The Republican Right is already howling over the bombshell dropped by The New York Times on John McCain, the GOP's all-but-official nominee. It's an outrage, they say. A deliberate torpedo. A liberal media smear.
Sorry, but these guys have got it backwards. The Times, in fact, couldn't have found a moment more favorable for Johnny Mack to let this fearsome cat out of the bag. If McCain could have personally chosen when to have this story break, it would have been right about now.
Not to say that the well-researched piece that broke late Wednesday evening isn't any candidate's nightmare. It's not only a detailed run-down of McCain's awfully close friendship with a pert and well-connected lobbyist thirty years his junior; the Times also does an admirable job of rehashing the Senator's long record of cozying up to the same sort of lobbyists against whom he repeatedly rails in public.
So what's my beef? The timing, folks. The timing. Everyone who knows anyone has been hearing about this story for some months. Back in December, Matt Drudge got wind of it from inside the Times and teased it at the top of his site. We all waited, but the shoe never dropped.
Under what is said to be intense pressure from McCain and prominent D.C. criminal attorney Robert Bennett, who was hired to help deal with the matter, the Times capitulated and held off on publishing the story - offering no explanation, then or now. And if you read through the piece just published, there doesn't seem to be any new information that the Times couldn't have had two months ago.
Barack Obama has only one enemy left standing and it's not Hillary Clinton. It's time itself. All the evidence is in: the more that voters are exposed to Obama, the more they flock to him. The more they see Hillary Clinton, the more stagnant her numbers.
If the election were held last Tuesday, Clinton would have walked away with it. If it were to be held a week from this Tuesday, Obama would waltz to victory.
The latest surveys reveal an unmistakable and unprecedented surge by Obama, nationally and in almost every key state on this Tuesday's calendar of 22 primaries.
And one key survey even has him ahead in the gold-ring state of California where, a month ago, he was down by 20 points.
Obama's rise over this past week in the Golden State has been breathtaking. The state has rippled with the energy unleashed by the endorsement handed him by Teddy Kennedy and then follow-up with a one-two punch endorsement from the L.A. Times and the country's largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion. Then along comes Oprah again to rock Sunday's pro-Obama rally at UCLA. Better said, a foreshock. Because the real rattler was the surprise endorsement by Maria Shriver, the wife of the sitting Republican Governor of California. Did I already say breathtaking.
Meanwhile, this Sunday morning while Bill Clinton was campaigning in a handful of black churches in South Central Los Angeles, the Obama ground crew was seen blanketing a much wider array of churches in the area. There were no TV cameras or packs of reporters -- just hard-working canvassers trying to capture support voter-by-voter.
What Obama's late surge tell us is crystal clear. He did the same in every early voting-state, slowly but surely eroding or overcoming the early, wide lead held by Clinton. In each case, she started out miles ahead and in each case Obama closed the gap. Conclusion: Hillary's strength is hollow. Based on stratospheric name recognition, institutional support, and celebrity she starts out with a natural advantage. But as voters get familiar with Obama, as they hear his call for change and change-over, as they watch the Clinton campaign resort to the worst sort of old-style politicking (most recently Hillary suggesting that voting for Obama would be akin to voting for Bush), the momentum builds in the opposite direction.
With just less than a day to go, the question is if Obama can beat the clock. Can he actually win California and the bulk of delegates this Tuesday to stage one of the greatest upsets in modern political history? Can he at least win enough delegates to stay alive and surpass Clinton next month in the Ohio and Texas primaries?
Conversely, a Clinton win this week, produced merely by the absurd acceleration of the primary calendar, would leave the Democrats with what might be called a Twilight Zone candidate -- a nominee who the party rejected but the calendar saved.
For the first time since Vietnam, an organized, robust movement of active-duty US military personnel has publicly surfaced to oppose a war in which they are serving. Those involved plan to petition Congress to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
After appearing only seven weeks ago on the Internet, the Appeal for Redress, brainchild of 29-year-old Navy seaman Jonathan Hutto, has already been signed by nearly 1,000 US soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, including dozens of officers -- most of whom are on active duty. Not since 1969, when some 1,300 active-duty military personnel signed an open letter in the New York Times opposing the war in Vietnam, has there been such a dramatic barometer of rising military dissent.
Interviews with two dozen signers of the Appeal reveal a mix of motives for opposing the war: ideological, practical, strategic and moral. But all those interviewed agree that it is time to start withdrawing the troops. Coming from an all-volunteer military, the Appeal was called "unprecedented" by Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The Nation spoke with rank-and-file personnel as well as high-ranking officers -- some on the Iraqi front lines, others at domestic and offshore US military bases -- who have signed the Appeal. All of their names will be made available to Congress when the Appeal is presented in mid-January. Signers have been assured they are sending a communication to Congress protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. The Pentagon is powerless to take official reprisals and has said that as long as active-duty personnel are not in uniform or on duty, they are free to express their views to Congress.
There are of course other, subtler risks involved. The military command exercises enormous power through individual reviews, promotions and assignments. But that hasn't kept a number of signers from going public with their dissent.
Navy Lieut. Cmdr. Mark Dearden of San Diego, for example, enlisted in 1997 and is still pondering the possibility of a lifetime career. "So this was a very difficult decision for me to come to. I don't take this decision lightly," he says. But after two "tough" deployments in Iraq, Dearden says signing the Appeal was not only the right thing to do but also gave him personal "closure."
"I'm expressing a right of people in the military to contact their elected representatives, and I have done nothing illegal or disrespectful," Dearden adds.
Other interviews with active-duty soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who have signed the Appeal for Redress reveal an array of motivations. Here are excerpts:
"Lisa" -- 20 years old, E-4, USAF, Stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii:
Saturday saw the largest political demonstration in the history of Los Angeles, and one of the biggest in recent American history.
A half-million people or more flooded two dozen blocks of downtown L.A. to give voice to some sort of rational, realistic immigration reform.
For some months now I have been warning readers that the immigration issue would break wide open this season -- and here it is in full, living color. Similar demonstrations the past couple of weeks drew 100,000 or more in Illinois, more than that in Denver, and tens of thousands in Phoenix and other cities. Similar protests are scheduled through April 10 as the U.S. Senate begins formal debate on reform this coming Tuesday. (If you have fallen behind in this story, you can catch up by reading one of my overview stories here or here.)
I'm struck by several aspects of this story. Primarily by the way neither party can properly get a hold of this issue. Demographics and global economics are simply racing ahead of any practical political response. The Republicans are deeply divided over the issue. Even as the half-million or so were marching in the streets Saturday, President Bush was on the radio more or less endorsing the protestors' two key demands: that a legal channel be created for the immigration already happening, and that some legal acknowledgement be given to the 12 million "illegals" already living here. Viva Bush!
The Democrats are less divided and generally more inclined toward reform. But can you name even two prominent national Democrats who have taken up this cause in a serious way? (One is Ted Kennedy who, along with John McCain, has co-authored the most sensible reform proposal currently under consideration).
As I have argued previously, what we are currently experiencing is the greatest wave of cross-border migration in recorded history -- a virtual "exodus" of millions from a failed Mexican economy to a country where the wage level is 10-20 times higher. Politicians can only come up with after-the-fact gestures, but policy itself (and walls and fences) will do little to nothing to alter the flow.
My otherwise smart guy friends, Mickey Kaus and Bill Bradley have surely gone off the deep end on this one. They both conjecture that these giant marches, full of Mexican flags and Mexicans chanting 'Mexico! Mexico!' are inviting a virulent nativist backlash. They point to increased voter turnout in favor of the restrictive Prop 187 in California after a similar (and smaller) protest march in 1994. That was then. This is now.
The current situation is not analagous to 1994. There is no hot-button ballot proposition up for a vote this season. And the nativist backlash is already here. The media suck-up to the miniscule Minuteman show of a year ago established an ugly frame for the national debate. The House has already acted in a toxic manner when last December it passed an outrageous and impossible-to-implement measure that would make all illegals (and their employers) into felons. While that bill will not become law per se, the Senate is considering some measures almost as Neanderthal.
It seems to me that when an entire population -- who, after all, cleans our offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our children and pays taxes but gets no refunds -- is threatened with criminalization, it has the right and necessity to politically mobilize. It's asking them a lot, don't you think, to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and deportation are actively being debated?
One other point: the white backlash of 1994 was immediately followed by a counter-backlash. An enraged and energized Latino constituency accelerated its entrance into citizenship and onto the voter rolls, and within four years it steamrollered the California GOP -- a flattening from which California Republicans may never recover.
So while the grumbling Archie Bunkers might get their ya-yas all worked up by the Mexican flags flapping in Saturday's demos, you can be damn sure that the smarter among Republican strategists looked at the size of those protests with some trepidation. Many of those in the rally were legal, or have legal relatives, or if illegal might soon be legal. And they just didn't look to be likely Republican voters.
Bradley is one of the smartest analysts around when it comes to California state politics (and he's a good friend) but, I have to say his reaction to these marches border on the phantasmagorical. He went out of his way to title his report "The Pro-Illegal Immigration Rally in Los Angeles" and asks if it was "really necessary" to stage such a provocative rally. It's the wrong question, of course. This wasn't a staged campaign event or some tightly orchestrated TV photo op. While the demos certainly have leaders and organizers, and while the Mexican flags were certainly politically gratuitous, it seems quite obvious that when you bring out a half-million people you've tapped into something quite organic, some self-propelling force way beyond the control or shaping of a few professional organizers. So it hardly matters if it was necessary or not because -- like illegal immigration itself -- it happened anyway. It was a rather natural reaction to the shut-the-borders demagogy that's been ventilating for the past couple of years.
Another not so minor point. Bradley argues that these rallies "enable" people who have "broken the law" to continue breaking the law. Well, no, not exactly. People who have entered the United States improperly and who stay here have, in fact, not violated any criminal statutes but are instead in violation of civil codes -- even though they are commonly called "illegals."
Any of these illegals, if arrested on immigration grounds, are not tried by a criminal court and are, in fact, denied standard due process. Bradley should spend a day in Federal Immigration Court and watch how these "illegals" are deported without as much as the right to a court-provided lawyer. As violators of civil codes, they are cast out, and often their families are broken apart with no more process than the DMV revoking a driver's license.
Indeed, these protests have been sparked to a great degree by the so-called Sensenbrenner bill that would in the future make the "illegals" really illegal by making them criminal felons. It's a distinction worth five or ten years in jail that Bradley is blurring.
Bill, my friend, you've got it bass-ackwards. This was a rally in favor of legal immigration. It called precisely for a way for immigrants who are otherwise already absorbed into our economy and society to be granted the minimal status that they obviously merit. To defend illegal immigration, no protest would be necessary -- you would need only defend the status quo.
My arguments against the sort of simplistic and anachronistic mode of parsing this issue which we glimpse in Bradley's post is well explained in the articles I linked to above -- so no need to rehearse them here. What some people don't get is that we have already been cracking down on the border for more than a decade, and there's a reason why it has so miserably failed. It's about as futile as engaging in prayer dances to stop earthquakes or invoke rain storms.
The only argument we -- as a nation of immigrants -- can make against the current migratory wave is that our grandparents and parents came here legally, so why don't Jose and Maria do the same? Well, America of 2006 is not the America that my family came to in 1915 (and when they came, they also pushed aside better-paid longer-term residents and citizens). Our work force is vastly older and immensely better educated and skilled than even 50 years ago. The industrial revolution which was roaring ahead a century ago has given way, unfortunately, to a service economy. Barring Mexicans from coming across the border is not going to magically reopen shuttered car and tractor factories. On the contrary, if you could even plausibly tamp down the inflow, you would only increase the out-migration of American business.
Our national economy easily absorbs and desperately needs about a million-and-a-half immigrant workers per year to grow and compete. We let a million of them come in legally. The other half million we make run and dart across the border at cost of great peril.
Our reality has outstripped our laws -- and our way of framing the issue. In the end, it will make little difference who prevails in this year's debate, as nothing will change on the ground -- backlash or not. It's a little like debating the tides. Meanwhile, someone throw my pal Bill Bradley a rope. He's waded in at high tide and has sunk in up to his neck.
As soon as he spots me taking pictures on the steps of the 3-century-old avocado-and-lemon-colored Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church, Manuelito makes a beeline my way. A pudgy 30-year-old Tzotzil Indian from the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, standing barely 4 and a half feet tall, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, sporting a Marine-like buzzcut, he smiles broadly, opens a mouth full of front teeth capped with shiny gold stars, and, in very fluent and buoyant English, says, "Hey, friend, come and talk to me. I want to talk to you."
After explaining that he's a father of four who can no longer live off his small patch of land, he excitedly hugs me and says victoriously, "I'm going to the Big Apple, to New York City, baby!" That's one reason, he says, why he's spent all of his free time for five years studying English. And he can hardly contain his joy trying it out on me.
When I ask who he knows in New York and what he plans to do when he gets there, he just shrugs. "No matter, man. I know when I get to the border, I just have to walk between the mountain and the red lights on the antenna. That's the way in. From there I will get to New York." And if you get caught by the Migra? I ask.
Again, another laugh. "No matter. They can catch me 10 times, 20 times. It's okay. I keep trying. I'm going anyway." While Manuelito might be among the more eccentric, and one of the very few among them who speak functional English, his predicament, his story and his hopes neatly sum up what's in the heads and hearts of hundreds of other Mexican men standing around the town square this recent Saturday morning. This alternately dusty and muddy, hellish hamlet of Altar, permanent home to barely 7,000, situated an hour and a half south of the Arizona border and bathed in a cloud of diesel fumes, has become the single most important staging area and launching pad for undocumented immigration into the U.S.
Though the Bush administration spent an additional $30 million last year trying to plug the porous southern Arizona border, the illegal exodus has reached a five-year high. Hundreds of new Border Patrol agents were deployed against the human tide, as were Apache helicopters and even unmanned aerial drones. A controversial program that returned home thousands of Mexican migrants caught at the border ran the length of last summer. In the fall, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 200, which demands that state public services be provided only upon proof of legal residence.
None of these measures put as much as a crimp in the immigration crunch, and last year more than 1 million apprehensions were made along America's southern border – the same number as in 2000. But, for the first time ever, the detentions in Arizona totaled more than in all the other border states combined. The bulk of migrant deaths also occurred in the Tucson sector, north of Altar: about 220 – or maybe 250, depending on who's doing the counting – out of an estimated 350 total.
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. border enforcement policy has increasingly squeezed the flow of migrants into the rural and relatively uninhabited – and unforgiving – central Arizona desert. As the Clinton administration imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional border-crossing points near San Diego and El Paso, American immigration officials believed the brutal desert in between would be a formidable and effective deterrent. That theory has been proved irrefutably wrong. The only thing that has changed is a skyrocketing number of migrant deaths. As the daily stream of migrants redirected itself through Arizona, this tiny town of Altar – still invisible on many maps – became the capital of illegal immigration. Indeed, after President Bush – twice in the past year – has issued high-profile statements supporting the enactment of a "guest worker" program, there's been a noticeable spike in the rush to get across the border. With Congress currently considering several pieces of immigration-reform legislation that might "legalize" a certain number of the undocumented, many Mexican would-be immigrants have concluded that now is the right time to get into the U.S. and be in position to benefit from any new federal legislation.
A kidney-crunching 60-mile-long dirt road runs north from Altar to the border village of Sasabe. Maintained only by a local rancher, who charges a toll of $3 per car, the dirt highway is the central pipeline whose tributaries eventually empty into the gardens and nurseries of Brentwood, the orchards of the Central Valley, or the chicken-plucking plants of the Carolinas.
Altar, only an anonymous bus stop along Mexican Route 2 until the last handful of years, is now the system's perpetually whirring pump. Sucking up thousands upon thousands from the poorer Mexican states to the south, it compresses them within its crowded 10-block center and then, at a rate of 10,000 or 20,000 per week, forcefully shoots them back out and northward – with more than enough power to overcome the sensors, cameras, fences and agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.
I've come here accompanied by the tough-talking, Texas-born Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, and by Steve Laffey, mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island. Hoover is the founder of Humane Borders, a nonprofit volunteer group whose 70 watering stations on the U.S. side of the desert dispense more than 50,000 gallons of water to desperate border crossers.
Mayor Laffey is a 43-year-old former Wall Street investment banker – now a self-described "populist" Republican – who's come all the way from home with a couple of his own local Latino activists to get a firsthand look at the border and what lies below. "I'm very lucky," Laffey says as we walk across Altar's central plaza. "I lost one brother to AIDS. One is in a locked psych ward. A lot of politicians are just talk, they don't come up with solutions. This border is just too far away from people's lives. They have all these people who clean for them and take care of their yards and their kids, but don't know who they are or care. My whole thing is that everybody has to have the opportunity to live the American Dream."
Fair enough. But what we see here is still the Mexican Nightmare. Dozens of clumps of mostly young men, mostly dressed in dark clothes, some with their families, but most with cousins and uncles and friends from their various hometowns, stand or sit listlessly in the square and wait. Wait for word from their own "coyote" or "pollero" – their own smuggler – that it's now time to make the perilous journey north. Wait for some word from home that more money is on the way. Or wait, as they do today, for one of the recent storms to subside. It's hard enough to cross the desert as it is – without monsoon rains and flash floods. "There's no such thing as a typical migrant," says Hoover. "You've got doctors, lawyers and dentists," he says, citing statistics that say about 10 percent of those nabbed by the Border Patrol are college graduates. "You've also got the poorest of the poor. Some who send two children ahead. Some who are coming to stay. Some who will stay only three, four years. Some babies and women. Some really bad guys. Some from Michoacan who have paid $4,500 for an entire package. Some from Chiapas who have no plan and 300 bucks for a ride."
On one side of the plaza sits an endless row of large and battered vans. Almost all bear the simple logo "Altar-Sasabe." They sit idle, waiting for the drizzle to abate. When conditions permit, each will be crammed with 20 or more passengers. (Their seats have been removed and replaced with three rows of benches running the length of the interior cabin.) For 10 bucks a head, they'll rumble up the dirt road and discharge the cargo in the village of Sasabe – a place so grim it seems teletransported from Afghanistan.
Once in Sasabe, the migrants will break up into smaller groups and head out with their coyotes along the many smuggler trails. It's usually a two- or three- or four-day walk to an Arizona highway where – if they are lucky – they'll be picked up by another vehicle from the smugglers' networks and taken to a safe house. Or they will be chased down by a Border Patrol unit. Or left to die in the desert by crooked or desperate smugglers.
The business of the entire town of Altar is given over to supporting and profiting from the wholesale border jumping. Rampaging gangs occasionally rip through town – there are few places in Mexico that congregate so many people with so much folding money in their pockets. Altar's few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, 1-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirins and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the U.S. side of the line. Currency-exchange shops are ready to sell dollars at a premium. Other shops specialize in selling long-distance phone cards. Flophouses charge $9 a head and crowd four or five people in a room.
With no permanent medical facility in town, the Red Cross brought in a trailer clinic. A border-area map on its wall has little red dots showing where migrants died last year. Red Cross workers have given Hoover a handwritten wish list of badly needed supplies: ear drops, ampicillin and other antibiotics. In the main plaza itself, the clusters of migrants seem to have segregated themselves into informal affinity groups based on hometown origin. A young Oaxacan couple in their early 20s – Filipe Cruz and Margarita Lopez – sit forlornly on a bench waiting for God-knows-what as they stare downward. Filipe says he's already spent a year working in the U.S. – he won't say where. But living alone was too hard on everybody, and now, after picking up his family, he will cross again with his wife and his 3- and 5-year-old children. When I ask if he is afraid, he answers quietly, "We are always afraid," and shifts his gaze back to the ground.
Another group of Oaxacans – six young men, all Zapotec Indians – say they have jobs waiting for them, picking grapes in California. They laugh at the possibility of getting caught on the way. "We will cross as many times as we have to," says one. "What do we have to lose?" laughs another. "Only these clothes on our back."
One group of decidedly Guatemalan young men answer my questions curtly, poorly disguising their accents and claiming to be southern Mexicans. If snared by the Border Patrol, they will be classified as "OTMs" – Other Than Mexicans. Instead of simply being put on the other side of the border and in position to quickly attempt another crossing, OTMs are now subject to summary deportation to their country of origin. These fellows have some work cut out for them. Their insistence that they are from Chiapas is about as convincing as the Coneheads saying, "We are from France."
Some of the men in the square say they have paid smugglers $1,200 to $1,300 each to board the underground railway. Many say they haven't paid anything yet, but will have the money taken out of the pay they will get from their promised jobs.
Some say they have no idea where they are going once they cross the border. "I will just look for lights," says a 28-year-old from a Veracruz village renowned for its pineapple production. "Light means a city. And in a city there is always jobs. That's right, isn't it?" Others say they have agricultural jobs waiting near Fresno. Still others are headed for tomato fields in Florida. One has a cousin ready to give him a job in a Van Nuys body shop. He has scrawled the address and phone number on a piece of paper he has hidden in his hatband. "My cousin said if I can get to Phoenix, he can get me to his shop. He has a job for me and for them," he says, nodding his head toward two traveling companions.
A number of those gathered here this morning have already been caught once and are back for a second try. "They grabbed us 15 days ago," says one of five men, all in their early 20s, from Veracruz. "We got about five minutes across the border, and that was it," he laughs. "Handcuffs and two hours later, we're all back in Mexico." The group has spent the last two weeks reorganizing itself. Four of them want to try again. One has had it and wants to go back home. "I don't know where to get the 500 pesos I need to buy a bus ticket," he says.
The group has completely run out of money and had to leave its flop this morning. Now the self-appointed leader of the group is trying to hustle up a mere $5. With that, he says, he can buy a phone card to call his family back home. He's hoping they can wire him an immediate $400 – maybe even this afternoon. "With that, we will have enough for the ride," he says, using the English word. El Ride is the pickup from an Arizona highway toward a safe house or job. "Jobs aren't the problem," he adds. "We have jobs waiting for us in a stable in Chino. We just have to get there."
Inside the town church, the young priest, Rene Castaneda, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, says that while it's true some of the migrants have no idea what they will do once they cross the border, most, in fact, have a promised job waiting. "They are understandably reluctant to share the information with you – or anybody else," he tells me. "Most of them have contacts, and most of them are in a pipeline – the demand for their cheap labor has no limits."
After nearly six years working in Altar, it is with some sadness that Castaneda has learned he is now being transferred to another mission. He's gained regional recognition and respect for his tireless work on behalf of the migrants, and getting transferred out isn't much of a payoff. "When I arrived here in 1999, maybe 200 migrants a day came through Altar," he says. Since the end of last year, that figure sometimes peaks at 10 times that amount. Or more. "The increase in migrants goes hand in hand with the increase in poverty and unemployment," he adds.
Castaneda arrived in Altar just as last decade's tectonic shift in immigration patterns was maturing and funneling the flow through the Sonoran Desert into southern central Arizona. Now, he argues, it matters little, if at all, what administrative or enforcement measures are taken on the northern side of the border. "Only the route of immigration changes, but nothing else," says the young priest as he sorts through his archives. "It's just like pushing a fully inflated basketball underwater. You can only hold it down so long and then the pressure builds up and it pops up and bursts through somewhere else. If you don't do anything to change the root causes, the problem doesn't change."
Noontime brings a clearing of the skies and a filling of the vans parked alongside the plaza. The daily cat-and-mouse game along the U.S.-Mexican border will now repeat itself for the umpteenth time. And in case anyone has forgotten the stakes, Father Castaneda has posted some stark reminders. On the northern road out of town, he has placed white memorial crosses on the utility poles, commemorating those who couldn't complete the journey.
A good hour north of Altar, and about 20 miles south of the border, one of the more surreal scenes of this drama plays itself out. Under U.S. pressure during the last decade, the Mexican government created its own elite version of the Border Patrol – called Grupo Beta. The Mexican force failed miserably in living up to the professional standards that had been hoped for. Soon there was a stack of stories of Grupo Beta officers organizing their own rackets, shaking down and robbing the hapless migrants.
The Mexican government, under President Vicente Fox, then disarmed the group and retooled its mission. Now, in its distinctive orange trucks and matching jackets, Grupo Beta has no enforcement duties and claims to be a sort of migrant-protection force. There are still some reports of abuse, but not nearly as many. At a dusty spot in the Altar-Sasabe road, best described as situated in the middle of nowhere and known by locals as El Tortugo, Grupo Beta has erected a small, bright-orange, steel pavilion, much like a carport. Every afternoon, a Beta patrol unit parks in the small patch of shade, and two uniformed officers stand by the side of the road, armed only with clipboards and a box full of pocket-size illustrated pamphlets. Their job is to stop each van, count the number of occupants, note their state of origin, and give the migrants a Boy Scout-ish lecture on the dangers that await them – perils outlined in the illustrated booklet they pass out. When Hoover, Laffey and I get to Tortugo, at about 3 in the afternoon, it's a veritable rush hour. A half-dozen brimming vans are lined up on the side of the road as the two Beta officers go to them one by one. Officers Manuel Roldan and Julio Cesar Cancino seem to have been chosen for this task by sheer force of their outgoing, expansive personalities. Both men are extremely friendly, courteous, respectful and warm.
But when they open the back door of each van, and peer into the sardine-packed interior, they are met by decades of accumulated mistrust, suspicion, diffidence and fear. In Mexico, the safe assumption, no matter what you're told, is that uniformed figures of authority are not your friends. Roldan and Cancino, however, are experienced hands in breaking the ice and seem to patiently enjoy the dance of confidence that they must redo with each and every load of passengers.
Roldan opens up the back of one van, and as the daylight floods in, everyone, including those sitting closest to him, looks downward. Over his shoulder I quickly count 27 people in the vehicle. "This is not an inspection station," Roldan says. "You are not breaking the law. It is your human right to migrate. We are only here to help you," he says. A few people now raise their heads – no doubt intrigued by a disarmed cop with such a disarming tone.
The two Beta agents ask the passengers to step out of the van. After asking where their hometowns are, Cancino smiles as he asks the next question. Smiles, because no matter how often he asks, he knows he's going to get the same amusing answer. "Sasabe," a few men answer quietly. "Sasabe?" repeats Agent Cancino, as if he's saying, really? "Sasabe? Or Sasabe Beach?"
With that, the ice cracks and a few smiles begin to sprout. If only desert-bound Sasabe, about as alluring as San Quentin, had as much as a park, let alone a beach or, for that matter, any reason whatsoever to be a destination for such a throng of would-be tourists.
"Come on," says Cancino, now laughing out loud. "We know you're all going to the U.S. You are all going to the U.S., aren't you?" Finally, some heads nod, and the more courageous step forward to confirm the obvious. "Yes, we're going to the North," says one man, in cowboy boots and tight jeans. "As much as we hate to leave this paradise behind," he says, sweeping his hands toward the barren desert around us.
"Good," says Cancino. "You have full rights while in Mexico. It's in the U.S. where you will be breaking the law. We just want to tell you a few things for your own protection. If the Border Patrol begins to chase you, do not run. I repeat, do not run! Do not hide! Whatever you do, don't put your hands in your pockets." Now Cancino has his audience rapt. "If you get scattered and lost during the day, look for tall blue flags. That's where you can find water," he says, referring to the emergency stations that Hoover has set up. "If you get lost at night, then look for the red lights on the radio antenna. They're in Sasabe, in Mexico. Walk back to the red lights and look for one of our trucks – the orange trucks. We will be there to offer you emergency help, first aid and whatever else you need."
The migrants look genuinely grateful. It's probably the first time in their lives that someone in uniform has sounded so concerned about their welfare. In any case, they all know they are only hours away from running a merciless gauntlet, and any advice and compassion are welcome.
Agent Roldan then hands everyone one of the pamphlets – falsely characterized by right-wing talk radio as comic book guides to crossing the border. If anything, they're the opposite: a minicatalog of all the dangers that await the migrants, with only common-sense advice to avoid excessive heat and thirst. As well as urging the crossers to obey the orders of any U.S. authorities.
The passengers settle back into the van. Cancino has some final words for them: "Remember that it's now going to be some very hard days and some very long nights. You are going to have to walk three or four days. Be careful, and buena suerte."
Twenty-seven more migrants are on their way to cross the border. During the hour we spend at El Tortugo, about 15 vans have been registered – about 350 people. Agent Roldan says he and Cancino are currently counting about 1,800 a day. But he admits they have no idea of the total number, as they always leave before sundown. "When it gets dark," he says, "it just gets too dangerous." The enforcement squeeze on Arizona has proved a financial bonanza for the professional smugglers, who increasingly mix the human traffic with the drug trade. Big profits have turned some of the smuggling operations into heavily armed and violent gangs. When the Grupo Beta agents retreat at night, the road becomes fit only for the most daring.
As dusk falls, some of the same men we saw earlier in the day milling around Altar's main plaza now huddle in small groups in the desolate, dilapidated border hamlet of Sasabe. They stand along the rutted roads, chatting and smoking, or picking through their backpacks. There's nowhere to stay here and no reason to be here except to make the jump. When darkness sets in, these groups will fan out and, led by their "polleros" – or guides – will brave the sensors, infrared cameras and Border Patrol agents on the other side of the line. It's the same game every night of the calendar – especially this time of year.
A majority will probably get nabbed and, through an absurd revolving-door policy, will be dumped back into Mexico, all within a few hours. Then they will re-form, regroup, and will try and try again to cross. Only after being detained (and photographed and fingerprinted) and "voluntarily deported" 10 times do they face possible formal arrest and prosecution. An unlucky few of these people gathered here tonight might be among those who – invisible and unnoticed – will be consumed by the desert in the next handful of days. Those who do make it through, as if passing through a magical membrane, will re-appear on the other side as our nannies, maids, gardeners and dishwashers. "If you had a hundred U.S. senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you'd have this immigration issue solved in less than a week," says Cranston's Mayor Laffey as we roll out of Sasabe. "But it isn't gonna happen. Not yet."
First the L.A. Times helped kill off Gary Webb's career. Then, eight years later, after Webb committed suicide this past weekend, the Times decided to give his corpse another kick or two, in a scandalous, self-serving and ultimately shameful obituary. It was the culmination of the long, inglorious saga of a major newspaper dropping the ball journalistically, and then extracting relentless revenge on an out-of-town reporter who embarrassed it.
Webb was the 49-year-old former Pulitzer-winning reporter who in 1996, while working for the San Jose Mercury News, touched off a national debate with a three-part series that linked the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan Contras to a crack-dealing epidemic in Los Angeles and other American cities.
A cold panic set in at the L.A. Times when Webb's so-called Dark Alliance story first appeared. Just two years before, the Times had published a long takeout on local crack dealer Rickey Ross and no mention was made of his possible link to and financing by CIA-backed Contras. Now the Times feared it was being scooped in its own backyard by a second-tier Bay Area paper.
The Times mustered an army of 25 reporters, led by Doyle McManus, to take down Webb's reporting. It was, apparently, more important to the Times to defend its own inadequate reporting on the CIA-drug connection than it was to advance Webb's important work (a charge consistently denied by the Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post also joined in on the public lynching of Webb. Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, also helped do him in, with a public mea culpa backing away from his own papers stories.
Webb was further undermined by some of his own most fervent supporters. With the help of demagogues like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a conspiracy-theory hysteria was whipped up that used Webb's series as "proof" that the CIA was more or less single-handedly responsible for South-Centrals crack plague – a gross distortion of Webb's work.
But that conspiracy theory played perfectly into the hands of the L.A. Times. When its own three-day series appeared a few months later – attempting to demolish Webb – the Times disproved a number of points that were never made by Webb, primarily that the CIA consciously engaged in a program to spread the use of crack.
The Times' Washington-based reporter McManus, who spent most of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the less-curious fourth-estate stenographers to the Reagan/Bush administrations, relied principally on CIA sources to vindicate the CIA in the anti-Webb series. Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, McManus wrote that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing" about the Contra-drug dealers named by Webb. Cannistraro, however, was more fit to be a subject of the Times investigation than a source. Over the length of the Times series it was never mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of the CIA-Contra operation in the early '80s, that is, before moving on to help supervise the covert program of CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan (who themselves were, and continue to be, knee-deep in the heroin trade).
Which brings us back to this week's obit written by Nita Lelyveld and Steve Hymon. The lead and body of the obit focus on the discrediting of Webb by the L.A. Times and fail to mention his Pulitzer until a dozen paragraphs down in the story.
Long before we learn of Webb's Pulitzer, won in 1990 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake, Lelyveld and Hymon obediently recite their own papers indictment of Webbs expos on the CIA-drug connection. They quote the 1996 McManus slam on Webb, saying, "...the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations."
It's an astounding and nasty little piece of postmortem butchery on Webb (which never mentions that after his series appeared, Webb was voted the 1996 Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists). Absolutely missing from Webb's obit is that it was his series that directly forced both the CIA and the Justice Department to conduct internal investigations into the scope of any links between the Agency and drug dealers.
Worse, the results of those investigations proved that the core of what Webb alleged was, indeed, true and accurate. When CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz presented the findings of his internal investigation to Congress in 1998 (two years after Webb's piece and the ensuing Times vindication of the CIA), he revealed for the first time an eye-popping agreement that the CIA had cemented with the Justice Department: Between 1982 and 1995, the CIA was exempted from informing the DOJ if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. In short, it was the policy of the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to such connections.
The same report by the CIA inspector general, by the way, admitted what we all knew in any case – that those connections did, in fact, exist.
And here's the low point in this tale: After the CIA inspector general made public the second part of his investigation – the one sparked by Webb – which admitted to some links between the agency and Central American drug dealers, the L.A. Times chose not to publish a single story about the report. (No surprise here. Back in 1989, when a panel led by Senator John Kerry found similar CIA-drug-running links, the Times showed equal disinterest.)
In short, when it came to the Gary Webb series and its allegations, the L.A. Times wound up being more protective of the CIA than the CIA itself.
None of this explains why, in Webb's obit, Lelyveld and Hymon omit the on-the-record admissions by the CIA of its involvement with drug-connected Contras, an admission owed directly to Webb's work. Maybe, you say, the Times reporters are lazy and just didn't look beyond their own paper's archives. And because the Times didn't cover those admissions, Lelyveld and Hymon remain (eight years after the fact) in the dark.
No. I fear the answer is worse than that. One of the Times reporters who wrote the obit, we now learn, called veteran reporter Bob Parry the other day for comment on Webb's death. Back in 1985, Parry and his partner Bob Barger – working for the AP – were the first to break the story of CIA involvement with drug-linked Contras. Says Parry: "The Times reporter who called to interview me ignored my comments about the debt the nation owed Webb and the importance of the CIA's inspector-general findings. Instead of using Webb's death as an opportunity to finally get the story straight, the Times acted as if there never had been an official investigation confirming many of Webb's allegations."
Gary Webb's work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized precisely because of the scope of his allegations. As more-objective critics than the Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps) overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And for that he deserved to be criticized.
The core of his work, however, still stands. When much of the rest of the media went to sleep, Gary Webb dug and scratched and courageously took on the most powerful and arrogant and unaccountable agencies of the U.S. government. His tenacious reporting forced those same agencies to investigate themselves and to admit publicly – albeit in watered-down terms – what he had alleged.
Webb's reward was to be drummed out of the profession. After his editors cowardly recanted his stories (which they had vetted), he was demoted to a suburban bureau. After a year, Webb quit and wrote up his findings into a book. The book was mostly ignored by the press. Webb took up a job as an investigator for the California Legislature and helped spit-roast one Gray Davis. Last year, Webb lost that job and yearned, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get back into journalism. From a conservative Southern California military family, Webb was driven not by an ideological agenda but rather by a sense of fairness and justice. He was found last Friday in his Northern California home after he shot himself to death.
Recently, Webb was interviewed for a book profiling 18 journalists who found themselves discredited or censored. Let his own words be a more fitting epitaph than the hack-job L.A. Times obituary:
"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests....
"And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job.... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Gary Webb, R.I.P.
It's easy to understand how filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) was captivated by the theatrical buoyancy of Jean Dominique, one of Haiti's most prominent human-rights fighters and that bedeviled country's most combative radio journalist. Though Dominique -- slim, wiry, a pipe stuck in his mouth -- cuts a somewhat unprepossessing figure, his emotive-verging-on-manic personality easily fills a screen, even when recorded on shaky video. Demme met and began to film Dominique in exile, in the late 1980s, and continued shooting footage with the Haitian crusader over the years. The result is a 90-minute homage to the man and his cause that also serves, unfortunately, as an epitaph to his martyrdom, and to that of his nation.
Indeed, Dominique's life almost perfectly coincides with Haiti's modern history. He was born in 1930, when U.S. Marines were still occupying the island, so his nationalist indignation took shape early. After studying in France, he returned home as a young agronomist -- and, incidentally, as the committed cinephile who opened Haiti's first film club, only to see it shuttered a few years later by the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
By the mid-1960s, Dominique had purchased Radio Haiti Inter and turned the station into a bold voice of opposition. "Risky business," he called it. Jailings and beatings followed and eventually led to his 1980 exile in New York City. When the Duvalier regime collapsed seven years later, Dominique returned to Port-au-Prince and was met at the airport by 60,000 cheering supporters. By 1990, when the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been elected president by a two-thirds majority, Dominique had reason to believe that his dreams of Haitian democracy and freedom were at last being realized. That reverie came crashing down within a year: A right-wing military coup unseated Aristide and once again thrust Dominique into exile. In 1995, when Aristide was restored to power by the "peaceful invasion" of U.S. troops dispatched by Bill Clinton, the always-ebullient journalist reopened his radio station.
An ardent supporter of the social revolution promised by Aristide, Dominique became disillusioned when the new regime began more and more to resemble the old one. In April 2000, after a public squabble with one of Aristide's security chiefs, Jean Dominique, age 70, and an assistant were gunned down on the steps of Radio Haiti Inter.
In The Agronomist, Demme reconstructs this extraordinary life, deftly mixing stock news footage with his own interviews with Dominique, and with the journalist's courageous wife, sisters, daughter and co-workers. And although the film may be about 20 percent overweight, the human story of a man who -- for four decades -- spat in the eye of his tormentors and gleefully accepted his role as a latter-day Sisyphus commands the viewer's attention.
Demme's chronicle concludes with Dominique's wife, Michele Montas, reopening the station yet again, a month after her husband's funeral. Ending The Agronomist here saves the audience further pain. Twenty months after Dominique's murder, the news director of another Haitian radio station was hacked to pieces by a machete-wielding gang. Soon after this, a third station burned to the ground. Montas' bodyguard was murdered in late 2002, and she once more fled the country. Earlier this year, an odd coalition of street thugs, former military officers and disaffected grassroots groups squeezed Aristide out of power. If Dominique were alive today, he'd be amazed, no doubt, to find his people are right back where they were at the time of his birth -- with U.S. Marines guarding an unelected government.
The Agronomist is clearly a labor of love for Demme, whose big-budget remake of The Manchurian Candidate -- transposed from the Korean to the Gulf War -- opens this summer. I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood urging him to use what was essentially his home video to craft a full-length project on such an obscure and earnest subject. He's to be doubly congratulated, then, and not least for his persistence in producing a valuable and deeply haunting portrait of a social activist who lived and died for the highest ideals.
After two decades in the U.S. Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, now 43, knew her career as a regional analyst was coming to an end when -- in the months leading up to the war in Iraq -- she felt she was being "propagandized" by her own bosses.
With master's degrees from Harvard in government and zoology and two books on Saharan Africa to her credit, she found herself transferred in the spring of 2002 to a post as a political/military desk officer at the Defense Department's office for Near East South Asia (NESA), a policy arm of the Pentagon.
Kwiatkowski got there just as war fever was spreading, or being spread, as she would later argue, through the halls of Washington. Indeed, shortly after her arrival, a piece of NESA was broken off, expanded and re-dubbed with the Orwellian name of the Office of Special Plans. The OSP's task was, ostensibly, to help the Pentagon develop policy around the Iraq crisis.
She would soon conclude that the OSP -- a pet project of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld -- was more akin to a nerve center for what she now calls a "neoconservative coup, a hijacking of the Pentagon."
Though a lifelong conservative, Kwiatkowski found herself appalled as the radical wing of the Bush administration, including her superiors in the Pentagon planning department, bulldozed internal dissent, overlooked its own intelligence and relentlessly pushed for confrontation with Iraq.
Deeply frustrated and alarmed, Kwiatkowski, still on active duty, took the unusual step of penning an anonymous column of internal Pentagon dissent that was posted on the Internet by former Colonel David Hackworth, America's most decorated veteran.
As war inevitably approached, and as she neared her 20-year mark in the Air Force, Kwiatkowski concluded the only way she could viably resist what she now terms the "expansionist, imperialist" policies of the neoconservatives who dominated Iraq policy was by retiring and taking up a public fight against them.
She left the military last March, the same week that troops invaded Iraq. Kwiatkowski started putting her real name on her Web reports and began accepting speaking invitations. "I'm now a soldier for the truth," she said in a speech last week at Cal Poly Pomona. Afterward, I spoke with her.
What was the relationship between NESA and the now-notorious Office of Special Plans, the group set up by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney? Was the OSP, in reality, an intelligence operation to act as counter to the CIA?
Karen Kwiatkowski: The NESA office includes the Iraq desk, as well as the desks of the rest of the region. It is under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bill Luti. When I joined them, in May 2002, the Iraq desk was there. We shared the same space, and we were all part of the same general group. At that time, it was expanding. Contractors and employees were coming though it wasn't clear what they were doing.
In August of 2002, the expanded Iraq desk found new spaces and moved into them. It was told to us that this was now to be known as the Office of Special Plans. The Office of Special Plans would take issue with those who say they were doing intelligence. They would say they were developing policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the invasion of Iraq.
But developing policy is not the same as developing propaganda and pushing a particular agenda. And actually, that's more what they really did. They pushed an agenda on Iraq, and they developed pretty sophisticated propaganda lines which were fed throughout government, to the Congress, and even internally to the Pentagon -- to try and make this case of immediacy. This case of severe threat to the United States.
You retired when the war broke out and have been speaking out publicly. But you were already publishing critical reports anonymously while still in uniform and while still on active service. Why did you take that rather unusual step?
Due to my frustration over what I was seeing around me as soon as I joined Bill Luti's organization, what I was seeing in terms of neoconservative agendas and the way they were being pursued to formulate a foreign policy and a military policy -- an invasion of a sovereign country, an occupation, a poorly planned occupation. I was concerned about it; I was in opposition to that, and I was not alone.
So I started writing what I considered to be funny, short essays for my own sanity. Eventually, I e-mailed them to former Colonel David Hackworth, who runs the Web page Soldiers for the Truth, and he published them under the title "Insider Notes From the Pentagon." I wrote 28 of those columns from August 2002 until I retired.
There you were, a career military officer, a Pentagon analyst, a conservative who had given two decades to this work. What provoked you to become first a covert and later a public dissident?
Like most people, I've always thought there should be honesty in government. Working 20 years in the military, I'm sure I saw some things that were less than honest or accountable. But nothing to the degree that I saw when I joined Near East South Asia.
This was creatively produced propaganda spread not only through the Pentagon, but across a network of policymakers -- the State Department, with John Bolton; the Vice President's Office, the very close relationship the OSP had with that office. That is not normal, that is a bypassing of normal processes. Then there was the National Security Council, with certain people who had neoconservative views; Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff; a network of think tanks who advocated neoconservative views -- the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy with Frank Gaffney, the columnist Charles Krauthammer -- was very reliable. So there was just not a process inside the Pentagon that should have developed good honest policy, but it was instead pushing a particular agenda; this group worked in a coordinated manner, across media and parts of the government, with their neoconservative compadres.
How did you experience this in your day-to-day work?
There was a sort of groupthink, an adopted storyline: We are going to invade Iraq and we are going to eliminate Saddam Hussein and we are going to have bases in Iraq. This was all a given even by the time I joined them, in May of 2002.
You heard this in staff meetings?
The discussions were ones of this sort of inevitability. The concerns were only that some policymakers still had to get onboard with this agenda. Not that this agenda was right or wrong -- but that we needed to convince the remaining holdovers. Colin Powell, for example. There was a lot of frustration with Powell; they said a lot of bad things about him in the office. They got very angry with him when he convinced Bush to go back to the U.N. and forced a four-month delay in their invasion plans.
General Tony Zinni is another one. Zinni, the combatant commander of Central Command, Tommy Franks' predecessor -- a very well-qualified guy who knows the Middle East inside out, knows the military inside out, a Marine, a great guy. He spoke out publicly as President Bush's Middle East envoy about some of the things he saw. Before he was removed by Bush, I heard Zinni called a traitor in a staff meeting. They were very anti-anybody who might provide information that affected their paradigm. They were the spin enforcers.
How did this atmosphere affect your work? To be direct, were you told by your superiors what you could say and not say? What could and could not be discussed? Or were opinions they didn't like just ignored?
I can give you one clear example where we were told to follow the party line, where I was told directly. I worked North Africa, which included Libya. I remember in one case, I had to rewrite something a number of times before it went through. It was a background paper on Libya, and Libya has been working for years to try and regain the respect of the international community. I had intelligence that told me this, and I quoted from the intelligence, but they made me go back and change it and change it. They'd make me delete the quotes from intelligence so they could present their case on Libya in a way that said it was still a threat to its neighbors and that Libya was still a belligerent, antagonistic force. They edited my reports in that way. In fact, the last report I made, they said, "Just send me the file." And I don't know what the report ended up looking like, because I imagine more changes were made.
On Libya, really a small player, the facts did not fit their paradigm that we have all these enemies.
One person you've written about is Abe Shulsky. You describe him as a personable, affable fellow but one who played a key role in the official spin that led to war.
Abe was the director of the Office of Special Plans. He was in our shared offices when I joined, in May 2002. He comes from an academic background; he's definitely a neoconservative. He is a student of Leo Strauss from the University of Chicago -- so he has that Straussian academic perspective. He was the final proving authority on all the talking points that were generated from the Office of Special Plans and that were distributed throughout the Pentagon, certainly to staff officers. And it appears to me they were also distributed to the Vice President's Office and to the presidential speechwriters. Much of the phraseology that was in our talking points consists of the same things I heard the president say.
So Shulsky was the sort of controller, the disciplinarian, the overseeing monitor of the propaganda flow. From where you sat, did you see him manipulate the information?
We had a whole staff to help him do that, and he was the approving authority. I can give you one example of how the talking points were altered. We were instructed by Bill Luti, on behalf of the Office of Special Plans, on behalf of Abe Shulsky, that we would not write anything about Iraq, WMD or terrorism in any papers that we prepared for our superiors except as instructed by the Office of Special Plans. And it would provide to us an electronic document of talking points on these issues. So, I got to see how they evolved.
It was very clear to me that they did not evolve as a result of new intelligence, of improved intelligence, or any type of seeking of the truth. The way they evolved is that certain bullets were dropped or altered based on what was being reported on the front pages of the Washington Post or The New York Times.
Can you be specific?
One item that was dropped was in November . It was the issue of the meeting in Prague prior to 9/11 between Mohammed Atta and a member of Saddam Hussein's intelligence force. We had had this in our talking points from September through mid-November. And then it dropped out totally. No explanation. Just gone. That was because the media reported that the FBI had stepped away from that, that the CIA said it didn't happen.
Let's clarify this. Talking points are generally used to deal with media. But you were a desk officer, not a politician who had to go and deal with the press. So are you saying the Office of Special Plans provided you a schematic, an outline of the way major points should be addressed in any report or analysis that you developed regarding Iraq, WMD or terrorism?
That's right. And these did not follow the intent, the content or the accuracy of intelligence . . .
They were political . . .
They were political, politically manipulated. They did have obviously bits of intelligence in them, but they were created to propagandize. So, we inside the Pentagon, staff officers and senior administration officials who might not work Iraq directly, were being propagandized by this same Office of Special Plans.
In the 10 months you worked in that office in the run-up to the war, was there ever any open debate? The public, at least, was being told at the time that there was a serious assessment going on regarding the level of threat from Iraq, the presence or absence of WMD, et cetera. Was this debated inside your office at the Pentagon?
No. Those things were not debated. To them, Saddam Hussein needed to go.
You believe that decision was made by the time you got there, almost a year before the war?
That decision was made by the time I got there. So there was no debate over WMD, the possible relations Saddam Hussein may have had with terrorist groups and so on. They spent their energy gathering pieces of information and creating a propaganda storyline, which is the same storyline we heard the president and Vice President Cheney tell the American people in the fall of 2002.
The very phrases they used are coming back to haunt them because they are blatantly false and not based on any intelligence. The OSP and the Vice President's Office were critical in this propaganda effort -- to convince Americans that there was some just requirement for pre-emptive war.
What do you believe the real reasons were for the war?
The neoconservatives needed to do more than just topple Saddam Hussein. They wanted to put in a government friendly to the U.S., and they wanted permanent basing in Iraq. There are several reasons why they wanted to do that. None of those reasons, of course, was presented to the American people or to Congress.
So you don't think there was a genuine interest as to whether or not there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
It's not about interest. We knew. We knew from many years of both high-level surveillance and other types of shared intelligence, not to mention the information from the U.N., we knew, we knew what was left [from the Gulf War] and the viability of any of that. Bush said he didn't know.
The truth is, we know [Saddam] didn't have these things. Almost a billion dollars has been spent -- a billion dollars! -- by David Kay's group to search for these WMD, a total whitewash effort. They didn't find anything, they didn't expect to find anything.
So if, as you argue, they knew there weren't any of these WMD, then what exactly drove the neoconservatives to war?
The neoconservatives pride themselves on having a global vision, a long-term strategic perspective. And there were three reasons why they felt the U.S. needed to topple Saddam, put in a friendly government and occupy Iraq.
One of those reasons is that sanctions and containment were working and everybody pretty much knew it. Many companies around the world were preparing to do business with Iraq in anticipation of a lifting of sanctions. But the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing northern and southern Iraq since 1991. So, it was very unlikely that we would be in any kind of position to gain significant contracts in any post-sanctions Iraq. And those sanctions were going to be lifted soon, Saddam would still be in place, and we would get no financial benefit.
The second reason has to do with our military-basing posture in the region. We had been very dissatisfied with our relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly the restrictions on our basing. And also, there was dissatisfaction from the people of Saudi Arabia. So, we were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter -- to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important -- that is, if you hold that is America's role in the world. Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us in.
The last reason is the conversion, the switch Saddam Hussein made in the Food for Oil program, from the dollar to the euro. He did this, by the way, long before 9/11, in November 2000 -- selling his oil for euros. The oil sales permitted in that program aren't very much. But when the sanctions would be lifted, the sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been moving to the euro.
The U.S. dollar is in a sensitive period because we are a debtor nation now. Our currency is still popular, but it's not backed up like it used to be. If oil, a very solid commodity, is traded on the euro, that could cause massive, almost glacial, shifts in confidence in trading on the dollar. So one of the first executive orders that Bush signed in May  switched trading on Iraq's oil back to the dollar.
At the time you left the military, a year ago, just how great was the influence of this neoconservative faction on Pentagon policy?
When it comes to Middle East policy, they were in complete control, at least in the Pentagon. There was some debate at the State Department.
Indeed, when you were still in uniform and writing a Web column anonymously, you expressed your bitter disappointment when Secretary of State Powell -- in your words -- eventually "capitulated."
He did. When he made his now-famous PowerPoint slide presentation at the U.N., he totally capitulated. It meant he was totally onboard. Whether he believed it or not.
You gave your life to the military, you voted Republican for many years, you say you served in the Pentagon right up to the outbreak of war. What does it feel like to be out now, publicly denouncing your old bosses?
Know what it feels like? It feels like duty. That's what it feels like. I've thought about it many times. You know, I spent 20 years working for something that -- at least under this administration -- turned out to be something I wasn't working for. I mean, these people have total disrespect for the Constitution. We swear an oath, military officers and NCOs alike swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. These people have no respect for the Constitution. The Congress was misled, it was lied to. At a very minimum, that is a subversion of the Constitution. A pre-emptive war based on what we knew was not a pressing need is not what this country stands for.
What I feel now is that I'm not retired. I still have a responsibility to do my part as a citizen to try and correct the problem.
Marc Cooper writes for the LA Weekly.
It's lucky for George W. Bush that he wasn't born in an earlier time and somehow stumbled into America's Constitutional Convention. A man with his views, so deprecative of democratic rule, would have certainly been quickly exiled from the freshly liberated United States by the gaggle of incensed Founders. So muses one of our most controversial social critics and prolific writers, Gore Vidal.
When we last interviewed Vidal just over a year ago, he set off a mighty chain reaction as he positioned himself as one of the last standing defenders of the ideal of the American Republic. His acerbic comments to L.A. Weekly about the Bushies were widely reprinted in publications around the world and flashed repeatedly over the World Wide Web. Now Vidal is at it again, giving the Weekly another dose of his dissent, and with the constant trickle of casualties mounting in Iraq, his comments are no less explosive than they were last year.
This time, however, Vidal is speaking to us as a full-time American. After splitting his time between Los Angeles and Italy for the past several decades, Vidal has decided to roost in his colonial home in the Hollywood Hills. Now 77 years old, suffering from a bad knee and still recovering from the loss earlier this year of his longtime companion, Howard Austen, Vidal is feistier and more productive than ever.
Vidal undoubtedly had current pols like Bush and Ashcroft in mind when he wrote his latest book, his third in two years. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson takes us deep into the psyches of the patriotic trio. And even with all of their human foibles on display -- vanity, ambition, hubris, envy and insecurity -- their shared and profoundly rooted commitment to building the first democratic nation on Earth comes straight to the fore.
The contrast between then and now is hardly implicit. No more than a few pages into the book, Vidal unveils his dripping disdain for the crew that now dominates the capital named for our first president.
As we began our dialogue, I asked him to draw out the links between our revolutionary past and our imperial present.
MARC COOPER:Your new book focuses on Washington, Adams and Jefferson, but it seems from reading closely that it was actually Ben Franklin who turned out to be the most prescient regarding the future of the republic.
GORE VIDAL: Franklin understood the American people better than the other three. Washington and Jefferson were nobles -- slaveholders and plantation owners. Alexander Hamilton married into a rich and powerful family and joined the upper classes. Benjamin Franklin was pure middle class. In fact, he may have invented it for Americans. Franklin saw danger everywhere. They all did. Not one of them liked the Constitution. James Madison, known as the father of it, was full of complaints about the power of the presidency. But they were in a hurry to get the country going. Hence the great speech, which I quote at length in the book, that Franklin, old and dying, had someone read for him. He said, I am in favor of this Constitution, as flawed as it is, because we need good government and we need it fast. And this, properly enacted, will give us, for a space of years, such government.
But then, Franklin said, it will fail, as all such constitutions have in the past, because of the essential corruption of the people. He pointed his finger at all the American people. And when the people become so corrupt, he said, we will find it is not a republic that they want but rather despotism -- the only form of government suitable for such a people.
But Jefferson had the most radical view, didn't he? He argued that the Constitution should be seen only as a transitional document.
Oh yeah. Jefferson said that once a generation we must have another Constitutional Convention and revise all that isn't working. Like taking a car in to get the carburetor checked. He said you cannot expect a man to wear a boy's jacket. It must be revised, because the Earth belongs to the living. He was the first that I know who ever said that. And to each generation is the right to change every law they wish. Or even the form of government. You know, bring in the Dalai Lama if you want! Jefferson didn't care.
Jefferson was the only pure democrat among the founders, and he thought the only way his idea of democracy could be achieved would be to give the people a chance to change the laws. Madison was very eloquent in his answer to Jefferson. He said you cannot [have] any government of any weight if you think it is only going to last a year.
This was the quarrel between Madison and Jefferson. And it would probably still be going on if there were at least one statesman around who said we have to start changing this damn thing.
Your book revisits the debate between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Hamiltonian Federalists, which at the time were effectively young America's two parties. More than 200 years later, do we still see any strands, any threads of continuity in our current body politic?
Just traces. But mostly we find the sort of corruption Franklin predicted. Ours is a totally corrupt society. The presidency is for sale. Whoever raises the most money to buy TV time will probably be the next president. This is corruption on a major scale.
Enron was an eye-opener to naive lovers of modern capitalism. Our accounting brotherhood, in its entirety, turned out to be corrupt, on the take. With the government absolutely colluding with them and not giving a damn.
Bush's friend, old Kenny Lay, is still at large and could just as well start some new company tomorrow. If he hasn't already. No one is punished for squandering the people's money and their pension funds and for wrecking the economy.
So the corruption predicted by Franklin bears its terrible fruit. No one wants to do anything about it. It's not even a campaign issue. Once you have a business community that is so corrupt in a society whose business is business, then what you have is, indeed, despotism. It is the sort of authoritarian rule that the Bush people have given us. The USA PATRIOT Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with -- even using much of the same language. In one of my earlier books, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, I show how the language used by the Clinton people to frighten Americans into going after terrorists like Timothy McVeigh -- how their rights were going to be suspended only for a brief time -- was precisely the language used by Hitler after the Reichstag fire.
In this context, would any of the Founding Fathers find themselves comfortable in the current political system of the United States? Certainly Jefferson wouldn't. But what about the radical centralizers, or those like John Adams, who had a sneaking sympathy for the monarchy?
Adams thought monarchy, as tamed and balanced by the parliament, could offer democracy. But he was no totalitarian, not by any means. Hamilton, on the other hand, might have very well gone along with the Bush people, because he believed there was an elite who should govern. He nevertheless was a bastard born in the West Indies, and he was always a little nervous about his own social station. He, of course, married into wealth and became an aristo. And it is he who argues that we must have a government made up of the very best people, meaning the rich.
So you'd find Hamilton pretty much on the Bush side. But I can't think of any other Founders who would. Adams would surely disapprove of Bush. He was highly moral, and I don't think he could endure the current dishonesty. Already they were pretty bugged by a bunch of journalists who came over from Ireland and such places and were telling Americans how to do things. You know, like Andrew Sullivan today telling us how to be. I think you would find a sort of union of discontent with Bush among the Founders. The sort of despotism that overcomes us now is precisely what Franklin predicted.
But Gore, you have lived through a number of inglorious administrations in your lifetime, from Truman's founding of the national-security state, to LBJ's debacle in Vietnam, to Nixon and Watergate, and yet here you are to tell the tale. So when it comes to this Bush administration, are you really talking about despots per se? Or is this really just one more rather corrupt and foolish Republican administration?
No. We are talking about despotism. I have read not only the first PATRIOT Act but also the second one, which has not yet been totally made public nor approved by Congress and to which there is already great resistance. An American citizen can be fingered as a terrorist, and with what proof? No proof. All you need is the word of the attorney general or maybe the president himself. You can then be locked up without access to a lawyer, and then tried by military tribunal and even executed. Or, in a brand-new wrinkle, you can be exiled, stripped of your citizenship and packed off to another place not even organized as a country -- like Tierra del Fuego or some rock in the Pacific. All of this is in the USA PATRIOT Act. The Founding Fathers would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanged.
So if George W. Bush or John Ashcroft had been around in the early days of the republic, they would have been indicted and then hanged by the Founders?
No. It would have been better and worse. [Laughs] Bush and Ashcroft would have been considered so disreputable as to not belong in this country at all. They might be invited to go down to Bolivia or Paraguay and take part in the military administration of some Spanish colony, where they would feel so much more at home. They would not be called Americans -- most Americans would not think of them as citizens.
Do you not think of Bush and Ashcroft as Americans?
I think of them as an alien army. They have managed to take over everything, and quite in the open. We have a deranged president. We have despotism. We have no due process.
Yet you saw in the '60s how the Johnson administration collapsed under the weight of its own hubris. Likewise with Nixon. And now with the discontent over how the war in Iraq is playing out, don't you get the impression that Bush is headed for the same fate?
I actually see something smaller tripping him up: this business over outing the wife of Ambassador Wilson as a CIA agent. It's often these small things that get you. Something small enough for a court to get its teeth into. Putting this woman at risk because of anger over what her husband has done is bitchy, dangerous to the nation, dangerous to other CIA agents. This resonates more than Iraq. I'm afraid that 90 percent of Americans don't know where Iraq is and never will know, and they don't care.
But that number of $87 billion is seared into their brains, because there isn't enough money to go around. The states are broke. Meanwhile, the right wing has been successful in convincing 99 percent of the people that we are generously financing every country on Earth, that we are bankrolling welfare mothers, all those black ladies that the Republicans are always running against, the ladies they tell us are guzzling down Kristal champagne at the Ambassador East in Chicago -- which of course is ridiculous.
And now the people see another $87 billion going out the window. So long! People are going to rebel against that one. Congress has gone along with that, but a lot of congressmen could lose their seats for that.
Speaking of elections, is George W. Bush going to be re-elected next year?
No. At least if there is a fair election, an election that is not electronic. That would be dangerous. We don't want an election without a paper trail. The makers of the voting machines say no one can look inside of them, because they would reveal trade secrets. What secrets? Isn't their job to count votes? Or do they get secret messages from Mars? Is the cure for cancer inside the machines? I mean, come on. And all three owners of the companies who make these machines are donors to the Bush administration. Is this not corruption?
So Bush will probably win if the country is covered with these balloting machines. He can't lose.
But Gore, aren't you still enough of a believer in the democratic instincts of ordinary people to think that, in the end, those sorts of conspiracies eventually fall apart?
Oh no! I find they only get stronger, more entrenched. Who would have thought that Harry Truman's plans to militarize America would have come as far as we are today? All the money we have wasted on the military, while our schools are nowhere. There is no health care; we know the litany. We get nothing back for our taxes. I wouldn't have thought that would have lasted the last 50 years, which I lived through. But it did last.
But getting back to Bush. If we use old-fashioned paper ballots and have them counted in the precinct where they are cast, he will be swept from office. He's made every error you can. He's wrecked the economy. Unemployment is up. People can't find jobs. Poverty is up. It's a total mess. How does he make such a mess? Well, he is plainly very stupid. But the people around him are not. They want to stay in power.
You paint a very dark picture of the current administration and of the American political system in general. But at a deeper, more societal level, isn't there still a democratic underpinning?
No. There are some memories of what we once were. There are still a few old people around who remember the New Deal, which was the last time we had a government that showed some interest in the welfare of the American people. Now we have governments, in the last 20 to 30 years, that care only about the welfare of the rich.
Is Bush the worst president we've ever had?
Well, nobody has ever wrecked the Bill of Rights as he has. Other presidents have dodged around it, but no president before this one has so put the Bill of Rights at risk. No one has proposed preemptive war before. And two countries in a row that have done no harm to us have been bombed.
How do you think the current war in Iraq is going to play out?
I think we will go down the tubes right with it. With each action Bush ever more enrages the Muslims. And there are a billion of them. And sooner or later they will have a Saladin who will pull them together, and they will come after us. And it won't be pretty.
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a 40-minute radio interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I found him fascinating. A formidable intellectual wrestler, agile and combative, he was also remarkably self-reflective, ready to re-assess anything and everything about his life and career, brimming with second -- and third and fourth -- thoughts about his role as prime architect of the Vietnam War. My only regret was that I didn't have the opportunity to lay down another half-dozen hours of talk with him on tape.
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death) did, and the artfully constructed 106-minute film that emerges -- one that clearly intends to portray the now 87-year-old McNamara in all his complexity and ambiguity -- evokes a handful of compelling and tantalizing passages. Consisting mostly of the gnomish former Pentagon chief talking at the fixed camera, intercut with newsreel footage and delicately executed re-creations staged to augment and punctuate the narration, The Fog of War unpacks some stunning moments: McNamara's virulent denunciation of nuclear weapons; his call for a more cooperative foreign policy; his emotional musings and teary-eyed remorse over the firebombings of Tokyo (in which he played a role in the closing days of World War II); his stirring emotional homage to Norman Morrison, the Quaker pacifist who immolated himself right below McNamara's Pentagon office window during the height of the Vietnam quagmire.
Vietnam and McNamara's role in that war naturally reside at the center of the documentary. But here, Morris' handling of the subject provides more frustration than satisfaction. This period is the Gordian knot of McNamara's life. In his books and interviews, he has toyed and tugged with the strings of that history. His explanations for his contradictory behavior have been, well, contradictory -- sometimes self-serving, other times piercingly self-critical and revisionist.
In Morris' film, which relies in part on archival recorded phone conversations, we hear the young McNamara, just seated in his Pentagon job after being hired away from his post as president of Ford Motor Co., energetically counseling President Kennedy to withdraw all of the 16,000 U.S. military advisers then deployed in Vietnam.
Three months later, after Kennedy's assassination, McNamara is back on the phone with his new boss, Lyndon Johnson, and the grumpy Texan is reaming him for ever having suggested an American withdrawal. For five more years, until he was essentially fired by LBJ in 1968, McNamara would zigzag between predicting disaster in Vietnam and faithfully carrying out the murderous escalations ordered by an obsessed American president.
Though it's no doubt McNamara's public ambivalence about his career that motivated Morris to make the movie, I fear that he misses much of the story. Morris is a more talented filmmaker than he is an interviewer. Meanwhile, McNamara is a subject so complex and so rich in nuance that he requires no cinematic embellishment -- no Spielbergian snowstorms, no dominoes collapsing again and again over a sepia-toned map of Indochina -- only intensive intellectual engagement.
Nearly 30 years after the end of the war, McNamara, who has not yet finished exploring his own psyche and moral responsibilities, is chock-a-block with stories and reflections that need to be patiently coaxed and teased out by someone willing to spend days and months not just aiming a lens at him, but rather engaging him in deeper and deeper dialogue.
Instead, the most Morris can offer is a handful of questions, awkwardly shouted off-camera. "Do you feel responsible for the war?" Morris demands near the end of the film. "Do you feel guilty?" McNamara responds curtly: "I don't want to go any further with this discussion."
But this is patently not the case. I know from McNamara's books and from my own talk with him that he's willing to go down that road if gently led -- or, if necessary, dragged. Instead of pushing, Morris just moves on, shortchanging both audience and subject.
Flawed as it may be, however, The Fog of War is very much worth seeing. Though Morris thought up the idea in 1995 and filmed most, if not all, of his film before U.S. troops poured into Baghdad, the unspoken parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are eerie and provocative. News footage of the middle-aged McNamara -- arrogant, cocky-as-hell, jousting with the press in his wire-rimmed glasses -- look uncannily like the briefing follies run today by Donald Rumsfeld. Likewise, the manner in which the Johnson administration cooked the intelligence over the Gulf of Tonkin and then proceeded to delude the American people, and itself, that we were acting on behalf of the cause of Vietnamese freedom is a sober cautionary tale that meshes neatly with today's headlines.
McNamara, recalling Vietnam, peers into Morris' camera and warns, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." Those words, coming from the wrinkled little man who helped engineer and orchestrate that unique period of national madness in which America stood alone and scorned in the world, should be carefully heeded.
Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly.