Interview with Greg Palast, Muckraker Extraordinaire
Monday, May 3 2004, 8:57 PM
As all but the hopelessly naive know, lies, half-truths and spin are part of the daily routine of politics. Yet as all but the most stubbornly cynical also know, it is sometimes possible to cut through the layers of deception and misdirection to get the truth and give the public a much-needed view of who is trying to rig the political game and for what ends. In an era such as our present one, when the normally high stakes are even higher, when political decision making becomes life and death decision making, the need to reveal what goes on behind the scrim of spin becomes especially pressing.
It is at times like these that muckrakers, troublemakers, and whistle blowers — with their dogged determination to get the facts straight, their impatience with corruption, cronyism, and secrecy — really come into their own.
And at the moment, one of the best journalistic troublemakers we have is ex-pat investigative reporter Greg Palast. Until recently based in Britain, Palast gained noteriety on this side of the pond for his reporting on the 2000 election debacle in Florida. When most reporters and pundits were focussing obsessively on hanging chads and the Machiavellian maneuvers of James Baker, Palast dug deeper, revealing that before the voting even began Florida election officials illegally purged thousands of valid voters from the roles, many of them African-Americans. For his trouble, Palast was denounced by Katherine Harris for his "twisted and maniacally partisan conclusions" in the pages of Harper's.
The Florida story was featured in Palast's best-selling The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Pluto, 2002). Because the cat-and-mouse game between those committed to abusing power and those equally determined to expose such abuse continues, Palast has recently published an 'expanded election edition' of The Best Democracy. Included in this latest edition is evidence that George Bush put a stop to the FBI's investigation of the financing of terrorist organizations by Saudi Arabia along with new reporting on the State Department's pre-war plans for reaping the spoils of war in Iraq.
Bad Subjects production team member John Brady talked with Greg Palast by phone as he was on his way to a radio interview in San Francisco, one of the many stops on Palast's current national speaking tour in support of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
BS: Before we get to politics and the book, I'd like to talk briefly about journalism in general. In the past, you've been a harsh critic of American corporate journalism and the anemic public debate it helps to produce. I was wondering if your opinion has changed at all in view of the growing number of books by administration insiders critical of US policy, by developments in the media like the start of Air America, and by the increased willingness of liberal and other progressive public figures to take an aggressive stance against the White House?
GP: That's why I've moved back to America. I've decided I want my kids to be Americans because Americans have a really low horseshit factor. We'll go for the good old President landing on the aircraft carrier trick one or two times, but after a certain amount of time, we'll ask, "Hey, who's that Saudi behind the curtain," and, you know, say, "Enough is enough."
BS: So you have moved back to the States. I wasn't aware of that.
GP: Yes, I just moved back from London to the land of the free. The problem is that I'm still in journalistic exile. I still can't get my stuff out there. I mean, I'm a mainstream reporter on the nightly news on the rest of the planet. But in America.... The Village Voice says I'm a cult favorite, but I'm trying to get away from that status to become a mainstream figure. But I don't think it will happen.
BS: So you're still working for the BBC.
GP: I just did a report for the BBC with General Jay Garner about the secret plans to divide up Iraq and sell off its oil. That didn't sit well with him because he preferred to hold elections instead of shoplifting all of Iraq. I could run that on the BBC, but I haven't seen it on US television.
BS: Switching over the politics, what would you have asked Bush and Cheney?
GP: Well first of all a basic rule. I used to do a lot of litigation, racketeering cases in America. A basic rule of investigation is never to allow two witnesses to sit in the same room together. You ask them the same questions without one hearing the other's answers because then you know if they're lying. That's why you don't have two witnesses on the stand. You're not supposed to have one witness coordinate his story with the other. The only people who need to coordinate stories are those people who are fabricating stories.
To get to what wasn't asked. The entire 9/11 commission seems allergic to saying two words: Saudi Arabia. To mention Saudi Arabia in the presence of the President is like passing gas at a debutante's ball. You're not supposed to do it. (Laughs)
So, based on the investigations that I and other people are doing into the Saudi Arabian financing of the who people who are trying to kill us, I would ask why Bush stopped FBI agents from investigating members of the bin Laden family before 9/11. Why, Mister Bush, did you look away?
Every agent that we (the BBC) spoke to at the FBI, the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the same thing: they couldn't look at the Saudi Arabian financing of terror. The problem is, rule one of investigation is, follow the money. If you can't follow the money, the rest if baloney. The agents couldn't do that.
It's been a failure of policy, a failure of will to go after the bad guys. It's still a failure of will to go after the bad guys. We had Prince Bandar on Meet the Press last week and it was like the landlord showing up and saying, "Howdy" and reminding us of the rules of the house.
BS: Part of the reason for publishing a new edition of your book was to widen the audience for stories like these.
GP: Yes, and, well, I also decided to do an expanded elections edition because if this is the last election, it will be a collector's item. (Laughs) Say, that's pretty good for this early in the morning.
BS: Given the variety and depth of political and economic malfeasance that you regularly uncover, how do you avoid cynicism?
GP: I haven't avoided it, but I'm what I call a hopeful cynic. I see everything rotting in front of me, but I also see that we have an entire nation based on troublemakers who take a few good lucky shots and bring down Goliath. Everything from the Minutemen, to the Populists, to the Civil Rights Movement, you know, we've done this.
Greg Palast will appear in Los Angeles at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 3300 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles on May 7, 2004 in a benefit for Pacifica Radio KPFK and again on May 8th at 11 am at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd, in an event co-sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and The Network for Environmental Communication.
He will be in San Diego on May 9th at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4190 Front Street, from 7 to 9 p.m.
John Brady is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.