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Alexander Cockburn

Columnist

Alexander Cockburn, The Nation‘s "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America’s best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. He graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language.

After two years as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, he worked at the New Left Review and The New Statesman, and co-edited two Penguin volumes, on trade unions and on the student movement.

A permanent resident of the United States since 1973, Cockburn wrote for many years for The Village Voice about the press and politics. Since then he has contributed to many publications including The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and the Wall Street Journal (where he had a regular column from 1980 to 1990), as well as alternative publications such as In These Times and the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

He has written "Beat the Devil" since 1984.

He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St Clair, of the newsletter and radical website CounterPunch(http://www.counterpunch.org) which have a substantial world audience. In 1987 he published a best-selling collection of essays, Corruptions of Empire, and two years later co-wrote, with Susanna Hecht, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (both Verso). In 1995 Verso also published his diary of the late 80s, early 90s and the fall of Communism, The Golden Age Is In Us. With Ken Silverstein he wrote Washington Babylon; with Jeffrey St. Clair he has written or coedited several books including: Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press; The Politics of Anti-Semitism; Imperial Crusades; Al Gore, A User’s Manual; Five Days That Shook the World; and A Dime’s Worth of Difference, about the two-party system in America.

 

 


  • Media April 5, 2001

    Stones, Glass Houses, Sontag and Said

    To put it all in a nutshell, come the month of May Edward Said won't be traveling to Vienna; Susan Sontag will be traveling to Jerusalem.

    It's a backhanded tribute to his effectiveness as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the past couple of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.

    The latest uproar over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he made last summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity to travel to the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied by Israeli forces. First they visited the terrible Khiam prison and torture center, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli troops and now crowded with festive Lebanese exuberantly throwing stones at the heavily fortified border.

    In competitive emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in the act. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York Times, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at Columbia University and--this is the latest at time of writing--be disinvited by the Freud Society and Museum in Vienna from a longstanding engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in May. (To its credit, Columbia stands by him and says the calls for his removal are preposterous and offensive.)

    What, aside from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself has written, while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the problem. Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.

    Let us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public intellectual of large reputation. You can pretty much gauge a writer's political sedateness and respectability in America by the kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment deems Sontag safe. Aside from the 2000 National Book Award for her latest novel, In America, she received in 1990 the liberal imprimatur of a five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, which once contemplated giving just such a fellowship to Said but retreated after furious protests from one influential Jewish board member, Saul Bellow.

    Now Sontag has been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the biennial award since its inauguration in 1963. The award, worth $5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society.

    Sontag was selected by a three-member panel of judges, comprising the Labor Party's Shimon Peres (now Ariel Sharon's foreign minister) and two Hebrew University professors, Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres approvingly cited Sontag's description of herself: "First she's Jewish, then she's a writer, then she's American. She lives Israel with emotion and the world with obligation." When notified of her latest accolade, Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea of how honored and moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize." Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony.

    Why dwell on the mostly tarnished currency of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be nobly strident in protesting the travails of East Timorese, Rwandans, Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleaguered groups. But for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have always been invisible.

    It can scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the 1990s on which she did raise her voice. Along with her son, David Rieff, Sontag became a passionate advocate of NATO intervention against Yugoslavia, or, if you prefer, Serbia. On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Are We in Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "What if the French Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica...or the Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees...?"

    Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which at least 750,000 residents have been expelled. She has always been appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she, assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials as a war criminal are robust? Does Sontag see no irony in getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly suppressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the individual.

    Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal control--in violation of international law--and whose latest turmoils he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy places.

    When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined, saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Said knows he lives in a glass house, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his stone.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Media March 22, 2001

    The Noise on I-40

    Drive across the United States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 530 one-ton, plowing along at 50 mph. By day I listen to FM.

    Bunked down at night, there's some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there used to be. Or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end place to get it. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM, is indeed a vast wasteland, far more bleak than the high plains of Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of days. It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the Bible Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd think you were listening to Terry Gross.

    By any measure, and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications "Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in any single market. Clear Channel Communications alone owns and operates almost 1,200 stations pumping out identical muck in all states. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies, with eight stations each, can control a market. Bob McChesney cites an industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up to eighteen minutes an hour, with the commercials separated by the same endless golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to "Help!" at least sixteen times.

    The new chairman of the FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he OK'd thirty-two mergers and kindred transactions in twenty-six markets. Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into Radio Free Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment and shut RFC down.

    Michael Powell--actually installed on the FCC by Clinton in 1997, no doubt eager to stroke Powell Senior at the time--is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's certainly increased his own family's resources. His OK of the AOL-Time Warner merger stands to net his father, a man freighted with AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese wall across the family dining table and that he and Dad never chatted about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.

    Is there any chink of light amid the darkness of Radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight. In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a beating in its effort to fix the bylaws so as to make it easier to continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in California have favored courtroom challenges to the national board's onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.

    Above all, the Pacifica Board is now reaping the consequences of its forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI interim station manager Utrice Leid, who on March 5 pulled the plug on Representative Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss Pacifica's affairs.

    A furious Owens has now raised a stink on the floor of the House about Pacifica's highhanded conduct and has put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board gets pushed toward the exit. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who resigned from Democracy Now! recently, recommends: Don't finance the enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in escrow.

    And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly flawed plan to license more than 1,000 low-power stations. In the end the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by Clinton late last year, with provisions insuring that low power would never gain a foothold in cities, also insuring that the pirate broadcasters of yesteryear, who created the momentum for low power, could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild in San Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low-power FM. "From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had not vigorously joined the National Association of Broadcasters in its attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would not have gone through."

    But all would-be low-power broadcasters should know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been accepting applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included) jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers Guild's Center on Democratic Communications at (415) 522-9814 or Aakorn@igc.org, but first take a look at their website (www.nlgcdc.org).

    These fights are all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form of the Pacifica board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 act and the 1934 Communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires a broad range of opinion. After sixty-five years of a commercially based media system we have a narrow range of debate; this abuse of the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but here it comes.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Covert Ops March 8, 2001

    What Are Spies For?

    The air now quivers with gloomy assessments of the secrets "compromised" by the FBI's Robert Hanssen, a senior official who stands accused of working for the Russians since 1985. If you believe the FBI affidavit against him filed in federal court, Hanssen betrayed spies working for the United States, some of whom were then executed. Among many other feats, he allegedly ratted on "an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States," which turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel under the new Soviet Embassy in Washington. He also trundled documents by the cartload to "dead drops" in various suburbs around Washington.

    It's amusing to listen to the US counterintelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lack of "tradecraft" in using the same drop week after week. These are the same counterintelligence officials who remained incurious across the decades about the tinny clang of empty drawers in their top secret filing cabinets, all contents removed on a daily basis by Hanssen and the CIA's Aldrich Ames, who deemed the use of copy machines too laborious. In just one assignment, the CIA later calculated, Ames gave the KGB a stack of documents estimated to be fifteen to twenty feet high. Hanssen was slack about "tradecraft" because he knew just how remote the possibility of discovery was. The only risk he couldn't accurately assess was the one that brought him down--betrayal by a Russian official privy to the material he was sending to Moscow.

    The record of proven failure by US intelligence agencies is long and dismal. To take two of the most notorious derelictions, the CIA failed to predict the Sino-Soviet split and failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart, a lapse the agency later tried to blame on Ames. In the mid-1990s Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch testified to Congress that "taken as a whole" Ames's activities "facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in 'perception management operations' by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge.... one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust."

    So here was Deutch (himself scandalously pardoned by Clinton after personally perpetrating some of the most egregious security lapses in the CIA's history) claiming that treachery by its man Ames was the reason the CIA failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart. Following that line of analysis, Ames could have entered a plea of innocence on the grounds that in helping the Soviet Union exaggerate its might he was only following official agency policy. One of the prime functions of the CIA in the cold war years was to inflate the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, thereby assisting military contractors and their allies in Congress and the Pentagon in the extraction of money to build more weapons to counter these entirely imaginary Soviet threats.

    Back in the mid-1970s CIA Director George H.W. Bush found that the regular CIA analysts were making insufficiently alarmist assessments of Soviet might and promptly installed Team B, a group replete with trained exaggerators, who contrived the lies necessary to justify the soaring Pentagon procurement budgets of the Reagan eighties.

    Reviewing this torrent of lies at the start of the 1980s, my brother Andrew Cockburn wrote The Threat, a pitilessly accurate estimate of Soviet military potential based on interviews with sources recruited by Andrew's tradecraft, some of said sources being Russian immigrants, many of them living in Brighton Beach, New York. He described how the US civil and, more serious, military intelligence organizations were grotesquely miscalculating the Soviet defense budget and routinely faking the capabilities of its weapons.

    Military experts pooh-poohed Andrew's findings, as did many of the liberal Pentagon watchdogs, who found it too offensively simple to say that Soviet weapons were badly made and overseen by semi-mutinous drunks. But as history was soon to show, Andrew had it right. Against the entire US budget for spying on the Soviet Union's military potential you could set the money necessary to buy The Threat and come out with superior information.

    Real secrets, excitedly relayed to one another by the mighty, don't concern weapons but gossip: the exact capabilities of Dick Cheney's heart, the precise amount of cocaine sold by George Bush at Yale and so forth. This was the kind of stuff J. Edgar Hoover kept in his office safe. The nation's real intelligence work is being done by the National Enquirer. We could cut off the CIA's and FBI's intelligence budgets and improve the security of this nation at once.

    A final parable, about another US intelligence debacle: failure to predict Egypt's attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war in October of 1973. A CIA analyst called Fred Fear had noticed earlier that year that the Egyptians were buying a lot of bridging equipment from the Russians. Assessing the nature and amount of this equipment, Fear figured out where the bridges would be deployed across the Suez Canal and how many troops could get across them. He wrote a report, with maps, predicting the Egyptian attack. His superiors ignored it until the onslaught took place. Then they hauled it out, tore off the maps and sent them to the White House, labeled as "current intelligence."

    While the Egyptians were planning the Yom Kippur assault, they discovered that the Israelis had built a defensive sand wall. Tests disclosed that the best way to breach this wall would be with high-pressure hoses. So they ordered the necessary fire hoses from a firm in West Germany, putting out the cover story that Sadat was promising a fire engine to every Egyptian village. Then a strike in the West German hose factory held up production into the fall of 1973. As the days ticked away, the desperate Egyptians finally deployed all Egyptian cargo planes to Frankfurt to pick up the fire hoses. The planes crammed the airfield. Frankfurt is a notorious hub for intelligence agencies. None of them noticed.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Death Penalty February 23, 2001

    Hate Versus Death

    Almost every week, it seems, we get to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.

    Take the recent execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year -old Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar's trial, prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar's homosexuality to the jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty man's veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and told the press he'd "lost no sleep" over signing off on Lingar's fate.

    Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?

    A year ago it seemed possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds that he could not support a system "which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error."

    By June a Field Poll reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1 favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which California respondents were not offered this framework, put support for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a moratorium.

    The discrepancy in the California polls actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars. It's a matter of public education.

    But where are the educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith in executions as a deterrent.

    A few years ago Hillary Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she stands square for death, as does New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer.

    Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. On February 12 the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that "it would be futile" to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.

    Mrs. Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic nomination for governor, shares her views. "To tell you the truth, on the death penalty, it's not as big an issue in the state as it was a few years ago." Mrs. Cuomo's father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed death-penalty measures during his years as governor.

    In line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's spineless stance, many liberal or what are now cautiously called "human rights" groups have also found it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death penalty.

    Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar's life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP, however, was quite muted on Lingar's fate, taking little action except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution. Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-advocacy group.

    The issue of capital punishment is drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the word "ostensible"), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton's appalling Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

    The impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since "the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than life without parole" and, among other evils, "discriminates racially and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the poor.... It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of retribution."

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Environmental Activism February 8, 2001

    Dancing With Wolves

    The Bush Administration is relying on falsehoods when making its case for opening up Alaska to drilling.

    Alexander Cockburn

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  • Political Figures January 26, 2001

    From San Juan Hill to Chengue

    He had a busy finale, didn't he, primarily saving his own hide and issuing pardons: eeny meeny miny mo, Marc Rich yes, Leonard Peltier no. In Rolling Stone he called for an end to the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine that he adamantly refused to fix a few years earlier. What else? Let's see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on January 16 that in 1993 he'd broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic Presidents, who would pull the portrait of TR off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House's Roosevelt Room and put up FDR instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander in Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept TR up on the wall, triangulating right from the start. On January 16 Bill said it was high time to give TR the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill.

    Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.

    How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor Madeleine Albright? The latter's final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of US military aid to Colombia should not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world, and so, in admiration for this pre-eminence, last August Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment, of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton Administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in "regular funds" but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.

    On January 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC's correspondent in Bogotá, Jeremy McDermott, reported that "alleged right-wing paramilitaries" had attacked a village on Colombia's northwest coast, killing twenty-five people. "Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue in the early hours of the morning," McDermott told his audience. "They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to thirty houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre." McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters "deeply involved in the drug trade."

    For months the inhabitants of Chengue had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On October 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something "to avoid a massacre," explaining that the government's presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in "anguish and tension" because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of ninety-nine residents of the town.

    While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton Administration was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia," a strategy straight off the Pentagon's Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by US training, "advisers," arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously eradicating the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants' only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by US economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton Administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia's troubles has become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded from Washington to Bogotá.

    As a man who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he's not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country's misery, which has more than half the population below poverty level, internal refugees by the million and no prospects for improvement. He knows too that "drug interdiction," partly the official US rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton Administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225,000 of the package reserved to that end.

    What's the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, I'd say. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?

    And Bill? He's in Chappaqua glad-handing the locals and contemplating the memoirs that will doubtless be as mendacious as those of Teddy Roosevelt, like Clinton a Force Ten blowhard and self-inflater. In a couple of weeks Bill will be ogling the girls in the bank and suggesting sorties to the local hot-mattress motel, if such sanctuary is available in the purlieus of the Saw Mill River Parkway. If she's called Gennifer we'll have come back to the beginning, just as, on the larger canvas, we do year after year with San Juan Hill.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Executive Branch January 11, 2001

    Different Players, Same Game

    But hold! Isn't it the demand of enlightened people that all within these borders have a right to work without being hassled by the INS or kindred state agency? You can argue whether Linda Chavez treated Marta Mercado, her sometime Guatemalan employee, well or badly, and that poor treatment might disqualify her as Labor Secretary. But the spectacle of Democrats like Senator Tom Daschle solemnly denouncing Chavez for giving work to an undocumented Latina was nauseating.

    Here's Chavez, who has appalling views on almost every issue relevant to the job for which she was briefly nominated, and the Democrats finally home in on her for the one decent deed on her record, if you believe the testimony of Marta, to whom Chavez appears to have behaved well.

    Chavez has been cruelly taken from them, but what an immense favor Bush/Cheney did the Democrats by putting up Ashcroft and Norton! It's hard to stir up liberal passions over Powell at the State Department or Rice as National Security Adviser, or even O'Neill at Treasury. How could you be worse than Madeleine Albright or Samuel Berger? And who cares about O'Neill, when the effective ruler of the economy is over at the Fed?

    But with Ashcroft scheduled for the Justice Department there are rich political and fundraising opportunities for the Democrats, berating the Naderites, We told you so, and painting lurid scenarios of the Klan Grand Wizard taking up residence in the DOJ. Here comes the Beast: Ashcroft, the foe of choice; Ashcroft, the militia-symp; Aschcroft, the racist hero of the old Confederacy. What can you say for the guy, except that he's probably marginally to the left of Eminem, great white hope of the rap crowd and currently in line for four more Grammies.

    But will Ashcroft be effectively worse than Attorney General Janet Reno? This time eight years ago she was four months away from incinerating the Branch Davidians at Waco and on the edge of a tenure that has seen her fervent support for the "war on drugs," a k a war on the poor, most especially blacks; her contributions to the crime bill of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996; the targeting of minority youth; her complaisance toward expansions in the power of the prosecutorial state against citizens; and onslaughts on the Bill of Rights? It's a tough act to follow.

    The environmentalists see similar rich opportunity with Gale Norton, graduate of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an anti-environmental think tank based in Denver, Colorado, headed by James Watt, greatest fundraiser for environmental causes in our history. No doubt about it, Norton is scarcely nature's friend. Her dreams are of Exxon's Grand Canyon and Disney's Yosemite. But once again, we should retain our perspective.

    Consider, for example, Bill Clinton's exit order, banning roads and logging across 58.5 million acres of public land. Then look at the exceptions: Clinton's ban excludes timber sales now in the pipeline, which can be grandfathered in over the next six years. Other huge loopholes include an OK for logging for "ecological reasons," like firebreaks and deer habitat. There's also an OK for roads for mining and grazing allotments, and for fire control. In all, the order envisages a less than 3 percent reduction of total timber sales in national forests, which isn't much.

    If she's smart, Norton will reverse the order simply by choosing one of the other options offered in the environmental impact statement that formed the basis of Clinton's order.

    There's likely to be a big fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has just done Norton and the oil industry a big favor by advising Clinton that to designate ANWR a national monument would be "a meaningless gesture" that would invite the Republicans to reverse all such designations made in Clinton time. You can read this as a startlingly forthright admission that national-monument status doesn't mean much, which is true; also that Babbitt is as gutless as ever. To have made ANWR a national monument would have drawn a line in the sand, or in this case, the snow, a bit deeper, and made the forthcoming onslaught on ANWR a little tougher for the Bush/Cheney crowd.

    What else can Norton do that Babbitt hasn't already set in motion? Not much. Last year Babbitt's Fish and Wildlife Service put a moratorium on the listing of endangered species, and he's smiled on the privatization of public assets through land trades, whereby timber corporations get old growth and we get the cut-over terrain. Salmon protection? The Clinton Administration has let the Republicans off the hook on that one, decreeing that the dams on the Snake River won't be breached. Oil leasing off the continental shelf? For Bush/Cheney it would be political suicide. Reagan tried and had to back off. Norton will go after the National Environmental Protection Act, but here again Babbitt and Gore paved the way, with their habitat conservation plans, which have ushered so many corporate foxes into the coop.

    Over at EPA, Christine Todd Whitman may be bad, but she's no James Watt; and at USDA could anyone be worse than Dan Glickman, friend of factory farms and saboteur of organic standards?

    So, all in all, the Bush/Cheney directorate has done a fine job of rallying the Democrats, just as the Democrats, with their weak-kneed surrender to the Florida putsch and talk of bipartisanship, have given ammunition to the radicals denouncing the two-party consensus. For the activists, there's plenty of opportunity. Militant green groups, including the reinvigorated Greenpeace, are fired up, and right here on the doorstep is the prospect of a national fight for microradio, whose future has been sabotaged by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB, with the complicity of that darling of the Democrats, NPR, shepherded through a legislative rider late last year that outlaws new low-power stations in most urban areas.

    So we're back where we were in the dawn of Clinton time, with courageous people asserting their rights and defying corporations and the state. What else is new? Welcome to Bush/Cheney time. The basic map hasn't changed.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Election 2000 December 22, 2000

    Let’s Get Our Show on the Road!

    Bush v. Gore is a fitting start to the next four deranged years.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Environmental Activism December 7, 2000

    Greens, Fears and Dollars

    They'd rather die than admit it, but environmental organizations thrive on disaster. They remember well enough what happened when Ronald Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Hardly had Watt hung an elk head on his office wall before the big green outfits were churning out mailers painting doomsday scenarios of national parks handed over to the oil companies, the Rocky Mountains stripped for oil shale, the national forests clearcut from end to end.

    By the time the incompetent Watt was forced to resign, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation had raised tens of millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of new members. All this money transformed the environmental movement from a largely grassroots network into an inside-the-Beltway operation powered by political operators in Washington, DC.

    Then came the Clinton/Gore era. Because the mainstream green groups had anointed Gore as nature's savior and had become so politically intertwined with the Democrats, they had no way to disengage and adopt an independent critical posture when the inevitable sellouts began.

    Thus it was that the big green groups let Clinton and Gore off the hook when the new administration put forward a plan to end "gridlock" and commence orderly logging in the ancient forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, they held their peace when Gore reneged on his pledge to shut down the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator in Ohio. Year after year they stuck to their basic game plan: Don't offend the White House; preserve "access" at all costs.

    One consequence of this greenwashing of the Clinton Administration was a sharp decline in the green-group memberships. But by now the big green outfits had grown comfortable on fat salaries, inflated staffs and fine new offices.

    To maintain the standard of living to which they had now become accustomed, the big green groups sought to offset their dwindling membership revenues by applying for help from big foundations like Rockefeller, the Pew Charitable Trusts and W. Alton Jones. But charity rarely comes without strings. All the above-mentioned foundations derive their endowments from oil, and along with the money they inherited an instinct for manipulation and monopoly.

    By the mid-1990s executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts were openly declaring their ambition to set the agenda for the environmental movement during Clinton time, using as leverage their grant-making power. Let a small green group step out of line, and in the next funding cycle that group would find its grant application rejected not just by Pew but by most of the other green-oriented foundations that were operating like the oil cartel of old.

    So now, with the shadow of a Republican administration across the White House, the green groups see a chance to recoup, using the sort of alarmism that served them so well in the Reagan-Watt years. Already during the campaign they painted George W. Bush as a nature-raper, and then, only days after the election on November 7, e-mail alerts began to flicker across the Internet, warning that the incoming Congress will be the "most environmentally hostile ever."

    But how can this be, if we are to believe the premise of the big green groups, backed by regular "dirty-dozen lists" from the League of Conservation Voters, that Democrats are by definition kinder to nature than Republicans? Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives and now split the Senate with the Republicans 50/50. By this measure the e-mails rushing across the Net should be modestly optimistic instead of presaging doom.

    In fact, one of the natural kingdom's greatest enemies in the US Senate, Slade Gorton of Washington, has gone down to defeat. Another nature-raper, Representative Don Young of Alaska, is being forced to vacate his chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, victim of a term-limits agreement by House Republicans a few years ago.

    Good news doesn't raise dollars or boost membership. So the big green groups will go on painting an unremittingly bleak picture of what lies in store. But the likelihood is that a Bush administration won't be nearly as bad as advertised by alarmists.

    Indeed, there are some causes for optimism. The model here is Richard Nixon, our greenest President, who oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and smiled upon our single greatest piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was trying to divide the left and worked to develop an environmental constituency. Bush, if he makes it to the White House, will be similarly eager to garner green support.

    Bush will also be keen to undercut attacks on the question of his legitimacy as President, and a kinder, gentler policy on the environment would be one way to do it. The current betting is that his nominee for Interior Secretary will be Montana Governor Marc Racicot, a Republican version of the present incumbent of the post, Bruce Babbitt. If the speculation about Racicot is borne out, this would be a severe blow to the expectations of the Republican hard-liners, who yearn for Don Young to supervise the dismantling of whatever frail environmental protections America still enjoys.

    Of course there will be savage environmental struggles over the next four years. Oil leasing will be one battlefield. Salvage logging will be another. But if you receive a hysterical mailer from one of the big green organizations, set it aside and give your support to one of the small groups that have been fighting doughtily on the same issues through Clinton time, when the big groups were toeing the party line and keeping their mouths shut. Why not, for example, send a check to Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, thus honoring its founder, the late David Brower?

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Guns and Gun Control November 27, 2000

    ‘Torture Them’

    Do we want a Vice President who endorses illegal detention and torture of Palestinians? Anthony Cordesman, a national security type frequently deployed as a television pundit, recently posted a paper on the website for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies recommending that Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority engage in just these practices to repress the latest intifada.

    "Halt civil violence," Cordesman counsels, "even if it means using excessive force by the standards of Western police forces." But this is only a warm-up. "Halt terrorist and paramilitary action by Hamas and Islamic Jihad," Cordesman continues, "even if this means interrogations, detentions, and trials that are too rapid and lack due process." Still not clear enough. "Effective counter-terrorism relies on interrogation methods that border on psychological and/or physical torture, arrests and detention that violate the normal rights of privacy, [with] levels of violence in making arrests that are unacceptable in civil cases, and measures that involve the innocent (or at least the not provably directly guilty) in arrests and penalties."

    In other words, protected only by the weasel phrase "border on," Cordesman urges that Israel's security forces return to the torture techniques that were finally abandoned under High Court order a year ago. Joe Lieberman is one of the senators belonging to the CSIS Middle East Task Force. Thus far, despite explicit requests for comment, he has not disavowed Cordesman's prescriptions, which have been condemned by Amnesty International USA.

    For two months now Israel has laid barbarous siege to Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. The Israeli Army is busily cordoning Palestinian areas behind trenches and barbed wire, making Gaza and the West Bank one vast prison--or rather, many separate prisons, all barred from communicating with one another.

    The policy of "closure," initiated after the Gulf War, continued unabated during the so-called Oslo peace process, in violation of Israeli government obligations. The strategy of apartheid and imprisonment is now accelerating, accompanied by bombardment of heavily populated areas, as well as incessant attacks from settlers (all courtesy of the US government, as always, with vast new military subventions rolling in after the Al-Aksa intifada began).

    Even the relatively better-informed mainstream accounts fail to convey the brutality of this policy. There are a number of excellent news outlets for those who want unjaundiced reporting. The website for Middle East Research and Information Project is trustworthy (www.merip.org), as is the Electronic Intifada (electronicintifada.net/new.html). For the latter, the intro essay by Nigel Parry gives a useful overview of media coverage. Electronic Intifada also has links to other sites, as does ZNet's Mideast Watch (www.zmag.org/meastwatch/meastwat.htm). Particularly comprehensive is Birzeit University's (www.birzeit.edu/links).

    Fair Game

    Five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo--wild turkey to you--wandered onto my property here in Humboldt County, Northern California, a few days ago. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regs, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving. Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a fourteen-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving's end he was history. This was all easier than sporting manuals suggest, where hunters take enormous trouble to decoy the turkeys with fake gobbles.

    Wild turkeys haven't been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they've begun to appear in our neighborhood in Humboldt County in substantial numbers. I've heard reports of flocks of up to a hundred wild turkeys fifteen miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s.

    The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. Cortez brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food.

    Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway. Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.

    Gabbing on the phone to my friend Ford Roosevelt, who lives in Los Angeles, I mentioned my turkey kill, and he reacted with revulsion, not so much to the fate of Meleagris gallopavo but to the fact that I have a shotgun at all. I told Ford that it was this sort of city-slicker foolishness that cost Gore states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio. Ford, a grandson of FDR, then disclosed that the Democratic National Committee had asked him to campaign in various states, including West Virginia. "Well Ford, didn't you find that the gun issue was on people's minds?" "Yes, as a matter of fact. I was talking to some miners and they brought it up. I told them that as far as I was concerned, guns should be banned altogether. They weren't pleased." "So it was you, Ford, who lost West Virginia." He didn't seem contrite.

    Alexander Cockburn