For the second time, Guerrilla News Network, a new alternative news organization with the goal to exposé a younger audience to important global issues honored Greg Palast as Guerrilla of the Week. Greg’s interview with their executive editor took place November 16, 2001.
Above the Law
Lappé: Thanks Mr. Palast for talking with us today.
You have broken two major stories concerning President Bush in the last year – both of which have gotten little play here in the U.S. Let’s start out by looking back at Florida: Last week, the final report on the Florida recount funded by a consortium of various media outlets was released. They found: Bush would have won if you only recounted the counties the Gore team had requested, Gore would have won if it was statewide.
But prior to all this, you reported a story that looked into something that went down before the election that in many ways makes these findings insignificant.
What did you find?
Palast: Yeah, insignificant. No kidding. Maybe that’s what The New York Times sub-heading should be “All the news that’s insignificant we print.”
First of all, the story I broke was simple:
After looking at my evidence printed in Britain, the Civil Rights Commission said the issue is not the count of the votes in Florida — the issue is the no-count. What the commission meant by the no-count is that it looks like maybe 100,000 people, at least 80,000 people, most of them black, were not permitted to vote who had a legal right to vote in Florida.
That story was simply not covered in the U.S. press. And that is how the election was won.
I reported that story for the main paper of the nation. Unfortunately, it was the wrong nation. I reported that story for the Guardian newspapers of Britain, and its related sister paper The Observer, where I have a column on Sunday. I also reported it for BBC television at the top of the nightly news, but again, it was the nightly news of Britain where they found out who really won that election, just not in the U.S.
Here’s how they did it:
A few months before the election, Katherine Harris’ office used computer systems to make up a list of people to purge from the voter rolls of people who were supposedly felons — people who committed serious crimes and therefore in Florida were not allowed to vote. We now know those lists were as phony as a three-dollar bill. That maybe approximately 90% of the people on those lists, and there were 57,700 people on that list, approximately 90% were not felons and had the right to vote. Surprise, surprise. At least 54% of the names on that list were black. We know that because Florida is one of the few states under the U.S. Civil Rights Act that actually has to track the race of each voter.
They used this racial targeting system as a way to target and purge black voters. This was a very sophisticated Jim Crow operation done by computers, completely hidden from the public eye. And when they were asked about it they basically lied. The Governor, the Secretary of State, and the head of the Florida Department of Elections all lied under oath to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about how that was done.
Now that was completely covered in the British and European press. That is one of the reasons why when Bush came over to Europe he was seen as a usurper and a pretender to the presidency – not elected, but a guy who had conducted a sort of racial coup d’etat.
He was not seen as legitimate.
The U.S. press did little bits of the story and then buried it. My sister paper the Washington Post, (the Guardian papers co-publish with the Washington Post) did run my story, buried, 7 months after the election. I wrote the story within 3 weeks of the election and they didn’t publish it until seven months later, when it didn’t really mater. And they only published it because the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said my findings were correct. If I didn’t have that official approval, I don’t think we would have seen that story at all.
And now these newspapers, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, spent easily a couple of million dollars doing what they called a ‘recount.’ But in fact it was not a recount. There were 180,000 votes in Florida that were never counted on order of Katherine Harris, the Republican Secretary of State. These were 180,000 votes that were never counted because they had some kind of technical error in them — like a stray mark in it, or someone circled Al Gore’s name instead of punching a hole, and it was not counted as an Al Gore vote.
Now you have to know I did not support Al Gore, I am not here carrying his flag. I don’t care if he was elected either way. That is not my interest. I am concerned about democracy.
The thing that those ballots showed was something very simple: by a notable majority the people in Florida voted for, and believed they voted for, and assumed their ballots would be counted for, Al Gore.
Now how in the heck after spending more than a million dollars and going through each of those ballots that these so-called news organizations decided that Bush would have won it anyway? What they said was under state of Florida rulings we exclude what people wanted to do, we exclude what we see on the ballots, and we go by the Florida rulings on what ballots should be excluded for technical reasons — and Bush wins. Well, we knew that. We knew that because Katherine Harris already said that Bush won on technical grounds. So we didn’t need to spend a million dollars.
We have to remember that these news organizations had this information for months and withheld it. And then in the middle of a war they release information and futsed with it so it looked like Bush would have won anyway, or it’s hard to see, or Bush would have won one way and Gore would have won another way. That’s nonsense. In a democracy the intent of the voter is all that counts. In fact, the U.S. took that position in two other elections in 2000: when Slobodan Milosevic disqualified ballots and therefore won the presidency of Yugoslavia we refused to recognize his government. And when Alberto Fujimori of Peru knocked out counting of rural ballots for technical reasons, once again the U.S. refused to recognize his presidency. The U.S. said you cannot win a presidency on a technicality. We said that for Milosevic and for Fujimori but somehow we didn’t say that to Mr. Bush.
It’s the votes that count in a democracy. If the votes don’t count then it’s not a democracy.
If you go to my web site, www.gregpalast.com, you can read my reports and watch the BBC reports for yourself. I also have a book coming out called ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’ (Pluto Press) which will be out in a couple of months in which I detail how they had planned to knock out the black voters well in advance and paid a Republican firm $4 million to come up with a computer program that would zoom in like a cruise missile and knock out these black voters.
They were so good knocking out black voters they should hire this firm to knock out bin Laden. They were so good at ferreting out democratic voters and purging them from the voter rolls, we should have turned them on Al-Qaeda and maybe that would have made a difference.
Lappé: Speaking of which, let’s jump to the present and to another bombshell you recently reported: that Bush has hindered the FBI’s investigation into various terrorist organizations. What did you find?
Palast: We obtained documents from inside the FBI showing that investigations had been shut down on the bin Laden family, the royal family of Saudi Arabia – and that is big because there are 20,000 princes in the royal family – and their connections to the financing of terrorism.
Now there is one exception. The FBI, the CIA and all the rest of the agencies are allowed to investigate Osama, the so-called black sheep of the family. But what we were finding was that there was an awful lot of gray sheeps in this family — which is a family of billionaires which is tied in with the Saudi royal household which appears to be involved in the funding of terrorist organizations or organizations linked to terrorism. If you go the BBC site you will see me holding up documents from the FBI talking about Abdullah bin Laden, Omar bin Laden and an organization called the World Assembly of Muslim Youth which may or may not be a conduit for funds to terrorists. Now the problem was the investigations were shut down. There were problems that go back to Father Bush – when he was head of the CIA, he tried to stop investigations of the Saudis, continued on under Reagan, Daddy Bush’s president, and it continued under Clinton too, but not as severely. What I was told by agents was that under Clinton agents were constrained but not prohibited from taking on these investigations into the Saudis.
Lappé: Now what would be behind all of this?
Palast: Let me get to this one final point. While we did say FBI [in the article], I have to add it was also CIA and all the other international agencies. You should know we were attacked by friends of Bush for just mentioning the FBI. I have been trying to protect my sources. But I can say that the sources are not just FBI trying to get even with the other agencies, but in fact other agencies. The information was that they were absolutely prohibited, until Sept. 11, at looking at the Saudi funding of the Al-Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations.
There is no question we had what looked like the biggest failure of the intelligence community since Pearl Harbor but what we are learning now is it wasn’t a failure, it was a directive. Now I am not part of the conspiracy nut crowd that believes George Bush came up with a plan for an attack on the United States to save his popularity. There is no evidence of that. That is completely outside of any evidence I have seen. But what we find is something that, in a way, where the effect is just the same — and it’s chilling. Which is that they blinded the intelligence agencies and said you cannot look at the Saudis. Now the question is why . . .
Now the answer kept coming back with two words: One is Arbusto. The other was Carlyle. Now Arbusto is Arbusto Oil. Arbusto means shrub in Spanish. Arbusto was the company that made young George W. his first million. Now he had millions inherited from daddy and grandpa, but this was his first million. He had established this basically worthless company that kept digging dry holes in Texas and suddenly it got financing from the Gulf region and Saudi Arabian-connected financiers and it was taken over by a company called Harken Oil, which then received a very surprise contract to drill in the Gulf. Suddenly, Arbusto Oil shares became worth quite a bit.
The second company is Carlyle. While people know companies like Boeing Aircraft and Lockheed, Carlyle is just about the biggest defense contractor in the U.S. because behind a lot of these companies like United Technology is the Carlyle investment group. Carlyle is headed by Frank Carlucci who was Secretary of Defense under Daddy Bush and it includes on its payroll James Baker, the Secretary of State under Daddy Bush, who was very pro-Arab and pro-Saudi when he was in power. They have on their payroll Daddy Bush, who is an advisor to their Asian panel, and he also represented the company to the Saudi royal household in a couple of trips he made there. In addition, our president George W. was collecting money from the company by being on the Board of Directors of one of its subsidiaries, where I am sure he added a lot of his business acumen to their operations. He picked up $15,000-plus a year for showing up to a couple of board meetings. What is also interesting in this company is that you have investment in the company by the bin Laden family.
Now, let’s be careful I am not a conspiracy nutter. I don’t think completely ill of the Bush family, and I don’t think what happened here is that the bin Laden family and the Saudis bought themselves two presidents of the United States, a simple purchase: “We give you money and you call off the dogs and don’t let the CIA look at us.”
That is not what is going on . . . What is going on is the Bush family is an oil family. They have a natural business and political inclination to support the royal household and their retainers like the bin Laden family. These relationships are cemented by joint business ventures, by the Saudis making your son, who becomes president, rich. It is not a pay-off. But let’s put it this way: would you think that the people who just made your family wealthier than it already is, made you a couple of a million bucks, would you immediately think these people also happen to be funding people who are blowing up buildings in New York? You tend to say to your agencies which you control: “Those are really good guys, leave them alone” — especially because if we annoy them they will cut off our oil.
There seems to be this great fear that the Saudi royal family will, I don’t know, fold their tents, get in their Leer jets and go off to Monaco and let the fanatics take over Saudi Arabia . . .
Lappé: Or if this comes out this will weaken the rest of the American government’s resolve to support them which will further weaken their ability to control the more radical forces within the country . . .
Palast: Yeah, one of the problems is exactly what is their relationship to the terror networks. One thing you should know is that the Saudis say that they have removed Osama bin Laden’s citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Of course, there are no citizens of Saudi Arabia, there are only subjects. So he is not allowed to be a subject of the king of Saudi Arabia. What a loss. And they have frozen his assets, supposedly. But the information I am getting from other sources is that they have given tens of millions of dollars to his networks. This is being done as much as a protection racket as anything else.
Lappé: Some of this was reported, or at least alluded to, in the recent Frontline report.
Palast: There was a little bit of whispering in the Frontline by my buddy Lowell Bergman. He could go further. At least you got a little bit of it on PBS. What is interesting is Bergman, who is also a reporter for The New York Times, did not have this in The New York Times.
Lappé: That is interesting, I actually noticed that myself.
Palast: Now here is a guy who has an agreement that whatever he puts on Frontline by contract can be put in The New York Times exclusively. And here The New York Times skips the report. Now we went further on BBC Newsnight, we had some of the same sources, and we have been digging further. We are allowed to dig further.
We also had another source explaining a meeting that was held, and I can’t give the details because I would be scooping myself. But I got particulars of a meeting in which Saudi billionaires up who would be responsible to paying what to Osama. And apparently around the time of the meeting is when Osama blew up the Kohbar Towers in Saudi Arabia killing 19 American servicemen. It was seen by the group as not so much a political or emotional point, but as a reminder ‘to make your darn payment.’
Osama is often compared to Hitler but he should be seen as John Gotti times one hundred. He is running a massive international protection racket: Pay me or I will blow you up. The fact these payments are made is one of the things the Bush administration is trying very hard to cover-up.
Now whether these payments were paid because they want to or it is coercion the Bush administration does not want to make a point of it. I have to tell you the Clinton administration was not exactly wonderful on this either. One of the points I made on the BBC was there was a Saudi diplomat who defected. He had 14,000 documents in his possession showing Saudi royal involvement in everything from assassinations to terror funding. He offered the 14,000 documents to the FBI but they would not accept them. The low-level agents wanted this stuff because they were tremendous leads. But the upper-level people would not permit this, did not want to touch this material. That is quite extraordinary. We don’t even want to look. We don’t want to know. Because obviously going through 14,000 documents from the Saudi government files would anger the Saudis. And it seems to be policy number one is we don’t get these boys angry. Unfortunately, we see the results. We are blowing up Afghanistan when 15 of the 19 bombers were from Saudi Arabia.
Not that I am friends of the Taliban, who are vicious, brutal maniacs, but 15 of the 19 were Saudis and we seem to be giving these guys a full and complete pass.
Lappé: Now let’s take these two stories, the Florida election theft and the Saudi cover-up, together as a backdrop. Paint me a picture of the Bush crew and how they operate. Are they above the law?
Palast: Well, they are our law. Remember they are two presidents of the United States, they go back generations to the Mayflower. The Bush family is the one of the true royal families of America. They have a long-term idea of what is good for us. Other countries think it is quite spooky that we have a guy who came out of the CIA to head of the nation. Just like Americans have a lot of doubts about Putin because he was the head of the KGB. These people are used to secrecy and not letting America know what would be frightening and troubling to us in our sweet innocence.
The problem is Sept. 11 took away our innocence. The question is will it take away our blinders.
The U.S. press does not seem capable of wanting to dig.
Lappé: Now why is that? From an outsider looking in, you have the BBC, a news organization owned by the government, and you have the American media, which has this great tradition of Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate. They are independent organizations that are not answerable to any government organization. Why is there this chasm between investigative reporting in the U.K. and in America?
Palast: Well, first of all you hit a good one. Woodward and Bernstein, which everyone comes back to, was three decades ago! What has happened in thirty years? When have we had a story in thirty years that has come close to that? I gave a talk with Seymour Hersh, who is one of the guys who broke the My Lai story. That was thirty years ago. He cannot work for an American newspaper. He writes for the New Yorker magazine. Think about that. One of our best investigative reporters in America, he has won at least two Pulitzer prizes, can’t even work for an American newspaper. What is going on?
Investigative reporting is so rare in America we had to make a movie out of it. I was on a panel at Columbia University School of Journalism and there was a reporter who worked on both continents who said that the odd thing he found was the worst thing you could be called in an American newsroom is a ‘muckraker.’ Someone who looks like they are going after someone, someone who looks like they are getting too enthusiastic about going after someone. No one likes that guy.
Look what happened to Lowell Bergman. As soon as he said, “gee we really have to push a story that will make corporate America a bit unhappy.” They killed it. After all
60 Minutes for the most part does mostly small potatoes stories. Small-time operators are the ones basically in their sights. But when they took on a big operation like tobacco they killed the story. I can tell you other stories with 60 Minutes that are just insane that have gone by the boards. I did a story about George Bush’s connections to a brutal gold mining company out of Canada. And 60 Minutes said, “Oh we want to do a big story.” And I said, “Oh, no you don’t.” And three days later they said, “Oh, we can’t do that story.”
Palast: They’re gutless. No one has ever advanced their career in the last thirty years by coming up with a great investigative piece. That is a way to get unemployed. Anyone who thinks it’s all ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ out there is wrong. That’s the fantasy. That’s all television and the movies. It’s not in the newsrooms. If you say what I want to do is expensive and difficult and involves getting inside documents, and upsetting the established order, you are not going to get anywhere. Businessmen are the hardest ones to go after. You can go after a crooked politician but go after a corporation . . .
Lappé: And their lawyers will bury you . . .
Palast: Well, we have the First Amendment, which by the way there is no First Amendment in Britain. There is no freedom of speech or the press. Very difficult here legally, even though culturally it’s easier to report the news here in Britain, even though you don’t have the protection. But there is a great fear in the U.S. of corporate power, which I think has a lot to do with losing advertisers. There is a legal question because they can’t win lawsuits but they can cost you a lot of money. You are looked at like some kind of left-wing, muckraker, conspiracy nut if you decide to go past an official denial and say, “I don’t accept that. I want to see a document.”
I got to tell you, I have seen this over and over again: my story on the Florida elections – one of the things I found out was that Jeb Bush had deliberately excluded at least 50,000 voters, 94% of them democrats, because they had been convicted of a crime in another state. Now Florida under the U.S. constitution and its own constitution they cannot do that — punish someone for a crime in another state by taking away their right to vote in Florida. You can’t do that. They know that. When we spoke to Jeb Bush’s functionaries they said we know we can’t do that, and then quietly they said, but we do it anyway under instructions from our superiors. The papers I was working for said, “Well, Jeb Bush denied it.” And flat out denial from an official was enough to stop all these investigations. Dead cold. I was with Salon.com. They killed the story. And it was only later when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said I was correct, and then the state of Florida admitted what they did, and then I was vindicated.
The New York Times did a story about how gold mining companies out of Nevada have tremendous influence over the Bush administration. Nowhere in the story did they mention that George Bush Sr. was on the board of the biggest gold mining company in Nevada. They didn’t mention the name of the company. Here they are doing a story on gold mining in Nevada and they don’t mention the name of overwhelmingly the biggest company in Nevada, which by the way is called Barrick. And it had on its advisory George Bush Sr. It left out the name of the company and the fact it had on its board a former president.
How did that happen? I can tell you because that company sued my paper when I ran a story, and I have the same lawyer as The New York Times. You can bet that The New York Times figured out it was going to cost them money or create controversy. God forbid you create controversy, that would be considered disastrous in a newsroom. When you get a letter from a lawyer who says we disagree, the story gets blocked. The Globe and Mail, which is the number one paper in Canada, was going to run the story. I was told that the top people in the Globe and Mail killed the story. So you have absolute direct corporate influence killing stories.
Most reporters understand that it is not a career-maker to have these letters coming in. In other words, you never want to have your story killed. Because if your story is killed by corporate big shots, from then on you are marked as a troublemaker and a problem, and your career is in deep trouble. When a guy like Seymour Hersh can’t get a job with an American newspaper. When Lowell Bergman has to work in the PBS ghetto. When Greg Palast has to work in exile, there is a pretty evil pattern here.
What you see is institutionalized gutlessness. I’m pissed off about it because I want to come home and work. My kids have British accents. I wanna get home already.
Lappé: On that note, we’ll wrap up. It seems that with this new war all of these trends you have talked about are getting worse. Do you have any hope for the future of journalism?
Palast: My only hope for the future of journalism is one word: the Internet.
The big boys are trying to grab it and seize it and control it and own it and stop it and freeze it and fill it up with corporate, commercialized crap and junk. But it is still the conduit of the real information, the real news. You are always being warned about things you read on the Internet. But be warned what you read in The New York Times. At least when you read the Internet you know you are getting all kinds of voices, some nuts, some real, and you evaluate it. The problem with something like The New York Times is it is coming to you as the stone-cold truth. It isn’t true that Bush would have won Florida anyway. When the people voted they voted for Al Gore. He should have been inaugurated as president, not because I like him, but because he got the vote nationwide and in Florida, and they knew it and they didn’t tell you that.
I can tell you right now the information I broadcasted on the BBC about the chilling of the investigation of the FBI and the CIA of the bin Laden family and the Saudi royal family, and I have more coming up, I can tell you that information was given to The New York Times. They didn’t use it. It was given to 60 Minutes. Not that they aren’t going to use it. It’s like my story about the elections. They run it seven months later in the back of the paper. Or it’s just like the Florida vote count. If you go to The New York Times web site you can get all the information that shows that Gore won, but they either don’t run it, or eviscerate it, or they give it to you chopped up and spin it so the order of things are not disturbed.
I can’t tell you all the reasons why that happens. I’m not sure myself. I think a lot of it is these guys hang out together. They go to the same clubs and they go to each others’ daughters weddings.
It makes me ill.
It makes me want to throw up when I watch Tom Brokaw, that fake fucking hairdo, go to dinner with Jiang Zemin at the White House. He’s a reporter. What the fuck is he doing eating spring rolls with a dictator? He should be reporting the story not breaking bread with the powers-that-be. These guys can’t seem to find the distinction between being in with the power and reporting on it.
So there you go.
Lappé: Thanks so much.