Palast the Iconoclast

Greg Palast, author of "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" and investigative reporter for the UK's The Guardian, The Observer and the BBC, is once again raking the muck for the truth about our current leaders, using English media platforms to report stories the mainstream American press won't touch. His latest foray, a one-hour BBC3 special, "Bush Family Fortunes," which first ran June 19th, allowed British audiences to watch reportage virtually forbidden to American viewers -- but revealed, in part, here.

With a tongue-in-cheek film noir-ish style, the documentary discloses damning new information regarding President Bush's dubious Texas Air National Guard stint. Wearing a private eye's trench coat and fedora, Palast went to the Lone Star State, "To find out how George Bush got the cushy job of defending Houston, Texas from Viet Cong attack..."

Palast interviews retired Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett of the Texas Air National Guard (TANG), who states on camera that shortly after George W. became Texas' governor in the 1990s, he witnessed a speakerphone call from the Texas governor's office to TANG, and overheard the caller tell Guard officers to "clean [Bush's] records from his files." Palast says that after the call, Burkett "asked the officers if they'd carried out the questionable orders, and they said 'absolutely.' They pointed, and Burkett saw in the [shredding designated] trashcan George W. Bush's ... pay [and retirement points] records."

Controversy has simmered for decades over George W.'s Vietnam era service record; critics have long charged he went AWOL from the Guard for long periods of time. The allegedly trashed documents, which had been undisclosed for years, could have proved whether or not G.W. had been absent without leave while he was in TANG.

If Bush went AWOL, this would have been desertion during wartime. "Punishment for Air National guardsmen who missed two days of work was to be sent to Vietnam," Burkett also said, according to Palast, interviewed in Santa Monica, California, before flying to London to broadcast the expose.

Bush detractors also contend that back in 1968, his father, wealthy oilman and then-Rep. George Herbert Walker Bush, pulled strings to cut a behind-the-scenes deal ensuring Junior was not sent to Vietnam -- Palast says he received a rare, coveted Texas Air National Guard spot "12 days before G.W. was to be drafted."

Palast adds he recently interviewed "an extremely well-known Texan at the center of" President Bush's alleged draft-dodging, who was a key participant in maneuvers to get him into the Air Guard. This source not only confirmed that getting G.W. into the Texas Air National Guard "was a fix," but that "it was Daddy Bush himself who made the initial call to get his son out of the war," Palast says. Although the figure would not agree to go on camera or be named, Palast said he interviewed the source in front of a high-ranking BBC producer.

Previously, says Palast, he had considered G.W.'s draft evading story unverified. However, he now believes he has confirmed it.

"The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," subtitled "The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization and High-Finance Fraudsters," helped put Palast on the U.S. map, particularly the first chapter, 'The Unreported Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida.' Palast returns to the scene of the crime in "Bush Family Fortunes," wherein G.W.'s kid brother, Sunshine State Gov. Jeb Bush, and fellow GOPer, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, disenfranchised 57,000 citizens by removing them from election 2000's voter registries.

Supposedly deprived of voting rights because they were felons, Palast asserts that 90 percent of the would-be voters were innocent -- their real "crime" was voting while black, and probably for Democrats. BBC researchers found Gore lost 22,000 votes due to this computerized voter scrub for Shrub; the Democratic contender lost Florida's electoral votes -- and the presidency -- by only 537 ballots. Palast reported these findings on BBC's Newsnight, but contends the story was largely censored in the U.S. corporate press, although he repeated the charges in the powerful independent documentary "Unprecedented").

Palast's rise has been fuelled by his probes' panache -- both in content and style, as he backs his investigative work with a colorful private dick/Sherlock Holmes persona, complete with breathless descriptions of the crimes of the powerful. His status as one of the new People's Pundits has been magnified by articles like this one in the alternative media, as well as through the support of cultural icons as disparate as Jello Biafra and Hustler magazine.

Palast was born into a working class family in Los Angeles and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. His mother worked in a school cafeteria; his father sold furniture. Palast attended mostly Chicano Valley High. "I was marked for Vietnam cannon-fodder; I never outgrew resentment over that," he grouses. Jailed for anti-war activities, Palast says he got a high lottery number, and wasn't drafted. He earned a biz/econ Master's from the University of Chicago, probed corporate corruption for labor unions in the Americas and Europe, directed government investigations and prosecution of racketeering by builders of nuclear power plants, and examined allegations of oil company fraud vis-à-vis the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill for Alaskan natives.

The American edition of "Democracy" came out this year, updated and expanded to include material the British Officials Secrets Act and libel laws prohibited Palast from printing in Pluto Press' original 2002 English edition. The Plume edition links the Barrick Corp. to human rights crimes -- as well as the president's father.

"Richard Perle had to resign as chief of the Defense [Policy Board] because of his relationship with the bloodthirsty arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. But no one said a word about the fact that after Bush [Senior] left the White House, he went to work for a gold mining company in Canada, founded by Khashoggi." According to Palast, the ex-president used his oval office connections to lobby ex-dictators Suharto of Indonesia, and Mobutu of Zaire, to get mining concessions for Barrick. And in Tanzania, miners inhabiting a piece of land rendered it worthless, so another Canadian company that owned the concession unleashed bulldozers and military police firing guns on them, Palast alleges. When he reported in the observer that the miners' houses were destroyed and up to 50 of them died in the pits, Bush's mining colleagues sued.

He continued jauntily: "There's no freakin' First Amendment in Britain ... I said, 'borrow ours, because we're not using it...' Truth is not a defense in Britain in libel [cases]." The Observer sent Tanzanian human rights advocate and attorney Tundu Lissu to the mine, and he produced corroborating photos, videos, and witness statements. After Lissu called for an investigation into the alleged deaths, he was charged with sedition by the Tanzanian government. "If I signed [a retraction], they could hang him," said Palast. Although it cost The Observer dearly, after human rights groups testified, the case ended in what Palast calls "a tremendous victory."

He observes, "The further out you go from the accepted, the more risk you take ... People always ask me if I fear for my life -- I fear for the lives of my sources, and for their jobs. The only thing I've directly gone through has been the lawsuit ... and they tried setting me up with some woman to say I was harassing her. They fabricated this huge story about me being a sex pest. The front page of The Mirror [ran headlines]: The Liar... then, Sex Maniac. It was exposed as a complete fabrication," insists Palast, a married father, who adds: "When one of Bush's power company buddies repeated the story in a Dutch paper, I sued the Reliant corporation ... and they were hit with one of the biggest libel awards ever in Holland."

Despite these successes, the newsman without a country regrets American mainstream media won't hire him. "Maybe in the end I'll be allowed to come back home," reflects Palast, who divides his time between New York and London, but still does most of his reporting for British-based news outlets. "Another thing that stops me from breaking into US news, is I simply can't write -- or stand-up in front of a camera -- in that solemn, straightforward style required of news reports here. It's a lie, giving a false gloss of objectivity," jabs Palast, who reports, writes, and speaks with a barbed wit and visible passion.

"I get pissed off about something -- I kind of have Orwell's old job ... I get whipped up, I want to go after these guys, let's go and get them!" Palast proclaims. And nothing seems to rile this son of the proletariat more than suspected links between the dynastic Bushes, Saudi royals, and Islamic extremists. Denying he's a "conspiracy nut," as right-wingers have dubbed him, Palast's sleuthing has nevertheless taken him where few have gone.

"I was concerned with why we weren't following the money," he says. "The same Saudi money that funded G.W.'s oil companies, [financed] Osama and terrorists ... The bin Laden family's financier in America [James R. Bath], was the backer of George W. Bush's earliest oil patch ventures." According to Palast, Bath represented the interests of "Osama's daddy, Sheikh Salim bin Laden, and Sheikh Kalid bin Mahfouz, who had a connection to BCCI," the scandalous Bank of Credit and Commerce, a.k.a. the "Bank of Crooks and Criminals," tied to arms trafficking, money laundering, etc. In "Bush Family Fortunes," Palast contends: "So Bush's oil capital coming from Bath, and Bath's money coming apparently from the bin Ladens."

"I know bin Mahfouz has been under investigation by European intelligence agencies as a possible funder of Al-Qaeda," asserts Palast. He adds that according to a European intelligence agency and arms dealer, after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdullah Bakhsh (who had helped fund G.W.'s troubled oil firm in the 1980s) and Khashoggi attended a meeting with Saudi billionaires and Al-Qaeda's financial arm. In essence, Palast claims the Saudis paid protection money to the terrorists.

In this reporter's interview with him, Palast said: "Don't forget Osama was our boy, created in the Bush's Frankenstein factory. We were proud that the bin Ladens gave America one of its eldest sons to go fight the evil empire in Afghanistan." Most of the anti-Soviet jihad took place while ex-CIA chief George Herbert Walker Bush was vice president and president. In the documentary, the investigative reporter asks, "Were the Bushes too close to the Saudis to see the dangers emerging from that nation?" The question is followed by 9/11 footage of the Twin Towers pandemonium, as a woman shrieks: "Oh my god!" (Nobody has ever accused Palast of subtlety.)

During the Reagan-Bush era, the State Department allegedly gave visas to unqualified applicants in Saudi Arabia -- supposed "engineers" with no engineering backgrounds -- who were really Osama's terrorists, off to America for CIA training they would use in Afghanistan. After taking office, the current president's "administration blocked key investigations" pertaining to the bin Ladens, and let stateside members of the family return to Saudi Arabia shortly after Sept. 11th.

To be sure, Bush has vigorously -- some would say overzealously -- prosecuted the so-called "war on terror." Yet Bush Senior remains a paid retainer of the Carlyle Group, a defense contractor which the bin Ladens previously invested in. (According to "Bush Family Fortunes," Dubya was also on Carlyle's payroll.)

In the documentary and his book, Palast also reports on how Enron and the energy industry ripped off the Golden State during the 2000 energy crisis in the chapter 'California Reamin': Deregulation and the Power Pirates.' Palast tells this reporter he recently received two letters from Enron ex-CEO Ken Lay to then-governor Bush (the younger), proving that when Bush became governor, Lay named his own state and then federal regulator -- clear conflicts of interest.

Palast continues to speak out about current news stories, such as what he calls the "corporate coup" underway in Baghdad. "On May 1, The Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a 100-page document, outlines for contracts reorganizing the Iraqi economy ... what appears to be a massive invasion by corporate lobbyists.

"Iraqis used to fear Saddam's police, now they have to fear Sony's lawyers, if they get caught with an illegal dub of a Madonna CD. Hillary Rosen, of the Recording Industry of America, is rewriting Iraq's intellectual copyright laws. Microsoft and American Express lobbyist Grover Norquist is rewriting Iraq's tax laws ... They're creating a new lobbyists' corporate Disneyland. Iraq's becoming a corporate client state ... Apparently, it's what the American government's been accused of: A plan to privatize and take over Iraq's oilfields. An armed corporate takeover is what's occurring," insists Palast.

Palast says "Bush Family Fortunes" is the first in a series of BBC exposes, "culminating with a feature-length film, on the cowboy empire. We've now taken this weird mixing, of Bush family finances and our nation's foreign and domestic policies, to a new level, that is armed and dangerous." As he continues to broadcast truth to power on BBC-TV, we can only wonder when he will be allowed to do so back home, in the land of the free.

Ed Rampell is a fulltime L.A.-based freelance writer named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. He writes the "Friend of the People" column for L.A. Alternative Press, and co-wrote "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. Rampell has reported for ABC News' "20/20," The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, Variety, L.A. Times and many other publications, and co-authored several film history books.

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