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Beat the Devil | The Nation

Beat the Devil

Alexander Cockburn

There's a famous passage in Lord Cockburn's Memorials of His Time where the great Scotch judge and leading Whig stigmatizes some of his Tory predecessors on the bench, including the terrible Lord Braxfield, who presided over what Cockburn called "the indelible iniquity" of the sedition trials of 1793 and 1794. "Let them bring me prisoners, and I'll find them law," Cockburn quotes Braxfield as saying privately, also whispering from the bench to a juror he knew, "Come awa, Maister Horner, come awa, and help us to hang ane o' thae daamned scoondrels."

Braxfield most certainly has his political disciples on the Scottish bench today, in the persons of the three judges who traveled to the Netherlands to preside over the recent trial of the two Libyans charged with planting the device that prompted the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In the first criticism of the verdict, Hans Koechler, a distinguished Austrian philosopher appointed as one of five international observers at the trial in Zeist, Holland, by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has issued a well-merited denunciation of the judges' bizarre conclusion. "In my opinion," Koechler said, "there seemed to be considerable political influence on the judges and the verdict."

Koechler's recently released analysis of the proceedings, in which the judges found one of the two accused Libyans, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, guilty while exonerating his alleged co-conspirator, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, is by no means an exercise in legal esoterica. Basically, he points out that the judges found Megrahi guilty even though they themselves admitted that his identification by a Maltese shop owner (summoned by the prosecution to testify that Megrahi bought clothes later deemed to have been packed in the lethal suitcase bomb) was "not absolute" and that there was a "mass of conflicting evidence."

Furthermore, Koechler queries the active involvement of senior US Justice Department officials as part of the Scotch prosecution team "in a supervisory role."

Assuming a requisite degree of judicial impartiality, the prosecution's case absolutely depended on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Megrahi was the man who bought the clothes, traced by police to a Maltese clothes shop. In nineteen separate statements to police prior to the trial the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, had failed to make a positive identification of Megrahi. In the witness box Gauci was asked five times if he recognized anyone in the courtroom. No answer. Finally, the exasperated prosecutor pointed to the dock and asked if the man sitting on the left was the customer in question. Even so, the best that Gauci could do was to mumble that "he resembled him."

Gauci had also told the police that the man who bought the clothes was 6 feet tall and over 50 years of age. Megrahi is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and in late 1988 he was 36. The clothes were bought either on November 23 or December 7, 1988. Megrahi was in Malta on December 7 but not on the November date. The shopkeeper recalled that the man who bought the clothes also bought an umbrella because it was raining heavily outside. Maltese meteorological records introduced by the defense showed clearly that while it did rain all day on November 23, there was almost certainly no rain on December 7. If it did rain on that date, the shower would have been barely enough to wet the pavement. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that Megrahi had bought the clothes on December 7.

No less vital to the prosecution's case was its contention that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 had been loaded as unaccompanied baggage onto an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, flown on to London, and thence onto the ill-fated flight to New York. In support of this, prosecutors produced a document from Frankfurt airport indicating that a bag had gone from the baggage-handling station at which the Air Malta bags (along with those from other flights) had been unloaded and had been been sent to the handling station for the relevant flight to London. But there was firm evidencefrom the defense that all the bags on the Air Malta flight were accompanied and were collected at the other end. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that the lethal suitcase had indeed come from Malta.

The most likely explanation of the judges' decision to convict Megrahi despite the evidence, or lack of it, must be that either (a) they panicked at the thought of the uproar that would ensue on the US end if they let both the Libyans off, or (b) they were simply given their marching orders by high authority in London. English judges are used to doing their duty in this manner--see, for example, the results of various "impartial" judicial inquiries into British atrocities in Northern Ireland over the years.

In closing arguments, the prosecution stressed the point that Megrahi could not have planted the bomb without the assistance of Fhimah--that both defendants were equally guilty, and should stand or fall together. Nevertheless, the judges elected to find one of the two conspirators guilty and the other one innocent, a split verdict that Koechler finds "incomprehensible." It is however entirely comprehensible if we accept that the judges knew there was no evidence to convict either man but that it was politically imperative for them to send one of them down for twenty years and thereby pass the buck to the appeals court. Given the legally threadbare nature of the judges' eighty-two-page "opinion" justifying their actions, many observers are assuming that the five-man panel of judges who will eventually hear Megrahi's appeal will have to do the right thing. But that is what many of us said about the original trial.

* * *

Sorry, Wrong Number. Filing from a Days Inn in Gallup, New Mexico, a month ago, I described my travels along I-40 in a "530" Ford one-ton. I mistyped 350. If I'd said I was in a 470 Volvo the letters would probably have poured in from Nation readers, but the only bleat I heard was from a fellow in prison saying that a mistake of this magnitude made him doubt every word I write. This seems the only prudent course.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

Author

Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one...

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