Anybody Using This First Amendment?

American investigative reporter Greg Palast writes for the London Observer and reports for BBC news. His stories have appeared in the annual Project Censored lists but rarely in mainstream American media. Palast's book, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," now out in an expanded paperback edition with 40 percent new material, made the New York Times' Best Sellers list in its first week in stores.

In the opening chapter, Palast details the ways Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris rigged Florida's 2000 vote by hiring a data mining company, DataBase Technologies, a subsidiary of ChoicePoint. Harris instructed Database to sift through Florida's voter rolls to eliminate felons, suspected felons, and people with names or birth dates similar to felons. In all, according to the company's documents, some 91,000 people were wrongly barred from voting.

Of those, more than ninety percent were Democrats. The majority were black.

Q: Is ChoicePoint or one of their subsidiaries still on contract in Florida?

A: No. Well, they won't be. They are getting out of the racial purge business, but they're moving into something new and better. If you read Forbes Magazine or the new edition of my book, Forbes says, "We don't know who has lost the war on terror, but we do know who has won: ChoicePoint, Inc." They're the big contractor in Total Information Awareness. They've got the big DNA database they're keeping for the new vampiric agency. ChoicePoint owns the companies that are going to do the airport profiling, the immigration intake profiling, and, most importantly, these are the guys that have the database of over 20 billion records on Americans. Now, when I say 20 billion, that was like a year ago. It's got to be way up there now. They had it at 20 billion and growing phenomenally. Until now, for 200 years, you could not go into private records without a search warrant. Under the USA Patriot Act -- and I mean the one in force, we don't have to wait for the second shoe to drop -- for the first time in American history the feds will be able to go through private records, the private database. They call it "data mining." They're going to be hunting through our records without a search warrant, on a massive data-crunching basis. And so, ChoicePoint is going to ring the cash register big time.

Q: Your book implies that ChoicePoint is affiliated with the political right.

A: It isn't implied. Look at their board. It looks like a Republican country club meeting. You've got Ken Langone, the investor who was also the treasurer for the Rudy Giuliani for Senate campaign. You've got Bernard Marcus, the founder of Home Depot, a big Republican sugar daddy. You've got Vin Weber, the ultra-right ex-congressman who is their Washington lobbyist. You've got Howard Safir, the New York Police Chief of Repression. They've got all these Republican politicos like George Bruder out of Florida, who was deeply involved in their operations for getting rid of "the dark vote." So, look, it's a Republican firm.

Their company was chosen after they replaced a company that was only being paid about five thousand dollars a year, and Database got paid something like two million. What is it with American reporters? I mean, don't they find that interesting? I mean, if it's not in a press release, they think you might as well just throw it away.

Q: You also write about how the Bush administration stifled investigation of Saudis.

A: Yeah, well, I should stop saying that because it doesn't help the war effort. You know, a great investigator like Bob Woodward wrote that book Bush at War. I should feel ashamed about bringing up how Bush got us into war through his buddies, the Saudis.

People like Mike Moore make a lot out of the Bush connections to the Bin Laden family. That's useful to know, but I think there are more important connections.

For example, the BBC and Guardian reporting teams have information which is solid from two separate sources that there was a meeting in 1996 where Saudi billionaires agreed to fund Al Quaeda. It was kind of like, "Stop blowing up our country, get out of Saudi Arabia -- what does it cost to get you to go play in Afghanistan?" The problem with that, besides giving money that not only terrorizes Afghanistan but also ends up in the pockets of people taking flying lessons with no intention to land, is that you need to follow that money.

Oh, by the way, a couple days after the attack on the World Trade Center, did you notice that we suddenly had a list of the financial institutions and charities which were funding terrorists? They didn't have that on September 8th? No one asked, "Hey, when did you guys come up with this? Boy, you must have stayed up all night, huh? You just uncovered all these guys in two days!" No, the stuff was in the files and not being acted on, in part for bureaucratic reasons but in part because of reluctance first by the Clinton administration -- do understand, the Clinton administration was very reluctant to bother the Saudi Arabians because they were the people sitting on the oil spigots -- but we went from reluctance to downright interference from the Bush administration.

For example, very specifically, I bring up in the book the failure to hunt down the sources and the total operation of the Pakistan bomb building program. And we're worried about Saddam Hussein? Colin Powell stands up in front the United Nations and says we can't let some crazy, fanatical dictator with nuclear bombs stay in office, and my wife says, "Oh, we're invading Pakistan, right?" But instead we've got George Bush with his arm around the dictator of Pakistan, Musharraf, who we know has weapons of mass destruction and has threatened to use them; but our President stands there and gets his picture taken with him like he's a prom date. The problem was that the CIA was not permitted to check into the funding of the Pakistan bomb program because it was funded by the Saudis, and that would embarrass the United States and in particular we have to look at some of the people involved: Sheikh Abdullah Bakhsh, Adnan Khashoggi.

Now, Bakhsh is a very interesting guy because he's identified as being one of the people whose money may have somehow ended up in nefarious hands. Whether he directed that or not I have no idea, but why not investigate the guy? Well, supposedly for geopolitical reasons; but maybe that was influenced by the fact that Sheikh Abdullah Bakhsh is also the guy who saved Harken Oil from bankruptcy -- which is our President's former oil company. Now, did Bush say, "You're not allowed to investigate my former partners"? I can't imagine such a directive. What I do know is that when you have these kinds of entangling financial and personal relationships, political relationships, it influences your viewpoint so that you are susceptible to the line that we shouldn't bother these poor Saudis. So it's not a giant conspiracy. It is a political outlook poisoned by personal finance.

Q: A systemic problem rather than a conspiracy?

A: Yeah, right, it's not some odd little flaw in the system. It is the system -- in which, there is back-scratching, helping each other financially. That's how it operates.

Plus it's not exactly a career-maker for agents to go after the President's partners or his Daddy's partners. That doesn't make a good impression.
You see, we're trying to clean up campaign financing, but we also have to clean up presidential family funding if we're ever going to have any reform. That's the most poisonous part of the Bush operation. There are two people who had the courage to stand up to this publicly. One is Cynthia McKinney, who was destroyed for trying to question the Bush family financing.

Q: She was a congresswoman from...?

A: From Atlanta. And the other is Norman Schwarzkopf. You have to understand that after Gulf War One, the Bush family cashed in like crazy, and Schwarzkopf said we didn't send half a million kids into the desert so the Bush family could cash in. And you hear how much he's been out front now, right? You'd think they would wheel out their big hero. That's where they're using the duct tape. They've got him wrapped up in a basement somewhere. He's not happy. He saw the Bush family cash in.

Let me give you an example. Who won Gulf War One? And that will tell you who is going to win Gulf War Two. Gulf War One, if you look in the book, Daddy Bush writes a letter for Chevron Oil, after he leaves the White House, to the Kuwaiti Emirate. We call them the royalty of Kuwait. That means that they're dictators with robes and crowns. So, he writes to the Kuwaiti dictatorship and asks them to give Chevron an oil concession. What the hell is a President of the United States doing, lobbying for a private oil company? These guys can't say no because he saved their Rolls Royces, right? Now, he says he never got any money from Chevron, and I have no reason to doubt it. He doesn't say that Chevron then kicks in half a million dollars into the Republican campaign for sonny boy. That's really poisonous because what's happening is that the seal of the President, the seal of the Oval Office, is for sale.

And Schwarzkopf was talking about that. He was also concerned that after Gulf War One, who do we see sneaking in the desert, wearing saddle shoes and salesman's bags? Marvin and Neal Bush, trying to sell pipeline operations to the Gulf states, representing Enron Corporation. You know, these people have no shame.

Do you remember when we were promised, unless my memory fails, a democracy in Kuwait? Remember they were going to democratize? Have you heard the election results from Kuwait yet? I'm still waiting.

Q: I want to ask about two more topics: Venezuela and then...

A: Now, you're not supposed to ask about Venezuela. You've already made a mistake. With the USA Patriot Act, you're not supposed to look at anything but Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, which is the Weapon of Mass Distraction. And while you're supposed to be hypnotized by Iraq, don't watch that man behind the screen, Otto Reich in the White House, who is doing his level best to overthrow the elected government in Venezuela. So, I'm trying to write this story, but you can't get the true reports out for nothing. The New York Times runs a front-page picture of thousands of Venezuelans marching against Hugo Chavez. The same day, I'm photographing it myself, more people are marching for Chavez, but they don't show the others. It's more devastating than fabrication, because a picture makes you think, "That must be real." It's terribly sad, because the story of Venezuela is about oil. It is about crushing a dissenter to the new globalization order.

It's hard to tell the real stories because it requires investigation. It requires work. And it requires being able to say that official sources like the State Department are full of shit, that they are fabricating this stuff out whole cloth for the purpose of scrambling your brain, and that our media outlets buy it.

I can't tell you to how many reporters I've said, "Where do you get this stuff?" And they say, "Well, it was in a State Department press release," as if that's an acceptable source.

Q: What does it take for a complete blackout of like the one we're getting on, say, the U.S. spying on the United Nations delegates?

A: Official denial. American newspaper reporters and outlets will not run a story which has undercover information which is officially stone-blank denied. Now that story, for example, of spying on the U.N., that's my newspaper by the way, The Observer, and those are my friends -- who are now, by the way, facing jail time for that story, under the Official Secrets Act.

Q: In England?

A: Yes. See, that's one of the reasons my new book is so much longer. If I printed everything I wanted, if I printed the American edition in Britain, I would be jailed. One of my sources has already spent six months in jail. It's just horrendous without a First Amendment. I mean, unfortunately we in the U.S. don't use our First Amendment. Like I say, if Britain needs a First Amendment they can use ours because we're not. It's a nightmare in both countries. There, the nightmare is the law. There, editors are afraid, justly afraid, of the law. Here, editors are afraid of their shadows. As I say, Bob Woodward, editor of the Washington Post, would never run the Watergate story today. It was an unnamable source versus an official denial. He would not run it now. No way. And that's why I'm "in exile."

Q: With these stories getting so little attention in the mainstream media, how do you account for the bestseller status of your book?

A: You, the Internet, the so-called alternative media, the weeklies, and radio, the independent, nonprofit radio stations. People hear about it and they want to know. And the information often goes out from the left and the right. There are what I call the honest conservatives -- they're not comfortable with the country club set. I've been having discussions with my big, huge corporate publisher about something called "alternative media," which is bigger than the mainstream media. We are bigger. We should stop acting puny and stop calling ourselves alternative. They're like Lilliputians who don't want us to know that we're giants because we might do something.

Read Eric Bosse's review of "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy."

Eric Bosse is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He edits a literary journal, The God Particle, and is co-editor of

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