue both sides of the political aisle.

Mel Buer:  Yeah. In your most recent report, the FBI data reveals that 31% of its investigations relate to AGAVE and 60% of those investigations include cases categorized as AGAVE or civil unrest, which is going to include things like the insurrection but also includes continued surveillance and investigations of left-wing dissidents who maybe espouse anarchist or anarchist-related views online or elsewhere. Do you see this percentage rising in the future, especially now that Congress is putting exponentially more pressure on these agencies to continue these investigations?

Ken Klippenstein:  Yeah. In the past several years, investigations into domestic violent extremists have more than doubled. So we are seeing a soaring increase in the resources and attention brought to bear on these types of concerns, in part because of January 6, but it’s a little bit more complicated. If you go back to the… What was his name? George Floyd protests, that was a huge source of agita to the Trump administration and the intelligence and national security sector in addition to unrest related to coronavirus, and January 6; all of these swirled together. January 6 is the strongest example of precipitating a government response, but all of this created a maelstrom by both the right and the left. Remember, Trump said that he wanted to designate Antifa as a terrorist group.

So what you see is this race to the bottom where unfortunately both political tendencies end up trying to cast or paint their opponents as domestic violent extremists or terrorists. And the segment of the society that benefits from that is the national security state because then they have the political capital to be able to pursue some of these things and expand their authority. And that’s what we’ve seen.

Mel Buer:  There’s a lot of money going into these agencies in order to conduct these investigations and they’re sending money elsewhere as well. There are counterterrorism programs in universities, particularly in Nebraska, that are cropping up as a result of the FBI getting more military funding from the government. And everyone loses. It’s also important to bring this out. Folks may not be able to see the forest from the trees, and you’re bringing some interesting and good points in here about who wins in the scenario. We don’t as citizens. The security state is the one that wins in this scenario; They get to have way more power in order to quell dissent of any kind in order to chill any form of protest. If you follow the reporting at The Intercept and The Real News, you get this sense that piece by piece, case by case, from Jessica Reznicek to Bushnell, the Carceral state is preparing for a dark future as we move into successive crises that this country is falling under.

Ken Klippenstein:  Yeah. To give you a 10,000-foot-view of what’s happening in the intelligence community right now, they’ve officially drawn down what’s called the Global War on Terror, GWOT, which is the animating focus, their reason for being over the last 20 years, my entire adult life. So these agencies don’t take their ball and go home and say, all right. You can have your money back. They’re going to try to find some new justification or purpose. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s some nefarious conspiracy going on that they’re trying to make up because I know a lot of the guys in these agencies. They believe this stuff. They want to help. They think they’re doing the right thing. And I have to be honest, I understand people’s fear and concern. A lot of the stuff is very scary.

I’ll give you an example. Anytime there’s a mass shooting, the discourse swings towards, this guy’s a terrorist. We’ve got to charge him with terrorism. You look at what happens, it is horrifying, gross, and depressing and I understand why people are scared. I just hope that they can try to interrogate some of their thought process behind, what road are we going down if we charge this person with this. January 6 is another good example. It’s awful that people are trying to use violence in furtherance of political aims, things like that, but you’ve got to look at the specifics and break down, was this a consciously thought-out strategy of terrorism and coercion? Perhaps if you look at the cases, it’s very different. People have different motives and I wish there’d be a little bit more introspection about how we go about that.

There’s a way you can respond to this with the rule of law that punishes people for things they did that don’t necessarily break the glass and hit the red button of, let’s cast this as terrorism. And that nuance is lost in the media discourse around it, the political discourse. The sector that ends up benefiting is this national security system that is looking for a reason to exist post-war on terror. One of their focuses is the so-called Great Power Competition, focused on Russia, Iran, and China, but that’s all foreign. At the same time, they have brought to bear a focus domestically in a major way that I don’t think there’s precedent for in our lifetime. And that domestic focus is these terms we’ve been talking about, domestic violent extremism, far-right, far-left. There needs to be a debate about this because I certainly have not seen much discussion about, is this something we want to do? Certainly, people are concerned about extremism, no question, I am too, but there doesn’t seem to have been any conscious decision to go in this direction. It feels like they’re drifting towards it. And that’s what I’m hoping to trigger a little bit of with these stories.

Mel Buer:  Right. The wider net you cast, the more innocent people get swept up into it. I’m of the mind that the more leeway we give the federal government to do this kind of work, to cast these wide nets, and pick apart people’s lives – Whether or not they intend to react violently to things that the government is doing – Is a dangerous place to be. A lot of folks don’t know how to have those nuanced conversations or feel like they have any empowerment. They don’t feel empowered to be able to influence that space because the national security state and the higher echelons of government feel so different and distant from what they think they can do. So I wonder if you have any takeaways from your reporting that help people center themselves and focus themselves on actionable steps that could potentially be taken in order to influence how the government is using these agencies?

Ken Klippenstein:  Yeah. I would suggest people to look at the underlying evidence. I cite in this story the fact which I was surprised to learn, I didn’t know is true, that extremism among service members in the military – This is a RAND Corporation study – Is lower or similar, in many respects, because it’s a diverse agency. More than a lot of other agencies, it’s more reflective of the general population. I have plenty of criticisms of the Defense Department; You could read my reporting to find them, no shortage. But to cast this as some hotbed extremism, the data doesn’t bear that out. And because of that, we need to approach these things with some measure of equanimity and reflection about, do we want to have this sledgehammer response to this?

When President Biden first came into office, in his first full day of office, he put out a statement saying, we’re going to prioritize responding to domestic extremism and task the intelligence community with creating a report. They created their first-ever report on it. Then that sends the signal to all these agencies downstream that this is what we’re taking seriously, and this is what we need to focus on. Again, how much of a debate was there about that? I’m not suggesting that people aren’t concerned about those things, particularly after January 6 and the unrest in 2020. I get it. But being worried about something is different than, in some deliberative process, going through and considering the pros and cons of this response.

I want to quote some testimony that Republican Senator Chuck Grassley – The ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, a very powerful committee that has oversight of the FBI and DOJ – Said to the FBI director, Chris Wray, maybe a year or two ago. He said, “How do you plan to make your left-wing anarchist extremism program as robust as your white supremacy and malicious extremism program?” That’s it. They are not even hiding it. This is a political football for both sides to try to advance their political aims. I would ask people, who wins on net? You might win one play, the other team might win another play, but in the end, who is this benefiting? And that’s something I’d like people to ask themselves.

Mel Buer:  Yeah. I remember the Biden administration releasing that investigative report and I remember reading through it a couple of years back and being shocked. They paint the cases of – Air quotes, for our listeners – Violent extremism with a very broad brush. They’re casting a wide net. This opens up more chances for these agencies to investigate regular citizens who may engage in what should be protected free speech, for example, and who end up mired in the courts for years sometimes. They use these to quell any dissent. And we are talking about both types of dissent on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But again, we don’t win in this scenario. The federal government is the one who gets to pull a Patriot Act Part II and engage in much more sinister surveillance of its citizens as a result of these types of conversations. Any other thoughts, final thoughts, about this reporting? What are we looking at in the future? Are we looking at more of this investigative nightmare, I suppose?

Ken Klippenstein:  We’re going to see what the military’s response to Bushnell’s death has been. When they’re tasked with a series of questions that somebody on the relevant Armed Services Committee to answer, they’re very likely going to be some response. In addition to that, should President Trump come into office, what his version of the response to domestic extremism will look like? So all of this is very much not in the past and is still being decided actively right now.

Mel Buer:  All right. Well, thanks for coming on, and thanks for giving us some important context here for our listeners. And keep doing the good reporting that you do, I love reading your work.

Ken Klippenstein:  My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Mel Buer:  That’s it for us here at The Real News Network Podcast. Once again, I’m your host, Mel Buer. If you love today’s episode, be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get notified when the next one drops. You can find us on most platforms, including Spotify and YouTube. If you find us on YouTube, be sure to drop a like and a comment down below and I will do my best to respond to everyone. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can find me on most social media, my DMs are always open, or you can send me a message via email at mel@therealnews.com. Send your tips, comments, questions, episode ideas, gripes, whatever you’d like. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for sticking around, and I’ll see you next time.

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