Onnesha Roychoudhuri

How to Find Power and Reclaim the Narrative in Post-Truth America

Traveling through my hometown in North Carolina in the days after the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I ran into an old friend getting a drink at a bar I used to frequent. He was there with a colleague of his—a fellow high school teacher. The conversation turned to politics pretty quickly, and the friend, B., adamantly put forth the notion that there was nothing to be done except wait out the next four awful years. Look at the numbers in Congress, he said. Look at the Supreme Court. We’re all fucked.

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Is Amazon Evil?

The man sitting next to me takes out his new Kindle. “How do you like that thing?” I ask. He instantly becomes animated, angling the Kindle toward me so that I can better see its face. “It’s great,” he says. “I can download tons of different books and magazines.” Then, eyeing my hefty, hardback of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, he adds, “Cheaper than that, too. $9.99.” There, our conversation ends. I am unsure of where I fall on the Luddite spectrum, but I’ll admit to inhaling the odor of leather-bound volumes. Having moved over a dozen times, though, I’ve also found occasion to curse their weight.

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Michael Pollan Debunks Food Myths

The human digestive tract has about the same number of neurons as the spinal column. What are they there for? The final word isn't in yet, but Michael Pollan thinks their existence suggests that digestion may be more than the rather mundane process of breaking down food into chemicals. And, keeping those numerous digestive neurons in mind, Pollan's new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto entreaties us to follow our knowledgeable guts when it comes to figuring out what to eat.

Nutrition science and the food industry have been changing their minds about what Americans should eat for years. Low fat, no fat, low carb, high protein. In In Defense of Food, Pollan argues that all of these fixations amount to a uniquely American disease: orthorexia -- an unhealthy obsession with eating. And as statistics on diabetes and obesity can attest, obsessing doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Pollan takes the reader on a journey through the science of food and reveals how it is that we've ignored our guts and followed the ever-changing tune of food science. At once a scathing indictment of the food industry, and a call for a return to real food, Pollan's latest book reveals how Americans have been dangerously misled into adopting "low fat" as a fundamental food mantra, and how most of the products on our supermarket shelves should be called "imitation."

Pollan recently sat down with AlterNet to explain why cooking from scratch has become a subversive act, and to tell us things our guts probably already knew.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: At the very beginning of the book, you indict your own field -- journalism. You write, "The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutrition science, and -- ahem -- journalism ..."

Michael Pollan: The way journalists report on science contributes to the confusion about nutrition. We over-report the latest findings. Science is this process where hypotheses are advanced, and then they get knocked down. But you lose track of that when they run the big story on page 1: "Study of Low-Fat Diets Finds They Don't Really Work." That makes it sound like a consensus has formed. You look more closely and you realize, well, that's not really what that proved. It really proved that it's very hard to get people to go on a low-fat diet. The people in that study didn't really reduce their fat intake that much. We've tended to amplify a very uncertain science.

The larger issue is that the very nature of journalism and the nature of food don't make a good fit. Food is a really old story. The foods that we do best on are the ones we evolved eating over many thousands of years. But journalism needs a new story every week, and so we tend to play up novelty and surprise. The classic methods are to eat more fruits and vegetables. How are you going to interest an editor in that story? But in fact, that is the story. Nutritionists haven't changed their points of view nearly as much as you would gather from reading the journalism about them.

On the other hand, there is a very good fit between journalism and the food industry, which needs lots of change. The food industry needs to know that the blueberry is the food of the moment and that there's very exciting research showing that it's a "superfood" so they can put blueberries in all their products. That suits both journalism, which needs a new story every week, and the food industry, which puts out 15,000 new products every year.

OR: This constant influx of food products seems to be the result, in part, of this rise in the prominence of focusing on "nutrients." Can you explain how we became fixated on nutrients?

MP: In 1977, Sen. McGovern, who had convened this select committee on nutrition, was looking at why there was so much heart disease post-WWII. The thinking then was that people were eating too much animal protein. So his initial recommendation, quite plain-spoken, was to eat less red meat. Turns out the industry would not let the government say "eat less" of any particular food, so there was a firestorm of criticism. He was forced to compromise on that language. He changed it in a way that would prove quite fateful in many ways. He changed "eat less red meat" to "choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake."

There are a couple noteworthy things about that. One is it's a lot less clear and a lot of people aren't going to understand it, which certainly suits the food industry. The other is, it's affirmative. It's saying "choose meats." In other words, eat more of something that will have less of the bad nutrient -- saturated fat. We're no longer talking about eating more or less of a particular food; we're saying eat more or less of a particular nutrient. That became the acceptable way for everyone to talk about food. It didn't offend the food industry because they could always change their products to have more of the good nutrient, less of the bad. And I think it was very confusing to people: Foods are not merely the sum of their nutrient parts.

OR: Can you explain how this focus on nutrients impacts medical studies as well?

MP: The focus on single nutrients, which is to say single variables, is necessary to science. This is part of the nature of reductive science and it's part of its power. But, it is not the way that the rest of us need to look at food. When a scientist learns from the epidemiology that diets high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains seems to confer some protection against cancer, the scientist needs to figure out what in that diet is responsible. So, he or she immediately is going to look for the "x" factor. Is it beta carotene, is it vitamin E? Then they break down the food into its component parts and study them all individually to see if they can find an effect.

As it turns out it's been very hard to do that and, often, when we isolate these nutrients, they don't seem to work the way they do in whole foods. Maybe they'll figure out what's going on. But the point is, for us eaters, it doesn't matter. All we need to know is that eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains confers some protection against cancer. Who cares what the mechanism is. They want the mechanism because they're curious and it's the nature of science to satisfy curiosity, and the industry wants to know the mechanism because then they can make a supplement or they can fortify foods with that magic ingredient.

But, for now, stick with the foods. We know it works.

I'm not a Luddite; I'm not anti-science. I'm fascinated by nutritional science. But I've also acquired a healthy skepticism about how much and how little they know. It has only been around for about 175 years. Its history is of one overlooked nutrient after another. As I see it, nutrition science is kind of where surgery was in the year 1650, which is to say very interesting and promising, but do you really want to get on the table yet?

OR: You describe nutrition science as being, in some respects, "parking lot science." Can you explain this?

MP: You measure what you can see, and you inevitably decide that what you can see is what matters. Cholesterol is a classic example. It's the first factor related to heart disease that we could measure. So, the science got obsessed with cholesterol, and cholesterol became the cause of heart disease, and dietary cholesterol was what you had to eliminate. This is parking lot science. It's based on the parable of a man who loses his key in a parking lot at night. He spends all his time looking for it under the lights even though he knows that's not where he lost it, because that's where he can see best.

We have a science that often proceeds that way. But then new factors emerge. Now we know about triglycerides and C-reactive protein and homocysteine, and we're studying those as well. Scientists understand this about themselves better than the journalists who write about science do. They understand the limitations. They've come out and made recommendations that perhaps were less than helpful, such as get off animal fats and get onto margarine and trans fats, but on the other hand, they understand that what they're doing is still very provisional. It's the rest of us that have taken what are very partial, imperfect findings and tried to organize a food supply around them, such as when we took all the fat out of the foods.

OR: Everyone has heard about the low-fat diet. In the book, you talk about how little evidence there is that this diet -- bolstered by the lipid hypothesis -- is the magic bullet.

MP: I was very surprised when I started delving into that. The big message from nutrition science and public health since the 1970s has been that the great dietary evil is fat -- saturated fat in particular. In the years since, this hypothesis has gradually melted away. There are still people who think that saturated fats are a problem because they do raise bad cholesterol, but they also raise good cholesterol. But there are very few people left who think that dietary cholesterol is a problem. There is a link between saturated fat and cholesterol in the blood. There is a link between cholesterol in the blood and heart disease. But the proof that saturated fat leads to heart disease in a causal way is very tenuous. In one review of the literature I read, only two studies suggested that, and a great many more failed to find that link. Yet the public is still operating on this basis that we shouldn't be eating cholesterol.

In fact, when the government decided to tell people to stop eating fat or cut down on saturated fat, the science was very thin then. But the net result of that public health campaign was to essentially get people off of saturated fat or try to get them onto trans fats, and we've since learned that that was really bad advice because the link between trans fats and heart disease is the strongest link we have of any fat to heart disease. They told us butter is evil and margarine is good, and it turned out to be the opposite.

You still see all these no cholesterol products and no saturated fat, and the American Heart Association is still bestowing its heart-healthy seal of approval to any products that get rid of fat no matter how many carbohydrates they contain. The science has moved on. The science now is much more curious about things like inflammation as a cause of heart disease and the fact that refined carbohydrates appear to increase inflammation and metabolic syndrome. These assaults on the insulin metabolism from refined carbohydrates are perhaps a culprit.

I was surprised at how few scientists would defend this lipid hypothesis as the great answer to the questions of diet and health. Nevertheless, they move on because scientists don't stop and come out and say, "You know, we were really all wrong about that." They just keep moving forward. That's the way science should work. But there should be a big disclaimer saying, "Wait till we figure this all out before you change the way you eat and before the government issues proclamations."

OR: You write that, "Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet." This is in a discussion of the "imitation food rule" -- can you talk about his?

MP: That was another red-letter day in the rise of nutritionism. Basically, the Food and Drug Administration was started in 1938 with the Food and Drug Act and as part of that was this rule that basically held that there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows like bread and pasta and yogurt and sour cream and if you're going to fundamentally change their identity by substituting one nutrient for another, you had to call them imitations. If you look at the ingredients of something like no-fat sour cream, you will find all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sour cream. You will find carrageenan and guar gum. These are parts of seaweed and beans. These are all substitutes for the fat in sour cream. It is not sour cream, and the law used to require you to say as much, but in 1973, the FDA -- without going to Congress -- simply repealed the imitation rule.

They did it at the behest of organizations like the American Heart Association, who thought that this would be a good thing. That the imitation rule was standing in the way of reengineering the food supply to make it contain less fat. Because no one would buy products called "imitation sour cream." Would you buy imitation pasta? No. But "low-carb pasta" might sound more appealing.

Throwing out the imitation rule essentially allowed the food companies to do what they wanted with things like yogurt or sour cream -- fundamentally change the identities of food without having to disclose it. We've moved from real foods like sour cream to edible food-like substances like low-fat sour cream that I refuse to call food. I think we should restore the imitation rule. We still have it for certain products.

So for example, if you want to sell chocolate, you have to use cocoa butter as the fat in the chocolate. But now there's a move to get that changed. The Hershey's Co. has petitioned the government to change the standard of identity of chocolate so that you could use corn oil or soy oil, which would be cheaper. Fortunately, Mars, Inc. is holding out to let chocolate be chocolate. But this is why I felt I needed to write a defense of food. Food is under assault by industry and nutrition science, who think they can improve on the foods we've had for hundreds of thousands of years. My contention is, they can't.

OR: It was interesting that the FDA, and not Congress, repealed this. What's the legality of that?

MP: I think they were acting without authority. This happens more than you may think. It happened with the organic rules. The original legislation in 1990 that began the process that led to organic certification said that you could use no synthetics in organic processed food. It was very clear-cut. But the industry, when they started writing these rules said, we need these synthetics, we can't possibly make all this wonderfully organic junk food without certain synthetic ingredients.

So the USDA's organic standards board just went ahead and created a list of the law of synthetics. This was completely extralegal. Then this blueberry farmer from Maine sued and he won. Then the industry went to Congress and got them to change the law. It would be wonderful if some enterprising public interest lawyer decided to sue to restore the imitation rule. My guess is Kraft, General Mills, Frito Lay and Pepsi-Cola would all go to Congress, and some very obscure provision would be attached to a very obscure spending bill, and we'd be back where we are today.

OR: You talk about how corn, soy, wheat and rice account for over two-thirds of the calories we eat and how these crops have taken the place of more diverse crops. What's ironic is that while we're seeing a shift to nutritionism -- as we try to supplement foods with the supplements naturally found in foods -- supplements in natural foods are declining.

MP: Over time the nutritional quality of many of our foodstuffs has gone down for a couple different reasons. One is we have been breeding for qualities other than nutrition. We've been breeding for yield, looks and ship-ability. Also, over time, our soils have been simplified by the use of chemical fertilizers. For plants to create all these interesting phytochemicals that nourish us, they need a complex soil. So crops that get lots of nitrogen fertilizer and little else tend to be less complex and less nutritious. In a way, this gives the advantage to the food scientists because they can add as much nutrients as they want to their processed foods. But on the other hand, there is this trend towards organic foods, which restore a lot of those nutrients partly by nourishing the soil with organic matter and party by using older varieties that are often more nutritious.

OR: You explain that weeds are actually some of the most nutritious plants because they haven't been cultivated and that the natural pesticides they develop can be converted into positive qualities once consumed.

MP: They don't even have to be converted. The defensive compounds that plants produce to deal with diseases and pests turn out to be some of the most nourishing things in them. That's what a lot of those phytochemicals are. They're plant pesticides, in effect. They happen to be very useful to us and our bodies. One theory is that since organic plants have to defend themselves, they produce more of those compounds. Whereas, if a plant is pampered and gets lots of pesticides, and the farmer takes care of the pests and the disease, the plant doesn't produce all these chemicals that are good for us. There is a theory that stressed vegetables in various ways are more tasty. If you stress a tomato and don't give it enough water and make it fend for itself, it will taste better, and those compounds that make plants taste good are also the same ones that we're talking about here. A certain level of stress in the plant kingdom is good for us.

OR: And maybe a little stress in our attempts to obtain the food makes it taste better to us?

MP: Well if you work hard to grow that tomato, it will taste better. So maybe there's something to that.

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the "shock doctrine" of the food industry. There's this notion that what's bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It's very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They're too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it's very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That's a big bag of oats. But there's little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there's a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don't have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that's a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it's a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.

OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.

MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label -- it will say "made with real milk." Check out what the real milk is. It's ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you're selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you've taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you're up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you've added all of this excitement and novelty.

And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you're increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you're only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don't know about because nutrition science doesn't see them yet.

So that's the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don't eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we're too busy to cook. And they're very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it's this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.

Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there's simply no time to cook. I think we've been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.

OR: The industry spin isn't especially vague or nuanced -- you cite a trade magazine called the Packer, in which an author asserts that declining nutrients in foods is good news because it just means people will have to eat more food.

MP: You realize that they can spin anything. If the nutritional content of carrots has gone down, that just means that people are going to need to eat three carrots instead of one. I'm full of admiration for the ingenuity of capitalism. It can turn any mess it creates into a wonderful, new business.

OR: Your book draws on scientific studies and provides an incredible amount of information about nutrition science, but it's also a manifesto of sorts. You say that "in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts."

MP: It's funny to think of something as domestic as cooking and gardening as subversive, but it is. It is the beginning of taking back control from a system that would much rather do everything for you. The food industry wants to cook for you, shop for you, they want to do everything but digest for you and if they could figure out a way to do that profitably, they would. It's all about making money. They need to convince you that you can't do this stuff on your own. That gardening is hard, growing your own food is old-fashioned. Cooking is just so hard, we have to cook for you.

I think it's really an important thing to do. The fact is we've had 50 years of letting corporations cook our meals, and it appears now that they were not doing a very good job of it. The food they're cooking is making people sick. It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do. And it's not surprising because they do not take as much care of our health and welfare as our parents do when they cook for us.

If you're going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar and fat is in your food, they're going to put as much as they possibly can. Why? Because they want to sell as much of it as they possibly can and we are hard-wired to like sugar, fat and salt. They will push those buttons until we scream or die. That's in the nature of things. If you want to sell a lot of products, you make it as appealing as possible, but that's not the same as cooking with an eye toward our health. We have responsibility for our health. We shouldn't expect them to look out for us. And indeed, they don't.

OR: It seems like an incredible irony that we Americans are so obsessed with eating, and yet we're eating so poorly. I'm interested in your emphasis throughout the book on the importance of pleasure in food.

MP: I think we've lost track of just how peculiar our view of food has become. We think the only question is health. Historically, people have eaten for a great many other reasons: for pleasure, community, to express their identity, to commune with nature. There are so many equally good reasons to eat than to either improve or ruin your health. But we've narrowed it down to this one thing.

Paul Rozin is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and I call him the psychoanalyst of our eating disorder in America. He's done wonderfully creative experiments like conducting word/image association tests with different cultures. For example, he showed a picture of a slice of chocolate cake to an American audience and a French audience. The Americans look at it and their response is "guilt" or "calories," and that seems very understandable to us until you realize that there's another way to look at that. When he shows it to a French audience, their first response is "celebration." How much healthier is that?

We have this very narrow lens through which we're looking at our food, and I think it's robbing us of pleasure. Perhaps it would be worth looking at food in this guilt/health way if it actually made us healthier, but there is no evidence that worrying about your nutritional health makes you any healthier. In fact, we are the great food worriers of the world, and our nutritional health is really very poor. Why is that? I think a lot of our obsession with nutrients ends up becoming just another license for eating badly. When all those products became no-fat, people felt they could eat as much of them as possible, and we ended up getting very fat on that low-fat diet.

OR: I think you refer to a related phenomenon in our relationship with food -- this Puritan bias that "bad things happen to people who eat bad things."

MP: We moralize our food choices. This as an example of how science is more influenced by ideology than perhaps we realize. We've tended to focus on the evil nutrients as the cause of our problems, but of course, it's just as possible that it's the lack of beneficial nutrients. In other words, it may be the problem with meat is not the saturated fat, i.e., the evil nutrient, but the fact that the meat is pushing other foods out of the diet, such as vegetables, fruit and whole grain. You see, that's the complexity of nutritional science: There's always a zero sum relationship. If you're eating more of something, you've got to be eating less of something else. Our tendency has been to focus on the bad nutrients, because we do assume if you get sick, you did something wrong by eating a bad thing, but in fact, maybe you just didn't eat enough good things.

OR: And there are many diets throughout the word that you address in the book -- even diets based heavily on animal proteins -- and nearly every single diet is better than the Western diet.

MP: Weston Price and the researchers from the early 20th century that I look at in this book found many examples of people who were eating almost exclusively animal protein diets and were actually very healthy. There is a great range of nutritional diets to which the human body appears to be very well adapted. You go from the Inuit in Greenland eating their seal blubber and lichens to the Masai in Africa, who eat cattle blood and milk, or the Central American corn and beans. Traditional diets have kept people healthy for a long time with whatever was at hand locally -- as long as they were real foods.

The one diet to which we appear to be very poorly adapted on the evidence of how sick it make us is the Western diet of processed food, refined grain, not that many fruits and vegetables, and lots of meat. After thousands of years, we have invented the one diet that makes people sick and rejected the thousands of diets that make them healthy. How did that happen? Well, it's hard to make money on those traditional diets. We're programmed to like refined grain, sugars and fats. When technology could make them common, we weren't going to reject that. I think that's just the nature of things. We have this reward system in our brains, and if you can figure out a way to trip it with a drug, with a food, you're going to do it, and people are going to fall for it.

OR: In terms of guidelines on how we can eat better, you write that we should keep in mind that "you are what what you eat eats, too."

MP: I assure you that sentence is grammatical. Essentially, the idea is that we're part of the food chain, and in the food chain creatures eat other creatures, and so you can't just say, "This is beef." It's a very different food depending on what that cow or steer ate. A steer that was finished on grass is a completely different food than one that was finished on corn and industrial by-products in a feed lot. We don't pay enough attention to that. If you're eating from a grass-based food chain, you're getting a very different diet than if you're getting a corn-based diet.

If you're concerned about your health when you're eating beef, you should really look at grass-finished beef, because it's got very different kinds of fats. It has lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which are in short supply in the American diet, and it has a lot more minerals. Finally, it has a much happier story in terms of the animal's life. It's worth paying attention to not just where your food comes from, but what your food ate. If you've ever had eggs from chickens that got to eat grass in their life, it's a completely different food: The yolks are bright orange, they're much more flavorful, and as it turns out, they're more nutritious. They have more beta carotene and more omega-3 fatty acids.

OR: You also suggest focusing more on leaves rather than seeds.

MP: Leaves are very important to both our health and the health of animals. Even if you don't eat leaves yourself, and you eat lots of meat, well then eat some leaf eaters and you will be better off. We don't think of leaves as a place to get fats, but in fact you do get omega-3 fatty acids and you get lots of vitamins and antioxidants. Leaves are in the business of collecting solar energy, and that process produces oxygen. The plants need antioxidants to protect themselves from all that oxygen.

Over time, we have moved from a diet with lots of leaves to a diet that's based on seeds. Seeds are very nutritious: they're plant storage devices, so they're very rich and contain lots of stable fats that have a long shelf life. That's the omega-6 fatty acids. We need to correct the balance and get more leaves in our diets and less seeds. Basically, if you limit the seeds in your diet -- and again, I'm not saying eliminate them -- because they're very important and they're really tasty, but if you rebalance toward the leaf side, you're going to find that it will contribute to your health. You're going to get a lot of good nutrients that way. The antioxidants generally aren't in the seeds as much as they are in the leaves, because the seeds are not participating in photosynthesis.

OR: There has been a whole revolution in fake meat soy products. Reading the book definitely gave me a new perspective on soy in terms of how healthy it really is and how much of it are we eating in our diet without consciously being aware of it.

MP: I have a couple basic principles about food, and one is to diversify our diet. We are omnivores. We need to eat a great many different nutrients -- between 50 and a hundred are the estimates that I've seen. Yet, we're really getting most of our calories from four plants, and soy is one of them. Twenty percent of the American diet comes from soy or soy oil. I think that that's putting all your eggs in one basket.

There are two ways to process soy products: There are traditional ways of processing, such as when you ferment and make tofu, and these have been proven to keep populations healthy and alive for a long time. But we have some very novel ways of processing soy. We're isolating the protein and using soy isoflavone as an additive. These are novel and untested, and there is science to suggest that you might not want to eat too much of that. I don't know that we've found real harms, but there are questions.

Soy isoflavones, and soy products in general, closely resemble estrogen in the body. It isn't really clear whether that's a good or bad thing. They may be fooling the estrogen receptors into thinking they're estrogen and blocking estrogen response, which might be a good thing, or they may be acting like estrogen and doing what estrogen does, which would be a bad thing because estrogen promotes certain cancers. There are way too many estrogen compounds already circulating in our bodies, because we get it from plastics and other things. So going crazy over soy might not be such a wonderful idea.

In general, I have more confidence in the traditional ways of processing soy than the new ways. Novelty in biology is guilty until proven innocent. Mutations are novelties, and every now and then there's a great mutation that confers an advantage on the creature. But 99 out of 100 mutations are disasters. So when we come up with a completely new way of using a food, combining a food or processing a food, I'd just as soon watch some other people eat it for a couple hundred years before I try it.

How Phone Companies Team Up With Bush to Spy On You

AlterNet readers have now had more than enough time to digest their disappointment with the Democrats' utter capitulation to President Bush on the FISA law. While the focal point of concern thus far has been the breach of Constitutional authority and the brazen disregard for the separation of powers there's an even more practical concern at hand.

Namely, are your communications -- private communications between Americans without suspicion of terrorist ties -- being listened to? And, if so, with which telecommunications companies' assent? The whole NSA program — and thus the FISA violations — is, in fact, a non-issue without the participation of the telecoms.

Despite the fact that Democrats have since taken control of the House and Senate, there is still no substantive investigation into the relationship between telecommunications companies and the White House. It’s a relationship that warrants investigation as select telecommunications companies have gained nearly inconceivable clout. The past three years have seen a string of massive telecommunications mergers leaving Americans with only two major telecommunications options: AT&T and Verizon.

Justice Department Quashes Wiretapping Inquiries

Though Maine resident Doug Cowie just celebrated his 75th birthday in October, it was only this past January that he retired from the Maine Public Utility Commission (PUC) where he worked for 18 years. It would be easy to think of Cowie as an innocuous grandfatherly type -- particularly after his response when I told him some of his e-mails ended up in my spam folder: "Your what folder?" -- but he is one of a growing number of Americans who are acting, in lieu of Congress, as the only check and balance on the Bush administration's domestic spying program.

When USA Today published an article on May 11 alleging that the National Security Agency (NSA) had teamed up with major telecommunications companies to obtain access to Americans' communication records, Cowie sent an e-mail to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, asking if the company was taking part in this program. After ambiguous responses from Verizon, Cowie filed a complaint with the Maine PUC. According to Cowie, the "PUC is supposed to determine whether the complaint has merit and if it does, it's supposed to open an investigation and have a hearing." (He would know -- part of his former position there was managing these very complaints.) After two months of silence, the PUC finally acted, asking Verizon to swear under oath to the veracity of a May press release the company issued in response to the USA Today allegations.

That release claimed that Verizon was not providing records to the government, but was ambiguous enough to leave room for doubt. A deadline was set for Verizon to respond and about an hour after the deadline passed, a response was received -- a Justice Department announcement that it was suing the state of Maine.

The department invoked the state secrets privilege and claimed that for Verizon to even affirm that their previous statement was true would endanger the country. That's ridiculous, says Cowie. "[If] Verizon's public statements had classified information in them, they would have gone to jail."

Minutes after receiving notice of the Justice Department suit, Verizon submitted their filing, which stated that it could not verify its previous press statement because of the lawsuit that had just been announced. At that point, the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) got involved. The MCLU maintains that the Justice Department has no legal basis to sue the state of Maine for enforcing state law. Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU, says that the department's claim that forcing Verizon to verify its previous statements would threaten national security "doesn't pass the straight-face test."

The Justice Department has sued four other states that launched similar inquiries: Missouri, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey -- where the DoJ sued the attorney general for subpoenaing telecommunications companies within the state.

Doug Cowie's call for an investigation in Maine has now been backed up by some 400 other Mainers. That the PUC has yet to be assertive in its investigation confuses him. "I honest to God don't understand it," he says. "I'm so disappointed. The PUC should have tried to do the investigation based on unclassified data. I've been basically told that the staff has been told not to talk to anybody about this." Because the PUC refuses to pursue Cowie's complaint, legal remedy can't be sought.

While the legality of the NSA program has been challenged, the Bush administration has been pushing Congress to keep the cases out of the courts. Bills sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) would redefine electronic surveillance and force the cases against the NSA and telecommunications companies into the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, effectively keeping the cases, and any judicial remedy, from public eyes.

Regardless of the outcome, Cowie intends to spend his retirement making sure Americans' constitutional rights aren't violated. "Who the hell wants to take up all your time doing stuff like this?" asks Cowie. "But something has to be done. You just gotta do it."

Gitmo From the Inside

When Moazzam Begg was abducted from his home in the middle of the night on Jan. 31, 2002, he thought he was being kidnapped by thugs. Those thugs turned out to be the U.S. military and CIA. Begg was shuffled from Kandahar to Bagram to Guantanamo and held for three years before he was finally released in January 2005. As with the majority of the other detainees, Begg was never charged with any crime.

He and others endured routine physical and psychological torture, indefinite imprisonment, and solitary confinement. While it's nearly impossible to fathom emerging from years of this abuse and wrongful imprisonment, it is perhaps even more of a stretch to imagine being capable of forgiving your captors. Begg’s new book, "Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back," co-written with Victoria Brittain, puts his experience in context of the broader war on terror. As one of the few English-speaking detainees, Begg is a powerful witness to the massive failure of U.S. and British military intelligence in preventing terrorism.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: When did you first decide you were going to write this book?

Moazzam Begg: Oddly enough, the suggestions to write the book came from U.S. soldiers, interrogators, and other detainees. They were fascinated by the story, by my experiences. The more open-minded ones even understood that writing about this episode is a very important piece of history.

Roychoudhuri: Can you take me to the beginnings of your story? What led you to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Were you were abducted and taken to Kandahar?

Begg: In 2000, I had already begun working on a project to build wells in the northwest region of Afghanistan. At that time, there were some severe droughts. We had built over ten wells as a community from here where I lived with my family and other members. We'd also begun a project to build a school for girls in Kabul, which was a novelty because we were all told that the Taliban wouldn't allow female education. That's something that my wife and I had invested in and that we pursued as a family in 2001when we moved there to continue to help the progress of the school.

Roychoudhuri: You were first abducted in Pakistan. Can you describe what happened?

Begg: We had evacuated to Pakistan after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Pakistan is where my parents are from, and I speak Urdu, so it was easy for me to be there. I was safe for a few months until I was abducted on the night of Jan. 31, 2002. There was a knock on the door, [and] I answered to be faced with people pointing guns. They pushed me to the ground, dragged me across the floor, took me into the front room, put a bag over my head, bound my legs and wrists, and then carried me off into the back of this vehicle.

Roychoudhuri: What were you thinking at the time?

Begg: That this was a kidnapping. I thought that they were local gangsters. They didn't identify themselves, ask me who I was, or show identification and they didn't search me. For the first ten minutes, I thought that these guys were gangsters until one of them pulled my hood up.

There was a Caucasian trying to look like a local and doing a pretty bad job at it. He had this black thing wrapped around his head in a style that no local would ever do; it just looked funny. It was funny and frightening all at the same time. He produced handcuffs and said that he was an American, and that he got the handcuffs from one of the wives of the 9/11 victims who had told him to go catch the perpetrators. So then I realized that this was obviously the CIA, and that things were going to get worse probably before they got better.

Overkill is a good description of how people reacted in the broader picture of both the terrible terrorist attacks, but also the response to that attack. We occupied two countries with populations in total of over 30 or 40 million. That's a huge overreaction.

Roychoudhuri: When you were first kidnapped, you were taken to a Pakistani jail. What happened there?

Begg: I was afraid of being in Pakistani custody because it's well-known that you get beaten. They're notorious for getting all kinds of confessions. At first, I was glad that there were Americans there. But the irony is that the Pakistanis were extremely apologetic, they called me "son," they said they felt bad about what was happened, that I was fully legal in the country as far as they were concerned. But they said the Americans were telling them to do this, and that they have to be either with them, as the president said, or against them. The great paradox was that the second I was transferred to U.S. custody, that's when the brutality began.

Roychoudhuri: From Pakistan, you were sent to Kandahar, then Bagram?

Begg: I was held in Kandahar for about six weeks. That was the most brutal processing experience I had. When I was held by the Pakistanis, they didn't shackle me, they just put a towel over my head when I was moving around so I couldn't see things. But with the Americans, it was the legs shackled, hands behind your back, clothes torn off with a knife, dogs barking, being beaten, punched, shaved, having trophy photographs taken by soldiers, and being naked and interrogated. I could never have imagined this was how the United States treated people. It was clear that the process of dehumanization was already in effect from the moment I reached Kandahar.

I was held [at Bagram] between 10 and 11 months before I was transferred to Guantanamo. The Bagram facility was an old Russian warehouse, there was no natural light. For almost a year, I didn't get to see any natural light.

Roychoudhuri: Every time you were moved, was there a similar procedure?

Begg: Yes, you were sensory deprived. You would be disoriented as to where you were going, as to what you were hearing and your ability to speak. All of those senses were impaired. And of course, they shackled you with what they call the three piece suit: a shackle around the legs, around the waist, and around the wrists, all of which are attached to the waist.

We were stripped quite regularly and searched regularly in all crevices.

Roychoudhuri: I know it's difficult to talk about, but it seems evident that this was part of a broader attempt to humiliate the detainees.

Begg: I think so. President Bush hasn't denied it. He says we don't condone torture. But in my estimation, what happened in Bagram and Kandahar certainly constitutes all of those things -- psychological and physical torture as well as cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment. My evidence for that is the culmination of is this type of behavior in the deaths of two detainees. There have been heavily documented cases of people who died in Bagram, one of which I was interviewed for by intelligence people who are bringing a murder case forth.

My other experience was when I was threatened be sent to Egypt in order to face further torture. That was where a man previously (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi) had been sent and tortured. He confessed under torture that al Qaeda was trying to provide Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction. That was used as a justification to enter Iraq. These things were very close to me. I was prospectively going to Egypt myself. That was probably one of my worst fears.

Roychoudhuri: You faced roughly 300 interviews in three years. In the book, you discuss how fixated the interrogators seemed to be in connecting all Muslim groups to al Qaeda.

Begg: Not every interrogation was a classic interrogation. A lot of them were just curious soldiers and interrogators who wanted to speak to the British guy. But certainly, I tried in vain to explain there are all sorts of Muslim groups, all sorts of places in the world where Muslims are challenging their occupations. So, to accuse them all of being synonymous with terrorism is the height of unintelligence. What you're doing is painting us all with the same brush and saying we're all responsible, and by doing this you're making yourselves many more enemies than you ever had after 9/11.

Roychoudhuri: Was there a standard procedure for the interrogations?

Begg: There were occasions when the CIA and the FBI sat together with military intelligence. But for the most part it was clear to me that they were not cooperating with one another. Whenever each alphabet agency came to ask their questions, and I answered them, they acted like it was the first time they were hearing this. I came across FBI agents who were very angry with the CIA, and vice versa. They made it quite plain that they didn't like the interference.

A British government foreign office representative came with a member of MI5. He asked me what the name of my headmaster at school was, as if to say there was some serious doubt as to whether I was British or not. I asked him, "Why has it taken you so long to come here?" And he said, "Why do you think?" I thought, if I knew the answer to that question, why the hell would I be asking you? I don't know. Perhaps he was alluding to the possibility that the Americans weren't cooperating.

Roychoudhuri: There was only one person you came across during your detainment that claimed any connection to al-Qaeda, a man named Uthman al-Harbi.

Begg: The only one I know of in Guantanamo who has said as much. Even in his case, I think he thinks himself to be more than he really is. That's the estimation that the interrogators seemed to have of him. He's not on the radar, not on the most wanted list or anything like that. Perhaps he's someone [who] agrees with the ideology of al Qaeda, but as far as somebody who has actually done anything, I don't know that he's very useful.

Roychoudhuri: He actually says that no one else in Guantanamo is al Qaeda.

Begg: Well, why would there be? Al Qaeda, before all of this, was a very small organization. If you go to the FBI website before 9/11, you'll see that they have the names of the most wanted, but it's a small organization. Now, al Qaeda has now become synonymous with every organization in the world. The reality is that it's much easier to put everybody under this label whereas you could say people use their methodology or synthesize this. But, to say they're a part of the organization is, I don't think, very useful thinking.

Roychoudhuri: What were some of the ways you coped while you were being held? I know you mentioned greeting every detainee in Guantanamo.

Begg: I didn't experience it for very long, but for the time I did, it was a solidarity between the detainees. It was based on Muslim or Islamic ethics, and it would begin of course with phrase "As-salaam Alaikum" which means "peace to you." Then, we would ask each detainee individually, even if there happen to be 40 on the other side that you can't see because they're on a different block, "How are you, how did you sleep, how is your day?" Just before the meal, everybody would shout out the Arab equivalent of "bon appetit." It was quite amazing because you couldn't even see the face behind the voice on the other side, and often these were people of many different nationalities.

Roychoudhuri: Did you ever lose your composure?

Begg: There was an occasion where I had an anxiety attack. I had temporarily lost sanity. I punched and kicked the walls, screamed and cried. A military psychiatrist came along and sat down looking very attentive and asked me, "558, have you ever thought about hurting yourself?" I said, "No, not really. Not willingly."

And then she said, "Have you thought about suicide?" I said, "No."

She said, "Have you thought about getting your trousers and threading them with your sheets and then tying that around your neck, and tying it to the top of your cell and then jumping off the ledge?" I said, "No, not until you put it into my mind." She said, "Well, I was just wondering." I don't know whether she was completely inept and stupid, or whether there was something much more sinister she wanted to convey.

Roychoudhuri: I want you talk about your ability to forge friendships while you were being detained. Was it strange to befriend guards and interrogators who had a positive interaction with you, but were very violent with others?

Begg: That's probably one of the hardest things to deal with. I like to look at the good in everybody, including the guards. Yet, when I hear things, it's so difficult in my mind to regard them in the same way. But all I have is my own experiences and not other people's experiences.

One of the first guards who ever befriended me in Kandahar was a Southern redneck for all intents and purposes, but with one little difference -- he grew up on a Cherokee reservation. He said that when he saw us, he empathized with our plight. He said it reminded him of his people -- the Cherokee -- and how they had been demonized, expelled from their land, and thrown into reservations because they spoke different languages, had different cultures and different colored skin. Yet, he was one of the people who had, by the time his tour was ending, become so desensitized that it was easy for him to beat one of the detainees to the point where, I believe, it led to his death. I saw him dragging the body of a detainee with another soldier across the cell into the medicine room, and then he was carried out on a stretcher with his face covered, not moving at all.

[The Cherokee guard] came into work a few days afterward and told me that he had administered martial-arts-style strikes onto this guy. It was almost as if he was trying to justify himself. He was saying about the guy, "I don't believe he tried to escape, he shouldn't have tried to escape." I think he clearly felt bad about what he had done. But he felt justified in telling me because he thought I was one of the people who would have understood. You know, this guy tried to escape. You understand, you speak English. I can relate to you a lot easier. Perhaps that was in his mind. I don't know.

Roychoudhuri: Being English-speaking seemed to be both a blessing and burden to you. You could communicate better; it also caused some of the guards to assume you must be some sort of criminal mastermind.

Begg: With some of the guards I had the kind of relationship where we could joke. They'd go around saying, "Look, there's a British assassin." I knew they were joking, and they knew I was joking, and we took it all in good cheer. But of course, these types of things get filtered to a guard who doesn't realize this. From him, it goes to an interrogator. When the interrogator finds out, he thinks he's struck gold, that a person has actually admitted to being an assassin. So the rumor was that I was an assassin, that I was a graduate of Oxford, that I was a black belt in various forms of martial arts, that I could speak ten different languages, and that I was al Qaeda's top man.

All of these things are based on some truth. I did do jujitsu, but I only got a green belt, I speak three languages -- Urdu, Arabic, and English. My wife is Arab, my parents are from India, and I'm from the U.K., so it's not surprising that I speak those languages. I'm not a high level al-Qaeda operative, but I'm the perfect anti-hero they're looking for. To put that label on an Afghan villager, who has lived in Afghanistan all his life and is only worried about where he's going to get the next meal for his goat, doesn't make sense.

Roychoudhuri: Some of this miscommunication seems to have its root in supreme idiocy. Can you give an example of an experience in which someone's lack of knowledge led to an accusation? I was thinking in particular of your use of the work "pixelated."

Begg: [laughing] They had taken my computer from my home in Pakistan, and they had miraculously undeleted a whole lot pictures and asked me why I had them. I couldn't tell them straight away because nobody knows what all the graphic image files they have on their computer are. So, I looked at one particular picture and said, "Oh, that looks a bit pixelated, I can't see it properly." And the major who was in charge at that time, who, from that point on, I called Major Idiot, said, "Well, I wouldn't know that word. It obviously means you know a lot about computers because not many people I know would know the term 'pixelated.'" My 7-year-old daughter knows about pixels. They learn about these things in school; why would that make me an expert on computers? He just jumped to these conclusions.

He also jumped to conclusions because there was a picture of the Pope among many of the other pictures on my hard drive. My homepage is the BBC World Service, so anything in current affairs was stored in the cache memory files, and he says to me, "If anything happens to the Pope, I'll break all your fingers. I'm a Catholic." And I said, "Well, bully for you, mate. I'm really glad that you're a Catholic, but what's that got to do with me? Do you think I'm working on a plot to convert the Pope to Islam or something? What is that you're so afraid of?"

Roychoudhuri: You have said in other interviews that you coped with your experiences in part by thinking about it philosophically.

Begg: There was a guard, actually, a Southern Baptist, a very decent guy, with me anyway, and he used to say that when life's troubles and difficulties face you, the first thing people ask is, "Why me?" He'd say, "Well, why not me?" He was talking about all his difficulties in his own life. I thought about that quite a bit.

But nevertheless, I think that one feeling always prevails: What did I do to these guys? What have I done to deserve this? It was just the feeling of being in this limbo, not knowing when I was going to go home, waiting, agonizing, months on end sometimes for communication from home which came sometimes a year after letters had been written. Even then it had been obscured by the censorship department.

Roychoudhuri: That included a letter from your daughter, right?

Begg: I have that letter right here. It's a letter she wrote to me when she was 7. Most of it has been blocked out. The only legible thing that remains is "I love you, Dad." I showed her this letter when I brought it back with me and asked her what it said. She said, "I wrote a poem: One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, then I let it go again." And I thought, oh, I see, the American military must have thought this was some sort of enigmatic code. I actually showed this letter to Gen. Jay Hood, the former commander of Guantanamo when he came to visit my cell. I asked him what it is that he feared from a 7-year-old girl. He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to say.

Roychoudhuri: How have you adjusted since being released? What are your plans for the future?

Begg: I value my time alone more than I ever did before. I need to be alone often. There are days when I find myself pacing up and down -- three steps one way, three steps back and back again. That developed when from the quarters I was in. Sometimes I find I'm doing it completely unconsciously.

I plan to keep lecturing up and down the country and talking to the media about Muslims, Guantanamo, and the war on terror. My work is cut out for me. It's sad in one sense because it means I am confined to this identity of former Guantanamo detainee.

Roychoudhuri: I know one of the lawyers that you've worked closely with. Clive Stafford Smith has said that you need think about forgiveness if you want to put this behind you. How do you think of the concept of forgiveness at this point?

Begg: I think about it all the time. Can I forgive, can I forgive? Just yesterday, I was thinking about when I was in Bagram. Specifically, when there was a woman screaming in the next room, and I thought it was my wife, and they had the audacity to say, "Do you think your family is safe?"

Just from that alone, I feel an intense amount of hatred. But then it gets cooled down when I'm sitting with my family and I see my children and my home, and think of humanity in the way I'd like to. It all gets washed away. So, to me, forgiveness on my part is easy in a sense because I'm free. But the hard part is that I can't forgive them for what they're doing to other people. When I was being held, the hardest thing for me wasn't my own humiliation, it was watching other people's. It was watching and being impotent, not being able to do anything to stop somebody else's humiliation, to stop somebody else from being beaten.

I can't be completely forgiving until people are released and come back to their homes with their families and their loved ones. Until that point, I only forgive them myself.

Secret CIA Prisons in Your Backyard

When U.S. civilian airplanes were spotted in late 2002 taking trips to and from Andrews Air Force Base, and making stops in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, journalists and plane-spotters wondered what was going on. It soon became clear that these planes were part of the largest covert operation since the Cold War era. Called extraordinary rendition, the practice involves CIA officials or contractors kidnapping people and sending them to secret prisons around the world where they are held and often tortured, either at the hands of the host-country's government or by CIA personnel themselves.

On Sept. 6, after a long period of official no-comments, President Bush acknowledged the program's existence. But the extent of its operations has yet to be publicly disclosed.

How extensive is it? Trevor Paglen, an expert in clandestine military installations, and A.C. Thompson, an award-winning journalist for S.F. Weekly, spent months tracking the CIA flights and the businesses behind them. What they found was a startlingly broad network of planes (including the Gulfstream jet belonging to Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse), shell companies, and secret prisons around the world. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation of their new book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights is the collusion of everyday Americans in this massive CIA program. From family lawyers who bolster the shell companies, to an entire town in Smithfield, N.C., that hosts CIA planes and pilots, Torture Taxi is the story of the broad reach of extraordinary rendition, and, as Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, the banality of evil.

Trevor and A.C. joined me by phone to explain how they managed to follow a paper trail that led to some of the most critical unknowns about the extraordinary rendition program.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

Trevor Paglen: I research military secrecy at Berkeley and there is a community there trying to figure out what military programs are. At some point, this hobbyist community became aware that there were these civilian planes flying around, acting as if they were working in military black programs. These people started tracking the planes and repeatedly seeing them in places like Libya and Guantanamo Bay. It became pretty clear that this was a CIA thing and that these were planes that were involved in the extraordinary rendition program.

Roychoudhuri: When did the pieces start to come together?

Paglen: Late last year, there was a big uproar about secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Dana Priest at the Washington Post broke the story and Human Rights Watch put out a press release. At that moment the pieces started making sense and we could start explaining what was going on. By that time I had collected a number of files on this just as a curiosity. I brought them over to A.C.'s job, where he has access to some tools to do investigative journalism.

A.C. Thompson: Trevor had this aviation and military expertise and all this information when he came to my office. I've been doing corporate research for years and when we started looking at these possible CIA front companies associated with the planes, it immediately became very apparent that we were looking at phony companies.

Roychoudhuri: How did you track the extraordinary rendition program?

Thompson: We wanted to gather up as much information as we could to create this mosaic of evidence to show the broad picture of extraordinary rendition. We went from Smithfield, N.C., to Gardez, Afghanistan, to piece it together. This is something that people have only really had snapshots of thus far. We reverse-engineered the program. We used the paper trails and evidence left behind, from FAA flight logs to the testimony of former prisoners in Afghanistan to piece it all together.

Paglen: We conceived of the book as a travel diary. We showed up at the addresses on this paper trail and followed the leads. The point was to find the story behind the address. Then we would go to the places where those companies actually fly those airplanes and provide the pilots. Then, when we saw that the airplanes frequently landed in Afghanistan, we went there, too.

Roychoudhuri: You relied on data from amateur plane-spotters with data from all over the world. Can you explain how that works?

Paglen: There are many plane-spotting websites with data regarding the movements of these aircrafts along with pictures. The data can be very scattered and difficult to do much with. But some of these plane-spotters have developed advanced techniques to get information on aircraft movement. That became very helpful in piecing some of this together. If you are a plane-spotter and you are interested in the history of a particular aircraft, you know there are many documents publicly available: registration papers and airworthiness certificates from the FAA. You can also get flight data from the FAA. And in the cases that data has been blocked, people have figured out ways to get around those blocks. When the plane-spotter community and journalists came together, it became one of the few ways to see the outlines of this program.

Roychoudhuri: The fact that the CIA is using civilian planes actually makes it easier to track them.

Paglen: Civilian law around aviation is much looser than those governing military. Civilian planes can basically fly wherever they want in the world. The U.S. military needs special permission to fly over somebody else's airspace. Using the civilian companies is a way to create mobility and avoid drawing attention.

Thompson: The CIA wants to exist in the civilian world. It wants to create these entities so that it can move without a lot of scrutiny. But in the civilian world, you have to interact with other parts of the government all the time. If you create a shell corporation that is going to supposedly own an airplane that will be used to transport people to dungeons around the world, you have to file incorporation papers with the state the company is based in. When you go and get these corporate papers, you can analyze things like the signatures on the documents.

Roychoudhuri: What did you find when you examined some of these documents?

Thompson: We found Colleen Bornt who was an exec at a company called Premier Executive Transport Services. Premier was the company that owned the plane that took Khaled el-Masri to the Salt Pit. When you go look at the paper documents that Colleen signed, you find that every one of her signatures looks completely different. That's because each one was made by a different person. When we started looking for more traces of Colleen there was no home address, no phone number, nor any other proof that she's existed at all.

That's the same with all these companies. They don't have real headquarters, staff or anything besides these paper documents they filed to incorporate and a handful of lawyers who helped set these companies up and serve as the registered agents for them. These are the people who receive summons and subpoenas for the companies.

Roychoudhuri: What are these lawyers?

Thompson: These lawyers are the only humans you can find who actually exist in these companies. We went to look to talk to people at Keeler and Tate, another shell company implicated in el-Masri's abduction. Keeler and Tate were sued by el-Masri with the help of the ACLU. We went to the only address for Keeler and Tate--a law office in Reno, Nevada. We told the secretary "One of the lawyers here is a registered agent and you have been named in a lawsuit alleging a connection to the CIA and extraordinary rendition, what do you think of that?" She didn't seem at all surprised, but she threw us out pretty quickly.

Roychoudhuri: Who are these lawyers?

Thompson: The kind of people we're talking about are Dean Plakias in Dedham, Mass., outside of Boston. He is not a high-profile guy. He's a family lawyer with a small practice and how he ended up in this world is still a mystery. This is an American story, a neighborhood story. When we started looking at all the front companies the CIA had erected, we realized our neighbors were helping the CIA set up these structures. These are family lawyers in suburban Massachusetts and Reno, Nevada. People in our communities are doing dirty work for the CIA. This is not just people being snatched up from one faraway country and taken to a country that's even farther away.

Roychoudhuri: When you have a false entity like Colleen Bornt signing for purchases of planes, is that breaking business laws?

Thompson: As far as I can tell, it's 100% illegal under the business and professions codes in any state. I don't think that it would be legal anywhere. I also don't think that it's legal in any state for a lawyer to set up a phony business for people who they know don't exist. It's also likely at odds with the ethics provisions of most state bar organizations for lawyers. Strictly speaking, I don't think any of these things are legal.

Roychoudhuri: Where was the most interesting place you traveled?

Thompson: We went to Nevada, Massachusetts and New York to track down the front companies. We went to Beale Air Force base in Northern California to track U2 spy planes. We went to Smithfield, N.C, which is home to the airfields that many of these airplanes fly out of. Then we went to Kabul and Gardez, Afghanistan.

But the two most interesting places were the rural town of Smithfield and Kinston down the road, where there's another airstrip that a company called Aero Contractors uses. Aero is the company that flies many of these missions for the CIA. We went there and talked to a pilot who had worked for Aero about exactly what they did and how the program worked. There's nothing random about the CIA using this rural area in North Carolina. If you wanted to shut up a secret operation, this is where you would do it. It's a God, guns and guts area.

Roychoudhuri: When you asked questions, what kind of answers did you get?

Thompson: What you start to figure out by spending time in Smithfield is that a lot of people know about the company and have at least an inkling of what goes on at the airport. Most don't want to talk about it and don't take a critical view of it. Folks we met there framed the debate within this religious discourse. The activists that we talked to were god-fearing devout Christians who felt like this was not what they signed up for as religious people, that it violates the religious tenets they adhere to. Interestingly, folks on the other side of the debate seem to be coming from a similar place, but just coming to a different conclusion. The subject of whether or not torture was permitted by the Bible was discussed in church there--and many congregants believed it was.

Paglen: It's this small town with this open secret that nobody wants to talk about. It shows what's going on culturally. When a country starts doing things like torturing and disappearing people, it's not just a policy question, it's also a cultural question.

Roychoudhuri: When you started to put the pieces of the rendition program together, what did you see?

Paglen: Take Khaled el-Masri for example. His case was a blueprint for this program because it's the most complete account. He showed up in Germany after having disappeared for five months and told this incredible story. His interrogators told him not to tell anybody because they wouldn't believe him anyway. But when you excavate his story, there is a trail of evidence to corroborate it.

He says he was kidnapped in Macedonia on a certain day. It turns out that a plane-spotter took a picture of a known CIA airplane in Majorca [Spain] the day before el-Masri was kidnapped. German journalists went to the airport of Skopje [Macedonia] with this picture and verified the plane was there on that date. The plane had also filed a flight plan from Macedonia to Kabul. El-Masri said he was taken to Kabul. In Kabul, he said he was taken on a 10-minute drive to a prison. He drew a map of what he thought the prison floor plan was. We got on Google Earth, looked at Kabul and drew a ring around how far you could go in about 10 minutes. Then we compared the buildings in that ring to the map that el-Masri had drawn. We found a building that looks exactly like it. So we drove out there. There is indeed a giant facility with Americans there. He could not have made this up.

Roychoudhuri: You actually went to one of the places el-Masri believes he was held--the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.

Paglen: There have been at least three or four black sites in and around Kabul, Afghanistan. The one we definitely knew the location of was the Salt Pit. We found a driver who would take us out there. When you drive out to the Salt Pit, you have these wide plains; it's very isolated. We were driving up and there was a traffic jam which was a goat herder with a bunch of goats on the road. As we're waiting, he turns around and he's wearing a hat that says KBR--Kellogg Brown and Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton). As we drove farther, we saw a huge complex with a big wall around it. There are signs in English saying this is an Afghan military facility, no entrance. There's then a checkpoint. We were stopped. We told the guards we were turning around and going back to Kabul. We asked what goes on there and the guard said he didn't know exactly. Then we asked if there were Americans there. And he said, "Oh yes, there's lots of Americans here." And we saw some Americans sitting on a Humvee.

Roychoudhuri: Did you get a sense of the scope of the rendition program through your travels in Afghanistan?

Thompson: When Trevor and I went to Afghanistan we realized that this wasn't about a handful of CIA secret prisons. The U.S. military has erected some 20 detention centers throughout Afghanistan --which all operate in near total secrecy. These are facilities that the U.N., the Afghan government, journalists, and human rights groups can't get into. Extraordinary rendition is one facet of a much broader story of secrecy and imprisonment that spans the globe.

In Kabul and Gardez, we interviewed many people--in human rights organizations, NGOs, local journalists, and former detainees. We realized that the kinds of distinctions that we were making between CIA and military black sites, CIA and military torture made absolutely no sense to people. It's more like the U.S. is treating this whole country as if it were a giant black site.

Paglen: This rendition and torture is one flavor of a larger thing going on: the U.S. taking people all over the place, imprisoning and torturing them without charge.

Thompson: From interviewing a lot of detainees and Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, it was clear that the Americans had grabbed hundreds and hundreds of people. They're being held without charges, in some 20 different facilities.

Roychoudhuri: Who are these people?

Paglen: When A.C. interviewed people who had been held at the military air base Bagram, prisoners told him that there were Iraqis, Yemenis, an international cast of characters at this DOD prison. So what the hell are they doing there? These are not high-profile renditions like el-Masri or Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. So who are these guys? How did they get there? Is this part of the rendition program, or has the practice of transferring prisoners to these different places around the world become a standard practice?

Roychoudhuri: In the book, you make clear that the rendition program has been around for years. What has changed?

Paglen: The program was established over multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican. For example, Aero Contractors was set up under the Carter administration. The counter-terrorist unit in the CIA was set up under the Reagan administration, but the rendition program was set up under Clinton. It's an accumulation of the capacity of this infrastructure. After 9/11, the CIA went about setting up this entire infrastructure. Materially, they started getting airplanes and secret prisons together. They also started putting together a corporate structure, meaning shell companies. All of this was already in place, but not solidified. All the controls seemed to be taken off of it. They're not planning each operation so meticulously, they're not getting presidential authorization for each operation.

We're hearing about it now because it grew so big, clearly expanding beyond what the intention of the program was at first. There is no question that some of these guys they're picking up did nothing and are the wrong people. One of the differences between the pre- and post-9/11 is that the CIA becomes squarely in charge of the program. Before, the CIA was working with the FBI.

Thompson: The pre-9/11 program was geared more towards adjudicating people domestically who were suspected of crimes against American citizens. That was obviously not quite as controversial as running this huge program that's snatching people and taking them to secret dungeons around the world.

Roychoudhuri: Clearly, other countries have to be at least partially aware of the program in order for the U.S. program to operate. Did you get a sense of the level of collaboration?

Paglen: We know that immediately after 9/11 the CIA set up a program to collaborate with 80 foreign countries to varying degrees. The CIA also started funding other intelligence services in order to use them as proxies. We also know that some of these collaborations were kept off the record; supposedly there is no paper trail.

Roychoudhuri: Has that off-the-record quality caused glitches in the program?

Paglen: What happened in October of 2001 is that one of these airplanes landed in Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) picked up a guy named Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed. The plane landed on the tarmac; they had this guy in chains. That guy was handed over to the Americans and put into this Gulfstream. They were going to fly him out of there, but the air traffic controllers require a landing fee and they refused to pay. The ISI then went to the airport officials and told them to waive the landing fee, so the plane took off. But it created a stir, and drew attention to the aircraft. A Pakistani journalist heard about this and published it, including the tail number of the plane in the newspaper. American journalists then got their hands on this tail number, and this is one of the very early keys that began to unlock parts of this story.

Roychoudhuri: As journalists have begun tracking plane numbers, the CIA has attempted to reshuffle. They change the number on the plane, or they change the phone line of the shell companies. How much do you think public scrutiny can achieve?

Thompson: A ton. If people want the CIA to be reined in and if they feel we shouldn't go around the world summarily detaining and torturing people, they can truly pressure their government to make that happen. They did it in the '70s through Frank Church, the Idaho senator, and the Church Committee. They severely curbed the transgressions and the misdeeds of the CIA. The thing is, by and large Americans don't care about this. Europeans, who play a much smaller role in this, are absolutely outraged about it; their governments are outraged about it. The day Americans decide that they don't think torture is something we should do, than maybe we'll see some pressure to change these things.

Roychoudhuri: You quote 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick in the book: "In criminal justice, you either prosecute suspects or let them go. But if you've treated them in ways that won't allow you to prosecute them, you're in this no man's land. What do you do with those people?" Based on the fact that it's so difficult to bring these people back out of this extralegal system, do you have any sense of where the rendition program is going?

Paglen: This is the crucial question that we are facing right now. Bush transferred a handful of guys to Guantanamo and acknowledged they were kept in these secret prisons. Congress has to come up with a framework to prosecute these guys. It's common knowledge that most of the guys at Guantanamo are nobodies. Many were turned in by bounty hunters. But the guys that Bush transferred to Guantanamo Bay are guys that everybody agrees are bad guys. The sticking point is that they have tortured them for years and the evidence against them is totally tainted by rendition and torture. These are guys that people definitely want to see put on trial. By moving them to Guantanamo Bay, Bush is basically challenging Congress and saying, "If you want to put Khaled Sheikh Mohammed on trial, you're going to have to retroactively authorize torture, rendition, and the black site program."

If Congress does authorize the president's version of the bill, they're not only retroactively authorizing torture, they're creating a legal framework for the future. That would create a system where disappearing and torturing people would become a part of the law.

The Growing Threat of Right-Wing Christians

"I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming," Michelle Goldberg said. She was referring to the subject of her new book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," which chronicles the steady rise of the neocons of Christianity.

Whether she's attending a Ten Commandments conference or joining Tony Perkins' conference calls to listen in on what D.C. agenda will be passed on to congregations, Goldberg's reporting offers insight into a movement that has reshaped the nation's political and cultural landscape. Goldberg did not go undercover, nor wear any disguise. Rather, she simply showed up, listened and learned. And what she has learned is definitely alarming.

Traveling around the country on her book tour, Goldberg notes that many people have approached her with stories that illustrate the religious intolerance that is the hallmark of an aggressive Christian movement. On a muggy day in Brooklyn, Goldberg sat down with me to discuss the need for Americans -- particularly progressives and liberals -- to recognize the sophisticated intellectual structure of Christian Nationalism, and how it has succeeded in constructing a parallel reality based on Biblical rhetoric and revisionist history.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

Michelle Goldberg: I've done reporting on the subject for a long time. One of the first pieces I did on the Christian right was on the ex-gay movement. What struck me going to the Exodus Conference was that it takes place in this whole entire parallel universe. They have their own psychologists, psychological institutions and their own version of professional medical literature. The amount of books, magazines and media, and the way it almost duplicated everything that we have in our so-called reality, is remarkable. What struck me years later when I was reporting on the Bush administration was that the parallel institutions that I had first come into contact with were replacing the mainstream institutions -- especially in the federal bureaucracy.

Roychoudhuri: Can you give an example?

Goldberg: In the Department of Health and Human Services, the people they hired to formulate sex education policy, at both the national and international level, didn't come from the American Medical Association or the big medical schools. They're coming from places like the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which is this Christian Nationalist medical group. [The group says it is a "nonprofit scientific, educational organization to confront the global epidemics of non-marital pregnancy."]

One of the earlier stories I did for Salon was on the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) which does family planning, but they don't do abortion, mostly safe childcare and reproductive health through clinics all over the world. Congress had appropriated $35 million to the UNFPA. There's this group called the Population Research Institute -- another one of these parallel institutions. They're radically anti-family planning and claim that population control policies are part of this "one-world conspiracy" to cull the population of the faithful so that the "one-world government" can more easily assert its control. On the website it said that not only is overpopulation a myth, but all the people on Earth could live comfortably in the state of Texas. I did this story in 2002. I still had this naïve idea that this kind of thing would remain marginal.

But what's amazing is that Population Research Institution went on to testify before Congress saying that the UNFPA promotes forced abortions in China. These kinds of accusations start echoing up the ladder to the point where Bush froze the UNFPA funding. This despite the fact that the State Department had already sent a delegation to China to investigate and said there was nothing to these accusations at all.

There's a myth on the left that's been fostered by Thomas Frank. I think it's a mistake to think that the religious right hasn't got anything. Frank has fostered this idea that the right votes to end abortion and gets a repeal of the estate tax. They've actually gotten quite a bit. One of the main ways they are rewarded below the radar is by being given vast amounts of control over American family planning policy abroad.

Roychoudhuri: What is "Christian Nationalism" and what characterizes it as a political movement?

Goldberg: Christian Nationalism is a political ideology separate from evangelicals. Evangelicals are about 30 percent of the American population. Christian Nationalism is a subset of 10-15 percent. It's less a religion than it is an ideology about the way America should be governed. It has this whole revisionist history claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the separation of church and state is a fraud perpetrated by seculars. What follows from that are ideas about Christianization of institutions in American life, and that the courts have vastly overstepped their authority in the enforcement of the separation of church and state.

Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you show examples of the Christian Nationalist movement pushing for special privileges under the banner of equal rights. The change in the hiring rights of faith-based social programs seems to epitomize this.

Goldberg: The words that they use for that is "religious freedom in hiring rights." Religious groups have been able to get government checks for a long time. But they used to have to abide by 1956 civil rights law which has an exemption for religious groups. So, if you're a church you can prefer Christians, mosques can prefer Muslims, but the catch has always been that if you're contracting with the government, then you have to abide by the same civil rights laws as everybody else. Bush, by executive order, overturned that so that government-funded charities are no longer bound by the laws. Now, there is job training, drug treatment and preschool programs that are totally separate. The job is 100-percent taxpayer funded, but they can say in the help-wanted ad, "Christians only."

Bush wanted to get the Salvation Army aboard the faith-based initiatives. The Salvation Army then brought in a consultant to Christianize certain divisions. He asked the human resources director at the Salvation Army headquarters, Maureen Schmidt, whether one of the human resource staffers at the social services division, Margaret Geissman, was Jewish, because she had a "Jewish sounding name." Schmidt told him that she wasn't. So then he went to her and said, "I want a list of homosexuals who work there."

She said no. She's a really conservative lady, but she was totally appalled and refused to do it.

Roychoudhuri: How did this kind of shift occur? Is there an architect behind these faith-based programs?

Goldberg: The architect of the faith-based initiative is Marvin Olasky. He was an advisor of Bush's campaign. Bush wrote the foreword to Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism, I think people hear "compassionate conservatism," and it sounds like a banality, but if you know Olasky's book, you know it's outlining something very specific. Olasky believes that America is in moral decline and that we need to return social services to churches. He also believes that conversion is an important part of the process. This book laid out exactly what he thought we should be doing, and Bush went and did it.

Roychoudhuri: Your book discusses the role that megachurches play in the politics of the right. Can you explain the ties?

Goldberg: It's not all of the megachurches, but it is many of them. There's different kinds of connections. New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard is the pastor there. He has a call with the White House every single week. Other churches are networked in through the Family Research Council in D.C. It's run by Tony Perkins who has these conference calls that I actually got the number for and started listening in on. All these pastors call in and Perkins basically updates them on his latest conversations with the White House and the congressional leadership. He tells them what kind of issues he needs to focus their congregations on. So he would say you need to have your congregants write to their senators about abolishing the filibuster or about confirming a certain judge. He's literally relaying marching orders from Washington, D.C.

Roychoudhuri: Do you think congregants are aware of the connection?

Goldberg: I kind of doubt that people in the congregations know that but I'm not sure that they would be particularly angry or outraged about it. It would only outrage you if you believe in the separation of church and state, that church shouldn't be a political party.

Roychoudhuri: You frequently discuss the similarities between Christian Nationalism and fascism and totalitarianism. Were you conflicted about broaching this?

Goldberg: Among liberals, there is always talk about fascism and there's a kind of agreement that you can't talk about it more publicly without sounding like a lunatic. You don't want to sound like you're comparing Bush to Hitler. We have no language to talk about the intermediate stages of this kind of thing. But there are these really unmistakable parallels to fascism, not as a government system, but to fascism in its early stages. Before fascism is a government, it's a movement. It's not born in power, it comes to power. I think it's time to talk about fascism or another word for it. Christian Nationalism is one way to talk about it. But there are things that are going on that are not normal, they're not politics usual.

These things are always subtle and gradual, but there are moments when all of a sudden you think "Oh, they're drawing up lists of people who are gay at public agencies." I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming. Just recently, there was a story about a Jewish family in Delaware who moved after fearing retaliation for filing a lawsuit regarding state-sponsored religion. As I've been traveling around the country, and I've been traveling a lot, I keep hearing about things like this happening all over the place.

There's one abortion clinic in Mississippi right now and Operation Rescue is planning to close it down. In parts of the country, doctors are living under constant terrorist threat and it's a daily battle. If you're in other parts of the country, you can be completely unaware of it. I keep hearing from people on the coasts who say, well, I'm sure the pendulum will swing back. But my sense is that, for instance, gay people who are living in conservative states or Jews who are living in places where there aren't a lot of other Jews, definitely feel something is going on and it's affecting them on a day to day basis.

Roychoudhuri: You see this becoming an even more polarized battle in the future -- the secular vs. religious. Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he advocated for a middle ground, and for progressives to embrace their faith. Do you think that's a viable option?

Goldberg: Obama's speech to me was interesting. I thought that there were some things about it that were really valuable, and some things that were really destructive. What he said about people feeling that there's something missing in their life, and speaking to that, was right on. The religious right gives people the narrative arc both for their own lives and then the country as a whole and it's very comforting to people. Giving someone a list of policies -- even policies that will make their lives better can't really compare to that.

But what was destructive was that he took for granted right-wing rhetoric that has no basis in fact. He said, "What's the matter with the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't think anybody is really bothered by the 'under God.'"

He's right; most people aren't bothered by it. It's a myth that liberals, not to mention Democrats, have done anything against the Pledge of Allegiance. The only people trying to take the "under God" out are a few individuals representing themselves. When that California guy sued to have the "under God" taken out of the pledge of allegiance, he wasn't being represented by the ACLU, or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He was representing himself.

Roychoudhuri: What do you think it's going to take for progressives and liberals to gain more currency?

Goldberg: One thing that the right does have that you don't have on the left are these umbrella organizations. Most years, I go to the Conservative Political Action Conference which brings together the religious right, but also the neocons, the hate government people like Grover Norquist, and the gun owners. They see each other there once a year, they have weekly meetings that Grover Norquist holds where he brings together representatives from all the different right-wing groups. Then there are institutions like the Heritage Foundation that has religious right social policy thinkers but also neocon defense people. Not everybody believes everything in the movement, but there are these interlocking circles and this social milieu where people meet and ideas circulate. We don't have that.

We don't have one meeting that brings together the feminist groups, gay groups, civil liberties and environmental groups. I feel like I'm always talking to like-minded organizations, and they don't know what the other group is up to.

Roychoudhuri: Any sense why that is?

Goldberg: There is progressive funding available for programs, but not for institution-building. It's just now that they're starting to come up with journals about these ideas that should underlie where the progressive Democrats should go. There has been a real neglect in part because people held the right in such contempt. There was never any appreciation for the depths of the intellectual infrastructure. Even though the stereotype is that liberals are the academics, there is, in certain senses, anti-intellectualism among policy and political people who don't see how that structure roots people, shapes ideas. It's more than just crafting a message; it creates this whole interwoven skein of values and assumptions. Now we're starting to see an attempt to create that on the left.

The other thing that I think is really necessary is creating something parallel to the right's Concerned Women for America. Let's say it gets in the news that the Dover school board is talking about introducing creationism. We know the ACLU is great when it gets to the legal issues, but even before it gets to that stage, we need consultants calling up the people on our side saying, "Here's what we're up against, this is what to expect, this is how you can talk about it in a way that will resonate with people." You have the information, but it's just not getting to those people. Whereas, on the other side, you do have consultants calling up coaching people through it before it even gets to the table.

Roychoudhuri: You're very solution-oriented in the last chapter of the book, but you clearly state that you think it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Goldberg: It's already worse since the book came out. There's an idea out there that once Bush is gone, or maybe if the Republicans lose Congress, then we'll all be free and clear. Obviously, there's nothing more important to me than seeing the Republicans lose Congress. But, it's entirely possible that most Americans are going to vote Democratic in the polls but that Republicans will still control Congress. The huge structural advantages the Republicans have created for themselves have to be addressed before anything else can be solved. I would say the collapse of the Republican Party is really important, but the Christian Nationalist movement is not a majority. I don't think there needs to be a majority to affect policy.

Roychoudhuri: You write of a pretty enormous communication chasm: "Dialogue is impossible without some shared sense of reality... What's lacking isn't just truth, it's the entire social mechanism by which truth is distinguished from falsehood." How can we regain that?

Goldberg: I found the last chapter the hardest to write because I do feel like in certain ways the problem is much larger than any solutions I've come up with. There are all these voices on the right that can say almost anything without consequence. You would never see Kerry joining hands with someone from the Black Panther Party or someone from the ANSWER coalition. But there are people on the right who are calling for theocracy and almost nothing they say discredits them; they're still treated as respectable mainstream voices.

It's important to get people to pay attention to who these people really are. People don't know what Reconstructionism is, so it doesn't occur to them to be shocked when they see a Reconstructionist on a panel or at a banquet table with congressmen. That should be politically damaging; that should be embarrassing. And the media needs to stop treating it as "some people say this" and "some people say that" as though it's balanced, as though they're legitimate points of view.

Also, journalists should take these religious groups seriously enough to ask about them. I'm totally agnostic on the question of whether Bush is a true believer or totally cynical, I think he's some combination. Somebody asked Bush at a public meeting whether any of his Middle East policies are informed by his vision of the End Times. That to me is a totally legitimate question and he didn't really answer it. If these people are saying they take their religion seriously, then people have a right to ask what is it and do you believe x, y or z.

Fatal Desperation at Guantanamo

After 40 official and numerous unrecorded suicide attempts in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, three detainees were finally successful in taking their lives. Detainees Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, 22, (imprisoned when he was 17), Mana Shaman Allabardi Al Otaibi, 30, and Ahmed Abdullah, 33, hung themselves with clothing and bed sheets late Friday night, allegedly concealing their bodies from guards with laundry hung from the ceiling to dry and arranging their beds to appear as though they were still sleeping.

For the lawyers who represent some of the 465 people currently held in the naval base, the news came as no surprise. Officially, there have been over 40 suicide attempts since the detention facility opened. But as anyone with access to the detainees knows this deflated number is as fictitious as the claims of evidence against those being held without official charge. In a May 2005 interview, former military linguist Erik Saar said that suicide attempts occurred weekly when he was stationed at Guantanamo. He noted,

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The Guiltiest Guys in the Room

After enduring four months of testy and often sensational testimony, jurors finally reached a verdict yesterday in the case against former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and founder Ken Lay. Found guilty of both fraud and conspiracy, Skilling and Lay each face a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Sift through the headlines on the Enron verdict, and you're likely to be left with the sense that the American public has emerged victorious, in the process establishing a zero-tolerance policy of fraud in business. While the verdict will certainly serve as a cautionary tale to future corporate leaders, it would be misleading to assume that the chapter on the culture of corporate corruption has been closed.

The simple fact that Skilling and Lay went to trial, took the stand and maintained, throughout the proceedings, that their actions at the helm of Enron were legitimate, reveals how normalized the chasm between morality and legality in the business world has become. Lay's and Skillings' performances in court (as well as those of their lawyers) revealed a mind-boggling disdain for the judicial process. It was clear from the very start of the trial that Lay and Skilling would be using the courtroom as a stage. Both were eager to take the stand, not primarily to deny the alleged charges, but rather to quibble over whether or not the activities were actually corrupt and illegal.

Before the jurors left to deliberate, Lay's lead lawyer, Mike Ramsey, gave them a crash course in the nuance of "innocence," explaining, "When you're say[ing you are] not guilty, you're not saying innocent. You're saying not proven to my satisfaction without hesitation." Lay himself took a similar tack, trying to further obfuscate his machinations of Enron's accounting by telling jurors that "aggressive accounting does not mean illegal accounting. People misunderstood things that were new and different as being wrong, and they weren't.''

Lay was referring to "mark-to-model" accounting, a form of numeric manipulation that Peter Elkind, co-author of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," explains quite simply: "Your profits are basically whatever you say they're going to be. So if you need to book additional profits for a period, you could just say that the price of energy will go up." It is this type of market manipulation that set Enron apart from other companies, contributing to the California energy crisis, which Americans are still paying the price for.

Yet, one of the focal points of both Lay and Skilling's defense was their complaint that the prosecution was criminalizing "normal" business practices. Skilling and Lay, caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turned the tables and used the stage to aggressively argue that stealing the cookies should not be considered criminal -- tacking on the childish coda, "Everyone else is doing it anyway" for good measure.

The only thing that Lay and Skilling have expressed remorse for is that the company collapsed at all. While Enron's market manipulations and corruption ultimately cheated Americans out of over $1 billion in retirement funds and obliterated some 4,500 jobs, Lay and Skilling have seemed preoccupied only by the ego blow dealt them by their company's demise. In his closing remarks to the jury, Skilling's lead lawyer, Dan Petrocelli, piled on the pathos: "He's a tortured soul now for the rest of his life. What happened to the business that he built and now forever what it will be known as -- that's his legacy."

Blaming "hostile journalists" and "poor market confidence," the two Enron bigwigs maintained throughout the four-month proceedings that it was America's inability to understand their business and lack of confidence that led to the corporation's downfall.

This twisted attitude didn't escape prosecutor Kathy Ruemmler, who stated in her closing argument that this "extraordinary arrogance is the exact same tactic that they used when they were running Enron."

There is certainly some cause for celebration. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Skilling and Lay would be found guilty. The pathological personalities of both men established them as "true believers" in their company -- making it, at times, difficult to prove criminal intent. Skilling lawyer Daniel Petrocelli opened the trial by posing this question to the jury: "In 1999, [Skilling] had more money than he ever dreamed of having. So why would he do it? What is Jeff Skilling's motive?" But it is clear that both Skilling and Lay's egos were tied up in the success of the company and neither had reservations about using any legal loophole and manipulation to increase profits and remain afloat for the sake of greed.

This obsessive maneuvering pervaded their legal defense. The recent Enron verdict is a heartening chapter, but it provides the beginning, rather than an end, of reckoning with a culture of blame-dodging that bleeds far beyond Enron. One needn't look far to connect the dots. Banks like Citi, JP Morgan, Chase and Merrill Lynch all aided and enabled Enron's scamming. Accounting monolith Arthur Anderson helped Enron perform impossible numerical acrobatics. And, most notably, political ties between Ken Lay and the Bush family enabled strategic appointments that led to an atmosphere of deregulation.

These banks, politicians and accountants all helped pave the way for characters like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling to push the envelope in the business world, and to assert that the crimes they were committing were merely a matter of standard operating procedure. To the end they insisted the mounds of evidence against them were just a series of coincidental "mistakes." "Mistakes are not a crime," Skilling lawyer Petrocelli told the jury. Toppled white-collar criminals who follow in Lay and Skilling's wake may well use the same desperate plea.

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