One thing investigative journalist Greg Palast is not is some blow-dried cream puff crowing the party line on CNN or Fox News. While America has gotten used to calling stuffed shirts like Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Brian Williams et. al. journalists, those guys spend more time preening in the makeup room than sweating in the field finding out just what the hell the country is up to. Even Koppel’s recent foray into Iraq during the war was a Tony Snow-job: embedded with the American military, however comfy it may be, cannot help but slant reportage, especially if the Marines are telling you where you can and can’t go.
Greg Palast has no such directives compelling him towards—or away, as is usually the case—a real story. One look at his book—The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters—can tell you that this guy is neither afraid of digging up the dirty truth nor the goon squads sent his way to keep it from seeing the light of day. And we’re talking big stuff: the Enron disgrace, the Exxon Valdez environmental disaster, the Florida election rigging, the Bush-bin Laden connections, international financial crime—this is the stuff the X-Files’ Mulder and Scully would have sniffed out if they weren’t so bogged down with alien invasions.
But Palast might as well be an alien, since the mainstream American media has, almost without exception, declared him persona non grata. He’s a hot potato, because he’s uncompromising, refuses to be cowed, and isn’t afraid of the money men that make shit happen in the United States and abroad. For that thankless job, he’s given up the normal lives we all lead, in lieu of making justice happen. So the least we can do—since the corporate-owned ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and onward will not—is give him space to breathe some life into stagnant American journalism. After all, that’s what the European continent has done, having granted Palast coveted posts at the BBC, as well as UK newspapers of note.
Think of that: an American dedicated to truth and justice, and only the Europeans will let him talk. Only in America!
PopMatters: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I know you’re a busy man.
Greg Palast: No problem, it’s a great day. So what’s on your mind, besides the president and his family coup d’etat?
PM: [Laughs.] Are you kidding? That’s the only thing on my mind these days. I read your book and it floored me.
GP: It kinda floored me finding this stuff out.
PM: Yeah, but I’m just a reader. You’re the guy who has to deal with the pressure. Do you ever wish for a normal life?
GP: Well, today I’m leading a normal life for my birthday, but it feels very unusual. But it gets kind of manic, getting all this information. When I was doing an investigation of the Exxon Valdez, I lived in native villages up in Prince William Sound. I was also in London, finding out who’s trying to buy up Tony Blair’s government. I had to pull an undercover operation—which is something that’s not in the book—while doing an investigation of the Shoreham nuclear plant, which has since been dismantled. It was a dangerous, hot piece of shit that had to be taken apart.
PM: Do you ever get worried about digging too deep?
GP: Well, yeah, but I’m not really worried about myself, because if I did that, I couldn’t function. But I do worry very much about my sources. For example, I reported that George Bush’s gold mining company bought property in Tanzania, which was then cleared of miners. The miners were on what they considered their own property (while the mining company considered it to be their own property), but were still removed by bulldozers that rolled over the pits. Except that there were fifty people still in the mines when they were sealed up. I don’t think that it was done deliberately, but in the mayhem and chaos of a pitched battle over George Bush’s goldfield, fifty miners were buried alive. I had many sources for that story, but a key investigator was a human rights lawyer named Tundu Lissu, who—for uncovering this information and getting it to me—has been since charged with sedition. He may end up in jail for quite some time, but that’s only if he’s lucky. There are people disappearing there over this story; it’s dangerous stuff. This week I wrote about Cynthia McKinney, who got mangled trying to follow up on some of my stories.
PM: I read that one, “The Screwing of Cynthia McKinney.”
GP: Yeah, that was the headline given by Alternet, but I was actually looking at a wider issue. That was only part of a longer piece about the endless fibs, fabrications and fractured news given to us by the New York Times, NPR—what I like to call National Petroleum Radio—and the rest of the mainstream press in America. I used McKinney’s case as only one example of that longer story. Basically, she was trying to follow up on the Tanzania story—she read the transcripts of my reports from BBC television when she was in Congress—with the Human Rights Subcommittee, of which she was a ranking member. She knew she was taking on George Bush; what she didn’t know, working in Atlanta, was that she was taking on Atlanta’s black political establishment. She didn’t know that two of the people also involved in that gold mining company were Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young. And that meant she was setting herself up for the slaughter; they waited in the bushes until they got her. She also called for an investigation into another one of my reports, about the quashing of the investigation of the bin Laden family and Saudi financing of terror before September 11th. Which had nothing to do with George Bush knowing about September 11th; it was an intelligence failure that had to be investigated. And when she called for that investigation, they mangled her words, basically said that she was accusing George Bush of joining hands with Osama bin Laden in masterminding the killings of September 11th. She said no such thing, and denied it, but they killed her with that. So I worry a lot about the people who feed me information. But fear for myself? Nah.
PM: I figure that the mainstream media is a hopeless cause, but shouldn’t they at least try to cover these stories, if only to honor the people who risk their lives to get them out there?
GP: Look, if a whistleblower goes to the New York Times and says, “I want to tell you what’s going on inside this corporation or inside this agency,” they just get blown off. Thirty years ago, the Washington Post ran the Watergate story, so that would make this the thirtieth anniversary of the Post not running an investigative story! Name one thing they’ve done. For example, the Iran/Contra story was broken by Bob Perry of the Associated Press, for which he was duly fired. You’re really talking about news guys who are afraid and, simply, lazy. They’re lazy little press puppies who want everything packaged for them. Even places like 60 Minutes; almost all their stories are handed to them pre-fabricated. Here’s the people on camera, here’s the story, here’s the evidence. And it’s not a question of it being light news, it’s that they can’t go one day without saying what our president did. And the thing is, it crowds out real news. Three million people have been killed in civil war in the Congo, but what news do we have? We get these weird blips once in a while, about peacekeeping forces going in. Millions of people! We don’t know shit about the Mideast; the Mideast coverage for us is what’s going on in Israel and Palestine. And for all the arguments about bias—the U.S. is biased towards Israel, Europe is biased towards the Palestinians—the main problem is that it’s biased towards a tiny piece of a giant place. We don’t know what the fuck is going on in Syria, we don’t know what the fuck is going in the Sudan. I pick up the Times and I just want to fuckin’ throw it against the wall.
PM: Damn, what do you do when you turn on something like Fox? That shit must drive you insane.
GP: I don’t have a television. And I produce television! But I won’t watch it. In Britain, I can turn on BBC and get programming that doesn’t always embarrass me. But there’s no place to turn in America. They give you these pseudo-liberal oases like Charlie Rose or something, but that’s just more of the officialdom talking at you. I think the worst thing that ever happened to America was the public broadcast system. PBS is more dangerous than Fox, because it is the lie that you’re getting some type of alternative, that you’re getting a fuller picture, when in fact you’re just getting more syllables to tell you what Mobil Oil wants you to hear. In fact, NPR pulled me off the air the other day. They were going to run a show about the “Screwing of Cynthia McKinney,” until someone realized that I said that NPR had fabricated her words as much as everyone else. Actually, it’s the NPR report on McKinney that was the worst; they took two separate parts of a radio interview, linked them together and completely misstated her words. So, at the last minute, they pulled me off the air just before I was supposed to go on.
PM: Yeah, I was listening to NPR the other day and they had some guy from the Heritage Foundation on there. If I want to hear what the Heritage Foundation thinks, I can go to Fox.
GP: Exactly. Obviously, some assistant producer at NPR thought it would be good to have me on there to talk about the media, but only to have some general blather and definitely not to talk about NPR, of course. Basically, it tends to be more liberal—what I like to call social liberal—but there’s no challenge to the basic economic program of the New World Order. Every one of their writers is pro-globalization. Do you realize that one of the most left-wing writers in America with any stature is Thomas Friedman, who once wrote that all of our economic problems were solved by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan? That’s our most liberal columnist.
PM: It’s scary how you’re not accepted in America for your reportage, while the Europeans are eager to give you a chance to speak.
GP: The fact is that I report for the most prestigious television news show on the planet—BBC television’s Newsnight—and I write for prestigious newspapers, the Guardian and Observer. I have George Orwell’s old post, and yet somehow I’m treated like the Unabomber. “He’s gonna take some hostages and demand his stuff get printed!” The only thing I can hope for is the miracle of the Internet. Which is why the establishment keeps saying, “Look out for the Internet; it’s so scary out there! You can’t rely on that information.” Like you can rely on the information on the Los Angeles Times, although I should be careful, because the L.A. Times did a glowing profile of me. But, on the other hand, I went through the Times with the reporter who did that story and said, “Look at this crap!” [Laughs.] It’s true! I mean, I’m happy to get a lovely profile, but the information is missing. They even had a story that said there was unanimous praise for the appointment of Paul Bremer as the viceroy of Iraq. Unanimous? Having the former business partner of Henry Kissinger take over Iraq? There wasn’t anyone out there who had a problem with that idea? They looked all over the newsroom and even called the White House but couldn’t find anyone who thought it wasn’t a brilliant idea. [Laughs.] So what can you do? I won’t watch TV here, and I certainly won’t let my kids. I glance at the newspaper to see what the latest lie is, and about the only exception, because it follows the money, is the Wall Street Journal. But I do read Hustler, because I’m the latest issue! [Laughs.] The only American outlets for my writing are Harper’s and Hustler. I’ve got the H’s down.
PM: Yes! I noticed that you had Winston Smith’s artwork in your book.
GP: Yeah! I’m glad you noticed that.
PM: Oh absolutely. I talked to Jello Biafra who was sued by his band mates for control of their Dead Kennedys catalog, and one of his chief complaints was that they made Smith’s album art so small that no one could read it. And that was always the point, having that voice of protest.
GP: That’s funny, because my publisher, Penguin, didn’t understand why I had all those Winston Smith illustrations in the book. I think the book is worth the price just for Smith’s artwork. And they didn’t get it. I told them it was as important as the pictures of the FBI documents; it was key. I’m really glad you grabbed onto that, because the Winston Smith illustrations are crucial to the book. The Italians understand this; in their country, Winston Smith and I have equal billing on the book. But in America, I put it there for those who know, or those who should know.
PM: Speaking of those who should know, why is the Bush administration so intent on blocking this 9/11 probe, when they’ve used it to justify every war they’ve started since, plus some of the draconian domestic programs like Total Information Awareness?
GP: I just did a one-hour documentary on this for the BBC, “The Bush Family Fortunes,” which you can’t see, of course. It’s going out all around the world, except America. We know that Bush’s energy policy was completely Enronized. We know all about the secret meetings between Ken Lay and Dick Cheney; and even though people say we don’t know what went on in those meetings, I have a lot of those letters and minutes. Lay simply said, “Here’s the people I want as head of the agencies that are regulating me.” He got to pick his own regulators, rewrite the energy laws of America; we know that.
But the oil patch continues on through foreign policy, although oil has always been at the heart of it, which in turn poisons our intelligence community. For example, George W’s first business was funded by the U.S. financial agent of the bin Laden family, a guy named James Bath. Then we get to Harken, which is funded by a guy named Sheik Bahksh, out of Saudi Arabia. We have the government of Bahrain giving Harken a Persian Gulf drilling contract. You have to understand that some tiny oil driller out of Texas is never, ever given a Persian Gulf drilling contract; it just doesn’t happen. But it turns out in this case, George W. Bush, whose daddy was president at the time, was put on the board. And throughout we’ve got Saudi and other Gulf money enriching George W. Bush.
So what was he doing in the summer of 2001? Previously, Bill Clinton had sent two delegations to Saudi Arabia saying, “Stop funding terrorists. Here’s a list of people in your kingdom, in your royal family that are funding terrorists. Knock it off.” Those delegations stop under Bush; plus, he disbands the unit investigating Saudi financial ties to terrorism, and removes the FBI team investigating Al Qaeda from Yemen. Now is this because Bush was planning to help Osama attack America? No. It’s because he was making sure that his former business partners, and his Saudi friends, are not embarrassed about the revelations about who’s backing terrorism. And none of the small incidents, like the Cole or the embassy attacks, touched the U.S.
So what’s happened is that you have a foreign policy poisoned by money. Bush is saying, “Don’t investigate my friends.” In fact, some of these people, like Bahksh, are under investigation by European intelligence agencies for sponsoring Al Qaeda, although sometimes unknowingly. Al Qaeda runs a shakedown operation, but that’s details. A lot of it is this: “We don’t bother the Saudis, they’re our friends, they’re our buddies, they provide our oil.” Well, the Saudis have not been our buddies, they’ve been George W. Bush’s buddies. They’re not my buddies, especially when they’re funding people that attacked the United States. I worked in the World Trade Center; they attacked my building. Fifteen of those nineteen hijackers were Saudis, but we attacked Iraq without one shred of evidence that there was any connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein, a horrible guy, but still.
And now they’re selling us on Iran’s connection to Al Qaeda. Keep this in mind: the United States was not Al Qaeda’s first target. Their first target was Iran; almost no one knows or understands that in America. They hate the Iranians. Al Qaeda slaughtered the Iranian embassy delegation in Afghanistan; they came in and machine-gunned everyone. Iran is their number one target, because they are Shi’ites, and considered to be horrible apostates. The idea that the Iranian government has anything to do with Al Qaeda is insane. The Saddam Hussein thing was off the wall, but we’re going to fight a government that hates Al Qaeda even more than we do. Now, Iran is a fascist Islamic government that should be deposed—by their own people. Like I said, you pick up the paper, and you’re ready to tear your hair out.
PM: Right. Accusations against Bush for being a part of the 9/11 attacks aside, there’s simply no denying his connections to all of the parties involved. He’s a part of this whether he wants to be or not.
GP: That’s the thing. Now, this continues on something that Clinton started, but he sent two delegations to Saudi Arabia in the year 2000, saying cut it out. And all the Saudis had to do was wait it out for their boy George. And they did, and this one of the big goddamn problems. Plus, we’re given the bullshit that the Gulf is no longer dangerous? Think about this: Okinawa’s government has been requesting the removal of American troops for five decades; World War II is over! We won’t leave Okinawa, but we’ll leave Saudi Arabia? It’s the only place I know of where we’re abandoning bases, and it’s the only place on the planet that Al Qaeda wants us to abandon our bases. So basically now we’ve got a chickenshit, draft-dodging coward of a president who’s decided that he’s going to give in to Al Qaeda’s laundry list. I think giving in to terrorists like Al Qaeda is a very bad move, and it led directly to those explosions in Riyadh. Because we said we were removing all our troops but 500, and that was Al Qaeda’s way of saying, “No, no, no, that’s not what we asked for.” That’s the problem inherent in bargaining with terrorists, and no matter what Bush says, that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s bargaining with Al Qaeda, because he doesn’t want another attack before the election. Right now, he’s heroic. If there’s another attack, people will say, “What was all this bullshit for?”
PM: That’s another thing. Right now, I think he’s vulnerable to the Democracts, Fox-sponsored polls aside.
GP: Yeah, with the exception of Lierberman, who seems to be at a dead loss. I’m not sure he knows if he wants to be a Democrat. Think about this: Clinton was utterly unknown. No one would run against Bush Sr. in 1992, because he was the Desert Stormtrooper. He was supposed to be invincible, and all the Democrats could find was some philanderer from Arkansas, and that’s how we ended up with Bill Clinton. So no one’s ever heard of these guys, but they’re not miracles. But compared to what the Democratic party has produced? Everyone running right now is head and shoulders above Al Gore. Gore is a confused loser, and the problem is that he doesn’t know what he stands for. But it doesn’t matter at this point. Democrats are very good at having firing squads within a circle. They need to make sure that the primary doesn’t become a drinking of the Kool Aid, where everyone slaughters or shoots at each other. That would be the great tragedy of the Democratic party, but the Democratic party is tragic anyway. I never say who I vote for, so I won’t say the Democrats get my vote. But they do get my pity.