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Greg Palast: Beat the Press
Saturday, March 1, 2003
Interview by Bruce David
For those of us who've long suspected that our democracy is up for sale to the highest bidder, award-winning investigative journalist Greg Palast has uncovered disturbing evidence confirming as much. Palast's exposÚs of the theft of the 2000 election, the financial ties between the Bush and the Bin Laden families, and how these connections kept the FBI from perhaps preventing the horrific events of 9/11 have thrown fear into the hearts of media pundits. There has been a near-complete news blackout of the explosive findings documented in Palast's book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. First released in England, where he reports for the BBC and The Guardian, Palast's collection of writings is finally being published in America by Penguin/Plume books with 40% new material. In an exclusive HUSTLER interview, the author discloses the truth on high crimes in high places that the mainstream media is afraid to touch.
HUSTLER: Tell us about your new book. I know you've been able to get your groundbreaking exposÚs published in England and Europe, but, up until now, your stuff has been too controversial for the American media to touch.
PALAST: Not a chance in America, until now, thanks to the book.
HUSTLER: What kind of material do you have in the book?
PALAST: How about this for an example: After Daddy Bush left the White House, he went to work for a company called Barrick Gold Corporation in Canada, something you haven't read in the United States. The first thing he does is pick up a big, fat check and stock options from Barrick Gold Corporation for, essentially, selling them the presidential seal and the presidential Rolodex. And he writes letters to dictators like [former president of Indonesia] Suharto, saying, "Give these nice guys gold-mining concessions."
HUSTLER: What is Barrick Gold?
PALAST: It was founded with money from Adnan Khashoggi, the arms dealer. You may remember that Adnan was the bagman in the guns-for-hostages, Iran-Contra scandal. The sheikh got out, then Bush got in. You have to ask yourself a question: What would a Canadian gold-mining company do with a used president? Well, it turns out that before he left office, Daddy Bush put in motion an expedited process for laying claims to gold in the United States. It allowed Barrick Gold Corporation and a couple of other operators to lay claim to the largest gold mines in America. To stake a claim on $10 billion worth of gold ore, Barrick paid the U.S. Treasury less than $10,000.
HUSTLER: I would have gone for that, myself. I could have scraped together $10,000.
PALAST: All I can say is that Barrick was very, very grateful for the gold mine. But the public got the shaft, and Daddy Bush got the job. And George W. got the donations. That's the other thing that has been unreported here: People don't realize how much easy squeezy [campaign money] is flowing in. That includes things like parallel spending and soft money and hard money, which, by the way, hasn't ended. You know that our Congress has passed campaign-finance reform, so-called. What they did was eliminate soft money, but they doubled the amount of hard money. It's just Viagra for campaign donations. Our big problem is that we held something closer to an auction than an election in America. A lot of the reason [George W.] Bush raised all that cash-that easy squeezy-is because of his father's business connections. You're never quite sure where the Bush family's bank account ends, and the campaigns and our American policy begins.
HUSTLER: Did Barrick get anything else from Bush Sr.?
PALAST: He helped Barrick secure a gold-mining concession in Tanzania. Now the gold-mining concession was owned by another Canadian company, named Sutton, which Barrick hoped to get the rights from. But there was a problem: The land was worthless, because there were Tanzanian miners already on it who had the rights to the mine. That's why, in the first week of August 1996, Sutton bulldozers ran across that property with military police firing guns to chase off the miners. In the process, they sealed up the mine pits and, unfortunately, there were 50 miners still in the mines, buried alive, say witnesses. That's information that has not been reported in the United States. You can't get that word out for nothing, because Bush's gold-mining company terrorizes journalists who dare breathe a word about it. They terrorize newspapers; they've been terrorizing wire services, and so you don't get the story.
HUSTLER: They threaten legal action?
PALAST: They threaten legal action, and they bring legal action. They sued my paper, The Guardian; they said it's all a lie. That's the most prestigious newspaper in the world. They tried to get me to back up and say that no one died. I held firm, and there was nothing that they could do. I wasn't in Tanzania, and I didn't dig out the corpses myself, so maybe Barrick's right, but I have videotapes of the corpses.
HUSTLER: Your book also mentions Bush and intelligence failures prior to September 11, right?
PALAST: CIA and FBI agents told BBC Television, for which I was reporting, that they were ordered not to investigate Saudi Arabian financing of terror networks such as al Qaeda. The FBI agents "accidentally" left a file about the Bin Laden family on the desk of one of my researchers. They called up and said, "Oops, we left our file on your desk by accident. You haven't read it, have you? Well, we'll be back to pick it up in 30 minutes-unless you need 45." The FBI agents handed us material dated September 13, 2001, two days after the attack. It was on that date that the FBI was finally released to go after two members of the Bin Laden family, who they had already identified as being involved with a suspected terrorist organization. But by September 11th, they were flown birds.
HUSTLER: What happened to other members of the Bin Laden family living in the U.S. after 9/11?
PALAST: Just after the no-fly restriction was lifted, a private Saudi Arabian jet airlifted the Bin Laden family members out of the country before the FBI could talk to them. Everyone thinks there's just one black sheep in that family, but the FBI agents were telling us at BBC they think there's a couple of gray sheep, and they had some questions for the family members. There were a lot of people dead under the rubble at that moment when those people left.
HUSTLER: What had American policy been regarding the Bin Laden family prior to the Bush Administration?
PALAST: Bill Clinton had already put a go-slow on investigations of Saudi Arabian financing of terror networks. Clinton had always taken the position that we can't annoy our dear friends, the Saudis, even if our dear friends happen to be funding terrorists like the al Qaeda network; however, he never actually stood in the way of investigating them, whereas George W., according to FBI and intelligence agents, said, "You can't go there. You may not look. You may not investigate the American Bin Ladens."
HUSTLER: So the FBI and CIA agents were pissed at George W.?
PALAST: They are furious. He blindsided our intelligence agencies. How could a trillion-dollar intelligence operation like the CIA not foresee the most deadly attack on America since Pearl Harbor? The answer is not because Bush knew about September 11 in advance. Rather, they were told not to look because of connections that are political, personal and financial between the Bushes and the Saudis. When these agencies were told not to look, there was a lot not to look at. There was a 1996 meeting between the al Qaeda financial arm, Saudi billionaires and key international arms dealers. There was a discussion about which Saudis would pay how much to al Qaeda. Now if I can find out about it, and the French intelligence had a mole in the meeting, you can bet that our trillion-dollar CIA could find out about it; so why wasn't there follow-up? Why wasn't there action? How about a note to the Saudis saying, "Do us a favor: Stop giving money to people who are killing us."
HUSTLER: What about the Bin Laden and Bush connections to the Carlyle Group?
PALAST: The Bin Ladens were investors in a very private and a very exclusive operation called Carlyle, which is an investment group. Carlyle is one of the biggest private corporations on the planet; so they report to no one, and they're responsible to no one, except their little coterie of owners, which is made up of an ex-president and dictators. Daddy Bush worked for, and still continues to be on a retainer for, the Carlyle Group, representing the company in Saudi Arabia and in Asia. His son, our President, was also put on the board of one of the companies owned by Carlyle, Caterair, and he was paid on the order of $50,000 for them to access his great business acumen. Caterair went under, but they never asked for their money back.
HUSTLER: What about George W.'s oil ventures?
PALAST: He had several oil ventures and could never find oil in Texas, which is almost impossible, as you know. On the other hand, he had a company, Spectrum Seven, which was bought out by another company, Harken Oil. Before that, he had Arbusto, which means shrub. He could never find oil, this guy. But he did find Saudi Arabians who put money into Harken and got him on the board where he was paid consulting fees. Then, despite the fact that the company seems to be going south, a miracle occurred. That is, the Bahraini government insisted on giving Harken Oil a contract to drill in the Persian Gulf. This is a dry-land Texas company suddenly being given an offshore oil lease by a country that had previously been doing business with Amoco. They picked this little, teeny company out of nowhere, which of course has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the guy was the son of the President of the United States.
HUSTLER: What about Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela? Was the CIA really involved in the attempted coup last April? And how did that relate to oil?
PALAST: What's not discussed in the American press is that the president of Venezuela, who they say is a Communist and a dictator, was, in fact, elected in a democratic election. In that regard, it's worth noting that our President's spokesman said, "Winning a majority of the vote does not make your government legitimate."
HUSTLER: Who should know better?
PALAST: [The U.S. government has] been working on getting rid of Chavez, because he's not only president of Venezuela, he also got to choose the president of OPEC, and I haven't read that anywhere in the U.S. press. He controls the biggest pool of available oil. Saddam Hussein's oil fields, if we do invade, will be in flames. Where do we get the oil to make up for the losses in a war? One place, Venezuela, which pulled our bacon out of the fire during the Arab oil embargo of the '70s.
HUSTLER: Didn't Chavez piss off U.S. oil companies by restructuring his deal with them?
PALAST: Here is a guy who said, "Look, I've got a nation where millions of people are living in cardboard houses. We're raising the price of oil, I'm taking over OPEC, I'm putting it back together, and I'm gonna take that money and rebuild the ghettos of Caracas," which he did. And that cost a lot of money, which he got by doubling the royalties on foreign corporations taking out the oil. They were getting 16% royalties-this is the Venezuelans' own oil, after all-and Chavez said, "We'll take 30%. You get 70%. Is that a deal?" The response from the Bush Administration was to get the guy kidnapped. And our ambassador, a political toady named Charles Shapiro, ran down from the U.S. Embassy to put his arm around the guys who are literally holding the president of the country hostage. You have to imagine what this looks like to the rest of the people in the world. Of course, we didn't see that. We're not permitted to find out what's happening in our news media.
HUSTLER: What has happened to the the news media in this country?
PALAST: I vomit every time I see Tom Brokaw.
HUSTLER: And Dan Rather-
PALAST: I feel sick at heart when I see Rather, because he's actually a journalist. He came on my program, Newsnight [in England] and said, "I can't report the news. I'm not allowed to ask questions. We're gonna send our children and our husbands into the desert now, and I can't ask a question, because I will be lynched." This is what Rather said in London. He looked defeated and awful, and I was thinking, Why am I feeling sorry for this guy who is worth millions? He should turn to the camera and say, "Well, now for the truth. Over to you, Greg, in London." The problem is that he can't report the story of the intelligence agents who are told not to look at the Bin Laden family, not to look at Saudi funding of terror.
HUSTLER: What makes Rather afraid to do his job?
PALAST: It's not just that there are brutal shepherds like Rupert Murdoch out there to beat the dickens out of any reporter that asks the wrong questions; it's all about making news on the cheap. You know, for some of these editors, cheap and easy is a philosophy of life. To do a heavy-duty story on Bush, and his oil and Bush and his gold-mining company is beyond them. A little bit of the Harken stock scandal came out, but that story was already seven years old. To some extent they know that there are certain things you cannot say. Rather says he would be necklaced for telling the truth.
HUSTLER: He said that? What did he mean?
PALAST: In South Africa, under apartheid, if someone didn't like you, they put a burning tire around your neck. That was called "necklacing." On my show, Rather said, "If I ask any questions, I'll be necklaced." And I'm thinking, Oh, that's a good image. It's sad, but if Dan Rather doesn't have the cajones to ask a question, then you name a reporter who's gonna step out and ask about what's going on. It's not that the corporate guys say, "Don't run that story," although that has happened to me many times in North American media, but also the shepherds pick the lambs who won't ask the questions. For example, there was a reporter, some poor producer, who wanted to run a story about how Jack Welch had lied about polluting the Hudson River. The story didn't run. Shockeroo. That was for Dateline NBC, owned by General Electric, of which Jack Welch was the chairman of the board. Or as in the case of Venezuela, I was stunned to come back from Caracas to find a picture on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of 100,000 people marching against the president of Venezuela. Sounds like he's a terrible guy and people hate him. What they didn't say was that half a million people were marching for him. At least the Soviet Russians knew that the stuff in Pravda was coming out the wrong end of a toilet, whereas, we live under the pretense that The New York Times prints all the news that's fit to print.
HUSTLER: I won't read The New York Times. That publication has no credibility with me.
PALAST: The New York Times ran a story, front page, the first week of September 2001, talking about gold-mining companies in Nevada and how they seem to be getting let off the hook by the Bush Administration on environmental rules. They didn't mention two things in that front-page article: They didn't mention the owner of the big gold mine-Barrick-and they didn't mention who had been on their board-the President's Daddy. I brought that up to an editor of the Times. They said, "How dare you. No one has ever accused The New York Times of cowardice," and [former Times writer] Seymour Hersch leaned over to me and said, "That's the guy who had me pushed out of the Times."
HUSTLER: They haven't really told the truth about Bush and the 2000 election, either.
PALAST: I've got brand-new, deeply evil stuff about that in the new book. What happened was that, five months before the election, Katherine Harris, acting under orders from Jeb Bush, knocked 57,000 voters off the rolls. They were suspected of being evildoers and felons and, therefore, not allowed to vote in Florida. Here's the news: Of the 57,000 people, 97% were innocent of crimes, but they were guilty of being black. Half of them were African-American or Hispanic-in other words, Democratic voters. Was the state guessing who the the people of color were? In Florida, it's like South Africa; they list your race right on your registration. There was no guessing. These people not only lost their vote, but lost their president. BBC figures Gore lost 22,000 votes this way, but you didn't read that in the U.S. press. You didn't read in the U.S. press that they say they're going to allow the voters back on in 2003. That means that they were screwed for the election of 2002 as well. I ran the story of the theft of the election on the BBC. Then a hotshot with CBS News calls me and says, "Oh, that's a great story, can we have a piece of it? We want something new." I said, "Yeah, I got something for you: Jeb Bush's office, the governor of Florida, is involved in knocking off the voters too, not just Katherine Harris, and there's a letter dated September 18, 2000, which directs county-election officials to deliberately violate the law and not register a bunch of people who are Democrats. These are people who committed crimes in other states. Jeb can't legally stop them from voting, but he did anyway. And he knows that these people are Democrats, because there's something about going to jail that turns people [into] Democrats, about 93% [of ex-cons vote Democrat.]
HUSTLER: So, people who were either black or who had previously gone to jail were just automatically eliminated?
PALAST: Right. Jeb sent out the letter anyway, September 18, 2000, despite two court orders saying he couldn't do that. I had an insider in his office, some poor woman, shaking, saying, "I gotta read you this letter." She knew about the court orders. Okay, so I said, to CBS, "That's a story." CBS News didn't run the story-one night, two nights. I said, "What happened?" They said, "It didn't stand up." I said, "How do you know the story didn't stand up?" "Well, we called Jeb Bush's office, and they said, 'We didn't do it.'" Oh. Hotshot Dan Rather investigative news team. They said, "The letter doesn't exist. It's not in the computer files; it's in no one's files, not in the governor's files. It's nowhere to be found." Then Katherine Harris writes a hysterical, screeching letter to Harper's Magazine, calling me twisted and maniacal, but she didn't say I was wrong. She said, "Yeah we knocked off these people, but it's not my fault; I got a letter from the governor." I called up her office-I didn't say, "This is Mr. Twisted and Maniacal"-I said, "Um, excuse me, I got a letter from your Secretary of State saying that she had a letter from the governor, before the election, regarding removing people from the voter rolls. Could you fax that to me?" Suddenly, the letter that CBS says doesn't exist is faxed to me. I've got it in my hot little hands, the letter that was in Katherine Harris's desk; so CBS just took an official denial, because they're not gonna say, "The President's brother, the governor of the state of Florida, fixed the election"-that we had a coup d'Útat by computer.
HUSTLER: What can you tell us about the way the news media counted the ballots in Florida after the election?
PALAST: ABC News ran down after I noticed that 180,000 ballots were not counted in Florida. Never counted, because they were spoiled, as they say. They were not counted because the ballots had mismarks on them. Would you be surprised to find out that most of those ballots were from black voters? Black precincts. Black counties. So Ted Koppel's team goes to investigate, and what they find is that black voters have a tough time figuring out the ballots, because they're not very educated.
HUSTLER: That's what they actually said?
PALAST: They reported on Ted Koppel that the reason so many black votes were voided is that, basically-in very polite, expert terms, in the way Ted always speaks from under his wig-blacks are too fucking dumb to figure out the ballots. But I went down to Tallahassee, and what I found out is that in white areas, when you have a paper ballot, and you make a mistake, it goes into an automatic reader-an optical reader. It comes back as a mistake, and you get another ballot, and you vote again. In black counties, you make a mistake, it goes into the same ballot, it's the same machine, and the ballot is destroyed. The buttons were set differently; so it wasn't that black voters were too dumb to vote. It was that the white reporters were too dumb to ask.
HUSTLER: Isn't it true that even with the fix put in by Jeb and Harris, Gore would have won if there had been a recount of all the ballots statewide?
PALAST: Absolutely. Walking away, Gore won. People thought that they were voting for Al Gore. What they called a ballot that doesn't count is one where Al Gore's name is circled on a paper ballot. And listen to this: People wrote in the name Al Gore because the ballot said, "Write in candidate's name." And they wrote in Al Gore. If you wrote in Al Gore, because he wasn't a write-in candidate, your ballot was voided. And again, you gotta go back to the fact, it's not everybody's ballot that was voided. The blacker the ballot, the higher the chances it will not be counted, and that was the evil of it. That's the modern way: Use computers and mechanisms to steal elections, and if you know the race of a voter, you know the color of their vote.
HUSTLER: Any final words on the state of the American press?
PALAST: Let's put it this way: This is the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and that means it's been 30 years since the Washington Post has broken a major story. I uncovered the story of the purged voters and broadcast it in Britain within three weeks of the election. Al Gore was still in the race. The Washington Post ran my story, seven months later, nicely buried there. W. is reading it in the White House and giggling to himself. For more news and views from Greg Palast, go to www.gregpalast.com.
PBS stations nationwide will broadcast "Counting on Democracy," featuring Palast's investigation of state manipulation of the vote in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Local broadcast times for the film, directed by Emmy award-winner Danny Schechter, can be found at at www.GregPalast.com (Events), where you can also read and subscribe to Greg Palast's "London Observer" columns and view his reports for BBC Television's Newsnight.
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