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'In Deep' Challenges President Trump's Notion Of A Deep-State Conspiracy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump and some of his allies have blamed the deep state for trying to undermine his presidency. My guest David Rohde has written a new book titled "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'" It examines and discredits Trump's claims about a deep state, traces the history of the expression deep state, looks at how presidential power has changed since Nixon and how President Trump has expanded presidential power while weakening the checks and balances on his own power.

Rohde says one recent example of how Trump is trying to expand presidential power is the claim he made at Monday's press conference that he has total authority over deciding when states should reopen. Rohde is executive editor for news at The New Yorker online. He's a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who was held captive by the Taliban for seven months. In 2009, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with a team of reporters for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

David Rohde, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a book about the so-called deep state?

DAVID ROHDE: It struck me as a journalist that it's amazing how widespread this belief has become. There was a poll in early 2018 that found more than 70% of Americans felt there was a secret group of unelected officials and generals who influence American policy in Washington. And I think this is sort of a wake-up call, you know, for the establishment - I'm a member of it as a mainstream journalist - and scientists and doctors and policy experts that we're really not trusted by large numbers of Americans.

GROSS: Where did the expression deep state originate? And what was it regionally intended to mean?

ROHDE: So for decades, political scientists used it to talk about, actually, the military in Turkey and its efforts in that country to limit democracy, and it really wasn't applied in the United States. And I've searched around as part of this whole research effort, and the first time it was applied to the American government was by a University of California, Berkeley, professor, Peter Dale Scott. And I tracked him down and interviewed him. And he applied it in a book he wrote in 2007, and he talked about sort of the military industrial complex. And this is the kind of liberal fear of a deep state.

They are worried that there is a sort of cabal of defense contractors and generals who relentlessly push the country into war after war. There's a different meaning that's emerged for conservatives. We can talk about that. That's a sort of ever-expanding government, an administrative state. But so Peter Dale Scott wrote this book. He was on Alex Jones' radio show and talked about it. And then he was frustrated how the term was sort of hijacked, and it becomes much more in use after the 2016 election.

The first time it's really introduced to a really broad American audience is an essay in Breitbart, the news website that was run by Steve Bannon at that point, that declares that there is a war underway between the deep state - the administrative state, an ever-growing government that, to conservatives, wants to take away our rights and liberties - and the new president, Donald Trump.

GROSS: Yeah, it concluded by saying that there's a great power struggle underway between Trump and the deep state fed by over $4 trillion a year in federal spending. So when Bannon publishes in Breitbart this article about how the deep state is undermining Trump, what does this article mean by the expression deep state.

ROHDE: So for Republicans and conservatives, the deep state is an administrative state. It's an ever-growing government, and anyone who kind of supports it or participates in it - in the Breitbart essay, it's even local government officials. So if you are a schoolteacher in your town or a police officer or, you know, a fireman, you're a part of the deep state, too. And it's exaggerated. It's this view that there'll be this relentless liberal effort to expand government across the United States.

It's also vague, though. The piece is - and this is part of the problem, is that the term is thrown around. It's used to sort of discredit people. And one of my core goals was to try to understand, you know, what it is and does it really exist. But it is a very, very effective political tool to discredit people that the president now uses as aggressively as anyone.

GROSS: Why do you think it's caught on in the way it has, this whole idea that there's a deep state and that people in government are conspiring against Trump?

ROHDE: So there's a long, long history - particularly the FBI and the CIA - of abusing Americans. And I go in the book back to the 1970s, and that's where it really starts. And there was an amazing Senate investigation chaired by Senator Frank Church of Idaho. John Tower, Republican, was the co-chair. And they uncovered decades of abuses by the FBI and the CIA. They were opening - the CIA was opening the mail of Americans. They opened John Steinbeck's mail. The FBI had a list of 28,000 people they were going to round up as subversives. That included Norman Mailer. Members of Congress were spied on. The Supreme Court was spied on.

And a lot of this information went to presidents of both parties. Lyndon Johnson had the FBI sort of spy on fellow Democrats at the Democratic National Convention. And the worst, you know, abuses were obviously Nixon during Watergate. So liberals fear, you know, the military industrial complex; conservatives fear, you know, the administrative state. And that's a real thing. And in the digital age in particular, the National Security Agency, which does eavesdropping, I mean, you know, these agencies are more powerful than ever.

The question is, you know, how do we control and what's the best way to do that. And then are these allegations of a coup - the president has accused the deep state of carrying out a coup against him - true or not.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about Trump's response to the coronavirus and how his notion of a deep state conspiracy against him might have figured into that. The New York Times just published an article about things that Trump might have done earlier that he didn't and people who warned him and the warnings that he did not heed. And there's a sentence in that article that says, in the wake of his impeachment by the House and in the midst of his Senate trial, Trump's response to the virus was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the deep state, the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus and likely save lives.

I'm wondering what you have seen and heard about how the trump fear of the deep state conspiracy against him might have affected his response to the virus.

ROHDE: So the president, throughout his career, has sort of had a tendency to look outside his organization. When he was, you know, running The Trump Organization in New York, he would call friends late at night to talk about real estate deals and sort of disdain the opinions of people in his own organization, and that's continued in the White House. It emerged in the coronavirus, and there was a real skepticism of the warnings he received in January and February about what would happen.

And what's alarmed me is that, you know, Dr. Anthony Fauci - you know, the country's top infectious disease expert - you know, is the latest government official to be accused of being part of some deep state plot against the president. You know, people might remember, in the press conference, the president referred to the State Department as the Deep State Department. And Fauci put his hand in his palm, and, you know, that went viral, and there was all these attacks on him. Then he was accused of exaggerating, Fauci, the threat posed by the coronavirus.

So there's all these things - I was just looking online last night - you know, mocking Fauci, calling him Fraud-ci (ph), shortstop. And then there was people, you know, president supporters, saying to stop the corona coup. But this has gotten so serious that, actually, a group of U.S. marshals were ordered to protect Fauci because he's received so many death threats. I read that Times story. There was a great Washington Post story.

And that's the question - you know, has this belief in a deep state, this fear of these uncontrollable government bureaucrats, you know, now caused more people to lose their lives in the coronavirus pandemic than should have happened? We don't know. There's great reporting out there already. But there's no question that the president remains sort of very suspicious of career government officials.

GROSS: Yeah. And while we're on the subject of Fauci, Trump retweeted, time to fire Fauci.

ROHDE: (Laughter) Yes. It's - and I think it's confusing. There's a real fear. You know, intelligence officials, the heads of the CIA and the FBI - there's now a acting director of national intelligence, but before, it was Dan Coats - they sort of dread public hearings. They dread speaking publicly because they know the press will or senators from both parties will ask them questions that will force them to contradict the president's beliefs about the coronavirus, about ISIS, you know, about China. And when that happens, you know, you get fired. So there are less and less hearings now.

It's sort of extraordinary. The president is facing reelection, and the top law enforcement and intelligence experts in the country are speaking less and less publicly because they fear publicly contradicting him. But there's a belief that if they don't talk, that's actually good.

GROSS: Are they afraid to contradict him because they don't want to lose their jobs, or are they afraid to contradict him because they fear if they lose their jobs, that a Trump loyalist will replace them and not be competent?

ROHDE: It's a little bit of both. But there is a mentality that it's better to wait this out, that you kind of can get in the president's crosshairs for a week and you're serving your institutions better by avoiding those crosshairs, staying quiet. And so there's a whole rationale for that, and I understand, and I talked to many people in these institutions and they defend it. They defend going quiet. They say it's better to kind of get through these four years, see what happens after the election, instead of picking a fight with the president. The flip side of that is you have, again, a silencing of our country's top experts. And it's really disturbing to me, personally.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Rohde, executive editor for news at The New Yorker online and author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'" We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Rohde, author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'" It examines how President Trump has blamed the deep state for trying to undermine his presidency, while at the same time, he's appointed loyalists to key positions, fired those who have opposed him and limited checks and balances on his own power.

The deep state is a conspiracy theory. Are there other conspiracy theories that you found Trump or members of his administration believe in?

ROHDE: I think the president doesn't really believe in the concept of kind of apolitical public service. And maybe that's a naive idea. I think that he thinks that - he comes from a world of New York real estate, and everybody kind of has an angle, and everybody's sort of exaggerating what's happening. So the idea that he would be getting a daily intelligence briefing from the CIA and they would be presenting sort of just the facts to him in a very straightforward way, I think he finds that hard to believe.

To be fair to him, he was, you know, impacted by the 2016 election. One of the people I interviewed was Mike Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA. He publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in an op-ed in The New York Times. And Morell kind of regrets that. He feels like Trump's first, you know, interactions with the intelligence community were attacks on him. And he also feels that the public sparring that goes on, these attacks by John Brennan on Twitter on Trump, play into this conservative notion - and then some liberals - that these aren't neutral intelligence agencies; they are biased, politically.

And so, you know, there's - and that's just gotten worse. The distrust by Trump himself and among his aides has just grown worse.

GROSS: But a problem is, a belief in fact is often interpreted now as political. Like, if you contradict Trump with a fact, that's considered to be political. But people need to stand up for facts.

ROHDE: And that's the core problem here. So James Clapper is one of the characters in the book. He - his fear is that there's a sort of war on fact going on and a war on truth. And he thinks that, in an effort to win political advantage - this is all about, you know, winning elections - you distort facts, you confuse people, you undermine experts, so your political narrative wins, and you rally your base. But he warns that we're going to become ungovernable, and that's where coronavirus comes in, where, you know, can you get people to obey the government and believe the government?

I was talking with a friend of mine in New York earlier this week, and, you know, it's not just people on the right; these polls show that the people who are most likely to believe the deep state are sort of NRA members who don't want their weapons taken away and then also people of color. And there were many people in New York who sort of didn't believe the government warnings and for understandable reasons, with all these decades of, you know, FBI mistreatment of Martin Luther King and other African American leaders, you know, why there's such distrust in government.

So I - also, one of the main characters in the book is Will Hurd. He's a former CIA officer and a Republican who was elected to Congress from Texas. And it was fascinating sort of talking to Hurd on the one side, a Republican, throughout the impeachment and Clapper and other sort of Democrats at the same time and Adam Schiff. So many Republicans, you know, see Trump as kind of awkward, amateurish or unorthodox. Those were sort of the terms that her and other Republicans used with me. And they sort of say, yeah, he kind of, you know, says these conspiracy theories.

But they see him as kind of, you know, bumbling or, you know, that many people don't see it. And then it's - on the other side of this sort of huge political divide we have, you know, Democrats see him as, like, you know, an existential threat to American democracy, that he's sort of, you know, intentionally or unintentionally kind of moving us towards authoritarianism by silencing people and by politicizing the government and sort of slowly taking over agencies, such as the Justice Department and using them to attack his enemies and protect his friends.

GROSS: So Trump is opposed to what he describes as the deep state, this conspiracy of people in government and military who are trying to undermine his presidency. At the same time, he's dismantled some of the government and created his own state with people who are loyal to him. Let's start with how he's dismantled a lot of the government. He's fired so many people who have contradicted him or who have just, like, stood up for facts or who represent the possibility of oversight, like, recently, Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community's inspector general who took the whistleblower's complaint to Congress about Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president. This is the quid pro quo call that led to his impeachment.

And another recent example is he ousted the leader of the new watchdog panel that's supposed to be overseeing how the administration spends the trillion dollars of taxpayer money for COVID-19 relief. Can you talk about some of the people who Trump has, you know, fired because they've tried to use oversight or because they've contradicted him?

ROHDE: So the amazing thing about this moment with Trump is that he feels this sort of disdain for career government officials. And he doesn't trust them. He feels they're blocking him from being able to carry out his powers as president. And then he's joining a long-running, decades-old conservative belief that the presidency was sort of weakened too much in the 1970s. After Watergate and the other reforms I mentioned, Congress and the judiciary shouldn't have any say whatsoever in how the president, you know, conducts his business.

One of the reforms in the '70s was creating inspectors general. It was created by Congress. And this was a way to oversee money, such as the $2 trillion bailout. And there's a whole philosophy that's existed since Watergate, since the Ford administration. And back then, Dick Cheney, who was President Ford's chief of staff, and Donald Rumsfeld, who also served as chief of staff, led by Antonin Scalia, believed that Watergate had gone too far, the presidency was too weakened, and one young adherent to this belief was Bill Barr.

And so when you see Trump sort of firing all these people, he's reflecting this sort of decades-old belief that, of the three branches, the presidency is the most important - Bill Barr talked about this in a speech at the Heritage Foundation - and that whenever the country has sort of faced war or natural disaster, it's the executive branch that has been able to move decisively enough to save the nation. And that is under threat because the powers of the president have been curtailed. And you need to sort of ignore Congress and ignore the courts.

And it's a long-running philosophy that's been around, you know, since Watergate. It's slowly gained more credence in conservative circles. And Bill Barr has spent his whole life fighting for this, you know, trying to, you know, stop congressional oversight, trying to limit the powers of inspectors general. And he's now serving a president that I don't think believes in any of these philosophies but is very much about concentrating power in his own hands and feels that, you know, everyone around him in the government is trying to thwart him from carrying out, you know - he feels, I am the democratically elected president. And he is right, you know?

There is a mandate that comes out in every election. And the people who are elected - senators, members of the House the president - you know, should be able to enact the promises that they made to voters. Unelected officials should not be blocking elected officials from carrying out their agendas. But the pushback from career government servants is, we can't do things that are illegal. And again, it's this tension about, how much power should a president have?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Rohde, executive editor for news at The New Yorker online and author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State'." We'll talk more after a short break. And our TV critic David Bianculli will recommend some shows to watch and interesting places to look for shows off the beaten path. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Rohde, author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State'." President Trump has blamed the deep state for undermining his presidency. Rohde examines that claim, discredits it and investigates how Trump has reshaped the government, replacing critics with loyalists and weakening the checks and balances on his own power. The book is also a history of how presidential power has evolved since Nixon. Rohde is executive editor for News at The New Yorker online and is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who shared a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

You describe Attorney General William Barr as Trump's sword and shield. So in addition to Barr justifying the expansion of presidential power, has Barr's power been expanded, too? Has the power of the attorney general been expanded in the Trump administration?

ROHDE: It has. I think Barr is the most effective and sort of feared member of Trump's Cabinet. The attorney general plays a central role in the selection of judges for appointment to federal courts. And the administration has been very effective at vetting and coming forward with nominees that have written very little in their past decisions or in their writings at all that Democrats can sort of seize on to derail their nominations. And then Barr and the Justice Department has worked very closely with Mitch McConnell in getting through, you know, a very, very high number of federal appointees to the bench. And that's remaking the judiciary in a way that conservatives have tried to do for decades.

And then Barr has also sort of been a political sort of pugilist for the administration. Again, post-Watergate, the attorney general is supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the law. In theory, an attorney general - a president says, let's crack down on pharmaceutical companies. And that's the broad law enforcement policy that the president wants to carry out. What's improper is if the president says, go indict that pharmaceutical CEO because he didn't give me a campaign donation. Barr has been very political.

And he's sort of called into question the neutrality of his rule as attorney general. In this speech he gave at Notre Dame Law School in the fall, he declared that a war on organized religion was being waged on Americans and that liberals and progressives were trying to bar people from practicing their faith. And this was sort of extraordinary. It was very unusual to have an attorney general wade so openly into the culture wars and to be so polarizing.

GROSS: Trump gave Barr what you describe as, you know, the far-reaching power to unilaterally declassify top-secret documents in order to review the work of U.S. intelligence agencies. What is unusual about giving Barr that power to declassify top-secret documents?

ROHDE: For the intelligence community, it's sort of a slap in the face. They traditionally have sort of controlled secrets. Again, the person who can declassify anything is the president of the United States. And I want to emphasize again - being elected the head of state gives the president more power than anyone. And it is Trump's right to do this. No other president, though, has turned this power over to the attorney general. And again, it's seen as part of this chilling effect, this view that if you contradict the president, if you investigate the president or his allies, you know, you, yourself, will be investigated. And what's unprecedented also - you know, there was a criminal investigation into the CIA's conduct after 9/11, with detaining members of al-Qaida, torture and whether that was criminal conduct. But this is an investigation into the CIA assessment that Russia intervened in the election and then it intervened to help Trump. That's an intelligence judgment. That's a report.

It's kind of like journalism. Like, you know, an analyst sits down and looks at all this information and kind of comes to a conclusion. And that that is being looked at as somehow a criminal act is sort of extraordinary. There weren't criminal charges, you know, against the CIA analysts who got Iraq WMD wrong. And so, again, it's this unprecedented effort to intimidate people. Trump's defenders insist there's a plot against him. He's been smeared. But it's having a tremendous chilling effect in, I think, the FBI and the CIA.

GROSS: What are some of the changes Trump has made or is making now that you are concerned are likely to have a permanent or at least a lasting effect on American democracy?

ROHDE: I think you've seen loyalists, you know, steadily taking over institutions. The White House itself has been sort of closed off in terms of refusing to answer questions or respond to subpoenas from Congress. The Justice Department, I think, particularly since Bill Barr has come in there, has more and more been used to kind of protect the president's friends and punish their enemies. When three automakers reached an agreement on reducing automobile emissions with California, Bill Barr's Justice Department filed an antitrust investigation against them. That investigation, again, was - appeared to be politically motivated. It immediately sort of hurts their stock prices.

Amazon has claimed that it was - you know, wasn't granted a Defense Department contract because the president doesn't like the coverage that he receives from the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. And then it's slowly happening, as you mentioned earlier, in the intelligence community, where Dan Coats, who was a very neutral director of national intelligence - now the president's trying to put in John Ratcliffe, who will produce, you know, the opinions the president likes.

Coats got in trouble when he was testifying before Congress and said the intelligence community's belief was that the chances of North Korea agreeing to get rid of its nuclear arms was low. That upset the president. So you see this kind of spreading control of government. And again, the president has a right to do that. The question is, in the Trump era, are facts being distorted? Are people being fired or silenced when they produce facts? And are these departments that, since Watergate, were supposed to be apolitical now being weaponized politically?

GROSS: Some people are concerned that President Trump is dismantling parts of American democracy and leading us in a more authoritarian direction. Do you share those concerns?

ROHDE: One former Trump aide who worked very closely with him told me that he fears that Trump is sort of increasingly frustrated and isolated, that when Trump wanted to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, he would, you know - told his aides he wanted to do this. And there would be all these kind of arguments against it from different experts in the military or from the State Department. And Trump would be like, no. I want to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria. He is the president of the United States and, if they're legal, has a right to carry out these policies. But this person noticed that Trump was beginning to tweet more and more of his orders, what he wanted done and - because Trump feared that if he just told people in private, it would never happen. And that's a really, really bad way to carry out government policy. You have no consultations, no thoughts of what's going to, you know, happen a month, a year after this policy is carried out.

I'm not in the president's head. I don't know if he sort of dreams of being an authoritarian or if he just feels that he's under siege from Congress and the media and they're all biased against him, but whatever's driving this dynamic, I do think it's kind of undermining the checks and balances. And I think that's very dangerous for American democracy. Concentrating too much power in any single branch of government in the United States - we've seen this in the past - you know, is a recipe for authoritarianism or corruption.

GROSS: So your book is about the deep state - President Trump's claims about it, does it really exist. Do you feel like the president is creating a deep state of his own?

ROHDE: I do, and that's really what I fear. And I don't know if, you know, this is a calculated thing by Trump or if he's just reacting to the political maelstrom around him, but he's - sort of under the guise of stopping a coup that doesn't exist - Trump is steadily upending the checks and balances that have really protected American democracy for centuries now. He's politicizing the Justice Department and other parts of the government to protect his friends and attack his enemies. And he's basically creating a parallel shadow government filled with loyalists.

Rudy Giuliani is sort of a private citizen carrying out this shadow foreign policy. Sean Hannity is a private citizen acting as a communications arm of the White House. And none of them, you know, have to answer government accountability government disclosure laws. They can all carry out their work in secret. So ironically, Trump is creating, you know, a shadow government without transparency, without democratic norms, without any kind of public process. And he's creating a deep state of his own.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Rohde, executive editor for news at The New Yorker online and author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'" We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Rohde, author of the new book "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'" He received - he was part of a team of New York Times reporters who received a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was, I think, more than 10 years ago, a little more than 10 years ago, when you were covering Afghanistan and the Taliban, that you were kidnapped by the Taliban and held for seven months. You escaped. That's how you got out. You were held hostage by the Haqqani network, and this is, like, a - one of the most extreme ends of the Taliban.

So recently, in February, there was an op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban. This was in The New York Times, where you were working at the time you were kidnapped. So the op-ed by Haqqani was titled "What We, The Taliban, Want," and it was about how he's tired of war and is convinced the killing and maiming must stop and that, you know, they're about to sign an agreement with the U.S. and are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, letter and spirit. What was your reaction to reading that op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani after you were held hostage by the Haqqanis?

ROHDE: I guess I think even the Taliban have a right to express their opinions. I don't trust Sirajuddin Haqqani at all. I don't - I didn't believe anything he said in the op-ed. But I think that, like, he has a right to publish an op-ed in The New York Times and claim what he wants to claim. I hope peace comes to Afghanistan. That country has suffered an enormous amount. I hope this peace deal works. But, you know, I don't trust Haqqanis at all. I have a bias about it. I don't write about them now. I was eager to kind of start on this new book and go in a new direction in my own reporting. So it's fine he wrote it. I would just gently say to readers, be skeptical of the Haqqanis. But I'm biased.

GROSS: The intelligence community is issuing the same warning you just did.

ROHDE: Yeah, it's - they were ruthless to me. I have a bias. They've kidnapped far more and killed far more Afghans than foreigners. Seven months was actually a brief period. They - the Haqqanis held Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier, for five years. They held Kevin King, an American professor who was teaching at American University in Kabul, for nearly three years. He returned home as part of this initial peace agreement. So I would just be very skeptical of what they have to say.

GROSS: You were so lied to when you were held hostage.

ROHDE: (Laughter).

GROSS: You had set up an interview with a commander of the Taliban, and then you were kidnapped. And the person who kidnapped you said that he was Commander Atiqullah. And it turns out, you found out later, that the person who kidnapped you was actually the person who you'd set up the interview with, but he disguised himself as somebody else so that you wouldn't know how you were betrayed by the person who'd set up the interview with you. What was your reaction when you found that out? How do you deal with that kind of betrayal and the kind of anger that must accompany it?

ROHDE: I was extraordinarily angry. And I would say, like, you know, a decade later, I'm still angry. Like, I went to interview him. He'd done interviews with two European journalists and not kidnapped them. And then he was incredibly duplicitous and put me and two Afghan colleagues, a journalist and driver that had come with me, through hell. He put our families through hell. It was harder, in some ways, for our families. We knew we could hopefully survive this, but they didn't. So I, you know, will always resent him. I kind of felt, once the kidnapping started - I had shifted from being a journalist - that it was a crime, and I was sort of a crime victim.

I ended up writing about it and trying to find useful tidbits about how the Haqqanis and the Taliban see the world. But I - you know, what he did was wrong. There's no justification for it.

GROSS: You were kidnapped with two other people - an Afghan journalist who was going with you to this interview that you thought you were going to have with one of the leaders of the Taliban and with an Afghan driver. You were afraid that you would be released because you're an American journalist and that the other two would not be released and that they might be killed. You offered to let the Taliban amputate one of your fingers in exchange for saving the lives of the other two people who were kidnapped with you.

Can I ask how you thought of making that offer? And what - did you go so far as imagining what it would be like to have a finger amputated by the Taliban? And that's, of course, not going to be done with anesthesia or with, you know, a great regard for - what if you get infected afterwards, what are your medical needs.

ROHDE: I felt it would be worse to live with the death of either Afghan on my conscience. There had been a kidnapping of an Italian journalist a few months before we were abducted, and the Taliban eventually beheaded the driver first and made a videotape of it and released that video as a way to pressure the Italian journalist's government and family and news organization to pay a ransom, that they actually wanted prisoners released. So it was clear to me that they would kill the driver. And I just would rather lose a finger than lose him.

And it might sound extreme. But, you know, it's - being kidnapped was often, I would still think, like being diagnosed with a terminal illness or maybe like catching coronavirus. You don't know if you're going to survive. You lose control of your own fate. And you have to face your own mortality. So losing your finger, compared to losing him and surviving, made sense to me. I was sort of trying to live every minute and not make any decisions that I would regret.

And I'm incredibly lucky and sort of delighted and sort of proud to tell you that both the Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with me, Tahir Ludin, and the driver Asad Mangal are both now living in the United States. They're struggling. I've had phone conversations with Tahir about the coronavirus. And, you know, he's not an American citizen. He - some of his children, he just brought them over through the U.S. immigration system, and they have confronted coronavirus. But, you know, they're both safe and well. They're both moving on with their lives. And, you know, I'm just so lucky we all made it out.

GROSS: Well, David Rohde, I wish you and your family good health. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ROHDE: Thank you.

GROSS: David Rohde is the executive editor for news at The New Yorker online. His new book is called "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's 'Deep State.'"

After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will recommend shows to watch while stuck at home. This is FRESH AIR.


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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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