Investigative Reporter Greg Palast: Katherine Harris's Worst Nightmare
We'll get to the earthshaking reports of political corruption in the new American edition of Greg Palast's book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, in a bit. First, a little gossip.
Savoring the afterglow of his March 6 speech to an enthusiastic overflow crowd at Baltimore's Stony Run Friends Meetinghouse, Palast, one of today's most celebrated investigative reporters, somehow steers our conversation to the difference between Christmas parties in Great Britain and America.
"At the Harper's Christmas party, which is very American, you have [Harper's Editor Lewis] Lapham holding court with all the young women, and [Christopher] Hitchens--well, it's an open bar, so of course Hitchens is there. In other words, people are just being their regular selves.
"Now at Christmas parties in Britain, no spouses are invited, and, again, thereís an open bar. But at the party at the [London] Guardian [where Palast until recently wrote a weekly column], you get completely plastered as quick as you can, and there are no rules. So you get these weird pairings that people are not supposed to notice, and usually the evening ends in some type of violence. Hitchens' best friend in Britain, Nick Cohen, who is one of the great columnists on the planet, usually ends up punching someone out."
But there is at least one constant linking Old and New World yuletide cheer. "Hitchens, meanwhile, is barfing into the corner."
Like all good gossips, Palast likes to name-drop. Several times during our conversation, and once during his lecture, he mentioned that he would be lunching with Noam Chomsky in Boston, the next stop in his 27-city tour. Michael Moore, whenever Palast speaks of him, is re-dubbed "My Good Friend Michael Moore." Indeed, as a reporter Palast is warmly embraced by a network of progressives that includes, along with stalwarts like Chomsky and Lapham, upstarts like Moore, Joe Conason, and Jim Hightower. Yet despite their championship and the exhaustive documentation Palast uses to back up all his reports, mainstream press outlets have been decidedly cool to him, at least on this side of the Atlantic. His explosive report about the "scrub list" that struck thousands of legal voters--mostly minorities--off the Florida voter rolls before the 2000 election (detailed in his book) was roundly ignored by the major print and broadcast media in the US. A section editor at one major newspaper told me that he had been warned by his colleagues that Palast was a "loose cannon."
The bad faith is mutual. Palast is downright hostile toward his more mainstream colleagues. "'60 Minutes' called me again," Palast griped on the way to his book talk. "Theyíre just going to waste my time. They're going to have me run around for a week, sending them documents, doing their work. They wouldn't know investigative reporting if it came up and bit them in the ass. They are lazy, useless, small-minded, incompetent, and of course they suck up to power.
"Look at Bob Woodward. Everyone wants to be at the big table. Bob Woodward thinks it's really cool to be allowed inside to write Bush's War: the inside look. He gets to hang around the White House. Some guy like Bob Woodward should say, 'You're going to let me hang around the White House to see Bush in great poses talking on the phone sounding like a generalissimo? Forget it! I'll tell you what: give me the key to the White House, let me go through any file cabinets, no off-limit calls, I listen to it all.'"
But then, we countered, if you take that approach--
"You lose your access, you get propagandized, and--my God!--you lose the opportunity to get more propaganda! You don't get access, you get what they want. That's not access, that's bullshit."
Neither does Palast shy away from attacking leftists. A ten-minute complaint about the "dull" videography typical of Indymedia (the Baltimore Indymedia affiliate was one of the co-sponsors of Palast's talk, with the Baltimore News Network) ended with an exasperated sigh. "It just drives me crazy: the amateurism of the left."
Tough as Palast talks, just minutes beforehand he had transformed himself into a big fuzzy bear long enough enough to call his kids, ask them about their new skates, and say goodnight to them since he couldn't tuck them in bed in person. And minutes later, he was noticeably nervous speaking solo before a crowd. Since he hadn't prepared his remarks, he sometimes got lost in the tangle of his free-associations. When he wanted to illustrate a point with a document, the stack of papers he brought wouldn't cooperate.
Make no mistake: there were zingers aplenty in Palast's speech to advertise his signature wit and keep the mood bouyant. But during our evening with him we found it is as difficult to keep up with Palast's personalities as it is to keep up with him.
What follows are the highlights of our spirited Q & A with Palast, including some surprising comments about Iraq, the 2000 election, and some of the other investigations detailed in his book.
Q (Baltimore Chronicle): First, let's talk about the invevitable topic: Iraq.
A (Greg Palast): Back when Ari Fleischer said, 'One bullet will do it,' people were horrified: 'Oh, he's condoning assassinations.' I really don't care if Saddam gets a bullet. It's not a big deal. The problem is a repressive regime, not Saddam Hussein. But he [Fleischer] was basically signalling--he was doing something very important--he was advertising to the other Nazis in the Ba'ath party that if you get rid of the bad boy, everything's okay. That was [Bush's] daddy's line. [Bush Sr.'s Secretary of State James] Baker said, 'We don't have a problem with the Ba'ath regime. We have a problem with Saddam Hussein,' signalling to the other guys, 'You can maintain your bloodthirsty cleptocracy, if you get rid of the guy that embarrassed us.' That's real wrong. And that's what people are missing. It is a repressive regime, we must get rid of Saddam Hussein--or let me change that, they must get rid of Saddam Hussein.
I had a long conversation about this with Bianca Jagger. She went over to Iraq. I said, 'You can't just talk about what's wrong with Tony Blair and George Bush. Saddam Hussein is evil and we have to make demands of Saddam Hussein as well.' And she did. So she went there and said, 'Okay, here's my five demands for you. Elections, human rights/gender rights, rights for the Kurds, freedom of religion for the Shiites, self-determination throughout Iraq. This is what we demand.'
I say, we should demand of our Islamic brothers that they turn over Osama bin Laden. We shouldn't have to hunt for him. They should hunt for him and turn him over. He's a killer, he's a murderer. He's a rich kid who didn't like the change in the order of things where they saw women and unprivileged classes threatening their prvileged. That's what it was: we were attacked by the privileged class of Saudi Arabia who thought that their parents were conceding too much to the new world and giving away their inheritable privileges, and no one is talking about that. That's what these guys are. Rich guys, the privileged from Saudi Arabia who said, 'We don't want women sharing this, we don't want goddamn immigrants sharing this.' It's really no different from the extreme ultra-right of the US.
I'm a hero of one magazine, Red Pepper, which does entire Greg Palast issues. But they had one thing that was terrible, about backing Hezbollah. They said, 'How come the Arab governments aren't all unanimously supporting Hezbollah?' I mean, these are the guys who teamed up with the Argentine right-wing paramilitaries. These are not nice guys. So I wrote them, it's one thing to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It's another thing to say that you have great, righteous martyr-killers that you're for. Fifteen people were just killed in Haifa. Fifteen civilians murdered. When you say that's okay, you've lost me. You lose everyone. You lose the public. You can't say, 'Their killers are bad, our killers are good.' We can't say, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' That is the other side's immoral politics. We don't want to have mirror morality.
I don't believe in relativism. You have to have a moral center. There's more than one evil. George Bush is not the font of every problem on the planet. When we protested the war in Vietnam, we could support Ho Chi Minh. You can protest this war, but you cannot support Saddam Hussein. Americans don't make that mistake, Europeans come close to it. This is one of the things that Hitchens is rightfully attacking. And he wins most of the debates, he makes most of these guys collapse in front of him, because they find themselves backed in a corner, they find themselves saying, 'Saddam's not such a bad guy, he's been vilified.' He's a villain, that's why vilified. He's gotta go. I didn't like Saddam Hussein when he was on Bush's payroll and I don't have to switch sides. We're not playing skins and shirts, and the left has to be very careful about that.
Q: Does that justify the bombing of Baghdad?
A: Now [historian Howard] Zinn's argument kicks in: the issue of threat. The argument that is being made [by Bush] is that [Saddam] is a threat and menace to people outside his country. That is not so. That argument is palpably false. We are attacking Iraq as if it were attacking the rest of the world, and therefore you must destroy the entire nation because it is a military threat to everyone else. It is not. They're conflating removing Saddam Hussein with destroying Iraq. Those are two quite different things. We already destroyed Iraq once and we didn't get rid of Saddam Hussein, don't forget. Now they're talking about destroying Iraq and maybe replacing Saddam Hussein with Saddam Lite. This is what we have to worry about. We were promised democracy in Afghanistan, we were promised democracy in Kuwait. What's the democracy in Afghanistan? A division of warlords and drug lords. And Kuwait? I'm still waiting for the election returns. Where's the democracy?
So what do we do? I think the first thing is we ask Iraqis what we ought to do, and not Chalabi, not the old feudal lords, because they just what to take back their property. So I would ask the Iraqis. I'm not sure I have all the answers. In fact their solution may be bloodier. I'm not even sure. I just don't know. It's a very difficult thing because all the awesome problems are complex. Shiites versus Sunnis versus Kurds, and so forth.
Q: What stories are the media missing while everyone's focused on Iraq.
A: There's a lot of Iraq stories they're missing. But yeah, I would call Iraq a weapon of mass distraction. We are missing major stories, like those in the book. We're not watching, in particular, kind of the punitive, boneheaded programs carried out by the IMF and World Bank. And what I have are their inside documents about how they're manhandling and mishandling nations like Argentina, Bolivia, et cetera. I think we're really missing what's going on there. In fact one of the documents I have is about the plans--again, secretive, confidential plans--that have come out of the file cabinets of the World Bank, they're plans for Turkey, which are punitive. Basically selling off everything that isn't nailed down, though of course that problem goes away if they provide bases for an Iraqi launch.
Q: What kinds of things were in these plans?
A: The IMF required Turkey to raise its interest rates. It blew out the economy. They now have a massive debt. The increase in interest payments alone for the last four years totals the same as their one-year budget shortfall of $9 billion. One hundred percent of that is accounted for by higher interest payments that theyíre paying to foreign creditors. The idea of austerity is silly. It has to do with interest rates that are too high. The US will give them $8 billion, which still leaves them $1 billion short, if they provide a launch point.
People canít understand how they got into the position where they are tempted to sell their nation for a few billion, and that's what's very important: the almost mad, fanatic, free market plans that are imposed by the IMF. It's not about saving money so they can pay off creditors and people they owe money to. It's about forcing these nations to give up their assets, to sell off their banks, their ports, their electric companies, their water companies, you name it. That's what they're being forced to do, and no discussionís going on about that.
Even more important, whatever happened to what Enron exposed: a collapse of corporate morality in American and, basically, a crime wave in the boardrooms, which is not being dealt with in America? That's also in my book. I've been screaming about Enron for years.
The issue is about the documents I found from inside the World Bank and the IMF which talk about that Ecuador will get no money unless it gives a pipeline permit to British Petroleum to move gas over the Andes. It's all about saying that Brazil may not have money to stay alive--remember, they're borrowing their own money back--unless they sell off their natural gas system in Sao Paulo to British Gas, a British company. The water systems of Argentina went to Enron. I'm talking about fixing the system for a few connected operators. I'm talking about an ideological poisoning which led to the destruction of economies like Ecuador and Argentina.
The one nation that dissented in Latin America which did well was Venezuela, and now we are basically running an economic embargo on that nation and trying to destabilize it because, as much as anything else, as one of Hugo Chavez's ministers said to me, "We are the dissenters from the new global order."
The nations that took the advice from the IMF and World Bank, like Argentina, are devastated. It's not Greg Palast saying it, it's Joe Stieglitz, who was the chief economist of the World Bank, who said, "I was inside, and I saw us tear nations to pieces without apology."
And there is no dissent. The so-called liberal press that Bernard Goldberg talks about, which is the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard in my entire life. Name me the dissenters on the air right now, right? The great liberals, right?
Now it gets more devious. The problem with Florida, what set this off, was that the voter system was computerized, centralized, and put under the control of one single partisan official: the secretary of state. That system is a horrendous temptation for a politician to use excuses to purge the voter rolls. No one should be purged on the basis of a profile. Losing a vote is a punishment for committing a felony crime. We don't go out and put people in jail because they happen to have the same birth date and name as someone who's convicted of a crime. This is a punishment for a felony, it should not be imposed by computer profiling in any instance.
What's happening is that under new national law, the so-called--the horribly called--Martin Luther King Voting Reform Act of 2002, the Florida show is being taken on the road and is going to be imposed on all 50 states. Centralization, computerization, purging the voter rolls. That is completely unreported, and it's going to fix the 2004 election if it's close.
And by the way, this didn't seem very unusual to any of the reporters in Florida. Again, in a lot of my stories I consider two stories. One is the story-in-chief. The other is the story of the story: who's covering this stuff?
So Thomas Cooper, convicted January 30, 2007. On the list there were over five hundred people convicted in the future. Four thousand blank conviction dates. Now that's unusual: convicted no time. But here is where it gets really devious. The state has not admitted that it was purposeful. It is the state's position and Katherine Harris's position that it was by accident. Except that there's e-mail within the department of elections--and I got that too--in which clerks say, Hey, we're knocking off criminals of the future; what should we do? And what's the response of the Republican chieftains? The response is, Well if you blank out the conviction dates, no one will know. So you tell me, is this purposeful?
Jeb Bush's office wrote a letter to county supervisors actually telling them to not permit the registration and eliminate the registration of people that have convictions in other states. The Washington Post did note, after I uncovered it, [that] there are 2,800 people on the list convicted from other states who did not lose their civil rights in those states. Now, Jeb Bush can't say, 'Oh, by the way, we're adding a punishment.' It's just like saying, 'Hey you know what, twenty years ago, you were convicted of shoplifting, so when you're in Florida we're going to add six months more jail time now that you've moved here.' You can't do that. Losing your vote is a Florida punishment for Florida crimes. It's unique to the KKK-dominated states of the Reconstruction period. But you don't lose your civil rights just because you move to Florida, even though Jeb thinks you ought to. Two court orders said, 'Knock it off. Stop it.' Just before the election the courts ruled this. In violation of this court order, Bush's office sends out this letter.
So if you look at the hundred to two hundred thousand that came in, the University of Minnesota, trying to be extremely conservative, said it's got to be at least 50,000 who were improperly denied the right to vote.
Plus, the reason I add humor is not only just to make it readable and keep myself awake while I'm doing this. You know, the Dalai Lama, people are always asking him why he's laughing. Every day he meets people who are tortured and mangled. He personally greets every person who escapes from Tibet. So he said, 'Would it help if I cried?'
But when you talk about my style, that's for that book. I also have a book that just came out last month from the United Nations, which is my lectures from Cambridge University and the University of Sao Paulo, called Democracy and Regulation. I go into these things in an academic manner. And I have to say, the sales are a little less.
Brad Carlton is a contributing editor and global affairs correspondent for The Baltimore Chronicle.
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This story was published on April 9, 2003.