Archive for April, 2006

Lies from the White House and Lies from the Media, who are we to believe?

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

This Week’s Talk Nation Radio for Wed. April 26, 2006
“Lying in the White House and the Media”
Produced at WHUS by Dori Smith


Good propaganda
does not need to lie, indeed it may not lie. It has no reason to fear the truth. It is a mistake to believe that the people cannot take the truth. They can. It is only a matter of presenting the truth to people in a way that they will be able to understand.” Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda expert from a 1934 speech.

Welcome to Talk Nation Radio, a half hour discussion on politics, human rights, and the environment. I’m Dori Smith. Our guests this time are Kevin Murray of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and Diane Farsetta, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy.

“And his interpreter said those are tapes and DVDs of torture sessions. And there were tens of thousands of sessions.” Karl Rove speaking about tapes allegedly seen by Bernie Kerik, former NYPD commissioner.

We look at Karl Rove’s bizarre comments on “torture tapes” in Iraq, the Bush Administration’s war on bad press and a new report about faux news, commercials being inserted into mainstream network and affiliate news without notice to the public as to what they really are.

With the naming of conservative radio and TV show host Fox Network’s Tony Snow as White House press secretary the Bush Administration has taken yet another step in the direction of setting up what can only be called an official U.S. propaganda office.

We are watching a continued build up in what has been called a war on bad press. And in terms of Karl Rove we have been seeing distinct reminders lately of the kinds of methods that were used prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003.

In a speech in Houston April 12, 2006, Karl Rove told a story about torture tapes reportedly seen by former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik when Kerik was in Baghdad briefly in 2003 training Iraqi police. The story from the controversial Bernie Kerik was also used by
Vice President Dick Cheney
when Cheney was trying to justify the invasion by listing whatever documentation he could find of Iraqi weapons programs. (The “Cheney was trying” link tracks analysis from David Sirota, Christy Harvey, Judd Legum and Jonathan Baskin, about the Cheney speech.)

First we will listen to the Rove segment and then Kevin Murray, director of communications and advocacy at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will help us try to make
sense of it all
as we raise questions about what Rove is saying and why. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, UUSC, is a member of the National Religious Campaign against Torture

“It’s really hard for us to understand the barbarism that we find in Afghanistan and Iraq. A totalitarian regime that exalts in the complete absence of personal freedom; The complete oppression of women, the total control of thought and action, and the routine every day constant use of torture and violence on a massive scale that a sophisticated and civilized mind finds very hard to accept.

I remember sitting in my office in the second floor of the West Wing with Bernie Kerik, tough guy, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in New York. His life was saved by becoming a cop. He told me he thought he had seen every form of violence that one human being could commit on another human being until he went to Baghdad where he went to train the Iraqi police. And he said he had cases, metal cabinets in his office full of video tapes and DVDs, and he said, “What are those?” -And his interpreter said, “Those are tapes and DVDs of torture sessions,” and there were tens of thousands of sessions captured on tape.

He took a look at some of them and said he was so revolted that he could not watch them any further and he could not stop from weeping from the violence committed on children in front of their parents, husbands and wives in front of their spouses, and torture that is just impossible for us to understand.

Faced with an attack from an ideological enemy of this sort this President made a decision grounded in the understanding that we face a different challenge at a different time. In this new century we cannot and must not wait until we are attacked again. We must confront the mortal danger we face and stay on the offense. We must confront nations who harbor terrorists and treat them the same way we treat terrorists themselves. The President articulated a new doctrine when he said, “if you train a terrorist, harbor a terrorist, free feed a terrorist, fund a terrorist, you’re just as bad as a terrorist themselves and we will defend our freedom by taking action against you. It is the way we must act in this new century.” ”

Dori Smith: Kevin Murray welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Kevin Murray: Great to be here.

Dori Smith: We’ve listened to this segment of Karl Rove talking about Bernie Kerik and those tapes of torture and it’s quite shocking but it also raises many many questions. Where are those tapes? What ever became of this amazing encounter that Bernie Kerik had of torture being committed in Iraq before we ever got there I’m presuming?

Kevin Murray: Yeah that’s what it sounds like. I’d need to look again more into the details of what the situation was and the exact time that Bernie Kerik had this experience if it really did happen but certainly what Rove is referring to were tapes of things that happened before the United States was directly involved in Iraq.

Dori Smith: Why is he bringing this up because it sounds to me like he is trying to use this horror as a way to legitimize the invasion?

Kevin Murray: Yeah I think they are still you know having lost all of the other arguments I think they are coming back to something that they believe may have some substance to it. You would have to see the tapes and know what the real evidence was to know if there is something real in what he is talking about but I think it is pretty widely accepted that there was a lot of torture and mistreatment of people under Saddam Hussein. So that that’s a justification that he is coming back to for the war effort, one that’s increasingly unpopular with the people in this country.

The administration still maintains that it is not systematically using torture in Iraq or elsewhere and I think against all evidence it is maintaining that. And I think he is still spinning that idea with what he is saying. Subliminally he is distancing us from these horrible people that were doing this torture that required that we intervene militarily, preemptively.

Dori Smith: He is using the argument that their barbarism was so terrible that ours was perhaps not so bad?

Kevin Murray: Or maybe doesn’t even deserve to be called “barbarism” in what he is saying. You know I’d have to hear the whole speech to know where he took it from there but I think that’s at least a piece of what he’s trying to do is continue to make that argument that what we are doing is number one justified by the horrors of what came before and number two probably not as bad as this horrible stuff that he heard Bernie Kerik from the other side of the tracks describe.

You know I think for us as a faith based organization working on torture issues that whole sort of twist or post war spin of the story to the extent that it in any way justifies what are clearly policies that are leading to torture in Iraq and around the world, that’s abhorrent, it’s terrible for us as a faith based organization to hear that use of this kind of information to I think condone something that by any standard, religious or otherwise, is just simply unacceptable.

Dori Smith: Kevin Murray is director of communications and advocacy at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee The group is a member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Just as we have seen a decrease in honesty in public reports from the White House, Military and State Department, we have also seen a decrease in honesty at major television corporations. They now rely on faux news videos according to Diane Farsetta, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. She joins us next to talk about the results of a ten month intensive study with research consultant Daniel Price showing how television stations use these VNRs, or ‘mini-news mercials’ without telling viewers what they are, who made them, or what they were intended to do which is influence consumer decision making just like commercials do.

Diane Farsetta welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Diane Farsetta: Thanks for having me on.

Dori Smith: Describe what you have discovered.

Diane Farsetta: We looked at three different public relations firms that specialize in putting out broadcast material so in this case video materials and a particular product called the video news release. And what these video news releases or VNR’s are, is they are segments that are designed to look exactly like independently reported TV news segments. They are given to television news rooms and they are promoted to TV news rooms and those news rooms often air these segments as though they were part of their news programs -as though their local reporters had produced these and filmed these.

What we found is that these segments were being funded by and scripted on behalf of major corporations like Pfizer, Capital One Bank, or Panasonic, all sorts of different especially health and consumer products companies were funding these. And basically what TV news rooms are doing is allowing these segments that are little better than ads to be portrayed as though they were news reports.

I mean there have been so many different studies of television news. There were two that we cited in the report that I think are relevant here, one is that there was a study of health news just on local TV stations that found that the information was poor, it was often wrong, and it was sometimes misleading in a dangerous way.

In some of the examples that we have in our report with the video news releases from health companies they are dealing with prescription strength medications where all of the risk information was removed. So you had this totally unbalanced promotional segment going out and being presented as news.

Dori Smith: So we are going along watching the news and it’s about Iraq or Iran or the White House or perhaps a cat that got caught in a building in New York. And all at once this piece of video comes on as if it were news. Something like that right?

Diane Farsetta: Right right, and a lot of times we saw, especially in some of the health and consumer based segments, often are these things and it’s a very subtle product placement but it’s there. The public relations firms that deal in these video news releases have gotten very good about having a clear sort of promotional angle to it but one that isn’t too obvious that would turn off TV news rooms from actually airing these.
So they do get aired and much more often than we thought starting when we started this research and also the entire pre-packaged segment.

There is generally two parts to a video news release that is put out by a PR firm. One is this pre-packaged segment that’s got a publicist narrating the piece as though he or she were a reporter and then there is additional video at the end called “B Roll”. But what we saw is that over one third of the times that we saw these VNRs being aired it was just that entire pre-packaged segment put on the air by TV news rooms with no edit, often times they didn’t even bother to voice over the publicists so you had a publicist for hire being introduced by local TV stations as though they were a local reporter.

Dori Smith: There is a profit factor here. Why don’t you talk about how that works.

Diane Farsetta: Obviously in terms of the companies that are paying for these this is great. This is much better than advertising for them because if it’s an obvious advertisement, if it’s the 30 second ad on your TV screen or an ad that appears in your magazines or your newspapers you know where it’s coming from. You know that it hasn’t been fact checked and you know that the company has paid for that ad in order to persuade you to usually buy their product or buy their services or something.

But if you see a supposedly independent news reporter saying yes, you should get your child tested for allergies with this new blood test, you are going to give that much more credence than you would if you saw it as the 30 second ad or the ad in your newspaper or magazine.

And I would say that the second kind of financial pressure that’s at play here is the downsizing of television news rooms so that you have most TV stations not being able to fill up their news programming time with actual news programs. So you have these TV stations that are much more receptive to just putting on air, not fact checked as we documented, not edited even, and often more than 90% of the time that we saw not even balanced with any independently gathered footage or information; these messages that come from PR firms.

Dori Smith: You at the Center for Media and Democracy as well as the Free Press have gone after these people by filing a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission and also you have been appearing in some of the alternative –the great alternative press and Democracy Now I saw you interviewed by Amy Goodman. You along with the co-author of this report Daniel Price. Just talk about the process of filing against this sort of monolithic entity of all of these mainstream press outlets and then also of what has happened since this has come out.

Diane Farsetta: There are laws on the books that might have been broken. When there is a financial interest, when you have somebody paying to provide video footage to a TV station the TV station has an obligation to disclose to its viewers; this segment is courtesy of Pfizer or courtesy of Seaman’s, courtesy of Daimler Chrysler, whoever funded that segment. There needs to be disclosure to the news audience. –We didn’t find one instance in 98 different times of when these materials were being aired, not once did the TV station disclose to the viewers, this is courtesy of this corporation.

So right there we have probable infractions of current FCC law and we are very fortunate to have through our colleagues at Free Press, which is a national media reform organization, to be able to have contacted the Commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein who is very strong on this issue, who is very concerned about and really pointed to the public interest aspects of the licenses that broadcasters are given and the fact that these TV stations are supposed to be serving local interests. That’s why they are allowed to use the local airwaves. They are not supposed to be dressing up ads and passing them off deceptively as their own journalistic product.

So we presented our findings to Commissioner Adelstein. He was generous to come on Democracy Now with us to actually be with us at the that we had in Washington, D.C. announcing the release of the report. He is referring our findings to the enforcement bureau of the FCC and he has also said that there might be a need for strengthening even the current disclosure requirements.

So I would say in terms of the FCC, and also to say if your listeners are concerned, if they don’t want to be hoodwinked by their local TV stations I would encourage them to both look at our report on PRWatch.org and also there is a link to the Free Press website which is Free Press.net where you can send a message to the FCC about this issue.

It has been also really interesting to look at the media coverage of our report. It’s been in and of itself very enlightening I would say. And also to see the responses of the TV stations. As you said as far as media coverage it has been a lot of very good strong alternative independent media, publicly funded media, community funded media that has been covering this. We have also gotten good print coverage of this. But TV coverage as you might expect has been pretty low. And one thing that I’m working on right now in terms of a follow up to the report is a compilation of the responses that we have gotten from the different television stations that we caught airing this fake news to their viewers without disclosure.

It’s quite sad actually because we had one station that apologized to the viewers, one station that promised it would never use VNRs again, and then every other station that has made a public comment has been along the lines of well, this is no big deal, well this was one mistake, this was one slip up, you know, and they are really not taking any responsibility for this at all and they are not, again, they are not living up to the public interest mandate that they have as stations that are allowed to use the public airwaves.

Dori Smith: We’re talking with Diane Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy. Her April 6th report, Fake TV News, Widespread and Undisclosed, can be read online at PRwatch.org

What Diane Farsetta learned about the news industry and their lack of willingness to take responsibility for deceiving the public also applies to the team set up by Karen Hughes at the U.S. State Department –So I asked her to listen to a March NPR report where Steve Inskeep gains entry to the “Rapid Response Center” of Karen Hughes where words are constructed to be sent to government officials and embassy personnel who are about to be asked difficult questions about bad news stories that reflect badly on U.S. policies in places like Iraq.

As you shall hear there is discussion of how the center team will respond to a Time Magazine story about U.S. soldiers killing civilians at Haditha, Iraq, and also lying about it.

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) One particular story that Arabs are seeing is of special interest to the State Department’s Adam Erli. It started last November. That’s when the U.S. said a road side bomb killed civilians in Haditha, Iraq. Then last week Time Magazine reported the civilians were really killed by American troops seeking revenge for the road side bomb. The allegations got limited attention in the U.S. media.

But the monitors here in the Rapid Response Center show that video of the bodies is now displayed on Al Arabia.

(Voice of a man) There are two aspects to this whole process. One is, what are the problems we have to deal with. The second is what do we say, you know, what’s our message?

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep)Which is what the people in the room at the State Department begin to hash out. Half a dozen people crowd around a computer screen.

(Voices) -We’ve got more messaging than this don’t we? –Yeah. —We’re using. –I’m trying to make it, trying to put in something… -Softer? …That’s not so dry. —Yeah right. -There’s nothing there that says we regret the loss of civilian life. -Yeah yeah. -Which we do always. -Yeah yeah yeah. We can say that without…. —And can we say we don’t target civilians? -And we can say that too.

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) If this sounds a little like the war room at a presidential campaign that may be no accident. The center was started by Karen Hughes the former communications advisor to President Bush. Now, she’s the new top State Department official for what’s called, “public diplomacy.”

(Voices) We do not target civilians. Any loss of civilian life is regrettable.

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) She assigned a career diplomat named Duncan McGinness to set up this office sending information to top officials and to every U.S. embassy around the world.

(Voice, McGinness) The ambassador for instance in Cairo now has something, he’s aware of this, so when he goes out today and he talks to Egyptians publicly and otherwise he can actually say; ” let me reiterate that we, you know, we don’t target civilians, blab la bla.”

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) And might the Ambassador in Cairo then be getting back to you through his staff by tomorrow to day, “what you gave me to say was useless? It’s really inadequate. Do you get anger over this?”

(McGinness talking over Inskeep) They do. They do. They will say that. We had a problem when we had the secret prisons in Europe.

(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) At first the State Department had almost nothing to say about a Washington Post story that the U.S. was holding detainees overseas. On this story the department again has limited information about how civilians were really killed in Haditha, Iraq. So as Duncan McGinness types a colleague hands him a print out of words that were used after another story.

(Voices) That’s what we had for kind of a white phosphorus…oh here it is.

(McGinness) I like it, I like it.

(Voice) The loss of any innocent life is a tragedy.

Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta what do you make of this NPR report?

Diane Farsetta: Well what we would say as watch dogs of the public relations industry is what the State Department is practicing is crisis control, (laughs) crisis communications, but what’s absent in that story is that it is a crisis to a large degree of the U.S. Government’s own making in terms of divorcing the actions, in this case the actions of the U.S. Military from how they are being portrayed and what the implication is for the U.S. image.

It’s a very legitimate concern to say we want U.S. actions to be understood around the world but when you are engaging in occupations of foreign countries, when you are engaged in killing civilians as we have seen time and time again, you know the way to address that is not by repeating over and over again that the U.S. Military doesn’t target civilians. The way to deal with that is to end the occupation. The way to deal with that is to not enter into a war unless you absolutely need to for defensive purposes.

What we have seen in just following Karen Hughes’ career as the public diplomacy point person for the Bush Administration, what we have seen time and time again, whether she is doing here listening tour of Middle Eastern countries or more recently she has been concentrating on Latin America, is that her message has really been rejected by foreign audiences because it’s obviously spin and it’s obviously divorced from the reality on the ground. This just sounds like more of the same.

Dori Smith: They said the words “we do not target civilians” over and over again. This perhaps is just reminiscent of the typical propaganda style that they are using but more to the point though they have no intention of modifying the rhetoric and this reflects a policy that has been unchanging as well.

Diane Farsetta: That’s right, that’s right, and basically what they are trying to do is to have acceptance for policies that there’s obvious very valid critiques of both by people within the U.S. and of course people abroad who are being directly affected by U.S. Military operations.

This is not something that other administrations don’t do. This is the reality of U.S. Foreign Policy and of public diplomacy which we see as dressing up the term of public relations and selling a country as opposed to selling a brand. But all governments do this. All, of course, U.S. governments, Republican and Democratic do this.

The policies are based on obvious power interests but they are always sold and explained in terms of democracy, human rights, concern for the little guy, when in reality of course there is a totally different calculus going on.

Dori Smith: We did hear the term used “white phosphorus” -this is what we said with that white phosphorus story, oh yes we can use it again now that there is another atrocity being discussed; U.S. committed atrocity being discussed regarding Haditha.

Where there is no sense of responsibility, of taking responsibility for what others call “war crimes” one can hardly expect that there is going to be a sense of reality testing in so far as how people are going to actually receive this kind of press coverage and these kinds of talking points frankly.

It’s almost like the reality of what has been created as propaganda has a life that is becoming increasingly separate from the thought processes of real Americans, real Iraqis, who have to deal with what has been created here. -There use to be a term “pounding rubble into dust,” when it came to the nuclear potential for our future and what it would hold. And now it almost seems like they are pounding the rubble of this propaganda to dust beyond the point of even the most remote credibility.

Diane Farsetta: Well one of the standard propaganda techniques is called, “the big lie” and it basically says if you repeat something over and over and over again, no matter how ridiculous it is, no matter how unsupported it is by the facts, you are going to get people believing in it because they have heard it over and over and over again. You just have perception management being the main concern. You have everything being run as though it were a campaign. Everything with the political polls in mind; This is really again part of a long trajectory that both major parties have subscribed to when they are in office but I would say especially with this war with regards to this war in Iraq that those techniques are becoming worse in a way. That they are becoming more and more turned to and more and more divorced from reality.

Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta have you heard of this “rapid response” language elsewhere?

Diane Farsetta: There actually just was a story that I saw about Karen Hughes focusing her public diplomacy on Latin America and of course one of the trends that we are seeing in Latin America is the rejection of the Washington D.C. policies, of the economic policies, so you see more and more left leaders getting elected in Venezuela, in Cuba, in Chile, in so many other countries.

So that concerns the United States and so Karen Hughes last month did visit a number of Latin American countries. She is increasing aid to the area and she is also using the Rapid Response unit of the State Department to make sure that they know how the U.S. is being portrayed in these different countries. And I should say another reason why there is a greater focus these days on Latin America by Karen Hughes and other public diplomacy people is that recent polls we’ve just seen the U.S. Government’s credibility in Latin America going down. The most recent poll that I saw said three of every five Latin Americans now distrust the United States. And even if you look at the economic elites in Latin American countries they still don’t trust the U.S. -which traditionally is the one community in which the U.S. has been trusted.

Dori Smith: A lot of time and energy is being spent on this kind of self promotion. People in the Bush Administration are utilizing a lot of tax dollars defending themselves and also propagandizing right?

Diane Farsetta: There have been some attempts to quantify this. If you look, the Government Accountability Office, which is a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, did a study about a year ago where they looked at the public relations spending in the first term of the Bush Administration versus the second term of the Clinton Administration and they found that it had increased roughly two fold.

So you do have this emphasis on PR, on spin, on the talking points, I mean you could go into the whole leak issue of Scooter Libby being authorized to have some misleading cherry picked information leaked from National Intelligence Estimates. You know these are all attempts to present a certain image, to get support for policies that have already been decided upon, especially in terms of war, they have already been decided upon.

There is a decreasing role I would say for real genuine public debate and input on the most weighty decisions like going to war where U.S. residents are literally going to be asked to risk their lives and even to die in this conflict.

A few weeks ago we had referenda in 32 different communities and 24 of those voted in popular mandate to bring the troops home from Iraq now. You know it’s interesting that the split is happening between the spin that’s coming out of Washington, D.C., and the reality is people are just realizing; you know there is an old phrase something like “you can’t spin a pot hole,” you know you can’t tell people that their everyday reality is different than it actually is. You just lose credibility. And I think we are seeing a point now, especially with regard to the Iraq war, where the Administration has lost a lot of credibility. And that’s part of the reason why there is this focus on Rumsfeld, and in addition to the calls to impeach the President there are calls to remove the Secretary of Defense.

Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. For Talk Nation Radio I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation Radio is produced in the studios of WHUS at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. Try WHUS.org to listen live Wed. at 5 PM or Talk Nation.org or Talk Nation.org for transcripts and discussion.

Today’s music was by composer Fritz Heede.

State Department 16 Word “Niger” Memo Shocks even investigative reporter Jason Leopold

Friday, April 21st, 2006

Dori Smith interviews journalist Jason Leopold on his explosive story in Truthout.org April 17, 2006. There is now written proof that the CIA and White House knew the Niger documents were false 16 days before Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address.

“–You know the memo is about six pages and when I read it I have to say that it blew my mind in terms of like wow, how can the White House, how can the Bush administration actually say that they did not see this. It’s clear that the State Department and the CIA were both in the know and were really trying to do their best to warn the White House, don’t use this. Because it seems as if they were trying to warn them because the White House kept saying, we’re going to use this. “
Jason Leopold, Talk Nation Radio, April 19, 2006

Background Information on the famous 16 words: On January 28, 2003, George W. Bush made his 16 words speech to the nation claiming: “The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.” George W. Bush, State of the Union 2003

There were immediate and serious questions raised and on July 15, 2003, Jason Leopold had written a piece in Counterpunch titled:
“CIA Warned White House Last October of Forgeries, The Niger Uranium Debacle.”
His overview of the Niger debacle states that: “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” had also highlighted Iraq’s alleged uranium purchases from Africa during a Jan. 29 briefing with reporters and called for the U.N. to support the U.S. in the event of war.” And, he said: “Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said Jan. 23, in a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations in New York that Iraq’s 12,000 page weapons report to the U.N. was unacceptable because “there is no mention of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad.”

The timing was key according to Jason Leopold since the U.N. was, “gearing up to hold a vote on whether to find Iraq in material breach of a U.N. resolution calling for the country to disarm, which if U.N. countries voted in favor of would have allowed the U.S. to start a war with Iraq with the full support of U.N. member countries.”

Talk Nation Radio Interview with Jason Leopold April 19, 2006

Welcome to Talk Nation Radio, a half hour discussion on politics, human rights and the environment, I’m Dori Smith.

Our guest is Jason Leopold –He joins us for the second time this month to talk about his April stories in Truthout.org and new State Department documents We will also be taking a look at Leopold’s new book, News Junkie, available by advanced order from Jason Leopold.com or Amazon.com. He will be talking about the book at the Harvard Co-Op at 7 PM in Cambridge on Tuesday, May 9th 2006.

On April 17th Jason Leopold’s report in Truthout.org was titled, “State Department Memo: “16 words” were false.” It centers on new information on what the President knew before including his famous 16 words about Iraq trying to obtain nuclear materials from Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address

In it he writes, “The revelation of the warning from the closely guarded State Department memo is the first piece of hard evidence and the strongest to date that the Bush Administration manipulated and ignored intelligence information in their zeal to win public support for invading Iraq.”

In Truthout.org on April 18th Jonathan Steel and Julian Borger wrote a piece titled, U.S. Refuses to Discuss Iran’s Nuclear Plans in Face to Face Talks on Iraq.” They say, “Although the U.S. is resisting pressure to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions through direct talks with Tehran rather than sanctions or military strikes, it still intends to meet senior Iranian officials for discussions on Iraq at which it will demand an end to Iranian meddling according to Zalmay Khalilizad the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad.” (See also: http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/041006A.shtml)

The war of words over Iran’s nuclear research they say is for power has come to be very reminiscent of the war of words over Iraq’s phantom nuclear weapons program. And as we continue to hear reports on attempts to initiate Security Council sanctions or the IAEA’s take that Iran is still years away from having a weapon one can’t help but feel a sense of irony accompanied by a fear that we are moving in dangerous circles, that military action towards Iran is starting in much the same way that the failed Iraq war policies began

Dori Smith: Jason Leopold welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Jason Leopold Thanks for having me Dori.

Dori Smith: There is breaking news about a report that further implicates the White House in terms of Iraq war policy. Why don’t you talk about your take on this breaking story.

Jason Leopold Basically what it is is a State Department memo that was drafted in June 2003 which is actually connected to the Valerie Plame/CIA leak. What the memo actually says, or I should back up a bit; the memo was prepared by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. It was prepared in response to questions that Scooter Libby had posed in June 2003 about former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger to investigate allegations that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium.

In this memo what’s fascinating about it is not so much what it says about Joe Wilson but what the State Department actually said in response to the allegations that Iraq was supposedly trying to obtain uranium from Niger. And what that says is that “on January 12th 2003,” you know and I’ll end the quote there and paraphrase; the State Department alerted the CIA that the allegations that Iraq’s trying to obtain uranium from Niger was based on forged documents.

Now that was 16 days before President Bush’s State of the Union address. This memo was the first piece of hard evidence and the strongest to date that shows that the White House, the Bush Administration, manipulated and ignored intelligence in their enthusiasm to preemptive strike. It’s something that we had not known before in terms of the exact date.

There have been many reports over the past three years that said the White House was warned but this is the first time that we have a concrete date. And the fact that it came 16 days before the State of the Union address really, in my opinion, basically implicates the White House in ignoring the intelligence. So while it is connected to the Plame investigation this is quite explosive.

Dori Smith: Now tell listeners where they can learn more about this story, Jason Leopold.

Jason Leopold:Actually, the story and the memo itself, we posted a copy of the memo on Truthout.org, which is where I write, or who I write for these days, and you know the memo is about six pages and when I read it I have to say that it blew my mind in terms of like wow, how can the White House, how can the Bush administration actually say that they did not see this. It’s clear that the State Department and the CIA were both in the know and were really trying to do their best to warn the White House, don’t use this. Because it seems as if they were trying to warn them because the White House kept saying, we’re going to use this.

Actually, also, what it says in the memo is that the warning that came on January 12th is the reason that Colin Powell did not bring up the uranium allegations when he went before the United Nations Security Council just one week after the State of the Union.

But the memo is posted there. I think it’s a really great read. And it will go down in history as just another example of how the Bush Administration manipulated intelligence to win support for the war.

Dori Smith: And we have to think back over everything that was said in defense of that statement about what Iraq had and even recently we’ve heard stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq just kind of really pounding this lie into the dust.

Jason Leopold: And you know that’s the key word there is lie. You know before it was, when I say before, maybe three years ago, maybe some time earlier, it was thought of as let’s give the White House maybe the benefit of the doubt. At this point there is no doubt that this was a lie. You can’t really, I can’t believe, that the executive branch, the Vice President’s office –the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the time, did not know about this. There is just no way. The fact is that they knew but they didn’t care and they went and they peddled this lie in order to win support from Congress, because Congress certainly wasn’t aware of it either.

Dori Smith: Let’s talk about Richard Armitage who received this memo, his role and also his responsibility now that we know that he had this information.

Jason Leopold: Now there’s two things here. The memo that I have posted along with the story is dated June 10th 2003. Scooter Libby requested Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Mark Grossman, asked him to obtain information about Joe Wilson’s trip.

The same memo dated July 7th 2003 was sent to Richard Armitage. It came one day after Joe Wilson’s OPED in the New York Times in which he disclosed that he was the special envoy who traveled to Niger to investigate these allegations and found it to be baseless. Once that OPED appeared Colin Powell had asked for more information. That’s when he asked his deputy Richard Armitage to get the information. So this State Department memo from what we are told was taken out of the safe, it was classified at the time, taken out of the safe, you know maybe some minor changes, but a new date added onto it. So in essence it’s really the same memo, just a date.

And Richard Armitage, I should go a step further and say that there has been some speculation that he is one of the senior administration officials who disclosed Valerie Plame’s CIA status and identity to Bob Woodward and or Robert Novak. I have to say that I’m not convinced. Nor do I believe that he was the one who did that even in passing, even just in a casual way, simply because he just didn’t appear to be in the know at the time.

Dori Smith: Richard Armitage and others have done a lot of talking about the war and about these kinds of events since that time in 2003 when he was learning about all of this behind the scenes and he has not exactly come forward with his responsibility to tell the American people exactly what happened.

Jason Leopold: That’s absolutely true. I mean Colin Powell actually said a mouthful last week when he spoke to a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle saying that he never believed the Niger allegations. It was not something that he was ever convinced about. And it’s you know in my opinion too late to sort of come clean. But certainly on occasion Lawrence Wilkerson and many senior officials from the State Department as well as even George Tenet at the CIA haven’t really given the full accounting of what took place.

Now speaking of George Tenet I actually contacted his spokeswoman earlier this week because this declassified State Department that was released on Monday says that, again, the State Department let the CIA know. He was head of the CIA. Now what I was told from a spokesperson is that George Tenet will come clean about how the 16 words, which is the uranium allegation has now been, you know that’s the phrase that is used is “the infamous 16 words” ended up in President Bush’s State of the Union address; he will come clean on that but only in his book. He’s writing a book called, “At the Center of the Storm,” which is supposed to be released in late October, early November, and only then will we get the full story. And it seems to me to be very disingenuous that people need to pay $25 dollars to learn the truth.

Dori Smith: Given the climate that we are in right now with the U.S. basically talking openly now about a possible attack on Iran and stories coming out about that, and it all being about Iran developing a nuclear weapon…

Jason Leopold: Right, as Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again”. They certainly have from what I understand, war plans already drawn up, and while they are publicly talking diplomacy what they are really doing behind the scenes is they are setting the stage for another preemptive strike because this is the whole preemptive doctrine that these hawks in the administration, these policy people like Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz Richard Perle what they have long tried to sell to the American people is a preemptive strike (see: Preemption doctrine) is what you do when a foreign nation poses a threat. So there is no doubt that there are war plans drawn up right now. I think Congress needs to immediately get to the bottom of this and call for an investigation because we are in a situation where we are going to now possibly be fighting two wars at once.

Dori Smith: And talk about the role of the IAEA and the Security Council. What might they do in response to these new revelations?

Jason Leopold: You know that’s actually very interesting. The IAEA. The International Atomic Energy Agency, is not a body that is well respected by the White House. Particularly, Dick Cheney, in fact, in the story that I had written yesterday regarding this State Department memo; One of the things that it says in there is that the State Department had been in communication with the IAEA along with other nuclear bodies that are responsible for checking out the enrichment of uranium etcetera. And they all came to the same conclusion. But Dick Cheney on Meet the Press in March 2003 when Mohammed El Baradei who is the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, when he exposed the Niger documents as forgeries Dick Cheney said, you know frankly I think Mr. El Baradei is wrong. –I don’t see any reason why they should be right now when they were so wrong about Saddam Hussein in the past.

(See: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3080244/ VICE PRES. CHENEY: “I disagree, yes. And you’ll find the CIA, for example, and other key parts of our intelligence community, disagree.
And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei, (Sic) frankly, is wrong. And I think if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency and this kind of issue, especially where Iraq is concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don’t have any reason to believe they’re any more valid this time than they’ve been in the past.”)

(Jason Leopold:) This is not a White House that respects others. They don’t have any respect for the UN Security Council. They don’t have respect for people on the ground that are charged with actually investigating this material. It simply comes down to the fact that they will let these people do what they have to do, file the reports they have to file, but at the end of the day the White House is going to do, or I should say this administration is going to do what they want to do and they will try to sell the American people on it. The difference now hopefully will be that we won’t buy it.

Dori Smith: Jason you have written a lot about Patrick Fitzgerald and the is full of comments and discussions about your various stories and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the questions that bloggers I know have for you.

Jason Leopold: Sure.

Dori Smith: One, this is about the Plame affair of Scooter Libby, the President and Vice President. We have been getting a very sanitized version of the skimming really of these facts and you have been putting them together. But talk about the fact that there are big missing pieces like the White House Iraq Group or for example the role of people like Larry Franklin or the Israel lobby AIPAC. Talk about those other big pieces and how they might be revealed to the American people.

Jason Leopold: Well I have written about the White House Iraq Group (WHIG)and their involvement in this. The White House Iraq Group was a body that was put together by Andrew Card the former Chief of Staff to President Bush. The members included Condoleeza Rice –Karl Rove, Stephen Hadley, Scooter Libby, and basically their job was to market and sell the Iraq war to the American people. So records were actually subpoenaed by Patrick Fitzgerald to see what role this group of people played in the campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, whether this group in and of itself was responsible for the Plame leak.

Now the reason for that is to see if there is any evidence to file charges. To see if there is a conspiracy if you have a group like this working together that would suggest that there was a conspiracy If you have a group like this working together that would suggest that there was a conspiracy which would be a huge crime, or, I should say a big charge.

You know there is a lot of evidence and I have written essentially about the fact that the people that were involved in the campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, as well as the Valerie Plame leak, were all members of the White House Iraq Group. And I have not taken up the Larry Franklin, AIPAC, angle yet simply because my plate is full with what’s in front of me just with the senior folks in the administration and you know I was hoping to leave that to others at least at this point in terms of flushing that part out. But there certainly are a lot of tentacles to this story and I do understand that the blogosphere, which let’s fact it, the blogosphere certainly has kept this story alive.

It’s funny that you mention some of the comments that have come because I have certainly taken quite a beating from even the “liberal” blogosphere because of some of the stories I wrote which have anonymous sources in them, and to go a step further, because of my past which I’ve written about obviously in my book “News Junkie”. –I’ve been trying to rebuild my credibility with people for three years now since that episode took place with Salon which I have since proven, or I should say the evidence has shown, that I was actually right all along. I just made some missteps along the way.

But I think the blogosphere has a very good handle on this story and they certainly have shown that citizen journalism if you will is a really important part of this whole investigation. You have people who work in various different places or industries who actually have the time to analyze these documents and who have collected the evidence and have put together their own take on this. It actually is surprising because it’s very strong. I think that that’s what to me is totally amazing about the blogosphere is how good of a handle they have on this story and how strong their arguments are on where the story is going.

In fact, there is a web site or a blog called, The Left Coaster. One of the bloggers there has done an amazing job of putting together the background on the Niger documents. It’s just unbelievable. It’s ground breaking. It’s being done well before the mainstream media has taken it on.

Dori Smith: I can’t help but think of your book now because you talk about what happened when as an editor you were looking at the Enron story, in intense competition about that story, and you actually went to the blogs to look for a new take. You had broken a few stories about Enron. Actually talk about that just briefly, the story you discovered by going online.

Jason Leopold: At the time there were, you know blogs were in their infancy. And many of the things that were discussed were discussed in just simply chat rooms, web sites that were created specifically to discuss issues like Enron. And I went on there to poke around because these are people who had worked at Enron that were all getting together in cyberspace to discuss what was happening. And some of the things that were discussed were you know do you remember that time that we went downstairs to the trading floor and had to pose as secretaries. And it was a great place for tips because it was people speaking in the open, it was people speaking as if you were in someone’s living room and it was like being a fly on the wall.

Dori Smith: We’re talking with Jason Leopold author of News Junkie available through Amazon.com through advanced order. Jason Leopold broke some of the first stories about Enron and the company’s manipulation of the energy market, then a fake trading floor set up by Enron, as well as stories about former Secretary of the Army Thomas White who resigned in scandal I asked him to talk about the way members of the growing alternative press continue to try to compensate for the decline in America’s media though presently they cannot hope to replace it.

Jason Leopold: There is definitely an attitude that if a story like Iran is important, if you have somebody who may not be well known that is reporting something like this say six months ago, the attitude is well if it’s really true, if it’s truly important it would be on the front page of the Washington Post. Therefore let’s not give it any credibility. Let’s not give these stories any credibility. I’m actually experiencing that right now with some of my stories on the CIA leak that well you know Jason doesn’t write for the New York Times or the Washington Post. So really how credible is he?

Sure, there are questions about a report that I did four years ago which is obviously getting a lot of play, and I’m talking about the Thomas White story that I had written for Salon, but you don’t get the attention, or their story does not get any real play unless it is in the New York Times or the Washington Post or on CNN. –The people that want an independent media, want some real reporting, then when someone does it it’s actually, you know, they try to discredit it (This link goes to National Review online.)

Dori Smith: Just talk about Thomas White, the government official who resigned, talk about the story where you were doubted in what you were saying but it did turn out to be true.

Jason Leopold: I go into great detail about that in my book and I was brutally honest my book and I was certainly if anything did not portray myself in a very positive light. I say that the truth is ugly. And I spent a year investigating Thomas White. He was tapped in May 2001 as Secretary of the Army and he was the former Vice President of Enron Energy Services. Enron Energy Services was Enron’s retail outfit which had come to play a major role in the bankruptcy of Enron. And I had written a story that said Thomas White knew that this unit that he was running was basically a house of cards. I had obtained about 100 pages of documents showing that Thomas White, a guy who was tapped by the Bush Administration to be the Secretary of the Army, was not involved in fraudulent activities but knew that the unit he ran was basically a house of cards and here he was leading the army and responsible for an 86 billion dollar budget. So there was an email that I had obtained that said; “close a bigger deal hide the loss before the 1Q.” (News Junkie, page 226, paragraph 3.)

That email was in response to one of his underlings saying we’ve got a problem, we’re going to show a loss in the next quarter, what are we going to do? One of these contracts is hemorrhaging cash.

As soon as I put this story out, which was in August 2002, it didn’t make a sound. It didn’t make a sound until Paul Krugman picked it up in the New York Times and wrote about it. As soon as Paul Krugman picked it up I was immediately turned into the story. In fact, it’s interesting. Bob Novak who played the essential role, you know he was the first one to print Valerie Plame’s identity; went on CNN and called me the outrage of the week.

He actually made a story out of whole cloth saying that he tried to contact me and that I ignored his calls and never called him back regarding Thomas White. Basically, to make a long story short I was turned into the story. There were allegations that I plagiarized a Financial Times piece when in fact I had credited the Financial Times. I may not have provided them with enough credit but I actually credited them.

Then there was pressure that came on Salon. This was at a time when reporters were not questioning the White House. Were not going after the White House. This was when everybody was being their lap dog, everyone in the media. If you go back and look at it I think the evidence will actually prove that to be true.

So here I was going after the White House. That was the intent of my story to show that hey wait a minute. We’ve got a guy here running the Army and he knew about the fraud going on at Enron? Somebody should hold this person responsible. So there was pressure that came onto Salon and of course they dispute it. They dispute this entirely and will say something different. And the story was told and I was turned into the story and that was actually the genesis for writing this book because I really wanted first of all to give people an accurate look at what goes on behind the scenes in the cutthroat world of investigative journalism. At the same time showing how a flawed person like myself, who has shortcomings who has a past, really tried to do good work and how the past informed my professional life.

Dori Smith: I just wonder we have so many extreme difficulties and reflected in these amazing news stories about the environment or Enron or the war Do you ever find yourself sort of using these stories as a way to explain some of what you are feeling about yourself and about the world?

Jason Leopold: Yeah! Actually that’s a good question. It’s actually what is happening, is happening in the world that makes me feel passionate about writing these stories; passionate about getting to the heart and to the truth of what’s missed and what is actually going on in our country. My story, the things that I write, are a reflection of how I feel personally. I try my best to be objective, but let’s face it, I don’t write for the L.A. Times or the Washington Post. I write for publications that have a liberal slant. My stories are a reflection of how passionate I am about exposing what I feel are lies and even before that the stories that I wrote when I was working at Dow Jones; it was a way for me, by exposing these people, a way for me to purge my own feelings of guilt and shame, to really empty out how I felt about myself, because the stories I was covering they really impacted me because here I am writing about people who are being accused of crimes and at the same time I have been accused of a crime and have pled guilty to one and I kept that bottled up. And by writing these stories it actually allows me to purge my feelings. So in a way it helps. In some respects it actually hurt me too because it meant that I was not dealing with my own issues and dealing with this through others. But in the end I think that it gave me a great look inside of myself and it’s interesting how the things that I write today, it really is a reflection of who I am as an individual.

Dori Smith: Some time perhaps we can have you back to talk about how your book is really a love story about you and your wife?

Jason Leopold: Yes. I would love that because it really is, that’s one of the underlying themes in there.

Dori Smith: Jason Leopold thanks so much for joining us.
Jason Leopold: Thank you Dori.

Dori Smith: Jason Leopold is former Bureau Chief of Dow Jones Newswires; he also worked for the L.A. Times, the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. His switch to more progressive, alternative and independent media outlets finds him currently writing for Utne Reader Alternet and Counterpunch Jason Leopold broke key stories about California’s energy crisis and Enron His recent book, News Junkie, is available by advanced order Investigative journalist Greg Palast of the BBC said of this book, “Bravo and my personal Pulitzer to Jason Leopold. Every journalist in America should read this, and then quit or riot.” Jason Leopold will speak at the Harvard CO-OP at 7 PM in Cambridge Tuesday May 9th.

For Talk Nation Radio I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation Radio is produced at WHUS Storrs, Radio for the People at the University of Connecticut. To listen live try WHUS dot Org Wed at 5 PM. And for transcripts and discussion try Talk Nation dot org or Talk Nation Radio dot org

Music by Fritz Heede and then Bruce Cochburn

Jason Leopold on Enron, Jeffrey Skilling, the Plame Investigation, and his new book, News Junkie

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

Talk Nation Radio for April 12, 2006
Dori Smith interviews Jason Leopold, this is part one of a two part series. Part Two centers more on Jason Leopold’s new book, News Junkie.

“Truly, what was going on prior to Enron’s bankruptcy in Washington? What did the Bush administration know and when did they know it?” Jason Leopold

Journalist Jason Leopold is our guest today. Leopold was one of three reporters selected to interview former Enron President Jeffrey Skilling in December of 2001. Skilling is testifying in his own defense on the collapse and bankruptcy of Enron. He’s facing 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading, and lying to auditors.

“So Jeff Skilling is putting on quite a performance and it really just brings back a lot of memories for me four years after I first interviewed him when we spoke in December 2001.” Jason Leopold

INTRO: Jason Leopold currently writes for Utne Reader, Alternet and Counterpunch While serving as Bureau Chief of Dow Jones Newswires he broke key stories about California’s energy crisis and Enron. He’s worked for the L.A. Times and been a frequent guest on CNBC. His articles have appeared in the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. His recent book, News Junkie is available by advanced order from www.Amazon.com and www.Jasonleopold.com. The BBC’s investigative journalist Greg Palast says of this book; “Bravo and my personal Pulitzer to Jason Leopold. Every journalist in America should read this, then quit, or riot,” he says.

And Journalist Jason Leopold will be speaking at the Harvard CO-OP at 7 PM at Cambridge, Tuesday, May 9th, 2006. Jason Leopold welcome.

Jason Leopold Thank you for having me Dori.

Dori Smith: I want to start by asking you about your most recent stories on the White House, the Plame investigation, US intelligence, let’s just turn to your April 10th story in Truthout and have you go over the first few paragraphs for us and tell us what they said.

Jason Leopold: Sure, I wrote two stories, one was, Evidence Suggests White House Conspiracy and the other was Bush at Center of Intelligence Leak Now in the court filing that Patrick Fitzgerald has submitted to the U.S. District Court just last week. It contained lots of meaty information about President Bush’s involvement in the Plame, actually the Plame affair, I would say, because there is no information in that filing that says President Bush authorized the leak, however, it does say that he authorized the declassification of the National Intelligence Estimate in order to rebut the Iraq war critics like Ambassador Joseph Wilson

The other piece I wrote, again, the headline is, Evidence Suggests White House Conspiracy, I chose that word conspiracy and I know that that’s a legal term, it also could be used as a way to describe many people involved in an effort to discredit or do harm to a certain individual. And in the filing it says that there were quote, “multiple” White House officials who sought to discredit and retaliate against Joe Wilson and it just so happen that just today and on Sunday the New York Times and Washington Post both had stories about that as well. It’s quite a read actually, the court filing, because it really sort of puts together the back story of what went on in the months before Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked and really shows how involved Vice President Dick Cheney was in this effort.

Dori Smith: Now this is Dick Cheney and George Bush who basically said they didn’t know what people were talking about when first asked about this right?

Jason Leopold: Yes. You know and that’s the interesting thing. In October 2003, just three months after the leak, Scott McClellan and George Bush, Scott McClellan the press secretary; they held a press conference and questions came up about who was involved at the White House level with regard to leaking Valerie Plame’s identity. Both of them first of all publicly exonerated Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff. And President Bush himself said this is quote, a town full of, the town’s full of leakers, I don’t know if we will ever find the identify of the person who leaked. He said that’s your business, meaning journalism, or the news business does such a good job of protecting the leaker. So when you look back on those statements versus what has come out last week it really suggests that he knew a lot more than he let on.

Dori Smith: We are also looking at a situation where the President and also the Vice President and others like these press secretaries are insisting that the President did not know about specifically the naming of Valerie Plame Wilson, and they are holding on to that one shred that Bush supposedly didn’t know about. But at this point has that been proven again to be a lie?

Jason Leopold I have spoken with many sources who are very close to this case and I’ve been following this for nearly two years and the people that I have spoken with who were very close to this matter have told me that in fact Vice President Dick Cheney met with the President in June of 2003 along with Andrew Card, the former chief of staff, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Karl Rove, and they discussed Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. And this National Intelligence Estimate which has become the center of controversy right now with regard to the whole Valerie Plame issue and the fact that it was declassified to rebut what Joe Wilson was saying; It actually was declassified because the President was kept up to date or was told about Joe Wilson possibly going public with his assertions that the intelligence was flawed. So I am very confident that what people are going to see within the next month is a lot more information coming from the Special Prosecutor that will prove that President Bush, I’m not convinced yet that he authorized the leaking of her name, but I am convinced, and I believe that the information will show, that he knew who Valerie Plame was. That he knew that she was a CIA officer. I don’t know if he knew that she was covert or under cover but it will show that he was right there in June 2003, knew that it was crucial that they release this information to two hand picked reporters in order to rebut Joe Wilson and that and that alone.

Dori Smith: Now at this meeting you are talking about those in attendance Cheney, Bush, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her former Deputy, Stephen Hadley and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove

Jason Leopold: Correct. Yeah. And they were there and they were there and they were discussing this. So of all I should say that this was June 2003. Joe Wilson had become an obsession. Vice President Dick Cheney was consumed with the statements that Joe Wilson had been saying about the administration behind the scenes. The background information that he had given to Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, with regard to the flawed intelligence that purported to show Iraq’s attempt to purchase Uranium from Niger. So this is quite explosive in my opinion. And I think that once the information comes out people are going to see that there was, this is my word, a conspiracy. A conspiracy to discredit and harm the credibility of this former ambassador because of what he was saying.

Dori Smith: Looking at Enron you have said a lot in the past about people who were asking the President directly whether or not he knew, his administration, his Vice President knew what was happening at Enron in advance of the meltdown when they could have taken measures or at least said things that might have clarified what was going on.

Jason Leopold: Correct.

Dori Smith: Talk about what Bush didn’t do there too.

Jason Leopold: Yeah you know early on when Enron, actually when Jeff Skilling had abruptly resigned from Enron in August 2001, behind the scenes, that was seen as an event that could have a ripple effect on the energy industry at large because Jeff Skilling was an innovator. He was brilliant in what he did in terms of deregulation, energy trading, things like that, that really sort of turned the stagnant electricity business into a money making operation. And when Jeff Skilling resigned there was an Enron lobbyist who had met with some folks in Washington in the Treasury Department to see if that would have any effect on the energy market. If his resignation could cause a ripple effect that would actually hurt the economy. And right off the bat when President Bush was asked about Enron, the way that he described his relationship with Ken Lay was that they weren’t very close. He was no longer “Kenny Boy” but Mr. Lay.

This was sort of the beginning I guess you could say of how the administration was not forthcoming, how they really started to spin the public and journalists into believing that, you know, “we had no idea what was going on with Enron”, when in fact just months earlier Vice President Cheney had met with Ken Lay and Ken Lay had given him eight or nine different recommendations for the National Energy Policy which were adopted and which they put into the National Energy Policy. The problem here, however, is that we have a press corps, we have you know the Washington press corps and the mainstream media at large, who have done a terrible job of really following these stories and not doing enough digging to get to the truth.

Dori Smith: So they are just accepting it when various kinds of people explain, this lobbyist, I guess this was Pat Shortridge right?

Jason Leopold: Pat Shortridge, correct. And this was August 2001. Two months later Enron imploded in a wave of accounting scandals. That is actually one of the hanging threads or you know something that has not really been fully closed off yet is truly what was going on prior to Enron’s bankruptcy in Washington. What did the Bush administration know and when did they know it?

And I think that, when I tried to put this together, when I put these stories out there, I was attacked for many of them. And in some instances I may not have crossed my t’s and dotted my I’s in one specific story, but if people were to sort of read the indictment against Jeff Skilling right now what they would see is a company that had such an “in” with the administration and they had lobbyists that made Jack Abramoff look like a novice.

Dori Smith: And so getting into this issue of the fact that the White House was telling the public and the press and their spokespeople like White House Spokeswoman, Ann Womack, downplaying the meaning of Lay’s contacts with the White House or of this guy Shortridge coming to the White House at this crucial time and the press just accepting this. This is where you say everything fell apart and there was delayed justice but also a delay in protecting the economy of the United States of America?

Jason Leopold: Correct. Yeah. And the fact is the administration certainly did not want anyone to know how deep or how close the relationship was. We all knew that Enron was a very large contributor, that Ken Lay contributed heavily to Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and that when Bush was governor of Texas there was an enormous amount of correspondence between Bush and Lay. In fact, one Christmas card that was sent to Ken Lay by George Bush said, “Laura and I value our friendship with you.”

I want to say that Ken Lay was a George Bush groupie. There is so much information. I actually have a box. A box of documents, thousands of pages just of correspondence between Ken Lay and George Bush. And when it came time to really answer the question of what did you know and when did you know it the administration claimed that it didn’t know anything. But the fact is that it was tipped off that there is going to be a problem here.

Granted that Enron did not deserve a bail out from the Federal Government what it did deserve was some sort of protection for those employees and those shareholders whose retirement accounts were just completely wiped out. And when that happened the Bush administration and the President and Ari Fleischer and a whole bunch of others just acted as if they had no idea. And everyone just took those statements as well that’s just the way it is.

Now also this was right after 9/11. A month or two. And the focus was on the terrorist attacks. But if people were simply just, to use a cliche, follow the money, they would have seen that the Bush administration, this was what I’d like to call the very first scandal.

Dori Smith: You do credit Frontline for picking up on this initially. Just talk about their report and the significance of what they said and then what Vice President Dick Cheney said.

Jason Leopold: Frontline did this great documentary series during the peak of the California energy crisis One of the things that we know right now as a result of the Enron bankruptcy, as a result of the various plea deals involving some of the executives, is that Enron manipulated the California energy market, that they basically created an artificial shortage in order to boost the bottom line, in order to boost the price of electricity and natural gas, and that other companies like Enron were involved in this. And back in 2001, the peak of the energy crisis, when Governor Gray Davis were blaming companies like Enron for creating the crisis and had asked for some relief, some price relief in the form of price caps on electricity, he was rebuffed by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. And Dick Cheney was actually asked do you believe that energy companies are acting like a cartel? And he had a very matter of fact answer. He said no.

The problem you have is the restriction that California put into place or the market rules that California put into place that did not allow a so-called true free market to operate. And he said that it was California’s fault. He said that California was responsible for Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy. And he said that it’s the state’s problem. When in fact it actually was all of these companies, Texas based companies that were involved in tearing the state apart, siphoning money out, ripping off and creating artificial shortages, shutting down power plants. And this all came at around the same time that the National Energy Policy was being put together. And you had agencies; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, other agencies in Washington, suppressing this evidence in order to allow the National Energy Policy to come out. Because if we did know at the time that this evidence exists, and that companies like William’s Company, was involved in shutting down power plants, that really would have hurt the National Energy Policy, that really would have hurt the Bush Administration.

But Vice President Cheney and George Bush are two energy guys. They are guys that spent a great deal of time in the energy sector and they believe in the free market.

Dori Smith: Even as we speak we see that Jeffrey Skilling is testifying and trying to save himself from a long prison term by convincing people essentially that he’s not a liar.

Jason Leopold: Right. And I had been one of three journalists chosen to interview Jeff Skilling in December 2001. I was very fortunate. It was actually, I write about it in my book, sort of giving a back story of how I landed this interview along with the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle. And when I interviewed Jeff Skilling the first thing that struck me was how this powerful chief executive, how this man who was just on the cover of nearly every business magazine, how suddenly he became this very sad and soft spoken individual, and how he said that when he left Enron the company was in great financial shape, that he had no idea that Enron was in any trouble, that watching Enron implode was like watching the World Trade Center come down.

What he said at the time, what’s been spoken about at the trial now is that he said the problem you had at Enron was a run on the bank. Those were his words that it had nothing to do with these off balance sheet partnerships. That it in fact was the banks getting spooked. But he absolutely professed his innocence then and I’m not surprised that he’s doing it now. However, he was much more involved in these questionable partnerships; again, I believe the evidence that the government has proves that. So you know Jeff Skilling is right now putting on quite a performance and it really just brings back a lot of memories for me four years after I first interviewed him when we spoke in December 2001.

Dori Smith: And that brings up an interesting process. You know when the Vice President talked about the Valerie Plame Wilson affair he did not say that he knew anything about it and so he was not under oath at that time, and it seems that we may have a question about who at the White House will be under oath when they talk about these matters of documents that Patrick Fitzgerald has.

Jason Leopold: The President was not under oath when he was interviewed by Patrick Fitzgerald and investigators. However, it’s a felony to lie to investigators even if you are the President or even if you are the Vice President. But this is an administration and this is a President who has not held anyone in his inner circle accountable for anything. They will say and do whatever they want to to serve their own political purposes. I think the question is going to be when are people just going to get so fed up with this administration and the dozens and hundreds of lies that they have been telling people with regard to what they knew and when they knew it. I don’t even think we are close to that area yet. I think what we are going to see though is an administration that is going to come up with an excuse, or they are going to; instead of a leak they’ll call it an “authorized disclosure”. Oh –well it depends on what the meaning of “leak” is. You know? It really is troubling, frightening, that this administration can just say whatever it wants to because it really believes it can get away with it.

Dori Smith: We’re speaking with Journalist Jason Leopold. His new book, News Junkie is available by advanced order from Amazon dot com or Jason Leopold dot com

News Junkie centers on his personal experience in the news industry. It is a cautionary tale for those who consume a lot of news with an eye toward using it to try to change U.S. policies. Some of us may listen to daily news reports with an addict’s intensity and even wake up in the middle of the night to log on or tune in, and occasionally to cheer a reporter on because he or she has broken a major story that could challenge world leaders to stop human rights abuses, violence, corruption or policies that do not address global warming. The down side is that we are forced to try to cope with horror or even a sense of personal failure when we learn all too frequently that courageous reporting has not been enough.

In part two of our interview with Jason Leopold we will be speaking about his book, News Junkie, and we will hear his personal story of writing about one of the biggest corruption scandals in U.S. history while all the time feeling like he wanted to die whenever he slipped at either getting the scoop or fighting his desperate urge to use the cocaine and alcohol he was addicted to. He speaks about the writing of this book.

Jason Leopold: And it’s funny in my book I really talk about myself, obviously this is a very personal story and I try to show how my personal life has informed my professional life. And coming from a background of addiction and things like that how lies, how lying, was just a big part of it because simply I thought I could get away with it. And that’s really what this administration is doing. They are saying and doing things because they believe they can get away with it because they believe that that’s the truth, and any reporter who is present at a morning press briefing with Scott McClellan and expects to get anything out of this guy is crazy, they are not doing their job. You know that’s great for a sound bite but no one is doing any digging outside of there.

Dori Smith: I would like to ask you about one AP story that came over the wire, this is defense chief Donald Rumsfeld who is saying that he won’t go into fantasy land to speculate about a possible U.S. attack on Iran.

Jason Leopold: Right.

Dori Smith: Now we’ve just seen this very frightening article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and it seems that it’s not just a matter of planning to attack or of the circumstances under which diplomacy will be abandoned, it’s a matter of they are picking out targets, they are on the ground in Iran already.

Jason Leopold Absolutely, absolutely. And you know this is something, I actually wrote about this. I wrote about the Iran situation a few years ago and how we were funding various student groups and radio stations out there, funding a group to overthrow the regime. And Iran has long been a country that this administration has wanted to attack right? You know you go back to 1997 or 1998 when all of the people who are in a senior capacity in this administration, how they were part of this group called the Project for the New American Century. And this group really talked about regime change in the Middle East and how Iran and Iraq are part of this obviously the “axis of evil,” or what they call, but Seymour Hersh is an amazing journalist because he does not couch his words. He comes right out and says what he has been told.

Dori Smith: Yeah in the state we are in, you know you were talking about lies versus truth, and it’s just a matter of, if we are not able, if the truth is not available to us about where our country is headed in the major policy decisions of the day, including going to war, we have to ask ourselves where we are at in terms of being a nation right?

Jason Leopold Absolutely. And I think that you know Iran has long been on the radar. As soon as we found out about the enrichment program. I don’t have the full details of what is going on there. But I think that it’s completely in their mind that there is no room for diplomacy. That the only way to deal with this is through a preemptive strike and I believe and I feel that based on the people I have spoken with at the Pentagon that this is, the wheels have been in motion for quite a while it’s just that we haven’t heard about it.

Dori Smith: Jason Leopold, thank you for joining us on Talk Nation Radio.
Jason Leopold: Thank you.

Dori Smith: We turn finally to a portion of next week’s program on Jason Leopold’s book, News Junkie: Jason did you write the book as much for the sake of the story as for the sake of your own need to tell your story?

Jason Leopold: That’s a great question. After the Thomas White incident happened I realized that as a journalist I was so addicted to the story, which mirrored my addiction to drugs, which was, I replaced my addiction to drugs with my addiction to getting the scoop. I also realized that, you know, I felt like a fraud. Here I was exposing these hucksters and these corporate cons and you know shady politicians. But at the same time I have a past too. I have a felony on my record. That happened before my time coming into journalism although I was still using drugs during one of my first jobs in journalism. But I wrote this story because, a couple of things: I wanted to A. Out myself so to speak. I wanted to be the one to just tell my own story before anyone had the opportunity to. And the reason I wanted to do that is because I want to continue writing these stories, writing these hard hitting stories and telling the truth about what’s going on in Washington. Or at least doing my best to do that.

I felt that unless I came clean about myself I would always be looking over my shoulder. I would always be wondering well gee if I really get the story, if I really get that story that exposes everything and lifts the curtain off the whole scandal so to speak well then maybe somebody may come and try to expose me. So let me expose myself.

But then there was another angle to it. I realized that I’d been running from this. I’d been running from the truth about myself my entire life. And when the Thomas White incident happened I realized that you know the mistakes that I made as a journalist were a result of not coming to terms with who I was. And the need for validation or having people say hey we really like you; it was a way for me to purge my own feelings of guilt and shame. And it’s interesting that journalism, the type of stories I was reporting, truly allowed me to do that. I mean, it’s an incredible irony that one of my first jobs when I moved out to California was covering crime for a small paper called the Whittier Daily News But at the same time I was hired as a crime reporter I was being prosecuted for a crime. It was something that I really needed to just empty it out. And now if somebody goes out there and says, hey don’t believe Jason Leopold because this is who he is. You know I can say yeah, I know that, I told that story, it’s already out there, you are not saying something that’s brand new.

Dori Smith: Jason Leopold is author of News Junkie in which he lays bare the cutthroat worlds of mainstream journalism, politics and high finance. He also writes about the compulsions that led from drugs and crime to his becoming an award-winning investigative reporter. You can find the book at Amazon dot com

He will be speaking about the book at the Harvard Co-op in Cambridge on Tuesday May 9th at 7 PM. For Talk Nation Radio, I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation Radio is produced in the studios of WHUS. Radio for the People at the University of Connecticut. You can listen to this program when it airs by logging on to WHUS dot org or turn to talknation dot org or talknationradio dot org for transcripts and discussions. Our music was provided first by Fritz Heede and then Jeff Alex Mason.

FBI lists Indymedia and Food Not Bombs on Watch List Shown to Texas Law Students

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

Why are groups like Indymedia and Food Not Bombs on the government’s terror watch list and why did an FBI agent show law students a list that included these groups during a class presentation on terrorism at the University of Texas March 8th? These and other questions have prompted concern as a story written by Nick Schwellenbach goes global thanks ironically to the international “Be the media” group, Indymedia

Welcome to Talk Nation Radio, a half hour discussion on politics, human rights, and the environment. I’m Dori Smith. On March 8th an FBI agent walked into a classroom at the University of Texas law school. The class was on U.S. Law and National Security so his presence was not questioned, however, when he showed the students a list of groups on the U.S. government’s terror “watch list” some of the students began to lean forward in their seats and pay closer attention.

They recognized the names. Indymedia and Food Not Bombs were groups their friends had been active with. We hear from national security writer Nick Schwellenbach whose March 27th story in Alternet.org about this incident is titled Keeping Tabs on the Peaceniks We speak first with University of Texas law school student Elizabeth Wagoner who was present at her law school class when the FBI agent walked in. I asked her to explain what happened.

Elizabeth Wagoner: I’m a student in a class called, U.S. Law and National Security and my professor invited a friend of his from the FBI office in Austin to come speak to us about terrorism in Texas. So I was present in the class when the officer gave his presentation and listed certain groups on a watch list.

Dori Smith: This was agent G. Charles Rasner who came to speak to the class. Tell us what happened next.

Elizabeth Wagoner: So he gave a presentation on terrorism in Texas, and that presentation was labeled “unclassified” on the first slide. And this was all on “Powerpoint.” There were several slides in the presentation and the first one listed three general categories of organizations that the FBI looks at.

Again, this was all about terrorism. That was the title of the presentation. And it said, “International Terrorist Groups,” “Domestic Terrorist Groups,” and “Cause Groups.” And when asked what a “cause group” was he sort of referenced anti war, you know that kind of thing. Environmental activist kind of groups; what he meant by cause groups was what you imagine it might mean. Just groups that have a cause, whatever that is, political cause.

So then the next slide was a map of Texas and then on the side there was a key and for different kinds of groups there would be a dot on the map. And so white supremacist groups had a red dot and anarchists had a yellow dot. And so then he had a dot, you know these different colored dots all over the map to indicate where this sort of activity was happening in the state. And then Austin, which is where I live, had anarchists, white supremacists, it had all four dots. I don’t remember what all four were. A third one was international terrorism I think. I don’t remember what the fourth one was.

And then finally right as class was ending he puts up the slide, “The Watch List” and on that list were Indymedia and Food Not Bombs and then, as friends and I have discussed it we determined that Rainforest Action Network was on the list. -The Texas Communist Party was on the list.

I have friends that remember more than I did, but you know I saw Indymedia and Food Not Bombs and was shocked because I have friends that work in those organizations. I mean to have those organizations listed anywhere in a presentation on terrorism is shocking.

Dori Smith: Now Indymedia, let’s just point out, it’s an independent news media, it’s kind of a news media collective, people being the media right?

Elizabeth Wagoner: That’s right. “Be the media,” is their slogan.

Dori Smith: And so about Food Not Bombs. They give out food right?

Elizabeth Wagoner: That’s right. Their overriding philosophy is, as I understand it, is that our money should be going towards feeding the people and not bombing countries. So certainly that’s a political message but their activity is feeding, you know feeding the homeless, or feeding whoever wants to be fed with food that’s been donated or collected somehow.

Dori Smith: We are going to be speaking with Nick Schwellenbach. In his Alternet.org story he writes that (see group serving Hurricane Katrina victims) Food Not Bombs distributes unused vegetarian food from grocery stores. So I wonder if that caught any special attention. They’re vegetarian.

Elizabeth Wagoner: Who knows? (Laughs.) I mean that would be pretty amazing if so. They definitely have an anti consumption message, you know, this idea of using food that others don’t want and that kind of thing goes against certain people’s visions of consumption and that being good for America and that sort of thing.

Dori Smith: Now we can make light of this but I understand that you found it somewhat unsettling and this is not something that is typically in your field of interest right?

Elizabeth Wagoner: That’s right. I mean I just do labor and poverty law. That’s what I’m mostly interested in. But it was shocking that the FBI would be involved in, would be looking at these groups. And that they would tell us about it, that it was just so open. Well yes, we look at these peace groups. (Laughs) It was disturbing. These are people that I’m friends with. This is me. I mean anybody can be in Indymedia.

Dori Smith: So this is a little close to home.

Elizabeth Wagoner: Yeah.

Dori Smith: And I understand that you filed a FOIA. A Freedom of Information Act Request?

Elizabeth Wagoner: That’s right. After the presentation I asked the officer if I could have a copy of the presentation and he refused and he said he had proprietary government interest in the presentation. And I said well but government property belongs to the people when it’s unclassified, and he said well no I have a proprietary interest, I’m not going to give it to you. -But he did give me his card and so from that I filed a FOIA request and since then the ACLU also is working on filing FOIA requests, and getting the groups together who were listed in the presentation to file a FOIA request jointly.

Dori Smith: Now what was the climate in the class and what kind of an atmosphere prevailed during this presentation? Were other students concerned about what was happening?

Elizabeth Wagoner: There were other students that were concerned and I should add from a variety of political stripes but this being a law school the nature of, I mean I feel that most people in there just don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to say anything, just kind of want to get home to their kids. So most people were not saying anything and probably weren’t even worried about it that much, but for those of us who, for me it was because I knew people in those groups and I think for others it may have been some of the same thing or just general concern for civil liberties. But overall there was a surprising lack of shock. There are a lot of conservatives in this law school so maybe that’s why.

Dori Smith: And do you think that in a way we’ve been prepared for this ever since the day that George Bush announced you are with us or against us, and sort of started focusing on threats that would be posed and how the war on terror superceded all other agendas?

Elizabeth Wagoner: Well I guess agencies know now that if they say that something’s terrorism then they can work on it, so everything’s terrorism. A group that’s against the administration is “terrorism”. That doesn’t really make sense to me and I don’t think that would really make sense to anybody. But I guess the way it was Communism in the 1950s its terrorism now even for groups that have nothing to do with that. And it’s ridiculous and I wonder, you suggest that it’s calculated and I think that there’s some of that but I don’t know I wonder if it’s incompetence too. I mean it’s just so stupid to be spending time on groups like this when there are more obvious dangers. That can be debated as well but certainly this is the wrong focus.

Dori Smith: What do you think that this kind of an experience might do to someone like yourself? How do you think it will impact you?

Elizabeth Wagoner: I don’t know if it will impact me as much as it impacts, for instance, the kids who do Food Not Bombs in Houston. Many are high schoolers. Their parents are concerned with them being involved with Food Not Bombs in light of this. And of course there is no reason for concern. None. Food Not Bombs is a peace group who serves food. But that affects these kids whose parents are worried about FBI surveillance.

I just heard a presentation. You know, and my political work later on, I mean certainly as an anti-war activist or something I could envision being targeted or being put on the “no fly list” for having talked about this or something but it’s certainly not going to stop me from doing anything or talking about it.

Dori Smith: There’s an L.A. Times story about this and then the other by Nick Schwellenbach in Alternet. What do you make of the coverage? Do you feel that it has accurately reported what happened?

Elizabeth Wagoner: Yes, I do. And they’ve luckily been able to talk to a number of law students in the class to corroborate the story because the FBI spin has already started. But I think it’s important that this story be looked at not just in isolation but as part of what’s going on nationally with FBI surveillance all over the country. Because this isn’t just in Austin this is in Philadelphia, it’s in Denver, it’s in San Francisco. So I think it’s great that journalists are making that connection between the surprise revelation at a law school in Austin and actual FBI activity that’s going on everywhere.

Dori Smith: We’ve just seen that the Patriot Act was extended and is official. At what level are you aware though of the implications where the President’s NSA domestic spy program is concerned?

Elizabeth Wagoner: I guess in conversations that I’ve had with the ACLU we’ve talked about that and they’re similar issues and I guess that was everyone’s underlying concern with the NSA program all along was that they were not just listening to supposed Al-Queda terrorists but also listening to average Americans. And this provides more ammunition for that, I mean that concern that they are in fact listening to anti war groups or people with leftist political views and not people with any sort of violent motives.

Dori Smith: And as a law student would you say that you understand the reasons why the laws were enacted to protect the civil rights of innocent people who might be dragged into things like this without any real reason?

Elizabeth Wagoner: Again, I’m no expert on civil liberties, civil rights law, I guess more as a citizen it’s just my instinct that this kind of thing is not what free speech is about. The First Amendment was passed to protect us and we all know that, we all grow up knowing that, and so to have to worry about being watched or listened to for your political views is shocking, is outrageous.

Dori Smith: Elizabeth Wagoner is a law student at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s been in touch with the ACLU of Texas and has also filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to try to obtain a copy of the Powerpoint report the FBI showed to her class on March 8th. Our next guest is Nick Schwellenbach, a writer focusing on national security and a former University of Texas student who is now an investigator at the Washington D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight. Pogo.org -That group is not officially involved with Schwellenbach’s private research and writing on what happened at Elizabeth Wagoner’s law school class.

In his Alternet story he points out that this is not the first time that there have been reports of federal surveillance of political organizations at UT Austin. He and others are now trying to understand the implications.

Nick Schwellenbach: Of course, I’ve studied a little bit about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s with activists being infiltrated by the FBI, activists in the Native American movement, in the Civil Rights movement, and protesters to the Vietnam War. And I was also aware of Congressional investigations into what happened, namely the Church Committee. And even skeptical senators, members of Congress, came around to the conclusion that what our government was doing was having a chilling effect on our civil liberties, namely freedom of speech and assembly. And how can you have a government that suppresses civil liberties in the name of them? It’s a contradictory position that the government was in and that obviously has negative effects on democracy itself.

Dori Smith: Were you at all surprised at some of the groups that were mentioned by this FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent G. Charles Rasner?

Nick Schwellenbach: I was actually somewhat shocked that he said these things publicly and in at least one press account where the reporter actually got a hold of Rasner he admitted that he actually didn’t know what two of the groups, I believe it was Food Not Bombs and Indymedia, what they actually stood for and what they did. And so I found it hard to believe that he would say these things publicly and then turn around and say “I don’t even know why I said this.” And it begs the question what kind of oversight and quality control, how do they decide which groups are on the top terror watch lists? You know can this be easily manipulated by people seeking to suppress political dissidents?
I think that’s a great question and the FBI needs to answer.

Dori Smith: Now how could someone possibly believe that a group calling itself “Food Not Bombs,” would be a dangerous terrorist organization or have any ties to any, because of the name itself right?

Nick Schwellenbach: One Washington writer, his name is Bill Arkin he actually has a very good critique of this. Arkin believes that there is this kind of connecting the dots mentality. And since 9/11 you hear this, from government commissions, intelligence agents, they want to connect the dots. That could be anything from oh this person is laundering money and they are involved with Al-Queda. Now, if we can connect the dots between that person and people they are financially connected to perhaps we can figure out a terror financial network. -Now this kind of thinking can obviously be abused. They’ll say someone in Food Not Bombs might be connected to some anarchist organization that smashed windows at Starbucks during the Seattle protest. And while that may be true can you equate smashing windows at Starbucks with blowing up innocent civilians? I don’t think you can and I don’t think you should. And so you need to distinguish between these two things and I think that this data mining, dot connecting mentality, is you don’t learn to distinguish what is legitimate political protest and what is illegitimate. You lose all sense of barriers and differences are kind of washed away. It’s kind of diabolical because at some point anyone can be a terrorist and so the term itself loses its meaning.

Dori Smith: Anyone can be a terrorist meaning in the sense of how we are all Six Degrees of Separation away? (From film by that name.)

Nick Schwellenbach: Exactly, at a certain level you could indict anyone. It really is dangerous because anyone can then suddenly be held in suspicion if they are at all connected to something that’s outside the mainstream or if they do something even a little abnormal. Then suddenly they can fall under investigation by the FBI. And you know it doesn’t really help fight what are really terrorist activities because then your law enforcement is spread thin; they’re following dead leads, chasing down grandmas and activists who are trying to get food to homeless people.

Dori Smith: Let’s go through your story here. You start out by talking about this agent, G. Charles Rasner who delivered a guest lecture before Professor Ronald Sievert’s U.S. Law and National Security class of approximately 100 students. Now take us to the University of Texas law school here, what’s your best guest as to what agent Rasner was doing here?

Nick Schwellenbach: Counter terrorism in Texas that was the name of his presentation. And of course the FBI wants to reach out to law students. It’s kind of clich‚ but they are the leaders of tomorrow and then they also may go to work for the FBI. So it’s a potential recruiting ground and a place just to get the word out and communicate with the public which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the FBI to do. But I think in this case it kind of backfired because of all the media attention his presentation has garnered.

Dori Smith: You write that in a list of approximately ten groups, Food Not Bombs was listed 7th, Indymedia was listed 10th, with a reference specifically to IndyConference 2005; the Communist Party of Texas made the list, and Rasner explained that these groups could have links to terrorist activity and noted that peaceful sounding group names could cover more violent extremist tactics.

Where you were looking at the groups involved, what kinds of things came to mind as to what these groups could be facing under this new climate where someone like Agent Rasner would just sort of casually mention their names like that?

Nick Schwellenbach: Well there was no explanation for what these groups do so if you don’t know who these groups are, and say you are just an average law student, suddenly when you see Food Not Bombs maybe a flyer or something, I mean what do you think when you hear Food Not Bombs? Do you just associate them with terrorists because you know of nothing else?

Actually, I’m more interested in what’s going on inside the FBI and inside law enforcement. Are they so paranoid that they’re willing to infiltrate or surveil these groups? I mean what kind of resources do they dedicate towards dealing with groups that are on their terrorist watch lists?

I spoke with an FBI San Antonio press person, where Rasner is based out of, and he said well you know just because you are on this watch list doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to detain you or throw you in jail. We may just want to question you. But I wonder what else do they do? Do they surveil them? Is there an extreme culture of paranoia within the FBI and how do they interact with the public if they have such attitudes.

Dori Smith: And then we have to think about what could happen when a group like Indymedia winds up on a terror watch list because if that group is then investigated by federal agencies or homeland security with that label already affixed to it then all kinds of things can be colored in such a way that behavior can be misread, misunderstood right?

Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah and I think the steps it takes for law enforcement to go over the line have been reduced. I can see this is definitely possible. When you are already classified or connected with terrorism, in the case of Indymedia wrongly, you know say there is a controversial story in Indymedia, then the number of steps it will take for the FBI to say shut down their servers has probably been cut down from half a dozen steps to a couple. And so the willingness of law enforcement to violate the civil liberties of an organization like Food Not Bombs or Indymedia or the people involved with those organizations has been reduced.

People take for granted that one of the fundamental documents that creates our government and lays out the social contract between the people and the government is the Bill of Rights. And the Bill of Rights is to protect the people, to insulate the people from the government actually violating their rights. We see that the government is lowering the threshold by which it views these groups and individuals within our society and is more willing perhaps to violate their rights.

Dori Smith: Let’s talk about UT Watch, a good government group, a group monitoring policy?

Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah it was a group I was involved with when I was a student at the University of Texas. We were just a university watchdog group. We wanted our university to be held accountable. We wanted affordable tuition and we wanted the university to be accessible to students regardless of income across the state of Texas, and we were also critical of corporate influence within the university.

Dori Smith: But in the story you have written here that’s in Alternet you point out that an FBI agent questioned a student and asked that student if he had ever been involved with UT Watch. Talk about the circumstances of what happened.

Nick Schwellenbach: Well among the variety of things that we did we discovered that our campus police were involved with the Austin Joint Terrorism Task Force. Now, Joint Terrorism Task Forces are located in a variety of cities across the United States to coordinate activities of law enforcement from the local city law enforcement with the FBI and other law enforcement on the local, state and federal level.

So we discovered that our own campus police were part of the Austin JTTF and we discovered that through a Freedom of Information Act request. Another activity that we were involved with is we discovered that our campus police also had semi automatic weapons and shot guns on campus and you know we made both of these things public. So presumably that is how the Austin FBI actually knew about the existence of UT Watch and knew to ask about our organizations. But there also is the possibility that the University of Texas informed the FBI.

Now, the number one unanswered question of this case is how did the FBI know that this student who is not involved in UT Watch actually made this request in the first place? The request was a state open record request to the University of Texas. And how did the FBI get a hold of that request? Obviously someone at UT gave the FBI this request and said hey this is suspicious, you know, you should check into this, and maybe at the same time they said hey you might want to see if this kid’s connected to this group.

Dori Smith: Do you think that this investigative process that wound up compiling lists of these groups that are known to be anti-war, known to be trying to document wrongdoing on the part of the Bush Administration; is this more evidence that this is a political campaign to repress dissent and to protect the White House from the kind of criticism that these groups have to offer?

Nick Schwellenbach: It can be read that way. I’m really unsure if this is being coordinated from the top down or if this is just a culture of paranoia at the FBI. I’m sure you are aware of this program called COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that was literally a coordinated campaign to suppress political dissidents. I really don’t know if there is a coordinated campaign. I think the program of COINTELPRO has just become the culture of the FBI.

Like I said we need to know more but that in some ways can be even more diabolical if it’s ingrained in these people’s minds I think but yeah, we do need to see what’s going on from the top down. I mean what kind of orders are agents in their local field offices receiving? Those are questions that need to be answered and I really don’t know the answer. But this is happening nationally and I think that’s clear.

Dori Smith: Nick who spoke with Rene Salinas, the spokesperson for the FBI San Antonio field office?

Nick Schwellenbach: I actually spoke with him.

Dori Smith: Why did Rene Salinas tell you that “the FBI doesn’t put people on the terror watch list for grins?”

Nick Schwellenbach: Well I asked Salinas, how does one get on the terror watch list? And he wouldn’t go into details. He simply said we don’t put them on the list for grins. He said we don’t do it lightly. But he wouldn’t give me any more details than that. He referred me to the National FBI office but I haven’t had a chance to call them. That would be an institution that you would want to get in contact with if you or anyone else interested in this would like to probe farther.

Dori Smith: He said that a group had to act or participate in a group connected with terrorism. What comes to mind when you think about that? I mean suppose a person were to log on and as search engines are notoriously weird come up with a search or a web site that was never intended to be looked for but it had to do with something that the FBI or other agencies were watching. Does that constitute acting or connecting with terrorism?

Nick Schwellenbach: I don’t think it significantly says anything and that’s a great question. Same kind of question; if you look up a book on Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban. Does that connect you with terrorism? I don’t think that’s enough information to say anything. The only thing you may be able to say from that is someone is interested in Al Queda or Osama Bin Laden. But on its own that’s in my opinion not worth looking into any farther.

With these Patriot Act provisions the FBI can look up your library search records and what are they doing with that? And these are the kinds of questions that I have. What are the standards for putting someone on a terror watch list? How does one arrive on it? And what he said was very vague.

Dori Smith: He also mentioned the fact that the terror watch list helps keep different law enforcement agencies informed about suspect characters, is that the word he used?

Nick Schwellenbach: I don’t believe he used “suspect” characters but he meant that though, characters we may want to ask questions of. He didn’t say that if you were in Food Not Bombs you were a terrorist but he did say that members of those organizations may be connected to something and we may want to ask them questions. He wouldn’t elaborate any further.

Dori Smith: Do you get the sense that there is a sophisticated aspect to the individuals and groups they are choosing to look at? Or, do we monitor everyone who emails abroad? Do we monitor everyone who’s in touch with their sister organization in England about the peace march that’s going to take place next month. That kind of thing.

Nick Schwellenbach: Well I think they are doing both. I don’t think there are any boundaries. I think they’ve all been broken down in this connect the dots mentality that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have. And you see with the National Security Agency which is supposed to be the foreign directed government agency, all the barriers are breaking down, the wall between domestic and foreign is being broken down and any kind of walls between what’s a legitimate political activity and what could be considered terrorism they are being broken down. So everything is being scooped up in this kind of vacuum cleaner approach. That’s unhealthy for democracy and it may have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to speak up.

Dori Smith: Or organize and get active.

Nick Schwellenbach: Or organize and get active or do anything or even speak on the phone with someone about what they believe in. I mean something as innocuous as that. But I don’t think it’s any surprise that they do target groups like Indymedia. I mean groups like Indymedia are central to political organizing. And people in Indymedia, you know, they’ll tell you that they are politically active. They don’t feign objectivity. So those people get tagged and connected to activist organizations too. So if you have someone who is connected to an anti war organization of course then at least some of those people are going to be traced back to Indymedia; then everyone in Indymedia is going to get a black mark and put on some terror watch list. -That’s if they are doing this vacuum cleaner approach which it looks like they may be doing. And it’s very dangerous.

Dori Smith: Nick Schwellenbach is currently an investigator at the Washington, D.C. based Project on Government Oversight. Pogo.org A watchdog group that promotes open and accountable government. He’s a former member of University of Texas Watch; UTWatch.org a student based watchdog organization. Schwellenbach is also a free lance writer focusing on national security.

For Talk Nation Radio I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation Radio is produced at WHUS Radio for the People at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. Listen Wed. at 5 pm on FM 91.7 in Connecticut. Talk Nation dot org or Talk Nation Radio dot org for transcripts and discussion. Our music was provided by Fritz Heede