Exclusive interview with investigative journalist/author Greg Palast
Called "the greatest investigative reporter of our time" Greg Palast has single-handedly exposed some of the juiciest recent public scandals: Bush undercutting the FBI's investigation of Saudi Arabia's financing of terrorist organizations; the Republicans stealing the election in Florida; Enron swindling its way into an energy monopoly.
Palast took up journalism because, as he says, "no one in the [American] media could get the story right." The American, now living in London, reports for the BBC and the Guardian. Earlier this week Penguin released the Expanded Election Edition of Palast's New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy as he kicks off an eight-city tour to promote the book. [Click here to read the excerpt "Oil Slick Jim," about the other side of James Baker, from Palast's new book.]
Palast gave Utne magazine the following exclusive written interview. In it he predicts what we Americans have to fear next from our shadowy government, hypes the role of online media, and warns about New York City's cabs.
Utne magazine: Has the 2004 presidential election already been decided? In the new chapter, you refer to the potential problems with online voting, and how it could swing the election results in Bush's favor.
Greg Palast: Hey, you may have already voted -- they just haven't told you for whom yet. Here's an ugly fact so astonishing, so outrageous, I was a bit afraid to print it: in the 2000 election, one million black people cast ballots that no one counted. One million. No fooling, no BS. And this is not something Greg Palast discovered; it came from the official sources: the US Civil Rights Commission and the Harvard Law School Civil Rights project. The ugly reality of our apartheid electoral system is hidden in Appendix 14 of the Commission report.
How does it happen? The votes are "spoiled" -- voided for this technical reason or that. And the great spoiler in 2000 was Kathryn Harris. The state of Florida simply did not count 180,000 ballots in the Bush/Gore race. And according to the official report, half were cast by black voters. On net, Gore lost about 70,000 votes in the state that way.
And in 2004, it will be worse, they've made sure of it. The racist skew in voting machines (busted machines in black counties, state-of-the-art in white counties) was getting fixed ... so the Bushites had to bust the system again, this time by ordering in touch-screen voting. And in 2002, Jeb [Bush, President Bush's brother] did a practice run: in Broward County, there was a computer-vote meltdown in black precincts ... in other words, the system worked as they wanted it to.
And they're taking the show on the road -- computerization's big danger is not in hacking the code to turn Dem votes to Rep (though that will happen, I guarantee it). The big boost for Republicans will be the delays in poll openings, vote readings, glitches, crashes, and "ain't-that-a-shame" loss of totals in black districts. The Republicans start out each election with a million-vote racial head start and computers are the way they will maintain the Jim Crow "vote spoilage" system.
Utne: So the U.S. government is pawning our rights as citizens to shadowy companies that aren't held to the same standards as publicly-elected officials. Who should we fear next? What about Blackwater and private security companies in Iraq?
GP: Yeah, we're privatizing the spook world. What's happening is that the FBI and CIA agents are no longer the willing puppy dogs to the powers that be. The agencies sure as heck didn't tell Little George that Saddam had nukes.
Disinformation has to be contracted out. And so too the black-bag jobs. With the CIA balking at overthrowing the elected President of Venezuela or messing around in Brazil's election, the dirty work of imperial reach has to be handed over to ChoicePoint, Wackenhut, New Bridge, and other information mercenaries.
Utne: Here's a heading from your book: "Iraq Invades Kuwait With US Permission." We used to be on great terms with Saddam Hussein. Which foreign governments might we be cuddling up to right now, only to cast as "evil" and invade later on?
GP: Osama and Saddam were both created in the Bush family Frankenstein factory, the first to take on the Russians in Afghanistan, and Saddam to be our Butcher in Baghdad against Iran. "Iraq Invades Kuwait With US Permission" is from the new chapter in my book -- referring to James Baker III who, as Secretary of State to Poppy Bush, blessed Saddam's attack. Our Ambassador, April Glaspie, told Saddam on July 25, 1990, "Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction ... that Kuwait is not associated with America." Saddam taped her. Saddam's mistake was that he was not supposed to roll all the way to Kuwait City, just grab some of the border oil fields.
The newest monster from the Bush Frankenstein factory is the murderous madman Pervez Musharraf. We know the dictator has weapons of mass destruction -- he exploded his bomb on national television. Our president has cuddled up to this fundamentalist fruitcake as part of the new Great Game in the Near East. So write this down: 12 years from now, President Jeb Bush will order in the 82d Airborne to take out the Killer of Karachi.
Utne: You took up journalism because "no one in the [American] media could get the story right" and because, as you say, "much of the mainstream media is driven by self-censorship." Have things changed at all with the recent surge of politics-related blogs that, as Arianna Huffington suggested in a recent column, keep controversial news stories on the front pages long enough for them to incite change? She referred to Trent Lott's fall from power after bloggers wouldn't let his racist gaffes go away.
GP: The mainstream media is dying -- hooray. The blogs are just another crack in the electronic Berlin Wall. My story of the theft of the election in Florida in 2000, the purge of Black voters, made it to America from the pages of the Guardian via the net. So much traffic came in from info-starved readers in the USA that my paper's servers collapsed. They simply can't plug all the cracks.
Utne: What's your next project?
GP: A DVD. I filmed a one-hour investigative expose of the Bush family for BBC ... played everywhere on the planet except the USA where it was stopped at the electronic Berlin Wall. So, I have no choice but to "broadcast" home by home. So I'm updating the story for the DVD including exclusive footage on Iraq.
What's a kick about a DVD is that you can load all kinds of goodies into it: I'm including a techno dance track, "Silence of the Media Lambs," with my words dubbed into a killer groove. Moby may join me on it. And I'll have some of the confidential documents -- from the World Bank, the FBI, you name it -- that have fallen into my hands. Big fun.
Utne: What do you do to recharge? What keeps you going? Where do you turn for inspiration?
GP: To recharge? I tango -- actually, any kind of dance, preferably fast and sweaty mixed in with slow, close, and nasty.
What keeps me going? Anger. My father worked in a furniture store his whole life -- reading the paper and screaming at the madness at the kitchen table. I get to put my outrage into print. If I didn't drain my brain like that, my head would burst.
Inspiration? People like Tundu Lissu. For telling me about the killings at George H. W. Bush's gold mine, Tundu is facing sedition charges in Tanzania. I have to speak out for him, for all the people who are silenced and can't speak for themselves. I know that sounds a bit over-dramatic, but it's that responsibility which ultimately sticks a finger in my face and says, "Get off your ass, Greg, and get to work!"
Utne: Your family recently moved back to New York, but you're still commuting to London for work. Do you have any hope of coming out of professional exile?
GP: Oh, yeah, Maybe I can borrow Ted Koppel's wig and sneak in. I've been called a "muckraker" -- and among the cynical careerists of our Fox-ified media, that's a deadly tag. There are lots of journalists in the networks who support my work, but I won't endanger them by giving out their names. So, for the moment, I'll still have to lob my info grenades across the water from the BBC.
Utne: What books are on your night stand right now?
GP: Charles Bukowski's Open All Night -- poems. Without poetry I'd crawl into a closet and die.
Utne: Where do you get your news? Newspapers, TV shows, radio, web sites, magazines?
GP: Phone calls. If I want to find out about why we invaded Iraq, I hunt down, call, and record the guys on the secret committees that Bush set up to divvy up the oil fields. The news is something I didn't know before -- I won't find that in a paper -- certainly not in that open sewer called American television. So if I want news, I don't want the processed stuff -- I want it raw -- so I go right to the players. Documents marked "secret" or "confidential" are also sources. If your readers have any, send 'em to me: www.gregpalast.com -- hit the button marked, "contact Greg."
As to pre-fabricated news sources, I read The New York Times to find out the Official Line -- and to read the daily listing of the dead in Iraq.
And I don't watch TV, at least, not in America.
Utne: What's London got, besides better Indian food, that you wish New York had?
GP: A sense of humor. Damn, New York is sick with ambition and money poisoning. And it could use some bike paths. I pedaled all over London with my twins on a bicycle built for three. I wouldn't do that in New York unless I wanted to peel them off the hood of a yellow cab.